My Cuba Visit

I visited Cuba this past summer in July. The beginning of this trip began with a sort of impossibility- an Americana sailing off to the island that had been closed off to Americans for decades. Before Obama’s presidency ended, he lifted the embargo on Cuba and gave me the opportunity of a lifetime… until the new president would once again declare Cuba was off limits. Fortunately, my siblings and I had already made a boarding reservation and could technically still travel to the island so we boarded the plane to Havana and did not look back. We were having the opportunity of a lifetime!

I was excited to see the architecture and art, the classic American cars, the beaches, and dance salsa. As a Puerto Rican, I was sure Cuba would feel like another ‘home’ because of its’ relationship to Puerto Rico and geographical location in the Caribbean. When I visited the Dominican Republic four years ago for a college service-learning trip, I remembered thinking- wow this island looks so much like Puerto Rico. But, what I felt in Cuba was unlike the experience I had in the Dominican Republic.

Geopolitics and history informed my visit much more than I anticipated. I landed in Havana and awaited my taxi driver along with my siblings. We talked about how it felt like we traveled back in time opening a time capsule from the Cold War Era. Hopping into an old American car I was reminded of a past where U.S.-Cuba relations were better, to say the least. Very quickly, due to the lack of air conditioning in the taxi, I noticed that I didn’t have the amenities I was used to. My American privilege was not to blame for this exactly. I visited Puerto Rico countless times and, as I said earlier, I have visited the Dominican Republic and was no stranger to vacationing in simpler fashions, but taxis in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico did have air conditioning. It seems so mundane to think so much about a taxi ride without a.c. in ninety-degree weather, but it prepared me for the week ahead.

Once the drivers knew my siblings and I were Puerto Rican, they gave us a warm welcome- almost as if they were welcoming a Cuban home to their island. It’s a feeling remember having when I land in the San Juan airport and random staff or passengers welcome me ‘back home’. This concept of home is so strange to since its directly connected to my identity. I was born in the United States to Puerto Rican immigrants who raised me with Puerto Rican traditions and culture, so I felt more Puerto Rican than American. I didn’t eat turkey on Thanksgiving- we had lechón. I didn’t celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day- we celebrated the night before, on Noche Buena, and waited until midnight to open presents. My first language was Spanish and for most of my childhood we only spoke in Spanish at home. So, I strongly feel that Puerto Rico is home in my heart. Maybe, that has something to do with being a child of diaspora- constantly feeling like you’re not home or do not belong y que la isla te está llamando.

Puerto Rico is home for my parents because they were born there. The United States is undoubtedly my home based on my birthright, but when I’ve been welcomed ‘home’ in Puerto Rico I can’t help but question what it means to really return to Puerto Rico, or if it can be a second home for me. Could it be that I’m longing for my ancestral home? One of the drivers connected us by saying we are all hermanos. Boricuas y Cubanos are family, he said, because Puerto Ricans fought for Cuba’s liberation and Cuban armies were going to make their way to Puerto Rico. He said, “los boricuas y Cubanos son miembros de dos alas y un pajaro”. He was referring to Lola Rodriguez de Tio’s poem, “Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas,” which meant that our relationship, and the greater Puerto Rico-Cuba relationship, was not only historical but it was also familial. The relationships my ancestors created long ago made us welcomed visitors- even hermanos during our visit in 2017. Those words sang in my heart because I felt it, too. There was something really special about being in Cuba and I had only been there about an hour. We talked about the formation of our flags and that they are inversed because they are the flags of one bird. He assured me that one day Puerto Rico will have their shot at independence, even though that is not something you can promise.

By day two, I grew accustomed to perpetual sweating, frizzy hair, and the heat. I also learned many restaurants run out of food and supplies, so we usually didn’t go to the same place two days in a row. Finding a place to eat in Havana was mostly an adventure- we gave ourselves ample time to walk and find a place before we continued our itinerary for the day. When our local guide took us to a restaurant in the campo, we finally tasted delicious Cuban morro, bistec encebollado, and yuca. In the struggle to find food everyday, I thought about my privileged American way of life. Aside from the beautiful beaches and lovely walks throughout various parts of Havana, my favorite part of the trip was dancing salsa and watching Cubans dance salsa. They don’t dance “on 2” like Puerto Ricans and New Yorkers do, which is the style I’m trained in. Los jardines, a fun dance club by the coast of Havana, was a place where dance troupes performed and battled each other on the floor– a place that showed me that once again Puerto Ricans and Cubans were connected.

The phrase “Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas” memorialized my trip to Cuba- various taxi drivers, waitresses, and people mentioned the phrase when they learned about my heritage and cultural background. You see, this relationship between Cuba and Puerto Rico crystallized something beyond comradery for me in Cuba… it provided me with a sense of community that I could be a part of. Needless to say, I came back from Cuba five pounds lighter, with less desire to use social media due to my internet cleanse, and with a deeper appreciation for the simpler, beautiful things in life- my family, friends, and the beautiful earth around me.

 

 

A Reflection on Michelle Cliff’s Work

I recently came across Michelle Cliff’s work because I am composing my doctoral exam fields and was advised to add Michelle Cliff’s texts to my reading lists. Although, I haven’t read much of her work, her collection, The Land of Look Behind, profoundly impacted my scholarship and my academic and creative thought. In her preface- “A Journey into Speech” Michelle Cliff wrote about her difficulty with writing this book, since she struggled to “competently” and intellectually write about her personal life. She claims her dissertation provided her with “an intellectual belief in [her]self that [she] had not had before” and simultaneously this intellectual belief in herself, she writes, was “distancing me from who I am, rendering me speechless about who I am” (11).  So much of my academic work relies on what I or my family have lived through- it is the reason why decolonial and feminist practices and ideologies influence and shape my research, my thought, and my goals. Yet, I too struggle with speechlessness.

I entered my doctoral program right after I obtained my bachelor’s degree, so I struggle with this feeling of being an outsider- of knowing and not knowing at the same time. In her essay, Michelle Cliff states, “I could speak fluently, but I could not reveal’ (12). It is hard for me to communicate in my academic and personal work how much academia has made me feel like I do not belong because I feel like I carry my ancestors and family with me in every single classroom, meeting, abstract submission, and academic space I occupy or endeavor I approach. And, this weight makes me I feel like I have so much more to prove because my Caribbean diasporic descent, my class, my gender, and my ebonics resonate with strangers far more than my intellect or character. Like Michelle Cliff, my light skin does not save me from the colonial ghost that haunts my island, my family, and myself. She writes about the legacies of colonialism in her homeland of Jamaica and how the oppressors have become middle-class Jamaicans who interpolate and perpetuate colonialist, racist, sexist logic.

Her writing helps me make sense of the world around of me and my position as a subject in it- witnessing, surviving, and analyzing. Her words provide with clarity and a humbling way to  helps thinking about the ways in which my Puerto Rican family internalizes and continues to perpetuate cultural logics and myths produced by U.S. hegemony. Michelle Cliff wrote, “one of the effects of assimilation, indoctrination, and passing into the anglocentrism of British West Indian culture is that you believe absolutely in the hegemony of the King’s English and in the form in which it is meant to be expressed. Or else your writing is not literature; it is folklore, and folklore can never be art” (13). This passage resonated with me the most because as a child, my siblings and I were ostracized for not speaking the proper form of Spanish and for naturally code-switching between Spanish and English. As a young teenager, I mimicked ‘perfect Spanish’ speakers and felt ashamed to speak in my native tongue in front of strangers. In Nuyorican poetry, I felt my experiences were legitimized and real. The colonial ghost that is implicated in Cliff’s work, and notable in many diasporic writers like Junot Diaz, Julia de Burgos and so on, has haunted me for so long because, like my mother and father, I inherited erasure and myth as truth.

In my own decolonial project, which is ongoing and evolving, I will think of Michelle Cliff. Part of Michelle Cliff’s decolonial project, as a writer and as a historian, is to obtain wholeness and produce work within fragmentation, to recover from erasure, to be herself outside of her family and society’s expectations. As a Puerto Rican, I can not read Michelle Cliff’s work without thinking about the colonial ghost in Puerto Rico- past and present- and of my responsibility as a scholar and graduate student to produce scholarship and testimony in the service of undoing erasure, of seeking justice.

Michelle Cliff  states, “To write as a complete Caribbean woman, or man for that matter, demands us retracing the African part of ourselves, reclaiming as our own, and as our subject, a history sunk under the sea, or trapped in a class system notable for its rigidity and absolute dependence on color stratification. On a past bleached from our minds. It means finding the artforms of these of our ancestors  and speaking in the patois forbidden us” (14). No longer am I ashamed of the pieces of myself I was taught to hate, and my goal is to help my family, my friends, and future students participate in the decolonial project Michelle Cliff has showcased to us in her writing. Her decolonial love to herself and her nation rejects racial violence, sexual politics, anti-blackness, gender roles, femininity, and oppositional politics. For me, Michelle Cliff’s legacy is carried in the lesson of testifying… she bore witness to her experiences as a Caribbean lesbian woman in the U.S., London, and Jamaica and etched her story into our lives as an example of obtaining wholeness in fragmentation-forever.

 

References:

Cliff, Michelle. The Land of Look Behind. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1985. Print.

 

 

 

Survival

A plate filled with rice and beans

satiated my hunger

almost every day without fail.

I depended on those rice and beans.

Thick gravy drowns the rice, spoonfuls by the minute.

Even on our brokest years,

we could always rely on a pot of arroz y habichuelas.

Sometimes accompanied with a fried egg or

plantains during the weeks where we didn’t have enough for meat.

I didn’t appreciate plates of rice and beans

until I realized white people paid thirteen dollars for a plate.

My food was valuable.

My culture wasn’t savage.

My people didn’t need your help.

They pay for our food and ask questions about our delicacies.

I come home eagerly waiting to

quench my hunger after a long day.

I eat these rice and beans alone

because the table is no longer as full as this plate.

I think of the rice and beans that propagated my survival

and I think of my family.

Scattered around the states and the island

each pursuing different aspects of the American dream.

But, I sit at this empty table envisioning the past,

and I smile because I know these rice and beans will always taste the same.

La madre

She lied awake at night waiting for her eldest daughter to come home from her late shift. She hated that job. She felt her daughter was capable of so much more. She didn’t want to push her too much because she was afraid she’d cause her to become depressed- her disenrollment last semester at the Nursing School and her divorce were enough for her to handle. She thought it was unfair that her other children would ask the eldest daughter to contribute more with chores and such. 

She walked down the hallway using her hands to guide her and went to the bathroom, then found her way to her grandson’s room. She loved babysitting him because she knew she was helping her eldest daughter. Her younger daughter thought it was unfair and that her mother wasn’t supposed to raise him. His relaxed body and open mouth were indicators that he was fine, so she walked past the other rooms and checked to see if her children were asleep. Her son, who was always busy with his school work, sat at his desk finishing his math homework.

“Isn’t it too late for you to be up?” she whispered.

“Ma, its my homework and I have to finish.”

“Me preocupas that you’re always up so late. Have a good night and go to bed soon,” she kissed him good night.

“I promise I’ll go to bed soon. You shouldn’t be awake anyways. Buenas noches mami,” he hugged her.

“Make sure you don’t wake up your sister. You know she gets cranky when she doesn’t get enough sleep.” 

Mami, I’m doing my homework. Good night,” he said as he buried his head back into his books.

She glanced over to her youngest daughter and breathed easy knowing she was asleep. Knowing she was home. Like her brother, she went to bed by dawn writing papers. She delicately walked back to her room and lied in bed. She checked the time. It was 2:34 and her daughter still wasn’t home. She prayed to God to let her get home safe and closed her eyes. 

She realized her attempt to fall asleep was failing. She could not fall asleep without knowing her children were safe and sound. To help put her mind at ease, she thought about her old house. She hated this apartment. It made her feel so big, whereas the house made her feel so small. The three story house provided her privacy and a room for everyone. Now, it saddens her to see her youngest daughter and son sharing a room, her eldest daughter and child in another, while she kept one to herself. The thought of everyone sharing a room made her think about how she doesn’t have anyone to share the room with. Her big bed seemed to swallow her without someone to share it with. She hated the lack of driveways, the lack of privacy, and how she always had to make three trips to get all the groceries out the car. She missed sitting on the porch. It was something she always did in Puerto Rico with her parents. They’d talk about life- how rough it was and how the United States had to be better and let the sun bronze their faces. It was something she brought with her when she came to New Jersey.

        She thought more about her former house. It wasn’t the nicest house. It had some dings and needed new paint and fixtures. But, it came a long way. It was a project she shared with her ex-husband. They found the house a dump, a fixer-upper. They pulled weeds and cut trees down from the yard, while removing the piles of garbage. The house was a dark brown when they first found it, but she thought she should paint it a color that reminded her of home. Yellow. Caribbean Yellow. She planted bloodroots and irises along the pathway that led to the front door with her youngest daughter. She remembered her youngest daughter loved abuela’s garden in Puerto Rico. She remembered how she danced in the living room with her kids to the bachatasmerengues, and salsas. The sounds that seemed to tell the entire neighborhood ‘Hi, we’re Latino’. She remembered seeing her kids mature from pre-teens into adults and how her grandchild’s first home was there. 

She remembered California was three hours delayed so she tried to call her son. She missed him the most. After three rings and no answer, she left him a voicemail.

         “Hola papi, just calling because I can’t sleep again. Estoy aqui pensando. I’m thinking about everything that has happened in the last couple of months. I wish you were still here, but I’m so happy for your accomplishments and your new life. Call me soon, your mami misses you. Te quiero,” she pressed the end button. It was 3:15 now. She made one more round of walking down the hallway and opened the doors of each room enough to peep her head in and make sure her kids were asleep. She checked her grandchild and fixed his blanket when she noticed his toes were peeping out. She walked back to her bed, drank a half spoon of NyQuil and went to bed again. This time when she closed her eyes, she was asleep in twenty minutes.

For My Sister

I’M A MOTHER. I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy when I too was a child. Only nineteen years old. It’s funny because when I was nineteen years old I thought I was so grown and mature. Now, as I look back years later, I know that I wasn’t ready. And, is it bad to say I was never ready for this responsibility? It doesn’t take away from the present. 

 

I only regret that I used my child as my scapegoat. I used my child as an excuse to stay with him. With the man that abused me for years. Verbally. Physically. Emotionally… That man was a monster, but I wanted the best for my baby boy. So I stayed there slap after slap…the striking right hook to my face. Again and again for not agreeing with his archaic, misogynist, and racist ideals that he wanted to instill into my baby. How I hated this man so much and was so used to pain…constant pain…being treated like a crumbled piece of paper in the wastebasket that was not even worth recycling. I had hoped my tears and bruises would serve as visual reminders that what he was doing was wrong.

 

This was all I knew. When I finally got the strength to leave him, he would use flowers, the “ I love you’s, I never meant it’s, and I’m sorry’s” to try to force me back to his dungeon. He thought we were in a game of poker and I would eventually fold, but he didn’t know I had four of a kind. I won. I won.

 

But why, why did it feel like I didn’t? This emptiness, these insecurities that fog the mirror and my self-worth… I didn’t feel like a winner. My son only saw a champion that wore her smile. He’d ask why his father was gone and why we stayed with abuela… but how could I be the one to tell him his father wasn’t the superhero he believed him to be. He was the antagonist in this story. And because of him, I couldn’t allow another man to actually love me. Abuse was my normal and I don’t know how to separate my normal from realistic expectations. I’m broken.

Jersey Girl

New Jersey. My home.

A densely-populated state yet my choice of companionship seemed rather unfortunate.

People and places on every exit of the parkway.

Rutgers on exit 130.

Exits seeming so paradoxical because I would never take exit 141 again… I even avoid reading certain highway signs because I connect city names with previous lovers.

Exit 147- where my home used to be. The home my family lived in the farce of a nuclear family, the American Dream, and happiness.

Eventually, my cheating father and lonely mother parted. But, everything is far more complicated than that.

Now I live off of exit 145…recovering from all the wounds that disturb my peace.

All consuming and exhausting from all the men who wanted me for convenience or stripped my innocence.

New Jersey, the garden state. Well, its home. Where all my experiences- my ups and my downs contribute to who I am.

So, Thank you New Jersey for giving me memories with friends and family, drunken nights in Hoboken, summers spent at the beach, apple picking and pies in the fall, and for allowing me to meet the people I was meant to and discarding the rest like pollution along the shore.

I’ve finally met the right man I can share infamous New Jersey diners with at 3 am or 3 pm.

I’m not a secret.

I’m wanted and loved. Thank you New Jersey.

Airports.

They say you don’t know what you have until it’s gone, but what if what you have isn’t really gone? What if it’s just not so readily available? I remember when my brother moved to California this summer. He always said it was going to happen and I didn’t believe him. Maybe, it was that I didn’t want to.

It wasn’t real until the day came I had to drive him to the airport. And, it wasn’t until this day that I didn’t realize how close I became with my older brother. My twin brother and I didn’t really attain the supposed telepathy twins do and my older sister was more like a second mother. It was so weird because I felt like I actually lost my brother, but he didn’t die or break up with me.

This Thanksgiving he visited New Jersey and became the object of envy with his glorious tan. Right before I had to take him to the airport my mother hid away in her room. I told her she had one last chance to say goodbye. But, was it really a goodbye, or a see you later? Did it matter what the reality was when your feelings were not going to be suppressed. Pain is pain.

After an hour long ride in the car which I spent savoring the last few moments my brother and I would share until January, we finally arrived at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, NY. It’s funny how we delusion ourselves and have hope that what is going to happen, will not happen. It’s like a test that you don’t want to take or didn’t study for. Just because you’re not prepared life isn’t going to intervene. So, here I was at the airport and I couldn’t look at my brother, instead I cried and gave him the most heartfelt hug I could.

At that moment, I thought about how airports are not only spaces where people wait for flights. They are also spaces for giving a temporary goodbye to a loved one. Airports are places where I feel overwhelming joy once my brother lands and feel immense pain once he has to go. My best friend isn’t around anymore and I have to get used to that. My entire drive home I thought about migration and people leaving their families. People do it every day. People have to say good bye to their loved ones everyday without the security of knowing when they come back…or if they will ever come back. My brother has the privilege of attaining a college degree and having the occasional comfortability of visiting home. Fortunately, his other home is in New Jersey (within the U.S.) Yet, many migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean leave their homes beyond countless national borders. How do people leave, endure, and persevere with that pain inside? They must really need to go, right?

What he told my mother stuck with me, “You did the same thing. You left Puerto Rico. You left your family for New Jersey. Migration is natural.” So, then I kept thinking about that… migration is so natural, yet it is frowned upon to certain groups of people..

A little, or a lot, about me.

cropped-dsc_13221.jpgMy life was encompassed by the pride I had of being a Latina woman, although then I didn’t know what that meant. Growing up in a predominantly Hispanic/Latino enclave in Newark, NJ I was accustomed to my peers looking like me and speaking the same language I did …except for the handful of Blacks and token Asians. Spanish was my native tongue and seemed to be there when English failed me. The first syllables and enunciations that leaked from my mouth were en Español. At the bodegas, the owners would always treat the Latinos with more respect and friendliness because we were all the same. We were all in the same struggle. Still, I didn’t know what that was either until I got older.

It annoyed me how the white teachers would always mispronounce my name and give it this ugly sound. They made my name sound distasteful and not beautiful. In Spanish it was so poetic and enchanting to me. During my adolescence I always wanted to change my name to a more American name – something simpler. Why couldn’t I just be named Ashley or Jessica? I’ve attended award ceremonies and have had my name mispronounced while the other kids just laughed. It really took a toll on my self-esteem when I was younger. I think my mother caught on because she asked me if I even liked my name. As I gained maturity and lived through more experiences, I realized my name was a part of my cultural identity and gave me this infinite membership to the Latino community. My name is my culture.

It was only in high school where I was exposed to different cultures and ideas. My classmates were from all over the world – Portugal, Spain, China, Brazil, etc. They were the ones who were so nationalist and proud of their countries and didn’t care if they were not culturally American because they had another country they could return to. The way a person looked was important as well. My curly hair was never deemed as beautiful and was a big insecurity of mine for quite some time. They laughed and mocked saying that my hair had African qualities because it was so bad to have associations with Blackness, which I didn’t really understand either. Ever since middle school, I always wanted to straighten my hair and my mom wouldn’t let me. She’d yell at me for trying to damage such beautiful hair. I was so jealous of the people of European descent who inherently came out with straight, uncomplicated hair. As an ethnic person, you don’t know what you’re gonna get in the hair lottery. The way I learned to love my name is the way I learned to love my hair. I couldn’t let these oppressive ideas win.

As a child, I was ignorant and felt safe in my little, Latino bubble. This bubble would also deem me as un-American, whatever American meant anyway. My entire life I struggled with my identity, as do many immigrants or the products of immigrants. Siempre estaba confudida.[1] I was born here… in the United States. But even if I wasn’t, if I was born in Puerto Rico like my parents, I would still technically be born in the United States. That’s the more confusing thing though. Puerto Ricans are only Americans when it’s convenient, and then we’re ‘foreigners’ when it’s convenient too. Although we have automatic citizenship in the United States, it does not mean we do not encounter racism, discrimination, and other forms of oppression. We have suffered here, too.

All immigration experiences are different, though. I learned that throughout the years.  I cannot fathom the statement that a human being is illegal. I didn’t understand the concept of ‘illegal’ and ‘legal’. Those classifications anger me. High school exposed me to a lot of things I didn’t know existed. When my best friend pulled me aside to tell me she was in the process of getting her green card, I was so dumbfounded. She explained it all to me. I was confused because I could never consider her illegal or have her deported one day. Her parents arrived here legally with working visas and overstayed their time here. My parents just caught a plane here and were fine never worrying about deportation or trouble with employment that required a social security number.

Before I entered high school and learned about different cultures, identities, and immigration experiences, I went to Puerto Rico for the summer. I was so excited to be with the people I proudly associated myself with and was ready for what Americans portrayed Puerto Rico as on the television and internet. When I arrived in my mom’s barrio, I couldn’t help but notice all the poverty. Now I understood why people left such a beautiful island, what is deemed as paradise by tourists. It was a great summer and I left with the label – gringa. It upset me that my cousins would label me as white and American when I was like them. Damn my extremely light skin when all my cousins were caramelized by the sun. I’M PUERTO RICAN damn it! They weren’t only referring to my skin color though. It was this other language I had, my style of dress, my materialism, and “wealth”. I was obviously not wealthy but they really believed I was because of my Americanness.

That’s when it hit me – I was neither one nor the other. I was both. I was a part of this assimilated group of people that classified with two cultures…two identities. As I got older, the more I embraced this dual identity. It was sorta empowering to pick and choose when I would be more of one or the other. In certain situations I could pretend I didn’t speak Spanish to benefit me or I could utilize my Spanish and pretend I didn’t know English. It’s like the characters in “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” utilizing English in the Dominican Republic to gain respect and power.

The immigration process is a difficult thing to understand, especially since people like me do not have first-hand experience. I’m just a byproduct of immigration. Every group goes through a different process and no migration process is alike. One thing I do know for sure is that we all struggle here somehow trying to strive towards that American dream. We are all trying to do better than what our ‘homes’ can give us. I have done my share of assimilation and picking with cultural traditions I want to follow according to the day or event. My name is Keishla, pronounced Kay-shla. Let your tongue let go of the L gently, not abruptly. I am a light-skinned Latina woman with curly ass hair that throws people off. They sometimes think I’m Greek or Spanish or Lebanese. I say I’m not either one of those things…I am a Puerto Rican woman from New Jersey. So, maybe, just maybe, identity shouldn’t be as problematic and self-conscious as we make it. Instead of struggling to choose one, maybe we should choose both because in reality we are neither here or there. “Mi corazon esta ni aqui ni alla”.

[1] Translation: I was always confused.