Along with the usual stories most children grow up with, my summer holidays in Miami were filled with endless tales about a beautiful and distant land called Cuba. Although the country is not far geographically (only 90 miles to be exact) from the United States where my extended family resides now, in the hearts and minds of the Cubans were surrounded with, the Cuba that once was is out of reach forever.
As the Cuban actor Andy Garcia puts it, “For those who left Cuba for political reasons, it is like being in an impossible relationship; you love her but you can’t be with her.” I’ve seen this hopeless longing in my grandmother, a strong and vivacious woman, spend decades of her life wondering what could have been if Castro had not taken power. It hasn’t only determined the way in which she understands herself and the situation in Cuba, it influences almost every aspect of her life, her views on politics, news, the world. Although the actual move from Cuba to the U.S. took place decades ago, in her mind she has never stopped migrating.
My grandmother lives in Miami, where this process of “mental migration” repeats itself on a daily basis in a neverending cycle. It can be found in the idle chit chat you have with fellow Cubans whilst waiting for your café Cubano, or when you drive past the memorials of the victims of Castro’s regime on your way to work; the Cuban food you eat for lunch, the salsa music you hear when you go out on a Friday night… the list goes on. This nostalgia for “la Cuba de ayer” (the Cuba of yesterday) and the hope for future change on the island is what binds Cubans from all over the world together. For Cubans, their identity is not something that can be stored on a shelf. Instead, it is reconstituted and adapted to their everyday life.
Of course, this story is not unique to Cubans. Whatever the circumstances, leaving everything you know and love behind profoundly and fundamentally alters you as a person. It has taught me that we derive our identities from life networks: the little things that make up daily life. Whether it be the living room in which you have late night conversations with your best friend or the library where you study, the situations that shape you all happen in an environment and group of people that you’re used to. Migration disintegrates and erodes these vital support systems.
Of course, migration can also be a positive experience as settling into a new place can present many new opportunities and afford you a better existence than in your country of origin. My family does not regret their decision to emigrate; yet the feeling of a broken heart and homesickness never really goes away. It’s had a profound effect on all of us: on my grandmother, my mother and her sisters and on the next generation, my cousin and I. A love for all things Cuban, the importance of standing up for your values, and being passionate in whatever you do, are some of the hallmarks of my family that have intensified due to leaving Cuba.
The consequences of migration are far reaching and never ending. The emotional and spiritual struggle of being in two places at the same time has left its mark on generation upon generation growing up in the new homeland, and has also become part of me. Although every person is affected in a different way, the consequences are always there somehow.
Last summer, an old acquaintance of the family asked me, “So, where do you consider yourself to be from?” Without any real thought, I gave my standard response.
“I’m half Dutch, half Cuban.” She seemed a bit perplexed and taken aback.
“But… how can you think of yourself as Cuban when your mother grew up in America and you’ve never been there yourself?”
Her question threw me off balance. In a way I can totally understand why claiming that I’m part Cuban would come across to her as strange. But that’s the thing about migration; it continues to define, influence and affect you, long after the physical journey has been completed.
Felicia is a half-Dutch, half-Cuban girl studying International Relations and Development Studies at SOAS. Other than constantly wondering which culture she is more part of, she loves exploring new cultures, binging on documentaries about the civil rights movements of the past, travelling, good food and shopping (excessively).