It is not uncommon for people who arrive to the United States from different countries to go through a painful acculturation process. How long it takes is based on individual experiences, and, of course, on the personality type of each – it takes longer for introverts. Considering that I experienced this process, I will describe it from my own Cuban background.
I arrived to the Washington, DC area in 1966 with high expectations, but what I encountered was totally different. I had left a communist country where all the basic necessities were rationed. I expected Americans to dress fashionably and to defend freedom throughout the globe. Instead, I had to interact with youngsters who took pride in their shabby clothes and lack of hygiene, and who participated in mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War – a confrontation against a communist regime. Considering that my family made the difficult decision to leave their country and flee a communist regime, my instincts made me a strong supporter of the forces fighting for freedom and democracy in Vietnam.
My first date with an American woman left me totally disenchanted. Whereas I believed that couples should stick together when they went out on dates, she did not think there was anything wrong with fraternizing with other men on the dance floor. To her, the ideal Prince Charming was one who measured over six feet. Consequently, the average Hispanic did not meet her minimum qualifications and did not advance to the interview stage to secure a second chance. I found it strange that looks mattered more than substance, and, I understand now the reason for the high divorce rate.
In addition, while I was making a monumental effort to learn the English language, my friends made fun of my accent. Considering that most Americans had no problem with accepting a British or a French accent, I concluded that their animosity was reserved for the Hispanic accent because many associated it with the Third World. The end result of this entire trauma was to congregate with Cubans and to embrace the Cuban culture more than I had done when I lived in Cuba.
But congregating with Cuban-Americans only brought about a rude awakening. The majority in this group had left Cuba five or six years earlier than I had. Their English skills were better, and most had tried to fully assimilate into the American culture. Rather than reaching out to me as one of their own, they looked down on my language skills and Cuban behavioral patterns. Even more pernicious and harmful to my emotional state was a degradation of my family’s worth because it did not match their families’ financial portfolios at that time. Never mind that it was impossible to climb the promotional ladder of corporate America in such a short time. My disenchantment with this group peaked when I was not invited to a party sponsored by a Catholic organization because its organizers belonged to the 1960/61 wave of Cuban-Americans. I was shocked that decisions were made on clan membership and departure dates, rather than on one’s religious faith, friendship, or plain self-worth. I also learned an important lesson that had escaped me entirely when I lived in Cuba – that one of the reasons why the Castro Revolution came to power was because of the silly and senseless class distinctions that were based mostly on nepotism and that prevented the establishment of a meritocracy. To build the foundation for a better Cuba, we would have to make room for the ideals of tolerance, empathy, merit, and equal opportunity for all. I concluded that most in this group were not ready to embrace my ideals for an inclusive Cuba in the future.
Looking at the abnormal demeanor of some Cuban-Americans from today’s vantage point, I can understand them better. Without realizing that being bi-cultural and bilingual were positive attributes in the job market, most opted to wipe out any trace of the Cuban heritage that they had inherited from their homeland or their families. After investing five or six years in this trajectory, they refused to give recently-arrived Cuban refugees a chance. To them, these Cubans were part of the past they had repressed. Many of these Cuban-Americans became followers rather than leaders in their later years – to the detriment of their career paths. These are the same smug and righteous Hispanics who reach the highest levels in the federal hierarchy and deny assistance to other Hispanics who are trying to accomplish the same milestone. Their typical response is: “I made it on my own, you should to do the same.”
And, yet, another possible explanation for the aberrant behavior by this group of Cuban-Americans was that they expected me to turn myself into a carbon copy of them immediately and stop complaining. Naturally, this showed an enormous lack of empathy — as it was impossible for a newcomer to master the English language in such a short time or embrace a culture that was so different. The help that I needed was for them to get down to my level, to the feelings of hopelessness that I was experiencing at that time, and to encourage me to ways to reach the American dream.
I soon learned that there was a more diverse world out there. I met Bolivians, Ecuadorians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Argentineans, etc. We all shared our Hispanic heritage and our Spanish language. I was exposed to different dances, a multitude of idiomatic expressions, and fantastic food. To my great surprise, some of my Hispanic friends did not share my same anti-communist views. In fact, some thought that Fidel, El Che, and Ho Chi Minh were visionaries who had improved the standards of living of the proletariats in their countries. Some even wore Che T-Shirts as a fashion statement or as a sign of protest against the “American Empire.” I realized that it was time to expand my network of friends and move on.
While my English had improved significantly, I still had a long way to go. I reached out to foreign-born individuals because I realized that they were also experiencing the same hardships in this country. This created a great bond of understanding between us, but expanded the divide with Americans. We celebrated and honored each other’s cultural differences – the more ethnic, the better. This honeymoon lasted a long time, until I realized that there were crucial differences among us. For example, the whole concept of pre-arranged marriages was incomprehensible to me. Finding out that Muslims did not eat pork or consume alcoholic beverages made me realize how uncomfortable they would feel around Cuban cuisine or Cuban soirées, where celebrating with Cuba Libres made with authentic Cuban-American Bacardi rum and with roast-pork, rice, and black beans were the norm.
By this time, I was fully aware of the power of the majority. In order to achieve my goals and aspirations at school, at work, and in politics, I had to reach out to the mainstream culture. Being the majority, they controlled the power structures in the country. If I wanted to get ahead, I had to dance mambo with them.
Moreover, an important change happened in my life. My son Stephen was born in Fairfax, Virginia, and I realized that I would spend the rest of my life in the United States. If I ever went back to live in a Cuba Libre, I would have to go over the same painful acculturation process that I went through when I came to the United States. I was unwilling to do it, which left me with the only option of vacationing in a Havana that was free again.
I embraced the American culture, while keeping my Cuban roots. I realized the value of forming coalitions to effect change. The only way to prevent a tyranny of the majority was by acting through coalitions. I became a member of Hispanic/African-American coalitions, and Hispanic/Caucasian ones. Issues became more important than minority status. While I still speak with a slight accent, I preach that I do not think with one. I tell recruiters that it is more important in a meritocracy to look at the skill sets of applicants, rather than at their accents. Since the U.S. trades in the global economy, being bi-lingual and bi-cultural are highly sought-after assets.
By the same token, I feel more confident in my own skin and am able to recognize that there are good people and bad people in every group. It is now up to me to be more selective with those whom I want to associate with.
Sharing of similar ideologies, values, Judeo/Christian cultural norms are the driving forces that I use when selecting friends. For example, I would be betraying my ideals of democracy if I were to support Marxist organizations like Black Lives Matter after Patrisse Cullors, one of its founders, openly acknowledged that she and her fellow organizers were “trained Marxists.” I’m against anything that smacks of socialism, communism, and Marxism. I much prefer to support “Black Beans Matter” – to show my solidarity for Goya Foods’ CEO Robert Unanue — after the radical Left called for a boycott of his company because of his public support of President Trump. Similarly, my strong belief in law and order and Blue Lives Matter led me to be against ANTIFA – a terrorist organization that embraces anarchy.
And, yet, while I recognize that I am a hybrid of two cultures – the Cuban and the American ones, and I am a better person because of it — I have to be true to myself and recognize that I’ve survived this journey because of my early upbringing. When I lived as a young boy in La Habana, it was my parents, my grandparents, my nanny, my religious instructors and priests, my private-school teachers who taught me how to live a virtuous life. It was they who instilled in me the importance of core values and character development.
When my parents lived in fear for their lives after the communists took over in 1959, we stuck together as one family. Everything around us became unimportant except each other. When we left Cuba with nothing except the clothes on our backs, we faced adversity bravely because there was no one to cover our backs. I learned the English language by complete immersion. There were no English-as-a-second language programs back then – just a Spanish-English language dictionary and burning the midnight oil. When my parents needed my sister and me to help them translate documents from English into Spanish, we gladly helped out. Our whole existence revolved around our family.
When it came to earning a living, I started to work shortly after I arrived in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area. I was a paper-boy, a dishwasher, a waiter, a government bureaucrat. No job, as long as it was an honest one, was too demeaning for me. I paid for my own car and college/graduate tuitions. And, when life got a bit too hard to bear, it was my immediate family who provided me with that extra empathy and strength to carry on.
I made it, and all “legal” immigrant in this country have the same opportunities to forge a better future for themselves. I’m thankful for all the blessings that this country has afforded me, and I use my pen prolifically to tell others that there is no other country in the world that provides better opportunities to accomplish their dreams.
And, yet, I worry about how disconnected most of our youth are nowadays from knowing the history of their country. They are more attached to the electronic gadgets that they carry with them than with what makes their country great – a shining city upon a hill. I wonder about their willingness to fight to preserve what they have, when they have no clue of the sacrifices that their forefathers made for them. I worry when I realize that the majority of our schools, colleges, and universities have been transformed into anti-American indoctrination camps.
And when I look at the dysfunctional state of the family structure, I understand why there is so much violence lately. When I see the vast number of families without a father figure, I realize why so many of our kids have trouble interacting with law-enforcement figures. And, I go back to wishing that there were more mothers and fathers who were teaching their kids how the survival of the nuclear family is the best away to Keep America Great.
Going through my acculturation journey, I’ve learned to embrace the philosophy expounded by one of the leading figures of the Spanish literary movement known as the Generation of ’98 – Antonio Machado.
He famously said “Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more. Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again. Wanderer, there is no road – Only wakes upon the sea.” (“Caminante, son tus huellas el camino, y nada más. Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Al andar se hace camino, y al volver la vista atrás se ve la senda que nunca se ha de volver a pisar. Caminante, no hay camino, sino estelas en la mar.”
While the acculturation process has been traumatic, I am a better citizen of my adopted country and a better citizen of the world.