A Cuban-American friend of mine recently e-mailed me a PowerPoint presentation containing slides of pre-1959 Cuba. To put you in the right frame of mind, it came with a soundtrack from that era. I had just finished a book that another friend gave me, Don Miguel Ruiz’s “The Four Agreements.” This is not the first time that I have received these e-mails. In fact, there is vibrant cottage industry that generates similar presentations ad nauseam.
Considering that Don Miguel’s book provides a formula to live a happy life by adjusting our reactions to outside stimuli, I thought it was appropriate to assess the state of mind that the Cuban slide presentation tried to recreate.
The slide presentation attempted to take us back to an era when Cuban-Americans were in full control of their destinies and their lives were idyllic in pre-1959 Havana. In fact, it lent itself to a period where virtuoso American vocalist and conductor Bobby McFerrin would be in his element singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” This was a time when the mambo kings sung songs of love at the Tropicana and Capri nightclubs.
But, I’m sure my reaction was not the one that most people expected. It was pretty negative. You see, I prefer to live in the present – as I can’t resurrect the past and I have no leach on what the future might bring. Consequently, I thought that viewing photos of the Cuba of my youth would make me sad. Moreover, it could lead me to avoid my current responsibilities by finding escape and solace in those years past.
But this got me thinking as to why my parents’ generation enjoyed these presentations so much. The fact that I keep getting them signifies that there is a high demand for them. It was then that I realized that there were generational differences in our reactions.
I left Cuba when I was 11 years old. While I had to learn the English language and the Anglo culture, I did not see these as insurmountable challenges. I saw them as temporary setbacks to be overcome with hard work. After succeeding in mastering a few, my confidence grew. Soon, I realized that the opportunities that this country offered were limitless to those willing to pay their dues through hard work. Nowadays, home for me is good ole USA.
It was a different story for my parents’ generation. Most of them emigrated to the USA in their late forties and had to start their lives all over again. Their worries were much greater than those of their children. Most had to find jobs that were inferior to the ones that they left in Cuba, and that paid much less. Their main responsibility was to find jobs to feed their families. And they could not afford to be picky with the jobs offered to them.
They suffered many indignities along the way. Some Americans, the Ugly-American types, laughed at their heavy accents when speaking English and at their customs – from the way they dressed to their family structures. Because these Cuban exiles were so preoccupied with bringing order to their lives, they personalized the put-downs. They became their own worst enemies. To them, speaking with an accent became the equivalent of thinking with an accent. They despaired about the impossibility of not mastering the English language. They became irrational and nostalgic for the way of life back in Cuba.
What happened next was sad, but it was the only way to cope with their despair. Rather than integrating into the American way of life, they segregated themselves by hanging out with other Cuban-Americans of their generation. They felt at ease speaking the language of when they were on top of the world in pre-1959 Cuba. The turned their hostility against anything that didn’t resurrect traces of that idyllic Cuba BC — Before Castro. So the beaches in exiles were only beautiful when you waved them good-bye. To them, no singer of popular music in New York City could match the ones on their heyday in La Habana – like Beny Moré or Tito Gómez of Riverside Orchestra fame.
And with old age came a desire to live in a geographic location with a warmer climate – like the one they enjoyed in Cuba. And to be surrounded by other Cuban-Americans in their age brackets who shared the same jokes, the same culinary preferences, and the same conservative values. Ergo, the explosion of Cuban Mecca Miami.
Ah, history! Such an important word that we need to take great care to define it properly. According to New Yorker author and historian John Jacob Anderson, “history is a narration of the events which have happened among mankind, including an account of the rise and fall of nations, as well as of other great changes which have affected the political and social condition of the human race.” History to Anderson relates to the politics of government that impact the fate of nations. To him, history deals with laws, regulations, executive orders, declarations of war, decisions that impact nation’s economies, etc. Spanish philosopher George Santayana would agree with Anderson when he stated his famous quote “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” But neither Anderson nor Santayana would equate history with nostalgic ruminations about a lost and distant personal past life. Repeated dwelling on memories of pre-1959 Cuba are unhelpful because that Cuba does not exist anymore and will not exist again. It’s gone – forever. Constant going back to these pre-1959 days would doom people into an inability to forge a better future for themselves and their families. Why? The present would never measure up to the idyllic days of the past.
I penned this op-ed because I wanted to understand the motivation behind my parents’ generation to hang on to this past. And what I found out is that this was an attempt to stay connected to their lost paradise because they found it impossible to assimilate into an Anglo-Saxon world. Language and cultural barriers played important roles in their behavior. I did not want to criticize their demeanor; only to understand it.
But to Cuban-Americans of my generation and subsequent generations, these barriers were small inconveniences that could and should have been overcome to get on with our lives and to achieve our American dreams. To reach those dreams, we had to deal in the now and love the country that sheltered us from the ravages of a Communist Gulag. We had to move on and get on with our lives.
I know that I would not have become the man that I am today without the sacrifices that my parents made so that I and my sister could live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Thus, I am now grateful to the people who continue to put together these slide presentations. While they may not to my liking, I do enjoy the void that they fill in my parents’ hearts.