Snapshots of a Cuban’s Journey, Or How I Retained My Accent
An organization staffed almost entirely by immigrants and first-generation Americans, we at GrubStreet are as keenly aware of the sheer breadth of "the immigrant experience" as we are the crucial contribution immigrants make to American arts, culture, and society. In defiance of an ethics of exclusion, we’re curating a series of immigrant stories that celebrate and illuminate the plurality of immigrant life. This first installment comes from Grub's Head of Faculty & Curriculum Dariel Suarez.
The day our American visas were approved by the United States Interest Section in Havana, my grandfather sat with me on his front porch and asked in a whispered voice, “If it were up to you and not your parents, would you want to stay in Cuba?”
I burst out laughing. I laughed so hard I almost cried. Who in their right mind would reject the opportunity to leave a country so riddled with poverty, so mired by the pervasive arm of failed communist ideals and lack of freedom? I regained my composure and told him there was no doubt: I wanted to leave.
“Why?” he said, his expression serious.
My grandfather was the most pro-American, anti-Castro person I’d ever known. Months before, when the mailman had delivered the envelope containing my mother’s visa lottery selection, Grandpa had become uncontrollably giddy, sporting a childlike grin for hours. His questions about my desire to leave, combined with his grave demeanor, were beginning to puzzle me.
“Because I wouldn’t want my children to grow up in this place.” At fourteen years old, I actually said this. It wasn’t a phrase I’d picked up somewhere. They were my words. I meant them. Looking back, it both makes me proud and brings me profound sadness. It’s my native country I was referring to, after all.
Grandpa patted my shoulder and smiled. “That’s all I needed to know.”
The first thing I noticed as we left Miami International Airport, heading to my mother’s aunt’s house in West Palm Beach, were the lights. The world around me was illuminated in ways I’d never seen. The suburbs of Havana, I suddenly realized, were dark, and not just when the rolling blackouts hit our neighborhood. How much energy does it take to keep so much space alight? I thought, watching what seemed like an endless flow of brand new cars whiz by me on the ridiculously ample, impossibly smooth highway.
The next morning, as I cautiously walked down the block where we were staying, I sat for a moment on the curb and put my hand to the street, just to confirm I was touching American soil. In subsequent months, I would acquire the language quickly enough to be moved from ESOL classes to regular ones, to be able to say more than just “good game” to my opponents when I won a county-wide chess tournament, to translate for my parents whenever they needed to fill out paperwork or a telemarketer called our apartment. In subsequent years, I’d let my hair grow, teach myself how to play the electric guitar, wear black boots and leather pants, memorize the lyrics to countless heavy metal songs, and, practicing in front of a mirror, try to rid myself of my Cuban accent.
People sometimes told me I looked American or Argentinian, and I gladly accepted this as a compliment. It embarrasses me to admit that I was attempting to become less Cuban, whatever that might mean. By 2005, the year I fell in love with my wife, who is also Cuban, I could quote Seinfeld episodes as if I’d grown up watching them. Then, after many arguments about the cultural and socio-economic differences between Cuba and the United States, my wife said, “You know, no matter what you think of yourself, you’re not really American.” As this notion began to take hold of me, I realized that something had gone terribly awry.
My father died of cirrhosis of the liver due to alcoholism. My father died in his early fifties because we came to the United States. This is my belief. He couldn’t handle the drastic change, the new life he had to build for his family in a culture and language that weren’t his.
In Cuba he was a writer, journalist, and intellectual. He was published internationally through Prensa Latina, the official state news agency in the country. He wrote for a radio show and dabbled in poetry and fiction. When he passed, he left four handwritten notebooks, clippings, and original drafts of many articles, poems, outlines, and ideas for plays—all of which I brought with me to Boston.
Despite years of resentment and distancing on my part, I now consider him one of the main reasons I became a writer. He instilled in me curiosity and a thirst for knowledge at an early age. He taught me to read articles and books, and not blindly trust what I was being taught at school, especially in a communist country. I’d listen to him have discussions about history, politics, and art with friends and family members, hoping to one day be able to do the same. He too had long hair as a young man, listened to rock music, and though he never played an instrument, he had several friends who did.
The irony, as I look back, is that by trying to rid myself of what I saw as Cubanisms, I slowly, unknowingly, turned into my father, an old cliché that, just like my wife’s eye-opening declaration, helped define my adult identity. In a poem I wrote about him before his death, I included the line, “Dad sits at home and mostly forgets.” I see this now as an inaccurate statement. A large portion of research for my first novel and story collection, both set in Cuba, consisted of interviews I conducted with him, perhaps as a form of reconciliation. He definitely remembered.
I returned to Cuba in 2016 after eighteen years away. I stayed at the home where I grew up and slept in what used to be my parents’ bedroom. I was emotionally shaken, not by what I was expecting to see, but by what I’d forgotten yet recognized instantly: a friend’s crumbling house, an abandoned hangout spot, shabby home ornaments my aunt (who inherited the place) had kept after we left.
I spent ten days speaking “Cuban” Spanish, feeling fully at ease everywhere we went. I breathed and felt and thought in ways I hadn’t for nearly two decades. I was overwhelmed with a sort of liberation, as though I’d been trapped in someone else’s body and mind, with someone else’s sensibility.
While spending time with a childhood friend (the first friend I ever had, in fact) I asked him outright: “Am I really different? Do I seem like a different person to you?” He smiled, puzzled as I’d been by my grandfather’s questions as a teenager, and said, “How could you be different? You’ll always be Tato.” Hearing my nickname—the one only my family and closest childhood friends use—made me feel authentically Cuban.
Today, I write about my native country. I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. I am obsessed with the complex layers of a Caribbean island influenced by the effects of a communist dictatorship, by a country so superficially viewed, mischaracterized, and exoticized in American culture and literature. When I hear that ubiquitous phrase Donald Trump’s presidency seems to have popularized: “Go back to your country!” I can’t help thinking—partly in jest, partly in seriousness—“If only I could!”
I am an American citizen. Like many other immigrants, I am grateful that the United States embraced my family in an hour of need. I may no longer touch the asphalt in awe, but I will always be invested in this country’s betterment. At heart, however, I will also always be Cuban. And thankfully, I still have the accent to prove it.
Dariel Suarez was born and raised in Havana, Cuba. He immigrated to the United States with his family in 1997, during the island’s economic crisis known as The Special Period. He’s the author of the chapbook In The Land of Tropical Martyrs, available from Backbone Press. Dariel has taught creative writing at the Boston Arts Academy and Boston University, where he obtained his MFA in Fiction as a Global Fellow, and is now Head of Faculty and Curriculum at GrubStreet. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals and magazines, including Michigan Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, North American Review, Southern Humanities Review, The Florida Review, and The Caribbean Writer, where his work was awarded the First Lady Cecile de Jongh Literary Prize. Dariel has recently completed a novel, titled The Playwright's House, and a story collection, A Kind of Solitude, both set in his native Cuba. You can find out more about him and his work on his website and his Twitter.
The Immigrant Stories series is a collaboration between blog editor Sarah Colwill-Brown and guest editor Chetan Tiwari. Chetan is a civil rights lawyer, who represents plaintiffs in employment discrimination, prison rights matters and immigration matters. Chetan is originally from Canada and presently lives in Roxbury with his spouse and daughter. He is a diehard sports fan who supports almost all Toronto teams (Go Oilers!). One day he wants to litigate on behalf of NCAA athletes to earn them the right to be treated as employees, and start a hedge fund used to support low-income claimants in their legal matters. He was also a finalist for the GrubStreet Emerging Writer's Fellowship, and is working on a collection of short stories.
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