Thursday, August 30, 2012

No Island is an Island: Chapter 6: Go Team Cuba.

Being my crazy American self, I let a few tears go and don't fight them back. Being here in Cuba is a Big Deal. Tiafi and Abuela and Miriam left here but never got to come back.

One hundred times Abuela told me "I want you should see Cienfuegos" and nod her head firmly until I understood I wouldn't really know her until I saw where she came from. I could never promise her this, I couldn't bear making such a promise and having to uphold it.

But here I am, in one of the places she lived and my crying stops as I'm absorbed into the details of the architecture the molding the doors that horses could walk through the floors the doors the long hallway.

 I follow the sun down the hall and pass one enclosed patio and keep walking to the back of the house where Olgita is starting lunch in the makeshift kitchen. I've already discovered there isn't running water; I'm not sure how she cooks and I don't want to ask. She explains something anyway, pointing at a hot plate and saying something about my Mom, then showing me the dark empty pantry.

 No triscuits, no boxes of happy cereals, no cans of food-o-olios or boxes of saltines or spray cheese.

She keeps talking about something but she's going fast and my mind can't keep up and she's explaining in great detail something about the wall in front of us that makes no sense at all to me so I slip away gently and find my Mom. I feel like a child dashing back to hide under her Mom's skirts, only I'm hiding behind her Spanish.

Excuse me, Mom? I think Olgita just told me she painted the whole wall black back there but it isn't black, it's yellow and I think I lost something big in the story.

Mom tells me there had been a fire many years ago and Olgita made due with shortages and some how restored it all. From what I could see, Olgita would win a DIY championship in the US, if we ever have one. Go Team Cuba.

I stay in the office room where Tia Lourdes receives guests. The two doctors were still there and their almost 16 year old daughter got up to give me a chair.  She comes back minutes later with a tiny dark cup of Cuban coffee.  I take some happily and in one sip see it is bitter and that is odd in this land of sugar.  There are several packs of Splenda in my purse but I don't reach for them and bear the hardship.

The first doctor, the gentleman, asks about me and I tell him I teach American History and Foreign Policy and Social History.

He nods with a graveness and asks permission to ask a question. Of course.

So he asks, "What do you do with all the nationalities?"

I answer thoughtfully, sentence by sentence, pausing so my mom can translate.  "The US has always been a country of immigrants from all over.  I have immigrants from all over the world in my classes at school." 

He nods, I continue, "Most immigrants go where they already know someone and they learn about the US and learn English and become American that way. There are communities of Cubans in Miami and Puerto Ricans in Orlando and..." I keep going on for a few more examples and gauge his response, trying to figure out what his real question is.

"So people don't have to let go of their culture and their family to become American."

His face lights up, he nods, then ask, "How, then, do you know that you're American?"

My Mom translates this with her eyebrows up, wondering, too what I'll say.

I shrug, "I guess you're as American as you want to be. Right now, coming here to Cuba, I've never felt more American in my whole life."

A few minutes later, as garlic smells filled the room from the kitchen the doctors and their daughter excused themselves to let us have a family meal.

Like a play of carefully coordinated exits and entrances, Olgita's father enters at exactly this time.

 Mom recognizes him. He was the trusted family companion who walked her down the street to and from school among other trusted errands.  He is stiff and silent and my Mom hugs him and I take his picture.

I didn't catch his name but heard they call him "Cuco" which is also my grandfather's nickname.  I wonder, again, if we are family but no one offers any explanations and I don't ask.

Too quickly a horn honks for him, it is his ride, they take him off to where he was going.

Time for lunch. It was the four of us - Tia Lourdes, Olgita, Mom, myself.

The table was set with bowls of food -- yellow rice, fried potatoes, sliced tomatoes, chicken, bananas from the tree in the backyard.  Each cup of water was covered by a plastic lid that seemed to be rescued from a Pringle's can.  I hesitate before drinking the water but I go for it anyway.

Tia Lourdes sat next to me and drank a bowl of soup.

I filled my plate and ate as much as I could, too sober and emotional to taste anything or even try to lose myself in these non-Chikfila fried potatoes.

When the pause comes I ask Mom to ask Tia Lourdes something I really need to know. 

She translates with her face flat, not judging me (thank you) and asks Tia Lourdes, "Melissa wants to know if you saw the food fight at Miriam's funeral."