In Foreign Land

My mom keeps telling my sister she’s not in exile. She could go home any time she wants. But what is home for a Brazilian immigrant in the US for the past ten years? If home is where your family and memories are, certainly Brazil is the place. How about the present connections, a different way of living, new perspectives gained as obstacles were surpassed, challenges overcome? That’s where the clash of identities happens.

This was also my view of Carlos Eire’s Cuban American soul, an eternal conflict what he was meant to be brutally interrupted by political shifts in his country with what he became. Or did he keep his Cuban soul full of memories who had to be locked for survival in a foreign country? Immigrants struggle to preserve an let it go. Interesting to  notice that the back and forth of Carlos’ dynamic narrative was of a time of childhood, of hope, not much of his gloomy underworld life in America. He’d come to America to suddenly go back to what was dear, what was part of his Cuban spirit full of passion and intensity, to the people who he truly loved and longed for. When you are an immigrant you freeze what was dear to you, and you keep the city, they people, the food, the smell, the feelings frozen in time, as they were when you left.

Just like Carlos, my Italian family emmigrated to Brazil in difficult times of war. My 85-year old, most dear zio Luigi, has the same vivid memories of his past, telling them as if it were present. We can picture the scenes, the places, the people. Both haven’t had the chance to go back to their countries of origin. Who are they? Where do they belong? They hold to traditions and let them go. They need to survive, they need to adapt.  One of my favorite passages in the book is when Carlos, describing the hot dog chino, says that

“we can adapt quickly to the strangest circumstances, sometimes better than animals, but we can’t change the color of our skin, or the way our tongue handles unfamiliar sounds”.

Though we try to accommodate to the new culture, to blend in,  our genes don’t let us deny our origins. Among many other sarcastic, real, transparent passages of Carlos, there’s one that I feel now as a foreigner in Key West. He mentions that

It would take only one brief plane ride to turn him from a white boy int a spic. And he’s reminded of it every time he has to fill out a form that lists “Hispanic”as a race, distinct from “white” or “caucasian”.

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I know exactly what it is to be a foreigner in the US with latin origin, but, in my case, even harder for people to grasp. I’m a Latin with no hispanic origin. I don’t speak Spanish, but I look like a hispanic. When I have to fill out any form, there’s generally the option of Hispanic. My husband is blond with blue eyes. When he marked “white”, the lady said he wasn’t. She marked hispanic, and he tried to tell her he was not. She just said “whatever…”. I know exactly what it is to be part of a paradox in a country who needs immigrants, but still for many citizens they’d rather not have them. I live in a city where Cuban culture is in every detail, from the music played on the streets, the roosters protected by law to the iguanas near my house. Still, Cubans try to free themselves from a country with no freedom coming to a country that most of them will be trapped in the underworld that Carlos tries to forget, if they get to arrive in American soil traveling in boats, starving with kids dehydrating. If they land on American soil, there’s still hope of a better life than the one they had in Cuba. If they are caught in the sea, they are deported to Cuba. I see this happening very frequently here, in Key West, the closest you can be to Cuba from the US, only 90 miles away. In Key West, my favorite restaurant is Cuban with dishes of fried plantains, carne asada, or pescado with rice and beans. I see passionate, warm-hearted people all over.

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Carlos Havana was devastated just like his soul, but as he mentions we die and are born many times in a lifetime. Foreigners, immigrants learn to be chamaleons. They adapt, deceive even themselves, they deny, they go to the bottom, they surface. Carlos concludes

I’m camouflaged. I blend in so well as a respectable Cuban boy from a good family, but underneath I am a rebel, a worm, and a refugee in the making.

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As my own memories coming from a family of immigrants of many underground stories, many times embellished by the shades of time, and successful endeavors, I ask myself, how long will my sister resist being a lonely, silent immigrant? Will she find happiness in the new land or back to what was home?

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