I was born in Cuba in 1996, in La Lisa, about twenty minutes from Havana, kind of a neighborhood. I lived in Cuba until I was eight years old. I remember going to school until the second grade and being outside all the time, different from here. I always played outside with the boys usually because that was who was around in my neighborhood. Usually I was with my dad. I went to work with him, he took me on the back of his bike with him. He had this plastic box, because there was no other way to take me on a bike with him. I remember uniforms in Cuba in school, playing around with kids outside and instead of being inside, in a cocoon. Here you don’t see many kids playing outside. You have to go to parks and stuff like that to see kids. In Cuba I knew everybody in my neighborhood. I could just walk into anybody’s house and say “Hey, can I have a cup of water?” I can’t do that here if I don’t really know them. I knew everybody in my block and around where I went. Everybody was free and everybody could do whatever they wanted and the parents trusted their kids that nothing would happen. No kids would be kidnapped or anything like that. I would be down the street and my mom could just yell my name, I would be right there.
School was fun. The teachers were very strict. They were allowed to hit you, which is very different than here. You were supposed to pay attention to things but kids obviously in second grade are very rowdy and everybody yelled and the teacher didn’t care sometimes. I feel like if I would have gone to more of third, fourth and fifth grade it would have been different. I never stayed in school because I was scared so I went back home to sleep for my nap and then I went back to school. When I transferred here and had to stay at school the whole day it was weird. But school was fun. I liked that I had to wear a uniform for sure. There were a lot of activities for kids. The thing that we did was line up every morning to sing the national anthem outside and we had the pledge of allegiance here inside our classroom instead of outside with the whole school.
My dad worked making pastries and selling them to the vendors. It was illegal back then, still is. If he got caught he could go to jail. Sometimes he did get caught and he said it would be for a birthday for me but it really wasn’t. If you want to have your own business in Cuba you have to give the government a portion of your money that you earned. He didn’t want to do that because it wasn’t fair. He had a big oven up on our roof and sometimes people stole the things from that and it was hard because my dad was the only one working because my mom was a stay-at-home mom. Cuba had a lot of poverty. Back then was worse than it is now. Our stairs were built on cement that he stole from the government. Every night he would come home with different bricks and cement that he would steal because he didn’t have enough money to pay for it. He also did electrical work, but everything he did was illegal because how else were we supposed to survive?
The 1990s were a really rough time. I remember that as a kid I was very picky. I just loved eating junk food. To eat, my mom would spend like three hours to give me one plate of food. My dad knew that I liked pork and horse meat and horse meat is illegal in Cuba. My dad stole the horse meat for me because I was low in iron when I was a kid. That was hard. As a kid I didn’t see the struggles like I do now being older and going back. Money is a very big issue in Cuba now with two currencies that they have. Back then they didn’t have that. My dad was always working and being out and I was always with my mom. I feel like the whole thing, living in poverty was hard, but I didn’t see it because I was a kid. I didn’t see how hard it was to put food on the table. In school I could just get some food, but school food in Cuba was horrible.
When I went back to Cuba I found that two of my classmates are dropouts, school was too hard for them. Basically they’re going to get something like a GED. Why? It’s just because it’s so hard. Everyone wants to come here because it’s easier. The life is easier here. I just remember honestly my dad was always struggling to try to get food and clothes. I remember that I was going to turn five and he wanted to buy me a dress for my birthday and he had twenty dollars and it was either buy food or buy my dress and he bought my dress. For food he asked my grandma for extra money.
Now it’s different. I remember as a kid you got free milk from the bodega and everybody had their little booklet. Everybody in the house got bread for the week, you got sugar, frijoles, oil, things like that. They don’t give you as much anymore. The government has changed. The way that I see it is that it is more corrupt now. It is worse. They shut off the lights way more. I was there last year during the hurricane and it was horrible. Through a whole week we didn’t have electricity. That was really bad. Also I’ve noticed that there’s never been freedom of speech in Cuba which is really bad for people who live there. That’s a really big thing that has gotten worse. There are a lot of things you can’t say. As a kid I never really paid attention to that.
I thought I was always going to be in that system. I remember when my parents told me I was going to be in the United States I was like, “No way!” I didn’t want to go. It meant leaving my family and my friends behind, leaving everybody behind and I didn’t want that. I am an only child. I have a grandma on both sides, two aunts, one uncle, two more uncles on my mom’s side and lots of cousins.
My mom’s brothers are literally communists. They are all for Cuba and Cuba is the best country you can live in. It is hard to talk to them about that because they are like, “Nope, the United States is the worst place ever.” I feel like that is why my mom didn’t want to come here at first. In Cuba they tell you that the US is the worst place, they kidnap your kids, they do all this stuff. When my dad told my mom that we were going to the United States my mom was like, “No way, I don’t want to go. It is not safe for me.” My dad wanted to get out of poverty. He worked so hard to get what he did.
On my dad’s side of the family everybody said that the United States was the best place to be, the best place we can go to. One of my cousins has tried to leave Cuba four times and has gotten caught or lost money, got scammed. He paid this lady ten thousand dollars and she said she could get him through Panama or Guyana. Now people go to Guyana to get clothes and come back and sell them in Cuba for a profit. Import, export. And they go to Panama which is the easiest way to come to the United States. That is how my cousin has tried. He hasn’t tried a boat, he’s not that crazy. He leaves legally to go get clothes but he is going to try to come here but because since the whole thing closed down with the United States there’s no way for him. He wasn’t smart and he told everybody he wanted to leave. He has a five and a six year-old and it is harder with kids. He could have come here by himself but he chose to have his whole family come and that’s how he lost ten thousand dollars when this lady scammed him. She went to jail for only three months for stealing ten thousand dollars from him, which is horrible. If she did that in the United States she’d be in jail for way longer.
The way my whole family came, it was the last year that they did it that way, it was called el Bombo. It was a lottery. My dad was drunk and he went to immigration and saw people signing up and he didn’t know what he was signing up for. Three months later he got a letter saying that immigration wants to talk to him and so he goes to immigration and they said you’re going to go to the United States. He said there are three of us. My dad asked my mom if he should put her on and she said no, but he did it anyway because he knew that it would be the best for our family.
This was in 2000. It took four years for the whole process. In February of 2004, my dad came here to Miami and then they sent him to Oregon. We had help through this church. The church helped him finding a job, clothes, apartment, food stamps. The government here was way more helpful towards Cubans then than they are now. The government helped him apply for his residency, everything. In May my mom and I came. My dad sent us money for food and passports. We arrived in Florida and we came to Oregon. We had a one-bedroom apartment. I had to share a bed space with my dad and my mom for about a year until my mom could work. In August my mom started working. The church that was helping us helped my mom get me into a YMCA so I would be taken care of. She only had to pay thirty-five dollars. They helped me get clothes and shoes for school, everything that I needed.
I was in ESL classes until I was in the eighth grade. It took me about six months to learn English, to have a normal conversation. Third grade was horrible because I hadn’t finished second grade in Cuba. It was hard. There was a kid who was translating for me and it was weird because I wasn’t sure he was translating the right things. Like I was scared to ask him to translate to ask to go to the bathroom. I saw all the kids sit on the ground for the teacher’s activity. I sat back because I didn’t want to sit with anybody because I didn’t know anybody. That was the hardest part for me, school and the language barrier.
My parents speak Spanish. They still don’t speak English. My dad can communicate here and there better than my mom. My mom has worked at the same job ever since she got here. She does housekeeping. She literally gets paid good enough to pay rent and do everything that she wants. My dad right now owns a dump truck, his own company. My dad lives in Florida so he doesn’t need English. My parents aren’t together anymore. About a year and half ago they split. He used to come back and forth to visit us. I live with my mom here because I don’t want to live down there in Miami.
El Bombo was a US program [Diversity Visa Program]. I don’t know what it is called, everyone just calls it el Bombo. The US gave let’s say a thousand applications to the Cuban government, to say we accept them. We will help them, we will have everything for them. But the Cuban government said a thousand is way too much to let go so they reduced it to two hundred people every year. It was a lottery and you apply and two hundred people were drawn and picked to come here. My dad said that it was the last time that it happened but I don’t know how often it happened.
It was very easy to visit Cuba. We were supposed to be here for three years before going back to Cuba, but after a year of being here we went back to visit. I went with my dad. I had my residency. It took my mom three years to get her residency. I don’t know why. She didn’t do it until three years, but after being here a year and a half my dad and I went to Cuba. We gathered money and we went through Mexico. We paid people to not to stamp our passport in Mexico. If they were stamped once we came back to the US immigration they would say “Where were you? How long have you been in the United States?” For the longest time I remember my dad mostly paying off people because we weren’t allowed to go. It was a Cuban passport. We aren’t allowed to have a US passport until we are citizens.
We can become a citizen after we are here five years. After a year and one day we can apply to get residency and then they will give it to us. Our citizenship is after five years. My parents can do it in Spanish after age fifty-five, but otherwise they would have to do it in English. Because my parents didn’t speak English, they didn’t do it.
As soon as I turned eighteen, I studied the hundred questions and I became a citizen. I feel like as a citizen I can get a better education because a lot of the scholarships that it would benefit me better if I were a citizen rather than a resident. My mom just always told me that it was better to be a citizen for a lot of things. I really never looked into what would be the benefits, but my mom said there were lots of benefits. It is way more expensive to renew your residency than it is a passport. A residency is like a thousand dollars to renew instead of like a hundred and something for a passport. Cuba does allow for dual citizenship but I haven’t done anything like that. I don’t want to take the test. The only reason I go is because I have family there. But once my grandma is dead, my mom won’t go. My mom says she’d visit like once every five years but now we go very often because my grandma is old and same with my dad’s mom. We go frequently because they are getting to their last years and it is better for them to see me often.
It is expensive to go. We spend a lot of money on airplane tickets and clothes that they need. For the past three years we’ve gone every year. I’m not automatically a Cuban citizen because I left the country and I didn’t come back. I was, but Cuba doesn’t recognize me as a citizen anymore. I enter the country as a tourist, even though I have a Cuban passport, because I’ve been out of the country more than five years. I know they have a thing now that every two years I can use my libreta for the bodega to get the bread and stuff. I have a friend that does this, she goes back every time before the two year cut off so that her mom back home can get the supplies for her as if she was still living in Cuba.
I’m just a tourist. They don’t recognize me as a citizen anymore. If I get sick or something like that I can’t go to the normal hospital, I have to go to the tourist clinic as any American would go. I don’t even have an ID from Cuba. When I rent a car they are tempted to stop us because they know we are tourists. We just pay them like twenty bucks, please don’t give me a ticket. And it works, as sad as it is. You can’t do that here, you’ll get arrested.
Both my parents send money home to my relatives. My mom sends a hundred dollars every so often. It isn’t just a hundred dollars. We have to spend a hundred and twenty dollars so that they can get exactly one hundred over there. My grandma is old so a hundred dollars lasts a long time, but for my mom’s brothers, since they work, a hundred dollars isn’t that much. Every time we go, we give them two hundred dollars, which only lasts a little while, so we have to send money. We just got back this month and so in two or three months she’ll send more. My dad is closer to Cuba so it’s easier for him to send money through Western Union there so he sends more often than my mom does.
The people surprised me when I first got to the US. I thought that the people were going to be super mean. When you see Americans on TV you see angry people. I feel like they were the worst kind of humans ever and I think they do that on purpose so that you don’t leave the country. That’s why the internet wasn’t allowed, that’s one of the things that has changed in government. Now there are parts with wifi and you can do a lot of things. But the people really surprised me because everybody is so nice, so welcoming. Everybody smiles at you. When I go back to Cuba they always ask me if Americans are rude. They have a bad image of Americans. On TV you see them being this rude, yelling at you that they don’t like Hispanics, all this stuff. I was scared to talk to all the kids until I was in the fourth grade and learned English and I made friends. I was scared of the kids, they are mean, kids are mean. But they aren’t as bad as I thought they would be.
I was surprised by how things worked here, like food and rent. In Cuba there’s no rent. You own everything. You buy your property, you buy your materials, you build your house and it’s yours. Here there’s bills to pay, there’s so many stores, there’s so many things that you can do. I was surprised by how many cars there are. The advances that United States has compared to a third world country.
Most white people think that everyone who speaks Spanish is Mexican. At first, I had kids that said, “Go back to your country.” I felt shamed. Do I not belong here? I’m not Mexican. I wouldn’t say that. I would just stay quiet. Every time someone would say “Go back to your country,” I didn’t know what to say. I just shut down. Now I know what to say and I speak up and I can speak for myself. When I was a kid I cried every day and I told my dad, I want to go back, I want to go back. For the first two years I wanted to go back to Cuba. I did not like it here. I didn’t like the experience. I didn’t like learning English. English was so weird to me, it was so difficult. I was doing ESL in the fifth grade and I didn’t feel like I belonged here because that’s how the students made me feel. It was hard.
A lot of my friends are immigrants. A lot of them are here illegally and I support them. If I can get involved to help them, I do. I don’t have very many Cuban friends because I don’t associate with them very much. Most of my friends are from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, any part of the Hispanic culture. I feel comfortable being around them. When the whole DACA thing happened, I have a lot of friends on DACA. I was supporting them and being there for them and trying to educate myself because they knew more than I did because I didn’t have to go through that. I empathize with them because they have to go through a lot. It’s a lot of money they have to spend, a lot of things that they have to go through and everybody saying go back to your country. Now I can defend myself by saying I have papers, but they have to live in this little box of being scared that they can be deported at any time.
I am grateful that I don’t have to live that way. As a resident, if I committed a crime, I could have been deported but now I’m just like any American is. It sucks and it’s sad that I can get an easier way than they can because of the relationship that the government has with Cuba. Now it’s all gone so that anybody who comes from my country will now suffer that. It sucks to be in those shoes. I can never say that I know how you feel because I don’t. I never have felt fear for myself or my family that if I see a cop I can get pulled over and I won’t have a license because I can’t get a license. My boyfriend, for example, is afraid because he doesn’t have papers. I don’t know what that’s like. I can get a ticket. I can pay it and go. I have a social security number. I don’t have to get a fake social security number and work under the table. I can just work anywhere. That’s the advantage that I have.
Most Americans don’t know much about the relationship between the US and Cuba. I don’t even think that most Americans know the difference between Cubans, Guatemalans, Hondurans. They think they’re all the same. They don’t take the time to educate themselves about that. I had a teacher in my business class and he didn’t even know what DACA was and he had a presentation and a student was teaching him what it was. He’s a teacher and I think he should educate himself about those things. It’s a thing that is affecting students in this college, in this class. He had two students that were on DACA and he didn’t even know. Not everybody is born here. I’m pretty light-skinned, but I wasn’t born here and I’m a citizen, gladly. But being born here gives you more privileges than I have, me being born out of the country. A lot of Americans don’t notice that.
Learn the real story. Don’t guess it. Don’t make assumptions. I feel like we all hear about how it is in Mexico or Honduras or Cuba and think we already know everything. No. You don’t. I can’t even say I know everything about Cuba because I was born there, but I wasn’t raised there. For example, I took a history class and I did a whole paper on HIV in Cuba and I learned so many things. I learned so many things writing that paper that I didn’t know. Americans don’t even know their own history. I think it is funny that I had to learn a hundred questions to become a citizen and I can ask any American the questions and half of them wouldn’t know the answers. So why do I have to? People who live here don’t know how many senators you are supposed to have. They just know the basics, like how long a president is supposed be there and what they are supposed to do. I think that students should learn all that stuff because you needed to know what’s going on especially with everything that is going on right now. I think they should really know the depth of each country that they learn about. You can dig deep down to investigate and learn about each country.
Americans are always, oh, Cuba is so nice. It may look nice but the government is corrupt. It’s horrible. Everybody in Cuba thinks that everybody here in the United States is rich. No, there’s so many homeless people here. There’s so many things wrong with this country as well. There’s struggles here. We aren’t all rich, we don’t all win the lottery. It’s hard because Cubans all think that people who live here and make American money can buy anything and everything. We can’t because we have bills to pay. They don’t. You don’t have to pay a mortgage. We have to pay light bill, phone bill, internet bill. Everything. It’s expensive!