Born again Cuban

Maura Barrios


My abuela Pepilla inspired pride.  But being Cuban had its drawbacks -- especially in the Deep South Florida Fifties.  Imagínate, the Age of Anxiety cubano style:  baby boomer, post war, cold war,  Ricky and Lucy; Elvis and Marilyn Monroe.  Y también:  26 de Julio, rokyrol, fidelista! Batistiano! Socialista! Anarquista! Comunista!  Mamá whispered about the holocaust, the atom bomb and the Rosenberg executions.  Abuela talked to Fidel on the radio while I hid under my schoolroom desk to survive nuclear disaster.   The Red Blob movie kept me awake with dreams of Russians/Cubans hiding behind the trees in my park.  We learned to negotiate extremes at an early age.

          We spent our childhood glaring at the small black/white TV to learn how to be American.  The TV images did not match our Cuban home, our family’s hair-hips-lips.  The abuelos tabaqueros lived next door to remind us:  “Nosotros somos cubanos!  We are the vanguard of Jose Martí!”  Permanently juxtaposed en America.

         Most of my friends, silenced by politics and racism, stopped being Cuban.  In the sixties, movements for civil rights and women’s liberation and black panthers and raza unida allowed me to be proud or at least curious about radical Cuba (quietly, and only outside of Florida).  Lost in America, I studied history to find my identity; and focused on Cuba to lead me to the ancestors.  I learned:  They exiled in Florida to avoid Spanish generals and concentration camps and to earn good money rolling puros habanos.  They rowed nine children across the straits to Cayo Hueso -- the first balseros.  They moved back and forth, to el Barrio Cayo Hueso de la Habana and back to Key West and Tampa. The ancestors survived devastating wars and hunger and colonialism and racism with la resistencia:  hard work, mobility, tolerance, flexibility, internationalism, political activism and labor organizing.  Los  Pinos Nuevos put words in Martí’s mouth:  “with all and for the good of all” insisting on a Cuba that would incorporate all races and all people, especially working poor.   After the Maine and Teddy Roosevelt took Cuba, the tabaqueros tried to keep Marti’s dream alive -- at least in one small corner of Latin America.  They organized the first union, La Resistencia, built mutual aid societies, cultural centers, schools like Escuela Céspedes, hospitals and clinics before anyone dreamed of social security.  They asserted their rights in a foreign frontier-land where no rights existed.   “La Resistencia” faced vigilantes, deportations, lynchings, anti-immigrant laws, The Red Scare, racism, discrimination, and violence in an Anglo-Latin race-class war.  Anglos called all Latins “Cuban niggers.”

         The children of tabaqueros fought wars in US armies navies coast guards to become americanos; adding the next layer to their multi-national identities:  permanently cubano and very American and sometimes Spanish or Italian too ….  Lo Tampeño transcends borders, family fights, religious notions, multiple languages and political extremes – a dynamically democratic culture.  The viejos carry on this tradition at the many cafés where they gather to argue politics.  “Ese Bush es fascista!” claimed el asturiano before the war in Iraq.

         I traveled to Cuba to speak to the ancestors, walk the Barrio Cayo Hueso, visit cigar factories and Pinar del Río, re-trace journeys to find Abuelo Manuel’s memory of Cuban green.  Abuela Pepilla’s urban spirit guided me through mean Havana streets:  Cubans don’t steal your purse they steal your heart, cuida’o Maura!

         I spoke to the ancestors at reuniones with female cousins.   We met late in life; rum and coffee kept me awake to tell life stories.  I am blessed by the Africana goddesses yemaya or chango or ochun (no se cual) that live in the ceramic jars at my cousin Marta’s house in Havana.   Culture shocks when I get home.  On this journey, I am born-again:  Born Again Cuban


Maura Barrios Álvarez,  Máster en Artes,  es la Historiadora de la Comunidad Cubana de Tampa y directora del proyecto Voces de West Tampa, una autobiografía de la comunidad cubana/latina de West Tampa.