I was sitting outside our local library, waiting for it to open, when my daughter joyfully approached a man resembling her father. Although older, the man was tall, dark skinned, thin build, just like Alina’s beloved Daddy. We exchanged a casual greeting before he sat on the bench beside me. Alina, being the little flirt that she is, continued to bat her eyelashes and gift the man her precious pearl necklaces. He was very sweet, responding to her with a big smile and a pat on the head. His next statement was extremely unexpected.
“She has an incredible genetic makeup.”
Although shocked, one thing became clear to me within seconds of his assertion: he’s Cuban. Native Cuban speakers have a distinct accent that is distinguishable from other Spanish speakers. And speaking from experience, Cubans from Cuba have the tendency to say crazy stuff like complimenting a stranger’s genetic makeup. I realize that may sound like a gross generalization, but something about traditional Cuban aphorisms being translated into English always makes for an interesting conversation starter.
“She looks Ethiopian because of her features and hair texture. Did you know Ethiopians are a product of Africans mixing with the Moors? This is why they have unique genetic makeup. What’s her name?”
Alina. And no, she isn’t Ethiopian. Cuban, actually. And Black, but he already knew that. His face lit up as I fell deeper into conversation with this once stranger tuned compadre. In Spanish now, with the feverish Cuban tempo, he gave me a quick historical lesson on the genetic code that makes up our Cuban blood. The region that is now Spain, once Italy, sending Columbus to conquer the Cuban island, the people of Nigeria brought against their will, the mixing and ultimately, our people. All information I knew, research I had conducted in my undergraduate Latin American politics studies, but never did it sound so apart of my being as told from this man’s mouth.
He showed me a scar on his leg that he got from the third degree sunburn while he crossed the 90 mile stretch of ocean between Key West and Cuba in the mid 1980’s. He told me about the inner tube raft he made, his brothers who crossed with him, his mother left behind. He told me, how even still, Cuba idolizes lighter skin, blue eyes. The phenomenon of colorism is still alive and well, despite socialist ideals.
I told him the towns in Cuba where my parents were born, how they arrived in California as young children in the late 1960’s with their parents. Unknowing of what life in their American would be. They arrived by plane, and wore no physical scars. Unless you count the ones they received while still in Cuba and labeled as traitors. From my studies I also knew that there is a certain hierarchy in Cubans according to when you left the island, and afraid to quiet the man, I briefly skipped over my family’s Cuban story.
He spoke about music and boxing; and food. Visiting Cuba five months ago to see his mother made his dark eyes catch light. He explained how my family should be able to apply for a Visa because of our Cuban descent; that we should visit our homeland. I admitted to him that doing so is a life long dream. Not a day goes by that I don’t dream of going to Cuba.
Alina and I sat in awe of his voice, unknowingly missing a culture I don’t have enough access to, yearning for that part of me which once believed I was Latino, Cuban, Spanish, anything other than just this brown shell in a black and white world.
As the doors to the library opened, and patrons began filing in, I mentioned my Husband, an African American. Half of the beautiful genetic makeup that he complimented just minutes before. And the shock this time was his.
In English: “Oh, I thought he was Afro-Cubano. Good to meet you.”
Alina and I stood still, alone, as the stranger’s brisk walk led him into the enclosure of the library.