A Cuban-American Looks at 64
By: George Diaz
My name is George Diaz, and I am a hyphenated- American. I love my country of birth, Cuba. I love the country that I call home, the United States of America. The hyphenated conflict that festers isn’t unique, harkening back to the days of Ellis Island, which welcomed about 12 million immigrants arriving at the Port of New York from 1892 to 1954.
My journey began in 1961, when I arrived by plane in the United States. I was simply a tagalong, accompanied by my parents and two sisters. Oblivious to disruptive forces in our lives, I was excited to be stepping foot on an airplane for the first time. Yea! A political skirmish, called the Cuban Revolution, would set the winds of change for my life and for countless others who became collateral damage for Fidel Castro’s power trip. Decades of struggle ensued. While my parents have since passed, they left behind a love and longing for Cuba in each of us.The Diaz family legacy is one of food, writing, music, dancing, creativity, laughter, love, family culture… and sacrifice. They sacrificed to give their children an opportunity to live in this land of freedom. I never got the feeling they regretted that decision, not once.
It’s easy to lose sight of the American Dream, given our topsy-turvy political climate, where labels referring to immigrants are tossed around flippantly and dismissively. The contentious dynamics weigh on me every day, all the while fending off an international pandemic at home with a dog recovering from major surgery. But most days, I feel very blessed. My parents’ sacrifices have allowed me to build a good life in the United States. Ditto for my sisters. I have a nice home, a fancy Infiniti and hopefully enough savings stockpiled to afford a roll of Charmin double-ply in the near future.
It feels good to be home.
But, still… Mi Tierra. My Homeland.
It’s the official soundtrack of our lives as Cuban exiles. You can hear the angst in Gloria Estafan’s voice in the first single she released in 1993 as a tribute to her homeland.
Mine is a quiet grief, not very palatable most of the time. But it lingers. I feel it as the tears flow listening to the song. I think of my father, who used to tell me all the time, like clockwork, “El proximo año, amigo mio.” Next year, my friend. He lived for the hope of returning to his beloved home. It was always next year, driven by faith that Fidel Castro’s power trip would crumble in the face of righteousness. Next year never came. My father died in April, 1999, proud of the life he built here, proud of the country he came from but one he never got to see again. I’d like to think he can visit there anytime he wants, with his beloved Dalia by his side.
With gray hairs creeping in daily, I Iook at 64 hoping every day to honor Francisco and Dalia Diaz. All the while, Cuba still tugs at me. The 90-plus miles of separation from my native land morphs into an emotional and physical disconnect stretching for decades. I may as well be looking up at the moon, wondering if I will ever set foot on its surface. Travelling to Cuba is always subject to political volatility in the United States; and in the current climate, a pandemic. The days of cruises to Havana, with thousands of strangers exposed to multiple all-you-can-eat buffets, looks very much like a death wish. But even with safe passage, I won’t sign up. I don’t begrudge anyone who does, but please read the fine print. The fine mojitos and the pretty show girls in the night clubs and the beautiful beaches are just an illusion.
A peek at the real Cuba reveals people living under an oppressive regime that crushes individual thought like a cockroach. I got a taste of that when I went back in 1991, covering the Pan-American Games for the “Orlando Sentinel.” It wasn’t a nostalgic business working trip by any means. I reconnected with family members, some of whom embraced this dystopian society where freedom is squashed. I felt the heartbreak of a grieving father whose son had died trying to escape, freezing in the landing gear of a jet bound for Spain. I listened to the heartbreak of a newlywed wife, whose husband, a baseball player, defected without a word. And I looked at my life for what it could have been and drew a deep sigh of relief, fully understanding the heart-wrenching choices my parents made. They bequeathed to me this precious gift called the United States of America. Thirteen years ago, Gloria Estafan’s voice resonated with me again. She was speaking at a citizenship ceremony at Walt Disney World. “The most beautiful things in this country have the flavor of other places. Chinese food. Pizza came from the Italians, but it’s an American experience. French fries. There’s always some other cultures involved.
“You don’t have to be a hyphenated American, but you can certainly be an American who doesn’t forget where they came from.” People fear what they don’t understand. The natural reaction is to build fences and walls, figuratively and literally. But that certainly goes against this country’s history of cultural diversity. Immigrants and exiles each have their own story to tell; their own journey. But to disavow where we came from —– Cuba, Venezuela, Tthe Dominican Republic— , wherever it might be, — would be disrespectful to the land of our birth. We walk among you not trying to encroach on your values and way of life, but to hopefully enhance them. If you disagree, I suggest you take a sip of a mojito, or take a bite out of an arroz con pollo dish. Those tastes connect me to Cuba, as do the mementoes and photographs my parents were able to take with them on our flight to Fort Lauderdale in 1961.
It’s been 59 years now. Photographs and memories fade with time. Jorge Diaz has become George Diaz, in deference to the country that is now home. My heart remains a bit conflicted at times. It gets nicked in the most subtle of ways. I bear the scars of a hyphenated American, a badge I wear proudly.
Born in Cuba and raised in South Florida, George Diaz became inspired to be a journalist while working for his school newspaper at Coral Gables High School. He is a 1978 graduate of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism. Diaz worked at the “Miami Herald” and “The Cincinnati Post” before joining the “Orlando Sentinel” sports department in 1989. He went on to serve in a number of roles, including columnist and member of the editorial board.
This article originally appeared in Growing Bolder Magazine. For more great stories like this, click here to subscribe to the digital or print editions of Growing Bolder Magazine. All past issues of GB Magazine, including the one that features this article, are also available to read online exclusively on the GB Portal. Click here to find out how to become a member!