In the film, my father leaves me: he flees to Mexico, then to Miami, Chicago and Beaumont. Later, he escapes into romantic outings with his mistress; soon after, divorced from my mother, he slinks off to vacation in exotic European cities with his second wife.
I’m outside, knocking on each door, banging on the windows. The scene cuts to my mother, wringing her hands, watching helplessly as I, not unlike the counterculture of the 1960s, play out our adopted nation’s social upheaval: I shoplift, spend a night at a commune, go braless, join a fistfight, take drugs, and jump off a bridge on a dare. My mother leaves me, too. I run after her. She shows me her one-way ticket into madness, and the scene dissolves to black.
This is the film version of my immigrant story, replaying itself at unexpected moments in the picture making mechanism of my mind. Many of us have similar stories, all tied to a central, haunting narrative: the one where we abandon our homeland, take our places on the fringes of the new land and try to figure out who we are. Often, we go from one restrictive place to another.
Whether one’s immigrant story begins as a trek toward the Rio Grande, a sea voyage across the Florida Straits, or, like mine, by simply boarding a plane, the journey often ends up in ethnic enclaves. In these barrios, immigrants band together for survival. Living in the ghetto – here used as a sociological term – our dreams of home are never nightmares, and we hang on for dear life to the comfort of culture and language. Meanwhile, many of the youngest immigrants struggle to cast off the ghetto’s protective mantle. I remember hating the earsplitting flute of Cuban charangas as the Jovenes Del Hierro struck up the band at quince parties. But, in a purple haze, I swayed to Jimi Hendrix’s screeching electric guitar and sang with Janis Joplin – voice dripping tragedy – inviting her beloved to take another piece of her heart.
I left Little Havana for college in California for the same reason my father left La Habana: freedom. My escape from the ethnic enclave forged a new, more expansive identity. Within the ghetto’s confines, can young immigrants be free? Does the ghetto culture – for example, chaperones for daughters but not for sons – coerce them into conforming to oppressive rules? How long can you live with numerous identities without feeling schizophrenic?
My children self-identify as Cuban, a category they barely understand. I, unlike them, grew up in a Miami devoid of Cubans, but only sometimes identify as Cuban, more often as American, still others as both, or none as the mood strikes. In our family, we sense danger when we talk about identity. We fear alienating those we love, but we fear losing our selves even more.
Issues of identity will never vanish as new immigrants settle in the United States. My recently-arrived Venezuelan students tell stories about dangerous night-time escapes from their homes and their struggle to adapt in South Florida – now one of the most multicultural places on the map. Their words jog the memories of “American” peers who bring up a forgotten great-great-great-uncle, a Hungarian immigrant in Nebraska lured to the U.S. by promises of free land. Another recalls an ancestor who worked for a Philadelphia German-language newspaper, one of many serving the city’s new immigrants back then.
In this classroom encounter, the conversation about identity stoked my students’ passions. How many generations does it take to claim American hood, they asked? Is becoming an American the goal for which all immigrants strive while they take a breather in the ghetto? Or is identity one of those fluid notions that sets no boundaries?
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