Who the Hell Am I? A Confession

A Californian passing through Cuba Libro recently asked me if I felt more American or Cuban after 16 years in residence. The question, though common, sort of blindsided me; these types of existential/identity inquiries are interesting, but of little use when you’re a journalist on deadline, finishing two books and keeping a small business afloat. I hadn’t thought about my identity in these terms in a long time.

That was my first clue about how distanced I’ve become from my birth culture: people on that side of the Straits are spending way too much (misdirected) time and energy on identity politics.

But because I have the nagging sense that I’m at some kind of turning point (or point of no return – like if I don’t rein in this Cuban-ness, I soon won’t recognize myself at all), I eked out a moment from my chaotic work schedule to consider her question.

Maybe this is why I didn’t bristle and correct her when she asked if I felt more Cuban or American. Before, I would have quickly observed (with a nearly audible sneer, I confess), that every one of us, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, are ‘Americans’ but I let it slide. Before, I would have delivered one of my pat answers – ‘depends on which day you ask’ or ‘a decent mix of both.’ But when she asked, I stopped to consider her question carefully because I realized I’m feeling pretty confused lately.

How the hell, after 16 years here can I still be confused? If you know something about Cuba, you probably understand.

I think it’s due in part to the recent historic elections here, in which I was invited to vote. It turned out to be a bureaucratic mix-up (I have no right to vote) but it stopped me short. Wait. Elections? Cuba? Electoral college? Veneer of democracy? Where am I? Who am I? Am I experiencing a shift in my core values?

After so much time here, I talk with my mouth full and have zero problem conversing about menstruation in mixed company. The first is an embarrassment and really poor form, I know, but the latter makes me proud. Just today I heard a piece on NPR about birth control and how some US women aren’t comfortable telling their doctors that their birth control is killing their sex drive. This is absurd, counter-productive and one of the many ways in which women are complicit in the misogynist construct: having body shame about completely natural parts and functions (menstruation, vaginas, uteri, orgasms, etc) does us all damage. This type of neurosis I definitely left behind in the US and am glad I did – especially once I had my first pap smear in Cuba. The lovely doctor took a long drag on a filter-less cigarette clamped between her gloved fingertips, flicked the butt expertly out the window and said ‘ok, honey! Feet in the stirrups.’ Sex toys, condom use, hemorrhoids, HIV – it’s all part of the conversation here.

SHOUTING! Through closed doors, from the balcony, across the hall, down the block, over impossibly loud music – Cubans are very loud and I’ve totally adopted the habit. Make no mistake: I arrived here half deaf from too much rock n roll, plus I’m the product of a boisterous NY family where to be heard or get a word in edgewise, interrupting and volume give you an advantage. But there’s loud for practical strategy and there’s loud as rude; I fear I’m entering into Cuban-loud (ie rude) territory.

I’m not talking about when we’re shouting at each other for sport and play, that kind of intellectual sparring and sharing of dubiously sourced facts which is far from fighting here. No, I’m talking rude loud as in shouting across a room to get someone’s attention rather than walking over to them or carrying on a conversation at full volume when someone nearby is trying to study, nap or meditate. Note to self: tone it down.

Time management and punctuality are two US characteristics to which I cling desperately, but try not to inflict on others. Cubans are chronically late and it’s useless to get your knickers in a twist over it. Most Cubans arrive between 15 and 30 minutes late to whatever meeting, event or appointment. Plan accordingly and avoid the frustration. I made the mistake recently of criticizing my hubby for his shitty time management. We had a calm, measured and adult conversation about it. Still, hours later, I was venting to a Catalan friend of mine with many years of Havana living under his belt. “Darling, you can’t get mad at a Cuban for being Cuban. You knew shitty time management came with the package when you bought in.” Note to self: focus on the things you can change.

Sometimes Cuba and Cubans make me want to pull my hair out and I start wandering that dark, dangerous path wondering: “why do I stay here? This isn’t my lucha. These aren’t my people.” And then something like Parkland happens. And a 12-year old from Connecticut visiting Cuba Libro tells me his friend told him to buy a bullet proof vest for his Cuba trip because “they shoot people down there.” And then I realize, why yes, this is indeed my place and Cubans – loud, rude, late and unfaithful – are my people. And no one has a gun. I feel I have to share this information with the misinformed tweens of the world.


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11 responses to “Who the Hell Am I? A Confession

  1. Earl L. Kerr

    Great insight, and this too will change, as you move along the maturation process. At 86, my perspective is more internal, although my significant other has this knack of bringing us into the “we” aspect of our milieux here at our CCRC. I have a tendency to sit on the breezeway and greet those coming by with a wave, a reminiscence of the “ Greeter” of Laguna Beach, California. Recognize your changes dear heart.

  2. Karl N

    Love the “we are all Americans” comment. Travelling through S America, I heard that all the time. As a Canadian, I never really noticed until friends and relatives in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay commented about US citizens claiming themselves to be “Americans” as if the rest of the citizens across the two continents did not have that right. I have been to Cuba and seen it’s chaos but I’m not sure it is any crazier than some of the cities further south(politics included).

    • Allison

      Spanish makes it so easy because you can say estadounidense (despite it being a bit of a mouthful) , but no such word exists in English. United Statesian? No, haha. So what can we say if not “American”?

  3. Hey Conner

    How’s Havana? And the bike rallies? And Cuba libro and your cool crew?

    I had an accident in Honduras.

    Like an ass (a broke ass), I’ve been without insurance. So friends put together a gofundme. Perhaps you could spread this word and it’ll help drum up support. Tomorrow they’re evacuating me to San Francisco for emergency medical procedures. Already had 3 surgeries here on Roatan.

    Thanks, my friend


    • WHOA. I am SO sorry this happened to you. And its terrible that you weren’t here at the time – with your support system and free health care. Please keep us posted on your progress and I will definitely spread the word. Heal fast amigo!!

      READERS: this is from friend, colleague and fellow adventurer Kai Schoenhals who travels around Cuba and other tropical climes on a motorcycle fit for backcountry hell raising for his TV show One Tank. As often happens in Cuba, we met through mutual friends (at Cuba Libro if Im not mistaken) and have been working to share and grow the beauty of Cuba and its people since. Now he needs help from the Cuban community/hive mind. please check out his link about his accident on FB and even if you don’t participate in the gofundme effort to help cover medical expenses (just typing this from a place which provides universal health care makes me shiver and shake my head), please drop him some words of encouragement as he navigates operations, rehab and recovery.

  4. Annet

    GREAT as usual 🙂 love your wording and even more your insight; love the way in which you do not betray your innerself. instead, you work through your true feelings and you are not shy to air them out. you keep it real. love that about you… Newyorker/Havanian 😉 lol
    ps- by now.. not necessarily in that order 😉

  5. Alberto

    You have been Cubanized 🇨🇺 Now you’re officially an American-Cuban 🇨🇺 From what I have read about your life and time in Cuba, I have seen the transformation in you plus the friends and family members you made had definitely changed you a bit.

    I can relate to this article with the whole American vs Cuban identity. Let me tell you, I’m Puerto Rican-American, my parents are Puerto Ricans and regardless if I lived in Puerto Rico, I’m still not accepted into the Puerto Rican society which is so fascinating to me… Back in New York, I considered myself strictly Puerto Rican but now I accept and embrace that I am Puerto Rican-American (and sometimes I lie and say I am Cuban, shh)

  6. Jeff

    The shouting part made me laugh and cringe. I lived in Cuba for 3.5 months and it drove me crazy! TV at full volume, laptop video game at full volume, their voices seem to be able to reach the next level and it just keeps going up! I had several times I considered heading homeward, Canada and snow, and decided sun and Cuba were better.

  7. The one thing I DIDN’T obsess over planning for the Havana trip was gun violence! But of course, since everyone in the U.S. seems to have a gun we just assume everyone in the world has one and is waiting to shoot us. Although I would never feel completely safe in any city I am visiting, I did not feel unsafe in Havana at any time. People asking me how the trip was are surprised by this which is sad.

  8. You’ve lived there many years, married to a Cuban, running businesses there, have your social network there, extended family. I’ve been 5 times, engaged to a Cuban and living in Tampa, and already feel that way.

    Something(s) about Cuba and Cuban culture and people just get in your blood. Why fight it? (not that you are, and me I’m just rolling with the flow). In many ways I’d be considered as United States-ian as they come (and in some ways, probably not), but I’m feeling that pull, like a rip tide.

    As someone else astutely observed… if one can become a Cuban-American, why not an American-Cuban??? All of the above!

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