Have we forgotten how to honor the humanity among us? Don’t we all want the same thing? 
be cuban-american craving cuba
The author in Cuba. Photo: Zuzy Martin-Aly

As I’m sure you know, all Cubans – those in Cuba and those of us over here, the Cuban-Americans – are experiencing a great deal of emotion right now. In Cuba, we have seen an unprecedented and rare demonstration of protests coming from the Cuban people since July 11, namely branded #SOSCuba. 

This was something previously reserved for only the bravest artists and activists, called dissidents – who would knowingly risk getting beat up, jailed or much worse, if they would ever publicly express discontent against the government. But what is happening now is different. We have seen mass demonstrations across the entire island, seemingly uncoordinated, yet unified in voice. “Libertad,” they chant. Libertad

This singular word says it all. 

That fact that I’m worried about how people will receive this, simply reconfirms my upbringing as a good little Cuban girl from Elizabeth, NJ who was taught to worry about what people think.

For those of us around the world with Cuban blood – whether we arrived 60 years ago, last year, have never seen Cuba, are Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Independent – a rush of buried emotion has surfaced for us like never before.

be cuban-american craving cuba
A man displays a Cuban and US flag in Havana in 2017. Photo: Zuzy Martin-Aly

Unexpected Unity

Although predominantly Republican in the 80s, today’s political preferences run more along the lines of a 60/40 split with a growing number of us identifying as Independents. This shift in political preference has unfortunately polarized many Cubans, similar to the dynamics seen with non-Cubans around the country. But what is happening right now is highlighting a strong, unified voice in support of Cubans on the island brave enough to express themselves. This unity has been unexpected (and refreshing) because in recent years, the Cuban-American population has become more and more politically divided here in the US.  

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It was even surprising to catch a glimpse of a casually dressed and focused Marco Rubio during an interview with Enrique Santos speaking in a cordial (and perhaps hopeful) tone about a potential Biden Administration response. It was refreshing to watch because I, for one, believe in collaborating, negotiating and finding consensus in a room full of opposing views, something that has fallen out of fashion. But let me be clear:  I believe that Cuba’s future should be a sovereign one, decided by the Cuban people on the island, with the support of those of us elsewhere. The diaspora breathes with Cuba. Every day. We are speaking, raising our voices, writing and marching even if we were raised never to do so. 

to be cuban-american
The author’s abuela in Elizabeth, NJ. Photo: Zuzy Martin-Aly

Ten Mucho Cuidado (Be very careful)

While visiting my 89 year old Abuela this week, I asked her if she had spoken to her sister in Cuba about what’s been happening there.

Si, como no?” (“Yes, of course,” she says). 

So what did Tía say about the protests,” I asked? 

Ay no muchacha, de eso no se habla. Yo no le puedo preguntar de esas cosas. No, no, no.” (“Oh no! I can’t ask her about those things”, insinuating that people may be listening). 

We continued our conversation and I asked her if she felt anything would change in Cuba. 

Chacha! No va cambiar nada. Nada, nada, nada.” (“Nothing is going to change. Nothing, nothing, nothing”). 

There has always been a perception that Cuban-Americans were stuck up, thought they were better than other immigrants. Frankly, I hate this  and all stereotypes.

Many of my older relatives have no faith in anything changing. It’s as if they gave up a long time ago and because of that, nothing would ever change – ever. As with life and on a personal level, we all have the power to change, but it happens within and not because someone tells you to do so.

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The #SOSCuba protests and manifestations that have turned up the volume in Cuban-American households have brought many unexpected and shifting feelings with them. Hope, passion, pride, valor but also anger, sadness, confusion and the need to defend oneself against the unconscious bias that has been rearing its ugly little head.

cuba graffiti
¡Cuba! Photo: Zuzy Martin-Aly

Check Your Unconscious Bias

Even as I wrote this perspective, I wondered how to start it without triggering criticism and unconscious bias from those who do not fully understand the experience of the Cuban Diaspora. 

That fact that I’m worried about how people will receive this, simply reconfirms my upbringing as a good little Cuban girl from Elizabeth, NJ who was taught to worry about what people think.

What people may not realize is that this is a life-long issue that Cuban-Americans have experienced: an underlying animosity from some. For me, a typical encounter with it back in college occurred when I first met one of my best friends, who happened to be Puerto Rican. In the first few sentences after meeting, she asked where I was from. Of course, in New Jersey, this question was really asking about your heritage.

Despite never having stepped foot on the island back then, I would always say and feel, “I’m Cuban.” Her response: “Oh, you think you’re better than everyone!” I still remember feeling embarrassed. 

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How does one even respond to that? “Uh, no. Actually, I grew up going to Puerto Rico every summer. I learned how to swim there. Half my cousins are Puerto Rican” (explain, explain, explain, convince). There has always been a perception that Cuban-Americans were stuck up, thought they were better than other immigrants. Frankly, I hate this and all stereotypes. Even though it definitely describes three or four people in my family, it’s not fair and it sucks.

In recent years, the conversation has shifted to something worse. “Oh, you White Rich Cubans left Cuba for material reasons.” “But we arrived with nothing…my great-grandfather was mugged and murdered shortly after arriving, and my grandparents all worked in factories, my grandmother for 30 years, and my mother…” explain, explainit’s exhausting. 

Why does this happen? It’s not just with the Cubans that come over. I hear all types of immigrant populations, for a lack of better word, dissing each other. Is this because of the circumstances created by the lack of an updated immigration policy or is it a survival of the fittest thing? I’ll leave that for the experts, but this pins us against each other when we should all instead recognize the courage, hustle and determination that builds a tremendous work ethic among all of us. The immigrant mindset is one of survival, adaptation, growth and wisdom. Leaving one’s homeland does not equate to wanderlust. Anyone leaving and many times fleeing their country is doing so because they want to be safe, in body, mind and spirit.

Have we forgotten how to honor the humanity among us? Don’t we all want the same thing? 

Freedom.

This word is often loaded when it comes to Cuba. Why are skeptics so quick to judge any type of change in Cuba? Is this an ideological barrier they are not realizing themselves? While often criticizing Cuban-Americans for holding onto the nostalgia of Cuba’s past, do they not grasp onto their own type of nostalgia when it comes to Cuba – that of a modern Cuba, with friendly hosts, classic cars, cigars and a history of standing up to the Goliath? What if we used the word Choice or Opportunity instead of Freedom? Would that make it easier to understand? Whatever word is chosen, it is our right as humans to want to live our best lives, one where our basic needs are met and where we dare to dream of more. 

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Zuzy Martin-Aly is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Startup Cuba. She's an award-winning filmmaker, producer and writer with a passion for bringing voice to stories that need to be told. Zuzy’s family came to the Elizabeth, NJ from Cuba in the 1960s. Her award-winning documentary film, Craving Cuba, explores what it means to be American and the complicated relationship that Cuban Americans have historically had with Cuba. The documentary was accepted into 13 film festivals, winning awards for best documentary feature and editing. Zuzy often speaks across the country on the topic of identity. She was invited to speak at the United Nations about the importance of exploring identity and finding one’s voice through the power of independent film. She is working on several creative projects including recently co-creating Two Cuban Girls and a Bald Guy with StartupCuba and Verv.tv, a travel series with a focus on Latin America aimed at building bridges, breaking down stereotypes, and inspiring people across communities.

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