Hands shaking…holding back tears…acting as if it weren’t breaking me apart… I said good-bye with tears falling down my cheeks and walked through the doors, not looking back.
They were the doors that would forever separate me from my family. The doors that made it impossible for my grandparents to see me grow up and graduate with honors from high school. The doors that took me away from my three closest cousins, Javier, Joan and Yoandi.
While I was waiting for my flight with my parents and sister Leirys, my mind drifted and I began to wonder why my mother Mirian and father Erick had decided to leave everything behind to start all over in a new country. I could not comprehend why they did not stay with the rest of our family.
The more I thought about it, the less it all made any sense and the more aggravated I became with Mirian and Erick. My parents had never told me the reasons behind moving. What 9-year-old child could ever understand that there was no hope for anyone in their country? How could my parents explain to me that they were leaving because it was the best decision for everyone?
“Mami, why must we leave?”
“Leimys, please, try to understand. We are only doing this so that you and your sister can have a better future.”
“But why? I was fine here with everyone.”
“Trust your parents, Leimys. One day you will understand.”
“No, I will never understand.”
I left Cuba in November 2003 after my family won the visa lottery — the random selection of legal U.S. entry visas granted to Cubans on the island each year.
In Miami, one of our father’s cousins, Nico, waited for us at the airport. Nico welcomed my family into his humble home. He gave us shelter, food, and transportation for three months. My father was very independent and did not like taking advantage of anyone so he decided that it was time to move out after three months.
During this time, I struggled because I couldn’t adjust to all the new changes. I had lived all my life in a place where everyone was family, in the sense that they all helped each other.
My mom enrolled me in elementary school as soon as she could to help me make new friends. Unfortunately, this did the very opposite. I began with a teacher who knew not even a single word in Spanish. The teacher would ask the other students to translate for me but they were cruel and would tell the teacher horrible things about me. They would also make fun of her for not knowing the language. I isolated myself little by little in school.
“Si, mi niña…”
“I don’t want to go back to school. No one likes me and they are always making fun of me.”
“That can’t be true, sweetheart, they like you. It’s just that they have a different way of showing it.”
The years passed by, and I was now in eighth grade. I was able to understand why my parents made the decision they did and why they sacrificed their lives for my sister and me. I saw that we both had futures in the land of opportunities, while our cousins and friends were unable to better themselves.
Back in our country, the situation had worsened. The majority of the teenagers were dropping out of school to find a job and help at home. I couldn’t help but think that would have been our case if our family had stayed. I couldn’t believe that my cousins would never have the opportunity to attend college.
Although I was very proud of my heritage, I was ashamed to talk about how Fidel Castro left families to die of hunger; how he took their belongings, ripped their freedom from their hands, and separated families forever. I was torn between the culture I once left behind and the new one she was part of. I was growing up with two cultures.
It was difficult for me to adopt the ways and beliefs of the United States because I felt I was betraying my family in Cuba. Visiting my country after nine years confused me more. It was as if I were being pulled by opposite sides.
When I was a baby, I was always with someone related to me, and now I couldn’t accept the fact that people in the United States did not see each other as often. I never considered myself American because I was not born in the United States. Whenever I was asked where I was from my answer was always the same, Cuba.
But this changed after my first visit back. I’ve come to realize I’m part of the American culture and the Cuban culture because I’ve been raised by both. Ever after, when I’m asked where I was from, I say Cuba and the United States.
After living with the separation from my family, I wanted everyone to move to the United States. I embarked on a long journey that consisted of raising funds in order to claim my close family members — my grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins.
I wanted to give them the opportunity to have the “American Dream,” as my parents had given me when I was a child. I believed my cousins had the right to receive an education and aspire to be someone in the future, something they couldn’t even think about back in Cuba.