Gustavo PÉrez Firmat


Being American is for me a reverse inheritance, one that flows from the younger to the older generations, from children to parents. I gave Cuba to my kids, and they have reciprocated by giving me America. Partly by design, and partly by accident, we have reached a middle ground between assimilation and exile. As they grew up, so did I. But I didn’t grow away from Cuba, for I’m as Cuban now as I ever was. I’d rather say that I grew out of Cuba, that I learned to treat exile as something other than a disability. I haven’t raised my kids -- we have raised each other. Although they don’t know it, David and Miriam have given me the opportunity and the incentive to reach this place that I call home. If exiles can mire their children in nostalgia, the children of exiles can bring their parents into a new world.

For Cubans in this country, exile has been as much a spiritual legacy as a political status. Exile is our inheritance, like wealth or good looks. We’re not born in exile, we’re born into exile. By now, at least three generations of Cubans have regarded themselves in this way. I used to find it very difficult to accept that my children would grow up and away from my homeland, and I did everything possible to make sure that this wouldn’t happen. Since I was an exile, they had to be exiles too. For years after David and Miriam were born, the Cuban in me longed for the Cuban in them. I desperately needed them to be like me, to see the forests through my árbol-seeing eyes, to hear the clave rhythm in my soul. Never mind that I lived in Chapel Hill, a town with an insignificant Hispanic population, or that very early in their lives David and Miriam started addressing me sometimes as “Pop” rather than always as “Papi.” Instead of seeing my children as a bridge to the future, I saw them as a tether to the past.

As the years have gone by, however, I have come slowly to understand that I don’t need my children to be Cuban; I don’t need them to see the forests through my eyes or hear my rhythm in their souls. It’s enough that they understand and value my Cuban ways, enough that the place I come from is for them an everyday presence. I’d find it maddening if my children were deaf to my music, or numb to my nostalgia or hostile to my accent. But for them Cuba is a normal, predictable part of their lives, like a familiar aroma or a melody always at the edge of sound.

One afternoon recently Miriam came home from school talking about the geographical terms she had learned that day in Spanish class: continente, istmo, península, isla. I asked her: “Let me see how well you know these words. Tell me, Miriam, ¿Cuál es la isla más hermosa del mundo? “What’s the most beautiful island in the world?” She smiled, and without missing a beat replied, in her best Spanish accent, “Coo-bah.” That’s what she said -- not Cuba but Coo-bah, and she pronounced it that way for my benefit. My macho melted in a moment. Right then I could have been a scoop of mango ice cream puddling in the Havana sun. To me, one Coo-bah from Miriam is worth a thousand American words. The smile on her face as she fed me the answer I wanted to hear in the language I wanted to hear it, said to me, “I know you, Papi. I know you have all these crazy ideas and that you get moody and angry and sometimes you think that you don’t belong here. But you do belong, you belong right here in this house and Cuba belongs here too. See, I even know how to say it the way you do -- Coo-bah. There it is, Papi, my gift to you -- Coo-bah.”