In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: I am Cuban and American — y más

S omos cubanos y punto.” We, those in exile and on the island, are all Cubans — period.

With those reconciliatory words and many more that acknowledged the worth, strength and dignity — yes, dignity, the quality most stripped from us by our enemies and detractors, and regretfully sometimes, by our own hand — Yoani Sánchez soothed our cherished exile wound, the loss of our native country.

The celebrated 37-year-old writer read heartfelt words and answered questions with a calibrated mix of candor and (perhaps necessary) evasiveness at the Freedom Tower — for so many in my generation “El Refugio.” For me, it was the place where on the bright autumn day in 1969 when I arrived from Cuba, a bewildered 10-year-old sad to leave loved ones behind, I was shown kindness in a gift from American volunteers, a sweet homemade ragdoll.

The tower where Cuban refugees were once processed and, earlier, The Miami News published set the tone for a day that measured not only our own but Miami’s maturity as Sánchez addressed a joyous and multigenerational crowd, mostly Cuban but with notable local non-Cubans in attendance.

Her audience included historic figures like Huber Matos, a commander in the early days of the Cuban Revolution who was sent to prison when he voiced disagreement with Fidel Castro’s totalitarian turn, and a group of Brigade 2506 veterans of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, one of the first efforts to oust Castro.

In times when skepticism would have been the safer route, the respect and encouragement with which Matos and Brigade veterans treated Sánchez, who holds policy views opposite to theirs, elevated the gathering. I was moved by their presence and applause — and later, during a press conference, by the sight of the elder Matos walking up to the stage to meet Sánchez, who broke from protocol to greet him.

In the packed, stately hall also was the new Cuban Miami, personified in Sánchez’s pharmacist sister and historian brother-in-law, who emigrated two years ago, as well as a mosaic of other recent arrivals, some of them so emotion-filled with Sánchez’s sharp criticism of the Cuban government that they shouted, “ ¡Yoani, la presidenta!

It’s not that there was on this Monday afternoon that elusive so-called unity — a concept that sounds idyllic on paper, but in practical terms requires some people to conform to the opinions of others. It’s that what reigned was pluralism — a variety of experiences and beliefs embodied in people of different generations not only in age, but journeys — and despite some grumblings of displeasure (we still haven’t learned that journalists in a free society ask hard questions and we’re the better for it), there was respect for different points of view.

We, those in exile and on the island, are all Cubans — period.

Words and thoughts that the agile blogger and Twitter maven said she had pondered for most of her life, but hadn’t put on paper until her Miami presentation loomed near.

Words that flowed with ease after a visit to La Ermita de la Caridad, the shrine to Cuba’s patron saint built with exile donations and flanked by an oceanfront seawall reminiscent of Havana’s, and after encounters such as her meeting with singer/composer Willy Chirino, who has chronicled the aches and glories of exile in festive salsa tunes.

“Our diaspora, our exile, is conserving Cuba outside of Cuba,” she wrote. “. . . I’m rediscovering my own country in each of these Cubans dispersed around the world.

“When I confirm what they have really accomplished, the contrast with what official propaganda tells me about them leaves me with an enormous sadness for my country. For all this human wealth that we have lost, for all this talent that has had to wash up outside our borders and for all the seeds that have germinated in other lands.

“How did we allow one ideology, one party, one man, to have felt the ‘divine’ power to decide who could or could not carry the adjective ‘Cuban’ ”?

I love the spirit of her inclusive words and admire the courage it took — for a person who will be returning to Cuba — to say them.

But my identity has never been defined by the Cuban government, nor by its decrees, and certainly won’t now with its weak reforms.

Despite our never-ending exile, or perhaps because of it, I am Cuban and will die Cuban. A piece of Cuba, the real and the mythological, indeed came with us in our metaphorical luggage, and every exodus brought another layer of the island to me.

But I’m not a “Cuban — period.”

My identity embraces the expanded family I now have, the country where I’ve lived most of my life, the city where I belong. My dead are buried here. My children and grandchildren were born in this land I love as dearly as Cuba.

I am Cuban, but I am also American, and my Americanness is both refuge and shield against the fanaticism that put a country’s fate in one man’s hands for five decades and counting.

It’s an added part that doesn’t lessen the Cuban but pays tribute to that day in October at El Refugio and to the safe haven my parents built when they made that fateful, heart-wrenching decision to pluck their children from a society ruled by dogma to give them what Jose Martí described as “roots and wings.”

No end points for me.

Somos cubanos y más.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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