Everything confused him, right down to the smallest things. Like the bathroom faucet at the airport, for example. How were all those people getting water from it? What did they know that he didn’t? He stared at the faucet, banging on it, backing away from it, watching others use it successfully. He finally left frustrated, without washing his hands. What did he know about sensors? Censors, he could tell you about. But sensors?
“In Cuba, nobody washes their hands,” he said. “There’s not even soap.”
He got reprimanded for throwing a gum wrapper in the street; he was used to just throwing litter wherever he wanted back home. He didn’t know how to turn on a computer. He wrote down phone numbers in a book, not knowing he could program them into his new phone. And high school kids laughed at him for all this, laughed so much that he didn’t know when they were laughing at him and when they weren’t, all of the laughter sounding the same. So he threw a kid against a fence for calling him Cubanito, not needing to hear anything else.
Fernández’s father, Ramón Jiménez — a jokester — told him at the restaurant that he could go up at the buffet and take as much as he wanted. Get out of here, José said, I’m not a sucker. I’m not falling for your tricks, Dad, and getting in trouble. He didn’t believe that there was any such thing as all you can eat, not when he came from nothing to eat. No, no, he told the waitress. I did not ask for that, and I will not pay for that. He didn’t know anything about free refills.
He could only afford to call his grandmother for three or four minutes at a time. He would skip class, where he didn’t understand a word, to go and cry in the woods. He spent nine hours one day sitting in his car by the beach, distraught after learning that his grandmother had again been denied a visa (she has been denied four times).
‘A LOT OF CRYING’
“I did a lot of crying that I didn’t show people,” he said. “I asked myself a lot, ‘What am I doing here?’ I didn’t feel like I belonged.”
Said his grandmother of those phone calls: “Don’t remind me of that please. That made me crazy. I didn’t know what was happening with him, and I didn’t know how to help him. We’d talk for just a few minutes, and he was not well. I don’t want to talk about that time please.”
Possible connectors with other students that could have crossed the language barrier: Fernández had no idea what video games even were, never mind how to play them.
“You know how I played in the streets in Cuba? Throwing rocks,” he said. “I spent my days picking tomatoes and onions and selling them door to door. I would make a lot of money. Four dollars. That’s a lot of money over there. I was really, really poor. But compared to others? Not so poor. I’d walk the 30 minutes to and from the stadium on the street in my cleats because I had only one other pair of shoes, and I didn’t want to ruin my going-out shoes.”
He sat in a high school class and took the FCAT. Or tried. And failed. He didn’t know any of the words, going through a dictionary one by one. Imagine taking a test that way.