Sitting at lunch, having some soup in a neighborhood Thai place, hoping for a quiet respite from my hectic day, I hear Spanish being spoken.
And it is not just Spanish, it is cuban Spanish. It is a dialect, accent and inflection that I would recognize anywhere for it is ingrained into my bloodstream.
It is the voice of my people – with their boisterous, bombastic hyperbole in their stories – it is the voice of casa to me.
The two woman are immersed in a conversation so fired and rapid that I could imagine how difficult it must be for those who don’t understand to keep up with the dialogue. The Thai waitress and her boss are engaged in a similar conversation, but never as dynamic as the two cubanas.
Hands are flying, voices are rising beyond acceptable decibel levels for a public place and meanwhile I chuckle to myself as our not-so-young-anymore exile still manages to surface in obscure little places – this time in an out-of-the-way restaurant where there is not a black bean or chicharron in sight.
But I’m here too, so this provincial thinking on my part is unacceptable (blame it on my laid back, small island in the Caribbean background). I am part of the group. I speak with the dialect, the accent and the inflection. I am boisterous, bombastic and pepper my conversations with hyperbolic tales as well. I am a member of this exile.
In summary, I am cuban too.
So here we are, three cuban, Spanish-speaking people in an establishment so far away from Miami that I have found the coincidence odd.
But is it?
Have we not expanded our horizons and our footprint to walk in all avenues of life?
Are we conforming and becoming the scattered exile?
Are we assimilating so quickly that we will soon define ourselves as cultural ‘hyphenates’ who add the word American to their nationality in an effort to find definition to a hybrid culture that is perhaps undefinable?
And by embracing our American upbringing, are we giving up our heritage or are we enriching the diversity that makes us who we are as a people – free people unchained from mother country in the home of the land of the free?
Have we finally folded into the melting pot we so valiantly tried to avoid by bringing our culture and ways into the streets of Little Havana and Bergenline Avenue? Can cafe-con-leche exist in the same venue as a double-shot-skinny-mocha latte? Is adding skim milk to my coffee concoction going to make it un cortadito flaco?
Are we fading into self-imposed obscurity as we conform to the norms of a diaspora that has lived more in America than they ever lived in Cuba?
What are we going to tell our non-Spanish-speaking children about their heritage and about the homeland, a homeland for which I have no recollection in my almost fifty-year-old memory banks?
The answer to my question comes quickly as a teenager walks into the restaurant and says, ‘Hi Mami’ and plants a peck on the cheek of the Cuban woman who I am now assuming is his mother.
The kid joins the conversation and he too is speaking in the dialect, accent and inflection so easily recognizable in my people. The kid also speaks perfect English too, as does his mother and her friend, traveling the inevitable world of Spanglish as their conversation progresses.
And yes, I am eavesdropping.
While the soup should be giving me comfort due to its warm broth and fragrant aroma, I am finding more comfort knowing that a piece of my cultural history is unfolding before me at this restaurant.
Assimilation, naturalization, repatriation and hyphenation aside, they will never take that away from me…
…or from the two ladies and the kid who don’t know that I am one of them.