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Essay 5: Dumbo, The Lion King &
Disney Movies [#52essays2017]

This essay is part of the #52essays2017 series focusing on my memoir, Moscow Chica: How Growing Up in Cuba and Russia Made Me an American. For more, please follow this publication and subscribe to my newsletter.

In our last year living in Moscow, my parents, baby brother, and I all lived together in a studio apartment.

I don’t remember much about that time – we weren’t there for very long – but I know that it was cozy and comfortable. The studio was huge, with a separate hallway and closet area, a big kitchen and all the love I needed as a seven year old.

And of course, our little studio had a separate living room area with its own little television set.

Until a few years ago, when the U.S.S.R. finally fell, I had no idea what a Disney movie was. But soon enough, there was a high shelf above that TV that housed a pretty robust collection of Russian-dubbed Disney VHS movies that my dad was always bringing home for us. To me, it felt like we had everything.

The Little Mermaid was by far my favorite, but my little brother favored Dumbo. I know that because I watched the movie alongside him every single day for months.

My abuela visited from Cuba at some point, and she happily watched Dumbo alongside us every day. Noly just couldn’t seem to get enough of the happy little elephant movie.

He was only two years old at the time, and I wonder how much of it he actually understood. Even I, five years older than him, didn’t understand much. I knew that the elephant was born with a strange condition (giant ears) and I knew that he suffered greatly when he was separated from his mother. But he got a happy ending after all.

And that’s what I depended on: Dumbo’s happy ending.

Ariel got a happy ending too, in fact. She longed so much to get out of the ocean, to live life the way she wanted to, and to simply be free. I longed for freedom, even if I didn’t know what that meant at the time.

Eventually, after my family moved to America, we started a brand-new Disney movie collection. All still on VHS, of course.

The new collection began with The Lion King. My family moved to the states the same year as that movie came out and, although I never saw it in theaters as many of my friends did, I did have it on video.

Once again, I watched the movie in awe.

The way that Simba sought a similar freedom as Ariel, away from his father and to be his own man (or lion, anyway). And after a long and arduous journey, just as Dumbo, he got his happy ending too.

The bright colors of the movie in my new language, which I was quickly picking up, thrilled me. And soon enough, our new American VHS collection was back to the robust nature as the one we originally had back in that little apartment in Moscow.

While VHS tapes are no longer a part of our lives, Disney has remained a part of mine. When I was young, they promised me a better world – and my parents delivered.

Now, whenever I admire the Disney collection I have build up for myself in DVDs, I remember that little girl who wanted freedom and a better life. I remember watching Dumbo over and over again until I thought my head would explore, and I appreciate it. I smile at the memories of discovering The Lion King, our first movie in English. And it gives me joy to see all of the ones I’ve fallen in love with since.

In the meantime, Disney will always have a special place in my heart for teaching me about life in many languages. And, of course, for giving me joy in darkness and hope where there wasn’t any to start with. Hopefully my kids, who will never know that tiny Moscow apartment shared by four people, will someday appreciate them as much as I did.

This essay is part of the #52essays2017 series focusing on my upcoming memoir, Moscow Chica: How Growing Up in Cuba and Russia Made Me an American (currently seeking representation). Want more? Subscribe to my newsletter to get writing news and updates on my memoir. Then follow my similarly-named Medium publication and find me on FacebookTwitterInstagram Pinterest!

(Image via Rhys A./flickr)

January 2017 Writer’s Life: Published pieces, money talk, pitches & more [#yearofwriting]

At the start of the year, I wrote about the 7 fearless things I am doing for my career in 2017 and exactly why I am signing up for the #52essays2017 challenge. I also committed to making 2017 my #yearofwriting… my theme for the year, if you will.

I’ve had a few small successes here and there: Mainly that I am now officially a contributor at Mom.me (yay!) and am getting serious about working on my memoir, Moscow Chica: How Growing Up Cuban and Russian Made Me an American.

But I also wanted to talk about what a writer’s life is really like… Mainly, I wanted to talk about the solid numbers.

So here’s the deal: Starting this month, I am going to get real and tell the truth about how my freelancing has gone this month. I’ll talk about what went well, what didn’t and what it all meant. So here goes!

What was published: 

Some of these pieces were written before this month, and some were written more recently. Obviously, all of my Mom.me work is news stories and the repeal of “wet foot, dry foot” was recent too. But all in all, I also wanted to show what freelancing I did. Other than my part-time food editor job at Brit.co, here are the solid numbers:

How much I wrote: 16,475 words

How much I made: $1725*

*I am including two pieces that were accepted on spec (meaning that the editor wanted to see a full draft before they could finally say “yes”) that have been submitted but I haven’t officially heard back on. Also: This ONLY includes my freelance writing income.

Besides that, there’s also pitching… It’s what us writer have to do in order to write, yes? This month has been by FAR my most successful month of pitching and reaching out to new editors. To be honest, in 2016 I was feeling pretty cushy with my PT food editor gig and my contributing writer roles, and never looked to expand my resume.

Well, one of the things that I am doing for my writing career in 2017 is that I hired a writing coach. Her name is Mridu Khullar Relph and she runs TheInternationalFreelancer.com, and is basically FANTASTIC. The truth is that I needed a big kick to get my career to the next level, which is precisely why I hired her. It’s gone incredibly well so far! Here’s all of the numbers:

Pitches sent out in January: 27
Pitch rejections: 9
Pitch non-replies: 12
Pitch acceptances: 4
Pitch acceptances on spec: 2

Follow-ups with previous pitches: 5
Pitch rejections: 1
Pitch non-replies: 1
Pitch acceptances: 1
Pitch acceptances on spec: 2

I admit: The 27 pitches isn’t an exact number, primarily because one pitch went out on 6 simultaneous submissions and a couple of editors received more than one pitch from me in one email. But that’s basically it.

To be honest, considering that this is the FIRST month of my #yearofwriting and also the first year that I have been seriously going out there and pitching editors, I am feeling pretty good.

The one lesson I learned, for sure, is that there comes a time when you just have to get out there and do it. And I’m happy that I’m finally doing that!

How did your 2017 start? What lesson did you learn in January that you’ll be taking with you for the rest of the year?

Want more? Subscribe to my newsletter to get writing news and updates on my memoir (Moscow Chica). Then follow my official Facebook writer page and find me on TwitterInstagram Pinterest!

Essay 4: My Grandfather is Santa Claus [#52essays2017]

This essay is part of the #52essays2017 series focusing on my memoir, Moscow Chica: How Growing Up in Cuba and Russia Made Me an American. For more, please follow this publication and subscribe to my newsletter.

It was my last New Year’s Eve in Russia when I realized that Santa Claus was not real.

I remember it clearly: The snow was coming down, and coming down hard. In Russia at the time (I don’t know about now), we didn’t celebrate Christmas because the U.S.S.R., as a communist state, was officially atheist. And while the state had dissolved by December 1993, the traditions remained.

We celebrated the holidays by celebrating New Year’s, but with all of the decorations of Christmas. There was a tree, there were twinkling lights, there was lots of food and family, and there was, for us little ones, Santa Claus bringing presents at midnight.

I remember December 31, 1993 so clearly because of one reason: My grandfather coming in from the cold, covered in snow.

A lifetime smoker, he had made the usual excuse to go outside, despite the fact that the snow was not stopping anytime soon. Mom wouldn’t let me outside.

But then, just as dedushka came in after his nightly smoke, the snow started to let up just a little bit and he let out one simple phrase: “I think I saw something outside.”

Immediately intrigued – and with the clear indication that this “something” may indeed have been Ded Moroz (an old slavic term for “Grandfather Frost”, aka our version of Father Christmas or der Weihnachtsmann) – me and my little brother rushed to the narrow but tall window in my grandparent’s house entry hallway. It was the only place where we could look and clearly see the entire path from two-story house to the green fence and gate that stood at the end of the walkway.

“There’s something there!” I shouted.

And indeed, there was. After mom insisted on dressing her two impatient children in our full winter outfits, the whole family rushed to see what Santa Claus had brought us.

I honestly don’t remember what I got that year. All I remember is that, at the end of that walkway, there was a big plastic toy train for my little brother, and it was filled with other toys for the both of us. Excited, we kneeled down to play right away – but mom wasn’t having it.

Because of the cold and snow, we were dragged kicking and screaming back to the warming comfort of the house. The toys came with us, of course.

I don’t remember how much time went by in between dedushka coming back into the house to tell us Santa Claus had come or us being back after collecting our presents, but I do remember the yowling coming out of my baby brother’s mouth for the next hour.

It was clear what he wanted: He wanted to go back outside and play with his train.

As I undressed in the kitchen and got ready to play with my own toys, all Noly wanted was to go outside. Over and over again, he tried to put his hat back on after mom took it off, indicating that it was now time to be indoors. But my stubborn little 2-year-old brother just kept trying.

Of course, being a child, he couldn’t quite master how to put his hat back on, and so he cried and begged for help so that he could go play with his train outside.

Meanwhile, I watched. I watched as my baby brother tried to go back to the snow to enjoy his new toy, and I watched suspiciously as everyone gathered around us kids and our presents.

The truth is, for the past hour or so, I’ve been thinking about something other than my new toys: I’ve been thinking about Santa Claus.

Being a curious and perhaps a precocious child, I found it incredibly suspicious that my grandfather happened to be outside just before Santa came to drop off our presents. Why hadn’t he stood under the roof of the patio to smoke, but instead his coat was wet from the snow?

That’s when, for the first time, I realized that Santa wasn’t real. That Ded Moroz was actually my grandfather, who had snuck out of the house and placed all of our gifts under the glowing lantern at the end of the walkway. There was simply no other explanation for it.

In my head, I questioned the situation and simply didn’t know what else could have been possible. It was clear.

Somehow, at the same time that I knew my grandfather had really been the one to deliver our New Year’s presents that year, I knew that it must have been this way every other year too. I knew that this must happen in every family, really… That there was no magical being that brought us something from the sky, but rather our families.

And yet, as I looked at my own family happily celebrating the start of the new year – the year that would soon take my parents, brother and I to America – I was happy.

Although I didn’t yet know what the next year’s changes would bring, being with my family and seeing the love that surrounded us – including my poor dedushka suffering in the cold and snow to surprise his grandkids – made me smile.

As my baby brother tried (and failed) again to put on his hat, I settled happily back in the living room near the glistening tree. It might be one of the last times that I saw snow for many, many years but, thankfully, it was not the last time that I saw love and wonder… And maybe even a little “Christmas” magic, too.

This essay is part of the #52essays2017 series focusing on my upcoming memoir, Moscow Chica: How Growing Up in Cuba and Russia Made Me an American (currently seeking representation). Want more? Subscribe to my newsletter to get writing news and updates on my memoir. Then follow my similarly-named Medium publication and find me on FacebookTwitterInstagram Pinterest!

(Image via Gustav Klim/flickr)

Essay 3: McDonald’s in Moscow [#52essays2017]

This essay is part of the #52essays2017 series focusing on my memoir, Moscow Chica: How Growing Up in Cuba and Russia Made Me an American. For more, please follow this publication and subscribe to my newsletter.

On January 31st, 1990, the first-ever McDonald’s opened in Moscow.

At the time, life in the U.S.S.R. was difficult. I was almost four years old and my family had recently moved back from Cuba – a country which somehow was doing even worse.

My parents, both holding a master’s in engineering, couldn’t find jobs in their fields. But we survived and tried to make the best of it. At least for me, as a child, I never knew how badly we were really doing.

I was never wanting for anything or going hungry. And, in fact, I remember sitting on my father’s shoulders as we stood in the hours-long line when that first McDonald’s opened in Moscow. It was cold, but the crowd was excited.

I remember feeling exhilarated as we waited for our burgers and fries, even though I didn’t then understand the meaning of it all.

The line was so long, but we finally made it in. The McDonald’s signs were so bright. I remember not understanding what anything meant, but my dad ordered me a cheeseburger anyway. I can only imagine, now, that it’s because what he had always heard about in his native Cuba – the American “burger” as it were.

There were no Big Macs in our future. We were a cheeseburger family from that very first visit.

Like my family, everyone in line was enthusiastic. I don’t know if the Russian people yet knew that this symbol of capitalism would, less than two years later, mean the end of the Soviet Union. But we all knew that changes was on its way. You could feel it in the air the same way you felt the cold frost on your face.

Hope was coming.

As a child, I didn’t have much of a context as to what that meant. I knew things for my family weren’t easy. I knew that my parents struggled. But I also knew that I was happy.

That first cheeseburger in my hands was exciting. I didn’t know what it meant or what it would taste like, but I wasn’t disappointed. Who would be?

As the Russian people tasted capitalism for the very first time, I tasted the American Dream.

Four years later, I got my dream.

Just a few days after landing in the U.S., I was playing in a McDonald’s in Miami. Although our circumstances at the time were difficult (we lived in a hotel while our political asylum paperwork went through), I remember feeling utter joy as my younger brother and I crawled, jumped and slid all around that playhouse.

It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.

The bright colors that I remembered from that first visit to the McDonald’s in Moscow were all there: Yellows, oranges, reds, greens, blues and purples. The burgers, once more, tasted like freedom.

This time, I was eight years old and I understood a little more: We had come to America.

My parents had brought me to America in search of a better life. As I lay on top of that pit full of color balls while my little brother dove in and out of the mess, I knew they were right to move us here.

The best part? That first bite of cheeseburger on American soil tasted just as good as that first bite on top of my father’s shoulders back in Moscow.

This essay is part of the #52essays2017 series focusing on my upcoming memoir, Moscow Chica: How Growing Up in Cuba and Russia Made Me an American (currently seeking representation). Want more? Subscribe to my newsletter to get writing news and updates on my memoir. Then follow my similarly-named Medium publication and find me on FacebookTwitterInstagram Pinterest!

(Image via Daniel Kruczynski/flickr)

What I learned about Latinos (and myself) when I moved out of Florida

Note: This is 3 of 3 essays that was written for and published on The Flama last year. However, the site has since shut down (mostly) and my essay has disappeared… But the internet gods allowed me to find it in its entirety, so I am re-posting it here since a) it was fun to write & b) I live in Florida again and it’s… well, different. Enjoy!

I was 17 years old when I first made real friends with another person of Hispanic heritage, and in my early 20s when I made friends with another Latina.

That might come as a surprise, but the truth is that it took me a really long time to realize that not all Latinos share everything in common. An embarrassingly long time, actually.

My family moved to Miami, Florida, when I was just eight years old. I didn’t know much about the world, but like all kids what I knew came directly from my parents. Living in Little Havana, and later in Southwest Florida, the only Latinos I got to know were the other Cubans that were friends with my parents.

If you came to my house growing up, you’d probably find me snacking on guayaba y queso crema on crackers, helping my mom clean while Celia Cruz played in the background or yelling at the top of my lungs for my little brother to come over.

“I’m not yelling, I’m just Cuban!” was the motto of the house, and one that I had to gently explain to any friends that came over for dinner. No, really, we can’t talk any quieter. Sorry.

But for all of the things I loved about my family and culture, I never quite connected to other Cubans on a deeper level. Sure, we all enjoyed La Caja China for Christmas and cortaditos are a way of life, but the Cubans I knew were mostly papi’s friends and they, like my dad, were a bit machista. And Republican. And I didn’t understand why.

In my young experience, I was the only Cubanita I knew that was a proud Democrat who didn’t really love coffee (shhhhhhh!) and had a pretty huge aversion to the subtle racism and sexism spouted by some of the people who surrounded me. Somehow, I began to associate those traits with all Latinos.

It wasn’t until I met the whitest Cuban I’ll ever know, and the guy who quickly became by gay BFF, senior year of high school that I started to suspect I wasn’t the only one.

The next year, I moved to New York City for school… and things quickly started to change.

I started to meet other kinds of Latinos. Latinos who spoke Portuguese (thank you, Brazil!) and who didn’t have a Virgen de Cardidad del Cobre statue in their home. Latinos who loved spicy food and introduced me to tacos. Latinos who were second or third generation and those whose Spanish sounds a little different from my own. Seriously, what’s with this órale business?

In New York, I was able to meet Latinos who were fellow feminists, who introduced me to bachata and who argued with me about why tequila is superior to rum (as if!). Slowly but surely, I learned the differences between mangú, fufú and mofongo.

Most of all, I started to meet Latinos who were my age and who shared my open mindedness and values when it came to politics, and life in general.

It’s no surprise to me that the two Cuban presidential candidates for 2016 are Republicans, but it’s a fact that I honestly kind of hate. They remind me of the Latinos I grew up with in Florida, and not the diverse group of pro-gay rights, pro-women’s rights and pro-immigration Latinos who I am proud to call my friends today.

When I go back to Florida now, after almost twelve years of living in New York City, it feels as if I am stepping back into my youth. I’ve found new things to appreciate about the state now, like the occasional fun-filled visit to South Beach or having a truly authentic cubano sandwich that I can’t find anywhere else, but it still doesn’t feel like home. It never did.

Thankfully, some of my parent’s views on politics have changed. But my papi will never stop supporting Rubio and I’ll never stop hating his conservative politics.

Instead, I consider myself pretty darn lucky to live in a city where I can interact with all kinds of different Latinos. Some that grew up religious, and some that didn’t. Some that are a little conservative, but most that are socially liberal. In fact, Latinos tend to lean a little more to the left on issues like abortion and homosexuality – especially when they’re second or third generation. As a bisexual Latina myself, this is a pretty important distinction.

And so, while visiting Florida isn’t as much of a pain as it was when I lived there, I’m glad to have grown up in FL if only because the Latinos I met helped me to realize who I am and who I’m not. And the Latinos I’ve met since have given me a better sense of community and pride than I ever could have hoped for growing up.

Want more? Subscribe to my newsletter to get writing news and updates on my memoir (Moscow Chica). Then follow my official Facebook writer page and find me on TwitterInstagram Pinterest!

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