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.
(Image via Rhys A./flickr)