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.

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Author: Irina Gonzalez

Freelance Writer & Editor | I am a Moscow Chica: Half-Russian, Half-Cuban, All-American.

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