Essay 6: The Dream of a Convertible Car [#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.

When my family moved to America in 1994, everything seemed great. Until it wasn’t.

About a year after we came here, my parents separated and divorced. And although they were back together a year later, remarried and happier than ever, that year living in Miami without my dad was (mostly) scary.

But that year had its happier moments too, like how the best Christmas ever was surprisingly spent in a women’s shelter and the little apartment we lived in shortly after. That apartment brought me a lot of happy memories, including my memory of the first adult desire I truly had.

A red Firebird convertible.

That is the only thing that I remember about the billboard advertisement that I saw every day on my way home from school during this year. And it was thrilling.

The car depicted in the poster was beautiful and sexy and it signified a kind of freedom that I didn’t yet understand at the age of nine, but I knew that I wanted it.

The attractive couple sitting in the driver and passenger seats didn’t hurt either, and I longed for when I could have the kind of freedom and happiness that they had clearly tasted.

I honestly can’t remember anything else about that bus ride home, but I remember that billboard. I don’t know who I sat next to on the bus (I didn’t have friends at that school) or how long it took. I don’t even truly remember what time of the year it was or how I noticed this particular photo in the first place, but once I had… I couldn’t take my mind off of it.

The lifestyle promised in this one advertisement seemed like everything I wanted at the time, and everything I have wanted since. It signified success and the power to do anything you wanted to do. I dreamt of the day that I would have those things too.

For years afterward, I always held the wish that someday I would own a red Firebird convertible.

It was the first car that I ever wanted, and the only car that truly appealed to my kid and teenage self. It had to be that car, in red and as a convertible. Something about that entire image meant so much to me that it wasn’t until recently that I started to slowly decipher it all.

Even though I am no longer that scared little 9-year-old girl, new to America, still learning English, with a turbulent home life and no reassurance as to what this world may bring… I am still sometimes unsure of myself, unsure of the world, unsure of the path in front of me. Sometimes I long for the kind of knowledge that little Irina had, the knowledge that having a car like that would mean that I was something special.

It’s probably no surprise, then, that I have never been able to get the idea of that car out of my head. Although I’ve long since moved on from that specific make and model, the color red has always held a special place in my heart.

Red was my favorite color long before this poster, and it’s remained my favorite color for cars – and now for lipstick.

Convertibles have remained a mystery, something I secretly wanted, a symbol of fun and freedom. I was thrilled when my uncle got one a few years ago, and although I had settled on possibly never owning a car because of my love of living in cities with great public transportation, I knew that I would definitely want one if the chance ever presented itself.

Recently, as I readjusted my post-NYC life and settled back in Florida, I contemplated getting a car (and ultimately decided not to). But the thought kept popping up in my mind, and I knew that my new dream was a little red Mini Cooper.

The model may have changed, but the color stayed the same. It was a dream, though, and I never thought it would actually happen.

And then, to my surprise, an opportunity came up.

Adam and I had talked about our need for a second car eventually, and the idea of a convertible came up. I insisted that if we were to get a second car (that I would use), it should be a convertible.

“After all,” I reasoned, “since I work from home and will probably only use it a couple times during the week and on weekends, we may as well make it a fun car, right?” To me, a convertible was the ultimate fun car.

When the unexpected opportunity came up to get a Mini Cooper convertible, I practically jumped at the chance. In fact, getting that car was as much of a spontaneous decision as you could possibly make in the purchase of a vehicle. We heard about it in the morning, and by that same afternoon, it was all mine.

Now my little convertible baby sits in the driveway and gives me immense pleasure whenever I have the chance to take her out with the top down.

Granted she’s not the bright red color that I had always wanted – but that’s okay too. She’s a British racing green and I love that so very much. Maybe it’s not the color I envisioned, but it’s definitely the spirit.

That little girl that used to ride the bus every day to an uncertain future surely has something a little more certain now. If nothing else, my desire for that first red Firebird convertible has influenced the way I view success and some of the things I want in my life.

While my tastes in cars have grown (and maybe not by much), I still find myself surprised by how much that one billboard changed my life. When we’re young, we want things so far out of our reach that we don’t actually think we will ever get there. It’s nice to know that, now, I can actually attain some of those things.

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(Image via Chad Horwedel/flickr)

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.

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(Image via Rhys A./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.

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(Image via Daniel Kruczynski/flickr)

Essay 2: The Double Commie [#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.

I had this “friend” in middle and high school who used to love to make fun of my heritage.

Year after year, the words “double commie” came out of his mouth whenever he talked to me, whenever he described me, whenever he talked about who I am.

I’m sure it started out innocently enough, but I honestly don’t remember. It was his own little joke about me and constantly said with humor in his voice. I’m sure he didn’t intend to be mean, but I realize now that his words were hurtful.

Growing up, I was always a little confused about my heritage.

I was born in Moscow to a Russian mother and a Cuban father. We lived there for most of my life, had a brief stint in Havana when I was 2-3 years old, and finally settled in the U.S. shortly after my 8th birthday.

I was closer to my mom, so I always considered myself a little more Russian than Cuban (but that’s a whole other story). And then you add in the American, and my brain has always been a jumbled mess of identity.

Being called a “double communist” throughout my youth was extra confusing, to be honest.

I understood what he meant: My parents met because of communism.

There is no other period in the history of the world where a Russian woman and a Cuban man, being born 5,953 miles away from each other, would have so easily come into contact. But when people hear about my background and ask how my parents met, the story is simple: They met in college.

Sure, their college was in the U.S.S.R. in the 80s and my dad was only there because Cuba was (and continues to be, sort of?) communist too. But neither of my parents were part of the Communist Party. In fact, they embraced the ideals of capitalism the minute we came to America.

So when that guy friend teased me about being a “double commie”, I didn’t really know how to respond. How, exactly, did being born under my circumstances transform me into a communist?

The simple impossible math aside (how exactly did half and half make two?), it took years before I realized how much the comment stung. I didn’t want to be seen as a communist and I didn’t want to be seen as an “other” anymore.

But that’s exactly what the comment meant. It was meant to draw a clear and distinct line between myself and everyone else at school.

I was the different one. Forget the fact that I spoke English as well as anyone else (hello, I’m a writer now, see?!) or that I had an American passport. It didn’t seem to matter that I asked for the comments to stop (they never did) nor that I got good grades and was basically a pretty tame teenager.

The label stuck, even if it was just the one “friend” that said it.

Over and over and over again.

I’ve never been able to forget being called a “double commie” for the better part of my middle and high school years. Maybe nobody else said it, but I always had a sneaking suspicion that they thought it. It’s like that invisible “L” for loser that we all used to make fun of, but this time I was the one wearing a big ole “C” for commie.

The teenage years are gone now, and I’m actually a confident person now. As an adult, I’ve been able to tell friends about the old days of being teased for being a “double commie” and they’ve mostly laughed it off. Today it’s actually funny that this guy was so ignorant that he couldn’t see beyond our differences.

Who knows? Maybe me and him could have been better friends if he’d for a second thought about what his bullying was doing to me or how hurtful his words, even said jokingly, could be.

But that’s not my loss.

In a weird way, his confusion over my identify ultimately helped me to realize who I am. And maybe I am a little bit of a double commie… and I’m a bisexual Latina immigrant too and any other label that I decide to come up with to describe myself.

Ultimately, despite the hurtful things that we hear when we’re younger, only we can truly determine our identify. For today at least, I’m a Moscow Chica – a woman who grew up Cuban, Russian and all American too.

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(Image via midiman/flickr)

Essay 1: The Day I Became an
American [#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.

My grandfather shook me awake suddenly.

My eyes slowly opened, feeling groggy and tired from our overnight flight. It was five in the afternoon there, in the suburbs of Moscow, as I woke up from a much-needed nap.

“Something is happening in America,” he said.

I didn’t understand what he meant. My brain was foggy and I was in no mood to be woken up. I know that I hadn’t seen my grandparents in years and that this next week was meant to be spent with them, but the jet lag had gotten to me pretty hard this time around. I stretched and tried to figure out a way to stay in bed.

“Something is happening in America,” he said again. Finally, I got out of bed and walked lazily from the bedroom in which I was staying, through the living room and kitchen, to the enclosed patio where my Russian family often spent their evenings.

The little TV out there was turned on. This wasn’t really an unusual occurrence. In fact, despite having a perfectly decent (and much bigger) television in the living room, we almost always sat on the patio to eat and relax.

But this time our family reunion wasn’t relaxing.

As I joined my mother and little brother, both of whom had come on this family vacation too while my father remained in the states to take care of my parent’s real estate business, I could not have prepared for what was on that television screen.

It was September 11th, 2001, just after 9 a.m. in New York City.

Images of the plane that had just hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center were all over the tiny TV. Instantly, my body froze. I didn’t know what I was seeing. I didn’t understand.

As my grandfather had said, something was happening in America… but what?

The rest of this day is a hazy blur. The only thing I remember feeling is confusion. What was happening? What were we watching? What were were going to do now?

Before long, we started to understand what was happening: America was being attacked. And my family was stuck in Russia.

Yesterday had been a perfectly normal day. A Monday like any other, I was excited to have the week off from school. We had flown from our home in Florida to New York City for our transfer flight before continuing on to Moscow.

I had seen the iconic skyline with the Twin Towers standing proudly at the southern edge of Manhattan when our plane departed at 8 p.m. That time is now forever burned in my memory.

This morning, as I greeted my grandparents at the airport gates, I took my first steps on international soil as an American citizen.

My parents had become naturalized the year before and my brother and I joined their ranks just a month earlier. Thrilled about our new journey as a family, my parents expedited our U.S. passports and booked these tickets. We would be missing a week of school, sure, but the trip was sure to be worth it.

Never in a million years could any of us have imagined what would happen.

Nobody in the world did, of course.

The entire world watched that day as the Twin Towers were hit, as they crumbled, as what seemed like the greatest and strongest country was attacked by what later was revealed to be terrorists.

I can’t imagine what my dad felt, hearing the news this morning. All I remember is my hysterical mother on the phone with him, anxious and crying. By that point, we knew that all airports in the U.S. had been shut down indefinitely. So what now?

My mother, my brother and myself were stuck in Russia… Almost 6,000 miles from home… indefinitely.

With the tragedy that we had just seen unfold in America, my only thought was that I wanted to be reunited with my dad, that I just wanted to go home.

I no longer cared about having a week off of school and even the visit with my grandparents had been soured. My mom spent hours on the phone with my dad, trying to figure out what we were going to do if it came time for us to fly back and there was, well, no airports to fly back to. The winning plan was to fly to Canada and drive down.

I didn’t care. All I wanted was to be home.

Before this tragic day that shook the world, I still very much felt like an immigrant. I had spent the first eight years of my life in Russia (mostly) and only the last seven had been spent living in America.

Although I didn’t have an accent, I looked different than my peers and classmates. Whenever someone asked, I always told them: I’m Russian and Cuban.

But after this day, I realized that I wasn’t just Russian and Cuban anymore. I was an American now.

My desire to just go home after this tragedy showed me what my true home had become. It was no longer about the things that made me different and it was no longer about where I came from before. It was about what made me the same as my countrymen and women. It was about the place that I, and my family, proudly chose to call ours.

As they say, home is where the heart is. And this is the day that my heart, now and forever, was America.

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(Image via Patrick Nouhailler/flickr)

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