A Half Tamales, Half Cheeseburger Kind of Guy
I am a half tamales, half cheeseburger kind of guy. In other words, my madre is a Cuban exile and my dad is a fifth-generation caucasian American. I like to think that I’ve grown up with the best of both worlds, surrounded by a multicultural melting pot of Cuban and American cultures. I speak both Spanish and English fluently. I cook both Cuban and American foods every day. I listen to both Cuban son and American Top-40 on the radio. But despite all these blessings, for the first twelve years of my life, I felt like I didn’t belong.
I’m not like most of the other kids in my middle school. I live in the suburbs of Augusta, Maine. I only know like two other kids in the entire school who are also Hispanic. Even then, I don’t look like any of my peers. We share the same light skin, but I pop out like a black sheep with my chocolate-brown eyes and curly dark hair. From the hallways to the locker room, I constantly feel like a billion eyes are zoomed in watching my every move. I share the same last name of Johnson with like ten other people in the sixth grade, but I can’t help but feel like I’m different because I’m not fully white.
But I am American. I mean I think I am. My dad taught me what it is to be American. I’ve learned from our two-hour drives to the dock, watching the Atlantic waves crash on the shore. I’ve learned from our father-son weekend trips down to the lake, going kayaking and flipping American cheeseburgers.
I love everything about my dad just as I love everything about my madre.
For as long as I can remember, I go to Little Havana every summer to visit my abuela. My world flips. It’s the closest place I know to my madre’s homeland, Cuba. In Little Havana I have access to the same scrumptious food, humid weather, and vibrant son music. Even though Cuba is 90 miles south of the Miami beaches, spending my summers in the Americanized version of Havana has taught me what it means to be part of a thriving community. It’s a place where parents can feel at ease letting their kids race around past sunset on the bustling streets, a place where my abuela knows each of her neighbors’ names. I can’t imagine a world without my summer trips to Little Havana. Still, the kids on the streets often stop and stare, which makes me feel kinda unwelcome in my own home.
Before my thirteenth birthday, I felt like I truly didn’t belong in either Maine or Little Havana. I felt like a black sheep in both worlds. However, on one cool September night nestled within the pleasant Augustan suburbs, my faith in my mixed identity was renewed forever.
This September night started like any other. The irresistible aromas of my madre’s signature tamales, congrí, and arroz con pollo wafted all the way upstairs from the kitchen window. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, inhaling the familiar smells of my dad’s famous key lime pie and classic American cheeseburgers intertwined wonderfully with my madre’s authentic Cuban cooking. My mouth began to salivate as I followed the aroma downstairs and joined my family at the dining room table.
“Ermano, my little boy, I can’t believe you’re a teenager now! Do you know what’s so special about your name?” my madre asked.
“No,” I said in between a mouthful of congrí. “What’s so special about it?”
Exchanging a smile with my dad, she continued, “Well, your father and I decided to give you the Spanish name of Ermano because you’re our ‘noble soldier.’ We want you to always be brave, even in the face of adversity.”
Wow. I’d never really thought about my name before. With these new thoughts spinning around my head, I decided to interrogate my madre further.
“Madre, do you still remember when you came to America from Cuba?”
“Yes, Ermano. How could I forget?”
“I’m just curious about it. Why’d you come here, and to Florida first of all places?”
“I was one of hundreds of thousands of people who emigrated from Cuba to the Key West for the Mariel Boatlift. Your abuela, abuelo, and I came to Miami on a ship when I was just fifteen. Like the others onboard, my parents were desperately in search of new economic opportunities.” Sensing my eagerness to know more, she added, “Now that I’m thinking about it, up in my closet I stored some dusty diary entries I wrote from the Mariel Boatlift as a child. Feel free to go off now and explore, but know that your food is gonna get cold!”
That was all I needed to leave the table. I raced upstairs and opened her chest brimming with handwritten diary entries dating back to the 80s. Aha! I found just what I was looking for. I tenderly leafed through the aged notes and brought it closer to my nose so that I could inhale the distinct smell of old paper. I began to read…
May 1, 1980. My parents came to wake me this morning, hours before the crack of dawn. We ate some leftovers from last night, my last authentic taste of home before we leave to the new land. After a quiet drive down to the port, we passed through the dead-serious Cuban immigration authorities who herded us like cattle into a dim, filthy campground with olive-green tents. The El Mosquito campground officials forced my madre and me to strip off all our clothes to pass through security, including our undergarments, even when we insisted over and over again that we were not carrying anything even remotely dangerous. Despite our pleas, they snatched my madre’s wedding ring and my treasured pearl necklace, the only pieces of jewelry we’ve ever owned. Right now, I can’t go to sleep out of both physical discomfort and nervousness for what lies ahead, so I am currently squinting while writing this entry with nothing but the dim moonlight and this bumpy, rocky ground for company. My situation is challenging, but nonetheless I vow to keep my head up because I am blessed to have the opportunity to venture to America. I’m so close to the beach that as I take a deep breath in, I can taste the salty smell of freedom that lies just ninety miles north of where I am lying right now. Leaving behind my friends and cousins is going to be hard, but I am excited to receive all the opportunities I can only attain in America, land of the free and home of the brave. xx – Benita Perez
May 4, 1980. I can barely believe that this is the last time I will be writing from the sandy shores of Cuba. I can hear the officials blowing a piercing whistle, notifying groups to board the fishing boats. My brief stay in the concentration camp has been absolutely brutal; the guards haven’t let us shower nor use a proper toilet. The bathrooms here emit a horrifyingly putrid odor because the drains are so old that rust has accumulated and clogged them. Roaches scurry across the ground and the food the guards serve look as though it comes straight out of a garbage can. Last night, I heard murmurs amongst the other exiles that a ship bound for Key West in April already capsized on their journey, and that the Coast Guard had found two dead bodies. I am absolutely terrified for what lies ahead, but I’m overjoyed to leave El Mosquito behind forever. The authorities have been treating my parents and I like criminals. But I must remain strong. Today marks the day that I leave my past behind and enter a new world in the United States. I am looking forward to starting my own family and giving my kids the chance to live the American dream. An unbounded world of opportunity awaits! xx – Benita Perez
May 5, 1980. This journey is only supposed to last 18 hours, but I’m two hours in and it feels like eternity. This boat is overloaded with other Cubans all bound for Key West Harbor. I feel butterflies in my stomach, or maybe it’s just the rocky seas. I am beginning to feel so queasy. I’ve never ventured fifty miles outside Havana before, much less to an entirely new continent. This mockery of a boat must not be any larger than 30-feet long. I have no clue how the officials managed to load 28 people into this vessel. Just five minutes after we set sail, a young child started throwing up on the top deck. She started a ripple effect of nausea; passengers around her all started vomiting at once. Unfortunately, this wave reached me too. I haven’t had much to eat, but already have thrown up whatever little food was in my stomach. I feel virtually empty inside and can’t wait until we reach calmer seas. I fear that we may capsize at any moment in these turbulent waters. The boat is rocking up and down against the crashing waves, and there is no land to be seen. I so dearly miss the taste of my madre’s fresh home-cooking and playing with my cousins after school. xx – Benita Perez
May 6, 1980. Tears of joy flood from my eyes as I am writing this entry from the safety of my new home. We arrived at America at sunrise; oh’ how I’ve longed for this mystical land of the brave and the free. It feels as if I have just stepped into a fairytale. The other boats on this harbor are towering over our little vessel – I even think I spot a cruise ship in the distance! The new land is oh so vast. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Immediately after hopping off this boat, I bent down and kissed the American soil. My madre plans to open a tamales shop in the heart of Little Havana, what we hear to be some sort of ‘Plymouth Rock’ for Cuban exiles like us. I can’t wait to have a taste of home every single day, and to share this nostalgic reminder with others like me who know that while we may not be there anymore, Cuba will never leave our identities. xx – Benita Perez
That was the last diary entry. Lost in introspection, I closed the wooden chest, a million thoughts spinning around my turbulent mind. My madre is a strong, strong woman. She is a Marielita. She conquered a literal ocean of uncertainty and challenges along the journey to America. If the Mariel Boatlift didn’t happen, life would be so much different. My madre would still be across the Florida Straits. She would’ve never met my dad on the streets of Florida, they would’ve never moved to Maine nor gotten married, and I wouldn’t be here today.
I returned to the table and bit into the rest of my madre’s fresh tamales and my dad’s mouth-watering cheeseburgers, savoring each and every flavorful burst of my fused cultural identity. I realize that I wouldn’t trade my identity for anything in the world. I may look, speak, and act different from the other kids in my school, but one thing’s for certain: I am definitely a half tamales, half cheeseburger kind of guy.
Sydney is a writer, athlete, and travelling-enthusiast. When not at the tennis court or in the pool, you can find her cranking out fresh content for the Webb Canyon Chronicle.