It’s Not Me: Everyone’s Riffing On Identities, But I Feel Like I Need To Drop Mine

Identity on our minds. How we see ourselves
and how we see others and how others see us:
it’s all over the feeds. Defining terms.
Redefining others.

I set out tonight to declare
that I am not Juban. I’m a frum Yid with a family
geographical history that includes Cuba,
but not Juban. Not anymore.
I set out tonight to drop the moniker, to shake off that family
broken coat of arms, that shattered crest of memory
from how I define myself. Attaching Cuba
to my own identity makes me feel like a usurper
of a foreign culture for my own benefits,
to sound more interesting and exotic.
Ridiculous and true,

but now I’m going to roll a cigar and smoke it with you.

“Jews don’t have history. Jews have memory…
And what is the difference between history and memory?
History is knowing what happened in the past.
Memory is asking yourself: What does that
which happened in the past
have to do with whom I am today?”
says Avraham Infeld hugging the lectern.
I get it. I know what he means.
History happened. Memory lives.

Can we choose our memory? Sometimes I wish I can choose
a different memory. But that would have to change me,
then and only then, and I can only do that moving forward.

When I write I tend to tell stories.
Because what else are we, who else are we
but the stories we’re told and those we tell of ourselves?

Grew up Juban. Or Jewban. However you spell it,
Jewish Cuban, a first gen American,
and the government used an “H” for Hispanic
to describe my race in 1970 even though
I was born at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, NY.

But I don’t call myself that anymore.
When did I stop being Juban?
Does making Cuban coffee in a cafetera every morning
and sometimes an afternoon here or there
the way Mom taught me, drizzling the first drops
into the waiting sugar to prepare the espuma,
that syrupy base on which I pour the rest of the cooked liquid candy,
does that make me Cuban?

I don’t speak a lick of Spanish.
Okay, a few words. With a steaming cortadito
and a cut of crispy, buttered tostada,
waiting to open the record store
sometime in the mid-90s on Washington Avenue
I’d say to Omar, “Oye, come va?”
And Omar would say, “Nada, aqui en la lucha, hermano.”
And a few more words, choice words, expressions
and phrases I never really say naturally.
Okay, how about: “
(Oh, those ever-handy curse words.)

Words determine some fateful identity
as much as actions and reactions.
The words we use matter,
the words we hear matter,
the words we bear matter.
I understand Spanish – me entiendo.
But I can’t speak it well – pero no puedo hablar bien.
I’ve never been there. The island is not my home.
This is not my language, though I love it,
its music, its lust for life, its spice of idiom
and attitude. The Cuban and his Spanish
are the body and his soul;
he is what and how he speaks,
his accent, intonation, cadence, and connotation.
I’m not Cuban because I am not subject
to the Spanish crown reigning over my tongue
or my hips or my lips or my circumcised heart.

This isn’t a story of persecution. But it is.
This isn’t a story of running. Oh, but it is.
Again and again and again and even now.

Mostly, though, it’s a story about food.

So they left Poland, Russia, and Rumania
for Cuba when they were all toddlers and teens, families
running from pogroms.
Adopted culture. Adapted life. We know the drill.
From poverty to business owners and then
Castro came – and most Jews said,
Uh, No, we’ve seen this before.
Came to the U.S. of A. From NY to FL,
I was ultimately nourished by Biscayne Bay
and — under palm fronds — fantasies
that would never be fulfilled,
thank Gd.

Coming home from school, I was likely to smell the salt smack smells of that bay and the orange tree and before reaching my house I will smell that night’s dinner already being prepared: picadillo in a deep pan, the herbed and spiced, cumin laden tomato sauced chopped meat heavy with onions and olives and raisins.

When I made my mother angry, she’d scream at me, “Estoy comiendo mis higados!
Apparently, my mother had a lot of livers because she was eating them all the time.

I’m an American frum Yid who grew up with cultural Holocaust/Zionist Judaism hearing Spanish and eating slabs of roasted pig with sides of yucca in garlic sauce, platanitos, and congris at office Christmas parties.

Pork. Lechón. I obviously wasn’t kosher then. Thought didn’t cross our minds. When we ate at Islas Canarias and saw everybody from all over Miami, loud Jews, Polacos, taking over the place, and the place smelled like fried onions and fried meat and lime and spilled beer, I ordered the caldo gallego, that white bean murky soup, and glommed it especially thirstily when the chunks of pork and sausage were extra fatty that night.

I want to drop that. Can I drop that?
There’s no dropping it. There’s no glorying in it. Just part of my make up. The non-kosher part. The Cuban part? I don’t give it a second thought.
It’s a culture I’ve left behind.
That’s my riff here.
That’s the verse we’re sticking with.

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Being Cuban is to be energized by your electrified senses, and your heart and your mind are speeding on caffeine and the world is yours to eat because everything about life is delicious under that sun.
Being Juban is to be energized by your electrified senses, and there’s always food served at loud volumes, and volumes of pages can be filled with what I’m leaving out.
Being human is to be energized by your electrified senses to freaking choose. Every day.

I am not Juban. Nor Cuban. My grandparents landed on Cuban soil as kids. Mere toddlers and teens. And my parents left when they were my kids’ ages.

Born and raised American with some Cuban cultural remnants. For years now I’ve been totally separate from that. Why do I still play with the Juban label on my tongue? Why do I write this if not to merely rejoice in the music of these words recalling the tastes, the smells, the rhythms of family gatherings in Spanish and English and Heinekens and grilled meats and talk of Israel. . .

Big moves demanding new maps, new dictionaries, new rules of syntax.
I can’t be Juban. I’m not Cuban, so how can I be Juban?
Why do I care?

Since when is identity anything other than fluid? I’ve been choosing mine since before I had history, since before I had memory. But how much of it was a choice?
Grew up a blonde haired, blue-eyed all American, three-course meal eating, sports playing, sensitive jock Jew-boy metal-head know-nothing, try everything, screw-up scribbler.
That’s me, part of me. And still. But that’s not me.
Grew up hearing Spanish and English and Spanglish at volumes that embarrassed walls with their own uselessness.
Judaism was the Holocaust and Zionism. Kadima, U.S.Y., and Young Judea. Camp Tel Yehuda. The Alexander Muss High School in Israel. The March of the Living (1988).

Sometimes a conversation like this happens:
“Where are your parents from?”
“Oh, okay, so which one is Jewish and which one is Cuban?”
“Both Jewish, both Cuban.”
“Do you know Spanish?”
“I can understand it well.”
“But not speak it?”
“Not well.”
“You don’t look Cuban. You’re so pale. You must be more Jewish than Cuban.”
And then this person might tell me how annoying it is that these Cubans don’t want to learn the language.

Food. It always comes down to food. I do not mean to glorify eating non-kosher. But the language of food and the talk around food, the family bonding for better or for worse or just worse than better.

I remember a media noche, fries, a Coke, and finish off with a batido de mame’ at Latin American on Coral Way. Zeide sits there and speaks to the grandson of a man who was mayor of some town in Cuba. That mayor loved cigars, white suits, and a big guajiro hat. That mayor challenged my teenaged Zeide to look at him and cut the material for a suit without measuring. Everybody’s got a story like this. So you know Zeide did. The mayor wore the suit my Zeide cut for him back in Cuba. The grandson could see it clearly. The mayor, he lit a new fat cigar, donned his guajiro hat, and laughed it up with the ladies in the shops along the way.

And this is just a song I’ve sung.
But I don’t really have a voice.
I’m not Cuban, not really Juban,
But I don’t really have a choice.

This is undone
This is not done
Served rare and bleeding
This heart’s still one.

I want to keep singing about avocados and mangoes and platanitos and carne con papa and bistec empanizada.

I want to keep riffing on about the weird Cuban-Chinese Scull twins’ 3D paintings in Cuban restaurants scattered around Miami and the dirty jokes of Alverez Guedes and pastelitos de quava con un cortadito.

So I’m not done. I’m going to need to roll another one.

So I’m always riffing. Aren’t we all, every moment, riding that rhythm, and choosing the next wave on our own?

Am I Juban? Is that a choice?
Trace my train of thought
and you’ll find the drunken
nostalgic in plain sight.
And he hasn’t even drunk
a drink tonight.



Image of Cuban rolling a cigar from Flickr.