I was born in Havana, Cuba in the spring of 1995. By December of 1999, I was on an airplane bound for the United States of America. I spent my ESOL days in Orlando, spent second grade living in the Everglades, and ultimately came to rest in Miami where I spent all of my adolescence. Miami, Florida—or as we jokingly call it, North Cuba.
Miami to Cubans is like New York to Puerto Ricans, it’s our haven within a country that can often be hostile to people like us. Growing up in Miami, I never had to give up the savory taste of frijoles negros, the fast paced heavily accented Spanish, or the constant blaring of trumpets and dembow.
My favorite Cuban tradition when I was little and living in Havana was El Día de Los Reyes Magos—Three Kings Day, or the Epiphany. It’s like Christmas, but you get three presents—one for each of the wise men that visited baby Jesus. Many Cubans lived in squalor, and so this was oftentimes a difficult holiday to celebrate for parents strapped for cash. Despite, I remember being little and waking up to the sound of my mom getting home from her job at the airport, and seeing her with a brand new doll for me to play with. “Mira Eli,” she would say. “Felicidades!”
Now that I’m older, my absolute favorite tradition is Noche Buena. Celebrated the day before Christmas, it’s a big dinner with all of your tías and tíos, all of your primos, all of your primos that aren’t really even related to you, but your parents are just that close. Noche Buena is a whole pig roasting over a caja china (a ghastly sight to me now that I’m a vegetarian, but tradition nonetheless). Noche Buena is the sound of your tío’s knuckles rapping on a domino table when he doesn’t have a hand to play. Noche Buena is Celia Cruz’s iconic voice belting no hay que llorar porque la vida es un carnaval. Noche Buena is your cheeks being red from giving all of your stubbly tíos besitos on your way in and out of the dinner.
I asked my mom what her favorite traditions were, and she gave me a myriad of reasons to love my roots. She told me about how much she loved the carnivals that they celebrate in El Malecón every year that last a week. She told me how she loved cutting the tips of her hair every February 2nd because it’s the day of the Candelaria, and cutting your hair that day meant it grow healthy the rest of the year. She told me about bathing in the first rain of May, because they say that doing that is good luck.
Of course, no discussion of Cuban tradition is complete without el cafecito. The one, the only, the famous colada cubana. “No Cuban household wakes up without a coladita,” said my mom, who we affectionately call Kukita. “It’s tradition—no, it’s more than that! La coladita cubana is one and only!”
Though not an exclusively Cuban tradition, quinces are a big part of a young Cuban woman’s life. From when she turns 13 years old, her parents will start to hoard things away—makeup, clothes, shoes, anything that could be used for her quinceañera. On the big day, she’s have a court of 15 couples made up of her classmates and neighbors dance together to choreography. It’s the biggest party of a teen girl’s life, and can top a sweet sixteen any day.
“Before there were ultrasounds,” said Kukita, “in Cuba we determined a baby’s sex with the test of a knife and scissors. You would have two chairs, on one would be a knife and the other scissors and both would be covered by a cloth. The pregnant mother would blindly choose which chair to sit in; if she chose the scissors she would have a girl, and if she chose the knife she would have a boy. It’s fun and exciting, and always 100% accurate!”
I asked my mom what she thought were the most important aspects of our culture that she impart to my sister and me. She told me that it’s important that we always know our home and where our roots come from. Not only that, but that we be proud of where we come from and proud to be Cuban women. “I would love that my daughters have a sense of humanity, enthusiasm, and comradery,” she said. “These are Cuban traits… even when times are tough, Cubans keep these traits in their hearts.
“A good sense of humor!” she continued. “Cubans are funny by nature! Dance and music, we’re all about music.” I can attest to these. I couldn’t even count the times that I’ve walked into the kitchen to find my mom dancing around, blasting Gente de Zona—even if she was just making a sandwich.
“I want my daughters to be fighters and to persevere and to follow their dreams,” Kukita continued. “Cubans dream wide awake and we don’t rest until we accomplish our goals! I’m proud to have been born Cuban.”
Just like my mom, these are the things that I’m proud of. I’m proud to pertain to a culture that values hard work and honesty; a culture that is jubilant and happy in the face of adversity; a culture rich with folklore and mysticism; a culture that places importance on a matriarchy; a culture that has an unprecedented zest for life.
For these reasons, I say, soy cubana y soy orgullosa!