identities

What I, A Cuban-American, Learned By Watching The Elián González Documentary On CNN

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I grew up in a Cuban immigrant household that was filled with people that were very much against the revolution and Castro. Over the years, I was told countless stories of the atrocities that were being committed on the Caribbean island and why my family left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. I was born in 1989 in New Jersey, making me a first-generation Cuban-American. Before you ask, yes. My parents met in Miami and we eventually moved back, but not for long.

By 1999, my family moved back to Miami then up to a small, rural town in the Florida panhandle, just a 15-minute drive from the Alabama state line. That was also the same year that 5-year-old Elián González was found floating in an inner tube near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It wasn’t uncommon for my parents and grandparents to speak openly about the Cuban nationals that were being found in the water, but for a child this young to be found alone was something different. I could tell by how they addressed the matter.

Partly because of my age and partly because of our geographic separation from Miami, I was not aware of what was going on. I only knew one thing: we did not want Elián sent back to his father in Cuba. In fact, my family thought Juan González, Elián’s father, was a bad father for wishing for his child to be returned to Cuba. The argument was always backed up with emotion as his mother, Elizabeth Brotons, literally gave her life so her son could be free. This is something a lot of Cuban parents were willing to risk to save their children from a growing regime set on oppressing the Cuban people.

Fast forward to 2017. I am a 28-year-old journalist living in Los Angeles and working for the Latino media company mitú. Until moving to L.A., I wasn’t that in tune with the Latino community at large. I knew about Cuban culture but I was never fully immersed in it unless on vacation to see my family. My parents always tried to make sure that my brother and I learned Cuban culture as much as possible, but we were living in a region affectionately known as “the Redneck Riviera.” Sure, I spoke Spanish with mis abuelos and I would always curl up on the couch with my abuela to watch the evening novelas. However, Cuban culture started and stopped in my home. As soon as I left those doors, I was in white, cowboy country. Where I grew up was a 9-hour drive from Miami. We only made trips south to visit family for the holidays. Even now, I still thought about Elián and the case that took an emotional toll on my family, especially my grandparents.

CNN recently aired the documentary “Elián” and I admit that I was very interested to learn more about the boy whose image has been burned into my memory. I remember mourning with my family when the federal government raided his family’s home in Miami. How could they take this boy and send him back to Cuba? I have long held the belief that the U.S. was wrong in sending Elián back to Cuba. I still believe he should have been given a chance to stay in the U.S., but after watching the documentary, I cannot justify keeping him away from his father.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) memorandum in Elián’s case, Juan had every right to claim his child under the Constitution of Cuba Article 37. That passage of the Cuban constitution, according to the United Nations Information Centres, states that being born out of wedlock does not diminish or negate the rights of the child and the parent. “The state guarantees, through adequate legal mean, the determination and recognition of paternity,” reads the Cuban constitution. Elián was born out of wedlock in 1993 but his father still had final say.

INS further states that it is customary for them to assess relationships based on the law of the country of origin when it comes to immigration matters. This means that the U.S. government had to uphold Cuban law, using it to decide who had legal authority to make immigration decisions for Elián. By that law, his great-uncle, Lazaro González, did not have that right.

It was on Jan. 7, 1959, that the U.S. government officially recognized the Castro-led Cuban government. While we didn’t have diplomatic ties with the Cuban government, we still recognized them as a country and, in turn, we recognized their laws. From a purely legal standpoint, it seems that government officials had their hands tied in terms of what to do with the Cuban boy that was the center of an international case.

It is not new information to hear that Cuba had a strong hand in keeping their dissenters quiet. In fact, many of the stories I have heard from Cuban exiles are filled with heartbreaking examples of family members being disappeared or killed because they dissented. We may never know whether or not Juan wanted to bring Elián back or if he was a pawn for the Cuban government to shore up support for the government. Juan might have wanted Elián to be free in the U.S., but the Castro regime was against it. Or Juan could really have believed that Elián should have been sent back. We’ll never know the truth about that.

I know that this opinion is going to be met with some anger from the Cuban-American community. After all, I, like many Cuban-Americans, want a free and just Cuba. That is something we do not have. Sending a child back to that country seems like an atrocious decision, and, for many reasons, it is. Yet, that does not negate the law nor Juan’s rights to raise his child as he sees fit. As I write this, I am scared of what my own family will think about it. However, it is what I believe. I do not agree with how the situation was handled with federal agents raiding the home and pointing a gun at Elián as he hid in a closet. That was wrong on many levels.

I still think it was wrong to send Elián back to Cuba. Sending him back deprived him of a life of freedom and opportunity that the U.S. is supposed to offer all people. Yet, I can’t justify my feelings other than strictly emotional. Who are we to tell a parent, who by all accounts was a good father, that they had no rights to their child?

We are a nation that values the rights of individuals and of parents. Parents make the decisions for their children, from where they live and go to school, to what doctors they visit and what medical procedures they will perform. That’s what made Elián’s case so difficult. On one hand, his mother died trying to get him out of Cuba. On the other hand, his living father was asking for him to be returned to raise him as he saw fit. There’s no justifiable excuse for depriving a parent of their natural right to raise their child. It’s heartbreaking to say, but that’s what I believe.

You can watch the trailer for “Elián” below.


READ: Here’s How Some People Tried To Show The Reality Of Cubans During Cuban Independence Day

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From Diapers To Dorms, I Worked Hard To Make Sure My Baby Sister Could Go To College

identities

From Diapers To Dorms, I Worked Hard To Make Sure My Baby Sister Could Go To College

Betsy Aimee

As a first generation college student, as well as the first person in my family to be born in the United States, there was many things I had to figure out on my own.

CREDIT: The author (left) and her sister. Photo credit: Betsy Aimee

When it came to college it always felt like there was an assumption that all parents knew a lot about the process and were heavily involved; That they were signing me up for SAT classes, flying across the country with me to look at colleges and had a vast network of friends that were ready to offer me internships.

They supported me in many other ways and cultivated in me a desire to pursue higher education, but for the most part I was their window into the mainstream “American” world, so their ability to help was limited.

It was a blessing to be so self-reliant at a young age but at the same time I carried many things in isolation and there was an emotional toll that took on me. I’m not complaining, as I have lived a life of privilege and opportunity that many people, my parents included, could only have dreamed of.

Because of this it always felt like I couldn’t burden my parents with my “problems” when they worked so hard to provide me with housing and transportation, and the occasional luxury. It’s not that my parents didn’t care, they just didn’t know what they didn’t know. It would have been great to have an adult, or older sibling to offer me support at that stage of my life.

My sister was born when I was 16 years old. I realized that life had given me a special opportunity. As the oldest daughter to our father who emigrated from rural Mexico to the United States decades before, I felt like I was her official guide to first-gen life.

CREDIT: The author’s sister. Photo credit: Betsy Aimee

When I was in college, in between class, work, friends and boys, I would pick her up in my shiny, red Mustang. I didn’t always have tons of money, but I tried to expose her to as many things as I could. I would take her to the Festival of Books at UCLA and we’d walk around local universities. On trips we would drive through schools and talk about what her life would be like when she was a young woman.

When she was in elementary school I read an essay she had written. In it she said that I was her role model. It was a stark reminder to be better, and do better. After all, my sister was watching.

When I graduated from college with honors she was 8 years old. My dad pulled her and my brother out of school to attend my commencement ceremony. I remember her sitting on the bleachers in her pink dress looking up at me proudly. She told me later that was the moment she knew she wanted to go to college too!

As she got older, we talked about the fact that so very few Latinx people actually graduate from college, and that while not everyone needs college to be successful, education is an important way to advance our entire community. I told her that seeking to be the best people we could be was a way to honor the sacrifices of our father and her mother (my stepmother).

As she went through middle school and the early years of high school, we talked about classes she could take that would put her on the “college track.” I am sure sometimes it felt more like I was an annoying helicopter mom than a cool older sister. I also made sure to be honest about mistakes I made, and things I didn’t know then that I wish I had known.

Last year, I helped her write her essays for her college applications. In the midst of my own crazy life, which now includes a child of my own, I always tried to set aside time to be there for her when she needed me.

When she started getting her acceptances, I cried. We went to look at colleges together earlier this year.

CREDIT: The author and her sister at her sister’s high school graduation. Photo credit: Betsy Aimee

After some debate, she decided on Mount Saint Mary’s College near home in Los Angeles. Then she announced she would be living in the dorms. I reassured my father that this was a tremendous opportunity for her to immerse herself in the culture of the university and be focused on her studies. When she needed to appeal her financial aid award, of course, I wrote it.

We went shopping for her dorm supplies together and part of me was super excited she was going to have the experience I never had. That is the thing about being a first generation big sister, like a parent, you want things for your siblings that you couldn’t have for yourself.

I also told her something that I wish someone had told me at her age. I told her that she is more than the sum of her accomplishments; that the determination and ethics that had gotten her to college would carry her through life no matter what happened.

I told her this because I also know that there is a particular type of guilt that plagues first-generation kids like us. We feel like we will never fully repay our parents for our sacrifices and we can punish ourselves harshly for any mistakes we make.

Recently, my family and I, including my father, brother and stepmother, moved her into her dorm. It was a bittersweet moment because, in my mind, she’s still a little girl looking up at me with wonder. But looking at me now is a bright, level-headed, hard-working young woman moving towards her future with the hopes of all her ancestors resting on her shoulders.

CREDIT: Photo credit: Betsy Aimee

As we walked back to the car my dad told me, “You should have more children. I would be having a much harder time letting go of your sister if I didn’t have you and your brother too.” I said, “Dad, what are you talking about? This one counts as one of mine too.”

While my sister has learned from me, being her big sister opened up a doorway to love and understanding the importance of mentorship for first generation kids.

After all, It is up to us who have paved the way to make sure we are leaving the door open for everyone coming behind us.


READ: While Homesickness During College Is Hard Enough As It Is, This Latino Student Explains Why It’s Been Even More Difficult For Him

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