Tuesday, August 31, 2010

When I Was Cuban

For years, people have suggested and suspected that I just might be Cuban. Just because I rattled off some Spanish to some Spanish-speaking clients at a social service agency in Richmond CA, where I was working at the time, word spread rapidly among staff that I'm Cuban. Why? At a bus stop in a Spanish-speaking community in Oakland, CA, I casually struck up a Spanish-speaking conversation with a woman who was also waiting for a bus. Her immediate response to me was, ¡Ayyyyy, Cubano (ohhhh, you're Cuban)! Now, how did she figure? When I was on vacation in Southern Perú, I thought because I was in a heavily populated black area that I just might fit right in. No. As soon as my back was turned, I overheard someone ask about me, de dónde es, Cuba . (where is he from, Cuba)?. Now, what does Cuba have to do with me? Well, I actually had the opportunity to visit Cuba to find out.

While growing up in New York, I was influenced by my Puerto Rican neighbors to learn Spanish and love salsa music.

I must admit, I did feel at home. There was something about the energy of the Cuban people that made me feel like a long, lost member of the community who finally came home. Words cannot express how uplifted I felt to just walk about town hearing son-montuno music, charanga music, timba music and danzon music blaring from homes and businesses. One day, a group of us were strolling through Central Havana when we heard this loud salsa song coming out of a restaurant. I couldn't take it anymore. I literally reached out and grabbed a woman, and we danced right there in public. Of more than 150 cities and towns in 16 countries that I've visited in my life, Havana is the only place from which I returned feeling homesick; I mean very homesick!

I was born in St. Louis, MO, and lived in a closely knit African-American community called “The Ville.”

Does this make me Cuban? Well, total strangers in Havana assumed I was one until I opened my mouth (LOL)! They couldn't tell by my Spanish where I was from. What was clearly evident to them the moment I spoke----I am NOT Cuban! I can't even fake a Cuban accent. At a popular Havana night spot, I was so flattered when a lovely woman asked my date if she could cut in to dance with me. I took her into my arms and busted one of my favorite salsa moves. She was NOT impressed. She blurted out in astonishment, ¡tu bailas como extranjero/you dance like a foreigner!), and motioned for me to go sit down--go back my woman. I guess she thought I was Cuban too :::::::chuckle:::::::.

Even Cuban people thought I was Cuban until I opened my mouth!

The Cubans have a name for people like me. It's called “Yuma,” a slang word for an American, and rightfully so. I was born in St. Louis, MO and lived in what I remember was a closely knit African-American community called “The Ville” before moving to New York City. It was in New York, where I developed a love for classical music and jazz. But I developed and even greater love for salsa and became a salsero por vida (a salsa music lover for life).. The Spanish that I learned was influenced by my Puerto Rican neighbors, or should I say my New-Yorican neighbors (Puerto Rican born and/or raised in New York). Even a friend from the Island of Puerto Rico, told me that my Spanish has a New-Yorican accent. When I was in Perú and Ecuador, comments were made about my Spanish sounding Caribbean.

So, I have to ask----when was I ever Cuban? Could it have been in another life? I tend to think that just might be the case.


  1. perhaps you are descended from the Ebo/Igbo Africans - this is the same group of African captives who were brought in GREAT numbers to Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti and Virginia, as well as the "Gullah" region.

    Perhaps the live and proud expression of African vibrance is what made you feel at home. You make ME want to go to Cuba now.

  2. Hi Ebby,
    My being a descendant of Ebo could be possible. I've also suspected Yoruba, Mandingo, or Caribalí, which has also influenced Cuban culture.

  3. Actually the reason people assume you are from the Caribbean is because the Caribbean has the highest number of Afro Descendants compared to other places. This is why they make this link. Dominican Republic is the highest even though most don't like to acknowledge their African Ancestry behind Cuba then Puerto Rico.

  4. It's funny that you say people always ask if you are Cuban. i am Cuban myself and i always joke with my girlfriend (also Cuban)when we see certain Afro American actors and entertainers about how they also could be Cuban.I see examples of both groups in one an other. crazy thing is in Miami most of the Cubans are white and I'm mulatto so everybody thinks i'm Dominican instead LOL


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