Havana neighborhood

Yanelis

Son, I have a confession to make: Whenever I read biographies, I often skip the beginning part of someone’s life. I don’t know why, but I find genealogy and origin stories often boring. Perhaps it’s because I often ready biographies of famous people and I just want to get to the “good parts,” to the part where the Apple computer was founded, or to the part where Elon Musk launches his first rocket.

However, I’m aware that the beginning of someone’s life is fundamental to knowing the person, to really understanding the events that shaped them. I’ll also like to clarify that I don’t skip this section in autobiographies. There’s something raw and honest about a person analyzing and explaining their childhood as biased and as selective as it may be. With all of that said, I’m hoping that you don’t skip this part because not only does it explain so much about me, but you’ll also learn lots about your Cuban family.

To really understand where I come from, we have to go back to a time before I was even born. See, your abuela was really young when she fell in love with your abuelo and became pregnant. She was barely 15 years old when this happened. That pregnancy resulted in the birth of a baby girl who was named Yanelis. By all accounts, she was beautiful with luscious black hair and the prettiest eyes to ever take in the city of Havana. Sadly though, Yanelis only lived a few days.

This of course devastated your grandparents. Your abuela in particular took it the hardest and when she was pregnant with me the following year, she took every precaution in order to ensure a safe pregnancy and delivery. This overprotection extended well beyond my birth and in fact still extends to this day in some ways. If it’s raining, your abuela will still tell me to be careful to not get wet or to make sure to take my medicine if I’m sick. I’m 37 years old and although it’s endearing and she means well, you can see how I sometimes may find it a bit annoying. As I mentioned, I’m 37 at the time of writing this.

Still, knowing what she went through at such a young age, I can understand the nature of her worry. I can’t imagine becoming a parent at such a young age. I was 28 when your older sister was born and I still didn’t feel ready for the monumental task of raising a child.

However, raising a child in Cuba is different. In America, raising a child is the sole responsibility of the two parents with the occasional help from a grandparent who’s afraid to overstep her boundaries. In Cuba, a child is raised by the entire extended family, who often live together, as well as your next door neighbors who are not shy about their opinions. This reminds me of that African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, because in Havana, it takes a city.

I came into this world on a rainy December 28th in the year 1983. I was a healthy young boy, born en caul, which means that I was born inside of an intact amniotic sac. According to Cuban superstition, a baby born like this is destined to have good luck for the rest of their life. However, apparently one must also keep this sac after the baby is removed from it. My mom wasn’t really aware or exactly paying attention to this lore when she gave birth to me, so my amniotic sac was stolen by a delivery nurse. Is someone out there living my lucky life? Have they won the lotto by now? I was never a superstitious person, not even as a kid, but I must admit that I’ve been lucky oftentimes in my life. Perhaps there is some truth to this after all, even if my delivery nurse parted with half of my luck.

Unfortunately though, I inherited asthma from my father, who in turn inherited from his father. And you inherited this horrible condition from me. I’m sorry about that.

What this meant for me though is that I was sick all the time. Any minor cold would turn into a full blown asthma attack, with my mom rushing me to the hospital in the middle of the night. I have vivid memories of my mom carrying me to the local clinic, which was a good 10 blocks away, while I wheezed and struggled to breathe the warm Havana air. I could see the trees swinging in the gentle breeze and couldn’t understand why this precious air refused to enter and fill my lungs. We would arrive at the intake, say hello to the nurses and doctors who knew me on sight, and soon would sit down next to a huge oxygen tank with a mask that was way too big for my small face. This happened at least twice a month, and often more during the oft warm Havana winters.

I’m sure by now that you noticed that it was your abuela and her alone that took me to the clinic on these long nights. Shortly after their marriage, my parents divorced. My mom found out that my dad’s long and unexpected work meetings were just an excuse to see another woman. She was heartbroken. This was the love of her life. Despite overwhelming evidence to his unfaithfulness, my dad never admitted to anything. He pleaded and begged to get back together, but my mom stood firm in her decision, even as she cried herself to sleep. She lived by the old adage of “once a cheater always a cheater” and never took him back. I was only two years old.

I don’t really have any memories of my parents together. Whatever images I see when I close my eyes are mainly false memories I created from stories I was told over the years. There’s an image of my dad, lean and muscular, inflating a lifesaver on a beach house we rented, back when Cubans were allowed to do such things. For many years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, certain beaches and hotels were reserved for tourists.

I remember looking at my dad, sitting shirtless on a bed and inflating the biggest lifesaver I had ever seen. I thought he was the strongest man in the world. That image still lives in my head, but I’m not sure if it happened before or after my parents were divorced. I know that I was very young. I do remember that my aunt Fefa, my dad’s aunt actually, immediately deflated my lifesaver with her nails two seconds into the vacation. I know it was an accident, but I held a grudge for years as a kid.

That was also the same trip where no one could find me. My parents and grandparents searched the entire house for me and were about to call for help when my mom found me hiding in a closet. Apparently I was too cold because this house had an air conditioner, a rare thing in Havana in those days. I was in the closet, under some blankets and shivering. For some reason that image reminds me of the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude when Colonel Aureliano Buendía remembers being a young boy discovering ice for the first time. I hadn’t discovered ice, but I discovered the luxury of an air conditioner, which was usually reserved for tourists or Cubans who worked in the highest echelons of the government.

I would like to point out that despite his shortcomings as a husband, your abuelo was always a good father. I saw him every week and he would always hustle to make sure that I wouldn’t lack anything. However, I must admit that as I got older and learned about this unfaithfulness, which was a constant thing then with his new wife, I resented him. Why did he have to do that? Why had he been so selfish? All of the kids around me had both of their parents together. I was the odd one out in my neighborhood and family. I hated it.

I wanted nothing more than my parents to get back together and frequently wished and prayed for that to happen. The most important thing though was that I was loved and I knew it. That was always clear. And when I was old enough to learn about Yanelis, I did often wonder what it would have been like to go through this with an older sister, with someone to share these thoughts and insecurities with.

This is part two of a series of entries dealing with my childhood in Cuba and my first few years in the United States. See part one here. 

Dreaming in Spanish

Son, I feel compelled to explain to you, or more aptly put, I feel an obligation to apologize and to expound as clearly as possible the reasons as to why you barely know any Spanish. Before you were born, I always thought that my children, which of course includes you and your two sisters, would be fluent in both English and Spanish and would easily switch from the fast-paced Cuban dialect to the slower Midwestern English. I dreamed that the Cuban-ness that pours out of my soul would compel you to love the island as much as I do, to join the millions of Cubans in the diaspora with our not-so-secret toast of, “next year in Havana.”

But here you are at 7 and the only words you can actually say in Spanish are “por favor” and “gracias.” Please and thank you. Words of politeness, which all children and adults everywhere should learn and practice, but in some other context, these are words of acceptance and maybe even surrender.

Your older sister, who is 9 at the moment of writing this, knows as little as you. But I’m writing you specifically these series of letters because looking at a picture of you at your current age is like looking at a whiter version of 7-year-old me. We look so much alike. Except, like I just mentioned, neither you or your sisters got my olive-skin complexion, bust instead inherited the pale complexion and light eyes from your mother’s European heritage, which makes you white in America. And I’m also writing to you because there are some things I need to teach you so that you may become a better man than any who came before you in our family tree.

You were not even two years old when a man was making his way to the White House by vilifying people with my skin complexion and accent, casting us a burden on the system and a menace to society. And when he got to the highest office in the land, he made sure to continue the xenophobic attacks and policies, even separating children your age and younger from their terrified and helpless parents.

When that was going on I looked at you with your curly hair and blue eyes and knew that at first glance, no white supremacist would ever guess that your last name was Sanchez. I knew that no one would ever made fun of your accent or that no police officer would stop you and your friends, frisk you, slam you against the trunk of their car for the simple act of existing.

When I was a lot younger, I had always criticized Cubans who had children in exile and who therefore were by lineage half-Cuban, but had no knowledge of the Spanish language. How could that be, I wondered. But then your sister came along, also looking as white as snow, and I knew then that she would have so many advantages if she learned Spanish only as an afterthought and not as her first language. And then you were born and shortly after came the aforementioned president who obviously didn’t create the xenophobia, but only revealed it more clearly from our neighbors. He revealed the distrust and perhaps even the hatred from the same people who used to pray and sing worship songs with me and your mom together.

How could these people praise this bully as a man of God? How could they attend his rally, wear the odious red hats and then pretend that they loved me? To me, this was personal. How could it be not, when immigrants were vilified and cast as the worst elements of society?

So I always put off teaching you Spanish. I thought that by doing that, I could at least protect you from the other children who were being raised with those same red hats. Of course, now I see that I have deprived you and your sisters from so much cultural richness that I’m even ashamed to be writing this. You don’t know Jose Marti, or how to feel the rhythm of the bongos in your veins, or what it means when Celia Cruz sang “azucar,” or how satisfying it is to look at a friend and say, “que vola asere.”

I have deprived you and your siblings of so much, but not anymore. This is the year that all of you will learn Spanish and learn about Cuba. And while I’m terrified and excited to finally you be teaching you, I still feel that this short letter is not sufficient explanation for my lack of initiative in teaching you about your Cuban heritage. I have to go back in time to Cuba in the 1980s, to 1983 specifically, to tell you about your people and about all of the sacrifices they made so that I could be here and by result you and your siblings.

I hope that one day by reading about what my life was like, you will not only understand why I made the choices I made, but also get to know part of your heritage, as well as a country and a family that you barely know.

Let’s do this now because as the Cuban saying goes, “Pa’ luego es tarde.” I should probably explain that this means, “Later is too late.” In other words, there’s no time to waste.


This is the first of a series of entries dealing with my childhood in Cuba and my first few years in the United States.

Lessons from the Village

A few weeks before my life completely changed, I wrote this:

“All divorce kids deal with a sense of abandonment that stays with us long after our parents’ sign the official papers. We’re victims caught in the middle, unsure of our loyalties and our safety.”

That is hard to read now because a mere two weeks after that, a series of events unfolded which eventually led to the end of my marriage. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. And this means that to some extent my kids are going to experience and are experiencing what I described about my own life in that previous post.

I don’t know what led me to write that particular line and blog post at that time, but now it feels almost prophetic, as if it was a warning of sorts.

And I don’t want to be overly dramatic here. Although my parents’ divorce obviously affected and although for years I secretly wished they would get back together no matter what, I’m okay. I turned out fine.

But still, as a parent, and as someone who knows first hand what growing up like that feels like, I’m always going to be a bit sad about it. Because I know exactly the thoughts that they’re going to have. But I know that’s okay because they will be okay. Kids are resilient. And one day they’ll learn the painful lesson that life is about finding that balance between reality and expectations.

No one, and I really mean no one, says “I do” thinking that it would only last a year or ten, in my case. Everyone that takes that step thinks of big words like “forever” and “ever after.” But things happen in life and sometimes “forever” is just a word and we have to learn to be okay with that.

Both of my parents always gave me unconditional love. There was never a question as to whether I was loved or not. And that’s something I will always model for my children. And I know that such is the wish of the kids’ mother.

So, in that regard, I’m not afraid or sad of how they will turn out. I know that they will be loved and cherished in both households, that their accomplishments will be celebrated with joy and that their defeats will be met with solace and encouragement. That’s what being a good co-parent is all about; it’s about making sure that your kids come first, that they feel loved and safe above all.

Seeing as my entire family lives in Florida, this new chapter in my life has been lonely and difficult. However, I’m really counting on that African proverb to be true; that it takes a village to raise a child. I’m counting on my village to show up and in a lot of ways they already have.

jazz band

Life is like Jazz

Almost every time I write something personal, in particular when it involves a moment of hardship or struggle, I always try to wrap it all up nicely with a hopeful conclusion. That conclusion could either be a lesson learned or a spoonful of unbridled optimism, but almost without fail, my blog posts or articles have such an ending.

By nature or nurture, or probably a bit of both, I’m an optimist. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I would argue that if one had to choose between optimism or pessimism, that the former just makes life go by a little easier. I truly believe that. Of course, the middle ground is probably the ideal scenario, but that is rare to achieve and never a permanent position. Most people rather call themselves a “realist,” but in reality, those people fall into the optimistic or pessimistic camp. They just don’t want to admit it.

I’m not an expert in this field, so take this with a grain of salt. These conclusions are purely based on my own observations and lived experiences.

I suppose another reason as to why I like to conclude my personal stories with a type of resolution is because when putting words to paper, or a screen in this case, there’s this obvious structure; beginning, middle and end. That structure typically leads me to make connections that otherwise I probably wouldn’t make.

With all that said, I’m finding that lately I’m okay with no resolution, with no cookie-cutter ending, with no grand lesson to be learned. Why? Because life is like jazz in a lot of ways; it doesn’t always resolve. And because after going through a separation and a divorce, after realizing that my life wasn’t going to have the conclusion that I once thought it would, I had to learn to be okay with improvising.

I want to write more on this blog. I want my content to be personal and without the constraint. of a bigger lesson or resolution. And I suppose that I’m partly writing this entry to give myself the freedom in order to do so.

Breonna Taylor

It wasn’t a shock or a surprise that no police officers were indicted for killing Breonna Taylor in her own home. We knew this would be the outcome. And yet, there’s always that one percent of hope in situations like these. After so much public outcry, marches, publications; one could easily be persuaded to believe that “this time they’ll do the right thing.”

Never mind that prosecutors even offered a plea deal to one of the individuals accused of selling drugs if he would only incriminate Breonna in his drug trade. The man refused. If anything, that only indicated that their case was weak and that they were cowardly trying to ruin Breonna’s reputation after her death as they do with so many black victims. We thought, well, maybe this time they’ll do the right thing.

They didn’t. We knew they wouldn’t.

As many have pointed out, the system is not broken, it’s working exactly as it has been designed. From qualified immunity to a number of SCOTUS decisions that essentially protect police officers from being held liable for killing civilians in their own homes, the system is stacked against the people.

That’s why we need to re-imagine what policing looks like. That’s why we need to divest more funds into programs that make communities safer. That’s why many non-emergency calls should be handled by mental health professionals or social workers.

None of these measures would have saved Breonna Taylor’s life, unfortunately. Until police officers who murder innocent people are held accountable and until the entire system is re-worked, re-imagined and re-built, they will be more Breonna Taylors.

The gut-reactionaries will read these words and immediately claim that I’m anti-police. I suppose that it’s easier to dismiss my arguments as “anti” something because they don’t have to examine their own biases and flawed arguments. For the record, I’m not anti-police, I’m anti-police brutality. I’m against people not being held accountable for their actions, regardless of whether they wear a badge or not.

Being a police officer is a dangerous job. No doubt. But you can just quit if you wanted to. Being a black person in America is an even more dangerous situation; one that has no off-clock, no qualified immunity and one that can’t even protect you in your own home from armed people breaking in.

Breonna Taylor deserved justice. The system failed her, but let’s work together to make a better system so that if we can’t prevent the next Breonna Taylor, at least we can bring her killers to justice.

Close the Camps

There are issues that feel and are so personal that even writing and thinking about them take a toll. However, we must do so, because the people suffering need us to be aware and to sound our voices and to call our elected officials and hold them accountable.

Last year Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accused the Trump administration of running concentration camps on our southern border and the conservative media lost their minds. But, she was right. She was right then and the recent revelations from a whistle blower prove her words to be true.

Just this week Dawn Wooten, a former nurse who worked at an immigration detention center in Georgia, filed a complain alleging a number of abuses against immigrants, including forced hysterectomies on immigrant women. Many of my white friends had a reaction of “This can’t possibly be true!” I envy their naivete.

The history of the United States forcefully sterilizing people of color and anyone the ruling white class deemed undesirable is long. It’s a shameful ableist and xenophobic history; one that inspired actual Nazis, as in Hitler personally.


“There is today one state,” wrote Hitler, “in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of citizenship] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.”

And if forced sterilization of immigrant women wasn’t disturbing enough, the complain also alleges a long history of abuse and denying sick patients any help. This is particularly heinous because we’re living under the scourge of a once in a lifetime pandemic that has killed 200,000 Americans already. But, it’s no surprise that this administration and its enforcers are treating immigrants this way.

The president has spent 5 years calling immigrants “animals” and “rapists” and “thugs.” Genocide prevention experts have warned for years that using dehumanizing language is a precursor to genocide, that it leads to people in power see those who are demonized as “sub-human.” That’s been happening under this administration for a while now. That a baby can be ripped off the arms of a nursing mother and that doesn’t cause Trump supporters to lose any sleep is terrifying and depressing.

Are we not human, too? Are we not worthy of respect and dignity? Is asking for asylum or crossing a border worthy of forced sterilizations or sexual abuse or death by neglect?

It’s time to close the camps. It’s time to abolish ICE, an organization that was founded in 2003 and has caused countless of deaths and abuses of immigrants of all ages. This is not left or right, Democrat or Republican, this is a human rights issue.

We need to get active and loud about this. We will not allow the “family values” people to ignore these human rights issues. This is about the soul of America. This is about the country that we want to be and not the illusion that the history books try and teach us. Please, contact your representatives and demand that they support an investigation into these allegations and to close the camps.

DC

Rejecting the Politics of Fear

When Donald Trump slowly descended from an escalator in 2015 to stand before a podium and declare that most Mexicans are rapists, I never thought that he would win the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency. And yet, here we are, four years into a administration mired in scandal and a country more polarized since at least the 1960s.

I underestimated the power of white supremacy, what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “bloody heirloom.” There is no other way to explain Donald Trump defeating more qualified and severely more conservative Republican candidates, than his appeal to the fears of a large section of white America. Whether the target was the Muslim community, or the Hispanic community, or the African-American community, Trump has always found a way to demonize us as “the other.” They are coming for your jobs! MS-13 is moving next door to you! Sharia law is imminent! All of these are things that he has said, retweeted, or someone in his administration or Party has said.

Fear works. Today, amidst the deadly violence in Portland, the president refuses to condemn it. He can’t because he knows the more scared his white supporters are, the better chances he has of winning reelection. Not once has he tried to unite the country. Hes’ not a peace maker, he’s an arsonist. He’s not a democratic politician, he’s an autocrat. He’s a raptor testing the fences for weaknesses.

In order to further polarize the nation and ignite a fire in his base, every political opponent must be deemed “unpatriotic.” Never mind that dissent is an old American ideal and a foundational principle. Not to this president. His campaign communications for the past four years have been riddled with dehumanizing terms, such as, “the radical mob,” or the “unhinged left” or calling the free press, “the enemy of the people.” He has not once been a president for “all” of the people.

Every word, every action, has been to appeal to his base and to the benefit of the richest people in this country. Immigrants are called “thugs,” a US-born judge can’t do this job “because he’s Mexican,” black players kneeling asking for police reform are “sons of bitches.” Despite the blatant bigotry, the white Evangelical church has convinced itself that he’s God’s chosen. And in their zeal to make Trump their personal savior, they have alienated countless of people from their churches and their brand of Christianity.

If Trump was a god-send, then why do only white evangelicals overwhelmingly support him? Why not black or Latinx evangelicals? Of course, this is a question that they can’t really answer honestly. Any honest answer would give up the game. Do only white evangelicals possess the divine nature to interpret who’s a messenger of God? I don’t think they can answer that question.

Another four more years of Trump would be disastrous for this country. He would get to appoint even more federal and Supreme Court judges, therefore ensuring that the bloody heirloom and its patriarchal policies would reign for generations to come. Not to mention the very real possibility that another four years of power would give his wealthy enablers more opportunities to rob this country even more.

While Joe Biden is not a perfect candidate, I have seen what four years of a Trump administration has done. If this nation has any chance at healing, we need a change at the top. We need to reject the politics of fear and it can only happen if we all come together.

The Fire this Time

The Republican National Convention spent a considerate amount of time trying to convince white voters that Donald Trump isn’t a racist. They brought out black and Latinx speakers as props; colorful decorations on a white and dusty shelf. It was a direct attempt to ease the consciousness of those who would like to pretend that Trump isn’t who we know him to be; a white supremacist.

Some people may find a legitimate reason to vote for Trump (the mind wanders at this), but they do so in spite of his racism and xenophobia. The fact that the president is a white supremacist who constantly seeks to divide the nation is not reason enough for them to cast a vote for someone else. Still, these same people have families and some go to church, and these more moderate Trump supporters have to face the mirror at some point. The RNC’s “diversity” may be the pill they needed to ease their conscience, but even they must know, deep down inside, that this is a lie.

More than any other president in modern history, Trump has used white supremacy to instill fear in the white population and has used that to his advantage. Immigrants, Muslims and black people are the enemy in Trump’s America. Is it really a surprise that there has been an increase in hate crimes since he won the election in 2016? He not only attracts and courts white supremacists and fear-mongers, he gives them a voice.

Congressman Matt Gaetz espoused this vitriol in his RNC speech referring to Democrats:

“They will disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door. And the police aren’t coming when you call in Democrat-run cities. They’re already being defunded, disbanded.”

Nothing in that statement is remotely true. But it does paint a picture of a bleak America, one where brown people are the enemy. That’s coming from a sitting U.S. congressman. He wasn’t talking to all Americans. He was speaking directly to white conservatives who feel that this country is changing too fast, too soon. It’s a list of imagined grievances that hearkens back to racist tropes and stereotypes. In this view, all Latinx immigrants are members of MS-13 and the police has been disbanded because of the pressures of the Black Lives Matter movement. Never mind that defunding the police is not the same as disbanding it, but extremists use inflammatory language to instill fear in the minds of their audience.

The fire is here. Trumpism is the fire and whether it was sent by God or not, it was surely given oxygen by a large conflagration of God’s supposed followers. To this day, 82% of white evangelicals say that they will vote for Donald Trump.

Between Gaetz’s fear-mongering and Kimberly Guilfoyle’s bizarre performance, the RNC featured the occasional brown or black person reassuring white evangelicals that they’re innocent, that Trumpism is not a form of white nationalism, that they can sleep at night. Of course, these people are quick to ignore that 12 U.S. presidents owned slaves, that when Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal” he owned more than 600 slaves. Proximity to a black or brown person does not invalidate someone’s racism.

Trump is a white nationalist driven by his ego and self-preservation. He will continue to stoke the flames of racism and xenophobia in order to win the upcoming election. He doesn’t care what happens to the country. Close to 200,000 people have died from COVID-19, and the president hasn’t lost any sleep over it. Between promoting conspiracy theories, bleach injections and golfing, he continues to tweet and call in to Fox News to promote his hate-filled agenda. If we’re this divided, he may win. If Russia gets their way again, he may win.

We have a lot against us, but we have the numbers. We need to show up at the polls, whether in person or by mail, but we must show up. We need to stop this fire from spreading because in another four years only ashes will remain.

Fresh Prince cast

Living in a Fresh Prince World

Recently, the actor Will Smith shared a photo on his Instagram account of a 30-year-reunion of the The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air cast. The reunion is the subject of an upcoming HBO special about the show. Notably missing is the great James Avery, who played “Uncle Phil,” and sadly passed away in 2014.

fresh prince reunion credit Warner Media/HBO MAX

It’s hard to put into words what this show meant to me, but I’ll try. When I left Cuba in 1995, I left without both of my parents. That alone was hard enough to deal with as an 11-year-old kid, not to mention the newness of everything; new language, new school, and hopefully new friends.

One of the ways I decided to learn English was to watch TV. Unbeknownst to me, I would catch the last season of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air just three months after arriving in South Florida.

The show was about an outsider (Will Smith) coming into a land of opulence (Bel-Air) and wanting to fit in, while at the same time trying to stay true to his roots. If that’s not the immigrant experience, then I don’t know what is. On top of that, Will left his mom behind to be raised by his aunt and uncle. Well, I too was now being raised by my aunt and uncle, along with my two cousins.

To be sure, Miami, or at least my neighborhood wasn’t anything like Bel-Air, but compared to what I left behind in Cuba, it felt like it. Everything was new, shiny and illuminated.

Father Figures

While my father wasn’t exactly like Will’s on the show, my father did in a sense walk out on our family the moment he decided to have an affair. All divorce kids deal with a sense of abandonment that stays with us long after our parents’ sign the official papers. We’re victims caught in the middle, unsure of our loyalties and our safety.

When Will’s father come back into his life, only to later disappoint him, I felt that. I cried with him. His father walks out and Will tries to play it cool at first, as if it doesn’t bother him, only to later embrace his uncle as he cries, “How come he don’t want me, man?” Right then and there Will promises to be a better father, and so did I, even thought I was barely a teenager when I watched that episode.

Hip-Hop

But it wasn’t only heartbreak that the show taught me. It also taught me how to love Hip-Hop. From the catchy opening song, to several rap artists appearing on the show, Hip-Hop and its culture was front and center. 1995 was also the year that Tupac Shakur released Me Against the World, an album that featured Dear Mama, a song so beautiful and heartbreaking that it still brings me to tears today.

When Tupac released All Eyez on Me in 1996, I remember begging my aunt and uncle to buy me the CD. They did, despite not knowing anything about 2Pac or hip hop. When he was murdered, his popularity soared even more. That same year me and a few of my close friends I made in middle school started our own “rap group”. Our band name was “Apocalypse” and when each one of us had to pick up a stage name, mine was “Prince.”

I grew up listening to Juan Gabriel, Julio Iglesias, Willy Chirino and the like. I had no idea who “Prince” was. I took my cue from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I wanted to honor the show that I identified so much with, that while Will Smith was the “Fresh Prince,” I was just “Prince.” Whenever I engaged in freestyle battles or the like, many-a-jokes were made at the expense of my stage name. I didn’t care. I never changed it.

As a 12-year-old, the show also helped me, or so I thought, how to talk to girls that I liked. In reality, I was more like the shy and introverted Carlton around girls, than the smooth-talking Will. But still, I watched and tried to take notes. And what kid my age didn’t have a crush on Ashley Banks, played by Tatyana Ali?

In high school, I had asked my grandmother to buy me a really expensive and over-sized Nautica jacket. It was a yellow jacket that had the words “Nautica” on the right sleeve. When I got to the school-bus stop , one of the kids there said to me, “It looks like you stepped out of a Hip-Hop music video.” That was high praise, to be sure. By then I had already discovered Nas, Jay-Z and Outkast. I even had joined an online freestyling forum board where I’d won many “battles” and had proven myself as a dope MC. I was reading Neruda and Jay-Z as equals, interpreting both as important parts of my life.

The Fresh Prince World

Also in high school, one of my English teachers prompted us to write about our weekend and I straight up ripped off a plot from the show. I don’t remember the details now, but I remember that “Carlton” became “Carlos” in my story and that something hilarious had happened to us. The teacher gave me an “A” with a suspicious look on his face. Was this skinny immigrant kid really that interesting?

I didn’t know I was watching the last season when it was airing. I only learned that at the final episode, when the entire house was empty and Will goes back to look at it one last time. That scene reminded me of walking the tarmac to the airplane that would take me away from my island and my parents. I looked back one more time at Cuba, a beautiful island filled with so much sadness and potential.

The show much meant so much to me. It still does. Ironically, a lot of the jokes didn’t land at the time because I was still learning English, but I connected with it, with its characters, with its story and with its culture.

I think it’s time for a re-watch.

Havana

Miami Chemicals

To my Cuban family

I translate bills, interpret expenses,
and pretend I don’t hear you argue about
Cingular, or the rent.
I close my eyes and it’s all dark,
no American dream,
just an endless cycle of the mundane.

The mangoes in our backyard don’t taste as good,
it’s the chemicals in the ground, you say.
In Cuba, everything tasted better,
except for the bitter government.
English is another foreign taste
but I like its many inconsistencies.

In school my accent is an abomination;
but at home I’m the only solution.
Here the white kids have better shoes
and their backpacks are JanSport.
My best friend used a wite-out
to draw a swoosh on his tattered shoes.

There are too many “firsts” expected of me.
Sacrifice is too heavy a burden to carry,
but I do it in silence and knowing
that you gave up a lot more.
So I drown my sorrow in fruity chemicals
because I forgot what truth tastes like.

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