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I Rejected My Cuban Identity To Avoid Being "The Other"

02/01/2017 06:21 EST | Updated 02/15/2017 10:52 EST
DOELAN Yann via Getty Images

It was my mother's university degree in computer science that opened the doors to Canada. My parents left Cuba to pursue a better life. That may sound like a really simplified way of saying it, but it's what so many immigrant families are in search of when they come to Canada.

They made a sacrifice and turned away from everything they knew -- their language, customs and their family and friends. They placed my brother and me before all of these things because for them we were worth it.

I was five years old when we left Cuba. I wish I could say I have vivid memories about coming to Canada, but the truth is I hardly remember getting on the plane.

I grew up in Toronto, but just before I began high school we moved further north to a small but growing suburban town. Growing up in the city, I was witness to a multicultural landscape and it wasn't uncommon to hear other languages in the classroom. High school was an entirely different environment, the majority of students were white and the strong lack of ethnic groups made whiteness seem like the standard.

On the first day of high school, first period geography, the teacher wanted to know if there were any students in the class not born in Canada. I casually raise my hand, but when my eyes drifted around the room, I discovered my hand was the only one in the air. I was the only immigrant in a room of 30 students.

raised hand

(Photo: Michael Gottschalk/Photothek via Getty)

The teacher asked where I was born.

I told him I was born in Cuba.

He smiled and said he's been to Cuba and that the beaches are beautiful.

At that moment, I could feel the gazes of each of my classmates. I even remember feeling my cheeks heat up because everyone was looking at me. I didn't like the way I was being looked at, like I was different because I came from another country.

That's the first time I can remember being ashamed of where I came from.

I started to hide and reject my Cuban identity. My white skin and fluent English made it easy for me to blend into the setting. I remember wanting to change where I was born. I think back on this and I hate myself for being so impressionable and intimidated.

Other factors that influenced my perspective were the harmful narratives surrounding immigrants. One of the common filters used to view immigrants is that we're "anti-Canadian" and should work harder to assimilate. Immigrants are often perceived as the "other" or the "alien." It seemed that being an immigrant established you as an inferior non-citizen. As a result, I had a difficult time accepting this part of my identity when the word seemed to be tainted, carrying a deeply ingrained negative connotation.

"It felt like I was juggling two acts, two polar identities, and I didn't know which one I wanted to be."

The long years of communist leadership in Cuba and the violation of human rights, specifically the attacks on freedom, have pushed many to pursue a life elsewhere. The way I saw it, there weren't any reasons to be proud.

I think I really disappointed my parents by rejecting my culture, maybe they felt like I was rejecting them too, rejecting the culture they fought so hard to keep alive within the four walls of our home. I wonder who they saw exactly when they looked at me.

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Not only was I absorbed with a fear of being seen as the "other" because of where I was born, but I was also struggling to get in balance with both halves of my identity.

It felt like I was juggling two acts, two polar identities, and I didn't know which one I wanted to be. At times, it was like I was wearing a mask for each side of my identity and regardless of the mask I chose, the conclusion was always the same: I'm too foreign for either side.

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(Photo: Gettystock)

I would feel ashamed for not trying harder to conform to "Canadian values" and for not relating to the experiences of my white-Canadian friends. In front of Cuban family and friends, I would feel guilty for appearing too Canadian, una gringa, or whitewashed.

While in my mind I could only be one, for my mother I didn't have to choose. She didn't believe it was a conflict between two sides. She saw these two identities as a privilege, a blend of two cultures and two languages that created a mold of who I am.

In hindsight, I regret shutting out this part of me. By casting it aside, I was erasing a part of my identity and allowing Cuba's turbulent history and current immigration narratives to dictate the way I approached my identity.

Instead of battling the differences between the two cultures, I needed to work towards embracing them. My Cuban and Canadian identity is complex, but it gave me two lenses for looking at the world. As I've grown older, I've developed a stronger foundation for my self-identity and realized that only I'm in control of what defines me.

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