Revolutionary Roots

On coming to America.

I am the product of two revolutions. My father’s side of the family emigrated from Nuevo León to Texas in the early 1910s to escape the upheaval caused by the Mexican Revolution. My mother’s side of the family fled Cuba for Florida as political refugees following the success of the Cuban Revolution. Naturally, inheriting this violent, cross-border immigrant history, I grew up in a family subconsciously on the search for stability. I also struggled to integrate my identity as a Texan and American with the fact that my ancestors didn’t want to leave their home countries. The weight of family history shaped by person deeply.

My maternal grandmother and grandfather came from the Cuban elite. The criollo, mostly Spaniard in ancestry, upper crust of Cuban society that could afford to pay house servants, own a city and beach house, and attend cocktail parties at their local yacht club. My grandmother’s father was a nationally renowned lawyer and leader of the national association of Cuban coffee producers. My grandma raised me on stories of her tropical nation, and I have nostalgia for the island that I’ve never been to. Hazy visions of snow white breakers atop crystal clear waves crashing into the finely powdered beach around Guantanamo Bay. Imagined, first-person views of Christmas Eve feasts surrounded by friends and family I could never know, drinking late night espresso and dancing until the arrival of El Niño. I felt that I was a part of this lost time and place, a cultural milieu that I was both extremely close to and tragically far away from. The Cuba of the 1940s-50s is embedded in my psyche as a lost paradise.

My paternal grandmother’s antecedents were members of the mestizo hacendado class in Chihuahua. This caste owned large swaths of the arid, cactus filled countryside and exploited the dispossessed peons indebted to them for all they were worth. My paternal grandfather’s family were from the Monterrey middle class. His father, who crossed the border legally after paying a ten cent entry fee, was a tailor and set up shop near what is now St. Arnold’s brewery close to what is now downtown Houston. As Pancho Villa crusaded across the northern plains enacting on-the-spot land redistribution, my paternal grandmother’s family were forced to cross the border from Chihuahua and move into, first, Oklahoma and then, later, Arizona. Her generation started as migrant farm workers in the cotton fields around modern Phoenix, while my paternal grandfather’s family worked as TV repairmen, industrial manufacturers, and assorted skilled labor in Houston, Akron, and Los Angeles.

Much of the Cuban elite were forced, or voluntarily left, the island in December 1958 as Fidel Castro’s July 26th Movement finally achieved victory over the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The old regime was falling to pieces, but nonetheless many of the criollo class, including my grandmother, anticipated that they would be leaving the island for at most a few months. Just enough time for an enjoyable Miami vacation! They thought that they would be back in time for the balmy Cuban summer. Unfortunately, they were never to return, as Fidel consolidated hold over Cuba. Instead, they found themselves in an unfamiliar country where they didn’t speak the language, had no money (it had been confiscated upon leaving), and few connections other than their fellow political refugees. Luckily, they were a highly educated lot. My maternal grandfather was a chemical engineer and worked for Esso, Exxon’s South American arm, in Cuba while my grandmother was studying for a degree in chemical engineering which was left unfinished after leaving the island (her school records were burned!).

My father’s family assimilated into their adopted hometown, Houston, quite quickly. My grandfather spoke both English and Spanish to get around the barrio he grew up in, but their children, my father and his brothers and sisters, were raised to speak English only in the predominantly white neighborhood they moved into (at the time). Speaking Spanish, or god forbid having an accent, could only hurt them. My grandfather was was in the Army Air Corps and helped support the family by working as a security guard, a TV repairman, and eventually personal trainer for the City of Houston. He was one of the early generation of bodybuilders, and used to eat yeast to pump his gains. My grandmother worked as a school secretary. She referred to herself, and her family, as American-Mexicans, emphasizing that she was an American first and a Mexican second. They were Texans, and Americans, through and through.

My mother was born in Houston a few years after my grandparents arrived in the States. She grew up speaking the refined Castilian of the Cuban elite as she was mostly raised by her great uncle and aunt. The family moved around the country quite a bit, following where my maternal grandfather was stationed for Exxon. Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston, St. Louis. My grandparents divorced fairly early on, and family life was strained. My mom grew up solidly upper middle class, got a degree in psychology, worked in social work for a few years, and then went back to school to get a degree in nursing. She now works as a school nurse, which she loves deeply.

My father grew up in the near northside barrio in Houston and made it out. He joined the Marine Corps as an 18 year old kid,, spent four years in the service and came out on the straight and narrow. He attend the University of Houston Downtown, studied information technology, and entered the corporate world starting off in a series of IT jobs before moving into the oil & gas industry as an engineering technician. He may not love have loved his jobs, but at least he made good money!

I was raised solidly middle class, was lucky enough to attend great schools in my local public school district, studied geology at Texas A&M, and have now gone on to pursue a Ph.D in chemical oceanography back home at Rice University. We’ve achieved the American dream, or at least are in the process of doing so. Every generation of my family in America has improved on the foundations laid down by the previous one. Higher levels of education, higher levels of income, riding the wave of American plenty.

And yet, we did not originally mean to end up here. Both sides of my family were forced to leave their home countries in search of a place of opportunity and stability. They just happened to be near the state that has done perhaps the best job of any to bring in people of all backgrounds, from all around the world, and integrating them into a thoroughly modern, and perhaps alienating, way of life. They ended up in state, Texas, with its own strong sense of civic nationalism, and in a city, Houston, that truly thrives on its diversity. The contingencies of history led to me being born in this place and time, what would have happened had Castro not won? Would some version of me have been born into the Cuban aristocracy? Or would I have enjoyed a sated life in modern Monterrey?

All these extended musings on the history of my family in America is to say, that I have both ambivalent and patriotic feelings about this strange place my family calls home, my home country. My grandmother never left Cuba in her mind, I think. She found the American experience to be surface-level, extremely fake, and hard to come to terms with. She missed the close-knit community she was molded in back on the island, and never fully tried to assimilate into the Protestant, commercial. culture so prevalent here. On the other hand, my father’s family are proud of all they’ve achieved since arriving as relatively poor immigrants. They arrived in a new, alien land and managed to thrive. We have worked hard to get where we are today. We are not rich (yet!), but we have improved our lot. It is my task to improve upon this legacy of hard work. America gave us an opportunity to succeed with relative stability, and for that reason I do love this country, and my home state, very much.