Even to someone from Hialeah, Little Havana was a joke back then, the part of Miami only the most recent of refugees called home, a place tour buses drove through, where old Cuban men played dominos for tourists and thought that made them celebrities. But none of these geographical distinctions mattered at Rawlings. There, when people asked, So where are you from? and I said, Hialeah, they answered: Wait, where? And so I gave them a new answer: Miami, I'm from Miami. Oh, they'd say, But where are you from from? I was from from Miami, but eventually I learned to say what they were trying to figure out: My parents are from Cuba. No, I've never been. Yes, I still have family there. No, we don't know Fidel Castro. Once I learned what I was supposed to say, it became a chant, like the address I'd memorized but didn't think of as home.
[…] I started to tell anyone who asked that Omar was a monster. He was an animal—more like an animal than a human. It seemed like what other people wanted to hear. […] Other girls would feel bad for me and claim they understood: the girl who'd made everyone hot chocolate, Caroline, even went so far as to mention she'd read The House on Mango Street in AP English. She said she knew about the kinds of relationships that plagued my community, had nodded in a solemn way when I told her yes, Omar could be rough. […]
I was happy to have something to add to those late nights in the dorm's common room when I was otherwise quiet, to be included in conversations even if I didn't totally understand the part I was playing. When everyone around you thinks they already know what your life is like, it's easier to play in to that idea—it was easier for me to make Omar sound like a psycho papi chulo who wanted to control me. At the very least, it made trying to make friends simpler than it would've been had I tried to be a more accurate version of myself.
—You're too connected to the whole thing.
I tossed the book on the desk behind me and said—too loud and leaning too far forward—What the fuck does that mean, connected? I'm not fucking related to the kid.
—Don’t get ghetto, Liz, she said. I'm just saying that, no offense, but as a Cuban person, you can't really expect people to believe that you'll be completely rational about this.
She held the water bottle loosely now, between only a couple fingers. I tried to match her ease by leaning back in my chair.
—I was born in this country, I said, not knowing what point I was trying to make.
I righted my chair and tried again. I said, Look, I would argue that I - I can speak more intelligently about this than you because I know more about it than you ever could.
—Wow, she said, her water bottle heading back to her mouth. Let's just leave that there before you get any more racist.
—So our decision to place you on probation is based on things like that, [Dean Geller] said, which taken all together means that we think your old school didn't foster something that we're calling a culture of success. […]
The old man […] half barked, What she's trying to say is we believe you sincerely didn't know better. You haven't been given, at any point in your academic career prior to coming here, the tools to know better. So yes, you are guilty, but you are also blameless, and so that requires a more nuanced penalty.
—Lizet, we feel strongly that, having admitted you, it is our responsibility to help you succeed. And we see no better place for you to do that—
—Remaining at Rawlings, the old man interrupted again, is the fastest way we can see you overcoming these deficiencies.
The balding man and Dean Geller shifted in their chairs, and Dean Geller fixed her eyes on the old man until he met her glare. She seemed embarrassed for me, but I felt humiliated enough on my own, though I didn't really understand why.
I was exhausted and very near tears, actually. I was shocked to find that it did not feel good to be home, to have seen her standing there in the airport. The entire three hours of the last flight, though I’d been nervous about seeing her, I mostly felt very happy to be getting away from Rawlings and that first semester. But spotting her before she saw me in the terminal—in that fake gold outfit, her face oily, her hands fidgeting with the rings on her fingers—had made my stomach turn […] I'd seen my mother in that moment as not my mother; I saw her as a tacky-looking woman, as the Cuban lady the girls on my floor would've seen, alone in an airport. And I did not like that I suddenly had this ability to see her that way, isolated from our shared history.
As much as I was ashamed of my hearing results, by what that long letter stated the committee had decided—that I was the product of a poor environment—I willingly took it: I wanted to be at Rawlings, and I was grateful that they'd taken my background into consideration. I wanted to rise—I used exactly that word in the thank-you e-mail I wrote to the committee after printing out the resource list—to rise above what I'd come from. I'd felt sick as I typed it, felt like a traitor after I hit send, but now at the clash of my mom's bangles as she turned the steering wheel to cut off a car in retaliation for them cutting her off moments before—all the while lowering her window, her arm extending out, then her middle finger at the end of that arm, waving a fuck you as she yelled the same phrase in Spanish at the driver—I knew I'd meant it.
The fourth or fifth time [Leidy] accused me of acting white was the afternoon of my second day home, when I told her how, when I'd gone to pick up Dante from daycare, the girl ranked ninth in my graduating high school class was there, working as a teacher's helper and five months pregnant with her boyfriend-turned-fiancé’s kid. Without really thinking about it, I told Leidy that seeing that girl there was depressing. I think my exact words were, It just really bummed me out. She’d said, What the fuck is bum you out? Jesus, you sound so freaking white. […] I'd hurt her feelings without realizing it, which, based on my time at Rawlings, felt to me more white than anything else I’d done since being back […] My inability to get as upset as my mom about Ariel's possible deportation made me for the first time worry that Rawlings could change me in a way that was bad.
—You don't know shit about sacrifice. You don't know shit about shit!
—Zoila's right, you only care about Ariel because what else do you have going on?
She shoved me again and the room spun […]she was letting me fall. So I reached back instead and caught myself, slid my hands against the sandpaper of the wall, pressed my spine against it and sank to the ground, my butt hitting the floor too fast and too hard.
—You can go to whatever college for as long as you want, but about some things, you'll always be fucking stupid, she said.
She tossed the paper at me on the floor and said, You think you have problems? You, your sister, your idiot tía out there? You made your problems.
She turned her back to me and walked out of the room, screaming as she left, Nobody has any idea what Ariel and Caridaylis are going through right this second, but I do. I know what it means to lose so much. None of you know shit because you haven't sacrificed shit for anyone. Selfish pigs, that's what you and your sister are.
—Damn, El, he said. Do I need to ask if that's a yes? He laughed at his own joke. I didn't look at him—I couldn't yet. I looked at the ring. My
almost-engagement ring. A ring that said, You're a good investment. It felt heavy on my finger.
The grades in bio and chem meant that I'd done so well on the finals that I'd counteracted my earlier failing mid-term exam grades, but the B-minus in my writing seminar meant both that I'd done well on the final paper and that my professor had shown mercy. I latched on to that last aspect—mercy—and instead of basking in the idea that these grades were a huge accomplishment, I sobbed: they'd all let me off easy. I remembered the tone of my hearing and thought, They want to keep their Cuban above water for another semester. […] But almost as quickly, another fact pushed that feeling away: the exams in the chem, bio, and calc courses were graded blindly—we were assigned ID numbers, and only those appeared on our answer sheets. So those scores were, in a way, pure.
I didn't want to see myself anymore—I recognized it as exactly that, even at the beginning of it, when I couldn't name it: Lizet playing a part. I'd thought a shirt from Leidy's clubbing stash would cover me by not covering me, would turn me back into El, but I was separate from her now, aware I was putting her on, and that colored everything. Omar was grabbing my wrists to stop me from running away again.
Her version of our life made me more Cuban than I technically was, degrees of Cuban-ness being something I'd never thought about until Rawlings, until the Where Was I From From question. Mami's invented version made me a more authentic Cuban, and part of me wanted to hear her tell it. I wanted to see how she pulled it off—if she had to convince herself before she could convince anyone else, or if just saying something and having people believe it could make it real.
I felt in that moment the power he held and wielded by accident. He was more than a cute little boy. I had the very strong desire to carry him myself, to fold him into a little ball that fit in the circle of my arms. Hidden behind the pebbles of his baby-toothed grin, you sensed a loss so profound it made anyone want to hold him, to cradle and rock him and say you were so sorry, over and over again. For so many people there, he was a mirror, some version or idea of yourself, some Baby You, fresh off a boat or a plane and alone but still hopeful that what's been set into motion around you is just fine.
[…] Did you see that? There’s something so special in her. God bless her, she is trying so hard.
[…] My mom knew I was the first student from Hialeah Lakes to go to Rawlings even though she never acknowledged it. In the grand scheme of human achievement, I recognize this is not a big deal, but still, when I eventually showed Mami the acceptance letter and pointed out the handwritten note near the bottom stating I was the first, she’d said, Maybe you’re just the first one who ever applied? […]
—Mom, I said. It's not the first time someone’s taken care of a kid. I mean, I get it, but it's not like what she’s doing is actually that hard. She's – she's a glorified babysitter.
She released my arm, almost threw it back at me. Her now-shut mouth, the way she rolled her shoulders to push out her chest, the ugly flash of a tendon in her neck: I knew then this was the wrong thing to say. I didn't even really believe it, but I needed to say it to her. I was trying hard. What I was doing was fucking hard. My mom stared at me so long that her eyes seemed to shake in her head.
Mostly I was disappointed in Leidy and Omar for not recognizing what was really going on with Mami: she was becoming her own person finally, trying to learn who that even was via a newfound passion. So maybe she’d retrofitted the circumstances of her life to fit in to her new surroundings. So what? I of all people couldn't fault my mom for having the wherewithal to adapt her behavior, for being a creature thrust into a new environment and doing perhaps exactly what it took to survive there.
—We never, ever use pencil because we never erase anything. You must keep the mistakes there. Mistakes are vital to every scientist's process. Just put a line through whatever you did incorrectly and keep going.
I wrote down this sentence and stared at it. It made perfect sense. The forgiveness built into this basic research philosophy—so simple and obvious—instantly validated my first semester in a way I could finally accept: everything led to this moment in this lab, the beginning of a new challenge of my own choosing. Put a line through it and keep going—I looked around to the other benches to see if anyone else registered the power of what she'd just said, but I was the only one taking notes, the only one nodding as my pen hovered over the page.
I slapped my own chest and yelled, Why don't you watch the news and figure it out yourself like I did?
—That’s why you're mad at me? EI, what the fuck were you gonna do from up there?
I pointed at him and said, Exactly, Omar! That right there, what you just said? That's exactly why I'm here. To fucking do something since you and Leidy obviously didn't.
—Oh! Okay yeah, he yelled. So now you know how to handle everything, huh? You got it all figured out, don't you. You think you're so fucking smart.
He threw the car in reverse, shook his head as he turned the wheel. I'd made it halfway up the concrete leading to my dad's door when Omar lowered the passenger-side window and yelled my name, made me stop.
—Whose fault is it that you weren't here, huh? Maybe you need to think about that.
—We get the news, you know, up there […] do you have any idea how the rest of the country is seeing this? I'm tired of it. We look like a bunch of crazy people.
—What's with this we crap? he said. I'm not with her, you're not even here.
—We as in Cubans, I said. He smiled with only one side of his mouth. He laughed again.
—You're not Cuban, he said. This hurt me more than anything else he could've said—more than Who cares what anyone up there thinks, more than Like there’s anything coming down here is gonna do—and I think he saw it in my face, saw how impossible what he’d just said sounded to me.
—Don't look at me like that! he said. You're American. I'm wrong?
—Yeah, I said. I'm—what do you mean I'm not Cuban? I was born here, yeah, but I'm Cuban. I'm Latina at least, I said.
—Latinos are Mexicans, Central Americans. You're not that either he said.
—What? Dad, are you—other people think I'm Cuban.
He stood up from the bed and moved out through the door, leaving me alone as he said, Okay, sure you are. Whatever you say, Lizet.
I already know what each would say should I ever have to tell them about an upcoming research trip to Cuba: my dad would talk about being a little disappointed in me, about the unfairness of me being able to travel to a country he can't enter, but he'd mostly not say anything, only leave me guessing at his meaning […]; my mother would bring out familiar words—betrayal, loyalty, traitor—words that have come to define our relationship no matter how much time passes but whose sting has faded and turned into something I can manage […].
To tell them would also mean inviting them along in a way. We still have family there. […] And when I tell them there'll be no time for that, that this is a work trip, that I'll mostly be on the water, in or under a boat, that what they want me to do takes me clear across an island I don't know: Oh, I see. You don't have time to take a piece of paper and a crayon to your grandmother's headstone? You don't have time to do that for me who will never see it? Oh, that's right, of course you don't. I should've remembered how busy you always are. I shouldn't have even asked.
I almost threw the whole thing out. This is too hard […].
But we all know the history, and I'm sure my vote was never counted. I'm sure it sits—even now, probably in that state's capital—in some vault, the envelopes unopened, the paper moldy and dank […].
I wish I'd known as I sat there hovering over that radiator-warmed punch card—having waited until the postmark deadline to commit a decision to it; the little pin that I'd detached from the instructions, which mandated I use only that tool to puncture the spot that proved where my loyalties lay, slipping in my sweaty hand—how pointless it would be. I wish I'd known that no one would ever see it or count it. I wish I’d known, as I pushed through one choice over the other, how little it mattered which side I ended up betraying, how much it would hurt either way.