South Florida teens look at politics and culture from 50 years of turmoil.
During the presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama promised to bring changes to Cuban policy. As president, he has since fulfilled one of those promises, lifting restrictions on family travel and on remittances that were imposed by the Bush administration.
We’ve devoted this issue of the Miami Montage to the changing relationship between the United States and Cuba. The prospect of more open relations between the two countries touches all aspects of Cuban and Cuban-American culture, including the arts, religion, travel, the economy, family relationships, sports and gay rights.
For the past 50 years of Fidel Castro’s leadership, the United States has attempted unsuccessfully to change Cuba’s government. Only President Jimmy Carter attempted to make a complete normalization of relations. Now the United States is extending a hand to the Castro government in an attempt to better relations between the two countries.
“The old policy has been a dismal failure. It has never worked because it was completely unilateral,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a young Cuban-American involved in Democratic politics in Miami Dade County.
Part of Obama’s promise is to open up telecommunications with Cuba, which could improve phone connections between the United States and Cuba. The United States is authorizing telecommunications service providers to enter Cuba and operate under agreements with Cuba’s government system. Satellite radio and television operators have been given the opportunity to bring their business to Cubans.
“We are at least extending a hand, and hoping Cuba will react,” said Juan Tamayo, a research associate at the Cuban and Cuban American Institute at the University of Miami. Most experts agree chipping away at the embargo will require gradual work and an openness to change. Sopo said, “You can’t just rip off a scab.”
Some young South Floridians speculate that Obama’s diplomatic approach may lead to democratic values in Cuba, including freedom of speech and religion.
Obama hopes to positively influence civil rights for the communist country and has asked for the release of political prisoners.
“We can expect the State Department to continue to have bilateral talks with the Cuban government about migratory accords,” Sopo said. “What I hope is that we can have an honest and open discussion with the Cuban government about human rights, freedom for political prisoners and the Cuban people’s right to determine their own future.”
Joe Garcia, an unsuccessful democratic congressional candidate and an architect of Obama’s Cuba policy, says it will be an uphill battle. Obama recently nominated Garcia to be director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity for the U.S Department of Energy.
“This is a regime that intends to stay in power forever,” Garcia said, echoing Sopo.
“What’s important is that we pursue a policy toward Cuba that is consistent with our values and recognizes the Cuban people’s God-given right to live in freedom,” Sopo said.
Not all local politicians are as enthusiastic with the new policy. In press reports, U.S Rep. Mario-Diaz Balart (R-Miami) described the Obama policy as a “serious mistake.”
At the heart of the contentious political relationship are two countries with different social values.
For nearly five decades, the Cuban government restricted the practice of any religion. In the ‘90s those restrictions were lifted, after which 60 percent of Cubans said they were Catholic, 5 percent said they were Protestant and the other 35 percent varied. Many immigrants to Miami live a life that does not include religion, as they weren’t raised in homes where religion was central. As Mina Radman writes, a large number of younger Cuban-Americans are atheists.
Jeeyoon Kim writes in this issue about the growing acceptance of the gay community in Cuba. Kim found that Cuba is closer to legalizing gay marriage than ever before. Last year, sex change operations were legalized and covered under the universal health care system.
You’ll find many articles throughout this issue about the generational divide between young Cuban-Americans and their parents and grandparents.
Older generations of Cubans feel that teens are not as closely connected to the culture as they are. Fewer Cuban-American teens speak Spanish, eat Cuban food, celebrate quinceaneras, or participate in Cuban dance.
In addition, unlike the grandparents who played baseball and soccer, many Cuban teens have been turning to American sports like football. Increasingly, Cuban teens identify more with American culture than their own, considering themselves American-Cubans, rather than Cuban-Americans.
Daniela Lazo Cedré reports an increase in arts being influenced by the Afro-Cuban community in Miami. Native Cubans as well as Cuban Americans have begun to influence each other, which has become evident through the use of new instruments, forms and styles.
With the Obama administration attempting to create a relationship between the United States and Cuba, a lot of commotion can be expected in the future from the last remaining Communist country in the Western hemisphere.
“Cuba makes a tremendous amount of noise,” Garcia said.
10 years later, the raid that sent him back to Cuba still is an open wound
Elian Gonzalez dominated headlines in South Florida and across the nation from November 1999 to April 2000.
Now, little is heard of the boy and who he has become.
Elian became the center of a heated custody feud between Cuba and the United States a decade ago. After having been found floating alone in an inner tube near Fort Lauderdale, the 5-year-old boy was sent to live with his cousin and uncle in Little Havana.
During the journey, he witnessed the death of his mother and 10 others in the Florida Straits after their homemade raft fell apart.
Six months later, he was forcibly taken from his American home at 5:15 a.m. and reunited with his father, who took him to Cuba.
He returned to the media spotlight in June 2008 when, at 14, he joined Cuba’s Young Communists with 18,000 others. This was perceived as evidence that Cuban officials successfully convinced the Cuban youth that a communist lifestyle is key to happiness and prosperity. But others argue that Elian might not have had an option.
Cuban youths “don’t have much of a choice in joining the Communist Party,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a campaign strategist and research analyst for Bendixen and Associates.
Jack Cashill, an investigative reporter on American government and politics who wrote that the Elian incident cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000, agrees.
“If your name is Elian Gonzalez, you don’t have much choice about anything,” Cashill said in a telephone interview.
Not everyone in the Communist Party is a loyal follower of the Castro brothers Fidel and Raul. Joining the party clearly has its benefits; by putting on a façade, Cubans may better their own situation in the totalitarian state and live a life that lacks restrictions.
Ana Laura Bermudez, 18, experienced this firsthand while growing up in Cuba.
“As seniority in the party mounts up, you can get a car, or a better house, and definitely way more money,” she said. “You can get (away with) doing things a regular person may have been arrested for.”
Joe Garcia, former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, pointed out that Cuban youths live under a great deal of government control. In many cases, party membership can be the difference between getting a college degree and remaining uneducated.
Still, pledging loyalty to the party doesn’t guarantee a good life. Cuba’s government has a complicated, tangled system of personal connections and “who-knows-who.”
Annabel Escandon, 17, who spent four of her childhood years in Cuba, said, “We had friends who were communists who lived just as badly as us.”
Junior Ramos, 18, who arrived from Cuba only seven months ago, believes it is unlikely that Elian joined Cuba’s Young Communists seeking luxuries.
“(Elian) is a king over there. He does whatever he wants. If he wanted to be president, he could be president,” Ramos said in a phone interview conducted in Spanish.
In the same way he was not seeking luxuries, Elian probably wasn’t seeking connections, either. Ramos said the Cuban government adores Elian, but “the public doesn’t care about those things.”
The Cuban government justified Elian’s pre-dawn capture and return to Cuba in April 2000 by saying it wanted to create a normal life for the boy.
Ironically, Elian is frequently seen sitting next to Fidel Castro at political events.
Escandon said Cuban kids may idolize Elian because he’s been made by the Cuban government into “the portrait of who they (all) should be.”
She went on to say, “He’s brainwashed…they’re not going to let him get out.”
Delfin Gonzalez, Elian’s great-uncle, hopes otherwise.
In October 2001, he bought Elian’s home in Little Havana and converted it into a museum with hope Elian could visit one day.
“We’ll see if, God willing, (the Cuban government) gives him the opportunity and the chance so he may come here because I know he wants to come.
“He wants to return. The thing is he’s under too much pressure,” he said.
Still, Delfin conceded Elian is not likely to return. He said the Castro brothers know that “if they let him return (to America), they may lose control.”
“When you expose people to freedom and human rights…they have a change of heart,” he said.
Cashill supports that idea.
“When the first (cracks) in the wall appear,” he said, “the wall will crumble.”
Cuban-American teens struggle to believe a concept that may be fading.
When Junior Ramos first started the paperwork for his immigration from Cuba to America, he was 11.
Seven years and a couple of plane rides brought Ramos to Hialeah late last year.
He knows that it’s not going to be easy; in fact, he doesn’t believe there’s an American Dream.
“Over here, you have to work long and hard,” Ramos said in an interview conducted in Spanish. “Here, nobody has the American Dream.”
However, Ramos’ belief contrasts with those of another man who came in 1961, two years into Castro’s rule.
Like the man, who didn’t want to be identified for this story, many Cubans were faced with the decision to either stay on the communist island or to leave.
The man said the desire “to look for freedom of speech and run away from communism” was what forced him off the island.
“I expected to find a new job and make a new life,” explained the 69-year-old Cuban-American. “The American Dream is very much alive.”
These conflicting Cuban-American perceptions revolve around the generational divide, according to Joe Garcia, a Cuban-American long involved in U.S.-Cuba relations and now the nominee for director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity at the U.S. Department of Energy.
“They lived a significant portion of their lives within the communist regime, so their perspective is a little bit different,” said Garcia of the political views of Cubans who came to Miami after 1980.
When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Cubans began to leave the island in waves in pursuit of another life.
But not all Cuban-Americans ended up leaving for the same reasons.
Earlier immigrants came to America for political reasons, while later immigrants came for economic reasons, according to Vanessa López, research associate at the University of Miami’s Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.
Today, with the United States in the midst of a recession, jobs are hard to come by. So teens like Ramos are disenchanted.
Statewide unemployment rates were more than 10 percent as of May 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In Hialeah, where the population is predominantly Cuban-American, that number has been as high as 13.5 percent, according to Mayor Julio Robaina.
However, Cubans who came to South Florida during the earlier waves were fortunate enough to find themselves in an economic vacuum.
“The first wave of immigrants saw an enormous amount of success, just because there were so many opportunities and everything was still so raw, especially in the South Florida community,” Robaina said.
Therefore, these hard-line, first-generation Cuban-Americans have a much more optimistic view of the American Dream.
“The economic opportunities were greater for the ones that came earlier,” Garcia said.
Not only have they had more opportunities, but earlier generations have also had more time to adapt to the economy.
Therefore, the “grandmother” would be unlikely ever to return to the island to live, said Giancarlo Sopo, a democratic strategist at Bendixen and Associates, the Miami-based polling and consulting firm.
However, according to the mayor, younger Cuban-American immigrants may consider returning, even if their only intention is to enjoy a nearby vacation.
“I think that the more recent generations, the ones that don’t have strong roots in this community, are going to weigh their options,” Robaina said.
“Yes, I would go to visit,” Ramos said, “but not to stay and live.”
Even Cuban youths who were born in America have considered returning to Cuba.
This group meets the subject with similar ambivalence.
“If the communist system fell then yes, maybe,” said Barbara Rassi, 18, of moving to Cuba, where she has family.
A Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High graduate, she will be attending Harvard this fall.
But for now, many Cuban-Americans will have to rely on faith in the United States and faith in the expectations that brought them here.
“Even though we’re in a crisis,” Ramos said, “it is going to continue to be a great country.”
21 students gather at the 26th annual workshop; key people tell how they sustained it over time.
When Daniella Cioffi stepped onto the University of Miami campus last July, she had no idea what to expect.
“I was wearing really casual clothing and we got to work right away,” said Cioffi, 18, a recent graduate of Miami Killian Senior High who will attend the University of Miami in the fall.
“I think that’s when I understood how serious and tedious this was going to be.”
Cioffi is a former participant of the James Ansin/Peace Sullivan Workshop in Journalism and New Media at the University of Miami, July 5-25.
The 2009 workshop offered 21 high school students from Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties the opportunity to create a tabloid newspaper, the Miami Montage.
This year, two students traveled from Puerto Rico and St. Petersburg to participate.
The students also worked on producing multimedia videos, a Web site and a blog.
“The program gives kids a chance that they normally wouldn’t have at their own high schools,” said Sam Grogg, dean of the UM School of Communication.
James Ansin and Peace Sullivan are major contributors of the program, along with the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and the Miami Herald.
James Ansin is the general manager of WSVN-Channel 7, the local Fox affiliate in Miami, while Peace Sullivan is a philanthropist, retired journalist and psychoanalyst.
Ansin and Sullivan offer a half scholarship to one workshop participant to pursue journalism at the School of Communication.
UM provides the other half, based on the student’s financial need.
“The best part about the scholarship is that it’s helping you make the commitment to a future in journalism,” said Steve Pierre, 18, a recent graduate of Miami Edison Senior High, and a former workshop participant.
“It’s a morale booster and a gift toward your dreams.”
Pierre and Cioffi share the 2008 Sullivan/Ansin scholarships at UM.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the workshop, which was founded in 1984 by Bruce Garrison, a UM journalism professor.
At the time, the workshop was a minority program, focused on introducing young journalists in the Hispanic and African-American communities to journalism.
“I thought it was important to bring diversity into our program,” said Garrison, in an e-mail.
The program began as a seven-day crash course. Garrison recalled the long nights and endless hours the students committed to produce the workshop newspaper.
“We never seemed to have enough money or enough time,” Garrison said. “But, in the end, it worked.”
Garrison left the program after 15 years and UM journalism professor Tsitsi Wakhisi took over. Then, the workshop grew to two weeks.
“Imagine doing all (this work) in a span of 10 days instead of three weeks,” Wakhisi said, a former Miami Herald editor.
With the help of Ansin and Sullivan, the program has evolved into an intensive three-week experience.
As the students work to produce the newspaper and multimedia, they are introduced to college life by living on campus.
Students adjust to living with a roommate, sharing bathrooms and facilities, and being away from their parents and homes.
“The dorms were a place to unwind coming back from a long day,” said Aura Altamiranda, 17, a former workshop participant and senior at Miami Sunset Senior High.
“That’s mostly where we got to know everyone. I was surprised how close we all became after the three weeks.”
The workshop also helps students understand the importance of teamwork.
“If one person on the team slacks off, the whole team suffers as a result,” said Robert Hosmon, vice dean of the School of Communication.
Professional journalists are brought in as guest speakers to introduce students to the journalism industry.
Former workshop participants, including Miami Herald foreign correspondent Jacqueline Charles, have gone on to work in broadcast and print journalism.
“I knew journalism was what I wanted to do,” said Rudy Tomarchio, a former workshop participant who now is a writer at WSVN.“The workshop is a good crash course in what it takes to be a semi-pro. You’re learning in a matter of days to do what professionals do every day.”
Yves Colon, the current workshop director and UM journalism professor, describes the main goal of the program.
“Hopefully we’ve stoked their interest during the three weeks that we are here,” said Colon, a former Miami Herald reporter and editor who is in his second year of directing the workshop.
“The students have had the opportunity of really doing great stuff, which encourages them to go on and do more.”
Cuban-American teen athletes more drawn to American football.
Eric Ordenza was 8 years old when he started playing football with friends in his neighborhood.
His father, a former soccer player, and his mother, a former volleyball player, expected their son to play a sport more traditionally Cuban.
When he told them he was going to play football, they were briefly upset.
“At first, my parents did not like me playing football,” he said. “They were surprised I wasn’t playing soccer, but after one game they liked it.”
In South Florida, Cuban-Americans are gravitating more and more toward sports other than baseball.
Fifty years after Fidel Castro established his communist government, Cubans and Cuban-Americans are becoming more Americanized by sports like football, which was not played on the island when their parents or grandparents lived there.
There are players in programs at universities around the country. Some Cuban-American players have been drafted into the National Football League.
There is even a Cuban-American, Mario Cristobal, coaching in Division I football at Florida International University.
As President Barack Obama seeks to ease tensions between the United States and Cuba, more Cubans will get wind of football and other American customs, teens in Miami say.
Max Ramos, 17, a recent graduate of Sunset Senior High, played on the football team’s offensive line.
“It is a new thing among athletes my age,” he said.
“The teams I played against had a lot of Cuban-Americans, and it is a growing thing.”
Matthew Romeu, 15, is a freshman on the varsity football team at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School, where he plays wide receiver and tight end for the Trojans.
His father played high school football and got his son interested in the game by showing him pictures and telling him stories.
Tony Chalita, 18, a graduate of La Salle High, where there were about 30 Cuban-Americans in the football program, was on the offensive line. Chalita said he believes players will continue to play baseball and play football as well, calling it a mixture of both sports.
Ian Noa, 17, a rising senior, is another football player from La Salle. Noa plays on the defensive line and has played football from a young age. Noa said he believes football is becoming more popular with Cuban-American athletes than baseball.
“Football gets more hype so when they (Cuban-Americans) see baseball get less attention, they will switch,” he said.
Zachary Coker, 18, is a La Salle alumnus whose father played high school hockey and whose mother came from Cuba. He was on the offensive line with Chalita, playing center and long snapper.
Coker started playing football when his brother, a former quarterback, taught him how to play. He said his family loved that he played football since it helped him in school.
Miguel Gonzalez, 26, is a practicing lawyer who played at Coral Reef Senior High as wide receiver and tight end. Gonzalez played college football for one year at Hanover College in Indiana.
Gonzalez said he believes that the recruiting for colleges in South Florida has a lot to do with the decision of what is played.
“When kids reach high school, the number of Cuban-American kids that play baseball drops off,” he said.
Gonzalez still loves football and thinks other Cuban-American athletes will love football as well.
“It is a sport everyone relates to; as the Cuban and Cuban-American populations grow, more athletes will play football or basketball rather than baseball,” he said.
If Obama’s diplomatic overtures are successful, there could potentially be more exchanges of sports customs. Ramos of Sunset thinks football might be one.
“Since Cuba is so close to Florida,” he said, “I can see a future for football in Cuba.”
Cuban teens share American trends, pop culture, but must be clever in how they get them.
If you go shopping at Lincoln Road Mall, Aventura Mall, Sunset Place or The Falls, you’ll see teens sporting colorful Converse sneakers, listening to iPods, talking about “Twilight” or gossiping about the latest news on Facebook.
You’d see little of this in Cuba, where high-tech gadgets and U.S. fashions cannot be exported to Cuba because of the economic embargo established 50 years ago.
However, the Cuban government can do little to Cuban citizens who manage to get these products into the country.
Many Cuban teens get their hands on the latest electronics through relatives in other countries or on the black market.
“(Cubans are allowed to) use things like iPods, laptops, cell phones” and other products, said Gretchen Betancourt, 16, a young actress in Cuba who now attends International Studies Charter High School in Coral Gables.
During the administration of former President George W. Bush, family visits were limited to once every three years, but people knew how to get around this by flying to Mexico, the Cayman Islands or Canada, then catching a flight to Cuba.
President Barack Obama has loosened this restriction to once a year, further easing the economic embargo on the island, making it possible for Cubans to buy more U.S. consumer goods.
The U.S. Department of State allows people to bring books, films, tapes and CDs but not blank tapes and blank CDs, which the Cuban government will seize.
Given that the baggage weight limit is 44 pounds, the image of a Cuban-American walking into Miami International Airport wearing several layers of clothes, multiple hats – all in order to be able to carry more items back home – has become iconic.
What teens want the most are not necessarily the latest fashions, but clothing in general.
“Brands are not really a concern. If they think it’s American, they probably want it,” said Andrea Pino, a 17-year-old senior who is Cuban-American and attends International Studies Charter High School in Coral Gables.
If visiting relatives don’t bring clothes, fantasy novels and music, teens can usually find the items they want on the black market.
Junior Ramos, a recent Cuban immigrant living in Hialeah, said the black market, known in Cuba as “por la izquierda,” meaning “on the left,” is an underground economy in which all kinds of things are bought and sold without any regard to government control, taxes, law or rules of trade.
Those familiar with the black market say it is essential to the Cuban economy. A former black market dealer now living in Miami – and who asked to remain anonymous because what he did is illegal – said that he sold goods to “be able to live, eat, survive.”
Because the Cuban economy is weak and consumer goods are scarce, selling or buying items, especially staples like food or clothing, has become a common practice.
Ration cards that Cubans use to buy food don’t go far, so most Cubans are forced to go “on the left” to get their provisions, recent immigrants say.
A 2006 Washington Post story described a man in Cuba who covertly sells food from his home to those who pass by.
Chicken packed his freezer and the fridge held three large flans – egg custards – because he had acquired a large number of eggs.
Milk is an important commodity in Cuba, according to Elizabeth Salerno, 21, in the fourth year of an undergraduate/masters program in Latin American Studies at the University of Miami.
Only mothers of children 7 and younger can get it in supplies for one day. However, she said many people buy more milk for their children “on the left.”
“Most people have a friend who knows somebody (in the black market)…and they get them some milk,” Salerno said.
Something sold on the black market can be affordable or expensive, depending on the item and its availability.
“You (can)…find iPods and MP3s from tourists who bought them from Venezuela, but they (are) very rare,” the former black market dealer said.
“Any American electronics that are sold have to get there via a third (country), so they are more expensive than here, because of the indirectness of the trade,” Salerno said.
Black market shoppers can find shopping bags, movies and music, even satellite dishes.
Soap operas and shows like the talk show Cristina are favorites, but when viewers catch word of a police sweep, they scramble to dismantle the dishes and hide them under the floorboards of their home or in their attics.
The Cubans who have the dishes then make their own bootleg copies of the TV shows to sell on the left.
“The people that have dishes get the TV shows from the U.S., record them on VHS, and sell them to others to watch at home,” said Maryann Batlle, 23, a student at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Buying an iPod or anything else on the black market is risky, exposing both seller and buyer to huge fines or even jail sentences.
Melissa Schwartzbaum, a 17-year-old student at Miami Beach Senior High School, gave a simple reason why teens are willing to take risks to buy lobster and chicken, and luxuries like iPods and Converses.
“Because everybody else does,” she said. “They don’t want to feel left out.”
Emotions run high in families still hurting 50 years after fleeing Castro’s revolution.
Anabel Miguelez sits down in the kitchen while her mother, Vilma, cooks arroz con pollo.
Nearby, her grandmother, Olelia Barreto, watches the telenovela “Mañana es para siempre.”
With buds in her ears, Anabel is listening to the American pop techno singer Lady Gaga on her iPod.
Anabel, her mother and grandmother represent three generations of Cuban-Americans under the same roof of their Homestead house.
But the three women hold different sentiments about the island’s dictator – and none can agree on whether returning to the island would be a blessing or a curse.
Like many other Cuban-American families with multiple generations living in Miami, they share few interests. Neither of the older women like Anabel’s music, and the 17-year-old doesn’t share their passion for bolero music and telenovelas.
One thing they agree on, though, is their hate for former Cuban President Fidel Castro – and their promise to never return to the island as long as Castro and brother Raul, the current president, are in power.
This is significant, given that President Barack Obama recently loosened travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans, allowing family members in Miami to see loved ones more often and send greater amounts of money to Cuban relatives, among other changes.
In a 2009 poll by Miami public opinion research firm Bendixen & Associates, 72 percent of Cubans and Cuban-Americans said they still do not plan to travel to Cuba.
The survey did show that more than 240,000 Cuban-Americans want to travel to Cuba in the next two years.
And a Miami Montage poll conducted this month indicated that more than 67 percent of South Florida teens, regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality, would consider traveling to Cuba when travel restrictions are eased.
“I have my whole life here, and I don’t need to go,” said grandmother Olelia Barreto, who was reared in Cuba and only speaks Spanish.
Vilma Miguelez shares those sentiments.
“There are limitations, and their way of living is horrible,” said Vilma, a Spanish speaker who occasionally drops in a few words of English. She recalled having to work in the fields during school, memories that still haunt her.
Anabel works part-time at a Cold Stone Creamery ice cream shop in Kendall. Unlike her mother and grandmother, Anabel mainly speaks English at home and with friends, and she doesn’t share an intense passion for the Caribbean island.
That disparity comes to light on a Sunday night, when the family gathers in the kitchen. A news report about Fidel Castro appears on the television and a shaken Olelia calls her daughter, Vilma, who becomes rattled as well. The image of the Cuban dictator makes both women grow cold with anger. Vilma takes a moment to calm her mother down.
But that image draws few emotions from the youngest woman in the group, a Miami native who feels she can’t relate to the loss felt by her mother and grandmother when they fled Cuba’s communist government, a reality Anabel has never experienced.
The teenager has never visited the island and feels she can’t be attached to something she doesn’t know.
“I don’t know anyone there,” said Anabel, a senior at John A. Ferguson Senior High School. “Why would I go if I have everything here?”
She is not alone, but Cuban-American families have mixed feelings about the idea of returning to the island.
Barbara de la Paz, who was born in Havana and fled on a shrimp boat when she was 15 years old, doesn’t care to return to the communist nation.
Her daughter Carina, 18, who recently graduated from the School for Advanced Studies at Miami-Dade College, would like to go, because she wants to finally see the island that her parents have always spoken about.
“I want to see the places my parents and grandparents talk about for myself,” Carina said.
Like Anabel and several young Cuban-Americans, Carina respects her parents’ and grandparents’ feelings about Cuba, but she is trying to follow her own path.
“I’m happy to know that I’ll be allowed to visit soon,” she said.
A glimpse into the lives of Cuban teens living in Havana.
Stephanie Rosell blended into a crowd of white-collared uniform shirts and short yellow skirts.
She was graduating from the ninth grade at Conservatorio Alejandro Garcia Carturla and saying goodbye to her classmates in Havana, Cuba.
They had been very close for the past four years.
“We signed each other’s uniforms before leaving,” Rosell said in Spanish. “Everyone got along at school and so we all started to cry.”
Like her peers, she feels unprepared and is not looking forward to high school, where professors will replace the classroom television screens that taught her and classmates for years.
The Cuban school system, once hidden, will now be subject to the eyes of Americans, as President Obama’s travel policies open relations with the communist nation.
On the island, many teachers have left for better paying professions and televised classes are taking over the classrooms. Students feel teachers are more like babysitters than teachers.
“I don’t like school,” Rosell said. “No one cares about anything.”
Like Americans going through a period of teen angst, what kept Rosell going was participating in the music program with 50 other students in her middle school.
She is now awaiting acceptance into the Escuela Nacional de Arte, one of the only art schools in Cuba.
“I hope I got accepted so that I can continue to study the violin at the high school level and then later study at the university level at the Instituto Superior de Arte, which is the only art university here in Cuba,” she said.
“I want to be part of a jazz group when I grow up.”
Rosell is unlike most Cubans teens reared as atheists. She is a practicing Baptist and feels God is an important element in her life.
On Sunday, while people on the island are going about their day, Rosell goes to church at Iglesia Bautista de El Cerro, where her father is pastor.
She also participates in a Saturday church program that focuses mainly on youth problems in Cuba, and frequents casas culto, worship services held at church members’ houses.
Casas culto emerged as a result of limited places of worship due to the growing population of evangelical Christians. Rosell attends these often with other teens as they pray, sing and discuss religious topics.
Most teens in Cuba are not reared with religious beliefs and so they find other outlets of expression in art and music. Yet unlike in Miami, the options are limited because of the lack of entertainment venues.
One of the only well-known teen hang-outs in Havana is El Parque G (G Park), a place where rockeros (rockers) listen to metal music over loud speakers as others stand near the park filled with tiny trees.
“Some people even make engravings on the bark, such as hearts and initials,” Naivi Texier said in Spanish. The 14-year-old immigrated to the United States two months ago.
When she lived in Havana, Texier’s friends went to Discoteca Ticoa, a club where teens go to dance salsa and reggaeton.
As in Miami, where reggaeton is one of the most popular forms of music, the majority of Cuban teens listen to local reggaeton groups from Havana, such as Baby Loren y El Chacal and Clan 537. Music from more popular artists, such as Daddy Yankee and Wisin y Yandel, can also be heard from iPods and radios on the streets.
“I don’t really like these groups much because their lyrics are very offensive,” Texier said.
“In Cuba, many teens love it because they don’t care that the songs have bad words as long as it has a good rhythm.”
In Cuba, Texier always wanted a $180 iPod and an $80 pair of Converse sneakers, but in order for her father to afford that, he would have to forgo his salaries for a year and a half.
“The money we had was mainly for food and basic stuff,” Texier said.
“Only people who received money regularly from family in la Yuma (U.S.) could get them. My parents would’ve never been able to afford an $80 pair of shoes.”
It was not until Texier moved to the United States two months ago that she bought her first pair of Converse sneakers.
She wears them almost every day. When watching movies at her local Muvico 14 theatre in Hialeah, Texier remembers the dubbed versions of “Ice Age” and “Harry Potter” she watched in Cuba.
“My favorite movie is ‘The Devil Wears Prada’,” Texier said. “I love all the different clothes Hathaway would wear and all the different things she had to do,” she said, wearing a white Aeropostale top and an Old Navy patterned skirt she bought one month after her arrival.
While teens are in tune with pop culture, adults are more preoccupied with what they will eat the next month.
Rosell’s family, like most other families in Cuba, is given a monthly ration card known in Cuba as la libreta de racionamiento.
Texier’s father, Orlando, 44, remembers that finding food was a constant struggle.
“The rations only served me for 10 days,” the elder Texier said in Spanish.“The rest of the month, I had to find other means for food.”
Every month, people are allowed to buy about 1 pound of rice, 1 pound of chicken, half a pound of fish, 10 eggs, 4 pounds of white sugar and 10 pounds of brown sugar.
The ingredients serve to make Rosell’s typical rice and bean meals, but her heart lies elsewhere.
“I also love pizza, which is harder to find.” she said.
Texier shares Rosell’s passion for the American-style combination of cheese and dough.
“It was so hard to find even one pound of beef,” she said. “The only way others could find it was por la izquierda,” she said, referring to the black market, which has become a parallel economy that many Cubans rely on to survive each month.
Texier now lives in a two-bedroom Hialeah apartment with her parents and grandparents. Every night, she takes out her foldable mattress and sleeps beside her parent’s bed, her grandparents in the next room.
“I miss my brothers, my aunt, my other grandparents, my cousins, my friends, and even my neighbors, but I’m happy here because I get to experience something different,” she said.
“I love my country, but here, there is more opportunity for adolescentes.”
New language redefines culture for youth, upsets older generation.
Say mariposa to a Cuban grandmother and chances are, she’ll think of a butterfly.
To a teen, it’s slang intended as an insult to a gay person.
Spanish is shifting, especially in Miami, where Cubans have transformed the language into a new one by introducing slang: Dale, broder (Go for it, bro), ¿Que bola acere? (What’s up?), ¡Oye, meng! (Hey, man), ¿Donde está la guagua? (Where is the bus?), and more.
As a result, some teenagers struggle to converse with Spanish-speaking family in their native tongue.
“The first generation has proper Spaniard European Spanish,” said Emma Trelles, a Cuban-American poet.
By contrast, she said, the younger generation has made up words like frisando (freezing) that grandparents don’t relate to.
Some of the change for young Cuban-Americans is being driven by Cuban-American rap artists such as Los Primeros.
In a group interview, the rappers said their Spanish is “more modernized,” mixing in English to create a new language they called “Espanglish.”
The musicians say they use this mixture to create slang that reaches out to the younger generation.
Younger Cuban-Americans even change the language in ways that might upset their grandparents.
“The Spanish has changed a lot because they (teens) speak it very poorly,” Marta Guerra, a Cuban-American grandmother in Miami, said in a Spanish interview. “(Even) people that come from Cuba speak very badly. I can’t understand them.”
“The young people speak English all day and they do not practice the Spanish.”
Trelles said she believes the changing language is not a result of the generation gap.
In many cases, the level of Spanish is shaped by how parents rear their children.
“In some homes the Spanish is better in the newer generation than in the previous,” Trelles said.
“There are so many Spanish speakers plus a constant wave of immigrants coming in, that the Spanish is still strong.”
That’s not always the case. In fact, some Cuban-Americans don’t speak any Spanish.
Jon Rukes, 16, a junior at West Boca High School, is among them and he experiences problems as a result. To communicate with his grandmother, he has to have his mom translate.
That bothers Rukes.
“I think it’s a shame, because we’ll never really be as close as we would be had we shared a common language,” Rukes said.
It’s a shame for kids not to know Spanish, says Barbara “Carina” de la Paz, 18, who recently graduated from the School for Advanced Studies at Miami Dade College.
“The kids could be more cultural by being bilingual,” she said.
De la Paz says that if she had not learned Spanish, she wouldn’t be able to talk to her family.
She describes her own Spanish as “archaic,” because she learned it from her grandmother.
She calls it “grandma Spanish.”
Her parents also forced her to speak Spanish. Once when her dad asked a question in Spanish and de la Paz answered in English, her dad said, “Why did you answer in English? I didn’t ask you in English.”
For Nicole Martinez, 19, Spanish was her first language.
“It’s hard to understand how a Cuban family wouldn’t teach their kids Spanish,” said Martinez, a student at Florida International University. Spanish was encouraged by her family, and when she spoke incorrectly, her grandparents corrected her.
Similarly, grandparents may misunderstand when teens use slang, but that probably won’t stop the language from shifting.
Aunque no le cuadre a los abuelos (Even though grandparents don’t like it) y parezca algo fula, (and feel it’s annoying) a la juventud le parece que todo está en talla (the youth feel there is nothing wrong with it.)