A middle-aged woman entering the neighborhood supermarket caught my attention as I was shopping in the Produce Department. Her demeanor struck me although it shouldn’t have by now. As far back as the early seventies there have been stories about recent arrivals from Cuba reacting to their new surroundings in similar fashion.
I approached her cautiously, asking her if I could be of assistance. Looking at me, she extended her arm and shook her head; there was nothing I could do or that she needed, she meant. She seemed reflective and forlorn. Despite her initial refusal to accept my assistance, I asked her why she cried–as she walked slowly, tears rolling down her cheeks. She echoed a tale precious few besides observant south Floridians could genuinely fathom.
She said she couldn’t stop herself from thinking how for fifty years she had little or nothing to buy in a neighborhood market, where every time she went, the shelves were mostly bare. She whispered how scarcity made it hard to plan a decent meal for her family and how almost always it was hard to know what the next day’s main dish would be.
Clearly it isn’t an abundance of fruit that bedazzles the recent arrivals; it’s the plenitude of bounty. It’s the profusion of everything new to them. Young and old alike lived in Cuba without the basic necessities all their lives and they learned to cope. Their arrival in South Florida leaves them speechless and confused; perplexed because they were brought up listening to Castro’s propaganda telling them they lived in paradise when their exit from the island makes them realize they were merely surviving in Castro’s inferno.
They were taught to trust the government. They were told the US and the other Cubans in exile were lurking behind every news release to grab from them the few possessions they had. Once the automatic doors swing open at any supermarket, their past experience tumbles on top of them and crushes them emotionally as they’re confronted with the lies the government used to keep them at bay over the last fifty-six years.
It’s not just the young who react this way. Anyone born after 1959 is susceptible. The world has been upside down for them since their birth. The change of setting arouses in them strong emotions. They feel betrayed. They feel their life was wasted. They feel unable to cope with so much at once. They’re happy for their escape and sad for the people, the country, their way of life, the loves they left behind, all still enduring the misery.
They also feel the weight of living free, making decisions on their own, weighing possibilities that never existed for them before. It’s like any of us who live in the First World landing in a new region without water, with extreme heat and scarce resources. We could never put in words our contrasting emotions coherently. They’re too many and would come far too fast for any attempt to vocalize them to be successful. As these people, all we could do is cry. This woman cried uncontrollably, as would anyone if they suddenly faced the deception that shaped everything in their life.
It’s probably a human trait to face heightened adversity with tears when we become conscious of our survival hinging upon the individual choices we must make at every turn. Dictatorships are less stressful when their victims only do what the government allows. We can always blame the system if we fail; it’s a safety net of sorts.
Self-determination is overwhelming. Freedom is an awe-inspiring responsibility and it smacks them in the face just about then, when they get to the supermarket and they’re shocked by the affluence of colors, smells, tastes, sounds and products too many of us take for granted and yet so many others of the Third World can’t even imagine when their existence is condemned to a windowless habitat disconnected from the rest of the world.
I count my blessings. I’ve spent here more than 80% of my life. I don’t know first-hand the deprivation these new arrivals endured. I’m glad my parents taught me as a young adolescent the value of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by sending me abroad.