With my uncle, my aunt, and my three cousins I went grocery shopping at our neighborhood Food Fair Supermarket, in the suburbs, a couple of weeks after arriving in Miami, having left my parents and the rest of my family in Cuba in the early years of the Castro revolution. The outing was my first to venture anywhere in the area. Now six decades later, this otherwise insignificant event remains etched in my memory as a moment of enculturation.
When the electric doors opened as we stepped on the black mat, I saw before me a fully-stocked store with items that had gradually vanished from Cuba’s once-similar ones. Strawberry preserves, sliced bread, butter and cream cheese, the basic components of my normal breakfast were plentiful in the store. Once more my eyes surveilled a full array of meats and vegetables, fruits and paper products filling store bins and shelves in sharp contrast with the realities I freshly recalled leaving behind. The brightly lit, fully packed store displayed in perfect alignment many familiar labels along with some new brands.
As we filled our shopping cart, slowly moving from aisle to aisle, I saw at the opposite end of one of the rows, against the wall, two ceramic water fountains that jetted out next to a pair of swinging doors leading to the Meat Department. Drinking fountains in a grocery store were common in Cuba too, but these were different. Their difference was in their number, two identical fountains, next to each other. I studied them attempting to make sense of their proximity. In the quick conclusions of a young adolescent, I surmised they were meant to eliminate the lines as in recess in school in case more than a single customer wanted to drink at the same time. Yet, there was also the matter that the fountain on the left had the word White stenciled in black paint above it while the one on the right was labeled Colored.
Curious and new to the culture, these water fountains lured me to approach them. They beckoned me to drink from them, to twist the spicket and bend down to sample the water. As I stood there in hesitation, studying their appearance, the one on the left signaled being the very familiar, potable, colorless liquid. The other, however, was intriguing. I imagined a multi-color stream of thirst-quenching liquid flowing from its mouth-piece. The newness made my mouth anticipate with delight the exotic fluid that would fill it to sate my sudden thirst.
There was no sign of indecision as I leaned forward, opening my mouth to capture the colorful liquid stream when through the swinging doors of the Meat Department, a towering-tall butcher wearing a blood-stained apron tapped me above the head in a stern gesture of disapproval. He raised his voice at me for failing to use the correct water fountain, the one on the left. He harshly instructed me that the fountain I was barely two inches away from sampling, was exclusively reserved for blacks.
While my English was rather fluent after a few years in a bilingual school in Cuba, the cultural significance of the event I just experienced was never brought up in class. My American teachers never touched upon this cultural aspect in any of the lessons I sat through in school. Whether it was a careless slip or a deliberate omission–perhaps the product of their embarrassment–has remained for me through the years one of those unknowns we often ponder in the still of sleepless nights when we mentally scan at warped speed some of our unexplained life experiences.
Cuba was an open society in contrast with many others at the time of my recollection, where people of all races were judged by the content of their heart, to quote Dr. Martin Luther King. In Cuba, people habitually worked alongside others of similar abilities irrespective of their race. The child I was while growing up in Cuba never experienced animosity or derision or humiliation or even differentiation towards people of other races. The element that made people strike a friendship while I was growing up were degrees of warmth, sociability, and wit, all elements of what Cubans label simpatía.
As perverse as Castro has painted pre-revolutionary Cuba in his rewriting of history, the most salient trait of our Cuban culture was our innate ability to make friends with one another. Our pre-revolutionary robust economy was a monument to our ability to get along with each other, with foreigners, and with everyone with whom we shared a common interest. While it’s true that Cuba had different social classes, these classes were not based on anything beyond an individual’s ability to succeed in a booming and fluid economic system. Cuba was indeed divided along class lines, but the lines were crossable, not rigid. Pre-revolutionary Cuba pointed with great pride to our largely expanding middle-class, making ours second only to the U.S. in the hemisphere, ostensibly made up of successful entrepreneurs and well-trained professionals.
I was raised in Cuba hearing the phrase mi negro as a term of endearment, an epithet interchangeable with mi amigo. It’s a descriptive term equally used among whites to signal their affection for each other as with blacks or Asians or anyone else cherished by a Cuban of any race. That day in the Miami of 1961 taught me more than a racial distinction. It clashed with the values of my heritage.