Posted: December 26, 2011 in New York City

I had squeezed all the juice out of Miami and there wasn’t anything left for me.  It wasn’t like I left town. It was like the town left me. You’d think that being Hispanic, I would feel at home living in a city where practically everything was in Spanish.  But it wasn’t  the same city I grew up in.  It felt like new people had arrived, claimed their territory and changed the city to fit their needs. Besides,  I knew Miami inside and out. I had gone to every festival, attended every happening, seen Miami Beach’s rebirth from a place where old folks go to die to the cosmopolitan bullshit it is today,  until the idea of going anywhere again was just eyes-rolling-into-the-back-of-your-head boring.

The only thing Hispanic about me is my love for the food,  and that isn’t much of a stretch because I love food anyway. But give me a ceviche over fish and chips any day. I’ll take a churrasco over a cheeseburger in a heartbeat. There’s nothing like a Cuban tortilla with ham and cheese for breakfast. And Cuban coffee! Don’t get me started about Cuban coffee. In my book, it makes American coffee taste like dish water.

But still, except for maybe a soup bone, there is barely a Latin bone in my body, despite the fact that I can speak it fluently. I also know and understand the various cultures and nuances of the different Latin countries, having  worked most of my life marketing for the different Hispanic niches in the United States. That’s why it drives me crazy whenever I see an American movie portraying a Cuban eating a Mexican taco, or a Colombian character with an accent indicating he was from anywhere but Colombia. That’s like making a movie about New York and having everyone speaking with a Southern accent. It showed a tremendous lack of interest in detail and was insulting to boot.

But besides all that, all my traits are pretty Anglo. I think in English, have to think twice when finding the right words to say in Spanish, can’t stand telenovelas, Sabado Gigante  or ANYTHING else on Spanish TV and I can’t dance salsa or merengue even if someone put a gun to my head and demanded it. On the other hand, I’ve seen some excellent Spanish language films that are in line with the best of Hollywood; and play me anything by Juan Luis Guerra and my spirit is filled with happiness, almost as if it were a song by The Beatles.

Most of my friends are Latin too, so I have nothing against Latin people. I have nothing against any race in fact. But sometimes it felt reversed. Some Latins seemed to have something against me. I’ve been criticized for not being Spanish enough. How can I not have read anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez? I’m Peruvian and I’m not familiar with the works of Mario Vargas Llosa.? That’s all true. I preferred Dickens and Wolfe and Updike, but at least I know the titles of these other writers’ books. And I love Cantinflas although I hate Chespirito.  But you’ve never been to Macchu Picchu? No, but I’ve been to Hialeah.

At work, I was accused of thinking like a “gringo”. I was condemned to recently having to come up with concepts for TV car commercials, after years of producing and directing documentaries and other projects I could hang my hat on. Now, every month, I had to find an original way to sell an Altima. One month, I thought it would be funny to dress a guy up like the devil and pretend it’s the car dealer’s conscience. The “devil” would be played by an overweight actor wearing a hokey costume with horns and a cape, and he would want a car with really good AC because it was so hot down there. The idea was shot down by the Nicaraguan owner of the ad agency because he felt it was too “gringo”. I explained that the commercial was for the English language market so the fact that it may be ”too  gringo” was a moot point, although to this day I still don’t understand what was so “gringo” about it. He wasn’t listening to my explanation however and decided to change my idea by animating an angel and a devil conscience hovering over the car dealer. I don’t know how that made it less “gringo”, but since he was too cheap to pay for real animation, the cartoon figures moved like a bad “South Park” rip-off. So much for setting trends in car commercials.

I don’t even look Latin. One day, I went to fill up my car and stood in line behind four other people to pay for the gas. In Miami, you pay for the gas before you fill your tank. I always thought it interesting that whenever I would leave the South Florida area, you no longer had to pay for gas first. They actually trusted you north of Yeehaw Junction to fuel up and then walk into the store and pay for the fuel. Anyway, I noticed that everybody in front of me spoke Spanish to the attendant. The attendant was a heavy set old lady who found something to complain about every time a person asked for something other than gas.

A pack of chewing gum? “Ay, Dios mio!” she’d exclaim and would rudely tell the customer to hold on as she slid off her stool to waddle over and get the gum.

A lottery ticket? “Esperate, chico!” she’d ask them to wait as she put on her glasses to pick exactly which one of the myriad lotto tickets they wanted. I just “love” people who buy lottery tickets. They spend at least fifty bucks on every known combination of every lottery game, then sit there blocking you as they scratch, scribble and sniff their way into disappointment. I always feel like shaking them and telling them “Hey! Face it! You’re not going to win shit! You have a better chance of getting hit by a truck walking out of here than winning the lotto! And even if you do win something, it’ll probably be less than all the money you’ve spent on these tickets anyway! Do something useful with your money, like gambling on a cockfight or something and get out of my way!”

Once it was finally my turn to ask for gas from Miss Congeniality, I was grateful I only wanted to fuel up. But I decided to speak to her in English instead.

“Twenty dollars on pump five please.”

She looked at me as though I was speaking in code. But she knew exactly what I said because without uttering a word, she took my money and released the pump. She was so fast helping me that I wondered if she thought I would call Immigration on her if she dawdled just a bit. I left the gas station very satisfied with the prompt service and decided that from now on, I would always ask for everything in English. I felt sorry for those who lived here and only spoke English. I’d seen many of them wandering aimlessly about the city, desperately clutching at sleeves and pleading in English for someone to understand what the hell they were saying. They were all met with shrugs. The key was to speak English but understand Spanish as a backup. I felt as if I had just stumbled into some brilliant discovery.

Of course not all Latins were like that. I noticed that the ones who had been in America the longest, such as those in the Cuban community, or those whose parents had moved from some Latin country and were brought up in America,  were really the ones who understood and respected the American system and, although they still proudly embraced their ethnicity, also proudly embraced American culture as part of themselves. But some of the people who had recently arrived from other countries expecting a land where the streets are paved with gold, they were the ones who were having the greatest difficulty assimilating. They believed what they saw in the movies and on TV. It was a shock to them when they discovered that life here wasn’t easy, that the only advantage to living in the USA was that you had opportunity. But it was still hard work. And they worked hard alright, God bless them, but they couldn’t understand why there were so many damn rules,  why you couldn’t bribe a cop, why everything,  even a parking space, cost something.

I never felt a citizen of the Spanish speaking world. I felt a citizen of the entire world. So I came to a point in my life when I realized it was time to move on. I had outgrown the city. As a citizen of the world, I had to live in a city that represented the entire world.  But how was I going to do it? Should I just quit my job? During a recession? I would have to be crazy. And what was I going to do about all my furniture? What about my daughter? She was still in high school. I only knew two things for certain. I knew what my girlfriend Helena wanted to do, and I knew what city I wanted to live in.  It wasn’t until some time passed and things began to resolve themselves that I realized one very important thing: When God gives you a window to jump through, you better be smart enough to realize it’s there, close your eyes and fucking jump.

  1. rafael zalvidea says:

    Robertito querido,
    Me emocionó mucho leer tu carta. Escribes muy bien. Toda tu historia es muy entretenida y sentí mucha empatía con tu situación, ésa, la de tener una doble ciudadanía cultural. En mi caso fue la de sentirme latino y francés a la vez, sólo que en Francia, desde que me veían la cara (y esto se ha vuelto mucho peor ahora: son abiertamente xenófobos) para ellos jamás fui, ni seré francés, aunque lo hable perfecto, con un vocabulario muy superior al del francés medio y hasta del francés bastante cultivado (pues lo que estudié fue literatura y en La Sorbona). Con mi cara, siempre fui un extranjero, (sobretodo un árabe pues es lo que ellos más conocen) y terminé por cansarme. A ti te ha pasado al revés: te estás yendo de tu ciudad natal y te vas a New York, como FranK Sinatra, dónde: if you can make it there, you can make it any where. Te deseo mucha suerte, aunque estoy seguro que te va a ir mejor que nunca. Un fuerte abrazo, sobrino. Dale otro a Gustavito de mi parte y que tengan un feliz 2012.
    Rafael Zalvidea


  2. Daniel Roujansky says:

    Robert, or as I prefer to call you Bob, your observations are keen ones which for a hispanic takes a lot of guts to admit. Most people in this community wear blinders and although they say that they are assimilating, do so on their own terms, which usually alienates the masses. However you should be proud that you are objective enough to make the observation and do something about it.

    I believe that more people if surveyed would feel the same way that you do and I know the subject of relocation often comes up in our household as well.

    If you don’t take chances in life, you live with regrets for the rest of your life! As John Lennon once said . . . “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans”.

    Be bold, have fun and look at the glass as half-full and you won’t go wrong. Stay in touch and be happy and have a Happy New Year!

    Dan (aka Rojo)


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