Stay Woke

There was a project a while back, some time during my sophomore year here at Fordham. Someone had gone around the university with a camera and asked her friends to write down a racial microaggression they had faced in their lives. And then, the photo snaps, and it’s documented, and it gets added to a list, and that list went viral when it was posted to Buzzfeed, or at least it did for me, because I saw it everywhere. Yes, I remember it well.

I remember it well because I remember how angry it got me. About half of those people were my friends and I began to be angry because I thought, do they know about me? Would they even think to ask? I was washing the dishes in my room and my sleeves were rolled up – this was December, and you almost never see your arms in December, all those long sleeves – and I looked at them and thought, fuck, how much whiter can I get? A straight-passing, white male – how much privilege can you shove into a person like me? I felt like the atomic time bomb of privilege, thinking of conversations of race I would have with my friends, wondering if they had spent the whole time waiting for me to explode in a fit of ignorance, shoving a piece of systematically-empowered shrapnel into their eyes. And I hated it, because nobody knew or would know I was Cuban.

I can’t describe to you the first time I saw the shape of the island on a map because I see it when I close my eyes, I could draw it for you right now if I had a pen and paper. My love for pico de gallo knows no bounds, especially if mi abuela estaba en la cocina, and plantains were a reward for good behavior. My mother, she called me “flaco” for the entirety of my childhood, because I didn’t have much of an appetite and wasn’t blessed with the muscular genetics that mi hermano menor, “fuerte,” had. Mi abuelo, Papi, would belt out Elvis Crespo lyrics before that last stroke took him away from us. 

It’s on my mother’s side. I’ve been told the story so many times before. Fidel Castro came to evict my grandfather from his home to make room for new military barracks. He resisted, and Castro put a gun to his head. Told him to get out by morning or he would kill him and his whole family of five, too. What choice did they have? All of them packed their things and went down to the docks that night, not knowing what to hope for. By the grace of something merciful, a trade ship from the U.S. was at the docks. They begged to be stowaways, and the crew could not help but take them in. My family landed in Florida, where my mother was born, and stayed until they had the money to move to New York, to be with the rest of the extended family. The rest, as they say, is history.

This was the narrative I brought with me throughout my life. This was what I told teachers, friends, even strangers when they asked about my heritage. I didn’t bother too much with my dad’s side – he never liked talking about his family, growing up country poor with them and desperately trying to break out, and so we didn’t visit them often. Instead, I spent my life surrounded by a foreign language, eating foods that didn’t taste anything like the school cafeteria, and getting far too competitive at dominos. 

But things snapped at some point. I am male, and tried to make male friends, but the egotistical desire of the male to reduce others started to get to me. People started to call me “Castro.” It meant two things to me at that point: that they had no idea what they were saying, and that I was, apparently, able to be reduced by my ethnicity. The former didn’t bother me as much, and maybe if I fixed it, the latter would take care of itself. So I calmly explained to my friends that Fidel Castro alone has been responsible for the deaths of thousands, perhaps millions, of Cubans, his own people, and that the country largely remains in disrepair because of him. I explain how, under his regime, no one can leave, as there is no way off the island, and the punishment for desertion is death. I explained how he put a gun to my grandfather’s head. I thought it would be enough.

But nothing is ever enough for someone in power, especially when they know there isn’t anything in the world you can do about it. They kept calling me “Castro,” and that’s when it started to hurt. Because they weren’t evil – just apathetic. They didn’t care. They were the majority that told me that it was my fault if I was offended, that they got to decide where the line was drawn, not me. And it didn’t stop with them. Did you know, that there is not just one, but an entire series of video games based on the premise of playing as the dictator of a Caribbean island? It’s called Tropico. The fifth game came out in May. Even just two weeks ago, for Halloween, a new friend I had just made came in wearing a Fidel Castro costume. No reaction from anyone else whatsoever, but my stomach turned itself inside out at the sight of it. I asked myself, is this ever going to end?

You know how many Cubans I’ve met in my life? Two. I’ve been to three states, six different schools, eight different neighborhoods, and I’ve met two Cubans in my life. I’m only close with one of them, and her family’s story, though not mine to tell, is just as heartbreaking as mine. People don’t see us. People don’t think about us. Me especially, because of my privilege, which I have come to hate because it prevents me from doing what I have always wanted to do: own my heritage. I’m not here to cry about white boy problems to you because I’m not here as a white boy – I’m Hispanic, for Christ’s sake. All I can really have is the language, and I’ll practice that until I die. Anything to throw it in their faces that I’m not who they think I am, anything to be proud.

So yeah, when I saw those photos, I was mad. I was jealous. I wanted a sign of my own and I wanted a picture snapped of me holding it with pride. I wanted to be more direct. I wanted my sign to say, “Everyone is fighting a hard battle. So fuck you for not showing respect.” I wanted dominos. I wanted pico de gallo. I wanted to tango the way I did with my aunts. I wanted to roll my r’s for the first time in my life.

Because that’s it, isn’t it? Oppressors, they never want you to be yourself. They want you to fit in to their mold of you, so that they never have to let go of their terms. But I say fuck them. Be yourself, even if you’re the only one who knows you’re doing it. Fight back. Stay woke.