Vanessa Garcia has made it her life’s work to understand the challenges of second- and third-generation Cubans (American-born Cubans or ABCs, she calls them). The artist, playwright, writer and educator is currently working on her Ph.D dissertation in creative nonfiction at the University of California Irvine, focusing entirely on ABCs and their relationship to Cuba.
Her play “The Cuban Spring,” now showing at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, brings to life the many common threads that she encountered in interviews and research, most pointedly, the difficulty of being raised culturally Cuban on American soil, with a nostalgia for a land that is at once idolized and prohibited.
“The same force that drives you towards the island also causes great annoyance in the sense that we’ve heard about it all our lives and we want to go and want to see what they’re talking about,” says Garcia, whose uncle and stepfather’s father were both political prisoners in Cuba.
Her mother, who is of the generation of exiles that refused to return until democratic reforms are in place, rejected several of Garcia’s entreaties to visit Cuba. “I have had tickets in my hands to go to Cuba. I was going to tell my mother we’re going and she said she was going to have a heart attack. Her vein was popping out of her forehead. At the same time my aunt had been diagnosed with breast cancer. So I couldn’t do it to my mother. We just couldn’t go.”
Garcia’s protagonist in “Cuban Spring,” Siomara, faces a similar battle with her parents, Miguel and Olga, a loving pair who represent different waves of Cuban exiles – the first wave of the ’60s and the Marielitos – collude to keep the secrets of their past locked in a box (literally) that Siomara is not allowed to open. Upon discovering she is pregnant, Siomara is filled with an undeniable need to understand her family’s history. She laments to Miguel and Olga, “What do you think it feels like, to be told all your life that you’re from a place you’ve never been.”
Garcia weaves stories of exile together in the play – that of Siomara and her family cut off from Cuba and that of Siomara’s husband John, an ambitious African-American attorney who has cut ties with his family, whose poverty was a source of shame. John opens another box entirely; this character has forced Garcia into many frank conversations about Cuban racial perceptions, an obvious sticking point, especially, Garcia points out, because many Cubans will argue that there was “no racism in Cuba.”
“This absolutely seems to me not true considering other things that follow after they say that comment,” she says.
“It’s so funny because my sister is married to a black man and we are Cuban,” laughs the adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University. “I wrote the play before she got married so my mother is saying that the play is a little prophetic. My sister is also pregnant now, so it’s a joke in my family that the play was like a preface.”
Garcia knows that a shift is happening in the Cuban community in the United States, thanks to the easing of travel restrictions and academic exchanges. But for her, the most evident example of the change in attitude is in her own family; her mother recently conceded to begin the process of getting a visa. Hopefully this year, Garcia will have the chance to get to know the place that has so far existed only in her imagination.
As Miguel explains in “The Cuban Spring,” the island has an undeniable pull: “Cuba is like a big magnet. And every Cuban has a little bit of that metal inside them.”