“No te olvides que tienes raíces Latinas.” ("Do not forget you have Latin roots.")
My grandmother, or "Abuelita" (as I refer to her), often said this to me. This time, she was seated in her reclining chair. Through her silver-rimmed bifocals, I saw her penetrating eyes.
"Of course not, Abuelita," I said with a cooing laugh and gentle smile. I was trying to quell her fears. I was trying to be reassuring, but she saw right through me—this is something that wise 90-something-year-olds seem to do well. Abuelita reluctantly nodded. She hoped that her wishes wouldn’t fall upon deaf ears.
And they didn’t.
My grandmother was a proud Cuban woman. She hailed from Santiago de Cuba but moved to the United States in the 1950s. And Abuelita left the tiny island for love.
The story, as she told it, was quite romantic: My grandmother visited a friend who lived in the U.S., and they went to a party where she would meet my grandfather—a charming Afro-Cuban man who was already living in the land of opportunity. They were taken by each other, and when she returned to Cuba, they began to send love letters. He would eventually ask for her hand in marriage, and Abuelita migrated to the United States to join her would-be husband.
Fast-forward two generations, and along came the grandkids: black-identifying millennials who were deeply steeped in pop culture. As a teen, I fondly remember walking into Abuelita’s apartment, planting a kiss on her cheek and immediately turning on BET (at the time, my parents didn’t allow us to have cable). And Abuelita would willingly sacrifice her telenovelas in the interest of her grandchildren’s dire need to catch up on music videos. We were much more interested in the latest episode of 106 & Park than anything having to do with Cuba.
In time I realized what an abundant historical resource I had in my grandmother. I studied parts of Cuban history in graduate school—particularly the Cuban War of Independence—and was completely fascinated. Cuba has a tenuous racial history—the island was a beneficiary of the Atlantic slave trade, like the entire Western Hemisphere (and essentially the world). And from it came Cuba’s rich culture.
I learned of the revered Afro-Cuban war hero Antonio Maceo and of the great writer José Martí—who, Abuelita said, fought the war “with his words.” I learned that my great-grandfather fought in the war, as well. I was like a kid in a Cuban candy store. Planted at the head of her bed, I asked question after question. But she didn’t seem to mind. Abuelita paused for a bit, collected her thoughts and answered. Some responses were more thorough than others. But each and every time, she was thoughtful and sincere. It was as if she was giving me a part of herself.
"No te olvides que tienes raíces Latinas." That was Abuelita's message. And it was almost prophetic. In her 90s, my grandmother knew that her time left on earth was limited and she needed her prophecy to stick. She valued her religion, family and her beloved Cuba.
She has recently passed on, but I get it now.
Abuelita wanted me to know that Cuba is as much mine as it was hers. She wanted me to be proud of who I am, a “blacktina”—a descendant of slaves dragged to the Americas. She wanted me to celebrate my identity because it is what makes me unique. Still, it's OK to ask questions, to dig deeper and understand your ethnicity.
Now that's Abuelita's gone, I hold my heritage close—but my love for my grandmother, closer.
Felice León is multimedia editor at The Root.