Yenisel Rodriguez Perez
HAVANA TIMES, Jan 19 — Many Cubans who immigrate to Miami are seeking to improve their standard of living. There, within easy arm’s reach, lies everything needed for the family shopping basket, which seen from the island appears more like a divine satchel of riches (except for health care, of course).
At first the situation far exceeds the expectations of newcomers. They recognize an improvement in their well-being.
Nevertheless, over the months and years these immigrants are surprised to discover that their expectations aren’t the same as when they first arrived from Cuba. The surprise isn’t so much in discovering how mutable their needs are; what’s disconcerting is that those changes don’t enable their longed for expansion.
To the contrary; what emerges is a huge expansion of their dissatisfactions. It’s like they’re still stuck in the same neighborhood hierarchy as back in Cuba, though with a few ornamental changes.
It’s part of the socio-cultural uprooting experience induced by competition and self-legitimization – an inevitable consequence in any migration process.
What’s curious is that one would expect this uprooting to occur in an equivalent or corresponding manner. It’s as if the missing pieces to the incomplete puzzle of well-being in Cuba would be found abroad.
This collection would consist of the minimum number of pieces, which would wind up defining those uncertain characteristics in Cuba with which we erect everyday survival.
This means supplementing the consumption of “what one can afford” with the abundance of foodstuffs from the supermarket, or consuming to precariously improve our images in Cuba, crowned with the US-American notion of the successful life.
It’s precisely in this aspect (that of a sense of prestige and social distinction) that tremendous disappointments come over Cuban newcomers to Miami.
This is true if we assume that consumer satisfaction is as much about the intrinsic characteristics of products (their biological consumption value, for example) as those features that are not intrinsic but that give us prestige in the community.
Presumably, both have to go hand in hand to achieve conformity with the US-American way of life. Prestige and distinction facilitate the construction of identities, especially hierarchical identities.
The illusion of Sedanos
For example, we can point to the case of products sold by the Sedano’s supermarket chain in Miami.
Many families in Cuba can pick up American TV broadcasts that have Sedano’s commercials, which come off as the height of consumeristic prestige. The rich and vivid colors of the meats and sauces, the crunchy ingredients, the exoticness of those mysterious flavors, become a part of the expectations of future immigrants.
One can say that Sedano’s monopolizes many of the optimistic and enthusiastic images that are contained in the mind of any Cuban immigrant when they think of Miami.
But it turns out that Sedano’s is not in Miami what it appears to be in Cuba. The surprise of the newcomer doesn’t make them wait long. What’s worse is that the truth is often revealed inopportunely.
This happened to Yakelin, the aunt of an acquaintance of mine.
Having recently arrived and gotten a job in Miami, she was invited by her co-workers to a party, and happily accepted to go. The distribution of who would bring what dish began immediately. It turned out that Yakelin agreed to bring a leg of roast ham.
“This was good news for a Cuban,” she thought.
It’s known that all across Cuba there’s a culinary worship of pork, and no one is liked more than the person who serves us up the finest alchemy of their roasted meats.
“Sure!” Yakelin exclaimed to herself as she made the long trip back to her apartment.
“Sedano’s is the solution,” she figured – and with this the disaster began.
The problem is that the way things are seen in Cuba isn’t enough in Miami, which is something Yakelin learned from the experience at her first party with Latino immigrants in the US.
From the distance one noticed only the high spirits of the Latinos and their dancing. From among the background lights a beautiful Cuban with an enormous piece of roasted pork made her entrance. Everyone stood there, waiting for a piece of “Cuban-style roast pork.”
As Yakelin began to unwrap the aromatic piece of meat, suddenly a loud cry of terror broke out from the center of the room. It was as loud as when someone says what they think, without rhyme or reason.
“You bought that ham at Sedano’s? Girl, nobody shops at Sedano’s. Are you just slow or what?” accused the Puerto Rican woman in the group, slamming Yakelin.
Later, sometime after midnight, Yakelin couldn’t stop telling her cousin (the one from Cuba) about what had happened that night. She did so while laughing hard enough to split her side. The embarrassment suffered at the party had given way to hysterical self-effacement and Cubanisms within a few hours.
From this a new dissatisfaction was born in Yakelin: the dissatisfaction of having to eat what they sold at Sedano’s. She learned that a refrigerator full of food purchased at Sedano’s was an indicator of poverty in Miami.
Only the poor went chasing after the sales so that they could eat for the whole month, filling their freezers with their favorite meats in just one day.
By contrast, when you’re rich or middle class, one can afford the luxury of buying food daily. This explains why a freezer with a little of everything expensive is prestigious in Miami.
In that city, the wealthy don’t waste space or money for anything. Their meat is refrigerated with at the supermarket until the day they decide to eat it.
Why bring home a piece of meat three days before cooking it? This is how prestigious people think and behave in Yakelin’s new country. In Cuba it’s different.
The five-minute phone card that Yakelin used for calling Cuba had already ran out. She could see the kitchen from her room.
There laid the glittering aluminum foil in which the tragic roast had been wrapped. Its brilliance was upset by a label that covered the top edge. It was the Sedano’s logo.
“That was some bad luck,” admitted my friend.
“If the Sedano’s logo hadn’t been stuck the on the wrapper, everything would have gone fine.”
It wasn’t a question of bad luck, I thought to myself. That was like “trading a cat for a hare” (being defrauded) – or worse still, like trading a hare from Sedano’s for a boutique cat owned by Latin-Americans in Miami.
What happened to the roast ham?
No one in Cuba knows, not even her cousin.
“It would be a crime,” my friend and I said to each other before parting ways, “for the embarrassed cousin to leave it for stray dogs or American street people.” Yes, because these days, nobody would appreciate that mass of meat and grease more than us – those of us from Cuba.
We would welcome it with open arms, because that ham from Sedano’s “still looks good to me.”