Papi Problems: Genealogy of a Cuban-American Family
On certain occasions, while attempting to cook, I am triggered to think of my family. The practice of cooking is familial in that it is regularly performed by and for family members as part of care. Cooking is also a cultural practice, passed on through generations. It carries distinct smells and tastes that can indicate ethnicity, geography, and nationality. In this way, cooking is one of the many things that falls under the broad concept of “reproduction”. When we cook, we reproduce a recipe but we also reproduce our families, our cultures, and ourselves. As a sociology student studying reproduction, it is often hard not to think of routine actions within the context of my studies. It is precisely the ubiquity of reproduction which makes it so enticing. However, writing about people you know, and even more so writing about your family, is challenging. The melding of perception, emotion, and experience makes for poor empirical data. After all, my family history is not a case study. Except, of course, it is.
Cooking Cuban rice is difficult. Beans are easy. Not because they’re easier to perfect, but simply because the flavor of frijoles yields passable results regardless of my clumsy hands and turning the heat too high. Plantains are the easiest because I buy the frozen Goya brand. I tried to make them from scratch once, but the unforgiving splatter of grease felt like punishment for ‘frying’ too close to the sun. You can fake frijoles, you can fake plátanos, but true Cuban arroz is the dead giveaway of an ‘authentic’ Cuban meal. It comes in a small ceramic bowl, a perfect fluffy, greasy orb packed tightly like a snow ball. I have dreams about this rice. Recently, a friend of mine sent me a recipe for what she called “fool-proof” Cuban rice, which I attempted in my Cambridge University dorm room kitchen. Leaning over the pot of my most recent attempt at connecting with my culture, it felt like the rice knew it was 5,000 miles away from home.
I have always felt like a fraud when meeting up with the Cuban side of my family. My Cuban genealogy is solely patrilineal, and the reproductive labor that occurs in Cuban households is often highly gendered. The work of cultural reproduction is feminized and, as a result, my father did not know how to teach me the secrets of being a Cuban woman. My aunt Tammy, on the other hand, is the matriarch of the Cuban side of the family. Her household is a menagerie of found creatures (I counted four dogs, three cats, and two turtles) and a resting spot for family members who fall on ‘hard times’. It feels like I have never seen my aunt outside the context of a care-giver. As a child, when were invited to family gatherings, I noted the ways a household with a Cuban mother differed from mine. The Spanglish and heaping platters of Cuban food, indicators of “Cuban-ness”, were enviable to me. I didn’t feel Cuban, I didn’t particularly look Cuban, and I certainly was not able to perform any outward actions of Cuban-ness. In some ways, this is a very Cuban trait. Cubans in Miami are extraordinarily successful assimilators—largely because they have been allowed to assimilate. Cubans have been the recipients of targeted welfare programs, an anomaly in the history of immigration policy. In 1966 the government passed the Cuban Adjustment Act providing direct federal assistance to Cuban families, and Cubans have since gained large amounts of capital, both political and economic. However, these advantages have not been allocated among the Cuban population equally. Cubans of color and women make up the majority of the Cuban population in poverty. The Cubans who do succeed are often called ‘gringo’, a term meaning North American.
“Cuban men don’t cook” my father told me as we walked to his new apartment in downtown Miami this past December. This was his response when I asked why he had never learned and had subsequently never taught me the secrets to Cuban rice. My father first came to the United States in 1961. Post-revolution, there was a fabricated panic in Cuba that the new communist government would be sending children to work in labor camps. In response, the Catholic Welfare Bureau in the United States created the “Pedro Pan” program to facilitate the re-settlement of unaccompanied Cuban children in Miami. At age six my father was one of the youngest to make the trip. He was placed in an orphanage, and eventually in a foster home. This was supposed to be a temporary, government assisted step for families that couldn’t afford to make the move alone. It would be a year and a half, however, before he saw his parents again.
In order to navigate his early life, my father had to adapt to American culture quickly. When people say, “You don’t seem like you’re from Miami,” they are unknowingly recognizing my father’s assimilation. I understand why I’ve never been to Cuba, and why my brother was named “Joseph Michael” and not “José Miguel” like my father and grandfather. In a world in which whiteness meant power, my father tried to exempt my brother and me from being “Hispanic” by producing an American household in place of a Cuban one. My father is by far the most financially successful person in his family. My aunt, due to the feminization of domestic labor, has inherited what are largely considered the “cultural practices” of Cuba, while my father has adhered to the expectations of Cuban masculinity, those which require him to provide, even if the consequences mean becoming a “gringo” in professional spaces.
The older I get, the more curiosity I sustain about my family background. Reproducing family often entails ‘keeping track’ of relationships and shared history. The work to organize our sprawling family has always been done by my two aunts, Leyla and Tammy. On learning that I was writing this article, my father sent me documents my aunts had kept over the years. Included among the old photographs was a hand drawn family tree, starting at my great-great-great grandfathers immigration to Cuba from Spain, leading eventually to me. A family tree is an apt representation of how my aunts have held together our family as a whole, no matter how disparate its parts become.
My family is a small kernel in a very long history of disrupted cultural reproduction in the United States. For me, it acts as an example of how global politics and the moving flows of capital can disrupt reproduction while also making visible the ways in which nationalistic ideals shape familial relations. ‘The family’ is at the center of many right-wing, nationalistic discourses as a natural and sacred entity that should be protected at all costs. However, because immigrant families do not exemplify the white settler ideal, their reproductive life is perceived as threatening to the national project and the “American” family. This is articulated explicitly through family separation practices and fear of ‘anchor babies’, and implicitly through the stratification of cultural reproduction. The intersections of gender and migration have had a large influence on the resilience and assimilation within which my family has been reproduced despite this stratification. Disrupting immigrant reproductive life is a powerful way of erasing people. But, in some ways, what is more culturally potent for immigrant families in the U.S. than feeling like we don’t belong to ourselves? In this way, being excluded can become a way of belonging.
I know this exclusion is what draws my father and I close. When I am home in Miami, my father and I frequent a Cuban cafeteria near my house. Ordering our café con leche, a waitress looks at us in slight confusion as if to say, “Who is this man with the Cuban accent and gringa daughter”? I treasure this time with my dad. We may be on the margins of the family tree, but I’m grateful we occupy the same branch. Oh—and we still can’t cook.
 While colloquially reproduction often refers to the biological process of producing offspring, the sociological approach uses the concept to indicate the reproduction of all aspects of human life. Reproduction acts as a conceptual lens in which to understand better the ways in which people are produced through overlaps in biology, culture, and society.
 Other translations include ‘white’, ‘yankee’, and ‘blonde’.