American Pie a la Mode

A Miami Cuban friend who works with other Latin Americans was fed up with their always complaining about the privileged treatment Cubans get in the US. "That's because Americans like us and we like them", he told them. "We never called them gringos."

True. I don't know when I first heard the word but I always associated it with Mexicans not Cubans. Yanqui, as in "go home", is a common politicized epithet which I always warn my fellow Latinos not to ever use in Alabama. The Cuban regime has used that term because its relationship with the US has been antagonistic, until now. But my friend was right about terminology -- the matter central to the disagreement is much more complex and, indeed, heavily political. We never called Americans gringos. And for the most part we liked each other in interesting ways -- see Gustavo Perez-Firmat informative and delightful The Havana Habit.

We called Americans americanos. At least in my generation and the ones that preceded it that I know. In Miami we learned to use the word Anglos. All these words, however, perhaps all words, miss the mark. The obvious: We of the Americas are all Americans. Thus the more precise norteamericanos. But wait. Mexico is in North America. How abour the mouthful estadounidense? It's what I use when I aim for precision, knowing all the while that it's not precise because the official name of Mexico, which no one uses, is Estados Unidos Mexicanos.

And if we go back to americanos, all of us called, say Fernandez, who were either born here or are naturalized US citizens are Americans. OK, so we're not Anglos. But does Anglos include African-Americans? Jews? Sicilians I grew up with in Tampa? Folk the addled Admiral called "Indians"? Years ago before I moved to Miami I heard a young Cuban-American colleague from that city refer to "Anglos" as "white."

White and black are constructs, albeit heavily loaded ones. But for the sake of argument let's use them. Coming from a primarily black/white biracial country I always thought of myself as white. Nothing to be proud or ashamed of. It is what it is. In fact, I believe the fact that the first wave of Cuban exiles was white helped them along (though as many know, there was discrimination and today there is acrimony, but that's another story) and today we have two Cuban-Americans running for US President. I have trouble using the term white in an American context for it implies a participation in racial history I had little to do with.

In the US the only word that works for me is Other. Vague to be sure, but accurate, for Otherness is the defining condition. Of course, to an African-American I may be a white Other, unless we become close and Otherness fades. To an Afro-Cuban I am a white Other, except that since we are both strangers in a strange land I am also a brother. The Other brother. To a Chicano I am a Latino Other and the strained relationship between our groups in this country will weigh heavily on us until we get to know each other, which may take very little time. Same to a Puerto Rican. Not so to many other Latin American immigrants, who will have no sense of a troubled history among US Latinos. To them I'm just a fellow Latin American with whom to speak Spanish. To a Spaniard I have no idea nor do I care. Half my uncles were Spaniards and I feel like one of the family. Do Spaniards see me as a sudaca, their pejorative for Latin American immigrants in Spain? I see them as gallegos, our pejorative for Spanish immigrants to Latin America: thick, hardheaded, unrefined, just like me because I'm one of them, so deal with it.

Hermanos somos todos los humanos, wrote Miguel de Unamuno, who was a Basque. He wrote in Spanish. I use Spanish and English and am grateful that the circumstances of my life led me to learn both, for these are languages of maximum human reach. Vague, inaccurate and beautiful. As are we, the humanos who are all hermanos.