De Armas. “Of weapons.” My half-Cuban mother’s maiden name. Which is conceivably related, in some murky hereditary way, to the fact that most of my relatives, on her side, appear to be drawn to vocations not incomparable to that of a soldier. They’re lawyers battling for justice, pastors battling for faith, CFOs battling for solvency. And of course there’s that cousin of mine, Caleb, who went all the way with it and became an actual soldier, in the Army, driving tanks and everything.
It’s not surprising, then, that my Cuban family should have adjusted so happily to life in America, the land of competition par excellence. Everything’s a battle here, and if it’s not, we’ll make it one, then beat you at it. The political process, the market economy, the sports industry. Artists compete for fame and funding, actors for Oscars, churches for congregants, top students for admission to prestigious universities and prestigious universities for the matriculation of top students. All of which, apparently, works. El hierro con hierro se afila,as the Bible says. Iron sharpens iron.
When my grandfather, Papá, came over to the U.S. in (pre-Castro) 1954 at the benefaction of Baptist missionaries, enrolling in a small college in South Carolina and knowing scarcely a lick of English, he decided to do what probably every prudent and sensible young man would have done in his shoes, which was to major in English. He learned fast, though, and had to, not least because he had taken it upon himself to live out the male collegian’s most outlandish pipe dream — to take out on a date every female student enrolled at the college. Alphabetically. One of whom, to his eternal and unspeakable benefit, he ended up marrying: Clysta Hill, the kindest South Carolinian girl you could ever imagine and eventual concocter of the meanest Tres Leches a young quarter-Cuban grandson could ever hope to devour.
My cousin Seth and I, as little boys, would race to see who could devour his piece of Tres Leches faster. And then we’d race again. Glutton sharpens glutton.
After marrying Clysta — known affectionately in my family as Illa because I was unable, as a toddler, to pronounce Abuela — Papá went to seminary to become a pastor, and later to law school to become a lawyer; there he was, residing in Florida, a Cuban pastor-lawyer who went fishing and flew airplanes in his spare time. Which spare time was probably negligible, considering that Illa bore four children, the sole daughter among whom would bear me.
If you’re into statistics (and I’m not), it may be of note that according to a 2006 Pew Research Center report, 39 percent of those born in the U.S. who identify as Cuban are college graduates, a percentage that not only far exceeds that of other Hispanics, but even tops the 3-in-10 rate of non-Hispanic whites. Likewise they surpass non-Hispanic whites in median household income, $50,000 to $48,000, which is maybe a little counterintuitive.
What accounts for Cubans’ success in America? Some possibilities: Their enclave in South Florida has allowed them to bolster one another’s commercial endeavors and to assist newly-immigrated Cubans who need assisting. Or their relative ease in obtaining citizenship has fostered economic advancement. Or their prodigious odium for communism has propelled them to become the most enterprising capitalists the world has ever beheld. I can’t really speak to the demographics of it. It seems, in my own family’s case, that they (Papá, his brothers, his sons) just didn’t want to be poor and worked hard enough and were lucky enough to be educated enough to land decent enough jobs to be considered pretty well-off.
Soon after Papá came over to the U.S., his family followed. His youngest brother ended up getting his MBA from Harvard and landing a job as the CFO of a software company. One of the perks of the job was that he could grant family members access, gratis, to a huge woodsy piece of private property situated a little ways southeast of Orlando and dubbed “Lake X.”
During my childhood, Papá and Illa and their children and grandchildren would gather at Lake X around Thanksgiving to spend a few days in the great outdoors and celebrate the American holiday together. The lake teemed with catfish. We grandkids — the first seven of whom, in defiance of statistical probabilities, were male — would cast our lines from the dock, reel in the catfish, and give them to Papá to clean. We’d play ping-pong in a cabin near the dock, and sometimes we would venture into the woods to collect firewood, spying deer along the way. At night we ate s’mores. Moonlight flickered on the lake. When we finally turned in, I’d lie in the cabin and listen to the strange nocturnal symphony of birds.
One afternoon (presumably the day after Thanksgiving, when all the adults were feeling guilty about that extra piece of flan) we would run the annual de Armas family 5K, complete with mothers pushing strollers and fathers in short shorts and me thinking how execrably long five kilometers was.
Until I was 6 or 7, everyone lived in Orlando. We celebrated Christmas together, saw one another at church, went tubing on the lake behind Uncle David’s boat. My brothers and I would walk over to our cousins’ house and play football in the cul-de-sac or jump onto their trampoline from a tree branch. Extended family is important to Cubans, and it was good to be together. In time, though, we felt the pull of American mobility (about one in six Americans relocated that year) and became very extended indeed. Uncle Delton moved his family to Ocala. Illa and Papá themselves moved about three hours southwest to a city on the Gulf Coast. Uncle Danny’s family eventually moved to North Carolina.
By that time my family and I had already migrated to another world called Texas. Dad had been offered the headmaster position at a Christian school, and in the summer of my 12th birthday, we moved. Once or twice a year we trekked back to Florida, but it was adios to football games in the cul-de-sac and quick visits to the lake at Uncle David’s house. Adios to Thanksgivings at Lake X.
Life in Texas revolved around a mega-church and affiliated school that were situated in a suburban area brimming with million-dollar mansions and shopping malls and sports cars. Life was about being close to Jesus, and also driving a pimped-out ride. Reading the Gospels, — “blessed are the poor” — and also owning a mega-high-def-flat-screen television. I began to feel the stirrings of anti-bourgeois ire. Which, admittedly, is very easy to do on a full stomach.
One of the upsides of the affluence was that my school was able to conduct a number of mission trips, some of them to foreign countries. In February of my sophomore year, I found myself, along with a couple dozen students and a few adults, including my father, on the beautiful, horrific, dazzling, vexing, foreign and somehow familiar island of Cuba. We stayed for a week. I think Tourism was our purported razón de entrada, but we were going to work with churches around Matanzas and Cárdenas basically to evangelize and urge people to come to church. We were divided into groups of eight, and every morning we’d drive out from the hotel to our assigned churches, whence, armed with tracts and translators, we’d sally forth into a day’s worth of door-to-door proselytization.
My travel journal (as I browse in search of arresting anecdotes or incisive cultural commentary) turns out to be pretty abysmally unhelpful, but it does contain at least one paragraph conceivably worth reproducing here, if only for its splendidly concrete facts and figures: “Yanet [one of our translators] was telling me how we Americans are experiencing the best of Cuba. Normally, they do not know what they are going to eat — the gov’t does not provide enough. It’s like _ lb. of meat/person/month, 5 lbs. rice, 1 lb. oil, and milk if you have kids under 7 (to name a few examples). They have to rely on God for what they will eat and wear. — Yet they all have joy.” Half a pound of meat per month, and joy! “Despite all the propaganda,” the paragraph concludes, “almost everyone can’t wait for a new regime.”
My group was assigned Pastor Samuel’s church, which was also his house. He was a tall, slender man possessing what seemed to me almost saintly meekness, and living with him there were his wife, son and daughter, as well as his mother. Their home was small. Sunday morning services, they told us, took place on their roof, which was big enough for maybe 30 people. I imagined Pastor Samuel preaching on the rooftop, the neighbors gathered together, his wife leading the hymns. I thought of our church back home with the 140-acre property and the 7,000-person seating and the big projection screens so you could see the pastor’s face, and I wondered who was more blessed.
Our translators were Rafael and Yanet, a young married couple with two children. Rafael, as it happens, is also Papá’s first name, and I could see something of my grandfather in him. He was smart, for one. And besides his religious work, he had an interest in studying law. “If only I could study in the U.S.,” he said. “So many opportunities there.”
Rafael’s family lived in a ramshackle shack he had mostly built himself. From what I could gather, they were poor even for Cubans. They worried often about food. They worried, too, about their children’s education. Yanet — a stout, fiery woman who would sometimes (in the heat of the moment) leave off translating altogether and spell out the Gospel herself — explained to me and my father that Cuban children were required to attend the public schools, where socialist propaganda was as rampant as religious instruction was wanting. “If only …”
If only they could come to the United States. They were the sort of people who would make much of their talents. Who belonged in the land of opportunity. “Dad had a long talk w/ Rafael,” recounts my journal, “about the possibilities of coming to the U.S., and how Papá, as a lawyer, and as a Cuban, could really help. Rafael got teary-eyed as Dad explained the answer to [Rafael’s] question, ‘Why are you doing this for me?’”
Two years later, my dad and I are back in Cuba, this time accompanied by my mom and younger brother. We’ve kept in touch with Rafael and Yanet, but our efforts to get them to the U.S. have been unsuccessful. They are our translators again, although my mom and I can get along without them. This time around we are working with different churches, but we manage to carve out a few hours to visit Pastor Samuel’s family. Crammed into a small dining room next to a small kitchen, we share a hearty Cuban meal, the air filled with the smell of black beans and the sound of gesture-happy conversation.
Afterwards we sing hymns. The lyrics are in Spanish, but most of the melodies are familiar. My mom knows every word; she was raised on these hymns. They sang them every Sunday at the small Hispanic church where Papá was pastor. And at home she would often sit in the lap of her abuelo, Papá’s father, a little girl and an old man praising the God who had tied them together by the bond of blood. Now, as our voices boom in the small dining room, she begins to cry — tears of remembrance, of hope, happiness, gratitude. She has only met these people hours ago, this Cuban pastor and his family, but she knows them, and they know her; they understand why she is crying.
Our family, the de Armas family, is a fundamentally Christian one. On the other hand, we are — like probably most Cuban-American families, and for that matter, most American families — thoroughly bourgeois. We value hard work, respectability, good pay, nice houses, new gadgets. It’s an odd pairing, Christianity and capitalism. Really it is an impossible pairing, if we take capitalism to be an economic system based on self-interest, competitiveness and consumerism, and if we take Christianity to be a religion centered on self-denial, charity and poverty.
But if not capitalism, what would we have? Communism? That scourge of the 20th century, killer of millions (and millions, and millions), that socio-politico-economic catastrophe? Communism is why Rafael and Yanet go hungry. It is why their children go hungry. It is why Papá becomes melancholy when he thinks of his homeland. Capitalism must be the lesser of two evils. But then, isn’t there something besides these two evils? What did they do before Adam Smith?
As in many bourgeois families, life in the de Armas family has been difficult for the nonconformist. His name, like that of the nonconformist in the Old Testament story about those 12 guys scoping out the Promised Land, is Caleb. The first sign of his strangeness, at least that I can remember, was that he liked art (drawing, painting) rather than playing football outside with the rest of us boys. Then he started wearing Converses. Then eventually he started getting piercings and tattoos, which really galled Papá et al. (which gall was and is generally vented in the form of a question — e.g. Doesn’t he know tattoos look disgusting when you get old?) And to top things off, Caleb’s a smoker.
“Every family,” wrote William Saroyan, “has a crazy streak in it somewhere.” Most of the family would probably describe Caleb as the exemplar of that streak, though the word of choice tends not to be “crazy” so much as “weird.” Secretly, I have always admired Caleb. I like to think there’s a little bohemian inside me, hiding somewhere, and he gets little vicarious breaths of air every time Caleb does something worthy of gall-venting questions. It’s not that I want tattoos or Converse shoes. It’s just that I’m not sure I would have the courage, as Caleb does, to transgress family norms. Even if I thought I should.
In the spring of his sophomore year Caleb dropped out of college and enlisted in the Army. It was 2006, so it was fairly clear he’d be deployed in the near future. The initial reaction from his parents and the rest of the family, from what I could gather, was something like: He’s been put through 12 years of private school and two years of college just to waste it all on a life-threatening, non-lucrative military undertaking? He will be nothing in the Army. The lowest rank. Enlistment is for poor people. Not us.
Of course, part of the family unrest stemmed from something nobler, that is our love for Caleb, our desire that he not die in battle. But, soon enough, we (using the pronoun loosely to denote Caleb’s parents and probably much of the extended family) got over our misgivings and accepted Caleb’s decision. Even embraced it. We were proud to have a loved one serving in the armed forces.
Whatever the ethical or political (de)merits of the war itself, what Caleb did for our family by enlisting was to snap us out of the dreamworld of the bourgeois bubble, if only for a moment, and to remind us that life amounts to more than a rat race culminating in prosperous careers and comfortable retirement plans. Deep down, we always knew it. Sometimes it’s good to feel it.
Really I think the principal motive behind our family’s bourgeois pursuits is not greed or materialism, but an impulse to see our loved ones happy and well provided for. What we tend to overlook is that over time, as generations pass, this love of family comes to be eroded by the very habits, the very mindset now enabling us to find success. As the Cuban blood thins and the American thickens, our progeny (according to certain statistics, I’m sure) will begin filing for divorces, will care less about extended family, will become the atomized, autonomous individuals whom the American system cultivates.
Rafael and Yanet are still in Cuba, still trying to find a way into the States. Sometimes I wonder if they’d be better off here. Knowing Rafael, they would succeed, as Papá succeeded. But I fear for Rafael’s kids, and for his future grandkids. I imagine them walking through shopping malls and sipping lattes and buying fashionable clothes and watching MTV. Their stomachs will be filled. Their options will be numberless. On paper, they will be much better off than their counterparts in Cuba. Better off — but will they be better? More virtuous? Less selfish? Will they have joy? Don’t the numbers and statistics miss part of the story? Wasn’t Pascal onto something when he said it’s not good to be too free? When he said it’s not good to have all one needs?
When my cousins and brothers and I played football in the cul-de-sac, we played hard. When Seth and I raced to eat Tres Leches , we ate hard. And when the whole family ran the 5K, we ran, generally speaking, hard. Beneath the competition, though, there was always an almost palpable in-it-togetherness, an unspoken recognition that what we were doing was not for individual advancement, that the competing was merely a game. Beneath it all was love, and that would last. Really that’s how all competition should be regarded — as a passing diversion dwarfed by the holy bonds of humankind. But it’s easier to see it that way with your family.
Across Caleb’s chest, tattooed in large cursive script, are the words, “This is my call to arms.” Apparently, it’s a line from a song called “Young and Aspiring,” the refrain of which includes the lines, “Consequence is our need in times like this/ Feeling free is our modern disease.” I wonder if that’s part of the reason Caleb enlisted — to be fettered, ordered around. I wonder if he’d read Pascal. In any case, his enlistment called our family away from the alluring and incessant rat race of American competition, the cult of cutthroat one-upmanship. He gave us a renewed sense of the ephemerality of our worldly games, and a fresh appreciation for the grave consequence, the moral weight, inherent in our fellow men. This is my call to arms. In a way, Caleb gave us a call from arms. De Armas.
Bryce taylor is a junior in Silliman College.