When I was Poor: Stories that Made a Frugal Thrifty Cuban Thrive!
I come from an immigrant family. In 1989, two months after my seventh birthday my parents were sent on a “mission” to London; and everything i knew of life was swept from under my little feet as we boarded a plane from Havana International to Heathrow Airport. Not my first time on a plane, but my first time being uprooted and forced to leave my world behind, my friends, my grandmother, my school, my neighborhood.
In London i was an alien. Didn’t speak the language, nor share the customs. I didn’t even look like most of the girls my age. They had pale white skin, yellow rotting teeth, long blonde hair, skinny legs and round bellies. I had olive skin, a pearly white overbite, un-brushed tomboy brown hair (that my mother had forced me to cut real short in Cuba because she didn’t know how much something like that would cost in a capitalist country), a tiny waist and a woman’s thighs (though i was just a young girl).
The first few months my parents worried i had become a mute, I barely spoke, just wrote long romantic letters home to my friends and grandmother, describing my despair and isolation in this place that was so unfamiliar and reminiscing about the life i had left behind. In this country I couldn’t play hide and seek on the street with all the kids on my block, they didn’t have tropical rainstorms, power outages or mangoes, the neighbors didn’t scold me if they saw me being mischievous, they just looked the other way. It was so cold and lonely here.
We lived in Camden Town; this area is now considered the hipster London, but we lived there when it was poor. I was afraid to walk home from school alone because back then it wasn’t the safest neighborhood but i had to get used to it since my parents worked long hours and couldn’t afford a babysitter.
I was home alone from the time school got out till hours after the sun set. Our house was my palace where i could do whatever i wanted but since my parents had so much trust in me, i was generally a good kid. My after school snack consisted of a couple of bowls of cereal while watching ThunderCats, He-Man, Shera, Scooby-Doo, The Flinstones, and Jem and the Holograms (my favorite)! These cartoons were awesome! They weren’t like the Russian ones i was used to on Cuban television, but they were entertaining just the same. Right around the time Full House started at 7pm my parents would be arriving and joining me on the couch. We’d enjoy hours of television together and i was even allowed to stay up and watch R-Rated movies, they treated me like a little adult.
Dinners always consisted of rice, meat and a small salad (with onions- Cubans love onions on their salads); and we CANNOT have a meal without rice, it would be like having a bike without pedals or a school without teachers, it just doesn’t make any sense in our brains. We gained a lot of weight collectively. Having come from a country where food was scarce to a place where variety was plenty, my mom collected coupons like a hoarder might collect stuff; she was obsessive about it! and if something was on special at Sainsburys she’d buy not one, not two, but as many boxes as would fit in our fridge.
One time Sara Lee Cheesecake was on Special at Sainsburys and my mom bought so many boxes that we had to ask our Cuban neighbors if we could store some in their fridge because we didn’t have enough room in ours. (Good thing we had Cuban neighbors down the hall, cause had we only had Brits they might have thought my mother was a lunatic with 30 boxes of cheesecake, Cubans could at least empathize). Still, how embarrassing!!! My mother had bought so much Sarah Lee Cheesecake that every day, after EVERY meal we knew what to expect for dessert! We had SO much cheesecake in such a short period of time, that i was traumatized for life, still, to this day, i cringe at the sight of cheesecake and i am repulsed at the taste. As an adult, my friends who know about my past, have taken it upon themselves to prove to me that i can love cheesecake again, but nope, my disgust for cheesecake persists. i had so much of it, that it will likely last me a lifetime. Sometimes i think a part of it is psychological, that eating it reminds me of poverty and hardship, loneliness and isolation; this may be in part true; but NO ONE should EVER eat so much cheesecake!