Soy/Somos: "Good morning America!"

Marlena Maduro Baraf's blog

“Good morning, America!” the subject line of the e-mail at the top of my feed said a cheery hello. The sender was my cousin Ruthie, born in Aruba, daughter of my father’s brother, Monte.

On my visit to Aruba in the 50s. Little Ruthie: brown and yellow bangs, bluest eyes, little Dutch girl in a white pinafore speaking the oddly musical Papiamentu to my Spanish ears, a creole language spoken in Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao (a mishmash of Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch). Many years later I meet cousin Ruthie in Amsterdam, now a middle aged woman, tender and private.

“Dearest cousin," Ruthie began. "I enjoy the e-mails from your blog mucho.” She jokingly retitled my recent Soy/Somos post, “I’m Not Yelling! I’m Cuban!” to “We scream! We are all Cuban!” describing in her e-mail how language differences affected her when she moved from the tiny island of Aruba off the coast of Venezuela to Holland, the motherland.

"I felt a  tremendous loneliness in my early years in Holland," she wrote, "spoke a little bit of Dutch with a thick Aruban accent. Later on realizing their stoic character being: 'We don’t need to understand you. You have come to our country, so get on with it.' So rude in my eyes, back then in the 70s.

"My language/Antillano problem--and I speak only for myself and the white friends I know born and raised in Aruba--is that we have three or even four languages to manage. We all have the same weirdness that in conversing with each other we hop from Dutch to Papiamentu, English, or anywhere in between. In 2016 I noticed that Arubans of color found this irritating and would ask me to choose one language. Hah! And they knew all three languages themselves.

“Nowadays my Dutch is pretty much accentless," she wrote, "so my inner world is not noticed much by the Dutch. I cannot express the typical soft, warm breeze, light attitude of the Arubans. Thongs on your feet, short sleeves and slow walking. No complicated issues to work out. You like me or you don’t. It's understood. I miss laughing about nothing. Our humor is aimed at ourselves in Aruba. Here humor is aimed at the other. It's scary, as you need to be Dutch with the will to outsmart the joker. If you ask me how life becomes slightly unbearable to immigrants, it would be this. The missed humor to share.

"It’s a wild world at the moment but still lots of shelter and food on our tables for which I am grateful." Ruthie recounted some of the mother-daughter moments in her life, knowing I'd written about the painful distances between my mother and myself. "We are all in relatively good health with all the quirks and little pains any body shows at this age. Too much richness in foods these days, and we all love the tasty but wrong product. Hey?”

This blog post is for you--dear cousin Ruthie, in the watery city of Amsterdam--you who were touched by my words and the words of people I put on paper, and added your story to theirs. Today the overwhelming majority of people live in a multicultural world. I just learned yesterday that in New York City thirty-seven percent of inhabitants were born outside of the United States. We rub shoulders with others of sharply different backgrounds and oddly musical accents.

Laten wij luisteren. (Dutch)   Laga nos scucha. (Papiamentu)  Escuchemos. (Spanish)  Let's just listen.

Una Cubana Takes Off Her American Suit

Live now on Huffpost: Soy Somos: Una Cubana Takes Off Her American Suit.

It's a deeply felt conversation about returning to the land of your parents and grandparents that you never knew. Carolina, whom you've met before in Soy/Somos: I'm Not Yelling, I'm Cuban is married to a Welshman and has three adult kids. She's a fabulous dancer, loving wife, mother,  daughter, and sister. But during her recent visits to Cuba, she says, "I was me."

I understand. Though I emigrated from Panama almost fifty years ago and have returned many times, the feel of the air, the taste of the local oranges, the bathtub temperature of the mighty Pacific--all of these--pull at me. They are me.  Let's not even get into the dynamic of extended families in Latin America... 

Here are details about Cuba seen from the inside, not visible to ordinary tourists. Take a look. Would love to hear what you think.

Soy Somos: Una Cubana Takes Off Her American Suit.

Coming Next Week! Una Cubana Takes Off Her American Suit

Queridos amigos y lectores:

Cuba visit

Do you remember Carolina? She’s the Cuban born woman I interviewed almost two years ago in Soy/Somos: “I’m Not Yelling! I’m Cuban!” Carolina had left Cuba with her parents when she was a little girl of four. She spoke to me of the longing she has always felt for that lost piece of her story.

Here’s an excerpt from our very first conversation. Carolina had just returned from the Cuban Consulate in Washington DC where she had gone to apply for a Cuban passport:

“The Cuban Consulate in DC is a beautiful old building with a huge Cuban flag. When I saw it, I said, ‘This is me!’ Then I was told to go into a tiny building with almost no windows and bunches of people telling their stories. I heard the beautiful Cuban music of their voices. And I felt so American. It was my first visit to what was almost Cuban soil, and I was scared. I have always lived with this confusion of who I am and where I belong."

Since our conversation early in 2016 Carolina has traveled to Cuba twice, to Pinar del Rio, the most westerly province of Cuba. She meets her large family still living there and begins to put into perspective her Cuban heritage. Fall in love with Carolina. Be on the lookout for “Una Cubana Takes Off Her American Suit” coming to you next week.

But before that, I recommend you re-familiarize yourself with the American piece of Carolina's story.. Click here for the first interview, Soy/Somos: “I’m Not Yelling! I’m Cuban!”

See you next week!

Soy/Somos: I Speak English

Queridos amigos y lectores,

American Flag

I interviewed a lovely woman last week. I fell in love with her as she told me her story. There are some tough episodes in her life--but she didn't want to dwell on those. Elba looks at the glass half full. Full, really. When she has an opportunity, she takes it. Does whatever is required.  I was quietly impressed.

This Latina immigrant arrived in the US from El Salvador when she was fifteen to live with her mother whom she hadn't seen since she was a little girl of four. Of course Elba is a full-fledged American now and knows it.  And she adds a word of caution to Latinos, "Speak to me in English. We shouldn't box ourselves, because everyone else already does."  


Our newest arrivals bring energy, creativity, and a willingness to do what it takes. On this July 4th, let me say that I too am grateful for this country. For what it has offered me. For opportunities to grow, to say and think whatever I want. For the protections of its constitution. For the wide range of people who live within its borders. Feliz cumpleaños Estados Unidos de America!  

Take a look at Elba's story on HuffPost.

Soy/Somos: Lessons from an Immigrant Musician

Newest from my Huffington Post Blog. Take it away....Andrés!

“I was always tapping, like the table, like the feet, like cucharas de madera (wooden spoons) on the living room sofa. This is true of all percussionists I know. There’s an internal drum beating. I started taking drum lessons when I was eleven. This was the one! With my first lesson it was instant love. In high school I got into rock and long hair. In college I moved to the Latin world of percussion, Cuban music through percussion, drumset, and Colombian rhythms like cumbia and mapalé. 

“Actually the first plan was to go to Cuba for my studies. I’d asked my Cuban drumset teacher in Bogotá who guided me to ISA in Havana. That’s the Instituto Superior de Arte. You have to start at the lower level conservatory, he said, and then you have to be good enough to get into ISA. My dad took me to Havana for three days to get a sense of the schools. We did a lot of talking. That was so wonderful for me. How serious are you about drumming? He was the one to ask, Why not the US? That was some far away ivory tower for me...

Continue reading on HuffPost...

Soy/Somos: Ana: My Hero

Truly there are so may women heroes. They've been dealt a tough hand but strike out for survival. I've come across women like this among Hispanic immigrants who take on the jobs of maid, office cleaner, child care, nursing aide, and other. These women have crossed great distances to get here, often under terribly dangerous circumstances. 

They leave what they know and somehow make it in a strange new home. I celebrate Ana in this short post. Take a look. Have you met any heroes like her? 

Wishing you my friends on this journey a year of good health and adventures that fill your hearts.

Continue reading on HuffPost... 

One Week in Transit

When I return to my childhood home—Panama—things POP in a new way.  Back in New York: Husband, wife, and cat.

Panamanian pollera and montuno in Casco Antiguo, the old city

Panamanian pollera and montuno in Casco Antiguo, the old city



Day 1: fruit have seeds

I bite into a small red grape. No surprise when I cut a small papaya.

Day 2: ice water

Even before coffee, I pour cooled water from a jar in the refrigerator. Though I top my glass with ice, the ice melts in minutes.

Day 3: phone calls

Calls to loving family. This begins on Day 1 and continues until we leave. First, las tres tías, matriarchs who together add up to almost-300 years of living. Call brothers. Sister. Cousins. Nieces, husbands.

Day 4: thanksgiving

No absence of turkeys in a foreign city. My brother hosts a mini Thanksgiving for my children and their children who've traveled to Panama for my niece's wedding. Pool party. Slices of blue sky between buildings. Splashing kids. Fish ceviche. Turkey and stuffing. Waldorf Salad.

Day 5: broken sidewalks

Progress and chaos. Construction of new buildings in the capital city happen with no respect for regulations. Between two-story houses and new, very tall towers the sidewalks twist and pop. Careful!

Day 6: tranque

Traffic paralysis at rush hour--horas pico. We travel in small taxis from one neighborhood to another visiting family. Every street has been designated una via. You drive A to C to B to get from A to B.

Day 7: on foot

At the old colonial city, cars thread in and out of narrow streets. Shutters, moldings, interior patios, balconies. Shaved ice cones topped with maracuyá syrup and leche condensada. A welcome relief to the modern canyons in the new city. We travel on foot.

Day 8: la murga

The children practice their steps for the wedding event. The boys lead the procession into the sanctuary in tiny tuxedos and black-and-white Converse sneakers. The little girls in pink cast rose petals and the bride arrives. A sheer white mantilla trails behind, tiny pearls sewn into the lace. Tallit over the couple's heads. The violin sings. There will be a DJ. People will dance. The children will leave at midnight before la murga arrives with a Bombo--an enormous drum--one trombone, a trumpet, and two saxes. Guests will dance to the pounding rhythm of Carnaval.


Day 1: big

The Newark Airport is big compared to Tocumen in Panama City. View from the car is deep and wide. Distant buildings, highways leading to highways. Meaningless space. I like it.

Day 2: comfort

Home to my single-shot coffee machine. Re-heating tea at the microwave. At the market I load up on raspberries, blueberries, heirloom tomatoes, any olive oil you can imagine.

Day 3: hooked on FB

I cannot escape my I-Phone. My computer. Life settles in. Work. Husband, wife, and cat.


Viva Panama!

November Third. Today is the day Panama celebrates its independence from Colombia. From province to small republic.  It happened 113 years ago in 1903 just before Panama sealed a deal with Teddy Roosevelt to build a canal 50 miles across the narrow waist of the country. Panama has come a long way since then.

Viva Pa-na-má! There's grace in the three simple syllables (with an accent in Spanish).

The word of indigenous origin means abundance of fishes and butterflies.

To the film director Norman Foster Panama is slow moving fans in the ceiling of a murky bar with Sydney Toler in make-up--

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