It’s not something I talk about often, but when I do tell people I was born in Havana, Cuba; the first thing they ask is, “Was your dad in the military?” When I tell them that he wasn’t, their next comment almost always is, “Why were you born there? You don’t look Cuban!” With that in mind, I suppose my cousins “look even less Cuban” than I do. As babies, each of my cousins qualified for any Gerber Baby look-alike contest, with their blond curls and big blue eyes.
My paternal grandparents were directly from Spain. My maternal ancestry is also from Spain with a few drops of French in there somewhere. What most people don’t know is that in 1492, Columbus claimed the island for the Kingdom of Spain. Cuba remained under Spain’s ruling until 1898. Most of the original Native Americans living in Cuba died because they were subjected to harsh slavery, or died from Eurasian diseases. A thousand or so survived, many escaped into the mountains. Thousands were then cruelly ripped from their homes and families in Africa to replace the lost native slaves. Cuba’s ethnicity is somewhat different from the typical Latin America people imagine.
My father deserted my mother when she became pregnant with me, because he didn’t want children. Yet. She lost the love of her life and resented having to raise me on her own. I was tiny when Fidel Castro took over the island. He robbed people of their rights, their faith, their money, and their property through his communistic agenda.
Cuba had been a sought after vacation spot for the wealthy, much like Hawaii. The climate, the flowers, the fruit and crops are pretty much the same. The best part was that Cuba was only 90 miles from Florida. Communism plundered Cuba of its wealth and beauty. The oceans around the island are still turquoise and the sand is still sugar white, but Cuba’s beautiful, royal like architecture is falling apart. The people live under oppression and in poverty. My aunt’s husband Oscar, visited Cuba about 30 years ago and was overwhelmed by its state of poverty. He took two suitcases full of aspirin, toothpaste, toothbrushes, first aid items and soap because his family and friends left there, begged him for them. Those things are a luxury there.
Immediately after Castro’s takeover, anyone with any means fled the island. Uncle Oscar, was the first from our family to leave. He then sent for his children, then his wife. Five years later, my mom, grandmother, and I emigrated to San Diego, California. I was ten years old.
My childhood in Cuba was shattered and very lonely. I experienced a great deal of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of my mother. My mom blamed me for my father’s abandonment. My grandmother tried to protect me from my mother’s angry outbursts against me. She was often unsuccessful. My grandmother was very old, past her mid-sixties when I was born. She suffered with pain from scoliosis, and didn’t have much patience or energy for a baby or toddler. I was often kept out of the way, in a playpen; during my toddler years.
After my aunt and uncle left, I spent countless hours alone, when I wasn’t in school. There were few mother-daughter or grandmother-granddaughter bonding moments. My mom never married or had other children. I will always appreciate and admire my mom’s hard work to raise me. She was often tired, distracted and frustrated.
My grandmother died just six months after we arrived in the U.S. We lived with my aunt, uncle and cousins our first year here. This was the only time in my childhood I felt like a real kid. Once my mom got a job, we moved to another town close to her work, since we couldn’t afford a car. My mother was frustrated with hardships such as a language barrier, lack of money and good job skills, and loneliness. Her only source of joy were hours of phone calls to my aunt every night.
At school, I had to start from scratch by learning to speak, spell, read and write English. Watching TV was my pastime. I had just about every episode of Leave it to Beaver, Gilligan’s Island, That Girl, The Partridge Family, and everything else from that era memorized. After a few seconds into a show, I immediately knew the plotline. When I became a teen, my favorite shows and role models were Love American Style, Fantasy Island and The Dating Game. Those were very risqué shows for that time and for a teenager’s impressionable mind.
I discovered the world of dating, alcohol and pot during my mid-teens. I hung out with other likeminded teens, many several years older. We were all broken inside. We were lonely, alone and unsupervised. We lacked the slightest bit of guidance, direction or anyone to reign us in. We didn’t cause much mischief or hurt people or property. As hurting teenagers, we drowned our pain in alcohol, pot and carefree living. Several times, I passed out from too much alcohol, only to awaken the next morning with no recollection of the night before.
When I was 19, God opened my heart and my eyes to His message of grace, love and salvation at a Calvary Chapel in San Diego. I didn’t know anything about grace, love, salvation or God, but felt such a very strong tug, that I gave my heart to Jesus that night. He then began a long and arduous journey to remake me into the person He originally intended me to be.
At 23 I gave birth to a child out of wedlock. The reality of being responsible for another human being kept me from alcohol or pot. Not fully understanding Christianity, I began to clean up my life on my own, but without direction, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. Then, I became pregnant for a second time by my daughter’s father, when she was only eight months old. Not realizing I had any options, I married the man against my better judgment. All I ever longed for was to be part of a family, to love freely, and to be loved. I write more about this in these posts, An Unforgettable Deed, Wedding Day Blues, Searching For Love In The Right Places,
I was not malicious or mean-spirited, but I was very ignorant, very naive and very stubborn. A terrible combination. People often told me, ”You’re too sweet.” Or “You’re too nice. “ I believed that if one was nice to other people, they would automatically be nice back. That kind of thinking only got me taken advantage of over and over.
God’s makeover journey has taken decades of heartaches, grief, and physical pain (due to several injuries). At times, the heavy hand of God’s tough love has been so strong, I didn’t think I would make it through. But I did. Each time, I have emerged stronger of faith and character. One day, in 2007, my world shattered yet one more time due to the almost breakup of my second marriage. I then surrendered every ounce of my being to God. After a lifetime of struggles to be free from unhealthy choices no matter how hard I tried, I figured I needed to turn the steering wheel over to Him. That was the day I really found God’s hope and help in the midst of my vast hopelessness.
Since then, God has faithfully strengthened me, miraculously shown me His deep love, and has drawn me closer to Him. I have never felt freer in all my life. He brought me through the death of my only son in 2011.
Oh, I still struggle with extremely painful issues, back injuries, neck injuries and migraines , family heartaches and estrangements. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt God has never left my side and never will. I have been the one who’s taken those leaves of absence from Him.
It has been His love, grace and strength that has helped me through the pain. He promises to the same for anyone who is tired of living life their way and cries out to Him for help. Anyone who is willing to call on His name. “I (We) Can Do All Things Through Christ Who Strengthens Me (Us)”. Philippians 4:13.
By ~ Elizabeth Yalian ©2013