A voice called out. It was the typical accent here, but I still needed practice registering the sounds as words. “Oh,” I finally realized. “¿Eres Cubana?” Are you Cuban?
I didn’t answer fast enough. SLAP! Went her chancleta as it hit the pavement. I turned my head in time to see a woman step into the street and veer towards me. I smiled at her and nodded. Convinced that if I didn’t speak, I wouldn’t give myself away.
The night before we landed in Havana, my guide suggested that I “perform foreignness” in order to gain the privileges would be automatically afforded to my group mates. It was sage advice but was not meant for a situation like this.
I glanced at the collection of sweat and island dew that had collected on her forearm. I had never been to a country where the majority of the population looked like me. In fact, before coming to Cuba, I had spent a lifetime responding to people who persisted in asking, “Right, but where is your family from?”
So instead of “performing foreignness,” I was trying to pass as Cuban.
Until that point, I had failed. Feeling insecure about my Spanish, I had decided not to venture out alone. Unsurprisingly, my timidity made it impossible to socialize with locals. So, I considered this encounter to be an incredible opportunity.
She quickened her pace; perhaps to get a better look at me. Now, side by side, we fell into an even stride. I looked at her. She was a lot like the women I knew back home. Our tawny complexions were nearly the same shade of brown ochre. The warmth of our hues stood in opposition to the faded pastels and crumbled grey facades of the buildings around us.
That was the only way we stood out. In a crowd, we would be enveloped in a sea of skin tones that ranged from sand to onyx, but averaged out somewhere in the middle. Close to us.
We continued together down the weathered streets of Havana Vieja. She kept her eyes on me as she expertly glided over the cracks and chasms—like a true Cubana. I tightened my smile, inviting her to accept my plea for recognition.
“No.,” she said as she gave a sly smile, “No. Eres Cubana.”
SLAP, SLAP, SLAP went her chancletas as she broke our rhythm and disappeared down a side street. I couldn’t tell if she was amused or annoyed by my deception. I still wasn’t sure what had given me away. But as I watched her walk away with the timbre that governed the rest of the island, I began to consider it a privilege that I had been considered at all.