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Growing Up as a First-Generation Cuban-American

Going Against My Cuban-American Family Has Allowed Me to Live Life on My Own Terms

Palace Resorts at Taste of Tennis(Photo by David Handschuh)Image Source: David Handschuh

Cessie Cerrato is a public relations expert in New York City.

What's it like growing up as a first-generation Cuban-American in Miami? Well, it's being born an American but feeling more Cuban than anything else. It's not leaving the hospital the day you are born without your ears being pierced. It's getting drenched in Violetas every time you get out of the shower. It's big, poofy dresses, azabaches for good luck, zapatos de charol, and going to misa on Sundays. It's cafecito windows and visits to the Cuban bakery on Saturday morning with Abuelo. It's a tacky quinceañera fiesta with 200 of your closest friends and family and a few other people you've probably never met, pero Abuelo said, "Hay que invitar a la señora de la joyeria." It's being part of a massive family that is engulfed in history, stories of Cuba, and nostalgia for the love of the country they left behind.

Every time I am asked about my culture, I proudly say Cuban, but the question that always follows it leaves me feeling empty: "Have you ever been there?" The answer is no. The reason has always been a complicated one.

As a proud Cuban-American, I am obsessed with my culture. I defend it, promote it, and am constantly engulfed in the nostalgia of Cuba. But I can't lie when I say sometimes I feel like a complete fraud. Every time I am asked about my culture, I proudly say Cuban, but the question that always follows it leaves me feeling empty: "Have you ever been there?" The answer is no. The reason has always been a complicated one.

Growing up a child of Cuban parents who fled the island as children themselves, I was bound to be conflicted with emotions toward the country. In my case, I wasn't "allowed" to want to go to Cuba because I wasn't "allowed" to want to give money to a country that literally took away everything my family had. How dare I be curious about my culture, heritage, and a tiny island that holds so many mixed emotions for my family? It's a painful reminder to the people who fought so hard to get to the US to, in turn, give me opportunities they did not have, simply because I'm curious.

Image Source: Cessie Cerrato

It might sound unfair, but I owed it to my family to try to understand. Imagine fleeing a country not because you disliked it, not because you were unhappy, not because you needed a change, but simply because it lacked basic human rights and the regime in place prevented you from advancing. The things we take for granted — like walking into a supermarket and buying five steaks, or having eight different brands of toilet paper to choose from, or the ability to have an opinion about your government without going to jail for it — were not available when my parents and their families chose to leave Cuba. My parents and grandparents are still hurt about the life they were forced to leave behind.

Still, I feel compelled to go, and I will, because as my parents will tell you, I'll always go against everything they say. But mainly, I'll go because I want to see it for myself. I want to visit the block where my mom was born. Stop by the house my grandparents lived in. Swim in the waters of Varadero Beach — because I've seen so many pictures and heard so many stories. A place I've never been to holds such a special place in my heart, and being a first-generation Cuban-American is, for many, never knowing what being to Cuba is like but feeling every inch of Cuba in your veins, from the food to the culture to the music to the art to the hustle.

My parents were taught to be thankful for what you had, work hard, but sometimes stay comfortable, even if it meant not taking risks. The comfort of knowing was always better than not knowing how it would all pan out.

Being raised a first-generation Cuban-American didn't come without challenges. When it came time for me to expand my horizons and do things my parents never did, it was always an argument. My parents were taught to be thankful for what you had, work hard, but sometimes stay comfortable, even if it meant not taking risks. The comfort of knowing was always better than not knowing how it would all pan out. This only made me want to prove myself, take more risks, and step out of the idea that as Latinx we needed to stay under the radar.

Image Source: Cessie Cerrato

Leaving home to go away for college made no sense to them — you could live at home for free, and the local university was just as good as anywhere else you wanted to go. I left anyway. I was the first to attend and graduate college in my family at the University of Florida. It was one of the best decisions I made.

Going against the grain led me to be comfortable with living life on my terms, taking control of my future, and allowing myself to have the experiences my soul craved without the opinion of my traditional family swaying me one way.

When I announced I was moving to New York City, my Cuban grandpa was skeptical. "¿A Nueva York? ¿Pero qué se te perdió alla? Toda esa gente, la peste, es carísimo. ¿Qué tu quieres hacer en NY?"

After a lengthy conversation on his backyard swing, he finally understood that living in NYC was a dream I'd had for as long as I could remember, and if I didn't do it, I'd regret it forever. He reminded me why he left Cuba: in search of better opportunities. He agreed he could not hold me back from doing the same.

Image Source: Cessie Cerrato

I am almost four years into my journey of living in what I believe to be the best city in the world. I didn't want to settle for an ordinary life. Being Cuban-American and understanding my family's hardships have inspired me to do more, to give more, to learn more, and to fight for a life that is continuously evolving. I am on a lifelong journey to become a better version of myself every day. It's not always easy, but it's absolutely worth it.

We have to keep in mind that, most likely, our parents did the best they could with what they knew when raising us. Their advice does not stem from a place of negativity. It's not that they don't want us to have fun or do the things that make us happy; it's just that as a parent, their goal is to keep us safe, prevent us from getting hurt, and hope that we avoid disappointment. In doing so, they sometimes forget those things are all what force us to grow and make us better human beings. Sometimes you have to take that risk, make that move, have that experience — even if it means going against what people who love you want for you.

Being a first-generation Cuban-American, I have a great responsibility to keep my Cuban culture and heritage alive.

Being a first-generation Cuban-American, I have a great responsibility to keep my Cuban culture and heritage alive. It's the best job I'll ever have because it represents my truest identity. It encompasses a melting pot of family, loyalty, traditions, culture, and flavors. I take on the responsibility of educating the future on what it means to make your gente proud, one cafecito at a time.

Image Source: Cessie Cerrato
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