Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from Ballagas’s autobiographical book, Newcomer: An American Adventure.
Every time I listen to someone whine about how difficult life is in America, I can’t help but smile. It’s not that I feel glad about it; it’s just that I remember how many times I whined about it myself. As a newcomer, I was so clueless, I had no idea how to find a job in this country.
My resume was a total disaster. To begin with, none of the information it provided about me was verifiable in the United States. Growing increasingly desperate, I turned to the patron saint of many recently arrived Latin Americans like myself: the government.
The state employment agency occupied a huge building, one of the many shrines of bureaucracy in the town where I lived at the time.
Since many flocked there to process their unemployment benefits, Latinos had coined a “Spanglish” term for it — the desemployment office. A job bank also operated there, where many hopefuls applied for dozens of positions in the state government.
A lady who was in charge of the office decided I might be qualified for a job as a driver’s license examiner. I explained I didn’t even have a license myself yet, but she insisted that this was unimportant. However, she warned me that I would have to pass several tests, including one to assess my typing skills.
Although I’ve always been a lousy typist, I passed the test on my third try. But the flood of junk mail and terse notifications I got in return for all my efforts only added to my disappointment. No decent lead developed from this search. After a while, I concluded that the government had pulled a fast one on me.
What a difficult life this is, I kept telling myself. I had arrived in the country several months before, and I was standing at a bus stop, with just a couple bucks in my pocket and wishing for lightning to strike me then and there, when someone suddenly spoke to me.
I turned around and saw him. He was a short man in some kind of funny uniform. He asked me if I was a newcomer looking for a job. When I told him I was, he offered to recommend me to the restaurant where he worked as a waiter. They were hiring dishwashers. “It pays $4 an hour,” he said. I didn’t think about it twice.
I was euphoric when I got back home that afternoon, but my wife only frowned. In our country, washing dishes is the epitome of failure. I felt, however, victorious. I was sure this could be the threshold to a top position in a large chain of five-star hotels.
Then, suddenly, the phone rang. A friend was calling to tell me there was an “opening” at the newspaper where his wife was working at the time. It wasn’t a newsroom position, of course, but at least I would be close to the paper and the ink I loved so much.
“And what would I be doing in this job exactly?,” I asked. “Paste-up,” my friend said.
I soon discovered this was one of the most boring and tedious tasks in the business back in the 1980s: basically pasting shiny strips of computer-generated matter on the paper’s empty templates. But at least I would have a job — and even health insurance.
Since then, I’ve held several jobs, each one a better paid one than the one before. I don’t whine so much either. On the contrary, I count myself as lucky to be living in America. I have reached impressive landmarks in my profession, too.
My skills and perseverance certainly helped, as well as my unshakeable faith in God and myself. But you know what? I have a good friend to thank for every job I’ve had in this country.
Manuel Ballagas is a Cuban-born author and journalist. He has published books of fiction and a memoir of his immigrant experience. He worked for years as an editor for the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Tampa Tribune. Follow @manolito60.
A Nation in Search of a State is the title of a brilliant book by Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat that captures the plight of the seemingly unending waves of Cuban immigration. Although in everyday practice the words “nation” and “state” tend to be used as synonyms, they represent different notions. A state is a geopolitical unit; a nation is a cultural and ethnic group. The concept of a nation-state infers that its population shares a common language, history, culture, and thus constitutes a nation. A legitimate nation-state relies on its geopolitical unit — the state — to promote national unity in economic and cultural life. These concepts can abet our understanding of the Cuban immigration phenomenon and its relationship to the Castro-state and the Cuban-American community. Since the Cuban revolution in 1959, approximately 20 percent of the Cuban population has fled the Cuban state, and the immigration trend has accelerated in recent years, overwhelmingly to the United States. This fact alone should serve to question the legitimacy of a regime that has promoted, not the unity, but the separation of the Cuban nation. The Castro-state has not been designed to attend the well-being of the Cuban citizenry, and the Cuban nation has expressed its political preferences voting the only way it can, by leaving. Legitimate nation-states shape the state from the nation. Castroism has sought to shape the nation from the state. A legitimate nation-state speaks on behalf its citizenry and seeks to protect them anywhere in the world independently of their political views. But since its inception, the Castro-state has done just the opposite. It has sought to stigmatize those leaving the island as no longer being part of the Cuban nation. This brings us to the current plight of Cuban nationals seeking to leave the Castro-state. Imagine for a moment thousands of US citizens stranded and mistreated in a foreign country as they, escaping perhaps from a great depression in the United States, attempted to make their way towards their perceived utopia. Would the US government seek to protect them, or would they be discarded as undesirable political enemies? The latter is what the Cuban regime has done with Cuban nationals for over 50 years. A legitimate nation-state defends its nationals without regard for their political affiliations. This understanding informs the historic Cuban American exile community as it speaks on behalf of new Cuban immigrants that they think “are not like us.” But a nation is a changing idea. A nation is always in the process of reevaluating its constituent elements. Each generation will affirm some, and discard others. And so it is with the new immigrants. Those leaving the island today may appear more like economic immigrants than political exiles, but this is a blurred distinction when applied to those leaving a totalitarian state that exerts engulfing control over both political and economic matters. Many, it can be assumed, were at one time supporters of the Castro regime. Some may even retain selected affinity for the statism under which they grew up. Nonetheless, they are part of the Cuban nation. For the Cuban immigrants of today — in fact, for most Cubans on the island — the Cuban-American community is their symbolic state, and their concrete economic state. Cuban immigrants are a nation repudiated by the Castro-state, but always embraced without an ideological litmus test by the historic exile community, albeit sometimes with reservations. Cuban Americans have made the United States their de jure nation state, while becoming themselves the de facto state for the Cuban nation. With this comes the citizen’s responsibility to articulate that abuses to US law and generosity must be vigorously condemned and criminal activity prosecuted. And yes, laws and regulations may need to be modified to fit the new reality of the Cuban nation as it continues to flee the Castro-state. Cubans in exile are best understood as a nation without a state, as an exclave that remains spiritually attached to Cuba. It is a nation that, with the passing of time, becomes more ideologically committed to individual freedoms. And so it will be with the latest immigrants, because nationhood is not a place, and the two fundamental mainstays of nationhood are nostalgia and solidarity.