For my oral history project, I interviewed Carmen Luege. She is not only a long time family friend, but is also a judge in the Orange County court and is an alumni of LMU. She is currently married and has three children.
Her Time in Cuba
Carmen lived in Cuba from when she was born (1959) until her family was given permission to leave in 1970. Her earliest recollections of Cuba were of the struggles her family and everyone else faced for finding food.
“Everybody had a ration card, so you had to go around with a ration card. You had a certain amount of rice and milk and meats that you could buy. But the problem was that it was not available…These are all government run stores. There’s no private businesses. There would be a long line to get the rice that was delivered at this particular market. Every day the struggle was to find food for the day. That’s what the adults woke up thinking. Now I wasn’t thinking that, but the adults were. In the summer, the thing I remember about summertime is that my mom, my sister is four and a half younger. By the time I’m seven or eight I already obviously remember my sister also. My mom would take us to the line, whatever that meant. It could be rice, it could be meat, it could be milk, it could be whatever. What happened is you stand in line and I want you to think of a really long line. I remember playing on the sidewalk as my mom is in the line and we’re just playing, whatever kids do…I remember many times being in line. I want you to think it’s 90 degrees, super humid. I remember many times when you were getting close, the product would run out. At some point the clerk would come out and say, ‘Okay, we’ve run out.’ Everybody would disperse, but people would run around to some other market, it’s just word of mouth that there was some other product.”
When she became older, her mom would make her hold a spot in one line while she went to another line in hopes that one of them would get some food for the day. Sometimes, the food they got would even be spoiled, but they had to eat it because it was all they had for the day.
When her family filed to leave Cuba, her dad got fired from his job at a bank. He was then forced to work for the revolution. He would cut sugar cane every day at a camp for no pay and only be home with his family about four or five days each year. The only reason he put up with this is because if he stopped working for them, his family would have not been able to leave Cuba. He nearly starved working under these harsh conditions with little nourishment.
Even through these very hard times for Cuba, she still experienced street harassment. Street harassment is defined by Charlene Haparimwi as “unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public space without their consent, and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression or sexual orientation”. She recalls a time when her and her mom were harassed on the street by a man:
“I was starting puberty, the thing I noticed and I remember being very mindful of this is that if I was walking down the street with my mom, you’d pass men, they could say something to you. Some of them could be rude, some of it could be charming, but when you’re 11, even the charming doesn’t feel that way. It’s just some strange guy saying something. Do you know what I mean? That makes you feel uncomfortable, that is highlighting something about your body as an 11 year old, you’re just not prepared to accept and that happened a lot. I don’t think it just happened, it would happen even to my mother. At that time she was young. Men saying things publicly is like … Even at the beginning of moving to this country if you walk by a construction site and men would whistle…even though the idea that we could have careers and we didn’t have to stay home and raise kids was developing, you still had those experiences.”
Haparimwi said again that “Many believe street harassment is harmless because it is so deeply ingrained in our culture. Anyone who lives in large cities especially experience street harassment on a daily basis. Statistics as of 2014 show that 65% of all women and 25% of all men will have experienced street harassment at some point in their lives. By the age of 12 years old 1 in 4 women will have experienced street harassment.” So although it is not a surprise that her and her mom were harassed on the streets of Cuba, it is still a terrifying statistic that defines the reality of most women.
Carmen went on to say that everyone was pretty progressive in Cuba for the most part. Women were encouraged to have careers and could be anything they wanted, but there was still a culture that degraded women. She also said that she could not tell if the government actually cared about women, or if they just wanted as many people as possible to support the revolution. People who did not support it were round up and shot.
Her Journey to Spain and the US and American Life
She did not come to the United States immediately. Her and her family went to Spain first for two years before making to the States. They flew directly into Los Angeles from Madrid. They came to LA because they had already had some family here that were going to help them get on their feet for the first month.
Carmen did not want to leave Spain. Her father had a very good job, and she had friends and did well in school. The biggest reason she did not want to leave was that everyone in Spain spoke her language and mostly everyone spoke English in LA, so it was very hard for her to fit in.
The public school that she attended in Pasadena would bus people in from all over LA. It was mainly white kids from nice areas, black kids from the immediate area, and Mexicans who did not speak english. There was a lot of violent racial tension mainly between blacks and whites. She said that the black kids did not like that the rich white kids were being bussed into their community and the white kids did not like that they had to be bussed to a different area for school. This tension caused a lot of violence within the school. Carmen mentioned that this was all a shock to her coming from Spain where everyone was white, Catholic, and respectful to others. Carmen describes her experience here:
“Suddenly, I’m thrown into this environment that not only do I not understand the language, but I don’t fit into any group. If I tried to fit with the Spanish speaking kids, and they did put me in English as a Second Language. I met kids who have been here three or four years and they still couldn’t speak English. I’m already thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m never going to learn the language.’ Part of the reason is because in the English as a Second Language, they spoke Spanish all the time. The teachers spoke Spanish, they spoke Spanish. I don’t know how you learn English in that environment. It was a good concept, but it wasn’t working.”
She later transferred to St. Phillips school. The school understood that they did not have very much money, so they helped her family out. Carmen did not know the exact terms, but she got to attend this Catholic school. She also went to Alverno High School, which was also Catholic, on similar terms. Through these years, she ended up finally learning english by the 9th grade. One thing that stood out to her was how left out she felt going to a “rich kid” school as someone from such a poor family. Through the years of learning better english, and forming friendships, she began to feel more integrated.
Carmen did not apply to any other university than LMU. She had attended LMU on full scholarship since she was valedictorian in high school and since the nuns at her high school had connections with LMU. She did not pay a penny for anything during her time at LMU.
Discrimination as a Latina
Although she did very well in school, she still did face discrimination for her language barrier. This is shown in her early years at LMU:
“They put me in an English Honors class for my first year. I remember going to this Honors English class. I still have an accent, I’m sure you can hear that. At the time it was a much more pronounced foreign accent. I get to that class and there’s only maybe 15 kids. It’s a small class, because it’s the Honors class. The professor within the first 10 minutes, as soon as he hears me introduce myself he says, “I don’t think you’re in the right class.” I say, “No, it says here, I’m supposed to be in this class.” He says, “No. No. No. I don’t think you’re in the right class. This is an Honors English class. It’s going to go fast, you have to read a lot. You have to write a lot. I don’t think you can be in the right class.” He sends me back to the office. I’m like, “Okay.” I go back to the admissions office or whatever office he sent me to. I say, “Okay, I went to the class you put here, but the professor wants confirmation that I’m supposed to be in this class because he thinks this has been a mistake.” The person looks into it, comes back with a document telling him that, “No, I am in the right class.” I go back to the guy, and I give him the paper. He’s shaking his head like, “I don’t know.” I’m like, “Okay.” It turned out to be an amazing class. Actually it focused on a lot of philosophy and writing papers, and I loved it. It was a terrific experience, but you did have to deal with that type of stereotype where he’s assuming I can’t do the class because he hears me speak.”
She also faced it in the professional world after college.
“I say, “Okay, I need a letter of recommendation. I’m applying to all these law schools, because I’m going to go to law school.” He sits there and he looks at me and he says, “Why do you want to be a lawyer?” He says, ‘English is your second language, so who would select to go be a lawyer, which is all based on communication, when English is your second language. I know this comes as a hard news to you, but you’re a pretty girl. I don’t understand why don’t you just marry a lawyer?’ I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, “Well, maybe the lawyer is not what I was thinking of. I have no idea who I’m going to marry.” I said. “I have this job.” I explained that to him. That has made me aware of how to do legal research and I find the work interesting. I think it’s going to open up opportunities financially for me in my future.” That made him at least think about it. Then he said, “Okay. Okay. I’ll write you a recommendation,” because obviously I had the grades and he knew that I was doing really well. Those are the kinds of things that I think today my daughter nobody will ever say, “Why don’t you marry the doctor or why don’t you marry an engineer?” But at the time, I can’t even say I felt offended. Do you know what I’m saying? That was part and parcel of the way the world functioned.”
This interaction between Carmen and her boss is explained perfectly by Audre Lorde:
“Today, with the defeat of ERA, the tightening economy, and increased conservatism, it is easier once again for white women to believe the dangerous fantasy that if you are good enough, pretty enough, sweet enough, quiet enough, teach the children to behave, hate the right people, and marry the right men, then you will be allowed to co-exist with patriarchy in relative peace, at least until a man needs your job or the neighborhood rapist happens along.”
Although Carmen is Latina, she is very light skinned, so she can still fall into the category of “white”. Here, her boss told her to give up and just marry a lawyer to make it easier for her. He discredited all of her hard work. Carmen even had internalized this oppression, making this horrible interaction a normal occurrence for her. The further internalization of her oppression is seen in this quote:
“it wasn’t like I said, “My God, are you kidding me?” Do you know what I mean? I’m going to go and report you.” I had a similar experience when I started working … I went to O’Melveny & Myers, which is a very large firm…When I check in with the receptionist, I cannot tell you how many times she said, “Oh you can go and set up your equipment.” Almost every time, the assumption that the female receptionist was making was not that I was a lawyer, but that I was a reporter. This happened all the time, now that I was … Again, you weren’t offended because this was another female making the assumption that you’re not the lawyer. I was accustomed to that. You just accept it. When I went to UCLA Law School, the division was about 80/20 maybe 75/25. It seemed like it was huge. Everybody was so proud of themselves that they had been able to get a class with 20, 25% female and everybody. It was still when I entered the profession, it was very much a male-dominated profession.”
She never felt phased from this discrimination and also never really felt a reason to challenge it or do anything about it. She had already felt so lucky and so grateful that she got to attend LMU and UCLA and get a job with a big office. She did not think that she had anything to complain about because she knew that she could still be in Cuba where people were being murdered on the streets by the government.
The interaction with the receptionist is also a red flag. Feminist thinkers like Audre Lorde and Bell Hooks have written time and time again that women should always be looking out for each other and not succumb to the patriarchy. Lorde said that “Unacknowledged class differences rob women of each others’ energy and creative insight”. The receptionist assumed that Carmen was not in a position of authority right off the bat without even talking to her. Women need to watch out for each other. This is a simple concept, but is quite important to standing up to the patriarchy.
Carmen looked back on that time in her life and realized that she was being discriminated against, but she still understands why she did not speak up and kept it all internalized:
“To me you walk around thinking, “I’m lucky, so what do I have to complain about.” Now I think as the years have progressed if you said to me, if Sophie (her daughter) came home and told me these stories. I’d be like, “Hey, wait a minute. This isn’t right and you’ve got to enforce your rights. You’ve got to demand your rights.” But when you’re an immigrant and you get to have this job…Were there strange things that happen in my life? Sure. Not only when I went to O’Melveny, everybody was super-hyped. I was the first Hispanic they hired. Did I want to be the first Hispanic? No…There were times when I had difficult time getting assignments because some of the partners thought that I had gotten there through some educational affirmative action program and they didn’t think I had the capabilities. Did I like that? No. Did I know it was happening? Yes. But did I feel that I could go into somebody’s office and demand, “This isn’t fair, you’re oppressing me.” No. I felt like, “Look, you’re paying me a lot of money. I’m in this nice office.”
She said that a man named Patrick Lynch later took her under his wing and helped her get more work so she could progress in her career. She is eternally grateful for everything that he did for her and they still remain friends today.
Passing On Her Wisdom To Her Children
When her first son, Nicelio Jr., was born, they wanted to make sure that he knew how to speak Spanish so they spoke a lot of Spanish to him as a toddler. When he entered preschool at age 4, they noticed that he barely knew how to speak English. They had noticed that a lot of the other kids made fun of him for having bad English. Carmen freaked out because she saw herself and her same struggles in him. For her next two kids, Sophia and Sebastian, she mostly spoke English.
She really wanted to teach her kids about the struggles she faced. She wanted to make sure they knew how lucky and privileged they were to be in the position that they were in. Her kids were always surrounded by Cuban culture growing up. She never really made it a point to make sure her kids were integrated into their culture, it just happened naturally, because that is who they were. Even as I grew up going over to their house for big parties with all of their family and friends, I always felt welcomed, even as a very privileged 4th generation white kid. I am grateful that I grew up with those experiences with their family, learning about another culture and being welcomed to embrace it with them. Even to this day, we still have big Paella parties with them and some of our other Cuban friends, and they are an absolute blast.
My Final Thoughts
Carmen Luege is an incredible person. She has faced more adversity in her life than I would in ten lifetimes, and yet she remains resilient, strong, and confident. I am very glad that I chose someone who I have known for the majority of my life. I was lucky to learn more than I could have imagined about her experience and journey to where she is today. I went into the interview with twenty or so questions, but she went further in depth into her experiences than I could have hoped for.
Growing up as a white kid in Orange County, I learned about Cuba and what it was like during the revolution. Of course I thought it was terrible, but you never really think fully in depth of how many people it truly affected and to what gravity it affected them. To be able to hear the life story of someone who lived it is truly incredible and really made me think about how lucky I am to have been born into a country and family where I never needed to worry about food or any other basic life necessities. It was a similar eye opening experience for me to my first visit to the Museum of Tolerance where I walked through the replica tunnels that victims of the Holocaust would have entered at their arrival at Auschwitz. I always understand how privileged I am, but experiences like talking to Carmen and visiting the Museum of Tolerance really put my privilege into perspective for me.
The number one thing that stood out to me in this interview was her motivation to succeed and the discipline to not let anything get in the way of that. From her language barrier to blatant sexism, she has overcome some extremely difficult obstacles. Her story is not just inspiring for any immigrant, but also for any human. That is why I will continue to use everything I have been given to work as hard as I can so everyone can live in a world where we all have an equal opportunity to succeed.
I wish to close with a quote from Audre Lorde that explains how everyone should view their fellow humans:
“Certainly there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and exception”.