Jackie’s Interview with Estela Acosta

Picture this: The year is 1968. You are just ten years old living in a communist country with your mother and sister. Your father is in the United States already. It is finally time to reunite with him. After seven years of waiting, you and the rest of your family are finally given political asylum in the United States from Cuba. You arrive in the United States with no knowledge of the English language, no money, and only 40 pounds of personal items per individual. This is all you have to your name. Imagine how terrifying it must be to come to such a new and strange place that you are unfamiliar with, but also how exhilarating it must feel to finally leave the country that gave you virtually no rights as a human being. What I just had you imagine is what Mrs. Estela Acosta went through leaving Cuba and coming to the United States of America.

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Estela with her husband Delfin who is also a Cuban immigrant.

As we are mostly all aware of, Cuba is under communist regime. In Cuba, there is no right to freedom at all. The government controls all aspects of the Cuban citizens’ lives. As I spoke with Estela, I began to inquire about what the final reason was for her family to decide to leave Cuba. I was sure there was an abundance of things going wrong in that country, but I was intrigued to hear what her family’s final push was. Her answer was spine chilling. Estela began to talk about what happens to girls in Cuba once they turn 16. She passionately spoke about how her father was the one who ultimately decided he would not allow his children to grow up in that kind of environment and applied for political asylum. Estela explains, “I think what gave my dad the last push is when the Castro regime decided that the girls at the time they turn […] 16 years old, would have to go into […] a military service. It wasn’t a choice. It was mandated. You were taken out of your home. Taken without needing your parents’ consent. You would be taken in to cut sugar canes in the field [to work for the government].” Hearing this genuinely shook me to the core. I cannot even begin to process being just 16 years old and being ripped from your home and family in order to serve a country that does not even respect your basic human rights. I cannot comprehend what it must be like for parents to have their child taken from them at that age. We, as Americans, despite not always having great political leaders and government officials, are beyond lucky to never have to worry about experiencing things like Cuban citizens experience.

bell hooks in her novel, Feminism is For Everybody, suggests that patriarchal power is the main component of inequality, as people, especially women, in America are not warranted to have the same rights in order to keep men in power. Freedom is something that we have in America and is not present at all in Cuba. Although men and women in Cuba are treated equally for the most part, the problem is that there are no rights at all for anyone, so none of the men can even have rights over women because these rights do not even exist. The way Cuba tries to influence the youth is to maintain power, just like how the patriarchy tries to lessen women’s political activeness and power in the workplace to maintain and even gain power. This is a strict parallel.

Castro’s regime is something very closely related to the patriarchy. Castro, now deceased, was part of the toxic patriarchy. The Cuban government’s hunger for absolute power, greediness, and need to maintain that power very much reminds me of the hetero-white-cis -normative society we live in today in the United States. Just like Castro during his time of dictatorship, typically the White heterosexual man is greedy and feels the need to be superior to women and will maintain their power in any way possible.

Estela began to explain how the Cuban government manipulates the youth. She said “[…] they indoctrinate you from when you are very small. They try to change your views and try to mold you […]  You shouldn’t really listen to your parents because they are from the old views and old ways. The government knows what you will need for the rest of your life. And when you’re a young child, you tend to believe that […] There tends to be a problem between your parents, your family’s views, and what you view as right or wrong.” The Cuban government essentially lies to the youth in order for them to support the Cuban regime. They tell these children that they know what is best and since children are so impressionable, they often believe it. This is the government’s way of maintaining power.

Estela Acosta with her old family dog

Although America may not be a communist country with virtually no rights, I do see a vast comparison in the way that different political parties manipulate citizens into believing certain things in order to maintain power. The media plays a major effect on people’s political beliefs. Republic news stations tend to manipulate leftist issues to make them seem wrong, insignificant and radical. The liberal news stations do the same to the conservative stories. Both political parties do this simply for their own political agenda to gain power in the government. For example, the topic of police brutality toward people of color is shown in two completely different ways by the left and the right. The more liberal view, and my own view, is that these cops are racially profiling people of color and making the decision to act violently based off a skin color they see without any actual cause, like someone wielding a weapon or charging at them. The republican side sees police brutality as non-existent and believes that the police are acting ethically because they only have a split second to decide what to do and sometimes can make mistakes. Republicans continue to criminalize the victims of police brutality and describe them in a very negative way. This is broadcasted on conservative news stations and those who only watch those type of stations will believe it. They will believe the conservative viewpoint and get manipulated into doing so. The conservative media falsely and misleadingly representing people of color gives the Republican party a  political gain. I know that police brutality towards people of color may seem unrelated but this is just one of the many examples of things happening in America that are twisted in the media in order for a specific party to have an increase in power. This is related to the Cuban government because the communist party is manipulating what the population believes in order to maintain political power.

I began to ask Estela about any negativity she has been faced with being that she is a Cuban immigrant and there is a lot of stereotypes surrounding that. She said that fortunately she has never experienced any negative stereotypical comments towards her personally but she did experience stereotypes towards Cubans as a whole when the movie Scarface came out. Estela discussed that that movie shaped a lot of peoples’ opinions about Cubans. She explained, “this is gonna sound strange but I think as a whole for a while there when Scarface came out, we were all kind of considered ‘oh you must be another Scarface, you must be selling drugs. You may be kind of like a mafia.’ We really are not like that. We are really hard working people but I think that’s mainly the stereotypical thing that you find on Cubans.” People have a single story narrative about Cubans, which is that they are all apart of some drug circle which is evidently not accurate.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the single story narrative told about immigrants in her Ted Talk, “The Dangers of a Single Story.” She came from Nigeria and many people had certain beliefs and  stereotypes of how she was suppose to be and act before even meeting her. She explains, “My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.” She continued to explain that her roommate had this initial pity for her just from simply hearing she was from Africa. She assumed that she was poor and her life was terrible because she was African. Ngozi Adichie’s roommate had a single story ideology that she believed was fit to describe everyone from Africa just like many Non-Cubans believe in the single story that all Cubans are associated with drugs.

As the interview went on, Estela began to speak of the culture shock she and her family had faced when they first arrived here. Estela spoke about how the biggest shock when coming to the United States was the language barrier. Her being only 10 when she came gave her an advantage over her parents when learning English. She said “wanting something and not being able to express yourself to be able to say, “I would like to purchase this”… You don’t know how to go about it. And for… when you come to this country and you’re young it makes it easier because you’re going to a school. You have the influence of your friends. You have the influence of television and radio. While for our parents, it was very difficult because they have to go out into the workforce and there was no access to education and so I would say the language barrier was the biggest issue.”

In Amy Tan’s Mother Tongue she discusses difficulties her mother faced due to the fact she did not speak English well. Tan explained how the language barrier made people not take her mother seriously. Her mother was seen as lesser because she did not know English. It is difficult to be in the United States and not know English because it is hard to get anything done despite there being no official language set here. Tan speaks about how she had to pretend to be her mother on phone calls with important people just so they would take her mother seriously. She said, “When I was fifteen, she used to have me call people on the phone to pretend I was she. In this guise, I was forced to ask information or even to complain and yell at people who had been rude to her” (Tan 256). Unfortunately, in the United States many people believe that English is the only language that should be spoken and that it should be spoken well. Many people are so narrow-minded that they will not even accept different accents, especially accents that come from languages spoken underprivileged countries.

My own father had some terrible experiences in the workforce due to his accent. My father is Puerto Rican and Spanish. He is by no means very dark skinned but he is evidently not white. He grew up in a household in which his mother only spoke Spanish. He learned English at a very young age through watching TV and school. My father does not have a heavy accent. If anything, he sounds more New Yorker than Spanish. However, there are many words he says where you can really hear the Spanish accent. About 10 years ago my dad had to leave his job due to people making fun of him for such a slight accent. My father was the only non-white man at that company. Many of his coworkers would call him racial slurs and would belittle him for the way he pronounced some words. My father is a pretty sensitive man, but did not want to let these ignorant people get to him. Growing up, he was taught to never quit a job because his family was very poor and living very close to the poverty line. He loved his job, just not the people he worked with. Unfortunately, he no longer could handle it and quit. This happened all because he has a very slight accent and people saw him as lesser because of it. If this happened to a man who is very well versed in English and has a barely noticeable accent, you can just imagine how difficult it is for those who barely know any English and have very heavy accents.

I personally believe it is ridiculous that someone is judged based on how well they know English. Knowing the English language does not equate to intelligence or worthiness. In my response to Estela and her family’s struggles with the language barrier I brought up the point that America does not cater to anyone who doesn’t speak English, but Americans who only speak English expect every country they vacation at to cater to them. During the interview I stated, “America doesn’t have a set language at all but then they expect every immigrant that comes in to learn English. Meanwhile, if we go somewhere to travel, everyone knows English. If people travel to France, China, everyone will know what we want when we speak English, but when you come back here, no one’s gonna cater to you and it sucks. It’s terrible.” Think of it this way, Americans visit China, Spain or France and they can survive with only knowing English. There is English on the signs. Many touristy areas have an abundance of people who speak English to make the visitors comfortable and not intimidated. However, someone from China who only speaks Chinese will come to America and will suffer and not be able to communicate with anyone but those who are also Chinese. Ultimately, this perpetuates the belief that America is the country superior to all and everyone else is obliged to accommodate for English speaking Americans.

After hearing her family’s struggles getting to America and adjusting to their new home, I began to wonder about her opinions on the immigration process. I asked her if she believes it needs to be reformed or quickened. As someone who had to wait 7 years to come, I found her response very insightful being she has experienced the process herself, because I do not know much about coming to the United States for political asylum as most of my family that immigrated here came through Ellis Island. Her response was this:

Right now I think there should be  a more expedited aim. I do understand why it takes so long. [The government] Can’t just say come on in to everyone without knowing the reasons why they are coming in. I think that there needs to be a time in a process where people need to be checked out and verified that they’re coming for the right reasons and that when [they] migrate to this country, that they will be productive citizens [and] not just coming here and expect[ing] for the government to provide for them because they deserve it […] I wish that it wouldn’t take that long but in our case it did take that long and we were a political asylum family […] so I do understand why the government has to do it. And I don’t really see anything wrong with it. And yeah I just don’t agree with going in saying I’m here you need to open the gates and let me in”

To some extent I do agree with her, because I do feel we need to know people’s intentions for coming to this country. God forbid someone were to come in and not be thoroughly evaluated before getting approved and ends up being a terrorist or a serial killer. This is not to say that immigrants are these criminals because in most cases they are not, but I feel as though we need to know who is coming in and out of this country as a precaution being that America is a major target for attacks.

Estela and I do have differing views on some parts of immigration law. We discussed how she felt about the immigrants that have come here undocumented. She explained that as a documented immigrant who had to wait seven years to be approved, she feels it is unfair that people are coming in undocumented and repping benefits without having gone through the full process she went through. It is understandable that she feels this way being that she is a immigrant who went through the whole legal process, however, I disagree on the stance that it is unfair only because times are changing. Back when she came to America, immigration was seen in a whole different light. It is even more difficult now to come to America and takes so many years to get approved and people do not have the luxury of waiting all those years. I believe America was very different in 1968. When she came to America, there was a liberal president, Lyndon B Johnson, in office. In the past few years, we have had Donald Trump who is not an ally to immigrants. As the presidents have changed, so has the nature of immigration.

Estela, with her two children, Andy and Sofia, and husband Delfin

To sum up our interview, I asked Estela about what she believes is her greatest life lesson she has learned through being a Cuban immigrant, adapting to life in the United States and having a family here. Her answer warmed my heart. Her answer in its entirety was this:

Living in America, it’s… it’s what everybody says. You could have your dreams and they will come true. You can be whatever you really want to be. you set your mind and I believe that there’s opportunity for everyone. That’s what makes America great. Um, it’s just whatever you dream of, if you work hard enough, if you study, you can accomplish that.  You can have… You can have a family. You can have anything really that you wish to have. The opportunity is there, and I know that sometimes people don’t agree with that but coming from a communist country where you are stopped every minute of your life; you have to follow what the government says to the tee, people don’t believe that, but I think because we’ve seen it, we have grown hearing the stories… we are a firm believer that this country is just – it gives you the opportunity. It’s up to you to live your life whatever you wish to do. I thank America every single day and I thank my parents for doing what they did to get us here.   

It was my absolute pleasure to interview Mrs. Estela Acosta. I am beyond grateful to know someone like her and to have been able to learn about her story.

You can find the whole interview with Estela here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=407oD79-9io&feature=youtu.be