First Place Winner of the Privilege & Identity Abroad Narrative Writing Contest. See the announcement for all of our winners here.
“We need to see some identification.”
Rodrigo pulled a bright blue carnet from his wallet and passed it to the officer in green. It was 5:30 on a balmy afternoon in one of Havana’s Internet parks. My friend Delphine had just introduced me to Rodrigo, a Cuban friend she met at the University.
“Are you with him?” the cop asked me, handing Rodrigo’s carnet back.
He looked me up and down; unable to tell whether I was a Cuban national. The Caribbean features were there, of course, but my black shorts and my green shirt with rolled up sleeves made me look more American than anything.
“Is he with you?” he asked, changing the question once he realized where I was from.
“Yes, he’s with me. But why don’t you check me too? I’m also from here!”
The cop looked at me with a blank expression. My anger grew.
“Why is he the only one getting checked?” I demanded, moving towards the cop while my friends stayed behind.
He looked me up and down once more.
“Listen, don’t ask things you know nothing about. A lot of locals befriend tourists for money. It’s our job to keep you safe.”
“And who told you I was a tourist?”
The cop turned and walked away without answering. Once he was gone, Rodrigo told me I shouldn’t have spoken. This happens to him all the time, he said, much more frequently than to his lighter-skinned friends. It was routine for him, and trying to reason with the cops could have only made it worse.
I played the afternoon over in my mind that night. I thought about how I’d never been so bold around cops in the United States. How, given the amount of state violence inflicted on black and brown folks at home, a similar situation would have made me fear for my life – even if I hadn’t spoken.
But, some part of me wanted to be checked. As harsh, as illogical as it sounds, I wanted to know others saw me how I saw myself. In that moment it didn’t matter the desire was unreasonable. My last relative left the island more than sixty years ago and I wanted nothing more than to truly feel Cuban, to shed my American identity for a semester.
So, whenever I could, I left my abroad group behind and did my best to blend into the city. I rode the bus instead of taking local taxis. I went to restaurants only locals ate at. I took multiple salsa classes so I wouldn’t be pinned to the wall when we went out to clubs. And, if a Cuban person asked me about my accent (I grew up speaking Dominican Spanish), I would tell them I was from the Eastern side of the island.
It mattered so much to me that I be seen as Cuban. So much that I forgot about my immense privilege. The privilege I had to decide when I wanted to be seen as American and when I wanted to be seen as Cuban. The privilege I had to walk into a luxury hotel and know I wouldn’t be questioned because of the white Americans in my group. The privilege I had of leaving my program friends behind when I wanted to feel like a local for the day. For Rodrigo, however, this wasn’t the case. Being Cuban wasn’t something he could turn on and off.
Justin Jiménez is an Afro-Latinx musician, writer and poet originally from Boston. He is currently finishing his senior year at Oberlin College where he is pursuing a B.A. in Creative Writing and Sociology.