As Cuba grew from Spanish colony into sovereign nation, it took its share of the tired, poor, hungry and huddled masses of the world, and amassed them in its capital, giving them shelter and work, and letting them co-exist at will, wherever they could, with whomever they would.
There were China-born Chinese and their Cuban-born children, that Cubans awkwardly called “chinitos” (little Chinese), no matter their age. There were Central and Eastern European immigrants, many of them Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian and Russian Jews, who had migrated to Cuba in two waves, the first around 1913, and the second around 1939 that in a mix of ignorance and malice, some Cubans called “polacos.”
While the city may have struggled with its identity as a melting pot, our home did not. Within my parents’ circle of friends, there were Blacks, Mulattos, Lebanese, Jews (later giving themselves the nickname “Jewbans” in the Miami exile), Russian émigrés, and European-born University of Havana professors.
A casual walk down any part of Havana in the 1940’s would allow one to gaze into a sea of faces of every hue and type, like a platter of the white rice and black beans comfort food that many Cubans favor.
In the early days of the Republic, Havana was already an ethnically-rich city, but one often separated into a Jewish Havana, a Chinese Havana, a Spanish Havana, and a Black Havana.
By the l950’s, Havana teemed with a racially mixed population, nearing one million people that represented nearly 20% of the total inhabitants of Cuba. There was a mix of Blacks, Caucasians, Asians, Middle-Easterners and their descendants living in Havana and in some of the larger cities. Chinese from Hong Kong had married Mulatto girls from the interior of the country and immigrants from the Basque Country had married Cuban-born girls of French extraction.
And yet there were the social clubs: a Basque Center, a Galician Center, and various societies for people from the Canary Islands, Asturias and Catalonia all of them white folks from the continent who had gown Creole roots in Cuba during the 18th and 19th centuries, all the while trying to stay racially pure. Typical of more recently arrived immigrants yet still uncertain about their new home, Basques continued to mix with Basques, Gallegos with Gallegos, and Catalans with Catalans. There was also a large American colony, whose members mingled mostly with each other. They were in Cuba to do business with Cubans, not to break bread with them.
By mid-century, Havana was well on its way to becoming a cosmopolitan hodgepodge. But the higher they moved up the social ladder, the more some white Cubans of the Republican years wanted to forget the dark-complexioned grandmother who had given birth to the child of their white, green-eyed Spanish Grandpa.
However, nothing represented the diversity of Havana’s growing metropolis more than food. Gourmets, gourmands, and aspiring aficionados of exotic food and drink were never hungry or bored in the Havana of my youth. You could go to a Chinese- run ice cream parlor, and enjoy ices made with guava, mango, prickly pear, tamarind or mamey. Farther down the street, if still hungry, you could buy peanuts in a paper cone or a tamal wrapped in corn husks, sold to you by an ebony-black man with white hair, whose Ivory-Coast born grandparents had probably known slavery before 1868.
One could eat one’s way from Shanghai to Warsaw just walking around the city. In Old Havana, there was a Kosher Dairy restaurant where, in my teens, I had my first taste of matzo ball soup and potato knishes. Less than a mile from our home, at the corner of 23 and 12 Streets, you could have a ten-cent frita, the Cuban version of the American hamburger. And, one could walk down to the corner and buy some sliced ham or dried codfish imported from Spain, at the neighborhood bodega run by a gruff Galician with a thick moustache.
Whether you were the boss or one of the workers from the assembly line out for lunch, there would be a place where for as little as a 25-cent peseta, or for as much a one peso, you could get a decent meal.
If one was of drinking age one could have a beer at the counter of a bodega before moving on to the next errand. Later in the day one could take a break at one of the open-air cafes in the center of the city, and sip an aperitif or cafe con leche served by a waiter with an exotic accent, maybe Italian or Portuguese.
My parents celebrated the diversity that was a part of their own story, and part of the country of their birth. The way they lived, their friends, and the environment all around us, were giving me glimpses of a bigger world—one filled with many cultures, many languages, and many different ways of thinking. I was learning valuable lessons that would help me survive and adapt to change sooner than anyone could have imagined.