Hablando de lo que pica el gallo…formando un arroz con mango.
You never really notice how over-the-top some of our Cuban customs are, especially when it’s all you know. Take for instance funerals. Every single one of the funerals I’ve ever attended are all pretty similar and it isn’t until I stop to notice all the little details that I realize that us Cubans (at least us in Miami) are definitely something else.
Two weeks ago my dad gave me la mala noticia of a death in the family. Being the weekend of Halloween, my youngest brother wasn’t all that pleased with having to cancel his night-time outing for a funeral. The situation reminded me of the episode of ¿Que Pasa USA? where Carmencita and Joe have to cancel a party because a friend of abuela’s passed away. As my night progressed, I came to the conclusion that all the funerals I’ve been to strike a certain similarity to the one in the show.
But anyway, the first point of distinction: the funeral home. I think the most popular funeral home amongst Cubans has to be Bernando Garcia. Why? Because they conveniently have locations in the heart of Miami, Westchester, Hialeah and even Kendall for the more modern Cubans. But what attracts us to these specifically? Is it the name, the florescent lighting? (You should know by now how I feel about florescent lighting.) Perhaps it’s the fact that they offer the option of holding an overnight viewing, because at no other time can you really get the entire family in one place without the presence of massive amounts of food; third, fourth and fifth cousins included. Hay que aprovechar. And if you put enough of us in a room, there’s plenty of cuentos, chistes y gosadera to go around, even while mourning the death of a loved one. At some point in the night, I leaned over towards my older brother and stopped mid-breath, hesitating to ask him a question. “What?” he asked. “Nothing. I was going to ask you a ‘family tree’ related question, but forget it.” “Yeah, don’t bother.” It’s so hard to keep track of the flow of the blood line at times.
Greeting me as I entered the poorly lit salon was a drooping American flag and to its opposite side, la bandera Cubana. The question probably doesn’t cross your mind, why is there a Cuban flag and not any other Latino flag? Do people of other nationalities notice this, or do they just avoid Bernado Garcia all together?
Having arrived late to an over-night viewing, my family and I missed, what I can assume, was the mass of family members I barely know, relatives who remember me being waist high, talking to my parents about how big I’ve gotten in a way that still makes me feel invisible. “Y que edad tiene la niña?” “En que año de la escuela esta?” “Hay pero que bonita se a puesto tu hija!” I’ve never understood why they assume I can’t answer the questions they ask my parents about me. Is this just an old Cuban thing? Unfortunately, arriving late means I miss out on the selection of prayer cards that lay over the booklet that’s to be signed that sits by the entrance of la capilla. I guess it serves as some sort of proof to the hosting family that you were actually there, in case you were lost in the crowd of primos, tias, y nietos. I wonder if anyone has ever turned back to one to settle an argument. Probably.
Adentro las capillas whose walls are carpeted, the scent of fresh flowers struggles to empower the room while the stench of cheap cologne and perfume fume the air, giving the flowers a run for their money. The flowers are ornamented by thick ribbons whose messages are written in silver and gold glitter-glue, each of them looking just like the one next to it; Roses, babies breath, and carnations. The capillas are separated by old wooden panels and guests sit on leather (or pleather, I’m not sure) couches, while some unfortunate few had to settle for old aluminum fold-away chairs. In other funerals I’ve attended, the rotation of seats came as often as someone new arrived and was greeted, or at the sudden urge of un cafecito. Conveniently enough, there’s always some place close enough to a Bernado Garcia Funeral Home to run and get a quick pastelito or colada to share with a few people you’ve reconnected with. To escape the ongoing chatter of the mathematicians who were sacando la cuenta trying to figure out los años que se llevan en edad, one of my brothers and I stepped outside for some air and I quickly spotted the Miami bakery across the street. And as to only further prove the ethnicity of the place where we stood, next to the bakery I spotted a Botanica Pet Shop.
Because only in Miami can you get pets, medicamentos para despojo y pastelitos all in one stop.
Anyway, we walked quickly into the bakery that smelled of stale pastelitos, purchased our maltas and pasteles, and crossed a busy NW 7th Street back to the funeral home.
Inside there was more chatter of nietos y visnietos y sobrinos and of a Cuba before Fidel. It always amazes me how people connect their stories to one another, their words forming memories and painting pictures of a Cuba I’ve never seen, of a Cuba they probably won’t ever see, because the way they remember it is nothing like the Cuba of today. In their minds, everything is exactly as they left it. And suddenly the brutal reality sinks in. The majority of older Cubans who fled Cuba years ago, pass away never having revisited the island they felt so much pride for despite of what it has become, and I wonder how many more generations have to pass before the pictures painted with words and memories come to life again. So as I come to notice that while most of our habits and mannerisms as Cubans seem to distinguish us from other cultures, it is probably that dying wish of a free Cuba that unites all generations of Cubans together, even within the carpeted capillas and florescent lighting of the popular funeral homes.