Vol. 23, No. 3-4, 2001 pp. 18-19
Homero Leon, an attorney with Georgia Legal Services, who was born in Cuba and immigrated to Miami with his family in 1960 at the age of four.
My experiences growing up in Miami are varied because we arrived in early 1960 and were one of the first Cuban families to arrive in Miami. It was still pretty much an American town. I was just five years old and when I started school in the first grade, I couldn’t speak English, not a word. It was a terrible experience but I remember it like it was yesterday, being in the classroom with all the English speakers. I’m sure I cried and I remember being scared. When I got to the second grade, the teachers took me aside and said they were going to fail me. They thought that I was a little slow, maybe a little retarded. So I failed the second grade. My problem was that I couldn’t speak English-that was my “retardation.” Now I am licensed to practice law in two states.
The beginning was hard. My parents didn’t speak English and although my father had a decent job in Cuba as a career military officer, he became a tomato picker in Homestead, Florida when we came here. My mother never learned English to this very day although she worked in the factories as a seamstress and has been in this country for about forty years. As more and more Cubans came and opened grocery stores, she would go to the grocery store where everyone spoke Spanish. Cubans opened banks and all kinds of businesses, so when she would go to a business, they spoke Spanish. She never had to learn English. Cubans own many television and radio stations, too!
As the years went by, I learned English and for some reason I began to associate a lot with English-speaking folks. To this day, I never quite mastered how to read and write Spanish, always attending schools that taught English. I guess my parents wanted me to be successful so they figured if I became an Americano I would be more successful. I could “pass” by changing my name to Homer Leon. I became Homer Leon and I was a regular American kid.
Life was easier being Homer Leon than being Homero León, it really was. People treat you different. When you meet Americans and you say your name is Homer Leon, they treat you differently than when you say your name is Homero León. You’ve got an instant connection with folks. They instantly connect with me as an American but if I say I am Homero León immediately most people see me differently-even people who like Latinos. The conversation changes-“Oh, how is it being Latino?” I think they put you in a box. You eat tacos and you like Ricky Martin. But if you are Homer Leon you are a regular American, you watch regular TV and you are regular, you are just folks and normalcy is good. As I got older and went to college I became Homero León again.
The average Cuban in Miami is a right wing Republican and I’m a leftist. I know some people who got beat up and killed-Cubans who were left and center. You are an endangered species if you are a left wing Cuban in Miami. So I was able to go underground as an American leftist-those Americanos are all lefty gringos. It is okay. It is tolerated with the Americano but it isn’t tolerated it with the Chicanos. I rejected my culture, because my culture was so right-wing conservative, oppressive, sexist and all those “wonderful” qualities. In Miami around the Cubans I was Homer Leon but when I went to Tallahassee, a Cuban was a rare thing in 1976. I discovered my ethnic roots and felt more comfortable. It was cool to be a Homero León in Tallahassee. I didn’t have to be a right-wing Cuban. I could just be a Cuban. I could be a left-wing Cuban and we were all lefties in college, so it was tolerable.
I became a legal aid attorney and came to Atlanta, because I met an African-American woman-my ex-wife-who had lived here most of her life. We were in Orlando, Florida, but she considered Atlanta her home and was homesick. “The Civil Rights Movement never came to Orlando, Florida,” she said. “They have no idea what African-American culture is in Orlando. I know there is some in Atlanta. I’m going back. Are you coming with me?” That was nine years ago.
My wife at that time, moved me here to Atlanta and as far as cultural and everything else we moved into an
African-American neighborhood. This was a first in my life because I had always lived in either Latino neighborhoods or mixed neighborhoods. We were living in Union City at that time but working in Atlanta and we started going to a Black church. At every event my then-wife took me to, I was the only light-skinned person there. I guess my moving to Atlanta and living in the circles I was living, I pretty much thought Atlanta was an African-American town-with a Black mayor and everybody I saw was African American. It was an African-American world as far as I was concerned. And it was good.
Eventually, I did begin to see more Latinos. I moved to Newnan and I started seeing construction sites where everybody building houses was Latino. That was about six years ago. I remember one night when my washing machine had broken down, I went to the little corner Laundromat, a few blocks down from me. About 65 percent of the people there were Latino, doing their laundry-all were new to Georgia. I was surprised, but there it was. Immigration had really spread out.
A lot of the construction for the Olympics was done by Latinos. Economically, I guess these people were and are in great need of money and were able to make money, working very hard and building up Atlanta. I think a lot of African Americans developed resentment to these Latinos. I think that resentment was economically based. The White American resentment, I believe, is more prejudicial. They just don’t like walking into a place, in “their” America, and hearing people speak a language they can’t understand.
I don’t believe you should become an Americano if you are Latino. I believe it is better to keep your culture, keep your language, your literature, your music, your food, to keep that is important. African Americans, I believe the same thing-I love Afro-centric things. It’s wonderful stuff, and we all need it. It is beautiful. I’m totally against assimilation. Multiculturalism is the best for all of us. Tolerance and diversity are wonderful and enrich all our lives.
Racism in the South is almost like an honored tradition; at least in the North they seem more ashamed of it, but here they say, “It was my daddy’s culture; it is our heritage.” Tolerance is not a southern virtue. I see it all around me, and that makes it more difficult to celebrate the beauty of diversity.
This interview was conducted by Blanca Rojas on April 12, 2001.