Returning to Me: A Cuban-American Woman’s Memoir Gives Readers an Intimate Portrait of Cuba’s Diaspora
Sometimes the most powerful accounts of history are not the ones found in history books, but rather the firsthand accounts of those who lived through the events themselves. Author Ibis Lezcano Kramer gives readers a vivid glimpse into her past in her memoir Returning To Me: A Cuban-American Woman’s Journey (also available in Spanish as De regreso a mí: Viviencias de una cubanoamericana).
This incredibly personal story brings readers through a journey that reminds us of the importance of family and culture. As the daughter of a charismatic politician, Kramer`s life was forever altered by the Cuban Revolution of 1959. After her family fled the country to escape the persecution of Fidel Castro and made a new home in America, Ibis found herself torn between two very different places while her son remained in Cuba. Firsthand accounts written by Ibis`s son Raul give this book a uniqueness that provides readers with a much deeper connection to the author’s message.
Returning To Me is a beautiful introduction to the Cuban Revolution and helped me understand the challenges of making a home in a completely different country. My history teachers never taught me exactly what it was like for the Cuban people to be forced out of a place they once called home, or the details of sailing treacherous waters for a chance at a new life. I found the descriptions of Kramer`s childhood in Cuba to be the most profound because they reminded me of the many similarities that still exist across all borders: a loving family, the comfort of cultural traditions, the bond between parent and child. The very things that I most enjoy about my life were in Ibis’s life threatened by a troubled government.
Memoirs like this one are reminders that one person’s history lesson is another’s life story. Kramer’s book reminded me of a project I was assigned in the fifth grade where I was asked to sit down with a family member and compile a record of that person’s life experiences. I found myself so immersed, fascinated by the fact that this person who had lived through great trials was the same person who sits at my Thanksgiving table year after year. I felt this same connection reading Returning To Me. While I have never met Ibis Kramer in person, her writing style brings me back to sitting at the kitchen table with my own relative. Her story captivated me, and I highly recommend it to all readers.
You can learn more about Ibis Lezcano Kramer and her memoir—which is available in English and Spanish—at her website: www.IbisKramer.com
Wild River Review: At the very beginning of your story you include a beautiful poem by Zora Neale Hurston. I was very curious about the history of you choosing this piece. Did this poem in any way inspire you to tell your story?
Ibis Kramer: One morning in the summer I was doing my daily meditation, which I begin by looking up that day’s message in a book called Meditations For Women Who Do Too Much by Anne Wilson Schaef.
On that particular day, I found the poem, which was under the heading “Wholeness,” and it was everything I wanted to express about my life journey. No other words could have surpassed what Zora Neale Hurston so beautifully expressed. In facet, the poem inspired the title of my book.
What was most amazing is that the poem appeared as the entry for June 28, my husband Paul’s birthday. I was remembering him and us, so to me it was a direct message from Paul to help me find the right words to say in my book.
WRR: Was there a specific point in your life when you decided to make your story into a book?
IK: All my life I was told by everyone to write a book and tell my story. I never took them seriously because I was too busy working and raising my family. Only late in my life could I consider putting my story down on the page, when enough time had passed that I could reflect on the events of my life without them causing me pain. My biggest motivation was to leave a heritage and a memory for my grandchildren, hoping that someday if they wanted to know more about my story they could just read my book.
My second motivation was my desire to reach out to women like me and try to give them a motivation, or perhaps a hope, that you can rise above your past experiences and thrive by remaining true to yourself.
WRR: Apart from your Abuela Catalina, have you had any other profound mentors?
IK: I did have several other very meaningful mentors. My Tía Nena, who I describe in my book, had a great influence in my becoming the woman I am. I admired her so much for her strength and for being a woman ahead of her time. She showed me to face my fears and to ignore the little problems in life in favor of the bigger picture.
My friend Ronnie Davidson, who was my mentor in my cosmetics career and who is also in the book, taught me a lot more than how to sell a crème or a compact. She became my role model. On nights when the selling floor was quiet, we spent countless hours talking about life and our shared Jewish faith, and I learned so much from her. I will always cherish her mind and her generous heart.
WRR: While reading your book I was able to really place myself in your home as a child, and again when you went to visit for the last time with Raul. Now that Raul is with you in America, do you see yourself returning to Cuba to visit your home town again?
IK: Visiting Cuba to see Raul was a very difficult experience, one that I don’t wish to have again. The memories of my happy life in Cuba were destroyed, as I detail in my book. The pain I felt lasted for years. Not unless Cuba is restored to some degree to its former self would my desire to go back reawaken.
WRR: Do you feel that the difference in age between you and your younger siblings affected the way that they acclimated to a new environment? If so, what was the largest difference in your experiences?
IK: It was easier for them, because they didn’t have the conflict of leaving a family behind, and of course at a younger age you adapt to new places and learn with much more ease. The biggest difference between us to this day hasn’t been the age difference but rather the fact that I left Miami, an environment steeped in Cuban culture, while they lived there most of their lives.
My being in Boston for so long and later traveling abroad and marrying into different cultures gave me a different way to see things. I understand clearly that I left the nucleus of my heritage, and because of that I had many challenges—but it also gave me the opportunity to grow in ways that they didn’t. I did eventually re-embrace my Cuban heritage, but I think having separated myself from it for so much of my life helped me have a deeper appreciation for it.
WRR: One incredibly prominent theme throughout your story was the importance of a strong sense of culture and uniqueness. What advice do you have for people who try to suppress their culture when moving to a new country?
IK: My advice would have to be to never forget where you come from, because it is who you are. I spent many years trying to mold myself into the person others expected or wanted me to be by squelching my Cuban identity, which I can see now was a sort of survival mechanism for me. It is fine to grow and learn from different countries and cultures, but your identity should not be compromised because the only way to be accepted by others is if you first accept yourself for who you truly are.
WRR: I found the chapters written by Raul to be very powerful as a first hand account. Did you learn anything about his journey that you did not already know when reading his writing?
IK: If I had never written the book, I would have never known Raul’s side of the story. In our conversations as mother and son, I never specifically questioned him about his life in Cuba. In the book, more than once I was surprised about what he went through as a child and a young man, especially his death-defying odyssey on the sea to freedom. I am so grateful that he was willing to share his side of the story, as I think it made the book far richer—especially since our stories are so intimately intertwined.
WRR: Living in America, have you been able to connect with others who share a similar story to yours?
IK: Every Cuban has a story, and all their stories have themes similar to my own: relatives left behind, new frontiers and challenges to conquer, the struggle to survive in and adapt to a new place, and many times long-lasting pain and even the deaths of loved ones they’ve never seen again. Immigrants from other countries have similar stories as well—the pain of separating from a beloved place and family and the challenges of adapting to an entirely new culture are universal in the immigrant experience.
WRR: After the passing of your late husband Paul, did you find yourself keeping any of your Jewish traditions?
IK: Paul was not a religious man, so it was always up to me to maintain the tradition of the Jewish faith—in most Jewish families, the woman is the one who keeps the traditions going. After Paul died, the only thing that changed was that I gave my children the choice to decide which religion was best for them, just as I chose when I converted from Catholicism. I don’t think Paul would have been in favor of that. But everything in life changes, including the way I now see religion. Today I can accurately said that I am a spiritual being with roots in the Jewish faith.
WRR: In your epilogue you include the line, “I knew I was losing my core identity by constantly denying my true self, but doing this was necessary if I wanted to achieve the American dream.” Looking back on your life in America, what do you think that the American dream is? Do you think that you have achieved it? Is the American dream something that can only be attained by discarding a “core identity”?
IK: I feel that I have achieved it, and I don’t think you have to discard your identity to get it, but for me it would be a little bit more difficult. I felt that when in Rome, do as the Romans do, and so I denied my truest self. What I mean is that I wanted to belong, not be an outsider or be seen by others as one. My purpose was to have all the opportunities that are given to someone who is born here in America. This country is so unique in so many ways. Here in the United States you are limitless in what you can achieve if you work hard, believe in your dreams, and hold on to then. All is possible in America, and that, to me, is the American dream.
Kyle Bogdan is a Junior at Montclair State University. She is studying Organizational Communication and will graduate in 2017. During the school year Kyle can be found conducting lively campus tours, and serving as a social media consultant. After graduation she hopes to continue into a career in organizational development.