A Voting Booth Built for Two: Election Enthusiasm from a Cuban-American Mom

 

Story Summary:

 The small Southern town where Carmen’s parents live is a-buzz with political acrimony. Carmen’s mother, Esther, a spunky octogenarian–– and Cuban refugee–– regards her right to vote a hard-won, American privilege. As she finishes casting her vote, she is more than happy to remind her husband, Carlos, of “their views” on local elections. Carlos’ reaction to his wife’s enthusiasm is a hysterical and poignant civics lesson for all who are lucky enough to be casting their vote at Rocky Springs Elementary School that day.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: A-Voting-Booth-Built-for-Two-Election-Enthusiasm-From-a-Cuban-American-Mom

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How does a family’s history contribute to their daily lives?  What made this family so interested in voting?
  2. What are some of the choices this Cuban American couple made about how to live their lives?
  3. How does the humor in the story help us think about social justice?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Immigration
  • Latino Americans/Latinos
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name’s Carmen Agra Deedy. And this story is called “A Voting Booth Built for Two.”

The morning did not get off to a promising start. The phone rang and I answered it. Sleepy, almost knocking it off the dresser, “Hello.” “Carmita, it’s your mother.” Oh my goodness! Nobody calls me before seven o’clock in the morning! Not if they have a well-refined sense of survival …anyone except Esther, my mother.

“Mami, what’s going on? Is everything ok?”

“Everything is ok. I just want to remind you that today is voting day!” Today is voting day. How could I not know? She put it on my calendar, she called me the evening before, she sent smoke signals up like at dusk. The only thing I didn’t have were carrier pigeons!

“Mami, I know. Nine o’clock.”

“No, listen! 9 o’clock is no good for me.” And before I could say another word, my husband, (sigh) who lay beside me chuckling, plucked the phone from my hand and saved me from something I or my mother might regret. By saying, “Mami,” (oh, you should’ve heard him cooing into the phone), “No…everything…she’ll be there… no, everything’s fine…I’m making her coffee right now.” I elbowed him. “No, no…Oh…Of course…I will tell her. Love you too, Mami.” He hung up and grinned. “She said 9 o’clock no work for her. She’s going to be ready in 20 minutes. You better get moving.”

I sat bolt upright, “Twenty minutes! I haven’t even showered!”

“Come on, Sleeping Beauty, get up and save us both a heap of misery. I’ll make the coffee. Nineteen minutes.” (She snarls.)

By the time I picked up my mother, I was in a lather. They were on the front porch looking freshly washed. There’s something about that generation that just always looks so dapper. My father was wearing his best shirt, starched. I gave him a kiss on the cheek and he smelled like Ammen’s, it’s a deodorant powder, and the cologne of my childhood – Old Spice. Ah, still makes me shudder. My mother, of course, looks at me and says, “You are late. You don’t got no kiss for your mama?”

“I don’t kiss people who wake me up before seven o’clock in the morning!” And then I leaned over and gave her a buss on the cheek. I can’t help it. I’m like a sucker for old ladies in polyester. Well, I walked them to the car. We made it over to their voting station, which was a local elementary school. (Sigh) And she was right. She was saying all along the drive that the line would be around the block. And, dad gummit, wasn’t she right! It was snaking along the side of the building and disappeared.

“What I say to you?”

It is not easy being the daughter of Cassandra, a Cuban Cassandra. In case you don’t remember, children, that would be the Greek goddess of myth who told the truth and no one believed her. Boy, I believed her now.

“Ay, mami, por favor. We’re gonna be here all day.”

“It does not matter. Today is voting day.”

Let me tell you something. You don’t know someone until you know their backstory. You know when you read a book, and you’re reading about a character and reading about a character and they don’t make any sense and then suddenly you get to chapter 17 and you learn the rest of the story? Well, Esther and Carlos, they were in Cuba from the time they were born, of course.

1931, 1924. They lived through Fulgencio Batista. President Batista, when faced with the re-election that he knew he was going to lose, pulled a coup. Cancelled elections indefinitely. The Cuban Revolution was not about literacy. In fact, by the 50’s, Cuba had the sixth largest literacy rate in Central and South America. It wasn’t about socialized medicine. Batista figured out that one of the things he could pacify, do anyway, to pacify people was to pass socialized medicine. It was brilliant. It worked beautifully but still no elections. And then Fidel came. Fidel Castro. A young revolutionary and he promised democracy. He promised an end to brutality and he promised elections. The country swept him into Havana on their shoulders. And the streets were strewn with flowers, many tossed by my own mother and about 90% of Cubans. Four years of brutality and no elections later, my parents decided maybe it was time to try another place. They were heart-broken when they left their country behind. But when my mother arrived here, the first thing she wanted to know was how she could vote. Well, she wasn’t a citizen. When she became a citizen, the first thing she did was vote!

This may seem very sweet. It isn’t! She drives us nuts! Any, any election, it doesn’t matter how inconsequential, the woman is there. I mean, we’re talking, we’re going through K-Mart and they want you to figure out, they want to vote on something that has nothing to do with any of us. This particular election, this day, this wasn’t a national election. She didn’t wake me up at 6:45 to vote in the president. It was some lousy, dodgy water project and a new superintendent. (Ok, maybe that was important.) She even, I’m telling you, she even worked over our postmaster.

We had a young postmaster at the time, who innocently told her that he didn’t really vote, that he hadn’t voted in years. And he became her mission. She, I’m tell’n ya, she would make trips to the post office with nothing to post.

“Oye, Frankie come here. No, we are not finished. Look you an official, ay, you work for the government and you no going to vote, honey? What’s the matter with you? Don’t… well, you see the post office, you see how few peoples are here? Nobody write letters no more. When they shut this place down, you got nothing to complain about, ok.”

He would look at me and I’m like, “You’re on your own, pal!”

Imagine the day when we walked in and old Frankie was waving, I mean from the door we saw him, waving his absentee ballot. Because one of the reasons he didn’t vote was because he usually couldn’t get away.

I tell you that so you understand what she is like but why it mattered. And as we stood in that line, that snaking line, my father with his cane because he wouldn’t bring his walker. I had given him a walker. He turned it into a tomato trellis. That’s another story; we don’t have the time. A young poll worker saw us, and among all the septuagenarians and octogenarians, my mother and father were clearly the oldest and the most frail. And she offered to walk us ahead of the line. And this group of people (almost all of them old, by the way) ‘cause I wondered, who comes to these dinky elections that nobody ever hears about. Ah…Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation. That’s who goes… because they know what it means. And as they inched along, most of them waved or smiled as we went to the front of the line.

We got to the room, the voting room, and there were new machines. That’s all we needed! Throw something new at Esther. She adapts at glacial speed. “What is this? Where are the little paper things?”

I said, “Ma, give me five seconds; they’re gonna teach me how to use them. You and Dad just sit, just, just for a minute. I found two chairs. You know those plastic chairs, those ergonomically made chairs made for maximum… discomfort, I think would be the word. And then they explained how to use the machines. It was really fairly simple. It was a sliding mechanism so I left my father, figuring that my mother would be the diciest, and walked her to the little, you know, sorta, little booth with the curtains, took her inside. And she’s a quick study; in five seconds, she was confident and she shooed me out. I sat next to my pop who seemed to be enjoying the blessed silence. And then… the silence was broken. And we’re not the only ones in this room, mind you; people are voting all around us.

When we hear, “Carlos, Carmita, come here; it’s your turn!” The woman could punch a hole in an eardrum at 20 paces.

My father looked at me, “Do something!”

I jumped up (whispering), “Mami, por favor. Please, shhhh. Other people are voting.”

“What and you cannot talk?”

“Please, I’m begging you.” I hooked her by the arm and nearly took her…made her airborne as I propelled her across the room. Sat her gently down next to my father and said, “Please just stay here for like two minutes. Let me explain it to Pop, I’ll come back and sit with you.

I walked my dad across the room. I opened the curtains, I took him through the same tutorial. He looked at me and he, again, is quick as can be. He’s got a mind like a Cuban machete, it can cut through anything. He said, “I have it.” I stepped outside but to my, well, confusion, someone passed me. As I was going out, someone was pushing their way into the voting booth to join my father. I whipped around to see my mother’s face for a split second before (swish) she closed the curtains. Now other people had noticed too and were turning to look.

And the next thing we heard was, “Ok, Carlos, listen! This water project, here, we don’t like that, ok? And this superintendent we no voting for him. Better say, no. He’s a Philistine. Remember what he…”

On the word Philistine, the most remarkable and beautiful thing happened. The curtain went “swish!” My father, a little Cuban man, was bringing my mother, a little Cuban woman, who was resisting every step, out of the voting booth. He leaned over, everyone (I mean you couldn’t hear anyone breathe) watched riveted as if they were passing an incredible car accident that you want to look away from but you just can’t tear yourself from. And he said, “Estercita, I love you but I did not leave communist Cuba to come to the United States of America to have you follow me into a voting booth and tell me how to vote!” And the room broke into thunderous applause.

I love this story!

My Father the Whiz: A Cuban Refugee’s Response to Jim Crow

 

Story Summary:

 In 1964, Carmen’s father, a Cuban refugee, went to work at a steel manufacturing plant near Atlanta, Georgia. When, on the first day of work, he asked to take a bathroom break, he was faced with two choices: before him was a “white” bathroom . . . and a “colored” bathroom. Carmen’s father’s solution would foreshadow how this inventive man would ultimately teach his Cuban-American daughters that, in matters of conscience, we need not accept the only choices placed before us.

 For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  My-Father-the-Whiz-A-Cuban-Refugee-Response-to-Jim-Crow

Discussion Questions:

  1.  In 1964 ‘white only’ and ‘colored only’ signs designated Southern public restrooms, water fountains, etc., and these divisions were legal. When Papi confronts the signs, he doesn’t protest their legality, but chooses a creative response.  When he says, “I did what any decent man would do,” what does he mean?
  2. How do you think the factory workers viewed their new colleague before the incident and after the incident? Do you think he continued to ‘whiz’ outside?
  3. How does the use of humor in this story help us look at a difficult social issue?

 Resource:

  • Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America by Juan Gonzalez

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Immigration
  • Latino American/Latinos
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Carmen Agra Deedy. The story I’m going to tell you is called, “My Father the Whiz.”

I grew up hearing stories everywhere I went. It was inevitable, really. I grew up a Cuban refugee in a small southern town. My family came to this country when I was three years old and the little town that embraced us was called, and is called, Decatur, Georgia. Now, back then you couldn’t go three steps without stumbling into a story. You see, turned out, Cubans and Southerners were not all that different. They worship their ancestors, they gathered around food and they were unrepentant, chronic talkers. And so, the stories that I learned told me more about the people than anything I was ever taught. One of my favorite stories ever is about my own father. Now by the time I was 16 or 17 years old, I thought I‘d heard every story my father had to tell. Oh, the hubris of the young. But one afternoon my mother called me to the kitchen and said, “Carmita, take this cafecito to the men outside. They’re playing Dominoes; they’re gonna be out there for the next five hundred years. And then come back inside ‘cause you gotta help me with the dishes.” Which insured I was staying out with the men. Well, I walked out, (screech), opened the screen door, and saw all these Cuban men in their crisp guayaberas, tightly gathered in a circle around an old folding table littered with domino tiles. They were not under a banyan tree or a mango tree but a Southern Magnolia. Life is just weird when you’re a refugee.

I started to walk towards them through the miasma of cigar smoke, when I heard my father begin a story. Like I said, I thought I knew every story my papá had ever told. But you see, stories are funny. Stories are like, well, sometimes, they are like a fine wine. You don’t uncork them until the person who’s going to drink, is going to be able to really savor it and know how good it is. My dad must have decided I was ready. But first he called out, “Do I smell coffee or would it be that I am so light-headed from thirst that I am hallucinating?” Now, the Irish may have saved civilization but I assure you the Cuban gave you irony and sarcasm. I plunge towards the men and then they all said, Niña, cómo estás?” And I kissed everyone, it is the way of my people. And as the coffee was passed around, my father continued his story, as though I was not there. I wasn’t going anywhere.

I leaned into the tree, and he said, “And so you know, we had only been here for a few weeks,” less than a month, it turned out before my father finally found work. His English was cursory. He had been an accountant in Cuba. Now he came here with little understanding of the language. He was so grateful to have found work. Well, the first job he found was at a steel manufacturing plant. He was so eager the first day of work that he showed up an hour early and so nervous he drank nearly an entire carafe of coffee before he walked in. Now he was coupled with a man who was supposed to teach him welding—basic welding. (Google, figure it out. It’s a verb.) As he was learning to weld, Big D, a big African-American man, and my father found a way of communicating. Using hand signals and a few words my father knew in English. My father knew, like I said, not only little English, he knew almost no Southern black English. Big D didn’t speak Spanish. And yet, they soldiered on…or soldered on. In any event, within a small space of time, an hour or two, my father said he was starting to get the hang of things, And then, BAM! Like a hammer on an anvil, his bladder just felt like it was gonna burst—all that Cuban coffee he had! Well, he tried to ask Big D…well…This is how he said it went. “Ah, por favor, uh, please, Mr. Big D….ay….ti, ti ti…Cómo se dice? Dónde está baño?”

“What’s that you say, Mr. Carlos?”

“Ay, ay, ay…El baño?…Ah…,” my father unscrewed his thermos, and then he tipped it upside down to show it was empty now. Big D seemed relieved, “Hold on, Mr. Carlos.” And then disappeared around the corner. When he came back, he brought his own large, green thermos, which he unscrewed, and he began to pour my father another cup. “No, no, no!” My father looked like he had just been offered a live rattlesnake. And Big D, thinking that it was he that had offended him, ‘Well, if you don’t want to drink from my cup…” “No, Señor, no, no, no!” My father also increasingly frustrated being thus misunderstood, said, “No, eh, Señor, por favor,…Cómo se dice?” And then he realized, he knew just what to do. He unzipped, an imaginary zipper, fly, and then he made the international symbol, um…for emptying the male bladder. And Big D started to laugh out loud. And then he stopped. And he cocked his head, sort of like the RCA Victor dog and mumbled something to himself. Which my father said to this day that he’s not sure of the words. But it sounded something like, “not my problem, not my problem.” And finally said to my father, pulling him by the shirt, pointing, “Right there.” And he pointed down a long row of men, machinists at work at their stations. At the very end of the corridor, there was what looked like a hallway or corridor. My father thanked Big D and he gunned it. He started, at a clip, down that line of men and as he passed them,..now remember this is the first Latin man in this all black and white factory, the year was 1964, the men started shutting down their machines. And it got quieter and quieter except for the footsteps of the men behind him. Now, my poor father had only been in this country for a short amount of time. He was learning the customs. He wasn’t sure. This thing was uniformly odd. Where he came from men took care of this sort of business by themselves without spectators. When he reached the hallway, however, the crowd began to swell. And it looked like they were everything from laborers to two supervisors, black men, white men. And then he found himself confronted with a conundrum. A puzzlement. At the end of the hallway were two doors. Some of you know where this story is going. One said white and one said colored. And though his own tragic and troubled country had had many problems, this was not one that my father was familiar with, not in this way and he didn’t know what to do. And at this point he heard in the back, someone begin to laugh. And a man called out, “Hey, Mr. New Man, you pick whichever one you want but when you pick one, you stick with it.” My father looked at the men, looked at the doors. And he caught sight of Big D’s face in the very back watching him curiously, studying him. Now this the point in the story where I interrupted. Remember the tree…me leaning against it. I couldn’t stay there anymore. “Papi, what did you do?! I mean, did you quit, did you…”

“Carmen, just a moment, when you have to go you have to go. But, you know, I had come from a country where I had learned sometimes you have to follow your conscience. You cannot go left, you cannot go right. You have to find your own way.”

“Pop what does that mean…”

“Uno momento!” Now the men had leaned forward too.

“Carlos, what you did you do?”

“Can I please finish my story?” And he said, “I did the only thing a decent man with a full bladder could do. I push my way through that crowd of men, I go outside and I whiz in the woods!”… Si!