Friday, February 22, 2008

Those Daily Cuban calls from Miami

Those daily Cuban calls from Miami
Mami, papi: I'm okay, are you okay?

The call comes in every night, 8 p.m. on the dot, and the conversation goes something like this, even in the summer:

"Hi Johnny! How are you? Did it snow?"

"Doing well, Papi. Ah, no. It doesn't snow here that often in the summer. Just got home from the gym. How are you doing?" "Did you eat yet? How is the Jeep running? Do you have a movie for the night?" Then, it's the same chat with my mother.
"Johnny, hi. How are you? Are you cold? Did you eat? The cat wants to say hi."
In some families, going a week without chatting with your parents is fine. But that's not necessarily the case if you're Hispanic and you live hundreds of miles away from them.
It's a topic that boggles the minds of my friends in the city who are outside the Latino culture. They can't imagine talking to their parents more than, say, once a month. They look at me like an alien from another planet.
"They call you every day , Johnny?" they ask, when my land- line rings in my Dorchester home at 8 p.m., or when my cell starts ringing at 9 p.m. while I'm in a restaurant, because I haven't returned my parents' call.
"Yeah, it's a Cuban thing. It makes them feel good knowing they at least spoke to me sometime in the day, and they can go to sleep knowing that I'm OK. It's only a five-minute conversation. If it brings them that much peace, what can I do?"
I'm not alone in this. My Cuban and Hispanic friends as well as some of my Italian, Spanish, and Greek counterparts relate. They totally get it. Even today, my high school Italian teacher, Mrs. Tucci, calls her twin sister and mother in Italy each morning from Miami.
We have to call our parents at a certain pre-selected time, or earlier if we'll be busy. We face overwhelming guilt if we miss their call, and don't call back.
"Why didn't you call me? I thought something bad had happened to you," is the typical parental response. They start imagining me in some sort of Stephen King-type situation. Suppose my car went off the road and was buried in the snow and I couldn't reach my cellphone to tell them about my day? Suppose I slipped on my Pergo wood-laminate floors and was knocked unconscious as the phone rang? What if I'd been attacked by a dog with a "Cujo" complex outside of Bertucci's?
Why is it that some parents sustain this long-distance umbilical cord with their children, while others adjust to cutting the tie?
Blame it on their culture.
Latin family ties, many people would agree, are closer than those of many other groups in the United States. Our uncles and aunts are like second parents. Our cousins seem like another set of siblings. Back in Spain the mother country as well as Mexico and Cuba, children stay with their parents until they're married. Many continue living at home as adults until they can afford to buy their own houses usually within miles of their parents'. Usually, one child will live near the parents while others might move away a little farther Massachusetts, say.
There's also a generational factor at work.
Mi abuela Nena would call my dad and his five siblings each night between 7 and 9 (depending in which order they were on her list). It was her way of checking up on everyone. This "cast a wide net" approach apparently got passed down to my dad.
The first night after I moved out of my parents' house in Miami Beach to Coral Gables (home to the University of Miami,) the calls started coming in. I'd tell them "Papi, Mami, I live less than eight miles from you," but my reasoning fell on deaf ears. The only time they didn't call was when I had spent the day at their house.

The dial-a-Johnny calls followed me to Boston four years ago because now I was really far away. So my dad has become like his deceased mother, calling and just "seeing how you are doing."

Somehow, 8 p.m. became the selected time to expect their call because it's usually when I get home from the gym after work. On weekends, it's still the same. The only reason my sister has escaped this routine is because she still lives with our parents.

My cousin Mary in Duxbury makes fun of me whenever I'm visiting and Mom calls. Until I point out to her, "Um, Mary, you're always calling your three daughters at least once a day, too!" By the way, my aunt and uncle, who are 80 and 81, call my cousin Mary, who is 46, twice a week.

Even though I think of myself as independent (even a loner, to a degree), I find there is a comfort in knowing that I will get a call each night at 8 from people who love me no matter what.

Maybe because I've seen some friends here who seem disconnected from their families. Even when I am having a bad day or when I am feeling anti-social, it's nice to know that someone wants to know how I am doing. It means I am well-loved.

There are days I don't hear from my parents at 8 p.m. When this happens, I start speed-dialing their number every few minutes.

"Why didn't you answer?" I demand, when they finally pick up. "I thought something had happened to you. I was worried."

May 17, 2006