My ‘feminist’ Cuban mother

Photo courtesy Alexandra Diaz

My mom shrugged apathetically when I showed her pictures of the 2017 Women’s March.

“What exactly are they protesting?” she asked, annoyed at the idea that women were resorting to this embarrassing public outcry for help in solving what seemed to be “their personal problems.”

I didn’t expect a different response from her, knowing full well that she views most feminist protests as noisy and disruptive.

Although many young feminists would decry my mom’s indifference toward valid activism, I would say that my mom is not an anomaly among her demographic: 40-something-year-old Cuban women who came to the United States seeking political asylum. This concern with traditionalism and conservative values is reflected in the results of the 2016 presidential election, in which Trump won 52 percent of the Cuban-American vote, ultimately winning the state of Florida.

My parents, and both of their families, first tried leaving Cuba by boat in 1994. They were caught by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, where they stayed for six months, unsure of their status or where they would go next. In 1995 my parents finally arrived and started to rebuild their lives in Miami. My mom gave birth to me, and later to my sister, while simultaneously working and pursuing her teaching degree. She’s worked as an elementary school teacher for 15 years now and, alongside my father, has raised two feminist women.

Through my mom, I’ve learned that people are more dynamic and complex than labels alone might suggest. Her traditional and conservative attitudes don’t necessarily discredit her (reluctant) “feminism.” She symbolizes revolution and tradition. It’s not ideal, but it’s OK because my sister and I will protest for her rights, too.

Being able to reap the benefits of my mother’s hard work and seeing what my parents sacrificed to live in a free country inculcated me with a strong belief in female empowerment and equality. I was blessed to witness a happy marriage in which two equal partners loved and respected one another. My mom was radiant in her confidence, and as a child, I remember wanting to be that comfortable in my skin someday.

To an outsider, my mother’s actions would merit the title of a contemporary feminist woman. Ironically, she was so focused on turning nothing into everything that she never acknowledged institutional barriers that may have obstructed her success. She didn’t think paid maternity leave was ever on the table, nor did she believe it was possible for her male peers to be paid more than she was for equal work. She didn’t make time for traditionally feminist pursuits but nonetheless showered my sister and me with messages of empowerment in our youth.

My mom maintains a funny position, straddling two identities – one of a rebellious young woman who rejected the oppressive status quo in her home country and decided to flee and the other of an established, comfortable family woman who places her loved ones’ well-being above all else. Now, in her middle age, traditional values have taken center stage, and she wants all these young, loud women protesting to “relax.” Strangely enough, I think she would’ve been one of the first to take to the streets if she were my age today.

Diaz is a junior majoring in political science and women’s and gender studies.