I was born on the Fourth of July in Havana, six months before Cuba was turned upside down by Fidel Castro's revolutionary government. That afternoon, Havana was so hot and humid that my mother felt as though she were giving birth in a huge pot of soup. I was the first grandchild on her side of the family, and I was acclaimed and wept over with the drama of any compelling new story.
A hundred miles away, from the far tip of the Florida Keys, radiating northward and westward, like myriad strings of light, the United States was celebrating its 182nd birthday. Feliz cumpleanos, yanquis! But what did this have to do with me? Nothing. Not yet, anyway. In fact, nobody in my family could have imagined just how much and how soon it would have everything to do with us.
Fast-forward four years to a tiny garden apartment in Bayside, Queens. I have a little sister and brother now. My maternal grandfather, who is dying of lung cancer, also shares our two-bedroom apartment in a horseshoe-shaped court of little brick buildings on 75th Avenue. It is almost dusk, and there are dozens of children milling about the grassy central area of the court. Others stay on their stoops, anxiously waiting for their fathers to set off the first round of fireworks.
My new friend Mindy is telling me how last year, a piece of a cherry bomb skimmed her cousin Sherman's right eye in Alley Pond Park and he'd been rushed to the hospital and had to wear a thick bandage over his eye for the rest of the summer. All the kids speculated about how he'd end up blind and with a glass eye like Sammy Davis Jr., but Sherman only needed glasses. Mindy seemed disappointed at the humdrum outcome.
It's my birthday, but I don't tell Mindy or any of the other kids in the court. I like to secretly imagine that the fireworks and the grilling hot dogs and even the potato salad with the chopped-up pickles are for me. I like American food. I like potato chips and cheeseburgers and Hawaiian Punch (I like the commercials for it on television, too, where the dopey guy gets brained every time) and those little rolled-up logs of chocolate mysteriously called Yodels.
Mindy's father, nicknamed "Speedy" because he drives a delivery truck, comes around with lit sparklers for all the kids. His wife, Barbara, who is the envy of all the women in the court because she has the most gorgeous body for blocks around, even after two kids, is screaming that he's endangering their lives. Didn't Speedy remember what happened to poor Sherman? But Speedy ignores her and goes about distributing the sparklers before joining the circle of men conferring in the grassy area. The fireworks are about to begin.
I don't remember the names of all the different fireworks, only the dizzying spirals they made in the sky, the explosions of red and green and blue like fancy airborne lace, the exciting whine of the ascent, their sparkly, fading decline like tired fireflies. How could my birthday ever compete with this -- the birthday of a whole country, the second-biggest in the world after what I was told was that evil, all-encompassing, Cuba-loving Russia? I must've decided right then to keep my birthday to myself.
My mother, though, was big on throwing elaborate, themed birthday parties. She was good at it, loved the ritual and chaos and smashed cake and smiling-for-the-camera-ness of it all. She was a large, funny woman (she still is) and always the life of any party. I, however, cringed at being the center of attention. I was so shy, in fact, that I refused to answer the telephone until I was 10 years old.
I never wanted to have my own birthday party. My sister's and brother's birthdays were in June, and so my mother often threw a party for the three of us late in the month. That was okay by me. From my perspective, getting one-third of the attention was inferior to none at all, but far superior to having the spotlight entirely on me.
When other kids asked me when my birthday was, I used to mumble my response. If they were persistent and actually heard the truth, they were impressed. "Wow!" they'd say, as if coincidentally having a birthday on a major national holiday somehow set one apart. Even if I downplayed it and said that in Cuba it was just another day, it did nothing to diminish my birthday aura. It also didn't stop me from fantasizing that millions of Americans were celebrating my birthday without even knowing it.
Sometimes when I renew my license or write a check at the local supermarket, a teller or cashier will remark on my birth date, tell me of other people they know who were also born on the Fourth of July, as if we were part of some sacred secret society. I smile tightly, trying not to be unfriendly but thinking: What the hell's the big deal? Inexplicably, though, I remember feeling pleased when I read somewhere that Louis Armstrong, a sentimental favorite of mine, was also born on the Fourth of July.
When I was about to turn 9, my last birthday before the then-exciting prospect of double digits, my mother asked me (again) what I wanted to do to celebrate. I was an exasperating kid. I didn't like or want birthday parties. I didn't like or want to go and play outside with the other kids. It got so that on sunny days, my mother would actually lock me out of the house and order me to go and have fun. Such misery! I preferred to stay inside and read. Or gaze at the Woolworth reproductions of Renoir paintings that hung in our living room, and make up stories about the rosy-cheeked subjects.
But the look in my mother's eye meant that she was intent on doing something festive for my ninth birthday, whether I liked it or not.
"Okay, I want to go to the Museum of Natural History."
"I want to see the dinosaur bones."
"Ay, mi amor." My mother looked at me, half-confused and half-pleased. What could she possibly do with a daughter like me? "You get all the information and we'll go."
This meant that I actually had to talk on the telephone, an excruciating ordeal, but I did it and made the arrangements, and that's where I and half a dozen other girls, including my cousin Ana, who spilled an entire container of milk on me in the Museum of Natural History's basement cafeteria, went on the Fourth of July 1967.
I remember the relief I felt being in that cool, cavernous building with dinosaur bones millions of years old. What was the 191st birthday of America compared with this? A baby in swaddling clothes. A blip in time. And what was I? Only a speck in the bigger time line of things. The feeling of anonymity that came with this knowledge comforted me greatly.
As I grew older, I got more and more curious about Cuba and all the relatives, mainly my mother's family, who had remained behind on the island. My mother said "communists" -- comunistas -- in a way she reserved for only the most despicable people on the planet. These included her mother-in-law and the jeweler down the street who'd tried to prevent my parents from expanding their Brooklyn restaurant to include an outdoor cafe.
Whenever she received a letter from her mother, my Abuela Gloria, a rarity in itself, it would be dated something like: "May 11, 1968, Year of the Heroic Guerrilla" or "December 14, 1972, Year of Socialist Emulation." This would drive my mother to paroxysms of fury. She told me that the Cubans back there weren't even allowed to celebrate Christmas (a holiday, I'm happy to report, that I have no problems with except in its most extreme commercial manifestations), that even the traditional carnival in February had been canceled, that no one in Cuba was permitted to go to church or worship God openly or they'd be thrown in jail.
"You know when they celebrate Christmas now?" my mother shouted, furiously slicing a baked ham in our restaurant kitchen for her justly famous Monte Cristo sandwiches. "In July!"
"Why July?" I asked, spreading the mustard and mayonnaise on the French bread and arranging the three pickle slices just so. I was a child slave, overworked and unpaid, but that's another story altogether.
"Because that's when that #@!*%#! attacked the Moncada barracks in '53. They should've killed him when they had the chance! He was thrown in jail on the Isle of Pines and they let him go! Que estupidos!"
It took me a while longer to figure out my mother's rant. But she was right. In Cuba, Christmas is now celebrated in July. July 26, to be precise. On that day, Castro and a small band of men attacked a military barracks in the eastern part of the island, the first salvo of the revolutionary struggle that culminated with his taking power on New Year's Day 1959.
Today, July 26 is the most important national holiday in Cuba, complete with parades and fireworks and long-winded speeches in the plazas. Not unlike our own Fourth of July, in fact.
When I was a teenager, my parents started sending my sister and me away to Europe every summer to study French. At the time, the dollar was relatively strong against the Swiss franc, and they figured they could educate us for about the same price as a ballet camp in the Catskills. It was the early '70s, and my mother didn't like how the youth of America was tuning out and turning on. She thought bell-bottoms were the devil's leisure wear. (I remember the thrill of surreptitiously trying on a hip-hugging pair in the dressing room of Abraham & Strauss, pretending to smoke and imitating Peggy Lipton on "The Mod Squad.")
Anyway, we were packed off in late June to the safety of a quaint Swiss town on the banks of Lake Geneva, far from all the dangerous hippies (pronounced "eepies"). The Fourth of July and all its attendant fanfare could've been taking place on Pluto as far as I was concerned. If it weren't for my big-mouthed sister, who insisted on announcing it to all our new friends, my 13th birthday might have passed entirely anonymously. Still, it was a huge improvement over the engulfing, discomforting celebrations back in the States. For my first birthday overseas, I ate six chocolate eclairs at the local patisserie and called it a day.
Nineteen seventy-six was another agony altogether. This was the mother of all Fourths of July. The Bicentennial. The Uber-Birthday. It was my uber-birthday too. After all, I was turning 18. But instead of sending me to Europe (my French had gotten pretty good by then), my parents decided I needed to stick around that summer and help out at the restaurant, on account of the hordes of tourists they were expecting (in Brooklyn?). My mother decorated the restaurant in red, white and blue streamers and had the staff dress up in patriotic attire. There were special tricolor dishes (don't ask) and firecracker-shaped desserts whose effect on the digestive systems of our customers remains, thankfully, undocumented.
But my parents were right. Thousands of people did descend on our neighborhood, which flanked the East River, to watch the tugboats and the many hours of spectacular fireworks. I was so busy racing around serving the hungry, clamoring crowds that I forgot it was my birthday altogether. Everyone else did, too. A few days later, when we were still recovering from the onslaught, my mother leaned over to me one morning at breakfast and said, Feliz cumpleanos, mi amor. No present, no card, just an acknowledgment of what had already passed.
In recent years, I've taken to escaping the country on my birthday again. Last year, before my (gulp!) 40th birthday, I was told by my mother's astrologer in Miami -- an extraordinary woman who's in high demand in South America for her astrological insight into political candidates in half a dozen countries -- that where one spends one's birthday determines the tenor of the ensuing year. She promised to get back to me with the most auspicious place for me to commemorate my 40th. A week later, she reported that Barcelona was the place for me.
Now, I'm not some closet Nancy-Reagan-style stars-besotted person who can't make a move without the planets being auspiciously aligned, but I went to Barcelona and I took my 5-year-old daughter with me. There was a writers conference underway and I'd arranged to hook up with several friends. On my birthday, which nobody knew about except for my daughter (I made her promise not to squeal), I invited everyone out for a seafood dinner on the Barcelona waterfront. I got all dressed up, put in my contact lenses, even wore high heels. We drank several bottles of wine and shared a delicious variety of mariscos, including a memorable squid paella in black rice.
The night was clear and the skies were sequined with innumerable stars. My daughter started counting them. She got as high as 50 before she gave up. Fifty stars. Why not? It was still, after all, the Fourth of July.
Cristina Garcia is the author of two novels, Dreaming in Cuban and The Aguero Sisters. She lives in Los Angeles.