It was a photo in The Washington Post that caught Marisella Veiga’s attention. The Japanese were growing watermelons in square containers to make it easier to ship them. They were square watermelons.
“I thought that was a great metaphor for someone living with the bicultural experience,” said the adjunct English instructor and Cuban-American author who has focused most of her writing on her own experiences living with two cultures.
“Square Watermelons: Ten Essays on Living with Two Cultures” is a collection of spoken-word essays that was born out of her syndicated columns for Hispanic Link News Service in Washington, D.C.
More recently, she had a short story, “Fresh Fruit,” selected for publication in the anthology, “Short-Short Stories from the United States and Latin America.” She has been awarded the Special Mention in Fiction for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Small Presses, for a story called, “Arroz Con Pollo,” and has published features, commentary and poetry.
More often than not, her writing deals with the theme of being born into one culture and then transplanted into an entirely different one.
“It’s very similar to the watermelons being planted in the square containers,” she said. Veiga said when she was thinking about the square watermelons metaphor, she realized it could apply to just about anyone.
“You’re born a certain way, and by the time you reach adulthood, you’re beaten into a square of sorts,” she said. “You certainly are shaped by experience. So I think the metaphor could be greater than what it originally stood for.”
Veiga was born in Havana, Cuba, and she and her family went into exile in 1960 when they moved to the United States. She had no choice but to learn how to live with two cultures. For years, she has been questioned regarding her ethnicity and Cuban politics.
“When one is forced to leave one’s country for political reasons, I would have to compare the exile to having experienced a childhood trauma,” Veiga said. “It impacted my entire family including my parents, siblings, grandparents and cousins. It has impacted my other Cuban friends. The whole exile community — everyone who is in exile has experienced that trauma.”
Veiga and her family moved to Minnesota not long after they came to the United States.
“When we first moved to Minnesota, it was pretty evident that I was not from there,” she said. “I had to adjust to constant questioning, especially regarding Fidel Castro and Cuban politics. People are very interested in those issues.”
Veiga said living in exile has definitely influenced her writings and the writings of her peers and colleagues. “There is a definite break in the concept of what is home,” she said.
Veiga is quick to point out that she is one of many people who are fortunate enough to live with two languages and with two cultures.
“I am Cuban-American, and I write in English,” she said. “I have become an English professor, and I am published. These accomplishments are huge milestones for me, personally.”
Veiga says the columns she submits to Spanish Link are usually social commentary dealing with issues such as acculturation, assimilation and increasing understanding and awareness of living with two cultures.
Even in her classrooms, Veiga sees cultural differences.
“I speak about this issue in my classroom,” she said. “Initially, I look at my classes and think that everyone is white and middle class. Then, when we start discussing backgrounds, I find that some of my students come from military backgrounds, some are first generation college students, and some are from the northeast.
For the first time in 50 years, Veiga heads to Cuba with her husband this August. She said she longs to see the place that is her heritage.
Veiga once had a professor say something that really resonated with her.
“My professor said that home is where you hang your hat,” she said. “I thought about that, and he’s really right.”
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