Read Cuba 15 Online

Authors: Nancy Osa

Tags: #Fiction

Cuba 15

Para mi familia,
aquí y allá


Praise for Cuba 15



“Violet’s hilarious, cool first-person narrative veers between farce and tenderness, denial and truth.” — Booklist, Starred

Cuba 15
will make readers laugh, whether or not their families are as loco as Violet’s.”
—The Horn Book Magazine

“I love the rambunctious, funny voice of this novel. It will appeal to readers not only of a Latino background, but of all backgrounds. Nancy Osa shows us that tradition has to be made personal in order for us to truly feel connected to our past and the people around us.” — Julia Alvarez

“Violet and her wacky family and friends . . . keep the fiesta moving at a lively clip.” — Publishers Weekly

“Among the many strengths of this novel are its likeable and very real protagonist and her introduction to the nexus of politics and family.” — School Library Journal

“The issues of assimilation, heritage, and the embargo are all raised in such natural contexts and with such complex associations and opinions among the characters that there is never a sense of an agenda, and yet uninitiated readers will surely want to learn more about Cuba, its music, and its traditions, as well as yearning for a
of their own.”
—The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“Readers not only learn about the culture of Cuba, but also brush up on their Español as Osa skillfully stitches two worlds together.” — KLIATT

“[A] revealing and original ‘coming of age’ story.” — The Midwest Book Review

“Any teenager remotely familiar with the clash of cultures and backgrounds can relate to Violet’s story.” — San Antonio Express-News

“In a fresh and humorous voice, Violet winds her way through a pivotal adolescent year. . . . [A] standout debut novel by a first-time author.”
— Wisconsin State Journal


Millón de gracias
to the Hedgebrook Foundation and my Hedgemates; my talented editor, Françoise Bui; my book-loving family; Keith Gaylor; ACME Writers; Professor Craig Clinton; and speech and Spanish teachers everywhere.

Author’s Note

quinceañero (KEEN-say-ahn-YEH-ro),
is a fifteenth-year coming-of-age ceremony traditionally held for girls in Latin American countries. The girl being honored is sometimes called the
. Customs and spellings vary among different ethnic groups, but the purpose of guiding young women to adulthood remains the same.



What can be funny about having to stand up in front of everyone you know, in a ruffly dress the color of Pepto-Bismol, and proclaim your womanhood? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Not when you’re fifteen—too young to drive, win the lottery, or vote for a president who might lower the driving and gambling ages. Nothing funny at all. At least that’s what I thought in September.

—hadn’t even begun to grow; I wore a bra size so small they’d named it with lowercase letters:
. Guys avoided me like the feminine hygiene aisle at the grocery store. And I never wore dresses. Not since I’d left school uniforms behind. Not ever, no exceptions. You’d think my own grandmother would remember that.

She didn’t.

. I want buy you a gown and make you a ‘keen-say’ party,” my grandmother said early that September morning in her customized English, shrewdly springing her idea on me at breakfast.

“Sounds good, Abuela,” I said as I buttered my muffin. “Except for the dress.”

Just Abuela, my little brother, Mark, and I were up; Abuelo, tired from traveling, was sleeping in, and Mom never got up until after Mark and I had left for school. Thrift store worker’s hours. Mom ran the Rise & Walk Thrift Sanctuary, a used-clothing shop in the church basement that operates on donations. Their motto is “The Threads Shall Walk Again.” Dad was on the early shift at the twenty-four-hour pharmacy inside the Lincolnville Food Depot, a combination grocery store/bank/hairdresser/ veterinary hospital/pharmacy/service station. All they needed now was a tattoo parlor.

“What’s ‘keent-sy’?” Mark asked, adding, “I want one too!”

” said Abuela, “this is short for
the fifteenth birthday in Cuba.” She pronounced it “Coo-ba,” the Spanish way. “Is a ceremony only for the girls,” she added, shaking a finger at Mark, who tipped his cereal bowl toward his mouth to get the last of the sugary milk at the bottom.

He swallowed. “That’s sexist, Abuela. Only for girls.” He tried another pass at his cereal bowl, but it was empty. “I know, because last year in my school on Take Your Daughters to Work Day, Father Leone said sons got to go to work too. So I got out of school!”

Abuela, looking starched somehow in one of Mom’s old terry cloth robes, her silver hair in a bun, raised an eyebrow and gave a wry smile. “This is equality, yes?”

She often says yes when she means no, and vice versa.

quinceañero, m’ijo,
this is the time when the girl becomes the woman.”

Mark, who was eleven then, shied away from any discussion that even hinted at having to do with body parts or workings. He turned corpuscle red, a nice counterpoint to his royal blue Cubs baseball cap, which he wore all day every day during the pro season, except in school and church, until the end of the last game of the World Series. The fringe of his dark hair stuck out in a ragged halo around his face. He immediately lost interest in the
party. “Nevermind, countmeout,” he mumbled.

Abuela didn’t notice. “The
is the time when all the
resto del mundo
ass-cepts your dear sister as an adult in the eyes of God and family. And she, in turn, promises to ass-cept
for all the wonders in the world of adults.”

. This sank in as deeply as the Country Crock into the nooks and crannies of my half-eaten English muffin, and raised a red flag. This
party could be some sort of trap. “What if I don’t want to—ass-cept more responsibilities?” I asked, mindlessly mimicking Abuela’s pronunciation.

Mark slipped away, leaving his empty cereal bowl and milk glass on the table.

Abuela sat down with a tiny cup of sweet, black coffee. “
—how do you say? These come with the territory,
” She downed her coffee in one shot.

I pointed to Mark’s dirty bowl. “How about

She shrugged and motioned for me to clear his place.

sexist,” I grumbled, stomping off to the sink with Mark’s dishes and my own.

Abuela said something that rhymed in Spanish, then translated: “The bull cannot make the milk, and the cow alone cannot make the bull.”

I kissed her, shaking my head, and left for school. There’s no sense arguing with the fundamentals.

Leda Lundquist stood waiting for me outside Spanish class. My friend Leda is as slim as a sunflower and admirably as tall, though not quite as seedy. She has long, straight, pale-pale blond hair and white-white skin with just the faintest glow to indicate that blood does run through her veins.

“Yo, Paz,” she said to me at the door, with her usual lack of finesse. “Come away with me this weekend.”

“Don’t you have a boyfriend for that, Leed?” I asked, sweeping past her and into the last row of seats.

Leda set down her gym duffel and books and sat beside me, braiding her hair into an orderly rope. She wore a giant turquoise tie-dyed T-shirt as a dress, belted with a rolled-up bandana. Rubber flip-flops and a pink plastic Slinky on one arm for a bracelet completed her back-to-school look. “I have got the perfect fund-raiser for you—for us—to go to Saturday afternoon.”

I groaned. “No way,” I said, before she had a chance to state her case.

“C-U-B-A” was all she said, and she waited for my reaction.

I raised my eyebrows in a let-me-have-it look.

“The Cuba Caravan’s coming through town. Isn’t your dad going? There’s gonna be a dance, and a send-off, and—”

I shook my head no, and harder for no way. I didn’t want to stir up that kettle of Caribbean fish. The subject of Cuba was best left unmentioned around Dad. “Forget it, Leda,” I said, wondering how many times I’d been caught up in this constant refusal of invitations since we’d first met. With the Lundquists’ raft of causes, most weekends offered at least one political demonstration for the family to enjoy.

“—and even a
Paz, what could be better than that? Besides . . .”

She paused.

“Besides what?”

“Well . . . if we stand around long enough, you might meet some hunky Cuban guys at the salsa dance . . . and I could top a thousand bucks in the walkabout fund.”

Aha. The true motive. Leda was speaking of the European adventure fund that her parents pay into every time she goes to some activist thing with them—double if she brings a friend. By the time she turns eighteen, Leda plans to have enough money to traipse across Europe and several other continents, solo.

Which was why we, lofty sophomore creatures that we were, presently found ourselves in the back row of Señora Wong’s freshman Spanish class, trying not to be noticed. It had been Leda’s idea to take the first year of each language offered at Tri-District High so she’d be able to speak a little of the native tongue no matter where she roamed. Last year,
merci beaucoup,
it had been French. I didn’t care which language I learned, so I tagged along for the fun of it.

Señora Wong, diminutive but not fragile, ruled with an ironic fist. “Leona, Violeta, could you find it in your hearts to join the rest of us?” she asked, calling us by our Spanish-class names, hitting just the right note of sarcasm. She went on to show the class the same list of easy nouns that Leda and I learned last year at this time:
casa, sombrero, estudiante
—only last year it was in French.

I tuned her out and thought again about Leda’s proposal for the weekend. If I did go, the
déjà vu
factor would be high. A grin escaped me as I remembered our first meeting, at a peace rally in Grant Park, back when I was still in eighth grade. I had tagged along with my aunt Luz— Dad’s little sister—who was in town, taking pictures on assignment. Tía Luci had handed me a PEACE NOW! poster to wave and moved off to snap some photos. Caught up in the pulsating crowd, I was feeling a little overwhelmed when a concerned voice at my elbow asked, “Are you okay?”

The voice belonged to a tall girl with long white-blond hair and the skinniest arms and legs I had ever seen. Was

“Of course I am,” I blustered, too embarrassed to admit I was afraid of being on my own among the marchers. “Great rally, huh?” I said, shoving my poster back out in front of me.

“I’ve seen better,” came the blasé reply. As the girl leaned over to slurp from a push-button water fountain, her long straight hair fell from a bandana tied pirate-style over the top of her head. A peasant shirt with the sleeves cut out flapped over skintight leggings, which had been cut roughly at the knee. All of this perched precariously atop two stork-on-a-diet legs. She straightened up, wiping her lips with a fist. “Redwood Summer was pretty wild,” she said. “I’m Leda. And you are . . . ?”


“Violet, huh? Violet!” She gazed deeply into my eyes through ice-blue ones. “I have something very important to tell you.”

this person? Why was she staring at me?

“MON ECAEP?” She pointed gravely to my middle. “Your sign’s upside down.”

So it was. How long had I been holding PEACE NOW! upside down? Embarrassed twice in two minutes—and by a twelve-year-old! I asked Leda which grade she was in first, but she said her school didn’t have grades. She would be thirteen at the end of August.

“Let’s make a point of keeping in touch,” she’d said at the end of the day, as though she networked like this all the time.
Let’s keep in touch
. No one had ever said that to me before. So we got to be friends.

Leda was unlike any of my Catholic-school classmates. She called her parents by their first names and went to an alternative school. She demonstrated on the weekends at political rallies. And she was a vegetarian. I had never met a vegetarian before. Even Jesus ate meat, we were taught. Or at least fish.

Our differences only drew Leda and me to each other until we sort of fed off them, like those relationships where one fish scrapes dead barnacles off the other. But we were alike in some ways. Neither of us could dance. We liked to ski, and we hated video games and football. Plus, we’d both had to go along with a lifetime of our families’ crazy schemes, something we couldn’t wait to escape.

Now, two years after meeting, with both of us in public high school and Leda’s around-the-world tour looming, my friend had found her own capitalist cause within her parents’ causes. I decided to go with her on Saturday; I could tell Dad the Cuba fund-raiser was for some other benefit. Since I didn’t have any plans for the future, I figured helping to send Leda around the world was the least I could do. And if I met some hunky Cuban guy at the same time, well, I’d call it a birthday present.

“Muy bien,”
I surrendered to Leda after class. “You win.”


“I’ll go with you to the Cuba thing.”

She blinked at me. “Was it the hunk part that convinced you?”

“Is that all you think about?”

Leda tossed her braid over her shoulder. “Try to.”

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