On Telling the Story by Jorge Vinales
The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.
−Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, TED Global 2009
I was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, to a Cuban father and Russian/Cuban mother. For a long time, my father dreamed of leaving the country for a better life in the United States. For him, a better life simply meant a steady source of nutrition for our family and the ability to listen to a Beatles record without risk of persecution. The Cuban government was, and still is, an extremely oppressive, communist system in which people have limited rights. However, one always learns to deal with obstacles, such as bartering for food or raising a few chickens every now and then. It wasn’t until my older sister was diagnosed with childhood Type I diabetes that my parents became restless in an effort to find medical supplies and eventually escape the country. So, on a rainy summer night, my father boarded a 25-foot fishing boat off the northern coast of Cuba and rode straight for the United States. I had yet to turn one year old.
While reading this, I bet some of you pictured a ‘mulatto’ individual or a ‘Hispanic,’ or any other racially charged term for those who don’t look like the mainstream. However, take it from me, I am about as white as the Siberian tundra, a homage to my Russian roots. When I share that I was born in Cuba, the typical response is a doubtful yet careful smile from people that don’t quite believe me, but also don’t want to offend. Is the name Jorge not enough? Is my word not enough? Why do I find myself constantly having to prove my origin by adding that my father defected to the U.S. on a boat? If that isn’t enough, what if I told you my sister, mother and I traveled to Bolivia and, with the help of the infamous coyotes you hear about on TV, crossed all of South America and then the Mexican border? Would that certify me as ‘Hispanic?’ Would you believe me then? These are questions that I never encountered when living in Miami, Florida because just about everybody has a similar narrative. At the age of twelve, however, my father was hired to begin residency at a hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was about to embark on a journey that would change the course of my life, and I could not have been less prepared.
That story, the one about my father defecting our home country on a boat, the one about my sister, mother and I traversing an entire continent in search of freedom, the one that no one ever quite believes is very personal to me. It is a story that has built who I was, who I am, and who I will be. It is the type of story that, when told to the wrong crowd, allows others to take full authority over your identity, and, by association, your story. It is a story that I would ultimately learn to tell or not to tell upon moving to the Midwestern suburbs of Cincinnati. This skill to decide between tell and don’t tell marked the beginning of my newfound literacy, which I would ultimately come to consider the ability to exist in a dominant American culture while maintaining full authority over my story, and by association, my identity.
One of the most vivid moments that highlights this literacy came the first day of 6th grade in Mrs. Andrews’ World History homeroom. After getting off the bus that morning, I saw more blonde, clear-eyed students than I had seen my entire life. The halls were filled with huge, pristine lockers to store our belongings. How excessive, I thought. Many students had very cool, colorful shoes on and even cooler backpacks. Immediately, I felt like I didn’t belong. I was scared. Intimidated. My off-brand shoes and five-year-old, beat up backpack were definitely not up to par. My previous school had been in Hialeah, Florida, one of the more poorly ranked schools in the Miami area. We had no lockers, no cool shoes, no even-cooler backpacks, and you would most definitely fail to see any corny posters that seemed to take up every open surface of Mrs. Andrews’ walls. Despite my first impressions, I walked into homeroom and sat down next to two boys who would become my good friends, and what Dr. Deborah Brandt would surely consider “sponsors” of my literacy. Brandt, a well-known English professor at the university of Wisconsin, writes, “[Literacy] sponsors…. are any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy—and gain advantage by it in some way” (166). My sponsors enabled my literacy by allowing me to recognize that I even needed a literacy in the first place.
“Hey, what’s up guys? My name is Jorge,” I said to my soon-to-be sponsors.
They hesitated. “Your name is Hor-hay?! Is that how you say your name in Spanish? Isn’t it supposed to be George, in America?”
Whoa. Wait a minute. What do I say? Is it “George”? Maybe it is… but how? Nobody in Miami ever called me “George” …. Okay Jorge, think. Does anybody else in this class look Hispanic? No. I’m the only one as far as I can tell. If you say your name is George, then you won’t be able to take it back. You’ll be a weirdo if you all the sudden go back to telling them it’s Jorge. Shit. So now what? If I say yes, these guys will think I’m American. That’s good. I’ll fit in. No… I can’t. I’m Cuban, I have a story to tell! My family is unique. They’ll appreciate my background! Right? Or will they just laugh and call me a fence hopper, a wetback, a ref? No way, these guys seem nice enough. No shot, look at them…. They both have that Justin Bieber hair and ‘ojos claros.’ The one that asked the damn question frowned at you like you had said something wrong. You definitely noticed that. He’s still got a weird look on… Maybe that’s it: “George” isn’t right, but “Jorge” is definitely wrong. Yes, that’s it. “Jorge” is wrong. Not here. Not at this school. Jesus, I’d be disrespecting my family, my story! It will be for nothing if I don’t tell them my name is Jorge. Will they ask me about my personal story? Will they think I’m weird? Are you willing to risk alienating yourself? These guys can’t relate to you. Okay stop thinking and tell them your real name. You know what to do.
Plato states in a dialogue in his Republic, “Necessity is the mother of invention” (Coumoudouros 1). On that cool September morning, I found my invention: “It’s only spelled J-O-R-G-E, my name is George. Parents thought it’d be cool, I guess,” I shrugged off.
“That’s pretty awesome dude!” replied Justin Bieber with an inviting smile. “So, what’s your next class?”
The conversation is over, I thought to myself. I didn’t even have to tell the story!
I recognize my newly found name as a development in my literacy of existing between two cultures. The decision to go by George at school allowed me to never have to explain my origin to the other kids. I didn’t have to face criticism or cruel jokes about being a refugee, wasn’t alienated by intolerant thirteen-year olds, and most importantly, nobody felt bad for the Hispanic boy in class. None of the kids that day went home and told their parents that a ‘mulatto’ or ‘Hispanic’ was in their class, only a George spelled “Jorge” from Miami.
My two inadvertent sponsors, as Brandt might say, supported and guided me through junior high school. They showed what it meant to be American: eat pizza for lunch, rock a new backpack, wear Nikes, and watch the Bengals and Reds play. They began introducing me to their friends and, soon enough, I had joined my very own ‘clique,’ which gave me a new identity: my name is George, I have a Miami accent that everyone deems endearing, and there was no way in hell I had ever crossed the Mexican border.
The clique we had formed in the 6th grade lasted all the way through our high school graduation. I was so thankful for these people who had been sponsors in my literacy. Thanks to them, I gained insight on what American culture was like and, more importantly, I became literate in morphing into that part of my identity. That summer, however, I was going back to see my original sponsors in Miami: the ones who had taught me who Jorge was.
“What’s good, hombre?” I said to Andres, but not before a big hug and kiss on the cheek as is the custom in our culture.
“Can’t believe you’re here, brother! It’s good to have you back, Jorge,” said Andres with a hopeful smile.
“Please tell me you’re coming down for good. You’re applying to community college down here, right? Me and the boys are looking for housing soon.”
Whoa. Wait a minute. What do I say? Do I tell him I’m going to New York University? A private school in the northeastern United States? That’s gringo shit. He’ll drop me off on the highway. He already has expectations for me… community college in Miami. Do I lie? Will he take it the wrong way? No, he can’t. He will be proud of me… or will he think I am privileged and undeserving of such a school? Is it unfair for me, someone who came from a similar background as him to attend an elite, private school? Okay, well I have to tell him, or he’ll be pissed I didn’t. But how? Tell him my ACT scores were high because my high school had preparatory programs? No, that’s gringo shit. Do I mention my English got exponentially better because of my American professors? No, that’s gringo shit. Damn it. I need an excuse for this, or he won’t like the truth. Oh whatever, Jorge, just tell him the truth.
“Shit I don’t know, man. My parents want me to go some gringo school up north, but I keep trying to tell them I want to come down here,” I explained to him, forcing my accent to sound more Hispanic than usual. And I did, I loved Miami. I felt like I belonged here, but it was not in my best interest when considering my education. “Damn, hombre, I feel that. Cuban parents think you owe them the world for getting you out of that shit hole, no?” said Andres, placing the blame on my parents rather than on me for choosing to be gringo. “Pretty crazy thing they did, huh?” I said. Andres and I talked about our respective immigration stories, and I was glad we could share them with one another for the thousandth time.
I still talk to Andres about my life, and he talks to me about his. He always reminds me of my other identity: my name is Jorge, I am a little bit gringo, my father came here on a boat, and you can bet your ass I crossed the Mexican border.
My identity as a “Hispanic” is an ascribed one: I didn’t ask for it, but it is mine. This side of my identity is complicated by the fact that I have especially fair skin and no longer have a Miami accent, but most importantly that I live in Cincinnati. Therefore, when I exist in this space, there are things I must downplay and others I must emphasize—like my personal story. In a sense, I must now give up some of George to be Jorge: eat arroz con frijoles for lunch instead of pizza, cheer against the Reds, and talk about boxeo instead of futbol Americano.
In his own autobiography, Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez describes a similar upbringing in which there was a clear divide between expectations from his teachers at school and the expectations of his parents at home. He states, “Since everything centers upon the living-room, there is unlikely to be a room of his own…if there is one, would not only be expensive, but would require an imaginative leap—out of the tradition” (49). Like Rodriguez, my literacy of living in-between Hispanic and American culture is ‘expensive.’ It is expensive because in every space, I must either give up part of Jorge or part of George. My literacy allows me to analyze the cost of either sacrifice and make a decision regarding what “room” I must occupy to best fit my interests, or the interests of those in my current space. The ability to read current environments and shift or create a new space for myself is also expensive in the sense that I must always be aware. I must always pay attention: analyze facial expressions, understand personal backgrounds, check for vocal tones, recognize geography. It is a literacy that, if used diligently, provides the ability to coexist in a hyphen, in-between two seemingly mutually exclusive lives. The beautiful thing about it is I can practice every single day.
Neglecting to exercise this literacy in the right way, however, can be dangerous not only for me, but for those around me. It is sometimes comfortable to be lazy, to not think about those facial expressions and personal backgrounds. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the famous Nigerian novelist, in her TED Talk titled “The Dangers of a Single Story,” explains, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete” (12:57). By failing to always pay attention, it can be easy to place somebody in a ‘single story’ and treat them accordingly and vice versa. In my case, for example, if I had misinterpreted Andres’ facial expressions and expectations on higher education, I might have come off as abrasive and insensitive. By saying something like “I’m going to NYU, my high school had the most amazing preparatory programs,” Andres would have probably looked at me as a very out-of-touch, unrelatable person; in other words, he would have been placing me in a single story. The failure to practice your literacy, to be aware of your literacy, and to recognize the responsibility that your literacy bears will inevitably put you in a position where you are susceptible to the ‘single story’—the incomplete one.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED, TED, July 2009,
Brandt, Deborah. “Sponsoring Literacy.” College Composition and Communication 49.2 (1998):
Coumoundouros, Antonis. “Plato: The Republic.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Internet
Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/republic/.
Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. Bantam Books, 1983.
Jorge Vinales is a senior at the University of Cincinnati, where he is pursuing a bachelor’s in Biomedical Sciences. His passion for research and medicine have inspired him to pursue a career in healthcare. He also enjoys reading and learning about history.