After years away from her native Miami, writer Chantel Acevedo finally admitted why she missed it so much.
I was 25 when I first saw snow. A daughter of Cuban immigrants, I’d been born and raised in Hialeah, a working-class city in greater Miami. But at 25, my husband and I took off for an academic life, chasing degrees and jobs. Behind me were my loud Cuban family, tropical beaches, the pastels of Miami Beach, and Spanish punctuating every sentence. Ahead of me were trains that rattled down long tracks and took you from one big city to another, new terms like “brownstones” and “fireplace dampers,” knowing what it meant to be a Latina minority for the first time in my life.
I gave birth to my first daughter in New Haven, Connecticut, and when she was still a baby, my husband and I moved again. This time, warmer weather and a tenure-track job brought us to Auburn, Alabama. We welcomed another daughter shortly afterward, and so it was the four of us there in the Deep South. Nine years later, we had learned to say “y’all” and root for SEC football with ease.
Like the tea ubiquitous in the South, life in Auburn was pretty sweet. But there was always something missing, a sense of our latinidad that was slipping. I’d vowed that my daughters would speak Spanish and grow up in a bilingual world like the one I had known. For a while there, I managed it. Then, one day when she was 3, my older daughter asked for her shoes instead of her zapatos, and it felt as if I’d failed. When asked to say it en español, she would stomp her tiny feet at me and yell, “English!” Who could blame her? None of her classmates spoke Spanish. Neither did her neighbors or her teachers.
Meanwhile, trips home over the holidays were healing, joyful things. Surrounded by abuelas and tías, cousins and family friends, my girls transformed into different people. They would dole out hugs, stuff their faces with bistec de palomilla, and learn the words to songs in Spanish on the radio. They knew about the Three Wise Men—los Reyes Magos, who brought toys at Christmas—and about Cuba, and about the places their beloved grandmothers were from.
On one visit, as I drove down a leafy street, Bruno Mars’s hit “Locked Out of Heaven” came on the radio. I found myself singing, “I’ve been locked out of heaven for too looong,” and realized I was crying. Sobbing, no less. It was incredibly cheesy, yes, and also a revelation. It was time to come home.
So we did, thanks to tenured jobs at the University of Miami. Today we live just a few miles from Hialeah, back in Miami-Dade County. Is Miami perfect? No place is. This last hurricane season proved how erratic our weather is, and sea-level rise is a real threat. But my family is here, my language is here, and the stories that fuel my fiction are here. For a while, my youngest called it “My Ami.” My Ami, Our Ami, Miami—it’s all home to me.
Chantel Acevedo is the author of A Falling Star, Love and Ghost Letters, The Distant Marvels, and The Living Infinite, which was published in September. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Miami, where she teaches in the MFA program.