A few months ago I left one world for another. After more than a year of waiting, I finally got a visa to leave my native Cuba and immigrate to the United States. My fiancé, a U.S.-born Latino, and I had gone through so much together, each of us in our own country, far away, unhappy to be apart, never sure we would be together some day.

Getting the visa wasn’t easy – there was red tape to go through, bribes to pay. I don’t regret having to pay $60 to get an interview at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to get a visa. I lost my patience often, getting angry over the many Cuban and U.S. institutional inefficiencies I had to endure.

I made it to Los Angeles International Airport. I had never seen anything like it — so large, so luxurious, full of technology and people everywhere. Havana’s José Martí Airport is a small apartment in comparison.

This great city has surprised me many times since I arrived. It is far more ethnically and culturally diverse than I had imagined. The wealth, especially when compared to Cuba, is staggering. One example makes clear the difference. In Cuba, the flimsy plastic bags used to pack groceries are saved and used over and over until they fall apart.

On the other hand, racism here is much stronger, not just against blacks, but also against Latinos who come to pursue the American Dream, working beyond exhaustion for minimum wages.

Cuba is not a racial paradise, but blacks, mulatos and whites mix easily. In Los Angeles, segregation is fairly common. My husband and I were married in a beautiful chapel in a luxury seaside community. Just about everyone who lives there is white and well-to-do. Where we live, almost everyone is Latino or African-American and poor.

In Havana, where I met my husband, I labored hard as a technician in a food plant. My pay was the equivalent of $12 a month, not considered low in country where doctors make around $18. Not surprisingly, what I earned was not even enough to buy a month’s worth of food.

We Latino immigrants work hard here, too. As in Cuba, the pay is most often not great, but the difference is that it’s enough to cover basic needs.

I’m still getting accustomed to the huge highways, full of cars.

In Cuba you don’t even dream about so many cars; there are only two highways in the whole country. Here I could get lost driving around, but believe me, I wouldn’t give up the comfort of a car for the bother of getting into a camello, a monstrous urban bus, where you’re stepped on and shoved, day after day, to get to work.

I’ve got a lot to say – a lot about the things I love about this country, and about things I don’t. There’s more than enough food in the stores, I would say too much, but it hurts me to see poor people in need, begging to be able to eat.

¿Why doesn’t the government help them? It spends millions on a war that makes no sense. The United States is no heaven, but I have to acknowledge that it’s no hell, either.

I’ve gotten used to seeing lots of Latinos, which I love because it makes me feel as if I were with my own people. They’re very nice to each other, as if they support each other when they know they’re Latinos.

In the eight months that I’ve lived in Los Angeles, Cuba has felt the jolt of Fidel Castro becoming gravely ill. I worry a bit to think of what might happen after this dictator dies. His passing opens the door to the unknown, and with all of my immediate family there, I am concerned that they remain safe and don’t have to undergo additional hardships.

This is a very beautiful country. It’s full of different cultures, people who fight to get ahead, who come from everywhere and whose stories are different; some get discriminated against, others are privileged, but every one of us wants to live here. This country must have something wonderful and sweet about it that everyone likes.

(Karla resides in the Los Angeles suburb of Bellflower, where she is taking intensive English courses. She prefers not to use her full name to protect the privacy of family members still in Cuba. Correspondence addressed to editor@HispanicLink.org will be forwarded to her.)

© 2007