I’m Anabel Fernandez and I am from Cuba. I think that New Zealand found me, instead of me finding New Zealand. I was doing my PhD program in Cuba and wasn’t actually looking to leave.

While I was studying a friend suggested that it might be interesting to look at other universities doing similar projects. I sent information about my project off to a friend in Canada and he said that the project would be very relevant to a university in New Zealand.

My supervisor was very excited about the project because it was about the Caribbean, which is where she is from. It was one of those things where I felt like I was on the right track because everything was very easy; everything just fell into place.

I got the tickets, the visa and a scholarship and I was here! But it was very surreal for the first few weeks, and it felt difficult to ‘flip the switch’. I’d never even thought of actually leaving Cuba for so long. And since it happened so fast, it didn’t really feel real. It’s not that it was necessarily bad, but it did take a bit of getting used to and, in the process, I learned a lot about myself.

I only had one suitcase, so I needed to prioritise. I had to work out what was really important, what I couldn’t do without. You end up missing things that you would never think would be so important to you. And the things that you thought you would miss very badly – like your house or your street, or the smell of your neighbourhood, the people, the music – you don’t really miss that much.

What ties you to your country are just a couple of things that are very, very significant and all the other things you kind of bring along with you. For me, it was the memories of my mum. My mum passed away when I was very young, so one of the things that kind of tied me to my country were my memories of all the places we went to together. I thought that being in a foreign country would make it hard to keep that connection and access those memories. But it wasn’t. You discover that you bring that with you, and you still find your loved ones in places that bring you back to them, and where you find new meanings.

And in that regard, it’s pretty much a journey of self-discovery. For me, it has been more inwards than outwards. I’m just starting to understand the city, the place, and the people of New Zealand.

***

When I was growing up we lived in my grandparents’ house in Havana. It was a big house with a big patio. The house was in a low-lying area and when it rained, water would pool at the end of the street and form a big pond.

Dragonflies like that kind of clear water. There were times of the year where there were hundreds of dragonflies flying around our garden and there was a big park in front of our house. My mum and I would often go to the park together, just to sit on the bench and look at the dragonflies.

My mother’s name was Dania Santana. She was a very imaginative and creative person, and she would make up the most interesting stories about the dragonflies – how they were fairies from another world, and were on special missions here in this world, and they had things they had to collect to take back to their fairy world. Those stories really stuck with me, and even today love trying to find magic in everyday things. My mum’s dragonfly stories have really shaped who I am, and it is something that brings me back to her every time. So, all my friends know that when they want to spoil me they give me dragonflies. I even have a big dragonfly tattoo on my back.

Along with the dragonfly tattoo, I also have a dandelion. I got the dandelion tattoo done three days before I got here, I went with my best friend and we both had tattoos done.

The idea is that the dandelion is a plant, and like every plant it has roots, but the seeds kind of fly with the wind and are able to land somewhere else and make a new plant and bloom again. So I found that it was a very good metaphor for what was unfolding in my life. I would be away from my roots, but I would still have everything that I needed to bloom again somewhere else.

***

My friends know that I love dragonflies and often give me dragonfly themed gifts. One of my favourite ones were given to me by a person who is very special for me and my husband. She doesn’t live in Cuba anymore, she lives in the US. It was pretty special, she didn’t know the whole story of my Mom and why I loved dragonflies but it was quite serendipitous because she bought it for me on my Mom’s birthday.

 

If I had to bring someone, it would be him, for sure. He’s my best friend and the kind of brother that you find in life – a brother from another mother. And this one was a gift from him. All of them are very special.

My friends know that I love dragonflies and often give me dragonfly themed gifts. One of my favourite ones were given to me by a person who is very special for me and my husband. She doesn’t live in Cuba anymore, she lives in the US. It was pretty special, she didn’t know the whole story of my Mom and why I loved dragonflies but it was quite serendipitous because she bought it for me on my Mom’s birthday.

If I had to bring someone, it would be him, for sure. He’s my best friend and the kind of brother that you find in life – a brother from another mother. And this one was a gift from him. All of them are very special.

If I had to bring someone, it would be him, for sure. He’s the kind of brother that you find – a brother from another mother. And this was also a gift from him. All of them are very special.

***

In Latin American countries, since we have Spanish heritage, we get to keep both last names, which is pretty cool. You don’t have to keep only your father’s last name. You have your first name, and then you have your father’s last name and your mother’s last name. So you end up with a very long name, but it’s still nice because you can keep track of your family and where you come from on both sides, and I like that.

My Mum was the most amazing person I’ve ever met. Not only because she was my Mum, but because we built a relationship that was beyond a mother-daughter relationship. We became best friends. Even though I lost her when I was very young, I think most of the things that I am now, are because of her.

She taught me to look beyond the appearance of things and to discover what’s underneath. That curiosity is, at the end the day, what brought me here. That’s what made me choose the career that I choose, a career in the social sciences. It is about digging deeper, and finding meaning. She was a person who didn’t take anything, any explanation, for granted. She would go the extra mile to discover. And if you didn’t discover anything interesting, then she would make it imaginative.

She would also build relationships with people that were beyond the ordinary. She passed almost 15 years ago and I still run into people in Cuba who feel connected to her, they say, “oh yes, your momma this and that’ and they remember a million stories. She was fun, she was creative, and she was an amazing person.

I miss her. But I miss her in a good way. Of course it was very painful for a long time, but when you make peace with the fact that she’s in another dimension, you can actually enjoy that connection without it hurting. And it’s good. I treasure her. I treasure every memory I have of her, and I kind of live with her in a way.

***

Cuba is a country that doesn’t really change too much. The Cuba that I grew up in was also very important in making me who I am today. Cuba is a place that is never what it looks like. It’s never simple. It’s a very complex place. I guess it has to do with our modern, contemporary history. It’s very contradictory in many ways.

People in Cuba have a very, very low income, but they also have a lot of access to things. For example, you can still get up to PhD level without having to pay anything, and you can have a brain surgery without having to pay anything. However, day-to-day life can be challenging because you still have to, even if you’re studying towards your PhD, you still have to find money to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and that can be challenging.

We’ve been through a lot as a country, but that has brought us together in a way that I have not seen anywhere else. Even in Latin American and Caribbean countries, where it’s taken for granted that you would be part of a close community, the kinds of relationships that people make in Cuba, even with your neighbor, it’s something that is extraordinary. And it kind of makes you into a human being that is more open to other people, more ready to share.

For a Cuban person it would be very normal to share a place to sleep with someone that you barely know just because they need it, or a plate of food, or whatever. And it’s something that you don’t actually have to think about, it’s something that you do.

In Cuba, you have to live creatively and find alternatives because otherwise you don’t survive. Nothing is too bad or too complicated, you develop this out of the box thinking. Because of the economic hardship in Cuba many people are moving away. Most of the young people I know are either migrating or in the process of migrating.

Most of the talented people that could actually help change Cuba for the better, go elsewhere to exercise their talent, and that is harmful for our communities. But at the same time, I think there’s so much talent and so much potential in my country that I feel extremely proud of, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. If I could choose where I was born, or where I was going to be born next, I would still choose Cuba, for sure.

You cannot choose your parents, your family, and you cannot choose your country. But the fact that you feel that you were born in the right place, for me, is an amazing feeling. Even when I would change a lot of things, I would not change that. I wouldn’t. And that’s good. It’s a good feeling to know you belong somewhere.

***

The first thing I noticed about New Zealand are the people. In the developed world sometimes people are very focused in their work or in their professional career. Here, I saw people, spending time with their friends, with their dogs, with their children in the park, just chilling.

I also like that there is a lot of space in Auckland. The nature here is humbling. From the age of 13-16 years I travelled a lot and lived in Europe with my Mum, who was a diplomat. That’s how I learnt English. I wasn’t happy during that time, however, because I couldn’t connect in any meaningful way with the people, and we couldn’t find common ground.

European cities can be suffocating sometimes because you don’t get to see anything green. The houses are very, very close to each other. And it’s contradictory because while you’re very close physically, you’re also very distant from each other as humans. So you are in a box with a hundred people but you don’t get to talk to them – it’s contradictory.

There are many people who migrate for economic reasons. But not me, I don’t really need a lot of material things. What I thrive on is my connection to people. So when I decided to move to New Zealand I thought, “oh my god, if it’s like Europe again, I don’t think, I don’t know if I will be able to make it.” But it was totally different.

The people actually people stop in the street and talk to you if you ask them something. They stop what they’re doing and they pay attention to you. They find you human. And it’s fascinating to me that they’re humans first and Kiwis later – most of them don’t automatically put a boundary between them and you. There might be some people who do, but in my experience they’re way more open than many other countries. And for me that makes the difference, it lets me drop my defenses, and start to enjoy the place I’m in. If you’re going to be here for a while you better enjoy it.

It takes time, to build a relationship. This country and I, we are still at first base – Having dinner, flirting, you know, getting to know each other.

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