Fresh Off the Boat? Join the Club!

Wading ashore (figuratively) in Montreal, Cuban expatriate Raul Reyes Mancebo finds himself dragged into a meetup for other recent immigrants. ‘I’ll tell them how hard life is on the island,’ he figures…

A while back my friend Florian invited me to participate in an event at the University of Montreal called the Immigrants’ Club. As one might expect, I refused to participate in anything with a name like that. My apartment, my bank account and my lack of travel remind me every day that I am an immigrant; I do not need to be in a club remind me. Then Florian told me it would be full of cute boys, so I accepted. Yes, dear reader, if I am given weighty reasons I am easy to convince.

Anyway: It turns out I would have to give a little speech about my country of origin, how I got to Canada, my process of integration into my new country, my relationship with the old one… That all sounded easy: I would put on a nice shirt, comb my hair like a good boy and talk about the precarious situation on my native island, the Special Period, the balseros, the ration books, freedom of expression and the lack thereof, my life now, the difficulties of being away from your family… and later, when everyone was crying, attack the prettiest boys and take them to my immigrant’s apartment. This club did not sound so bad after all.

That Saturday the place was full with of foreigners as well as beautiful blond locals. Florian and I drew the number 18, identified and pre-selected a few possible victims, and sat down to wait for the 17 immigrants in front of me to make their short speeches.

The first was a young man from Eritrea who laughed all the time. He had arrived in Canada after illegally crossing the border into Ethiopia in the middle of gunfire that “luckily did not hit its mark”, making arrangements to get to Paris six months later and from there to Montreal (I do not know how because I was still thinking about the gunfire that “luckily did not hit its mark”). After two years here they gave him political asylum but his brother-in-law, who made the entire trip with him, was sent back to Eritrea. Suddenly, the cute boys vacated my head and I saw myself crossing the Ethiopian border in a hail of gunfire.

A Romanian told us later about how he spent a month hidden in a shipping container, a Russian about how he was beaten for being gay and a Japanese man about how his boat finally arrived to the United States after weeks of travel only to be turned back to Japan.

It had not been much better for the women. One Turkish girl had escaped an arranged marriage and death threats from her own father, a Bosnian woman had lost her entire family in the war and a Colombian had visible evidence of the violence from the paramilitaries in her country. I was upset. What was this? The Olympic Games of misfortune? I felt out of place, unprepared, too unfortunate to be fortunate and too fortunate to be unfortunate. When a Palestinian boy stepped up to the microphone I could not take it anymore. I told Florian I was leaving and I got up and walked out of the room.

Outside, Florian tracked me down.

“What are you doing?”

“You invited the wrong person to this club,” I said.

“What are you talking about? You’re Cuban.”

“Exactly! And apparently someone lied to us when they said we are the most unfortunate people on the planet. Compared to these people we could have been raised in Disneyland.”

“This is not a competition,” Florian said.

“I’m upset and I don’t even know why. On one hand I feel like I’m doing Cubans justice if I say we have problems, but at the same time no one has ever shot at me and I’ve never seen the inside of a shipping container. I don’t know if we are heroes of suffering or spoiled children who were forced to read and write.”

“This is not a competition,” Florian repeated.

I sat down on a bench.

“Being an immigrant sucks,” I said.

“We all have complicated lives,” said Florian, a full-blooded Canadian whose mother left him with his grandparents, who in turn had to get on welfare to raise their grandson. I smiled at him. I took a deep breath and stood up: “The things one does for pretty boys.”

“The Polish boy is mine,” said Florian as we walked back into the room.

“May the best man win.”

“Hello everyone, this is Raul, the smartest and most charismatic Cuban you will ever know,” Florian said into the microphone when number 18 finally came up.

“Don’t pay attention to him. I’m the only Cuban he knows,” I said.

The Immigrants’ Club laughed.

“Well, I had a speech prepared, but after hearing the others talk I think I’m going to have to change it a little. Cuba is a mixture of so many diverse things that you don’t know if you’re winning or losing, if you should complain or be grateful. And you know what? I think we like it. We are eccentric like that. We like to howl that ‘this only happens to us,’ and exaggerating misfortune is part of our culture. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. But then I end up here, listen to other stories that I thought only happened in movies and I realize that our misfortunes are not… any bigger or smaller. They are simply ours. Everyone has problems, including,” I whispered now, “people from rich countries.” (Laughter.) “As my friend would say, this is not, after all, a competition. But if it were, all of us in this club would win. I know that I’m supposed to say losers, but I prefer to think that we are winners. The guy from Eritrea is always laughing and I’m constantly trying to sleep with everyone. Our misfortunes haven’t affected us much.” (“That’s right!” yelled the guy from Eritrea, and everyone laughed.)

“That’s why I want to thank you. Hearing your stories I feel a bit less of a cretin than when I came here two hours ago… So, thank you.”

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Photo CC: Richard BURGER. “Colorful Moaï – Montreal”.

And the Immigrants’ Club gave number 18 a nice round of applause. A little later, a drink in hand while I took a few pictures with other members of the club, Florian approached.

“See? I invited the right person.”

“I guess,” I said, and made one of my faces. We hugged.

“That was nice,” he said.

“And it would have never happened without you,” I said. He imitated the face I made.

“Now come with me. There’s a cute boy who wants to meet you,” he said, taking my hand.

“The Polish boy?” I asked as I followed him.

“No.”

“The Russian? The Filipino? I know, the Pakistani!…”

So now you know, dear readers, if some day they invite you to the Immigrants’ Club, go. There are cute boys, and maybe a lesson or two to learn.

Raul Reyes Mancebo Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard.