Surviving Trauma: Trauma of Past Lives and Hunger Can Follow Immigrants to U.S.

BY FABIHA FARUQUE
URBAN HEALTH MEDIA PROJECT

MIAMI — As a child growing up in Cuba, Anthony Vidal vividly recalls what it was like to go without enough to eat. They rarely had meat, so his family would substitute eggplant in recipes to mimic the texture and flavor. 

Often, there was little or nothing in the refrigerator. The fear of going without food, a byproduct of the country’s socialist food-rationing policies, was constant and consuming, he said. 

Anthony Vidal and his mother, Greysi Reyes (CQ), around the time they immigrated to the United States. Credit: Photo provided by Anthony Vidal.

Vidal, who is now a high school sophomore at Cambridge Academy and lives in Hialeah, immigrated in 2016 at age 10 to the United States with his mother. She was in search of a more secure future.

“What made us come here … was the poverty we knew,” he said. “It’s very hard to find food, and it’s very hard to find the basic things in life.”

On arriving in the United States, Vidal was struck by the obvious differences with Cuba: Not only were people unconcerned about starvation or possible dehydration, but there were supermarkets and convenience stores on almost every street.

Still, the trauma of a life of privation and uncertainty has proved hard to shake for Vidal and many other Cuban immigrants. Food and water shortages, which affect both the poor and the comparatively wealthy there and which have only worsened since the coronavirus pandemic began, have invoked a sort of communal anxiety over food insecurity. 

Even when immigrants to the U.S. are no longer subject to rationing, they remain fearful, Vidal said.

A history of privation, trauma

Shortages of food, water and other basic necessities have plagued Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, when Cuba entered the “Special Period” of economic hardship after the loss of its most significant trading partner.

“The Special Period is one of those things that if you were born after but your family lived it, you lived it, too,” Vidal said. “I lived the ripple effect that it created; I heard the stories and I was raised in a culture of preservation, and second and third [backup] plans.

Following Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution in 1959, hundreds of thousands of Cuban immigrants sought refuge in the U.S., and Miami became a popular destination for these political refugees due to its close proximity to Cuba. As of 2018, there were almost 800,000 Cuban-born residents in South Florida alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Studies have shown  a high percentage of immigrants from Cuba experience substance abuse and mental health disorders including.  post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, even years after they’ve left their home country. 

Anthony Vidal, who immigrated from Cuba with his mother four years ago in search of a more secure future. Credit: Photo provided by Anthony Vidal.

“It’s not unusual for trauma, especially in childhood, to have lasting effects,” said Dr. Edward Barksdale, a pediatric surgeon and specialist in childhood trauma. 

One of the best ways to mitigate the effects of such trauma in childhood is the consistent, stable presence of adults the child can count on, research shows. For Vidal, family and neighbors filled this role. He grew up in a “friendly, neighborly” culture which was common in Cuba and a necessity for everyone’s survival, he explained.  

“If you fall to the floor, everyone will come to your aid. If you’re crying in the street, everyone will ask you what’s wrong,” he said. “We understand each other’s pain because we all share the same pain.”

Vidal added that Cubans who live in the U.S. stock up on everything from toys to utensils so when they visit Cuba they can give to family, neighbors, and anyone in need. Vidal has carried this attitude of helping his community with him.

These and other supports have allowed Vidal to adapt to American culture and quickly learn English, but also to maintain his Cuban identity and pride in his culture. 

“I think it’s important that you always be proud of your culture in any way you can,” he said. “But you also have to adapt to the new culture being brought in.” 

“Because if you don’t, then you’re constantly going to be at a point where you’re questioning your own identity.”

Contributing: Karly Page, a UHMP intern and Eckerd College junior.

Editor’s note: Fabiha Faruque is a junior at Miami Lakes Educational Center in Miami. She was a participant in the Urban Health Media Project’s fall 2020 workshop “Surviving and Thriving Despite Trauma,” which was funded by The National Council for Behavioral Health.