I am old skool from the days when having a PC meant you had to build it, then write your own drivers. Even now I smile every time I hear a modem screech. I taught myself everything I know about computers and technology. The first computer I ever laid eyes on was an Apple IIe. I was dazzled as I whittled away hours programming lines and lines of code just so I could see a flashlight flash once or twice on screen using LOGO. It was love at first sight.
I grew up in the back woods of rural Cuba running around half naked or riding bareback on a horse. We had three TV channels all of which were jam packed with black and white propaganda and Russian claymation. We planted all of our food, milked cows and eating meat meant you had to kill the animal with your bare hands. It was an idyllic existence for the most part thanks to my parents who did their best to insulate me from the brain-washing clutches of communism. “You are an individual,” was drilled into my brain at a very early age by a concerned father who was hell bent on escaping the system. The last thing he needed was his little girl becoming “a daughter of the revolution.”
I grew up without the buzzing influx of American pop culture. My only exposure came during weekends when my dad would take me to see a movie in Habana or when the weather cooperated to bring us glimpses of the Incredible Hulk on our scratchy television. I didn’t listen to radio or music. In short, I grew up in a void.
Instead of the Cosby Show and Arnold, my head was filled with the valorous tales of the Olympian gods, stories of imps and witches, fantasy and science fiction. My dad spent hours reading to me and telling me stories, camping, pointing out stars, teaching me how to bike, skate, play baseball and cliff dive. I was a total tom boy. All of my cousins were male and my dad raised me to compete, thrive and conquer. He taught me to eschew doubt and embrace confidence. He believed in me and in turn I grew up believing in myself. This was invaluable.
In this tiny microcosm of indulgent wisdom, my imagination flourished. I didn’t need fancy toys and all the expensive things kids grow up with. I didn’t have toys growing up I had to craft them and find ways of entertaining myself. We made bows and arrows, darts, traps. I would run around in the orchards imagining I could talk to the plants. I think I still can. I never played with dolls, never had the urge to play house or be a “mommy.” I was a wild creature, a warrior galloping on her horse, picking wild flowers and swimming in the river. I was free.
As the process to leave Cuba ramped up, my idyllic world was turned upside down. A dark wave of stress washed over all of our interactions until fear became a tangible monster. I spent time in a concentration camp (Mariel) waiting for a boat that never came. I got terribly sick. I will never forget the stench as crowded bathrooms overflowed to the lawn, as people clamored to pack the boats that would leave to Florida. I was half awake. My father was desperate and in the end he was told he could not take me. If he wanted to go he’d have to leave me behind, I was, after-all, the daughter of the revolution. Dismayed, my family returned home and I was glad.
Eventually (and this is a long story perhaps for another day) we got visas. The military flooded our house and took all of our belongings. We were humiliated and called worms for leaving la patria (the motherland). I still remember the look of fear and despair on my grandmother’s face as the car taking us to the airport rolled out of our farm. We were leaving but my grandparents who had practically raised me were left behind. This was the legacy of Cuban families, I later learned.
We landed in the US on January 22, 1984 during a terrible blizzard after having lived for six months in Costa Rica.
I was nine.
The life I had known, was changed forever. I didn’t know the language, had no friends and was relegated to a tiny room. I had effectively lost my freedom. I didn’t realize then that I had gained freedom too. I missed my home, the verdant fields, the sunny climes, the ocean.
I was a stranger in a strange land–a circle in a square world of rules and regulations, crime, rudeness. Everyone in school called me names and criticized my handed-down clothing. Slowly, I became angry, depressed, withdrawn. My dad was working three jobs and he barely spent time with me. The father I had so looked up to, who showed me stars and told me stories became a jaded man–stressed and irritable. My mom became pregnant with my brother and tension built up in the household until we resembled a pound of rabid dogs. I escaped into my own world, the world I had so carefully crafted when I was younger and held onto it fiercely. I needed the magic.
I learned English in three months. I have always been bright. I threw myself into my studies. I saw this as the only way to rise above the noise. It soon became clear I had creative gifts: Writing, composing poetry, art. I dove into them. I kept reading, researching, building myself up intellectually. I was fascinated with knowledge and I soaked it up effortlessly. I was becoming what the world would later term a book worm/nerd/geek. The list goes on.
In high school I discovered Dungeons and Dragons and it changed my life. I met people who were creative like me, on the fringe, who sat around and told fantastic tales. I fell in love with the game. It was through D&D that I met every single man I have ever gone out with. I find this fact amusing. Role playing filled the part of me that sought to escape–my natural ability to visualize making it that much more compelling.
It is no wonder, looking back that I fell in love with gaming. I gobbled up all kinds of games from arcade Street Fighter where I could be the dexterous Vega to board games like Shogun. Along with gaming came an interest in computing. Unlike the other kids, I didn’t have a computer until my last year in high school (1993). I wrote my assignments on paper, time and time again to correct mistakes. We were poor and couldn’t justify the purchase of a word processor.
When the Packard Bell arrived and I was stoked. It was Christmas. That day changed my existence. I dove into that hulking gray box and lost myself completely. I connected with technology with a passion unsurpassed by anything else up until that time. I have no idea why, but I found the whole thing fascinating. I soon downloaded and installed graphics software and took my art digital. I taught myself Aldus Photostyler, Illustrator and later Photoshop. I learned HTML, played games and stayed up all night on the PC. Needless to say, my parents were furious.
The love affair never ended. I dove deeper and deeper. I joined BBS’s, read Wired, subscribed to Byte and 2600. I taught myself more and more design. I learned to upgrade, write drivers, build PC’s. I went to computer shows. I found myself connecting with gamers and geeks. I was in love with technology. Seriously. When I got a 14.4K modem I nearly wet my pants. Wow.
I launched my first online site in 1996 and I’ve been publishing on the web since. I went to college for film but eventually got a job doing design. It was my calling even though I was self taught. The foundations of my creativity never left me; they simply coalesced and became more sophisticated. My sensibilities as an artist have grown and flourished but I have never forgotten my humble and wondrous beginnings in a land that sometimes feels very far away.
To this day my dad is my hero. He taught me to strive; to believe in myself and to pursue my passions. He taught me that magic is real and that dreams, no matter how difficult, do come true. And that–right there– is the very best gift he could have ever give me.