A TV RomCom, My Cuban Heritage, and Life as a Contradiction
How my life journey prepared me to be an innovator and change leader
I did not expect to open the door to my origin, culture, and pride at the Savannah College of Art and Design aTV Fest in Atlanta. As part of this festival celebrating television arts, science, and design, I was able to attend a sneak preview screening of The Baker and the Beauty, an ABC TV romantic comedy-drama centered around a Cuban family.
As I sat in the dark theater watching the pilot episode, I was quickly drawn into the celebration of Cuban-American culture. (Oh, the food!) The show centers on a middle-class family that owns and operates a bakery in Miami’s Little Havana (Atlanta’s own Buena Gente Bakery made some of the pastelitos in the pilot). The family is happy, supportive, and without (much) scandal. (It is TV, after all. Some drama must take place).
The pilot was fun to watch. More than that, it made me proud.
As part of the screening, the cast came on stage to talk about the show. They were a diverse mix of Latin nationalities, ranging from Cuban to Venezuelan, to Puerto Rican, and more. The actors who played the Mom and Dad are television veterans who talked about how proud they were that their characters were not stereotypical, like many of the roles they had played over the years. The “Beauty,” Peruvian-Australian actress Nathalie Kelley, is an Australian on the show. Hers is a beautiful perceived contradiction that works and one I identify with.
The Making of a Cultural Contradiction
I am Cuban-American, born in Havana. My family joined over 250,000 other Cubans in a unique immigration program called the Freedom Flights that took place between 1965–1973. I was 11 months old when we immigrated to the United States. After spending a few years in Miami, we moved to Denver, where we established our life of freedom.
From early on, I felt like a contradiction. I was born into Communism but before I was a toddler I was living in a Democracy. We were immigrants who moved from the tropical island of Cuba to the mountains of Colorado. I spent the early part of my childhood in Denver, speaking English all day at school and Spanish at night with my grandmother, who did not speak English.
After 8 years, my family moved back to Florida. Even though I had kept my Spanish-speaking heritage alive at home, moving back to a more Latin culture made me feel like I did not fit in…again.
I had come full circle. I’d been a Cuban immigrant trying to find belonging in a very ‘American’ environment in Colorado to feeling like an outsider with families that looked similar to mine back in Florida. I was so focused on managing the feeling that I was an outsider trying to be an insider that I didn’t recognize I was becoming a complex combination of cultures and influences.
As a young person, I created narratives to fit in. I feared that being “different” was a sure way to not be accepted or embraced. Now I recognize that how I think and behave, and what motivates me is rooted in the conflicts I experienced growing up. Being a contradiction has expanded to include my professional identity. My expansive corporate experience is balanced by a constant desire to challenge norms and break the predictability of large companies. It has inspired me to challenge the status quo and has made me confusion tolerant. It is a central reason why I explore innovation, innovators, and how these leaders embrace conflict.
Embracing Authentic Cultural Contradictions
As I’ve matured as a person, a Cuban-American, and a professional, my confidence has grown. I’ve learned to proudly embrace the contradictions that make me who I am. And maybe that’s why, almost 50 years after immigrating from Cuba, I connected with and related to the Cuban-American family on this fictitious show. Their story helped me to embrace my own Cuban origins, and find a sense of identity and pride.
The show centered around a relationship some would say is contradictory and therefore impossible (Cuban and Australian, super-wealthy and middle-class, celebrity and non-celebrity). Their relationship is made possible through conflict and persistence. Perhaps the show resonated because of how it featured diversity and perceived contradictory relationships as normal, or because of the authenticity of the people and the reality they were acting.
The show was canceled and that is a shame. It is sad because it was the only show featuring a Latin cast on a major network. It is sad because the show depicted a family with my heritage as normal. It is sad because it showed that complexity is common and contradiction can be embraced. It is also sad because it was a good show that my wife and I enjoyed watching together….and I am normally not a “rom-com drama” guy!
I am grateful that in the short time it was on, the show empowered me to be me and to show my mixed nationality kids that being a blend of backgrounds is a wonderful thing. Yes, I am a Cuban immigrant and my Spanish is SO rusty. Yes, I absolutely love Cuban food and I love a good burger as well. I want to continue to teach my kids the beautiful tapestry of distinct Latin cultures and nationalities.
I love being a contradiction…a fusion…unexpected. It lets me pivot, surprise, and be unexpected. It proves that existing norms do not matter and possibilities are endless. Creating unexpected collisions and connections can open up unlikely possibilities. It lets me be a provocateur and a catalyst, which is at the foundation of helping people companies be innovative and achieve greatness.