A first-generation Cuban, I grew up feeling that my family had been Cuban for generations. Some years ago, a Cuban friend of mine, upon meeting my mother, asked me about her accent. “What accent?” I asked in surprise. Sure, I had grown up with stuffed grape leaves alongside plátanos chatinos, but our soul had never been anything but Cuban. My mother, like my father, was a Sephardi Jew from Turkey. She was so “Cuban” in my eyes that it had never occurred to me that she spoke Spanish with an accent.
Of a Sephardi family, she had come to Cuba when she was around ten and had adopted Cuba as her homeland. Likewise, my father had come to Cuba during World War I and had become totally “Cubanized.” Rarely did my parents speak of Turkey, for it didn’t hold fond memories for them. Although Turkey had been home to Sephardi Jews for centuries, it had never been a welcoming place for them. A resolution to survive compelled my father and my uncle to leave Turkey at the start of World War I. The Turks had been known to place young Jewish men in the front lines, and my father and uncle were not prepared to die. They set out on a ship for the United States, but at its long stopover in La Habana, they had so fallen in love with the friendly people, the beauty, the warmth, and the similarity of Spanish to Ladino that they had decided to make Cuba their home.
As my father passed through the immigration line, he even gained the “Cubanized” last name of “Levis.” Apparently, the immigration officer had not been able to read his papers clearly and had mistaken the name “Levy” for “Levis”; this was only the symbolic beginning of my father’s attachment to Cuba. For my mother’s family, it had also been a question of survival. Opportunities for jobs and business had not been rampant for the Jews, and so my maternal grandfather had set out for Cuba with dreams of financial success. When he had saved enough money, he sent for his family. And so, the Cuban roots for both my parents had been planted….
— “My Cuban Story,” Ester Levis Levine, in Taking Root (2002)