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In 'Cubanita,' a teen grapples with her roots

Cubanita, By Gaby Triana, HarperCollins Publishers, 195 pp., $15.99

Cubanita: ''a girl or woman of Cuban descent who embraces her culture."

That's not Isabel Diaz, the 17-year-old narrator in the new book, ''Cubanita."

This second novel by Miami native Gaby Triana explores the angst a teen faces as she comes to terms with her roots and with going away to college.

It's a book told from a teen's point of view about growing up in a bicultural world, specifically, Cuban and American. The author, a former school teacher, grew up in Miami to Cuban parents. She has said in interviews she always felt more comfortable speaking and writing English than Spanish, something many children of immigrants, no matter what nationality they are, can identify with.

While the book focuses on Isabel's cultural duality, the heart of the book is her relationship with her mother. More important, Triana explores the emotional umbilical cord that keeps so many adult Hispanics near their parents. It's her longing to be away on her own that makes Isabel realize who she really is and embrace where her family came from.

The book begins as Isabel, known as Isa to her family, prepares for her last summer in Miami before heading to UM -- the University of Michigan, not the University of Miami. Isabel's overprotective Cuban mother grows even more maternally suffocating as the summer unfolds.

Isabel breaks up with her high school sweetheart so she can have a clean start for her new college life, but her ex won't leave her alone. Neither will her mother.

Then Hurricane Andrew rolls into the Everglades summer camp where Isabel teaches art. But the Andrew that blows her away is a friendly cute guy, not the hurricane that devastated South Florida in 1992.

Isa begins dating Andrew, a 23-year-old student at the University of Miami. As she begins to fall for him, she learns the hard way that this Andrew, like the hurricane, is a dangerous one-hit wonder.

In the meantime, a sudden family illness forces Isabel to reevaluate her priorities and, perhaps, stay in Miami for college. It is then she realizes the sacrifices her grandparents and her parents made for a better life in the United States. Isabel also learns that even though she has never been to Cuba, it is an important part of her cultural DNA.

Triana writes the book in a fluid, conversational, in-your-face style. It's as if the teen character was in the room with you, gabbing about her experiences.

The author generously peppers humorous Spanish sayings throughout the book, but their meanings are clear. It's an easy and entertaining read, and the plot moves at a brisk pace, which will keep readers, even younger ones, hooked.

But it's the lively interaction between Isabel and her mother that resonates the most, making the surrounding boyfriend drama and looming freshman year in college take a back seat.

Isabel's mother often gives her advice as she prepares ''Kee-line pie," pokes her head into her bedroom to drop off laundry, or shops at the local Hispanic supermarket.

''I can tell she's trying real hard to stay out of my business, but she can't. Number one, she's a mom, and number two, because she's a Cuban mom," Triana writes. ''If she doesn't pester me to death about my life, they just might revoke her Cuban Mother License to Drive Daughters Away."

Any teenager, regardless of what flag their parents wave, could relate.

Johnny Diaz can be reached at

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