April 5, 1998CUBAN ROOTS, CREATIVITY WERE GUIDES IN SEARCH FOR HIS IDENTITY By Deborah Ramirez When Xavier Cortada started college in 1982, a fraternity buddy mispronounced his name as “Cubaba.” Instead of getting angry, Cortada found his muse. The Miami artist opened his first one-man show at the Art Center/South Florida in Miami Beach on Saturday. The exhibit, called Cubaba, expresses Cortada’s theme: the search for identity. “America is my country, not Cuba,” said Cortada, who was born in Albany, N.Y., to Cuban immigrant parents. “But Cuba is my culture.” This reality was driven home in Cortada’s freshman year at the University of Miami in 1982. Until then, Cortada had lived a sheltered life in Miami, amid the Cuban exile culture. Cortada thought of himself as American with parents, grandparents, and neighbors who spoke another language. But at college, he felt he was in the minority for the first time. “For the first time in my life, I was going to school with blond kids from the Midwest. I felt like a foreigner,” he said. The experience was not entirely painful. Cortada became popular among his fellow non-Cuban students. The name Cubaba stuck. It was shortened to Cubi _ his nickname throughout college. “It was a time of growth and development, but also of introspection,” Cortada said. The introspection was about identity. Cortada struggled with who he was and how he fit into American society. In many ways, he personifies the first generation of Cuban-Americans who were born in the United States to exile parents. Cortada, 33, was born in Albany. His parents had left Cuba in 1960, married in Miami and moved North in search of work. They finally settled in Buffalo, N.Y. But after 2 1/2 years, the Cortadas could no longer bear the cold weather and snow. Like many exiles, they returned to Miami. Cortada grew up in Little Havana, where he lives and has an art studio. His childhood was filled with the dual identity that would later become the theme of his paintings. He was the flag boy at his Catholic elementary school. Every morning, he hoisted the American flag as his classmates, the children of exiles, sang the Star Spangled Banner and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. But the culture of Cuba, the chatter of Spanish, the smell of cafe cubano was never far. Every night, Cortada’s family went to Mass at Ermita de la Caridad, where they prayed in Spanish with a rosary and drank Cuban coffee after the service. “It was a very nurturing environment, but at the same time very claustrophobic. At the end of the day, you’re on your own to determine your own identity,” he said. Cortada’s search continued through college. He earned a graduate degree in public administration and completed law school. After graduation, he began work as director of the Juvenile Violence and Delinquency Prevention Program at the University of Miami. His job gave him a chance to travel to other countries to study juvenile justice systems. In his travels, Cortada found his artistic calling. His father and uncle were artists. He found himself communicating with youngsters from other countries through his drawings. Cortada began to paint about his dual worlds _ being Cuban and American. His art began to evolve. Cortada was among the first foreign artists to exhibit in Soweto after the end of apartheid in South Africa. Today, he is a full-time artist, who does consulting work for community groups. He is also involved in AIDS prevention.