I have been going back and forth between Cuba and the United States through my work as a professor leading students and People-to-People travel groups since the early 2000s. Last week, after 4 months directing Tulane’s fall semester abroad program in Havana, I returned home to New Orleans to the exciting announcement of restored US-Cuba diplomatic relations. What follows is a collection of vignettes invoking my experience of Cuba in 2014—a Cuba changing and poised on the edge of even greater change. I can’t narrate the story of this Cuba, only tell the fragments that she has revealed to me.
Table of Contents
- Son y Movimiento
- Trabajo y Dinero
- Políticas de Género
- Medios de Comunicación
I walk over the broken eggshells on the corner of E and 13 and wonder what paths Eleguá opened today?
Cuba is the daughter of Ochún. Be careful because the smile is a front for her to get what she needs by leading you astray.
I remind myself to keep my foreign gaze so as not fall into the routine of the Cuban experience. The street is a great spectacle of drama, comedy, and sometimes horror– alive with humanness and expression as is no other city I know.
Each trip to Cuba, I arrive to find another Cuban friend suelto por el mundo [let loose to the world].
People on the street are constantly asking me the time in order to figure out where I am from, not because there is somewhere they need to be.
Constant sizing up to try to figure out, what kind of foreigner are you?
When the students arrived at the University today, they found out that classes were cancelled because it is “The day of the student.”
To be reminded of the preciousness of a plastic bag or a pen…
The students bought hamsters for their room but I am pretty sure one of them is a mouse.
Learning to live and navigate another country is like being born again.
One of my first transformations upon arrival in Havana is walking at the slow, local pace. There is no rush to get anywhere because time is not a commodity.
Cuba’s tempo of tomorrow is counter time. Rather as if the chacha lo kafún [ceremonial step of the orishas] was to take over Miami.
My guitar teacher is always late to our classes because there is no máquina service from his house and the bus is never on time.
Getting official signatures: Closed for lunch. The secretary went to the doctor. He already left for the day. Come back tomorrow morning. She had some issues to resolve. The power is out. His mother was sick. I don’t know where he is. He went to the bank but he might be back soon. Take a seat.
The repetition of daily events…
The melodrama of crumbling buildings alongside new businesses dressed up in 1950s décor, bringing the past back to life.
I wonder if they will make a museum out of the Riviera that depicts Meyer Lansky and the mafia years in Cuba before the hotel crumbles beyond repair.
There is a different kind of exceptionality in the Cuba post-Special Period, one that involves identifying with and meditating a peculiar sense of time.
History is an ongoing process that moves at accelerated revolutionary speeds.
“History will absolve me.” –Fidel
As I watch from the 18th floor, the storm clouds roll across the ocean and bathe Havana in its afternoon shower.
Mojito green, strawberry daiquiri red, guayabera white, cement grey, ocean turquoise, sky blue: the colors of Havana.
On my evening run along the malecón, I watch the man with the sad eyes who is cradling the black doll in a blue dress and speaking gently to the sea. I wonder if Yemayá will show her kindness to his supplications?
Shades of sunset illuminate Havana from the malecón as the flag is folded to start the cañonazo ceremony.
Along the malecón, the turbulent sea, the salt air, and time erode the walls of the apartment buildings. Eroded but not vanquished.
A sea of white medical school jackets walking down San Lázaro to the Punta del Prado on November 27…
Tropical storm waves over the malecón.
Grateful for nature’s beauty when sitting in the lookout tower inside the castle of shells and sand in the Japanese garden of 1830 Restaurant… Watching the sunset over the malecón.
I almost stepped on the human shit in the middle of the malecón this morning.
The students laugh and take pictures of the fisherman blowing up condoms to use as floaters on their fishing lines. And the mother inflates another one for her child to play with like a balloon as she nibbles on peanuts.
From the luxurious pool of the Meliá Cohiba hotel, I can see both a girl hanging her laundry from a window of her tenement apartment building and the abandoned balconies of the Rivera hotel, former symbol of 1950’s mafia glory.
The abuelos meet at sunrise to gossip and to swim at the playita of 16th. Wearing shoes to protect their feet, they carefully step over the sleeping man to plunge their bodies into the ocean and swim along the coast of the malecón. Bart, the dog, stands guard for emergency.
The solar is a living organism.
Centro Habana, a glamorous 1950s shopping district, deprived of stock, now divided into barbacoas for families to stack up generations… Buildings change the structures of their interiors in accordance to their new uses.
Centro Havana, most densely populated municipality, where personal lives spill into public spaces… The two mothers dressed in bathrobes stand gossiping while they watch their children play with toy cars in the street.
Two children in school uniforms chase chicks between the billowing sheets of laundry hung on lines across the patio under the watchful eye of the man fixing the red high heel shoe. Someone yells, “¡Hasta cuando!” [Until when!] from inside the solar with the Industriales sign over the door.
The park smells of grass, freshly cut by the old man with a machete. The young boy laughs as his father teaches him to ride a bike around the waterless fountain that now serves as the field for the neighborhood children to play soccer. I think of sitting and watching from the bench beside the bust of Jose Martí, but find all the wooden boards have been stolen. There is nothing left but the frame.
I like to try to imagine what lovers are whispering into each other’s ears as they sit folded together on benches along Prado.
At the Taller Experimental de Gráfica in la Chorrera we break for lunch and J. leads me into a solar on the corner and into someone’s kitchen, where the workers in Habana Vieja make lines for lunch. The sweet woman serves up a tasty plate of pollo con congris for 1 CUC that rivals any of the paladares that are being pushed on the foreigners below.
The pastel de guayaba.
Turquoise, blue, purple, and pink enliven the facades of crumbling Vedado. Laundry billows from the windows.
“Se Vende” reads the sign beside the pile of rubble that was once an apartment building on the corner of B and 5th St.
The Iwayós, dressed in white, hide from moonbeams under their umbrellas as I walk to the theater soaking in the full moon.
Havana fashion represents the hustling and ingenuity between Europe and the New World. Tropical interpretations of zoot suits meet santería. The brighter the better. Lycra and rhinestones die hard.
How long will the unfortunate yonki mohawks be in fashion?
In the living room at the santero house, the saints are whispering in the babalao’s ear. On one side of the living room is the altar for the orishás. We sit down on the other side of the room on the couch below a framed pin-up of a half-naked woman wearing underwear and heels who is lounging on a motorcycle.
Green and yellow bracelets of mano de Orula…
The students are allowed into the back room to watch the babalao feed coco to the santos on Y’s 18th birthday as the daughter of Oyá.
October 4th, Orulá’s birthday. The sound of batá comes out of unexpected corners. The dulceria is all out of dulces. The woman sitting in the sidecar of the scooter is carrying a cake decorated with the Cuban flag and the woman getting into the collective taxi beside me can’t stand up for so much rum.
We pull up to photograph the apartment building across the street from the US Interest Section. “You want to take pictures here? I could lose my job.” And the car drives off and leaves us on the corner, not even accepting payment.
Today’s máquina was a shockless 1953 Buick tank. It’s like riding in a Flintstones cartoon.
Tattoo sleeve on the arm out the window of today’s yellow máquina driver.
We are riding in a 1952 Ford Customline, but the motor is a Toyota. The Virgen of Charity sits proudly on the dashboard protecting our journey.
There was a colt running the highway alongside our Transtur bus outside of Bayamo.
The police officers excitedly stopped our bus on the way from Baracoa to Santiago and asked the driver if he had seen a dead cow beside the road. (There had been a hit and run and they were searching for the culprit.) The policeman jumped on the bus to be taken to the nearest town to get back-up. His partner tried to come aboard, too, with a group of prisoners, but the bus driver refused since we were full of yuma.
We are following the tracks of the old filmmakers, chasing yesterday as we re-film “Tempo of Tomorrow.” The project is like a scavenger hunt across Cuba, through time backwards and forwards; past, present, and future overlap.
The Kurhotel Escambray sits out of place in the cool air and green mountains of the Tope de los Collantes National Park. Dreamt up by Batista in the 1930s, now the ex-military come here for homeopathic medicine and relaxation and to walk the grounds in tracksuits.
Observing architecture in Havana is like observing nostalgia for worlds that were abruptly ended.
Photographs of decaying buildings are politicized evidence of Havana stuck in time. Image has always been necessary for the Imperial project. But how do you photograph the Cuban experience when every image requires a caption about what is visible and what is missing? The foreign and the Cuban gaze collide.
The camera lens is focused on the changes taking place in Cuba?
Ciego de Ávila
Ciego de Ávila, the city of porches, where we can walk the whole historic center protected from the rain and the contradictory beauty and despair of decrepit buildings and crumbling staircases that lead to home.
Camagüey has narrow streets that keep out pirates and large buses. The tourists line up for bike taxi tours. All streets lead to a church. Ileana Sánchez found an original 18th century fresco on her wall when she chipped away at old paint to expand her studio. Tiny ballerinas in black leotards, their hair tied up in yellow bows, file out of the crumbling yellow building and double up on bikes with their mothers to ride home for dinner. The smell of maduros fritos at 6 pm drift out of open doorways in the narrow streets of Camaguey. The slow pace of the countryside…
The Conjunto Santiaguero blares out of the speakers and is projected on the screen above El Encanto Department Store; the smell of fried chicken and oil drifts from the street vendors; the chess players hover over their tables in the park beside Heredia Street as shoppers saunter to and fro.
The women sit embroidering detailed guayaberas and sun dresses at the Quitrin.
The students ask if they will get lice by putting on the helmet to ride the collective moto taxis around Santiago.
Climb the Padre Pico steps to the Tivoli neighborhood and wind through the hilly streets that look down over the Bay. A grandfather is teaching his two grandchildren to ride a bike but their feet don’t quite reach the pedals. Neighbors are playing dominoes on the street corner to catch a breeze; the students are invited into a living room to dance salsa played loudly on a stereo. I sit to have a Bucanero as the Tivoli Son Band rehearses for their show at Casa de las Tradiciones.
The students question the giant penis coming out of the Monumento del Cimarrón [Monument to the Runaway Slave] looking over El Cobre copper mines. There are flowers and bones left at the statue’s ngangá. We seek out the Eleguás hidden in the woods. Art creates ritual and ritual creates art.
Alberto Lescay is expanding his studio and he leans over and whispers that the back door with the beautiful stained glass transom is the escape route for the cimarrón. “How many children do you have?” I ask L, “As of right now I have 7 but I haven’t shut down the factory yet.”
Rafael brings us through the living room where his grandmother is watching the Brazilian novela “Paraíso Tropical.” We go under the sheet that divides the living room from his bedroom. He pulls out a needle, anesthesia, and an assortment of studs for D’s lip piercing.
Curves over la Farola and fog over el Yunque as we make our way to Baracoa.
We order chocolate in la Casa del Chocolate but they are all out.
Local legend has it that if you take a bath in the Rio Miel you will always return to Baracoa.
S. hasn’t shaved since arriving in Cuba. In Baracoa people call him Pelú, like the crazy unshaven man of local legend who is supposed to bring misfortune. They keep steering him towards the barbershop.
Our flight out of Baracoa was delayed because there are no lights on the landing strip so the incoming flight had to land in Santiago. We must wind the 5 hours down the Farola in the dark.
Son y Movimiento
Sitting under the flamboyanes on the patio of the Conjunto Nacional and listening to the rumba in the Palenque… Eight Oyás spin their skirts with the winds of the cemetery.
At 8:30 am the park comes alive with viejos in black pants and white tops gracefully practicing tai chi.
The sound of 50 voices singing “Para su ayo omo niala guana omonianama keke ayo é” as we run lines of dancing Eleguá in Baile Folklórico…
“Listen to me so that you can learn the step correctly,” said the dance teacher to the Cuban student ogling the German student instead of paying attention. “Then you can teach it to the yuma. Be careful; if you don’t pay attention, then the yuma will be dancing better than you. And then how will you catch a yuma in the Palenque?” The Baile Folklórico class (which costs 30 MN [$1.25] for 4 months) erupts into giggles.
“You have to brush the floor with each step,” says the dance teacher explaining Eleguá’s step. He says to correct me, “I know that in your country you all don’t have to scrub your shoes with toothbrushes, but here we do. So pretend like you are scrubbing.”
R, who sings with the Coro Folklórico Nacional, improvised amazing verses to “Chan Chan” as I strummed the new chords on the guitar. “Stop strumming like a yuma. Where is your cubaneo?” she says.
What music is the soundtrack to your Havana?
At the outdoor concert in El Sauce a packed crowd of Cubans grind their hips to the harmonious sounds of the seventeen Los Van Van musicians playing their souls out into the night.
With the breeze from the rocking chair on the second floor balcony, I listen to the music of the man selling brooms harmonize with the woman selling crackers up and down Calle E.
The New Jersey school bus decorated by Pastors for Peace drives the dancers of the Ballet Nacional Cubano home after rehearsal.
The tambor has begun in thanks to Yemayá and Ochún for saving Marta from her injuries incurred when a neighbor put on a spell of brujería.
Rap group Obsesión organizes a Saturday party for the elderly in Centro Habana so that they can have a space to “dance, socialize, and be relevant” [bailar, socializar, y ser relevantes].
Los Aldeanos sing, “A La Habana ya no aguanto más, se acabó el querer.” [I can’t stand Havana anymore, I have fallen out of love.]
Rain, lightening, and thunder smashes as Síntesis sings to the orishas at Casa del Alba.
At the Peña del Ambia at the UNEAC, the percussion that got everyone on their feet was made out of armoire drawers.
The craziness of my days here seems worth it when in the evenings I can go to see the National Ballet of Cuba, the American Ballet, the New York City Ballet, the Chinese Ballet, and the Stuttgart Ballet all for the equivalent of 50 cents.
Dozens of young jazz musicians improvise on stage at the Jardines del Mella as part of JoJazz [Jóvenes Jazz] Festival, which sounds like jóias [jewels]. The electricity goes off but they keep playing even louder and even funkier in the pitch-blackness.
The rumba dancer on stage at Muñequitos de Matanzas used a pañuelo [handkerchief] with an American flag to prepare his vacunao.
Danza Contemporánea performed “Identidad-1,” a choreographed dance by George Céspedes imagining the story of Cuban cultural exchanges and dance genres if the cubaneo were to be replaced by robotic repetition. The Indian dance critic behind me didn’t understand, saying loudly to her friends that the piece didn’t say anything. Understanding Cuba means perceiving subtle cultural movements.
She spent intermission telling her Cuban guide that he should acknowledge that the government is controlling him while he held his breath to keep from bursting.
Francisco used to dance abakuá but lost his leg to diabetes. Now he sits at the park outside of my house and greets me every evening with a promise to take me out dancing to a Disco Temba party for senior citizens.
Welcome to Cuba! “Se fue la luz” [The lights went out] and your room is on the 18th floor.
“Tengo fé en el mejoramiento humano, en la vida futura, en la utilidad de la virtud.” [I have faith in human advancement, in times to come, and in the utility of virtue.] José Martí
Words spoken in the rhythm of son…
Exasperated visitor storms out of the registration line for the film festival saying, “Why is it that in Cuba they seem to want to complicate everything?”
Daynaris tells me to go change my clothes because I am wearing all black on the Día de Santa Bárbara (Changó).
“Are ruins really shame?” asks S.
“Pero amar y ser feliz es algo,” says the graffiti at Línea and Calle G. And I wonder if the voice is spraying out despair over having nothing material or happiness for having the company of others. And I think to myself that scarcity reveals the secret to a good life.
“Step exactly where I step,” says E as I follow her across the crumbling balcony to her home. Who is responsible for ruins in the hallway?
“La gente vive como puede, no como quiere.” [The people live as they can, not how they want.]
Y. tried to shove her wallet into her disheveled bag and then said, “Wait a minute, let me do this the way white people do,” as she organized the clutter.
Cuba is “orden con relajo” writes Damián Fernández.
“Quién no tiene de Congo, tiene de Carabalí.”
“Sueño con papas” [I dream of potatoes], says A. “What I wouldn’t give to eat a potato right now.”
“If they made t-shirts here like they did in New York for every time there was a blackout, I would have all the pullovers I need,” says Ale with a laugh. “Blackout at 2pm. Blackout at 6pm…”
I stand in the park on Neptuno and San Lázaro. “¡Celia!” I yell up to the 8th floor apartment. Celia leans out the window and throws down the keys to open the door because the buzzer is broken. “¡Doctora, traigo jamón!” [Doctor, I have ham!], yells the vendor. “Should I come up?”
M’s godmother in santería made her hacerse Oyá because she had never had an Oyá as an ahijada, even though the caracoles said that M. was the daughter of Ochún. “¡Que trabajo pasé para Oyá asumirse a la cabeza!” [What difficult times I went through for Oyá to assume her position on my head], M. says, as she tells me about her misfortunes for being initiated as the daughter of the wrong orisha.
“De dos en dos, las maracas se adelantan al yanqui para decirle: ¿Cómo está usted, señor?” [Two by two, the maracas move toward the Yankee to say, How are you, Sir?] – Nicolás Guillén
Luis, who once guarded the Hershey sugarcane factory when it was in its heyday, now guards its ruins. He chats with me to pass the time. “Life in Cuba is not easy. $300 pesos isn’t much to live on. It is a shame to think about how beautiful this place used to be.” And as we wander around the factory he warns, “Don’t walk too close because it could collapse at any moment.” And I think about how the collapse of Hershey somehow makes this place levitate in our camera’s gaze.
We had steak for lunch. “Where did you get that?” M. asks. “Don’t ask so many questions,” says Ivo. “En Cuba nada se puede y todo se hace.” [In Cuba you can’t do anything and you do everything.]
“Los cubanos son pegajosos.” [Cubans are sticky.]
“Estoy complicada”=I am busy.
“Todo mundo se busca solución al problema. Estamos acostumbrados a pasar problema.” [Everyone searches for solutions to their problems. We are used to getting through problems.]
Day 2 in Havana: “Get out at Parque Central and wait for the rest of the group there. Don’t trust anyone,” I said on their first trip in the máquinas. José Martí points and laughs at me from Parque Central and tension builds as the men argue baseball at the Esquina Caliente and I wait for my students who don’t arrive. One hour later and 25CUCs lighter, they crawl back to me embarrassed, my pollitos led astray by the young man who promised to take them to a salsa festival that never was. It’s a good first lesson.
The students can’t get into the Artes y Letras building without a carnet and the facultad is out of carnet paper. The solution is to forge UH ID cards at the corner computer printing business and get the secretary to give me the official stamp so that my students can get to class this semester.
“Suave pa que se te de,” says Angel when I come home exasperated after another trip to immigration without receiving the student’s carnets. And I think how the Special Period has made sexuality and violence daily expressions for dealing with daily struggle.
The preciousness of water: Carrying bucket by bucket up the crumbling steps to fill the barrels outside Y’s apartment.
The Arquitecto del Barrio from the Ministerio de la Vivienda who was supposed to fix the hole in the hallway of E’s solar moved to the United States.
When winter comes, the waves break over the wall of the malecón and take away our evening lounging spot.
Seems as if all the 12-seat micros in Havana are broken…
The Cuban bureaucracy is a Kafkaesque machine.
I have to leave the house with Plan A, B, and C and consider the day a success when I complete one of them.
Mercedes fell through the floor of her rotten barbacoa onto the kitchen counter. Then, she dusted herself off, left the barbacoa in the sink, and went to work cleaning the house of the Colombian woman from UNESCO. Just as she does every morning.
D’s frantic phone call, “I don’t know what happened, but L. slipped and fell and there is blood everywhere. Come quick!” And I arrive to hold L’s hand as the doctor tells me, “Hay que luchar por la juventud,” as she meticulously ties 30 stitches to save the skin that had been sliced off L’s knee when she slipped on the mopped floors.
And the woman in the high heels is taking the passport with the paper to be signed into the next door and from there it is a mystery. We wait. And we wait. And we wait some more. “Chicas, no vale la pena coger lucha.” I tell them as I slump back dejected in the waiting room. And I put on that smile that by appearances means all is under control.
As both Brazilian and mulatto, Leo can pass as Cuban by his looks. ¿Quién es el hombre de color? , asks the highway patrol who pulls over our purple Customline 1952 Ford. They take him out of the car for questioning and check his passport and documents while Josh and I, who are clandestinely filming in Cuba, are never questioned. White is not always the color of innocence.
“You have to take advantage of the beach, the art, and the avocado when in season,” says A. in his explanation about how to deal with the difficulties of daily Cuban reality.
Ivo taught me to make tea with onion skins and dandelion to cure A’s cold.
When the rest of the world runs out of natural resources, Cuba will have learned how to make steaks out of marabú.
Josh forgot the charger for his camera back in the US. We walk onto the porch of Cellandia and ask, “Does anyone know anything about electronics?” R. gets to work trying to make us a new charger, testing the voltage with his tongue.
Y. can’t replace his stolen drivers’ license because the office is all out of stamps.
You can only get a t-shirt for Marhabana [marathon race] if you paid to participate as a foreigner or if you qualified in the race last year. T-shirts are rationed.
Registering 3,000 participants for Marhabana by hand, the old fashioned way. I wait in line for the woman from INDER to write down my name and my carnet number. Days later I will return for my race number but they can’t find the paper where they had written down my name.
Wear a guayabera and you will be dressed for any occasion.
A piece of metal protruded out of the seat of the collective taxi and tore a hole in my guayabera. The seamstress at the Quitrin in Havana Vieja shuffled me into the bathroom and instructed me to hold the door shut so no one would see me shirtless while she took my favorite shirt to her sewing machine, and using tailoring and problem-solving skills, magically repaired the hole in under 2 minutes.
H. calls to tell me that her carnet was pickpocketed and wants to know what scam the pickpocket was trying to pull when she broke into the bathroom and started chatting with D. as she squatted over the toilet. Hours in immigration paperwork await me.
S. broke his leg trying to jump down on the rocks of the malecón so that he could find a private place to hook up with his girlfriend.
Students arrive angry after waiting all day outside the professor’s office because she didn’t show up to class again and it is the last day for foreign students to take their final exams.
In order to leave the country, International Relations has asked us to turn in our carnets so that they can take them to immigration to be hole-punched. Making that hole is a 3-day process. Didn’t Cuba do away with exit permits? Can’t I just buy a hole-puncher?
Major crises of Tulane in Cuba semester: 2 physical assaults, 1 fall from a 20-foot ledge (luckily into water causing minor bruising), 1 fall resulting in 30 stitches in the knee, 1 fall resulting in leg and ankle break in 3 different locations, 1 dislocated shoulder, 2 stolen carnets, 2 deceased parents, 1 deceased best friend, 1 parent in the hospital in critical condition, 2 food poisonings, 2 allergic reactions needing cortisone injections, 1 crazy sub-letter back home who will not pay my last month’s rent.
Trabajo y Dinero
“Sueña que no cuesta nada.” [Dream because it doesn’t cost you anything.]
Inventos Cubanos! [Cuban Inventions]
In the voice of a praying monk, Pedro Luis Ferrer and his audience repeat, “The people pretend to work and the state pretends to pay.”
The onion costs 75 pesos and the average state monthly salary is 500 pesos.
M. can’t retire from her secretarial job at the University because then she wouldn’t find students to fill her casa particular.
L. wanted to buy E’s father a drink to celebrate their new friendship. Unknowingly to L., the bartender and E’s father split the commission on his $8 mojito.
I ask to see the menu at the paladar and look the waiter in the eye while inquiring if this is the menu with or without commission.
Writing receipts because no one gives me one…
I make a reservation for the students to go snorkeling and Chirino insists on giving me the commission in hopes that I will bring another group to Punta Perdiz. I buy the students lunch with the commission they were charged for being yuma in Cuba.
We live in function of our infrastructure. The receipt for payment wasn’t prepared today because the power went out. Maybe tomorrow.
Cuba is a smileless customer service industry.
Always being aware of how much every fruit and vegetable costs at the agro…
It is beautiful to watch neighbors give to neighbors, but nothing is for free. As I listen to snippets of conversations down Línea, everyone is preoccupied with money, food, and getting what is theirs.
She came up to sell yogurt and cheese but she got a much better price for her body from the Canadian tourists renting the room next to me.
“How long have you been in Cuba?” asks T., one of the most important professors and researchers on race in Cuba. “I can’t believe that you have been here for two months and you haven’t invited me to give a talk! Do you want me to starve to death? You have lived here long enough to know that we don’t live off our salaries. I make $500 pesos cubanos a month. How am I supposed to eat if you don’t invite me to give a talk?”
R’s job is to watch the statue of Salvador Allende on the corner of Calle G and 17 where he earns $500 pesos a month, just like Professor T. at the University of Havana. “When I leave for Chile there are going to be people fighting to take my job,” says R. “Statue watching gives you plenty of time to ‘resolver los problemas de la vida.’”
Listening to the Beatles used to be prohibited. Now there is a statue of John Lennon in the park in front of the Yellow Submarine and a statue watcher because people are always trying to steal his eyeglasses.
The owners of the garage on 3ra y C turned it into a private fast food restaurant with the signage modeled after Burger King.
“Why do foreigners think they need so much toilet paper? All you need is one square. The toilet paper está perdido for a month and I have to get it from Julita’s house and she is charging 3 times the cost!” says Ivo as she cleans the bathroom of her casa particular.
At the seamstress’s house in the solar across the street, the seamstress yells out the door for me to come back tomorrow because she is having diarrhea coming out like water.
“Cakes Ana María” is on the second floor of the bright pink building. No sign. Just walk through the door and past the quineañera pictures where the birthday girl poses wearing nothing but a scarf and take your position in line for the best cake in Havana.
At the Cajonera, the warehouse has now been subdivided into living spaces. As we arrive with our cameras, we are offered a photo assistant, gas for our car, cigars, percussion classes, and to hacerse el santo [to be initiated into santería]. Though no longer a place of trade, the neighborhood is ready to do business.
I hand the teller 40CUC and she dispenses a huge stack of CUP through the plastic partition.
“$ pa que me mantenga.” [$ so that I can maintain myself.]
The Colombians staying in the room next door ran out of money and couldn’t pay for their casa particular because all they had was a Citibank card.
Misconceptions of the US: “You can do anything you want in Cuba. If you want to go out and spend $600 every night you can do it, no problem,” says the taxi driver who wants to overcharge us for a ride home.
At the Monument to Celia Sanchéz in Parque Lenin, the old man poses as a tour guide to get a few pesos for his inaccurate historical analysis and I make up a fake phone call to help my students escape.
At N’s apartment, a woman makes her rounds with a bag of shirts, pants, and shoes for sale sent from her brother living in Portugal…
Y’s husband moves back in with his parents during the one-week a year when Y’s Canadian boyfriend comes to visit. How else would they pay the rent and keep money on their cell phones?
I stand with a huge stack of cash at the accounting office of the University of Havana. Fidel and Raúl stare down at me from the poster that reads, “La revolución pujante y victoriosa sigue adelante.” X. holds up a calculator through the bars of the payment window, “They prepared the issue of payment wrong, see? Sign here and on these other 10 copies. I don’t want anyone to think I stole the money.” And he starts counting, bill after bill and I start signing. The two young workers gossip on the lone black couch in the waiting room about how they would redecorate the office. It’s a blank slate. The line to get a receipt to process payment grows. The gossip distracts Y who reprimands them to return to work. He loses count and starts over. The student from Denmark walks in and asks where she should go and I point towards the line to get the receipt for the receipt to process the payment for her tuition.
Ivo picks the stale crackers out of the trash where the tourists discarded them. One of the most important lessons to be learned from Cubans is that everything has a use. She will mash them up to make croquetas.
“This is not a tourist experience. Do you see any tourists here?,” says the historian who mediates our contact with the “real” indigenous people of Nengón Kiribá. “They didn’t know that what they were doing was anything special until the teacher discovered them.” We are ordered to sit in the chairs strategically lined up for us to stare at the natives who will cook, sing, and dance for us. After it is over, they will go back to their lives as students, teachers, farmers, and artisans until the next tourist bus rolls up. This was the “real” Cuba.
The clave beat of son and changui ring out from the balcony of Casa de la Trova while the tourists sit and drink their mojitos. The jineteros wait below, dancing in place, hoping to catch a tourist looking for a late-night local tour of buildings and bodies on their way back to the hotel.
Candles, votive figures, and copper rocks are shoved into our hands as we approach El Santuario del Cobre. “It is a gift! Take it my friend!” they shout, in hopes of whatever small change they can get from the students.
Artisans walk back and forth all day, waiting for the moment that a tourist allows them to spread out their hand-cut wood boxes for viewing. These same artists hover in the background ready to cut down coconuts or bring chocolate and cucuruchos or perhaps even to give a coconut oil massage. I buy a wood cutting board, not because I want it, but because I’m made all too aware that the local economy depends on my presence. The little boy throws a rock at the bus as we slip out of town and the artisans mumble under their breath.
Does Baracoa really house the cross that Cristopher Columbus planted on the Americas? It is the holy grail of local tourism.
We meet Señor Fuentes #5, the campesino from the Lonely Planet Guidebook, who will take you to the Cueva del Agua. They should start making Lonely Planet ID cards in Baracoa.
“All the bald men look just alike,” says Ivo as she watches the street through the binoculars to see if she can find Angel. Maybe he stopped for fruta bomba in the market? Angel still hasn’t returned from immigration where he went to report and the tourist and his Cuban companion are ready to check out of the room. They chain smoke impatiently.
Yacht travelers are allowed to stay at port in Cuba for up to 3 days without a visa thanks to Hemingway’s sport fishing tournaments. At the Hemingway Marina posed beside a boat from Wilmington, NC: “You aren’t from the Interest Section, are you?” (It is illegal for Cubans to board a boat in Cuba unless they have a special license for taking tourists sport fishing.) Where do all these boats come from and where do they go?
As the foreigners get goodie bags for their participation in Marhabana, they pose beside a cardboard mascot of a tropical mulata wearing a fruit hat and Adidas running shoes.
“Easy on the door!” say the máquina drivers anytime a foreigner gets into the 1950s vintage taxis because delicate care is needed in closing the doors.
There are plans for a new Hotel Internacional of Varadero, but Lansky’s vision for 1950s resort-style Cuba keeps pouring all-inclusive drinks. How much cheap Santiago rum until the Hotel Internacional of Varadero has been revived to its former mafia glory?
The true magnificence of the Cuban beach resort experience is to watch the foreigners in their vacation haze shaking their rusty hips behind the dance coach during the exercise hour.
“I have a license to take you into Varadero, but not a license to take you out,” says our taxi driver. (There is a special license with higher taxes for taxi drivers working with tourists in Varadero.) “Walk over this bridge and past the security checkpoint and I’ll pick you up where the highway curves.” So we walk over the bridge, umbrellas to block the sun, taking pictures of the signage for the Literacy Brigade that trained young teachers at Varadero beach and eliminated illiteracy in 1961.
The road to the ruins of 19th century sugarcane plantations like Mañach Iznaga is paved with vendors selling embroidered sheets and guayaberas. “I got conned into buying a banana and a cricket made out of sugarcane fronds,” says the Canadian tourist as she finally emerges from the gauntlet.
There is a yellow line around the Plaza de la Revolución to mark where tourists are allowed to stand to take pictures of the martyrs of the Revolution. The guards keep watch and blow their whistles if we step outside the line.
The foreign voyeur finds his desires met by Cuba. There is a symbiotic relationship between foreigners and their host.
There is always a political rationale behind images produced for foreign consumption.
Cayo Coco: When the tourists eat at the buffet table at the Iberostar Resort of Cayo Coco they have no idea what food shortages Cubans find in the agro when they are bused two hours home from work. “I am so happy to be in Cuba!” say the Canadians in a drunken haze with their all-inclusive wristbands while watching the Michael Jackson impersonators on the pool stage.
A. won a bottle of rum last night by quickly changing clothes with a Canadian stranger during the nightly entertainment show.
J. returned to Cuba after 3 years and rented a car for his visit. He picks up as many hitchhikers as he can on the highway from Santa Clara to Havana. The trauma of living 29 years with poor transportation… He brings his parents on vacation to Havana and Varadero. His dad tells me that J. is now un hombre realizado [complete] because he is behind the wheel of a nice car going on a joyride along the malecón.
“Go to your room! My student is coming over!” I scold the drunk 50-year-old Spanish tourist and his naked Cuban lover sitting on my couch at 9 am. And to think that Cuba eradicated prostitution.
It is ironic that classic American cars are the symbol of revolutionary Cuba. A caravan of classic convertibles carrying tourists to the Meliá Cohiba hotel cruises down the malecón.
The Colombian tourist who came for Baila Cuba got conned into buying overpriced drinks in an empty bar as he naively trusted that the man he met on the street was leading him to a salsa festival.
Pillo Chocolate and his dog are professional costumers in Havana Vieja. If Pillo tells the dog that the tourists watching the act are Americans, then the little dog naughtily refuses to pose for the camera.
Am I like the tourists who come to take pictures of the living decay?
“Renta una fantasia,” says the coco taxi.
Políticas de Género
On the days that the catcalls on the streets are too exhausting, I decide to spend the rest of the day at home.
Y. thinks it is normal to go over to her stepfather’s house to cook and clean for him because he never learned to do it himself.
At Casa de la Música, a strange show of masculinity: Maykel Blanco sits in a chair onstage sipping a glass of wine while his band plays behind him. A male dancer from the crowd, dressed head to toe in Cuban athletic gear inspired by the Juegos Centroaméricanos y del Caribe, jumps on stage to perform abakuá and breakdancing moves while Maykel Blanco inspects him from his chair sending nods of approval. The male dance circles around Maykel’s attentive gaze.
“Don’t you like mulaticos feos” asks the micro-driver with a flirtatious smile.
“Necesito hablar con su superior” I say, so that I can get the boss to get the boss who finally gets the boss who will do something…
I stuck my hip out with attitude and told the old man asking A. for a kiss to, “Deja la mecánica y coje tu rumbo.” And he looks at me with a surprised face and saunters away.
“It is her fault for being strangled and his fault for stealing the woman,“ says the policeman as we fill out a report in the waiting room.” As if she was paid for merchandise… We all know who was the paying member of that relationship.
I covertly find out the address and phone number of the jinetero that the police wouldn’t deal with as he laid game on me from Yara to Calle G. “Que si te haces el guapo con uno de los míos, lo que te voy a formar es candela,” [If you mess with my job I mess with yours], I say to him with attitude. We shake hands to confirm he will stay away and then he disappears around the graffiti wall of Nelson Mandela.
At CENESEX (Centro de Educación de la Sexualidad) D. tries to explain why she thinks catcalling in the street is machista and the head research librarian responds, “Yes, those piropos in the street are the good side of our machismo. I will see if I can find you a list of them so that you can take them home with you to your country.”
“Chocolate is an aphrodisiac.” That must be why you can find so many 70-year old men with teenage Baracoans at La Terraza night club. They must all have eaten the chocolate.
“Please not again.” I think to myself as the 70-something man with a cane sits down right beside me in an almost empty movie theater at the Yara. I wait tensely until that moment when he unzips his pants to masturbate and I put on the guapería that I wasn’t born with but have learned for survival purposes and, say, “¡Oye niño, ¿no te da vergüenza sacar esa pinga tan chiquitica?!” The theater turns to look. I change seats. And the old man hobbles quickly out the back door. Just another day at the afternoon movie show.
A man with dick in hand chased them down the street again last night. What is the psychological reason for so much public masturbation in Havana?
J. loves the attention at the gay club. “Why don’t you girls like the catcalling you get on the streets?” he asks.
At the adult puppet show, “Charco Seco,” I am handed rainbow-colored anti-discrimination propaganda, condoms, and instructions for proper anal insertion. Cuba sure is doing something right.
“Fidel Te Queremos, Raúl Te Seguimos, Chávez Te Recordamos” [Fidel we love you, Raul we follow you, Chavez we remember you]
Ciudad Libertad and its barracks stand tall like a ghost town except for the laughter of children in their pioneer uniforms on their way to the schoolroom.
What does the poverty of resistance look like without war? The Special Period in times of Peace is the dignity of the quiet decay of infrastructure.
On 5th Avenue, there is a statue built in homage to the egg, the salva vida of many a Cuban family during the Special Period.
1950s Cuba showed tropical paradise turning into a tropical nightmare.
All that is left of the statue on G and 1st is the feet. What counterrevolutionary was removed from his immortality?
The caldosa at the CDR party on July 27th has the smoky flavor of hours over an open flame. The neighbors arrive with their plates and to-go containers and respond with a hardy “Viva la revolución” while rolling their eyes. And at the stroke of midnight we sing happy birthday to the revolution and the grandmothers and grandfathers fold up their chairs and take their plastic cups and plates home until the next time.
The Isaac Delgado concert was cancelled because Sunday, December 7 is Día de los Mártires and you can’t play music after 11pm.
December 8 is Día de los Derechos Humanos and the government organized a party in the square on Calzada and Calle D to cover up the madres en blanco who make laps in support of the freeing of political prisoners in Cuba.
José Martí, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos stare down at me at dusk as I walk through Plaza de la Revolución to flag an almendrón down Calle G. Havana is more than a city. It is a monumental dream.
What they fought to prevent happened anyway.
La Guarida is now a solar that Cubans can’t afford to enter.
Dilapidated buildings are the result of historic evolution. The structures of the Cuban nation are aging.
In a capitalist country all the socios would die of hunger.
“Che está liberando y ganando más batallas que nunca” [Che is liberating and winning more battles than ever], says the billboard in front of Calixto Garcia Hospital. Che sure has been busy postmortem.
The heroes have all become statues.
Every day when I walk past the National Office of Normalization [Oficina Nacional de la Normalización], I think of the scene in the movie La Muerte de un Beaurócrata where the uncle’s machine keeps spitting out busts of José Martí.
There are two rides working at the Parque Lenin. Families walk around eating popcorn and observing the rusting metal.
The adrenaline rush you get when getting onto “The Caterpillar” (La Oruga) mini-rollercoaster in Parque Lenin… It may not move fast, but there is real danger that it may fall off the track at any moment.
The psychological hunger of Cubans eating at a resort buffet.
All of Nuevo Vedado is out of power until 5pm today because Fábrica del Arte is doing some electric work. The clash between new private enterprises funded from abroad and Cuban neighborhoods begins.
Is Fábrica del Arte one of the first examples of Cuban cooperatives in the field of culture?
Tonight the theme of the nightly news show “Mesa Redonda” is the conflict between morality and legitimacy in Cuban society. Honesty is actually an expensive virtue. It is easy to be honest when you have everything that you need.
The comedian says, “Havana is like an onion, the more layers you peel back, the more you cry.” The audience bursts into laughter.
The first signs of creeping capitalism are the Bucanero mascot and his sexy dancers promoting beer at Casa de la Música.
The opening scene of Rascacielos by Jazz Vilá: If Cuban theater is the pulse of Cuban society it makes sense that there always seems to be someone on stage masturbating. It is also telling that it may be the first play promoting the small businesses that were the financers of its production. It’s virtually an advertisement for paladares StarBien and Catedral.
Behind every new small business is foreign capital.
We interview two students from California and New York studying at ELAM [Escuela Latinoaméricana de Medicina] and leave feeling as if we need more doctors in the US to practice preventative medicine. The living conditions at ELAM may be eleven students to a dorm room and rice and beans everyday, but med school means sacrifice no matter where you attend. At least ELAM doesn’t put a price tag on health.
I ask P. if she wants to come along to the march on November 27 in honor of the eight martyred medical students shot by Spanish firing squads in 1871. She says she had to spend her whole schooling being obligated to attend marches, receiving bad grades if she didn’t show up. She wishes me well on my adventure.
The tensed shoulders of the Cuban Americans in Terminal 2, arriving for their vaccination against nostalgia, for the part of themselves that they left behind. Or that left them behind. It’s unclear who abandoned whom.
After 3 years of living in the US, J. says that he no longer feels Cuban. But his father never tires of showing off the video of when J. was 11 singing on stage in his pioneer uniform for Fidel.
Medios de Comunicación
Informes [Reports]: the art of writing circles around what I really want to say.
Waiting passengers along Línea point their thumbs over their shoulders while others gesture forward to the oncoming 1950s Chevy collective taxis. Fluency is much more about interpreting gestures than language.
At the opening of the movie Contigo Ajo y Cebolla in the Chaplin, director Héctor Quintero, dressed all in white, comes on stage to present his movie with a sign that says “Viva el Cine Libre.”
“Reading is Sexy. Be prepared. Free Condoms. Si, son de afuera,” says the note attached to the empty basket at Cuba Libro bookstore.
It is Cuban character to crack jokes at their own shortcomings.
“Último,” I call to the blob of people waiting in line. And I mark my ground behind the old woman in the pink skirt sitting in the corner. “Último” says the man walking up and I raise my hand and give my último position to him and he gives it to her and on and on again.
I wonder if there will be Internet today?
The importance of a flash drive: You never know when someone will have music, film, or pdf versions of rare books to pass along.
Socialist slogans adorn city walls in an attempt to overwrite the city.
“El Bloqueo: Genocidio más largo de historia” [The Blockade: The longest genocide in history] reads the billboard in front of the Facultad de Artes y Letras.
Are billboards of socialist propaganda any different from billboards of consumer culture telling us what we should buy, what we should look like, and how we should behave?
Sitting at the bookstore, we are approached by the young producer of “Bikinis and Boardwalks,” who is working on a TV segment for an American audience about travel to Cuba. He wants to film us showing them around the beach and a cigar factory in Havana, “like any normal day,” he says. Poor planning by Indigo Films since OFAC doesn’t allow Americans to go to the beach or to cigar factories. I will not be showing my face on that TV show.
Cuba is the country of the future when it comes to managing resources. Y. gives three-year old M. a bath, brushes her teeth, and washes her face with one bucket of water.
How will we cross the street to sit along the malecón when the embargo ends and Havana fills with traffic?
Iconic presence. Nostalgic travellers.
Delírio Habanero. Restored to former glory. I feel as if I’m on South Beach.
D. asks, will new economic changes get rid of Cubans sharing with neighbors as the haves and the have-nots become more visible?
What is the strange alchemy that holds this place together?
Viewers do not get a picture of the present. It is the picture of the past that helps imagine what the present and future will be.
Each fall, the University of Havana organizes a talk with the family of the 5 heroes so we can write to our Congressmen and Senate to plead for the freedom of 5 Cuban spies caught in a political stalemate. What talk will we hear next year?
You want to know what will happen when they open up Cuba to foreigners? The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. And Cuba will shuffle all tourists to all-inclusives in Varadero or control them through entrance visas. They have had 50 years to think up a plan.
The US and Cuba announced the end to the embargo on the day of San Lázaro, Babalú-Aye in santería, the orisha of healing. Cubans take to the street on hands and knees in thanks. We all must heal.
“Hasta La Victoria Siempre” [Towards Victory Always]. –Fidel