Cuba on my mind

Omens and premonitions about my homeland have been tap-tapping on my mind, and also on my heart, for the past several weeks. They want attention, resolution.

On Saturday night Stew and I walked through the kiosks of the annual Festival of Cuban Culture in San Miguel’s main square. The wares were generally predictable and sad: Dusty books about arcane topics, overpriced cigars, junk posing as arts and crafts, videos and also recordings of Cuban dance tunes, the latter, as usual, attracting a few discreetly swaying young Mexican couples. As an export, dance music is to Cuba what bourbon is to Kentucky.

I always try to greet one of the guys manning the kiosks, ask him what part of the island he’s from, and flash a knowing “hey we’re both Cuban!”-kind of grin. On Saturday, the man from whom I bought a DVD about Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam, was in his fifties and had thick, gray wavy hair combed straight back, and large green eyes. He was from Havana and gave me a cordial nod and smile when I told him I was from Santa Clara.

Hey, we’re buddies! Not quite. It’s all my imagination.

For about a month I’ve also been reading a biography of William McKinley, who was president when the Maine blew up in Havana’s harbor, which led to the Spanish-American War, the ousting of Spain from the island and the debut of the U.S. as a world power. It was a story central to our history lessons in Cuban grammar school though I never could quite decide if the island really had been liberated or just changed hands from one imperial power to another.

Two weeks ago a friend who came over for dinner studied a framed collage containing my old Cuban passport–in its picture I look like a dorky13-year-old with immense brown eyes–along with my Pan American Airlines ticket stub and baggage claim when I came from Havana to Miami. The one-way ticket cost $25 dollars, and the date was February 8, 1962. Fifty years ago almost to the day. How could I miss the golden anniversary of my arrival to the U.S. of A.?

A far less subtle omen has been Stew, who’s been lobbying for a trip to Cuba for months, it seems. He can be as persistent as a woodpecker who keeps at it until the tree topples over.

In Southern Florida, briefly the home of Elián González and for 53 years the headquarters of the Perpetual Anti-Castro Action League, going to Cuba is akin to treason unless perhaps to attend a funeral.

My dad punctually cussed Fidel and his mama every morning, like an ancient sunrise ritual, until he died a few years ago at age 94. Any mention of anyone going to Cuba just to travel and check out the joint would set him to angry stammering.

But that’s not the reason I haven’t visited Cuba before, except for a too-brief trip in 1998 when the newspaper I worked for sent me for a few days to cover the pope’s historic visit.

I never lived in Southern Florida for any length of time or were infected by the political passions that wrench the gut of Cuban exile community (less so every day as old-timers just pass away).

I’m not a communist, Castroist or socialist, mind you. I just don’t react with the fury expected of a Cuban exile at the sight of Cuba’s official government newspaper, or Ché Guevara’s picture on a wall of the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City. The Spanish embassy no doubt has picture of the king and queen and of the Alhambra.  I figure that’s how embassies fill wall space.

Portrait of the artist as young man, ca. 1956

Yet as far removed from Miami and Americanized as I have become, Cuba has never left my mind. No matter how many other things occur to me, Cuba remains a gauzy backdrop to my life, constantly inviting me to take a peek behind it, confront fears and resolve, or at least put to rest, unresolved questions.

Following me as I’ve moved around the U.S. during the past 50 years have been boxes labelled “Cuba,” containing the expected family photographs but also postage stamps, posters, a gym tee-shirt from fifth grade, and a diary I wrote during the final days of 1958, when Ché Guevara and other revolutionaries were attacking Santa Clara, a battle that ultimately toppled the Batista dictatorship. The diary is written in a labored, almost childish, handwriting, and illustrated with drawings having to do with Christmas. I sound delighted when the revolutionaries finally win on New Year’s Day.

This haphazard collection of Cubanalia by all rights should have been fatally misplaced some time ago but instead has followed me like a puppy wagging its tail, begging “look at me, I want attention, you need to sort this out.”

I became a U.S. citizen in 1970 and travel with an American passport, except in Cuba. Cuba doesn’t recognize U.S. naturalization or citizenship, and insists that all Cubans born in the island visit with a Cuban passport. It’s as if Cuban citizenship is as immutable and irreversible as circumcision.

Stew and I have traveled quite a bit, and our travels typically are preceded by excitement and chaos. We may pack so much that it looks as if we’re part of Liza Minnelli’s Twelfth Farewell Tour. Or we may just pack a camera bag, jeans and some underwear and wonder at our destination what happened to the toothbrushes.

But for me this trip is a constantly changing mix of excitement and trepidation. I’ve fussed over details like I’ve never done before any other trip.

My former home in Santa Clara holds some good memories of my dad building me a bench for my chemistry set, and of my various dogs, cats and the parrot. But it’s also like a civil war battleground: My last couple of years there witnessed my parents’ scorched-earth divorce, with me, an only child, bounced between the two sides like a volleyball.

My family was not remotely rich–more like members of a wobbly middle-class–but even then the government took all they had: my mother’s job, my dad’s small print shop, the house and everything in it, the 1954 Chevy, that prized possession. Even the damn parrot disappeared one day.

By the time I left, the old neighborhood looked as if it had been hit by a neutron bomb. The real estate remained standing alright but most living beings, our friends and neighbors, were gone.

What will I feel at the sight of the old ‘hood, no doubt looking more alien and forlorn now, after 50 years?

I plan to visit the Catholic school I attended, right up to the American equivalent of seventh grade. The building is still there, I checked in 1998, a formidable three-story, corner edifice painted a pukey shade of pink that had never been refurbished by the glorious revolutionary government. The large, wooden jalousie windows were rotting or gone altogether, leaving gaping holes that invited the tropical rains to blow in and ruin our desks, with our notebooks and pencils neatly tucked underneath.

Though some of the classmates are still in Santa Clara–the son of one of them is going to drive us around the island–others, perhaps the majority, have ended up abroad, in Miami, Spain, Honduras and me in Mexico. A few have died.

A classmate who lives near Atlanta has methodically documented the diaspora, though some classmates haven’t been heard from or don’t want to participate in any nostalgia-fueled census. I’m doing some research of my own to track down other survivors when I’m in Santa Clara though I wonder: What will we want talk about once I find them?

The fact that Stew, “mi compañero“–my partner–of nearly 40 years, will accompany me will confirm the suspicions of some of my former classmates who, by the fifth grade, already had tagged me as the class fag and made me the target of endless bullying. I don’t remember myself as particularly effeminate but rather timid, keep-to-myself type, which in some minds meant–quite accurately it turns out–“queer” or maricón.

Yet this maricón left and did quite well, while some of his tormentors–I remember one in particular–got stuck in Cuba condemned to live through decades of grim Soviet colonialism, the horrific “Special Period” after the end of the multi-billion Eastern bloc subsidies, and generally to lead lives that haven’t gone anywhere. Or maybe they have.

Our stop in Cienfuegos, a city on the southern coast of Cuba, will involve tracking down the only cousin I have left in the island and making arrangements to bury my mother’s ashes in the family plot, if such a thing still exists. If Stew and I don’t find my cousin or the family plot, I’ll just scatter her ashes over the sea.

The other two stops, Havana and the colonial city of Trinidad, near Cienfuegos, will be purely for touristing and taking photos. We’ll be staying and eating in people’s homes, “casas particulares,” which should give us more of a taste for life in Cuba than one gets at overpriced government hotels, particularly if my “Hey, we are all Cubans!” cordiality works and I can fire up some good conversations.

Despite all the questions and what-ifs, excitement and curiosity are gradually overtaking my fears. Stew, for one, acts like we’re  going to the moon. I hope he packs properly.

12 thoughts on “Cuba on my mind

  1. Anonymous

    reading this brought memories and tears to my eyes. september 17th will be my golden anniversary. how well i remember the sound of the pan am propellors. i still have my passort but that and a little wicker purse are all i have in addition to a few photos. i love your picture. i've always hoped to go back someday, but it will be a ways off yet, probably not until after my husband retires in 4 years. thanks for the memories al.i can't wait to hear all about your trip.teresa in nagoya


  2. Thanks for the interesting post. As a graduate of Coral Gables (Florida) High School in 1974, I went to four years of school with a lot of Cuban classmates who went through experiences very similar to yours. Your story reminds me of many of the things I heard about being a kid in Cuba in the late 50's and early 60's, and about families being uprooted. It's not my story, but the story of some friends I had during my youth, so in a way it brings back, well, if not memories, at least an atmosphere.I hope you find what you're looking for on your trip. Please post about it.


  3. Going to Cuba from Japan would be quite a trek but try to get there soon. I always worry about what mayhem could happen after the regime changes and all those Cubans in Miami return and try to re-take the place. alfredo


  4. A libertarian Salvation Army worker. There was a bit of tension. But I completed my mission. I would gladly return. I even thought of living there. But there were — complications, shall we say.


  5. My wife, Ellen, and I visited Cuba in March 2003. Great trip — we were mostly in old Havana (govt hotel), but spent time in Ceinfuegos and Trinidad. Our trip was a “cultural-exchange” trip under the sponsorship of the Mass. Cultural Council. I have often said, I would like to go again. Was friended by a wonderful cab driver — invited us to his home to meet his family (we did) — who lived near the town of Trinidad. I was at time embarrassed being driven around in government Mercedes AC'd buses while we passed people in mule drawn carts on the road. I'm sure the govt control over everything is more tolerant than nine years ago.


  6. I was there in 98 covering the visit of the Pope but I stayed at government hotels and really didn't get to have any conversations with folks on the ground. I hope to make up for that this time


  7. You're going at a time when things have changed some, but the final product is not yet in place. I went to the Soviet Union in August and Sept. 1988. At one of the Cultural House meetings I attended in Moscow, I was grilled for an hour by university students asking me how does one buy stocks. Looking up at the portrait of Lenin in front of me, I realized change was underway. It was an interesting time.


  8. Our trip has been postponed three weeks due to a bureaucratic mixup but I'm still looking forward to it. I've read that Cuba is drifting toward the China model of capitalism, but they've been saying that for a long time and nothing concrete happens. In 1988 thing must have been reaching the boiling point in the ol'


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