“My husband was six when his family left Cuba. They made his mother strip naked in the airport in front of them before they left. He remembers that, seeing his mother naked in the airport in front of guards.”
I’m talking on the phone to a friend of mine whom I haven’t spoken to in a few years. Her husband is in his late 50s/early 60s; she’s in her late 40s. I’d told her about my recent trip to Cuba, about how special it was, when she mentioned her husband was Cuban. Did I know that?
“No,” I said.
“He hates Cuba,” she finished.
July 5, 2014.
I’m in the city square of Santiago, Cuba, eating lunch at the Casa Grande Hotel on the verandah, with my new friend Jeane, an American samba dancer who lives and gigs in Los Angeles. By luck of the draw, we ended up roommates on this 16-day dance immersion trip, and we happen to enjoy each other’s company immensely and travel well together.
Across from us sits Spanish conquistador and imperialisto primero Diego Velazquez’s house–the original house, not a replica. Velasquez stole Cuba from its native people in the 1500s, conquering, enslaving them, and then becoming Governor. To my right stretches the blue-and-white Old Town Hall, famous as the site of Fidel Castro’s first speech after the Revolution on January 1, 1959, two years before America severed its ties to punish Cuba and the Castros for the Revolution, for bedding with Russia, and for general defiance. Such were the rules of the Cold War. The great Catholic church completes the city square, a buttercream colored colonial monolith crowned with a rampant angel. Her dark figure screams against the Caribbean-blue sky.
Jeane and I have no way of knowing in this moment that we will be the last iteration of Americans to experience Cuba under the embargo. In this moment, we are alive in the only land forbidden to U.S. tourists, intoxicated with son and salsa and the palpable thrum of humanity’s complicated and extraordinary colonial collision on this sacred island, this island of Oshun. Jeane and I are uninitiated but claimed daughters of Oshun, one of the most respected deities who traveled with slaves from Africa. She is the rivers, the springs, beauty, motherhood, a protector of children and the voice to calm wild energies. According to Santeria, Oshun represents everything about life worth living. African slaves brought to Cuba syncretized Oshun with Our Lady of Charity, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, also called by a more familiar name: the Blessed Virgin Mary.
She is the patron saint of Cuba.
“It’s a shame,” Jeane says. “Most Americans will never know this. It makes no sense that we can’t come here like we’d go anywhere else in the world.” I nod. “This.” What is “this”? But I know what Jeane means: the electrified feeling of being on this land, of being excited with the ritmo of Oshun’s people, of the welcome silence from the frantic manufacture of images and marketing and device-driven communication that characterizes our lives in America.
Jeane and I feel Cuba as literally as we feel each other’s presence. She holds us like a mother to lost children, and we both sense a difficult-to-describe homecoming on this land. Cuba has a metaphysical mind, an electro-magnetic charge carried in the exchange between the people and the music and dance, through the waters. That energetic channel is wide open. Everybody I know who’s been to Cuba tries to speak of what it’s like to receive this phenomenon, but mostly how it comes out is something like: “Cuba is special.”
“I love it here,” I say. “I don’t understand my feelings.”
Jeane nods. What else is there to say?
“This picture here is of Papa in Cuba, his favorite place on earth. He wrote seven novels here on his estate Finca Vigia, and he loved Cuba, fishing in Cuba, and the Cuban people so much they considered him one of them. When Castro came to power, he seized Hemingway’s holdings in the country as property of the people, taking Finca Vigia and robbing Hemingway of his Cuban home. Hemingway was so devastated by the loss of his property in Cuba that he fell into a dark depression from which he never recovered. Soon after, Hemingway took his life in Ketchum, Idaho on July 2, 1961, with a single shot from a double-barreled shotgun.”
Andy and I are on a tour of Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, two weeks before my lunch with Jeane in Santiago, and the local actor/guide leads us through the rooms, pausing before the significant objects to relate the seemingly endless thrilling tales about the great manly-man character that is the alcoholic, prophetic mess known as Papa Hemingway. As a kid, I watched Old Man and the Sea when it ran on Sundays on our local TV station. Even as a first-grader, I got wrecked on that damn story every time Spencer Tracy lifted the shark-eaten body of the prize marlin from the side of his boat in the final scenes.
I will experience a similar feeling of hopeless desperation as I watch Obama’s announcement of renewed relations with Cuba, the rhetoric spooling out the same worthless lines of exporting “our values” and our business interests for the sake of making better lives for “the Cuban people.” We’re finally bringing the great prize marlin of democracy to poor Communists. Except it never works like that, economic and political ambitions. The sharks find the live body tied to that boat of freedom, as they have in our own country. It’s easy pickings, and it’s an arrangement that has consequences “for the people.”
I don’t even know what “American values” means anymore when regular folks speak it, so empty that phrase has become in the last few generations. However, I do know what it means, these words “American values,” as appropriated by our corrupt national political system, and a lot of people I care about still live in a bubble-headed denial that “American values” are something else other than a set of rules created by men to rationalize why, in the final analysis, the economy will be more important than human dignity. Instructing other cultures in American values appears akin to advising American families to adopt the values of reality television. We appear free, yet when you peer into our lives, millions of us are slaves to debt and economic fear that will drive our decisions about our quality of life for the foreseeable generations.
After watching Obama’s speech—and I actually like this misunderstood President–I want to tell Cuba,mi madre, mi Hermana: our political system does not always speak for our people. I say this because I do not know what is really getting ready to happen to your people, your untouched natural beauty, your sacred energy, now that the line has been cast in your waters.
I want to tell my Cuban sisters: men and women with money will come for your beautiful bodies to sell their products. You will be much more exciting to look at than the peeling, irrelevant billboards of young Che, young Fidel that keep selling a revolution. But your bodies will become inextricably linked with things, and you’ve got it tough enough, navigating your way through the oppression of machismo and poverty. You have many American sisters who love you, many of us who will support you in this change, whatever it means for you.
Later, during my research for this blog, I discover the tale about Finca Vigia is untrue. Hemingway’s mortal depression onset after plane crashes in Europe, and conflicting stories exist about how the Cuban government ended up in possession of the estate, though none of them involve an abrupt seizure of the property by revolutionary goons, Castros or otherwise.
The truth is not nearly as egotistically satisfying as a story-telling. So it goes with politics and its many attendant worlds of self-glorification that pass for reality. If, as a conscious, awake people, we continue to ignore the fact that we are all separate aspects of one species, and if we continue to ignore the necessity of spiritual truth in our rules of relationships—personal and international–then we will continue to manufacture our own slow destruction as fearful animals of war and possession, condemned to an unceasing confusion over our own dissatisfaction, whether we acknowledge that dissatisfaction or not.
Here’s a fact about Hemingway, the greatest literary icon shared by Cuba and America: in 1954, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature after publishing Old Man and the Sea. He took the prize to Santiago, Cuba, and left it at the feet of the statue in the La Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Cobre, Oshun’s shrine, as an offering to Her.
Seven years later, he blew his brains out all alone in Idaho. I wonder if Papa, given all his intuition, all his great capacity for love however fumblingly executed, had seen it, too: his Mother, stripped naked in front of the guards in a place where he could not hate.
It’s an instructive story for both governments, if they can find the spiritual truth in it.
Night night, beloveds. May you all sleep knowing we are one big, crazy family, there’s enough for everybody, we don’t have to be the same to be equal in God’s eyes, and there is a different way of seeing this story called life, if we want to.
And may you get to Cuba before WalMart and Starbucks.