Because I was born in Cuba, many friends, colleagues and acquaintances—oh, so very carefully!—have asked me about my views on the recent normalization of diplomatic relations with, in JFK’s words, “that imprisoned island.” Normally I don’t like to talk about Cuba (although I have written extensively about it) unless the listener is willing to hear the rest of the story. Most people do not have the time (unless they are good friends) or the inclination to sit through it.
I have no patience with inquirers whose only interest in Cuba is cigars, hotels, and baseball players. Conversations between Cubans about Cuba usually degenerate into an exchange of impassioned monologues, which end up in loud shouting matches that break up gatherings in lasting clouds of bitterness.
Above all, I quickly grow to detest non-Cubans who have visited the island in tourist junkets or for academic conferences, and who insist on telling me all they learned about my native country during their short stay, to bring me up to date.
I left Cuba in 1961, with my mother and sister, when I was 7 years old (my father had left several months before). All of our extended family remained behind until years after. Contrary to the experience of many Cubans, we did not settle in Miami, but rather in Puerto Rico. My upbringing—such as it is—is Puerto Rican. I am married to a Puerto Rican, and our oldest daughter was born in Puerto Rico. When I think of going “home,” I do not think of going back to Cuba; I think rather of returning to the generous people and the gorgeous landscape of that other Caribbean island that sheltered us in our time of need.
My knowledge of Cuba is based on the following: 1) the memories of a 7-year-old, mostly restricted to two houses belonging to my grandparents, my primary school (St. George’s School, where the instruction was in English), fragmented images of the city of Havana, and memories of the Revolution during its early period; 2) a patient, tireless and sedulous listening over many years to the memories and remembrances of Cuban exiles about Cuba; 3) a lifetime of study of Cuban history, politics, and especially, Cuban arts and literature.
Does that make me Cuban? Most people outside of Cuba seem to think so. One of the tragedies of the Cuban Revolution (Americans please take note!) is that it deliberately raised the question: who are the real Cubans? As if national identity, cultural heritage, emotional attachments and even family relationships could be determined strictly on the basis of political leanings.
Part of early childhood education in Cuba consisted in memorizing poetry from José Martí’s Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses). Martí (1853-1898) was the Apostle of Cuban Independence, one of the first modernist Latin American poets, and was and will remain (“with all and for the good of all”) the guiding soul of Cuba:
I Have a White Rose to Tend (Verse XXXIX)
I have a white rose to tend
In July as in January;
I give it to the true friend
Who offers his frank hand to me.
And for the cruel one whose blows
Break the heart by which I live,
Thistle nor thorn do I give:
For him, too, I have a white rose.
(Translated by Manuel A. Tellechea)
Like Antigone arguing the sacredness of blood ties in the face of Creon’s political expediency, and following Martí, who did not refuse to extend to any Cuban—even his enemies—the title of “brother,” I have borrowed the title of Jack Gelber’s play (The Cuban Thing) for the title of this post.
The Cuban experience—even in the days of Martí, an exile most of his life—includes that of both island dwellers and exiles. The entire story must wait for another time, when I can speak it or write it better. But in the meantime, in answer to those who genuinely want to know something about it, I offer the following inadequate, fragmented list of observations:
(to be continued)