Bridges to Cuba: Special two-volume issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review
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When Michigan Quarterly Review editor Laurence A. Goldstein asked me to become Chair of the Editorial Board, I suggested we do a special issue about Cuba. He immediately liked the idea of taking a fresh look at a country that North Americans used to know so well before the Cold War. I began to make plans for an issue about "Bridges to Cuba" with the aim of creating a forum for the voices of those Cubans who are seeking to form connections across the borders of the Cold War between Cuba and the United States. Wanting this to be an interdisciplinary project, I invited my colleague Juan Leon, a fellow Cuban-American who teaches in the English Department, to co-edit the volume with me. We sent out a Call for Submissions for the magazine in the spring of 1992. The project quickly blossomed into a double issue as we received a lively array of personal essays, poetry, fiction, art, photography, interviews, and scholarly pieces on Cuban culture, history, art, theater, film, and literature. The special issues are scheduled to appear in June and September of 1994. The University of Michigan Press has already expressed interest in reprinting the two special issues in a book form. I also hope to produce a Spanish-language edition to be presented in Cuba and made widely available in Spain and Latin America.
The authors and artists participating in "Bridges to Cuba" will present the most comprehensive and diverse testimony ever assembled of how Cubans on the island and in the diaspora understand their situation in this very significant decade of Cuba-U.S. relations. The two-issue magazine will celebrate the informal networks that Cubans in the United States and in Cuba have maintained through artistic, academic, family, and other ties that have been maintained despite the longtime official political split between the two countries. Cuba is just one island in the Caribbean, yet its cultural predicaments reflect global issues of identity politics, immigration, exile, and the search for new understandings of nationalities and homeland.
From the introduction by Ruth Behar:
Once upon a time, Cuba was such a common place of the United States' imagination that it was included in maps of Florida. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and Fidel Castro's declaration that Cuba would be resculpted as a communist nation, the United States sent the island into exile. A blockade was imposed, cutting off communication with Cuba, fallen from grace into the arms of the enemy, the Soviet Union. Cuba, in turn, accepted the blockade as the price of independence. Suddenly, inexorably, a hundred years of connections between Cuba and the United States were severed. Cuba became, in the words of U.S. policy analyst Mario Lazo, "a dagger in the heart" of this country.
Lately, that dagger has lost its edge, its ability to wound, even its precise location on the map. A filmmaker from the island, visiting in 1993, told me that when he was introduced to a medical doctor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the doctor remarked, "Oh, so you're from Cuba? Nice to meet you. I lived in Nepal for five years." Stunned by this surrealistic encounter, the filmmaker didn't know what to reply. The doctor was suggesting that Cuba and Nepal were somehow related to each other. And maybe they are. The longest ninety miles separate the tip of Florida from the island of Cuba. Cuba, it seems, now borders on Nepal.
Only the United States could erase Cuba from its map of the world. Cuba tried but never could manage to erase the United States from its map. The fact is that Cuba and its diaspora are always defined within a U.S. framework, on the right and the left. Indeed, after the Revolution the nation split apart precisely between those who stayed, to live with their backs turned against the great power to the North, and those who left and took refuge in the belly of the beast. The powerful and unyielding groups within the Cuban American exile lobby—that not only refuses any kind of contact with the contemporary island, but frequently uses violence to terrorize any Cuban Americans seeking to forge connections-could not exist without tacit U.S. support. Other players within the North American left, in seeking to highlight the inhumane aspects of the blockade and provide unequivocal support for Cuba's right to self-determination, sometimes impose its own hardline about what can or cannot be said about Cuba, unwittingly closing off possibilities for constructive debates.
Cuba, since the Revolution, has been imagined as either a utopia or a backward police state. Cuba, viewed with utopian eyes, is a defiant little island that has dared to step on the toes of a great superpower, and dreamed ambitiously of undoing the legacy of poverty, inequality, and unfulfilled revolutions that have plagued Latin America and the Caribbean. Alternately, as newspaper headlines in the U.S. media like to declare, Cuba is "an island of lost souls," a place where "huddled masses yearn for the comforts of life" and will sacrifice everything to leave, plunging into the "deadly sea of dreams" as balseros (raft people), or Cuban "wetbacks." Within this conflicting web of representations born of the Cold War, there is little room for a more nuanced and complex vision of how Cubans on the island and in the diaspora give meaning to their lives, their identity, and their culture in the aftermath of a battle that has split the nation at the root.
This special double issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review, comprising both the summer and fall numbers, grew out of the conviction that there is another map of Cuba, a map crosscut with contradictory desires and yet luminous, like our cover art by Nereida Garcia Ferraz. The enthusiasm and support of Cubans from artists and intellectuals, as well as the quantity and quality of manuscripts and artworks that found their way to the office of MQR, exceeded our wildest expectations and convinced us that a great many original, brave, exciting, and compassionate Cuban voices, inside and outside the island, had yet to be heard. What had been planned as one special issue on Cuba expanded into two. The quilt kept growing. News of the project spread by word of mouth, here as well as in Cuba. As the chorus of voices and visions accumulated, it became clear that there is an immense need for a forum such as this, in which Cubans can openly define themselves, and dismantle, once and for all, the hurtful stereotypes of the islander as a brainwashed cog of a Marxist states, and the immigrant as a soulless worm lacking any concern for social justice. Without being deluded about the failings of their respective societies, the participants affirm, in voices that are earnest, angry, witty, and hopeful, that it is possible, and necessary, to go beyond the polarizations of Cold War thinking.
With the Berlin Wall ground to dust, the Soviet Union dissolved, and the United States trade embargo against Vietnam recently lifted, the Cold War would seem to be over. Yet even in the midst of so many global shifts, where U.S.-Cuba relations are concerned, the war is still quite hot. For the last thirty-five years, while North Americans have been unable to vacation on the island that was once their backyard, this heat has consumed Cuban life on both sides of the ocean wall. Our tables, clothes, and flesh, as poet Victor Fowler Calzada writes, are covered with burn marks. Nothing lost will comeback with the rain, but many of us now long for the cleansing waters of mutual understanding and forgiveness.
"Bridges to Cuba" is a meeting place, an open letter, a castle in the sand, an imaginary homeland. It is a space for reconciliation, imaginative speculation, and renewal. It is a first-time event. "Diaspora, like death, interrupts all conversation, "writes Jorge Luis Arcos from the island. After being "enemies," it isn't easy to trust one another. But conversations can be begun again. Walls can be turned on their sides, so they become bridges. It is possible to resurrect ourselves. As Jesus Barquet writes from this side, "Let's think of the bridges peace could bring to us."
Bridges to Cuba have been attempted before, most notably in the 1970s. There was a moment of euphoria in 1978 when it seemed as though "the dialogue," involving 140 Cubans living outside the island and the government of Cuba, would heal the divided nation. Cuba immediately began the family reunification program, recognizing the right of all Cubans living abroad to visit their homeland. By 1979,100,000 Cubans residing in the United States had returned to Cuba for one-week visits with their families. Our suitcases were full of goods that were scarce or nonexistent in Cuba. Even those of us who sympathized with the accomplishments of the Revolution had not sweated out its hardships. The return of la comunidad, as Cubans living outside the island came to be called, unloosed repressed desires among many of those who had stayed. The storming of the Peruvian embassy in Havana in 1980 by Cubans demanding political asylum drove a wedge through the romance of "the dialogue." It led to the Mariel boatlift and the departure of 125,000 Cubans, even more than had returned to visit from the United States a year before. Among the "Marielitos" were many gay men who, along with others that left in 1980, were dubbed the scum of the Revolution by the Castro regime in a sad effort to save face.
After Mariel, Cuba closed up once more like a clam to those of us who left. The nation continued divided, even more divided than before. Only through informal networks have family, artistic, and academic ties been maintained. During the last few months, travel between the United States and Cuba has become somewhat easier, but it is still the case that visas to enter either country are rarely given until a day or two before one's departure date. According to U.S. law, only those who have family in Cuba, or are going there to do research or journalism, may travel to Cuba. According to Cuban law, anyone born in Cuba, even if "naturalized" elsewhere, must return with a Cuban passport. For me, that passport, which might be seen as a ploy to extract revenues from those who have left, settled a lot of my postmodern doubts about multiple, inauthentic, and shifting identities. I was born in Cuba, so I'm Cuban, and that's it, case closed.
In the midst of the stand-off between Cuba and the United States, the Marazul ticket counter at the Miami airport has turned into our borderland. It is a theater of the absurd, where the concern for things takes on obsessive dimensions. The forty-four pound limit on baggage is strictly enforced and every suitcase and carry-on bag going to Cuba gets weighed. Women have taken to wearing several layers of clothing and putting hats on their heads crammed with costume jewelry. On their backs they carry stuffed Panda bears, around their waists they tie rings of sausage. Their huge plastic bags brim with bottles of aspirin, enough for an eternity of headaches. At the grass roots, rigid categories like communist or capitalist cease to be relevant. It is there that the wall is bridged daily.
We associate nostalgia with the Cuban American exile sensibility of Miami. But on the island there is also nostalgia. In his play "Pearl of the Sea," a scene of which we've included in the first volume. Abilio Estevez speaks of wanting to go "in search of the Island...to find it once more past the line of shadows of rhetoric and confusion." He describes his work as a play that would like to be a ritual or an invocation. It is, in the end, "an act of faith" about the desire for a common language of memory and culture that will reconstruct "the Island of all Cubans, of every time and place." One of the most poignant characters in his play is Mercedes The Unsatisfied, who exclaims, "I cannot remember being born anywhere. I search and search, but there is no street in my memory." She describes memory as "that piece of old cake without salt or sugar." Yet the absence of memory, she realizes, is hunger.
Remembering is, indeed, the key theme of our issue, as it perhaps must be in any project focusing on the imagining of nationally and homeland. Perhaps that is why personal essays and poetry, both of which readily lend themselves to the exploration of memory's ambiguities, have played such an important role here. Jose, Kozer, for example, reflects on the absurdity of returning to the past in a poem. Emilio Bejel confronts the fact that he has no memory and must invent "a false book of false stories." Mirtha Quintanales writes about traveling in a cardboard box, haunted by "hands without prints" that glide over her body. Flora Gonzalez Mandri discovers that the Havana she knows is not built of true memories, but of the literary imaginings of Cuban poets and writers. And Rosa Lowinger, whose job as an art conservator is "to repair things," claims places like Trinidad that didn't form part of her parents' experience or memory, and in that process truly makes Cuba her own.
Eduardo Aparicio's photo-essay focuses his lens on the varied ways that Cubans have maintained their sense of identity. People are shown with things they've kept from the past, such as childhood passports, old photographs, and the map and flag of Cuba. But they are also shown remaking themselves in the present. There, too, is Cristina Riley-Lazo, no longer worried, like her grandfather Mario Lazo, about Cuba being a dagger in the heart of the United States.
NOTE: The Cuban Revolution and the Cold War have played such a major role in the way Cuba is represented that we sometimes forget that there is more to Cuba than its history since 1959. In the second volume of "Bridges to Cuba," we plan to cast a wider net on our exploration of Cuban culture, looking at diasporas of different times and places, the various new syncretisms, and the links that Cubans have established with diverse communities.