Culture and Change: Bridges to Cuba
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I first wrote about the idea of a bridge to Cuba in an op- ed essay that was published in The New York Times in December of 1992. Challenging the stereotype of the Cuban-American community as a monolith of fanatics obsessed with bringing down the Castro regime, I asserted that a second generation of Cuban Americans exists which wants to build bridges, not walls, between the United States and Cuba. I spoke out vociferously against the U.S. embargo, putting my neck on the exile community’s chopping block by calling for more bridges to Cuba, even with you-know-who still in power. At the same time, fearing I might burn the very bridge I was trying to stand on, and having been told by The New York Times that an op-ed essay on Cuba had to take a stand on Him, I strained to be polite, saying we needed to go beyond the Castro fixation and create cultural and emotional ties among all Cuban people. Already, from that first attempt to speak of bridges, I see myself caught in the impossible juggling act of trying to quedar bien (be on good terms) with both Miami and Cuba, and suspecting that, despite my good intentions, Im going to quedar mal (be on bad terms) with everybody.
As my article hit the newsstands, I was in Miami, waiting for a visa which had been promised that would allow me to go to Cuba to begin doing research. With my pro-Cuba credentials in print, I romantically assumed the visa would come through with few hassles. But after spending two weeks in Miami calling the Cuban Interests Section in Washington every day, I gave up. Stuffing my New York Times op-ed essay into my suitcase to return to Michigan, I felt the sting of rejection and wondered whether I was embarking on the worst kind of folly — longing for a bridge that was destined to drift like a raft in the ocean.
The bridge to Cuba, I came to realize, is always going to be shaky as long as the current political stalemate continues. In addition to the U.S. embargo against Cuba, there are many other blockades to overcome. If youre Cuban-born, the Cuban government puts you through a trial by fire before you even reach the island. You must prove your commitment. Show your patience. Your determination. Cubans in the United States have needed, until recently, to obtain a Cuban passport to visit Cuba. Even if you left Cuba as a child, this special “gusano“ passport is required; you need to pay your dues for not having sweated out the revolution. Over the years Cuba has opened and then all too abruptly closed its doors to many of us in the diaspora. Those Cuban-American intellectuals and artists who become too outspoken, who try to articulate a critique from within, are quietly denied visas to do research or attend conferences. And those from the inside who’ve joined the diaspora in recent years are viewed with the greatest of scorn; their return is unthinkable, especially if they settle in the United States.
Then there is the blockade imposed by certain sectors of the Cuban exile community, which view any involvement with the island, even family visits, as a collaboration that helps Fidel Castro stay in power. Finally, most painfully, there is the internalized blockade, the silencing that takes place on all sides and ends up eating away at those of us who, despite the odds, continue to believe in bridges. Indeed, the 1992 Americas Watch reports for both Cuban Miami and Havana reveal that human rights are curtailed on both sides. Sadly, neither of our Cubas, capitalist or communist, island or diaspora, is an open space a country where one can speak freely and without fear.
It was my yearning for such an open space that led me to edit two special issues of the Michigan Quarterly Review on “Bridges to Cuba,” which were published in the summer and fall of 1994. The large number of submissions we received and the excitement that the “Bridges” volumes have sparked suggests that many Cuban intellectuals and artists of the second generation, on both sides, are searching for other ways of telling the Cuban story; a telling that speaks with compassion, mercy, and the end of blame. This second generation of Cuba’s revolutionary children includes those who came to the United States at a young age, those who have defected from Cuba in recent years, and those who have chosen to remain on the island, attempting to define cultural spaces not complicit with state power. What unites this generation is their irreverent understanding that the power structures of both the Cuban state and the exile community are really two sides of the same coin. By refusing to engage in the politics of othering, this generation resists the split between island and diaspora, resists the view that only one of the two is the true Cuban nation.
There is no question that the group that is most strongly represented in “Bridges to Cuba” are those Cubans of the second generation who left the island as children and have felt compelled to return, even at the price of being cast as disloyal sons and daughters of the exile community. It was not only bridges to our counterparts in Cuba that I felt we needed, but bridges of support and solidarity also among us on this side in our scattered diaspora locations in the United States. Many of us who came here as children, acquiring our education and politics in U.S. universities during the sixties and seventies, have shared the bitter experience of being made to feel that we truly deserved the epithet of gusanos, the worms of the Revolution, simply because we were part of the Cuban diaspora. For years, U.S. Cubans have been the one Latino group that North American leftists could comfortably discriminate against; weren’t we, after all, the Latinos who long ago sold out to Uncle Sam?
In contrast to this stereotype of the ugly Cuban, I found through my work on “Bridges to Cuba” a group of Cuban-American intellectuals and artists who are creatively rethinking their relationship both to Cuba and the United States and forging a sense of multiple identity, multiple nationalities, and multiple allegiances. For cultural critic Maria de los Angeles Torres, there is a refusal, to accept the either/or definition of my identity which demands that you choose sides. My identity is far more complex than this. I was born in Havana. I was raised in Texas. I was radicalized with Chicanos. I returned to Cuba and thus was ostracized from my community. Now I live in Chicago, but I also live in Havana, emotionally and professionally. I am always returning.... (Yet) even as I write, I do not know if things I say will offend those who determine whether or not I receive a reentry permit.... I am comforted by the fact that no matter how hard states try, they cannot control the nation or legislate identities; they cannot erase our history. Our identity is multiple, for power struggles have fragmented who we are.
Among those counterparts who grew up here, I discovered that many of us returned to Cuba with our hearts in our hands, wanting above all for the revolution to succeed. Cuba had dreamt big dreams, huge, immense, gigantic dreams and we wanted, desperately, to take part in that dreaming.... Our awakening, amidst the leaky rafts of the balseros, the Cuban raft people stranded in the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, has been fitful, painful, and unspeakably sad. “Bridges to Cuba,” as it turns out, is less about dreaming in Cuban than it is about mourning our awakening to a history that has yet to be resolved, let alone absolved.
“Bridges to Cuba” became the cyber-space the imaginary homeland where the children of the revolution could begin to imagine the national reconciliation that is not yet possible in reality. Personal essays, poems, stories, artwork, plays, and photographs open a new window onto a world that has been too frequently viewed within a Cold War framework. Not that the Cold War is over where Cuba is concerned; no, the war is, indeed, still quite hot, and getting hotter. But culture and the cultural arts reveal the ambiguities, nuances, and subtleties that get lost amid polarized politics. To put it yet more emphatically: culture and the cultural arts are essential precisely because politics threaten to devour us so completely.
Indeed, it is my counterparts in Cuba who have taught me that even in moments of hunger and blackouts, when candles burn late into the night, our desire for poetry, art, and beauty is not to be dismissed as a luxury; without the cultural arts, life itself becomes impoverished. Such an attitude is exemplified in the work of Alfredo Saldívar and Rolando Estévez, the founders of the literary magazine Vigia in the provincial city of Matanzas. Drawing on an aesthetic that is self-consciously about material scarcity, Vigia uses scraps of tissue paper, carton, and cardboard, and drawings and calligraphy done by hand to produce books that are mimeographed in editions of 200, each numbered and unique. The desire to make beautiful books — not just functional, mass-produced texts — at a moment of intense economic and moral crisis in socialist Cuba is not simply daring; it is an act of faith in the utter necessity of the cultural arts.
In the most recent issue of Vigia, its producers have extended their own bridge to us in the diaspora, showing that bridges can flow not only to, but also from, Cuba; they have published poetry by two poets residing in the United States, Alan West and José Kozer, and also included my translation into Spanish of an extract from my book, Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story (Beacon Press, 1993), about my friendship with a street peddler and our intertwined search for identity.
But VIGIA is no longer just a publication project. It has also become an effort to open up an alternative public space in Cuba for cultural production and exchange. VIGIA is needing to respond to the fact that el area dólar, the dollar space is expanding daily and coming to occupy larger and larger stretches of territory. There is a street in Matanzas theyre now calling Calle Ocho, after the famous Little Havana strip in Miami, because it’s full of tiendas de dólar, places where you can purchase clothes, appliances, and food in dollars; these stores have mushroomed in the last year. Even local meeting places are being converted into dollar cafés and bars. In response, at VIGIA they’ve started los sábados de poesía, a Saturday night piano-bar where local poets and musicians read and perform their work. They’ve even created el trago de Vigia, a delicious concoction of honey, crushed lemon, rum, sparkling water, and hierbabuena. This VIGIA café is now virtually the only meeting-place in Matanzas that accepts, only accepts, Cuban pesos — which is nothing less than a revolutionary concept in these days of dollarization. At first, people would stand on line to get their drinks. Alfredo Saldívar said it pained him to see how automatically, like sleepwalkers, people formed lines; everyone is so used to standing on line for everything. So Gisela and Laura, two Vigia writers, put on vests and started waitressing; it was more efficient. A local woman brings a buffet of food that she’s agreed to sell in pesos. Artisans come and sell their work. So many people come on Saturdays that VIGIA now has to take reservations.
What is the role of cultural workers at a moment when the merchandising of Cuba is so rampant that even images of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are on sale as tourist souvenirs? VIGIA’s strategy for countering the sale of the romance of the revolution is to produce beautiful books that quietly call into question the ugliness of socialist realism and its mass-produced heroics. But other artists on the island are producing critical work that comments more directly and more ironically on the nature of Cuban post-utopia. For example, the artist Tania Bruguera produced a show “Postwar Memory,” for which she made t-shirts, posters, key holders, lighters, ball- point pens and ash-trays as souvenirs, with the phrase “Postwar Memory” written in drippy lettering. As she later noted, “I wanted to show that what we are selling are pieces of our own misery, of our own failure.” She was the editor of Memorias de la Postguerra, (Postwar Memories), a publication that sought to include work by Cubans living anywhere and everywhere, that was published clandestinely until it was banned by the state. Bruguera, who was taken in for questioning but refused to reveal the name of her printer, is now contemplating spending a year abroad in Amsterdam, where she has an invitation to go to art school.
The artist José Toirac, in turn, has produced a clandestine book of images of Fidel Castro based on actual photographs from Granma, the official newspaper, and revolutionary photographs taken in the Sierra Maestra, many of which, Toirac claims, were taken after the revolution was over, as posed pictures. In his book he compares Castro’s rise to national power through the allegory of Jesus Christ rising to divine power; this project ponders Castro’s devastating mistake of allowing himself to be experienced as a kind of deity.
The efforts of both Bruguera and Toirac come on the heels of the work of Cuban artists of the 80s generation who sought to open new spaces for public discourse, only to find themselves exiting Cuba via Mexico; most have since crossed over into Miami and New York. Cultural critic Osvaldo Sánchez, who forms part of that generation and still lives in Mexico, notes that the authorities “proved themselves incapable of distinguishing between the sincerity of a critical comment (present in a work of art) and the causes of the disaster. They could not grasp that the political acerbity expressed by the young was one last legitimizing gesture towards the Revolution as a genuine participatory process.”Indeed, what Cuba’s revolutionary children have continually done is test, in the words of art critic Gerardo Mosquera (who still lives in Havana), “how far the bounds of the permissible will stretch in a society in which the function of criticism has not yet been defined.”
Clearly, culture and the cultural arts aren’t a neutral space far from it. Will someone please tell me if there are any neutral spaces where Cuba is concerned? Everything Cuban, it seems, is always already politicized, even ice cream. Consider the debate surrounding the recent Cuban film, Strawberry and Chocolate, which was bought by Miramax and has been nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film. (I don’t plan to get into a discussion about why strawberry should be more of a gay ice cream choice than chocolate.) Expatriate Cuban critics of Strawberry and Chocolate claim that the film shrewdly offers a sympathetic portrait of its gay protagonist as part of a twisted propaganda campaign intended to trick innocent viewers into thinking homophobia has been eradicated and true freedom of speech reigns on the island. The more optimistic among us would like to hope that the film, by acknowledging the gay protagonist’s painful decision to leave Cuba, opens up a space for talking about the need for bridges between those who left and those who stayed behind.
This clash of views tends to surround any effort at cultural production. The two words that come up most often in these discussions — and you hear them just as often here as on the island — are opportunism and manipulation. Let me say those words hurt terribly when they’re directed at you. I know, because they were directed at me in an opinion piece which appeared last May in the Nuevo Herald in Miami. Bridges to Cuba had not even been published when this critic decided to undercut the project for being manipulated and controlled by Cuba, with funds from the University of Michigan. She claimed I was not to be trusted because I’d been received like a queen in Cuba.
It is true that after my frustrating effort at trying to get a visa to go to Cuba in 1992, I’d not had problems again, and in fact ended up traveling to the island four times to bring back material for “Bridges.” Eventually the word must have spread about my New York Times op-ed and I believe I probably did get brownie points for writing it in some official Cuban circles. But as far as “Bridges to Cuba” was concerned, I worked hard to find a range of writers and artists with varying degrees of connection to the official power structure.
Curiously, after working so hard to win the trust of the officials in Cuba who let me in to do my “Bridges” work, I began to worry about what it meant that I was being allowed in so easily. Had I become too PC — not politically correct, but in the Cuban translation, persona confiable, a person that can be trusted not to air dirty laundry to those who can use it against Cuba. Was I unwittingly setting myself up to be manipulated? Although I wasn’t exactly being treated like a queen, I understood very well that certain doors were open for me that weren’t open for some of the writers and artists who were becoming my friends in Cuba.
When I was in La Habana in December of 1994 I presented “Bridges to Cuba” not only at the UNEAC (National Writers and Artists Union of Cuba) but also at the rooftop meeting place of the Casa del Poeta (House of the Poet), which is led by poet Reina María Rodríguez. She herself was just back from a bridges-type encounter in Stockholm that had included Cuban writers from both shores and was confessing that she’d gone partly to bring home dollars to buy milk for her young daughter. On Reina’s rooftop, I tried to explain to the group of young male writers that had gathered there what it had been like for Cuban Americans of my generation to grow up in the United States feeling that we’d lost a country and needed to build a bridge back to Cuba. When I was done, one of the young men, a poet, earnestly turned to me and said that he, too, though he’d never left Cuba, felt he’d lost a country, felt that Cuba, with its increasing tourism, prostitution, and ever more desperate search for dollars no longer belonged to him either.
I was profoundly moved by the words of this young man and promised to meet with him again as well as with others who wanted to show me their work. My friend, the poet Victor Fowler Calzada, had warned me that with the publication of “Bridges to Cuba” I would now occupy the role of promotora cultural and would be viewed, not only as a cultural clearinghouse, but as a source for invitations to travel to the United States. Hed already told me there were friends of his who’d stopped speaking to him because they envied the fact that hed been able to travel to the United States. Now that hed returned from his second trip, invited by me to attend the International Institute sponsored conference marking the publication of “Bridges to Cuba,” he’d lost more friends, because he hadn’t brought back, as they put it, anything concrete. Something concrete was a couple of invitations to travel to the United States.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I met with the earnest poet and his three friends shortly before my presentation to the UNEAC and discovered that they hoped Id be their personal bridge to the United States. Would I publish their work? Promote it? Let them know about any conferences they might attend? I wanted to encourage them yet not create false hopes. I only had a few minutes and found myself needing to cut them short. The more I struggled to let go, the more they struggled to keep me there. I had a sudden sensation of being lost at sea and of trying to reach the shore with each of them pulling at my arms and legs. I was the raft, the bridge, the piece of driftwood heading north. Yes, we’d both lost our country, them and I, but they’d lost it more, they’d lost it in their hearts, and unlike me, with dollars in my purse, a house in Michigan, and the freedom to come and go, they had nothing, absolutely nothing, nothing except broken dreams, to show for it.
While Victor Fowler was in Michigan, he asked if I’d take him to a hardware store. On a Sunday afternoon I drove him to Ace Hardware, where he filled up his shopping cart with several kinds of glue — epoxy, adhesives, sticky substances that can bind the souls of shoes, seal leaking faucets, fix cracks. I said that it seemed as if he was trying to piece his life together. Yes, he said, with a wry smile, Ive come unglued, estoy despegado.
Then I rushed him off to Borders Bookstore where Allen Ginsberg was signing copies of his poetry books. We stood on a line that extended from end to end of the travel section. He didn’t mind waiting, did he? I asked. Victor laughed and said it was a short line by Cuban standards. Un pasatiempo dominical, he called it. When our turn came, we chatted for a moment with Ginsberg, who told us hed been thrown out of Cuba when he went in 1965. Victor wanted to tell Ginsberg that he’s the poet he most admires, and that one day he’s going to write a Cuban version of The Howl, that will begin with the same lines, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked....” But there wasn’t time for Victor to say anything. Ginsberg was already busy signing the next book.
Ruth Behar is Professor of Anthropology and a faculty associate of Latina/Latino Studies, Women’s Studies, and the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. She is at work on a book-length anthology of “Bridges to Cuba.” She is also the author of Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story . “Bridges to Cuba” is an on-going collective project which aims to create a forum for the voices of Cubans seeking to form connections across the borders of the Cold War between Cuba and the United States. It is the theme and title of two special issues of the Michigan Quarterly Review , and of an interdisciplinary symposium held last fall that was funded by the International Institute. This article comes from a paper delivered February 20, 1995, at Dartmouth College, as part of the conference, “Cuba at the Crossroads: The Future of Democracy in Cuba”
Maria de los Angeles Torres, “Beyond the Rupture: Reconciling With Our Enemies, Reconciling With Ourselves,” in “Bridges to Cuba,” special issue of Michigan Quarterly Review, edited by Ruth Behar and Juan Leon, 1994, 33 (3): 435-436.