A Return to Cuba

Walking the streets of Havana, the city's former glory is evident despite the many crumbling buildings.
  • Walking the streets of Havana, the city's former glory is evident despite the many crumbling buildings.

As I walked through U.S. customs down the hall and out the electric doors into the Los Angeles sunlight, I was excited to see my mother. My mother, upon seeing me, both smiled and then winced, looking at my face and condition.

Her first words to me after five weeks of absence were, “Pareces como si fueras barrando las calles para propinas.” ("You look like you have been sweeping the streets for tips.")

I shrugged and agreed, only to respond, “I actually looked pretty well-kept in Cuba. I was noticeably more well-kept than the others there.”

Mami made a reluctant-I-don’t-want-to-believe-that “pssshhhh” noise, waved at me with disregard, clicked her heels together, and began to move towards the garage. While she was happy I was home, she was not about to get dirty for our ride home to San Diego.

Mami knows Cuba; she was born there. And while I was never born there, I was always told I was displaced from my heritage – I was supposed to have been born there. Because I missed my birthright, I dedicated my life to Cuba: learning about the island, writing about the island, getting my doctoral degree in history on Cuba, and making as many people aware of the island, its situation and possibilities. I never felt outright American; Mami was Cuban, Papa was Cuban (and part of the ranks of children who came on the Peter Pan flights), my great uncle was a great Cuban war hero and political leader (Manuel Sanguily), both abuelitas and abuelitos were Cuban. I was seriously displaced.

My displacement made me feel as if I was born in a plane and then parachuted from the sky only to land on earth for the first time by chance. I was a duck out of water, a baby fallen from the sky. Before my birth, my life was displaced and relocated. So I made it my job to return to my homeland. To return to the place of rhythm, sun, guava, heat, rooftop restaurants, palmeras and Godfather II.

While I had been to Cuba before, this time was different. I was alone, and being a woman alone in Cuba is, in and of itself, a difficult task. The machismo of the ‘50s is still very present, which means that knees turn heads, let alone shoulders, arms, thighs, necks, breasts and any other body part that might need air in 90+ heat. Men ask you if you need help, given you are alone. When you answer that you are fine, their response is automatic: “You are beautiful.” As if that were the kind of reassurance I needed or wanted.

The little annoyances were not going to deter me from my main objective: finish researching and collecting document to finish my dissertation. Each day, I would walk from Havana Central, onto the Prado, through Parque Central, across the Plaza to Calle Obispo, turn right at Compostela, passing Convento Belen, traversing stagnant pools of water, mold, gaping holes in the cement, dog feces, strewn old fruit, fruit sellers, the man who worked on cleaning a home filled with trash and barbed wire, metal and fences, until I reached, 35 minutes later, the Archivo Nacional de Cuba.

By the time I would enter the Archivo, I was covered with the soot of the city. Dirt, grime, tiny little flea-like animals radiating around my skin, sweat-covered arms, and achy feet would accompany me the next six hours as I pored over the pages of 19th-century documents. Refuge only found in looking at the other researchers, feeling miserable and looking as beaten as myself. Exasperated and hot, constantly washing their hands in the stinky bathroom’s washbasin, stating that the same bathroom wasn’t so bad if one just could just “hold your breath.”

This was my routine for a month in Cuba. This is generally the routine of most women researchers in Cuba, sparing individual differences, of course.

I had experienced the grittiness of the city before, but this time it felt more strident, more pulsant, more unpleasant than ever before. When I asked a colleague of mine, after working in the archive all morning, “Doesn’t the city seem dirtier than usual?” she responded, “Of course.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by the “of course,” but she continued, “You know there is cholera, right?”

Immediately, I remembered the uproar over cholera in Haiti after the earthquakes. I began envisioning pictures and videos from the Congo on the cholera epidemic there, I thought back to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book and looked at my colleague in disbelief, “Cholera? Really?”

She looked at me dead-on, “Yes, we all need to be careful. No love affairs, no tap water, no off-the-street drinks, and no hanging out with sick people. The official reports from the Cuban government are that it is only taking place in Matanzas, but there exist some reports of possible cases in Havana and in Cienfuegos.”

“How do you know of the possible cases?”

“They announced it on the news, but they made it sound like it wasn’t serious. As if cholera was....somehow.... not serious. But, furthermore, I heard from friends in Cienfuegos, and my hosts tell me, that everyone is whispering about possible cases in Havana. Technically, we shouldn’t be talking about this. So let’s whisper.”

I began to whisper.

“So how do we prevent ourselves from getting cholera? The water touches everything, there are pools of muddy water on the streets and dripping from the buildings. I don’t know how one can evade the problem.”

Lacie whispered, “I don’t know how to prevent it. Maybe, just, think about it all the time and watch your hands and mouth?”

We walked along the dirty streets, careful to press our lips together as we saw water dripping from above, kicking up soot with each of our shuffling steps. We spoke about Haiti and how close Cuba resembled the island before the earthquake.

“But Haiti never had cholera until after the earthquake, Lacie.”

“Haiti had cholera before and after the earthquake. But the earthquake made cholera relevant. Supreme desperation and poverty made Haiti relevant. Cuba’s problems aren’t relevant yet, because complete and total destruction has not completely taken over the city. When all the buildings have fallen, when floods swallow the city, when rubble is on every corner and not every third corner, then Cuba will be recognized. A state of emergency will be sounded. But we have to reach complete destruction before that can happen.”

“But everything is destroying itself, at the moment. Cuba is filthy, people are dirty, sick and hungry.”

“It doesn’t matter, the government will cover it until they can no longer hide the damage. And the world will pretend it is not happening until total catastrophe makes it utterly immoral to look away. We need a catastrophe. This country needs a natural disaster.”

I had a love/very discouraged (not quite hate) relationship with my researcher friend. We had very different ideas about life on the island – I detested the circumstances of the island. I did not enjoy what the Cubans’ poverty could offer me as a foreigner.

Suffice to say, Lacie and I disagreed more often than not in our opinions of Cuba. She had an odd love of the island and its people. She participated, passively, in the indescribable, ill-defined-yet-defined prostitution, poverty and hardship of its people. She enjoyed visiting the island. She enjoyed dating the men and paying for their meals, drinks, in a quiet exchange for love and sex. She used the men as she used her Cuban friends, making “friends” with families as a means to obtain things cheaper than in the tourist dollar (the Cuban convertible peso, or CUC).

She justified her actions by saying they used her as well. They used her for sex and company. She used them for sex and company. She would proceed to tell me I needed to make “connections.” Make life easier for myself. She believed love and friendship crossed all borders and boundaries, race, color, nationality, creed, citizen to tourist. I believed all the same things except love passing between Cuban citizens and Cuban tourists.

There are exceptions, of course, but that relationship, in my experience, was always dependent on money. What drink I could buy them, what internet access I could make available to them, what croissant I could give them, what extra clothes I could leave for their mother. The currency for sex was no longer money, but bread and shoes.

I kept a journal while on the island and my first entry is telling. I remember my initial impressions of the city, the reminders of all the harsher elements of city life in Cuba: the pungent smell of piss, shit, dust, moldy water and a faint hint of what smelled like dead animals, the (as one French researcher put it) aggressive state of poverty and the constant panhandling of merchandise and one’s self on the island.

My entry stated, “I do not approve of any of this. I do not approve of my existence on the island, I do not approve of the way people must live on the island, I do not approve of what people need to do to survive on this island, I do not approve of the close to apartheid-like system (the dual currency system, the haves and the have-nots, the Cuban citizens and the tourists) which separates the population at all points in their daily lives and I do not approve of the tourists who spend their money and vacations here overlooking citizens’ quality of life only to enjoy and benefit for themselves the luxuries that are restricted to Cuban citizens because of their government-imposed poverty. I will use this time to write about what Cuba’s reality entails. I will write about the Cuba I see, not as a tourist, but as a researcher.”

When asked about my trips to the forbidden island, I always feel embarrassed by how negative my descriptions of the island sound. However, I don’t know how else to state the truth and so I always chime, as afterthoughts, “Havana is very safe, there are no drugs and very little domestic violence.” Those are clarifiers, phrases used to comfort my friends and the listeners of my travels. But I find that those statements are misleading.

My “returns” to Cuba are never glorious returns to a beautiful nation and tropical island. Rather, they are returns to a ghost city, a city whose past lives constantly amidst the present.

As a result, as I walk the city, I constantly feel haunted myself: as if all the refugees in the United States, their family members who died in the Revolution, and those who died in the many wars that preceded the ‘60s, somehow still walk the choleric streets of Havana today.

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"I did not enjoy what the Cubans’ poverty could offer me as a foreigner."

For me, this line says it all. It can actually be applied to most 3rd world countries. I could not help but think of our neighbor, poor Mexico. Beautiful people there too, and a beautiful country too...if it weren't for the odors, the sickness, the risky water, and the dangers they all represent. There has never been anything beautiful about poverty, other than the people who rise above it.

Great writing, Ms. Mondejar. One of the best travel pieces I've seen in a long time.

Thanks Javajoe. I appreciate your compliment and support!

I love this story, thank you Ms. Mondejar. Will you be returning?

Thanks Nells. I don't have plans to return soon. But, I imagine I will return; my research centers on the island and I want to work to see the island's economic status, along with the people's welfare, improve.

If you are interested in seeing pictures of my trip, you can find those at: http://acubannostalgia.wordpress.com/

Thanks for reading the article.

I enjoyed reading your article, and like Nells, I love your story! My father was Cuban and I have family there so I know your feelings about your dedication to know more about that beautiful and nostalgic country. I am hopefuly going to be able to go in December with a group of people for new years and looking foward to see part of my heritage as well. I believe traveling to a place like Cuba makes you see the life different and be thankful for what you have.

You captured it well. Your bravery and determination inspire me.

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