A Cuban love story: the summers of 1896 and 2012

"While the city sleeps, I think of you."

In Havana, a culture of love takes to the streets: graffiti is a new, gritty and poetic way to spread love and oppose the revolutionary government.
  • In Havana, a culture of love takes to the streets: graffiti is a new, gritty and poetic way to spread love and oppose the revolutionary government.

In the summer of 1896, yellow fever, civil unrest, an independence war, collapsing buildings and general economic despair threatened the lives of the entire populace of Havana, Cuba.

In the summer of 2012, cholera, civil unrest, a struggling revolution, collapsing buildings and a general economic depression plagued the entire populace of Havana once again.

Despite the almost 100 years’ difference, Cubans continue to struggle with definitions regarding citizenry, national independence, what it means to be “human” and what the human condition should afford each individual being. That said, love was never a disputed issue (not in 1896, and certainly not today).

In 1896, a culture of love held a constant presence in the city of Havana and was the main cause for a social event despite despair and decay. Love was a means to normalcy – a weapon soldiers steadied their hands on in order to survive.

Much in the way that 116 years has only changed the struggles of Cubans in minuscule terms, Cubans continue their enchantment with love. Alongside reports on the different ways that Cubans suffered in 1896, magazines and newspapers published marriage and engagement announcements. These periodicals published poems of admirers dedicated to their loved ones, and editors provided men with instructions on how to use fans and handkerchiefs to signal to potential mates the seriousness of their romantic intent and rendezvous points throughout the city.

While the tradition is no longer to wave fans or publish poems in the newspaper, love in the city of cholera is rampant today. Graffiti (acting as replacement for the fluttering fans and perfumed handkerchiefs of the past) is one major way for loved ones to mark their eternal love (in the most dangerous of forms given the Cuban government’s cruel punishments for loitering, public defacement and destruction of property) to those they admire. In fact, graffiti trumps songs, poetry shouted out buildings, and poetry books sold and then re-bought on corners.

This article celebrates all kinds of Cuban love: “Gritty” love, “poetic” love, “the outright and public make-out sessions of youth on park benches” love, “under framboyan trees and whispering” love, “handkerchief-exchanging” love, “unrequited but longing (añoranza)” love – this is a Cuban love story; this is my love story.

The summer of 2012

I walked around Havana trying to find my abuelito's law office in the middle of the old city. It was just after noon and the sun was at its peak. The white cobblestones only seemed to soak in the sun and then reflect its rays like water does. Standing in the heat was a man who looked barely 20.

When he saw me, he smiled and immediately started asking questions. He asked where I was from and what I was doing.

I told him I was Cuban and he said, "Well, maybe you are, but you are very light-skinned."

I responded, " Yes, that may be true, but I am still Cuban."

He asked if I was from around “these” parts, and I told him, "You know the answer, so why ask?" Immediately, I felt embarrassed. I had snapped at him and I knew it. I was becoming the standoffish American (Cuban-American); a cold fish.

In a sort-of apologetic manner, I retreated from my answer by saying, "Listen, I need to find this address. I need your help." He did not flinch at my moodiness. He looked at the address, told me it was an "ancient" address, and then began to walk swiftly through the narrow street. He moved quickly past me into the shade until he reached where the shadows from the surrounding buildings on the pavement gave way to the blasting sunlight.

He hurried me with his hands, waving me towards him. I could not walk as fast as him. The sandals I brought to Cuba had extremely cushion-y soles. My feet slid in them because of the heat and I worried I would break my ankles. I reached where he was standing; he pointed up and said, “That's where that address would be located before.”

I looked up and there was a small apartment-looking building located above a large open-air, but enclosed, market. My mother used to talk about visiting her father and drinking mamey shakes in the bodega underneath.

I sat there for a while. I took video and pictures of the building. I forgot about the man, who was still watching me. Then, I sat down on the curb and asked one of the vendors for a mamey shake. The vendor pointed his finger up to the sky and motioned to me that they had no mamey.

Solo hay banano y frutabomba.”

He only had banana and papaya available. I bought myself a papaya shake; the man chimed in and asked for a banana shake at the last minute. The vendor looked at me as if asking me for permission to give the shake to the teenager. I nodded my head "sure." The guy drank the banana shake in what seemed like one gulp. He then asked me if I had any extra time to spend with him. I told him that I wanted to keep it to the milkshake, but I appreciated his help. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and walked away.

His leaving was abrupt – so much so, that I shrugged back at him. As I turned away, I heard him yell, “muuuuuuuuchacha!” He was yelling loudly enough that people pointed towards him. These people, while pressing their lips, grabbing handkerchiefs from their pockets (which they shook at me fiercely) and moving their heads upward at me, signaled that I needed to turn back. When I looked back, he was running and I thought he was going to rob me. When he reached me, he stopped within three inches of my body, looked down and said, “tremendas tus tetas (your tits are tremendous)." I was stunned. I backed up. I wasn’t expecting those words to come out of anyone’s mouth, let alone this guy.

I didn't know what to feel other than I needed to walk away. I pointed my finger at him to motion that he stay a distance away. I walked around him. He smiled.

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