Friday, August 26, 2011

Everyone's Got a Havana / Yoani Sánchez

Everyone's Got a Havana / Yoani Sánchez
Translator: Unstated, Yoani Sánchez
Cuba's Most Famous Dissident Blogger Writes About Life Inside the Sepia

The cast bronze sculpture rests one of its arms on the rail of the bar.
It seems like he's going to ask for another daiquiri, but in reality his
metal eyes are watching everyone who comes and goes from El Floridita.
Some turn the flashes of their cameras on that life-sized statue of
Ernest Hemingway, while others see it as something from the past, that
distant time when there was nothing unusual about finding an American
drinking in some cantina or walking the narrow streets of Havana. Times
when ninety miles didn't seem such a great distance and the language
barrier was crossed by dint of drinks, music, hugs and jokes.

Despite geographical proximity, for the vast majority of Americans
today's Cuba is unfamiliar territory, a region mired in mystery. It is
possible that many of them couldn't even locate our island on the map,
or that they imagine a little island whose entire coastline can be
viewed from the height of a coconut palm. Something like the space
inhabited by Robinson Crusoe, but in this case occupied not by a single
man, but by 11 million people. In that immense country to the north of
us, there are still those who believe in the story of the heroic David
resisting the onslaughts of Goliath in order to create a realm of social
justice. Others see us as more of political freak, from where a robotic
people, sunk in material and moral misery, threaten to invade them,
whether as soldiers or as immigrants.

It has been half a century since American citizens have been denied the
right to legally visit our country. While they have had to learn the
names of the eleven different presidents who have passed through the
White House in the last five decades, our Plaza of the Revolution has
had just two tenants, both with the same last name. In all this time,
most of the enemies of the United States have evolved, becoming business
partners—like Russia, China, or Vietnam—or even NATO allies, like
several of the Eastern European countries. There is the opposite case,
as well, where former friends—like Iran or Venezuela— have become
adversaries. But the name of Cuba (along with North Korea) remains on
the same list.

Thus, on the other side of the Straits of Florida, the image of Cubans
has taken shape through much imagination, built both on past memories
and on stories from exiles. So it is not unexpected that we are seen
like one of those old postcards in sepia, a forever frozen image from
the mid-twentieth century. People who still travel in old
cars—Cadillacs, Chevrolets and Plymouths—built in American factories. An
island trapped between its natural beauty and the deterioration of its
architecture, with some neighborhoods which, at a passing glance, could
be in New York or Washington D.C., while others recall Calcutta or
Somalia. Strolling the wide boulevards of Havana triggers nostalgia
among Americans older than sixty. A kind of déjà vu recalling the
memories of childhood and the sensations of adolescence. We are like
some early twentieth century museum, but one where those in charge of
the "collection" haven't bothered to care for the pieces shown to the
public: an agglomeration of obsolete and patched objects evoking the
glamor of what is now extinct.

Clearly, we are the only Latin Americans who do not call those
sun-burned, flowery-shirted vistors by the derogatory name of "gringos."
Here, no. Here we say "yumas," which has a laudatory and admiring tone,
even a certain fascination. Although the political propaganda constantly
carries on about the "Yankees," that little word has failed to take hold
in everyday language. And the same thing happens in the other direction.
Many Americans look at us with the affection with which one observes a
poorer and younger cousin, one who still has a lot to learn. Sometimes,
with a certain arrogance, they ask questions only they understand: Why
doesn't my Blackberry work here? Where's the machine to pay for parking?
Is it possible to find Kleenex somewhere? And each of these questions
exudes a naïveté that amuses us, makes us laugh. Perhaps it is from this
that they get the image of a people who are always smiling, which they
then pass along to their friends in New Orleans, Arkansas, Texas.

Ever since the Buena Vista Social Club film and album, it's been very
hard to convince Ry Cooder's compatriots that not all Cubans know how to
dance, play dominoes, or sing a guaracha. Stereotypes have led many of
those living north of the Rio Grande to believe that this island
contains millions of skilled baseball players and that the only skin
tone encountered is a medium-tan mixture of Spanish and black with a
little Indian. The repeated cliché of "poor but happy" has also done
much damage to the understanding of our reality. There are those who are
certain we dance a few rumba steps while waiting two hours for the bus,
or sing a guajira décima facing our empty plates. The serious faces of
so many Cubans, distressed and worried, is one of the great surprises of
visitors who have only seen us through the shiny pages of a tourist
guidebook. This awareness of sorrow, of grief, of the rictus of sadness
beneath so many smiles, is among the most bewildering discoveries of
those who come here for the first time.

Among the Americans who have been able to tread this land in the last
five decades there are many exceptional people. From academics or TV
stars, to movie directors of the likes of Steven Spielberg (why not
travel to a Jurrasic Park?), to the former president Jimmy Carter, all
filled with good will but also with more than a little naïveté.
Thousands come every year, daring to defy the controls imposed on them
by U.S. law, using the old trick of traveling through a third country
and taking advantage of the fact that the customs officials will forego
stamping the passport of anyone who finds their way to this demonized
territory. Among these intrepid visitors is James, a boy from New York
who, not satisfied with his passion for Cuban literature, fell
hopelessly in love with a young brunette with slanted eyes and the hands
of a healer. One day, more than five years ago now, someone asked him
exactly how he saw Cuba. "My experience is unique," he said, "so it
can't serve to make generalizations. I am aware that I am on an island
where, when I open my eyes in the morning, the first question that comes
to mind is, 'What am I going to eat today?'"

So everyone sees this land in her own way. Through the viewfinder of her
camera, focusing on what, in her view, seems most Cuban, be it skin
color, peeling walls, the unsual driveability of a museum-quality
Chevrolet, slogan-covered billboards, the perpetual smiles of the
children, the haggard faces of the old, the lines and parades. And you?
How do you see us?

Yoani Sánchez is a Havana-based writer and author of the blog Generation
Y and the recently published book Havana Real. This article was
translated by Mary Jo Porter.

25 August 2011

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