On Mourning and Fidel

Fidel Castro’s ashes will be buried today, the 4th of December, 2016, in Santiago de Cuba. It is the feast-day of Santa Barbara, the Feast Day of Changó, and 49 years exactly since I left Cuba as a young child with my parents in 1967. The date has always been a secret anniversary for me, and the coincidence today speaks volumes about departures, mortality, and the end of an era. The towering figure of my childhood and youth, the man who has shaped the lives of millions of Cubans around the world, will be laid to rest today. He will be buried seven months after the death of my father, at a time when my father’s loss seems more raw to me than when he died. Fidel’s passing, like my father’s, seems ordinary, momentous, and mysteriously difficult to measure.

I am not saying that Fidel is like a father to me. But his descent into old age, his reclusion, his frailty, paralleled my father’s decline. I came to reimagine him in those years, and in the silence when I could no longer speak to my father about him, when my father could no longer speak to me about Fidel.  Fidel’s legend, his image, his words and power were so enormously decisive in shaping my destiny that his death opens a time of remembering and reckoning. It makes me wonder what my father would say, what it would mean to him.  And it makes me rethink my loyalties, my weaknesses, and the lifetimes we have all spent in his shadow.

Fidel Castro’s death marks for me the end of epic dimensions for Cuban history, the end of an agonistic history for Cuba and its diaspora. His passing marks once again  how he came to stand for all of us in the eyes of the world.

“So what do you think of Fidel?”

Every Cuban I know has had to answer for herself or himself in trying to answer that wrong question correctly.

In the eyes of Americans, in conversations that demanded solidarities or condemnations, he came to be a kind of test, an unavoidable mirror through which others judged us, judged our politics and our sense of nation, even our common sense.  He was invoked to test American anticipations of what a Cuban should think, to confirm prejudices about Cuba, about Miami, about Latin Americans, about exiles or refugees. To test our loyalty to the United States.

To disavow and hate Fidel was the religion of Miami, a city of counter-revolution, political bombings, and forced silences when I was young.  When I left, that disavowal continued to seem like a passport demanded in many circles, something that would confirm my authenticity as Cuban. On the other hand, to express sympathy for Fidel’s ideals or achievements was a kind of soft salve in other spheres: it might impress my cosmopolitan hosts, bolster my left credentials, or prove that I was not some typical bourgeois reactionary.

Fidel was always the first or second question that anyone asked me when they learned I was from Cuba, that I had grown up in Miami. For decades, I felt myself float out of my body as I answered.  To speak judiciously of his leadership, with measure and gravity, to speak of contexts and contingencies, to refuse to tolerate nonsense in Fidel conversations continued to be nearly impossible for me until very recently. In the end I always felt pushed to confirm the prejudices and judgments of my interlocutors, coerced to support their expertise on Cuba, Cubans, and their dramatic exile surplus.

To speak of Fidel in the United States meant sacrificing history and nuance, and it also meant leaving myself at the margins. It became such a routine demand, talking about Fidel, that little by little, it meant distorting myself into a fake oracle, an ethnographic case-study of what Cuban exiles should be.  It was a banal but dangerous exposure.

It rarely revealed anything but a kind of forced performance, and left me filled with a mixture of pride and shame. Pride that Cuba was important, was important because of him.  Pride that I was called out to weigh in on the political drama.  Pride that he had refused an ordinary destiny for a Caribbean island in the twentieth century. Pride and shame both, since, without him and the Revolution, whatever its destiny, I would have been, in the eyes of my interlocutors, an ordinary and indistinct tropical Latina trying to sound like an intellectual.  Shame that my performance was required, that my judgments were conscripted, shame at my real distance from what Fidel meant or did in Cuba.  Shame at knowing that he was a foreclosed subject, that I was tired of hearing about him, that he was my parents’ story and not mine.   Shame that I knew that I stood, arbitrarily, in the place of millions of people who might tell a different story. Shame at the profound loneliness of having to become a subject by judging Fidel.

Finally, in my thirties and forties, with fellow Caribbeans and Cuban Americans, with student friends from around the old third world in New York, it became possible to plumb the weight and contradictions of Fidel and his legacies.  To understand him not only as the stronghold of the Revolution and its global reach, but as an inestimable psychic force. To laugh and grieve intimately at our indenture to our parents’ legends of Fidel, to confess analyses, sympathies, symptoms, and neuroses of Cuban memory and loss. With my sister and my best friend, with my lost friend José Muñoz and a with a group of Cuban American and Puerto Rican artists, writers, thinkers—some of whom, like me, were exiles from Miami— I could think about Fidel and the Revolution in new terms.

With my generation, with my friends, I didn’t have to choose, I didn’t have to denounce, defend, or perform. We shared a deep and hidden background, a counter-life to the myth of exceptional Cuban-American exiles.  We shared a sense of politics. And we began to tell the truth for one another, including the sense of relief or frustration, the nagging existential doubt, at not ever having faced the choices our parents faced. We began to talk about the cost of the Cuban-American miracle in Miami or New Jersey.  They’re not easy conversations: they’re complex and private and grave.  They reveal intimate wounds and alliances, they are difficult and funny. They are for us.

The passing of Fidel has been heavy and uncanny, difficult to assimilate.  Many of us, and most of our parents, Fidel’s contemporaries who chose to leave Cuba, have been repulsed  by the public celebrations of his death in Miami last weekend. It was a new source of shame for me, this pachanga counter-revolution, a kind of lame regicide turned inside out as carnival with a selfie-stick. It felt demeaning, embarrassing, painful to watch. The youth of many of the participants made it seem like the celebration was over the death of history, that the memory of the last half century was being killed off in the street parade. In the context of U.S. politics and racist populism, it felt both bizarre and ominous.  For those that remember, or want to remember, marking Fidel’s death instead demands real gravitas:  in both Cuba and its exiles the ambitions were great, the costs were heavy.

Like me, Cuban Americans of a certain age have been infected with that gravitas, afflicted lately with a sense of disorientation and loss.  We might be reflecting today on what it means to mourn, and what we love and hate about Cuba and ourselves. We mourn bonds broken.  We mourn losses of love and time, broken links of friendship and kin. We mourn our parents’ secrets and sadness, their dispossession and resolve.  We mourn their disappointments. We mourn the lies that we grew up with.  We mourn the violence we were close to.  We mourn the ordinariness of a native land. We mourn the Cubans we never met, the other selves we might have been.  We mourn our disillusionment with political love.

Today, Cubans on the island who lived with Fidel as their Comandante are due the respect and privilege of mourning their leader, of speaking about him, of judging his legacy. Today, the exiled Cubans of his generation, who shared the joyful beginnings of Fidel’s Revolution, are due their moment to remember the days when their choices still hung in the air, uncertain.

Those of us who grew up in the United States as the children of exile, marked by Fidel, have had to reckon suddenly and finally with his absence: the ordinary disappearance of this embodiment of fate, the end of our Cuban predestination. Some of us feel the weight of his passing in the same way we felt his life:  with an urgent and uncanny attention, a compulsion that joined us to Cuba and kept us away. And, now, too a sense of both emptiness and awe.

As time passes and we honor our relationships to the people we love in Cuba, as we understand the Cuban everyday, and perhaps strain to know the everyday life that made the Revolution fifty and sixty years ago, we can relinquish our forced positions and our performances, and try to learn something new.  We don’t have to choose between celebration or grief.  We don’t have to speak or pronounce judgment: we can refuse the choices laid before us.  We can be still, and listen, and mourn for awhile. Until someone asks us that other wrong question:  “So what happens next?”


I’ll be Your Mirror: Obama and the Cuban After-Glow

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 1.24.20 PMWe are in a state of shock and disbelief; relieved and disoriented, getting to the end of the roller-coaster ride and wondering how to live without the thrill or the safety restraint, how to step out of the car and back onto prosaic solid ground after the ride.  People are asking us how it felt. We say things and are watching things go on but really we are still in Havana on Monday and Tuesday.  We are still reckoning with the press conference.  We are still parsing the speech.  We are still in the audience. And despite all our jadedness, our pessimisms of the intellect and optimisms of the will, despite all we can muster of  cynical reason and disillusion about Cuba and Obama’s trip, we are many of us in a secret and sober state of joy.  A kind of after-glow.

Every moment deserves comment.  For Cubans in Cuba and for Cubans in the United States,for whom this moment seemed unimaginable for nearly three generations, and who have been starved for respect, recognition, and reconciliation for fifty years, the president’s trip to Havana opens emotional and ideological floodgates, restores frames of respect and self-respect, makes revisions and reconsiderations possible.

And before the Stones play tonight in Havana, and Obama is relegated to having served as an opening act, it’s important to reflect a little on the afterglow.

The afterglow matters.  Obama’s Cuba visit was a watershed, and his Havana speech seems a rhetorical and political match to his Cairo speech.  The words and the moment will live on as a slow burn in the political imagination of Cubans in Cuba and everywhere.  They push against a long experience of paranoia, division, disillusionment.  And even when we know few changes will come immediately to Cubans who most need urgently need them, the force and weight of the speech might begin to make possible solidarities between Cubans who have been divided by the Cold War and its political lies.

Whatever else Barack Obama has done or been as President, his speech in Havana was a masterpiece of historical reckoning, diplomatic cunning, and deep political and affective recognitions.  Modeling conciliation and reconciliation, the President gave a speech that reordered hemispheric politics and was unprecedented in American political discourse. The speech insisted that Cuba and the U.S. “shared the same blood,” living in a new world colonized by Europeans.

The president then said something no U.S. President has said before, “Cuba, like the United States, was built in part by slaves brought here from Africa. Like the United States, the Cuban people can trace their heritage to both slaves and slave owners.” With two sentences Obama reframed the relationship between Cuba and the United States, invoking the common legacies of slavery and black history to trace the kinship and brotherhood he had invoked.  Many of us, historians in particular, thrilled to this enormous recognition, and it was as though works like Ada Ferrer’s Freedom’s Mirror or Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told had somehow resonated in the White House while the speech was being drafted.

The speech and its discursive strategies merit a long analysis. The mystery of authorship is yet to be confirmed but the President’s frequent speechwriter, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, very publicly visited Miami before the trip on a listening tour and, meeting with prominent figures of the Cuban diaspora. It is clear that it was shaped by the need to invoke histories of both race and capital, and the memory of loss and rupture became coded through race persistently and with force. Through the speech, and during the visit, Obama performed rhetorical acts of modesty and daring openness to criticism, putting himself, his race, and his class forward as an exemplary achievement of U.S. democracy.  This president was the very opposite of belligerence or bullying.  He seemed extremely at ease, and the speech, like his humor and conciliatory words, inspired confidence and calm.

Obama emitted happiness and ease in Havana.  He was natural.  Some of us watching imagined Cuban gestures, identified with jest and laughter (choteo!), connected Obama’s physical presence with Cuban phenotypes, his elegance the proof of natural refinement: a tipo fino. 

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 9.46.25 PM

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 9.42.33 PM

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 9.41.57 PM

His words and his performance, his ease and confidence also made him, in the eyes of many Cubans, a kind of fantasy surrogate, a projection of a future Cuban leader. In anecdotes and even interviews, Cubans delightedly noted that he could probably run for President of Cuba and win.  For those of us in the United States, remembering Toni Morrison’s words about Clinton, the speech from Havana may have just made Barack Obama America’s first Afro-Cuban president.

For Cubans in the diaspora, many of whom helped to elect the President, Obama’s speech reminds us of a great violence:  the loss of our complex racial identity in the United States.  Our national and individual identities of mixed race were erased, distorted, and splintered by the Cold War, as the Revolutionary State claimed the cause of racial justice and mixed race Cuban exiles were whitewashed into a white refugee demographic in the United States.  Millions of Cubans of mixed racial descent, who left Cuba and were for decades misrepresented or erased, saw themselves represented once again in a major key in Obama’s narrative. Thousands of newer Afro-Cuban emigrants, who have searched for themselves in the distorting mirror of Cuban-American identity and who have helped to reshape it, saw themselves reflected in the rhetorical transits about race in Obama’s speech.  Millions of Latin Americans who have watched with horror and sadness the theater of the Cold War and the Special Period shed tears at the truths of Obama’s speech:  ordinary truths and lived history, told in a theater of politics and mirrors.

The speech was not about the U.S. deigning to recognize us, to recognize Cuba.  It was about a President, cediendo la palabra, yielding to what Cubans know about themselves, and transforming the terms of a confrontation into a dialogue, a  a dialogue between Cubans that has been frustrated for fifty years.

On the left and the right, from Madrid to Mexico to Chile to Miami, a huge collective sigh of relief went up.  The recognition of suffering, of wounds and sadness, the division of families and friendships. And although I am not a great fan of familial models for imagining political communities, there is no doubt that in the case of Cuba it is a lasting historical truth, and a province of reconciliation.  In merely naming them together in one discursive breath, Obama brought together subjects and communities that were the protagonists of the Revolution and the cold war, but always pitted against one another, implicitly and explicitly, in contests between liberty and social justice.  By merely speaking in one political performance of the history, the wounds and contributions of Afro-Cubans and Cuban exiles, Obama’s speech attempts a remarkable kind of repair–the kind Teresita Fernández invokes in her meditations on beauty and broken objects–using a discursive gold that marks and mends the breaks.

There is a great deal more to say, but as the aging white British rockers take the stage in Havana and thrill the crowds with a spectacle timed, no doubt, to overwhelm Obama’s words, I am thinking still of the speech.  It brings to mind a beautiful minor key of rock and roll, and a reversal of rock narcissism, Lou Reed’s I’ll Be Your Mirror.*

Despite the great performance of pride that Cubans constantly rehearse, the Cuban national imaginary is also largely constituted by shame, sadness, and distortion. Cubans–Afro-Cubans, mixed race Cubans, white Cubans, Cubans on the island, Cubans in the diaspora, and hard liners of revolution and exile– are bound by something they secretly feel but rarely admit in public:  the  fact that our experiences of empire and cold war, repression and racism, scarcity and dispersal, have left us all with a sense of being twisted and broken.

It’s a secret weight. We don’t like to talk about it very much. It’s hard to write about it too.

But Obama’s speech, although it does not feel sophisticated to say so, changed something. The words spoken by a black President of the United States made possible recognitions and reflections that were deeply enmeshed in geopolitics but also embedded in Cuban memory and a national unconscious. By refusing paternalism, condescension and browbeating, by recognizing U.S. faults, and by underlining Cuban struggle and beauty too, the speech started pulling at the knots of shame and suspicion, and acknowledged instead a mutual mirroring, a necessary dialogue.  Obama’s speech summoned modesty and friendship, a wish to change the narrative and retell the story.

By reflecting back and forth between the U.S. and Cuba, he offered a public and yet an intimate reflection on nationhood that Cubans can recognize and claim, that they need not disavow or condemn.  Between the lines, Cubans knew that they were listening together in a way no one else could, that they shared a heavy weight, and that they might also share in the recognitions.  They might be able, as Obama put it, to refuse to be trapped by history.

And although many of us might want to go further with the psychology of mirrors, thinking of analyst Jacques Lacan’s mirror-stage as another irresistible metaphor, I think it is the loving reflections of friendship in Lou Reed’s song that rules the reception of Obama’s speech. Obama’s Havana Speech and its celebration of resilient national being felt like a love song. For Cubans like me,  who have every reason to distrust all the guises of U.S. power, all its affective recourses, it’s hard to admit, but it’s true.

So for a moment, beyond cynicism and pessimism, and even with the reality principle beating down the door, Cubans starved for good words and tired of bad mirrors, can stay with that music for awhile, and think about the afterglow.


( Photo 1, Reuters, Photos 2-4 credits pending)

*”I”ll Be Your Mirror” was first released in 1967 on the album the Velvet Underground  and Nico.

Obama’s Palm Sunday: Transaction in the Highest

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 1.27.53 PM

It takes political will, good timing, demographic change, wealthy supporters, strong alliances and strategic calculation to shift ossified policy.  But in the case of U.S-Cuba relations, the theater of rapprochement also involves a heavy measure of syncretic symbolism.  The watersheds of the US Cuba rapprochement  have been timed around  dates that invoke fate and divine cosmology,  inaugurating a calendar in parallel to political logistics and secular time and bigger than capitalism or cold war.

These symbolic choices are  rich with images, dates, and signs that invoke new epochs and dispensation for Cubans everywhere.Those gestures to popular religion and belief are significant:  they incite and satisfy a Cuban fondness for both conspiracy and political hermeneutics.  The symbolism helps to unite those who can read the codes.

The syncretic and popular frames also seem an attempt to clear the decks in the political imaginary.  They compete old ritual orders, old political epics, and open a new epoch of exchange:  an era of transaction as triumph.

Barack Obama chose December 17th, 2014 to announce historic changes to U.S. Cuba relations.  The feast day of San Lázaro is honored and celebrated by Cubans raised with a syncretic national culture hugely influenced by santería.  Santería and Palo’s rituals and symbolism are deeply embedded in the calculations of the Cuban state and the feast days of the Regla de Ifá are part of Cuban national culture, where every important patron saint in the national imaginary is syncretized with an African orisha.  For practitioners of Afro-Cuban syncretic religions, and for secular Cubans of all races shaped by Cuba’s African religions and their worldview,  Babalú Ayé is immensely popular and considered particularly miraculous.  He is the orisha tied to illness and to healing, a deity cloaked in humility but with immense powers for transformation and protection.

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 12.58.23 PMScreen Shot 2016-03-20 at 12.57.08 PM

Cubans drop pennies to San Lázaro, the beggar saint, and leave them on the floor hoping for miracles.  Pennies to tempt heaven, in a sense, rituals from a national culture whose spirituality is based in syncretism, in a faith that emerged from tension between the law and the secret, between masters and slaves.  Cuban national culture is fundamentally shaped by the political knowing and the violence that created santería.  Cubans understand ideology syncretically, scanning for parallel truths, for double meanings, for divided audiences.  For truths that speak to the friend and the enemy.  This other Cuban “double consciousness,” has become part of Cuban cultural and political intuition. It understands that  gestures always have at least two meanings, that every ritual act is coded,  and that every  exercise of authority, human or divine, demands a transaction.

The release of the news on December 17 was both a coded gesture and an act of political cunning:  it gathered Cubans everywhere – many divided by ideology, race, wealth, money, distance, generation, by half a century of political stasis – to read signs above and beyond the words of the leaders and confrontations, to mark time cosmologically, and to think about wounds and sickness and the possibility of miracles and healing.  Given the wounds and the rocky road ahead, many of us remembered the pennies tossed to San Lázaro since it was clear that the new epoch would demand as many transactions as it would acts of faith.

Today, Sunday March 20th, President Obama arrives in Havana, landing in Cuba on a rare coincidence of the Spring Equinox, and Palm Sunday, and it seems another cosmological time is being inaugurated. For secular pantheists and diviners of political symbolism, this new coincidence is rich and evocative.  Time in tension, the balance of night and day, primal feast and astronomical architecture, the vernal equinox is overladen with meanings tied to sun cycles, divine struggles, tension and balance, fertility and new beginnings, and to the struggle between darkness and light.  That’s a lot of cosmic augury.

Add to all this the day’s consecration to Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and for Cubans, scanning for symbols and syncretic code-switching, the fateful date begins to demand an irresistible calculation. The Cuban resonances are significant. After all, the last time Christ’s triumphal but humble entry into Jerusalem was invoked in Cuban history, the analogy was used to sacralize the triumphant arrival of Fidel in Havana as the Revolution succeeded in 1959.

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 1.52.27 PM


Certainly, Obama’s Palm Sunday in Havana promises a rock star gospel appearance that will no doubt supercede the Pontiff’s visit to Cuba earlier this year.  And an hour before wheels up at Andrews, the anticipatory press coverage was nothing short of frenzied. It’s all pretty exciting.   The pop-culture reimaginings fall short as Castro in January 1959 is traded for Obama in March 2016. I reach for Ché meets Jesus Christ Superstar meets Godspell meets The Wiz meets Rent (which was produced in Havana, after all), but nothing works.  It is simply unprecedented, not yet kitschable.

Epochal visits on Palm Sunday, for a country of lapsed Catholics and lapsed communists are heavy enough with ritual symbolism and almost as cosmological as the vernal equinox. The return of Cubans to the Catholic Church, its humanism, its masses, its charity, and its social networks, and the Pope’s role in the geopolitical reconciliation and the Catholic Church’s growing authority and presence in Cuba makes Obama’s arrival on Palm Sunday an astute and uncanny choice.  For Cubans with any religious knowledge, Obama’s arrival on this day Obama evokes Jesus and possibly Fidel, but he rather bumps the Pope as letter-carrier in this rapprochement, coming in person and in triumph to a sacred city of the Cold War.

But the President’s arrival on Palm Sunday 2016, and the universe of images that will follow, will also steal the lede and the image repertoire from Las damas de blanco, who have traditionally marched following the mass on the day in Havana (and on every Sunday) to protest the fate of their relatives as political prisoners of the state.   Perhaps the timing can be read as a tacit acknowledgement of that struggle by Washington (and perhaps not), but with Obama in town, the Cuban state can effectively photobomb the opposition into the margins on one of its most visible days of action .

For many devout and half-hearted catholics in Cuba and in the diaspora, attending mass on Palm Sunday, or Domingo de ramos, means springtime, crowds, and religious swag. One braves the crowds and the bad conscience for the opportunity to collect guano bendito, holy palm fronds, ritually blessed and distributed in the church, which are considered to bless and protect the recipient.  The fronds are often shaped into crosses, hung on the wall, and linger in homes for years; they are also sometimes used for burning in santería rituals (in particular for protection from lightning and thunder in a storm).  And in a sense, Obama’s trip is also being preceded by the distribution of political guano bendito, bits of policy swag to go with the ceremony:  incentives for Americans in the form of currency exchanges, incentives for Cubans in the form of U.S. bank accounts, and posters and T-shirts, and flags everywhere.  New fetishes to take home in place of Revolutionary relics.  A fresh new face and a new dynamic duo, Raúl and Barack, to rival those old photos of Ché and Fidel. Palm fronds, posters, and currency:  pennies hard won and new icons of blessed transaction.






Cuban Pictures and Political Love


“What is it then between us?”

Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

It’s a strange picture, torn at one corner, stained, damaged by time. I have been looking at it for decades. There are two figures—a toddler, dressed in an Asturian costume, holding a doll in an identical dress, and a slender young woman, who holds her tightly by the hand. They stand on a median in Havana, next to the Malecón. I can’t place exactly where. The breeze blows from the water. It blows the young woman’s dark hair back. She looks toward the road or the sea wall, watching and interested, perhaps smiling a little, it’s hard to tell. Something has caught her eye. She seems at ease, graceful. The toddler beside her is planted sturdily at the center of the picture. Her small figure is transected by the pole of a streetlight that divides the composition.

The child does not look toward the sea. She does not smile but seems to scowl at the camera. Perhaps she does not want to be in a picture, perhaps she is struggling to hold the doll, perhaps it is windy or loud. Directly above the child is a sign decorated with reveler’s masks, marking the days or the season of carnival. In those Asturian costumes, the toddler and her doll are signs too, small residues of pageantry. Perhaps at night, at another time, the place was crowded with revelers. Perhaps the carnival is over. In the photograph, the carnival sign, like the child, seems out of context in the empty streetscape. In the faded sepia, the daylit scene is somehow desolate. The figures seem exposed and vulnerable, part of some precarious balance.

Behind the figures, a building’s windows seem either open or broken. Cars pass on the left. If we gaze closely, we see figures gather round a car on the right. The fading black and white photograph robs us of the essential palette and light of Havana—the blue, the golden light, the saturated textures and tawny skin. In black and white, and without signs of nostalgia or markers of wealth or sensuality, pictures of Havana become a challenge. They become exercises in documentary memory and demand a reckoning with the facts of politics, history, and loss.

This photo was perhaps part of an album, tucked into photo corners. Or perhaps it was left loose between the pages of a book. Perhaps it was sent in a letter. Whatever archive it belonged to was an archive dispersed. The photo ended up a fragment long ago, and it has lived in books and envelopes for decades, free of a frame. There are pen marks on one side, the print is worn and apt to curl, the edges are breaking.

carnaval masks

Reading the picture carefully, one finds a trace of public memory. The carnival masks, at the distant center of the photograph, mark a rupture, and not only in the composition of the photograph. They seem to be signs from Havana’s carnaval of 1966, part of a long tradition of carnival in the city dating back to the 16th century. The Revolution had begun to transform the carnival with socialist themes in 1962. But carnaval was cancelled in 1967. That year, and for two years afterward, festivities were suspended as the state directed the population’s discipline toward harvesting ten million tons of sugar, the zafra de los diez millones, that became a national goal for 1970. The heroic effort fell short and the harvest came in at just over 8 million tons, but the carnival returned to Havana in 1970. From then on, it was no longer held during Lent, but moved to high summer, near the anniversary of the Revolution on July 26th.

For me, the masks hover like an uncanny emblem above the figures on the median—the woman and child gazing in different directions in a divided landscape. The political landscape was also growing more divided. The late sixties mark a second wave of Cubans leaving the island: professionals, middle-class, and working class, of many races and social statuses. Although they were deliberately labeled white professionals on arrival in Miami, triangulated by the confrontation of Cold War and civil rights, those tens of thousands of Cubans leaving their country carried a complicated politics. With one allowable suitcase per person, one toy per child, they carried slender archives and heavy legacies of choice into exile.

The dispersed gazes in the photograph echo the divided trajectories that separated many Cuban families. The photographer, my great-uncle José Luis, left for Miami, and then went to San Juan, Puerto Rico. I am the child in the homemade costume, holding my cousin’s hand under the masks on the Malecón. By 1970, when the carnival returned to Havana, half of my family had left Cuba, taking me with them. Intending to settle in the Northeast, my parents flew to Miami and never left. The young woman stayed and lives in Havana still, a veteran of the Revolution and all that came after.


The young woman in the picture is Lucila Jiménez Castro. She is my beloved second cousin, the daughter of my grandmother’s sister, and her namesake. My parents have no siblings, so Lucilita was both glamorous young aunt and cousin to me. Slender, intelligent, and musical, funny, quicksilver, and gentle, she is a tender and solid person, a loving purchase for my early Cuban memories. She shaped, in direct and indirect ways, everything I understand about Cuba. A woman of conscience true to her left-leaning family, Lucilita fell in love with a tall, thin, gentle revolucionario, a young becado scholarship boy, sent from the countryside to study in Havana. His name was Albio Castro and Lucilita married him in the early years of the Revolution, before I was born. I imagine that I remember Albio’s tall build, his kindness and his olive drab. Albio and Lucilita, their romance, and their political choices, made the Revolution an intimate story, not merely a historical event. Like the rest of my mother’s family, who chose to stay and believed in its promise, Lucilita made it impossible ever to have contempt for the Revolution, or to dismiss and demonize its followers, to deride political love.

With my family split between Havana, Puerto Rico, and Miami, my grandmother in Miami and her sister in Havana created decades of correspondence, urgent epistolary intimacy to bridge the gap. As my parents worked feverishly to keep us afloat, under my grandmother’s tutelage my younger sister and I wrote our first letters in life to her sister, to our great-grandmother Mamita, to Lucilita and Albio, to the beloved Nena Jiménez, another matriarch of the Havana household. It seemed sometimes as though we were learning to read and write to compose those letters to Havana. Every accent and word of Spanish had to be right, proof that we had not lost our language. For young girls, it was an early lesson in the responsibility of words, the right words, and a lesson in the work of correspondence. My grandmother urged us to write better, write more often. Every letter was a test of accents, ortografía. As I got older, I delayed, put off the weighty task. When Mamita died in Havana, I felt a terror that she had died because I had not written to her enough. I was nine or ten. After that, it became harder to write to Cuba.

Even when we did not write the letters, my sister and I would address the envelopes: Avenida 33A, Número 6203, Esquina 62, altos, Marianao 14.  It is indelibly etched in my memory, like Lucila’s phone number, the rhythm memorized through repetitions to English speaking operators my grandmother could not understand. The letters achieved what those emotional phone calls never could. They established a sustained and lovingly coded dialogue. Through their correspondence, we followed, across thirty years and more, my great-aunt Lucila’s struggles, my uncle Braulio’s opaque life and death, but above all Lucilita and Albio’s life. Through them we knew life in Havana as it went on without us: the zafra (sugar cane harvest), jobs, the libreta (ration book), the trabajo voluntario (volunteer work)the birth of children, the school trips, the family vacations to the provinces or socialist holiday parks. We heard about my cousins and their gift for science, about Albio’s deployment to Angola and his return, the illnesses and deaths. They sent pictures of my great-grandmother, pictures of my cousins and their changing boyish faces, the children of my generation whom I barely knew. They also sent beguiling postcards of Cuba with their letters, dozens of blank postcards showing girls doing laps in a giant high school swimming, dinosaurs at a vacation theme park, kites flying at the Parque Lenín, The postcards accumulated in a box in my grandmother’s closet. In return, we sent family photos of the women in their Easter dresses posing in front of the run-down but serviceable gold Pontiac, photos of my two younger brothers, photos of the carnival of Halloween, photos to prove we were getting ahead, that they didn’t have to worry.

In the first years, in the first decade, our letters to Marianao were padded with leaf thin paper-soap, shaving razor blades, women’s stockings, necessities hard to come by amid Havana’s rationing. The paper-soap began to melt in your hand in the heat if you held it too long, qué desperdicio my grandmother would say. They struggled in Havana, we struggled in Miami. My grandmother, like her sister in Havana, saved every scrap of paper, grocery bags, aluminum foil. In those first years, they stood in line for eggs and milk in Havana. We went to the refugio for evaporated milk and bags of dry beans, things so precious that my sister Gigi, only three years old at the time, hid them under her bed.

Never a whisper of politics: both my grandmother and her sister wrote around the censors. For a revolutionary family in Cuba, cartearse con el exterior, writing to exiles abroad, was no small thing. On each side, the sisters knew their words might be read by the state, understood unwritten rules and subtle protocols of telling. They also probably lied to one another, softening the struggles. Like millions of Cuban women, they negotiated the mined landscape of ideology and emotion across decades of separation.

The years and their emotional segregations created in my family a feeling that love and politics should not be mixed, a sense that political memory is dangerous. That is the legacy of a long Cold Civil War. Attending to this memory requires a perverse devotion and an immense labor: sifting through archives and material culture, mining familial, textual, and political genealogies. A difficult working through of remembering and misremembering is called for, demanding care and respect for the artifacts and traces of what is missing. In that process, we call up the bonds and losses of love structured by politics and political rupture, the memory and silent understanding not only of emotions but of deep commitments, love that is not merely individual, or familial, or even a national love.

I realize now what binds me to Lucilita, after so many decades and so much distance, what it is that makes us more than familiar strangers. That bond is political love: written into letters, threaded through conversations, visits, arguments, a dialogue about love beyond the private realm, forms of love expressed politically.

In Cuba and its diaspora, the choices and secrets of political love shaped convictions about possibilities and resistance, educated us in practices of sacrifice, solidarity, and loss. It translated to intimate practices and ways of knowing the world. Political love – for justice and freedom, for people and cities and national communities, for leaders and revolutionaries, for ideas and practices of common good, at home and in exile – this kind of national love shapes collective and individual character, and also our understanding of the distance between the nation and the state. Cuban writers, musicians, and artists have been invoking political love for two hundred years; philosophers and scholars have meditated on the nation and political love. But I am thinking beyond nationalist feeling and ideology of something more intimate, involving eros and caritas, desire and care. Political love is privately felt, but it helps us recognize what is common between us, remakes lo común. Political love shapes people.

In a time when Cuba is being reimagined from the perspective of the United States as an object of desire and transaction, our Cuban collective memory might move to another negotiation: to think beyond nationalist nostalgia or dreams of development and take up the buried histories of political love. It is the legacy of women who wrote around censors, of families sending remittances, of dedicated revolutionaries or political prisoners who refused hatred or vengeance. These are Cubans who lived past the speculations of the present to lay hold of the past as something more than a fetish.

Reckoning with political love transforms memory, challenges our myths. Cubans in Cuba and in its diaspora know intimately the secrets and cost of political love: the thing that bound and broke our families. Too often, for Cubans, the story of political love ends in disillusionment, betrayal, rupture, a narrative of disenchantment that produces a profound paranoia. But looking at the picture of myself with my second cousin Lucila, and dwelling on its ephemeral moment, I imagine political love summoning care, respect, and repair. Political love calls us to tell a story again.

Lucila Jiménez Castro is ill in Havana. I am in New York, amid passports and papers to see her again. I am studying her face in a photograph, reading the picture and its emblems again. In the aftermath of remembering, its posterioridad, something begins to change. In the distance between us or the telling together, the work of memory makes more lucid frayed genealogies and lost beginnings — all those scattered archives of political love.

A version of this essay was originally published in English and Spanish as Retratos cubanos, política, y amor,  in Ruth Behar and Richard Blanco’s Bridges to/from Cuba.  

I’m immensely proud that it was also published in Arabic in the Lebanese literary journal Al-Adab , thanks to its editor, Samah Idriss.


Family Portraits with Fidel

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 11.07.07 PM

I’ve been looking at family portraits of the Cuban state.  Five men dressed in matching light guayaberas and khaki pants pose smiling and affectionate in a group shot, two with their arms around an older man at the picture’s center:  an old bearded man, wearing a track suit top. The men smile and look alertly at the camera.  The old man does not smile but gazes at something  beyond the camera’s address.  An aging woman dressed in red stands on the right, looking down on them with a slightly quizzical look, as though unprepared for the photo.

The man at center is Fidel Castro and he has five sons.  The woman is Dalia Soto del Valle, Fidel’s wife and the mother of his sons Antonio, Alejandro, Alexis, Alexander and Angel (yes, it sounds like One Hundred Years of Solitude).  But these five men are not his sons. Read More

Silence, Exile, and Conan in Cuba

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 1.03.31 AM

Anxiety, tension, exhaustion. Most Cubans or Cuban Americans in the United States will not confess to these feelings when confronted by the latest “Cuban” enthusiasm in US popular culture. We stay silent, nod in recognition, but often this is what we feel.  A deeply held sense of vulnerability and enervation can well up whenever someone urges us to watch a Cuba program and give our opinion. It’s a very private discomfort.

So I waited awhile to watch Conan in Cuba. I avoided it. I saw the Cuban flag with Conan on it pop up again and again but did not click. But it returned. Conan kept returning. And under cover of skepticism about Conan, about faddishness and middle American tastes, beyond avoiding disappointment or affront, I knew I was avoiding my own familiar and twitchy wariness in watching Cuba represented.  Watching things on Cuba can make a Cuban/American feel bad. Read More

Socialite Revolution: Dynasties, Aristocratic Touches, and Surrogate Royalty in Havana

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 4.12.14 PM

Nearly two years ago, I showed my lefty credentials at a dinner party by talking about Cuba as a process of “passive revolution” (more on that in a later post).  Reflecting on political familialism and wealthy dynasties (Clintons, Kirchners, Castros, Bacardis, Fanjuls), I argued with too much confidence that the dynastic politics of Cuba and the United States would own the future.  Turning to me in wry agreement, the writer Antonio José Ponte said, ironically, that his most perverse professional desire  for the future would be to edit a Cuban edition of “Hola,” and to cover in detail the gossip and rumor, the behind the scenes drama, designer gowns, and exclusive fotos of a historic and romantic Castro-Fanjul wedding of 2025.

The recent pictures of Paris Hilton with Fidel Castro Díaz Balart taken while the socialite was in Havana visiting the Habana Hilton  (opened by Conrad Hilton but funded with the pension plan of the Cuban Catering Workers Union) somehow fulfills and annihilates Ponte’s fantasy.   Paris’ comments suggest that the Hiltons owned the property when in fact they merely ran it, and her return seems to mark a symbolic taking possession and elegant relinquishment. Smiling side by side, the selfie socialite and the socialist scion (a good photogenic surrogate for his father) seem to annul sixty years of history.  Here we are, it seems to say, the celebrity descendants of two famous dynasties (three if you count the Diaz Balarts), and isn’t all that other nonsense irrelevant when a good selfie is all you need to heal the world.  One can almost imagine Paris in the near future naming her new baby Havana Hilton.

Bacardis, Fanjuls, Hiltons:  the returning seigneurs will be in the news more and more, as will the nostalgia of possession amid great dispossession.  A year ago, Alfonso Fanjul spoke of his recent and increasing visits to Cuba, and told the Washington Post, “If there is some way the family flag could be taken back to Cuba, then I am happy to do that.” But the return/victory lap of Cuba’s old and new aristocratic “dueños” has been going on for a while now.   And there are pictures to record the fantasies and traces they leave behind. Read More

Embargo Cult and Techne Rituals

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 12.04.43 AM

If during republic and dictatorship Cubans adequately summoned the lords of cargo and led the island into a secular order of consumption, then the Revolution of 1959 sent that American modernization into a Cold War remission, one in which the Soviet Union stepped in as the new Cargo kings. In the wake of the collapse of Soviet subsidies and soviet structured import and export markets, Cuba turned to China, to Europe, to Venezuela.  But the cargo could not compensate for the broad range of commodities that the Soviet years had brought, and the embargo, and its reinforcement in the Helms Burton Bill, became a new looming reminder of the cargo that could not be.  Now, if a cargo cult is a set of practices that mimetically reconstitute the actions, instruments, and signs that can summon cargo, then the Cuban state, by continuously invoking the embargo as a condition of collective existence, has in effect created a cult of negative cargo, a cult of scarcity, of that which never comes, can never come.  It remains to be seen if this cult is at an end.

Read More

Cuba Cargo/Cult

Screen Shot 2015-02-28 at 12.40.28 PM

CubaCargo/Cult is written to reflect on certain tangles and possibilities in thinking Cuba beyond the market, beyond the nation, beyond charismatic leaders and millenarian epochs.  To think Cuba, too, beyond and before empire and the state.  By invoking the term, I am putting into play an idea that can help us to think many aspects of Cuba’s modernity, to break the frames of development, democracy, socialism, empire, and cold war. Cuba is a long way from Melanesia, with a history at the heart of empire, capital, and material and human cargo.  But the economies, dynamics, and narrative force of Cargo Cults are well suited to thinking about its modernization, its revolutions and its present.  Thinking Cuba with Cargo Cults helps us rethink cults of political, critical, and theoretical desire that have interpreted this process.  And, in many ways, Cuba has been narrated as a Cargo Cult for a long time now.  The U.S. story for Cuba is a Cargo Cult story:  the tropes of native desire for modernity and its cargo, like the tropes of the childlike logic, primitive ingenuity, or the calculating affect and transactional spirituality of Cubans haunts our hegemonic misunderstanding of what Cuba means.

Certainly the developmental and political narratives of Cuba are punctuated by the logic of the cargo cult:  for a nation-state framed by the spectral plenty of empire and by real economies of scarcity,  the desperate desire for the “cargo” of modernity, technology, and progress is a constant and a commonplace. Neo-colonial relationships, a monoculture economy, Soviet clientelism, and then its collapse, all this made more desperate the desire around that modern and hard-won cargo (meat, dolls, rice, cars, refrigerators, bicycles, jeans, flatscreens, air-conditioners, laptops).  The U.S. embargo and Soviet clientelism created new cargo and renewed the fetish for the old:  it literally turned into cargo what would otherwise have been a more or less “normal,” or normalized flow of commodities in uneven development. Read More