Wednesday, January 21, 2015

JT Torres: Forbidden Worlds

Our host family gathered around the TV to watch Raul Castro announce the return of the Cuban spies, which would improve relations with the U.S.


As my departure from Cuba approached, I experienced a sort of barotrauma, much like decompression sickness experienced by divers who resurface too fast. I needed to slowly ascend, slowly return to the world I’d left behind in America.

Cuba is a country cocooned in layers, and this is mostly because of its status as a country forbidden from the world in which I live. The embargo has encouraged Americans to imagine Cuba in vastly different ways. The “Miami Cubans” envision the island in its oligarchic state under Batista. They dream about the haciendas Castro seized. They believe they will one day reclaim their property, some so that they can capitalize on it and others so that they can return to their aristocratic tropical lifestyles. For the “Miami Cubans,” it doesn’t matter that Cubans have suffered their share of loss as well. The only thing that matters is vociferating the evil of Castro’s rule to enforce an embargo that has done nothing but help isolate the island. “The people there have it bad, so we should keep the embargo in place,” they say, even though the embargo contributes to the people having “it bad.”

My brother-in-law, whom Cubans would call a “Miami Cuban,” describes Cuba in a way that is far worse than in reality. According to him, a family in Cuba has to apply to the government to have a cake for someone’s birthday; and a single family is only allowed one cake.

The “Utopians” believe Castro’s Cuba is paradise. The idea of free healthcare, strong education, and a life free of the poison of material greed stand as absolute ideals that should be upheld everywhere. My brother by blood is one such “utopian.” Before I left America, he envied my journey, said he couldn’t wait to hear how impressed I was by a country that “valued its people.”

Because of the way layers work—skin folding over skin, shell extending to rind—the facets of Cuba’s identity change depending on how far one peels back its casing. The island is a contradiction, a paradox in which both the “Utopians” and the “Miami Cubans” are right.

I stayed with a loving family while in Colón. Andrea, who owned the house, cooked breakfast and dinner for us (a team of four researchers) each night. During our stay, Andrea’s granddaughter turned nine. There were three cakes made; one was just for us visitors, two of whom (me and Jill) were foreigners. There were also meringues, pastries, and a counter crowded with flan.

But it’s not all rich yellow cake with guava cream filling. The healthcare system, I learned, is essentially reserved for tourists. This is controlled via Cuba’s dual currencies, the Cuban Peso and the Cuban Convertible. The latter of which is an artificially inflated currency that remains equal to the U.S. dollar to provide tourists with exceptional buying power. Most Cubans are paid in Cuban Pesos, which is so weak compared to the Cuban Convertible they can hardly afford to buy oranges from the market.

I heard stories of Cubans breaking down in tears at the sight of a flat screen TV.

I walked down nameless streets in poor neighborhoods at 2 a.m. Doors to houses were open. Strangers waved. I felt safer than I do walking around Anchorage at 10 p.m.

I met people waiting twenty-two years for a chance to leave.

There are other layers, those which act as boundaries.

The music of Arará suffered a long history of banishment from Cuban airwaves. Social organizations, cabildos, were formed in secrecy so that slaves could continue their religious beliefs without persecution. For most of Castro’s rule, the music was also prohibited by law. My grandmother, raised a Roman Catholic, became interested in Santería when one of her parents’ servants, a Santera, protected her from the incessant loneliness that haunted my grandmother her entire life. She had to hide her interest from her strict father, who threatened beating her if he found her with anything besides a cross. And then here I was, in Cuba, claiming roots to the island, but knowing very little of the language. My parents never taught me Spanish, thinking it would interfere with my learning English. My grandmother spoke to me in Spanish, but not enough for me to become fluent.

The genius of syncretism is the blur of forbidding boundaries. Perhaps this is Cuba’s gift to history.

The cabildos quickly allowed for inclusive membership. Tribes and clans from different African traditions interacted and shared elements. Yoruba, Kongo, Pataki, Vodun, Arará, and Catholicism contributed to new forms of religious tradition that, by the 20th century, became difficult to identify as separate beliefs for European powers seeking to silence the rhythm of the batá. This is the deepest layer I found in Cuba: in Agromonte, almost the direct center of the island, beneath several layers pressurizing me in a world I still don’t quite understand, I was accepted into the community, encouraged to dance, sing, eat food offered to sacred altars. It didn’t matter that I was white, that I spoke a very rough Spanish, or that I was North American. When you go there, when you climb beneath both the imagined and real layers of the place, you find the boundaries vanish.


JT Torres is a PhD candidate at Washington State University. His upcoming novella will be included in Weathered Edge, alongside Don Rearden and Sarah Birdsall, by VP&D House. He had an essay in Best Food Writing 2014. And, yes, he recently returned from Cuba with Dr. Jill Flanders Crosby. The resulting research will inform a cultural memoir about Arará, Santería, and his own connections with Cuba.

1 comment:

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Thanks for your posts, JT. I am learning a lot from you!