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Cuba in Fragments: 2001

By José Vadi.

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A step-down joint outside of Havana. Barely lit small tables with bars in the back. Waiters carousing loudly knifing paths through the crowd. The band played louder when the locals caught up and performed solos if Euro tourists were near the front. To be heard. Random locals or strangers turned new collaborators simply by walking up and pointing to the player with the instrument of their choice. It is the son later diluted by the term salsa but embodied by son and plena. The reason this island feels like a Puerto Rico that recognizes its African root. At least, in song and the blind eye to Santeria. Part of the time capsule. Then and now in my memory: nobody had a face inside, just teeth; tall and reflecting white; stars pinhole-punched into the improvised midnight before us. Drifting on an axis in the space between the players on stage and their new friends in the crowd. An assumedly European pair of couples leaves after halfway through the first song of the most recent set; the sets never really ending, just lulls to exchange old drinks for new ice and fresh Havana Club pours. The same kind of elixir left to the shrines of Oshun and Yemaya in the corner of their homes – maybe even here in the club if it were bright enough to see more than the dim stage lights.

My father is dancing in place, dancing en route to the bathroom, dancing sometimes in front of the stage, all the while laughing. This is possibly the first time I’ve witnessed him this happy. He’s not a heavy drinker but what little rum may have sparked the other parts of the Santurce inside him awakened in the loud pitch of night. This man doesn’t live in America. Anymore. California demographically not enough Caribbean. Anymore.

It’s hard remembering how that night ended. Time suspended. Studebakers outside. And when you bring that night up to my Dad, he’s shocked that I still think the night is done.

***

Something resembling electrical wires grew from the chipped plaster bathroom walls towards the shower head, making us cringe the first morning. But like most of the trip we quickly accepted reality as fact. We were staying at a former country club that after the revolution became an arts school. Old brick architecture intentionally resembling nipples (and fertility) in the field separating dorms from assorted classrooms. Curved outdoor half-circle plazas daunting and concrete – like incomplete globes trying to reconcile – here, where sax players are often found practicing loud and unabashed in the dead of day. Surrounded by lush.

Our dormitory consisted of a minority contingent of Los Angeles college kids: A Persian, an Egyptian, an Armenian and myself singing along each morning to acapella versions of Mos Def’s “Travellin’ Man” and discussing the day ahead. The heat seared through the sheets of cold rationed water. The humidity would stand still, awaiting our civilian re-entry beyond the tattered plastic shower curtains. This sing-a-long ritual is how I fell in love with hip hop; a marriage somewhere in the transatlantic triangle of horror that brought the neighborhoods that created these art forms – “knowledge of self (determination, with that wha?).”

 ***

They’re throwing more elbows than Ewing in ’94. Shit, more than Oakley. These fools were not playing. We asked the soldier if it was okay to use the court – barren in the middle of summer just west of Havana – before he radioed a colleague to play two-on-two. He smoked rollies of cheap shwag, taking off his shirt and opening the collar wide enough to slide out naked without harming the cherry.

The outdoor arenas with only one side of stadium seating, a trademark of Caribbean neighborhoods. I wondered how hard I was allowed to play, if their anger would be taken out on some foreigner like myself, born with the ability to travel and not raised in the tangled webs of foreign diplomacy. Old grudges. Cold war shrapnel turned sweat, wiping the brim of someone’s lack of rationality — thoroughly.

We should’ve been playing soccer, I thought, trying to get a hook shot off. Failing every time. I was better at the point, somehow hitting jumpers, letting my taller friend play Robert Horry in the most recently won Lakers championships from just weeks before. Los Angeles at the focal point, the nexus of where this court can never lead.

***

Two fingers rubbed together means prostitution. That’s what the men along the Malecón’s west side taught me through example at sixteen. Within hands reach from traffic heading to the capital. At twilight but felt like broad daylight. Brazen in such a state. Government’s claims of no slavery existing in the republic reflecting one-dimensional definition of the term. Young women in shorter tighter spandex than their mothers, traipsing off to the side of middle road dividers, underneath a palm in between two directions of traffic. Toe nail polish reflecting against fading taxi lights. Towards a part of town that still requires a paid monthly permit to reside. The type of economic stratification supposedly absent here. Where sub-neighborhoods rest in the barely walk-able alleys between buildings en route to the capital. The part of town requiring tolls to watch fingers rub together like their corresponding legs heel-elevated and cold in the rain. Capitalism’s residue seemingly brushes my teeth and the rationed toothpaste cleans in opposing strokes, leaving me clean by trip’s end. American on a terror list occupants’ open arms. No threat to my life.

***

A nicer hotel where the professors and older adults stayed. Where the dancers and artists hosting our group could not enter due to their skin resembling more of the thick night than the pastel walls of the hotel lobby. The professors stood in a circle, almost surrounding the concierges and managers attempting to explain to this American cadre of brown scholars – to these professors and spouses who met teaching in bombed universities during wars they survived – why our Afro-Cubano hosts couldn’t enter the hotel. “They’re Cuban but not Cuban.” Which God or system do I create a shrine for to ridicule these grown men for their fear of African roots. How else did we (yes, “we”) arrive here. These professors – war weathered survivors of tenements, riots, intifadas, life-threatening investigations – told the hotel they’d be leaving immediately “if our friends could not enter, use the pool like us, eat their food like us.” No matter the guns, the murals, the music – black is still black on an island where in Havana Vieja a tiny stage still rests, the pulpit from which the auctioning and selling of like-looking black souls occurred daily for the right price, to the right bidder, a pulpit and a stage that still rests in plain view, a walking distance away from Hemingway’s old bar.

***

I didn’t have to be a college student to know some were there just to fuck. The proverbial “fuck”: a man, a woman, a club, a dance move, a meal – all a means of getting off. For some. Others there realized their presence was as lenses: observe, inquiry, inform, report back to the University.

*** 

At night I studied for the self-subscribed literary courses of Saul Landau. “You’ve never read Steinbeck? Only The Pearl? Here – take this” and so I did, Saul Landau’s borrowed paperback of The Grapes of Wrath. I marked it up, eventually stole it with his silent permission. At night after checking underneath my bed for scorpions and in the corners for bats and the windowsills for Iguanas, I read about the home of my other side of the bloodline diaspora, my Mexican grandfather as Steinbeck’s white protagonist traversing from Hooverville to picking field, from Oklahoma to the Central Valleys of California for years after the Cuba trip I’d traverse between my adopted home of the Bay Area’s East Bay and my parent’s home of California. Privilege of the first generation identifiers, the kind who imagine the baby in the last scene as ourselves: nursing from the institutions that validate our stereotype breaking. That we’re not just descendants of farmworkers but their professional counterparts. Descendants. Pre-1848 in flesh and title and job and tax return and citizenship and social security and security socialized here, medical for all, knowing there are wounds endured post-revolution.  Okies at least had a west bound by an ocean with land large enough between. Miles and miles to survive but simultaneously potentially to conquer. To profit. Whatever that meant in comparison to survival. Saul hitchhiked from New York a little younger than my age on this trip, heading to the Bay Area, performing in mime troupes, comic strip writer, freelance journalist, poet, friend of the Beats and the Hippies and the Black Power movers and shakers and the stoners alike. A journeyman at all costs.

***

His stash comes from an upstairs building otherwise unmarked and unassuming somewhere in Havana Vieja. Quiet. My Dad had to have bought them. Maybe I did. ID means nothing with American dollars. Definitely bought with my money. An expensive small box of Cuban Cohibas cigars – maybe a dozen – for my best friend’s father. A white man with a crew cut that I’d otherwise be scared of, then and now. Of joining the counter-stereotype this so-called first generation either escapes or embraces, like we are nothing but diplomas or caskets in training, No Nuance [here]. Friend’s father at the time a sergeant or someone high up in the SWAT team, who’d later take over one of the largest prisons in the county, the one overlooking the proverbial barrio, a north star across the bridge for all the hoods to follow. 1993: he opens the trunk of his squad car to show a bazooka resting, ready for use. When I returned I handed him the small box the week I returned, his face lighting up from the surprise – Cohibas straight from the Caribbean through a teenagers hand. I noticed his flat top was grayer, thinner. His friends may have beat up the kids at the DNC a year prior. Or the Riots nearly a decade before. Or any October 22 downtown misfortune, the police brutality demonstrations that ended in just that: photo shoots for the cover of the B-section Metro pages, teargas canisters for wind machines. Was he always a clean cop? Could he have been? Is clean the antonym to LAPD? And would that matter given how kind he was to me – how couldn’t it?

***

The dishes’ diameter felt as wide as a province. Huge cast iron dishes deep with paella. Multitude of flavors. Shared, family style. His skinny body presses against the restaurant’s mirror. The side facing one of many public squares. The ocean and surrounding darkness backlighting his exhibition. Street lamps non existent making his dark frame the red top of a match lit against the intentionally dim restaurant. The waiters seem familiar with such demonstrations. Not surprised when he mimics Medusa attempting to turn her hair into snakes, screaming into the double pane glass. Maybe his stare will turn us to stone if we look deep enough into those eyes – a bloodshot yoke – that we can see the era when he was strong enough to break such glass with his weight. Before he was broken. Deemed irreparable by who knows. A flurry ofrom military patrolling the night watch. The sounds extinguish his red, fades it back into the darkness, a bright frightening shadow no more. Everyone at our table collectively finishes the dish.

***

When we run from the former country club turned arts school post-revolution the two sets of trees lining the poorly paved strip greet each other overhead, shrouding the dim streetlights at either end of the block. The bats come in waves between the leaves and our heads, temporal clouds frantically searching with each pass of blood and leg. We check the corners of our rooms in the mornings to see if one is there and if we have rabies, in addition to the scorpion checks underneath our beds, an ecosystem of free health care and poison and disease.

***

A million people: an infinite tide that snaked along the Malecón in celebration of the day the revolution started in 1955. Paper red and black flags with the date in Spanish stapled or cheaply glued to popsicle sticks for flags distributed widely by the CDR reps. Every neighborhood knew which block and space was theirs to park in, an extremely efficient mobilization of an entire country into one place at one time. I imagined this is what the DNC mustve felt like last year when I was in Puerto Rico reading about the protests of nearly a million in downtown Los Angeles – Ozomatli and Rage Against the Machine performed. This is not Los Angeles but feels equally staged. Everything’s a reinterpretation of Hollywood. The young boys harassing J., assuming she didn’t know Spanish well enough to know our violence may have been the answer. Brutality like patriarchy knows no politics under the systems that permit its rage more than counterparts masking / employing it in silence. Capitalism even permeates prohibited spaces in nearly unavoidable residual forms. There is a stratification to all things and Cuba is no different. Saul would hate me for saying that.

***

Flags everywhere, outnumbering the street lights. Waving in the night so fervently the hands holding them disappeared into blurred limbs along the dead-end block east of Havana. Our group, departing a 60s-era school bus, is welcomed with open arms and the smell of dead pig. Tenuous to have doors that wide open to citizens whose government representatives kept theirs shut for years. For that reason I didn’t know if it was propaganda, like these block parties don’t usually happen. A full big pig on a rotating spit at the end of a barely lit cul de sac. Music coming from booth boom box and small improvised neighborhood troupes centered around the tres. Dancing in the street. Why us. Why the celebration.

Violations reported by Amnesty in 2006, forced isolation, high levels of surveillance, what technology can’t capture if it’s not there to start, the purpose of body cameras domestically, the eyes that even the eyes of the revolution cannot see.

***

There’s a moment by the exhibit for the Granma – the small row boat that housed the first wave of fighters that started the revolution in 1955 – in Havana where A. and I are alone, walking our fifteen and sixteen year old selves around a town we knew nothing about. Two officers seemingly approach us as we head downhill towards the Malecón. Remember, were students first we whisper to each other before realizing the men were hollering at two Afro-Cubanas behind us, more annoyed than flattered.

***

And as we left the surrealism began. The previous two weeks deteriorating to the reality American passports allowed us to forget. Our guilt that we were able to give away the Hanes off our backs for them. Our guides asked for whatever clothes or dollars we could spare; the sadness turned a sense of desperation, a portal to any world – let alone an American one – outside Cuban’s Studebaker domain.

There is talk today of the term food deserts, terms that enter American lexicon to recognize and articulate that particular fact of absence in the land of plenty.

And at the airport in line to board a man arrives with flowers for J., a man she went dancing with a few nights before – much to my 16-year-old budding chagrin – maybe for an extra cocktail, maybe for more, who cares, she is grown and able enough to handle the simultaneous humility and damage control of a public proposition. Like she’s fended off worse before. He is begging her to take him with her till death do they part. Till he dies on American soil and his ashes are presumably shipped back to Cuba.

***

Recognize scar tissue never heals properly; by definition it’s meant to remain. I wonder if they’ll keep the murals, the ones that say Death to Imperialism. If my friends out there, those brief voices keeping us company in the night, would recognize how this person in these stories was upon seeing my name. Image of Priuses scorching the highway. White suburbanites sunburnt and feeding crying children in baby Yankees caps. If Puerto Rico is any example of the benefits of being a non-state, a commonwealth, let it be known that Cuba is a culture self-sustained in the wake of a new hungry generation that does not remember the Why behind 1959. A necessity for change. For a method of self-expression, self-determination. Be responsible with this fire. There will still be those left behind after years of rations and debt and no jobs forced doctors to play cabbies more than surgeons they were trained to be. Guards on more corners than not. An island I remember.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

José Vadi is an award-winning writer and film producer based in Oakland, California. The recipient of the Shenson Performing Arts Award, José was the inaugural director of the Off/Page Project, a collaboration between Youth Speaks and The Center for Investigative Reporting, that incorporated investigative journalism and poet’s original work into short films, documentaries and live performances. His work has been featured by the PBS NewsHour, Mashable and The Daily Beast while his writing has most recently appeared in Colorlines, The Huffington Post, Gigantic Mag, and Specter Magazine.

Image credits: Cuba Libre, Poster Boy, Creative Commons.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 2nd, 2015.