I FIRST “MET” RUTH BEHAR more than a decade ago, shortly after meeting the man who would become my husband. Francisco, a Cuban who exiled himself from his country in 1980, was constantly searching for touchstones — people, places, experiences, anything — that could connect him to his homeland. I was eager to look for those touchstones with him. New York, while not without a Cuban community, is no Miami; at the time, the opportunities to experience Cuban culture in the city were more limited than they are today — especially if your idea of Cuban culture involved more than drinking mojitos and listening to the strains of Buena Vista Social Club.
So it was that Francisco and I saw a screening of Ruth Behar’s documentary, Adio Kerida, a sort of visual memoir in which Behar returned to Cuba to search for her roots and herself. At the time, there was little about the documentary that resonated with me; 10 years later, deeply immersed in Cuban culture and having traveled to Cuba nearly a dozen times, Adio Kerida and Behar’s entire body of work have become my sort of guidebook to the Cuban psyche.
I interviewed her during her recent visit to New York, where she spoke on a panel at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. We spoke for nearly two hours — with frequent interruptions from my five-year-old daughter, who would have preferred that Ruth play with us in the park — about her latest memoir, Traveling Heavy, and about her ideas of home and displacement — not only as they relate to Cuba, but also as they relate to many of the social problems being confronted around the world today.
Following the announcement on December 17, 2014, that the United States and Cuba would begin to normalize relations after more than 50 years in diplomatic deadlock, Ruth and I resumed our conversation via email.
JULIE SCHWIETERT COLLAZO: So much of what you write about in Traveling Heavy involves home and displacement. How do you define “home”?
RUTH BEHAR: Well, it has many, many different definitions, but one definition for me is where I was born. That’s Cuba, and that continues to be very important to me. The place where you’re born, the soil that saw you be born … I think that’s important. I know that’s a very basic meaning of home, but it’s still important to me, in particular because Cuba was the refuge for my family and so many other European Jews who arrived there in the 1920s and ’30s and between World War I and World War II, looking for a place to land at a moment when the US had basically closed the doors to Jews. Cuba took in these people — my family, my ancestors — and it became our refuge; it was the place where everybody intended to stay forever.
Then history and politics and economics intervened and they changed their minds, but there was always this great feeling of passion and nostalgia for Cuba. So it’s the place where I was born; it’s my essential and spiritual home, not just because I was born there, but because it has this whole history attached to it. That’s always going to be a core for me, and I think for many people the place where you’re born still carries a kind of aura, even if you have an ambivalent relationship with it.
Home is also where you have your family, your friends, the place where you wake up and go, “Oh my God, life is beautiful.” And for me that place can be Cuba, but lately it can also be Miami, where I’ve been spending a lot of time. It’s close to the ocean. When I’m near the ocean I have a sense of home. I also find that being around Spanish speakers and in Spanish-speaking countries … I immediately settle into a sense of such happiness and comfort. I was back in Mexico this summer where we [Behar and her husband David Frye] lived for three years and I visited Esperanza, who I wrote a whole book about, Translated Woman. I went to San Miguel de Allende … There was just this [realization]: “Oh, I love Mexico, too. I could be here for a long period of time.” I love the people in Mexico. It’s beautiful. The people are amazing. And again, there’s a certain kind of energy and creativity there. You’re surrounded by beautiful things, and people are always doing beautiful things, it seems to me. I always have that impression. Plus the food is unbelievable.
Speaking as the anthropologist, home is a little bit about where you’re born and the pull of memories and nostalgia and stories. It’s not just that you’re born some place, but it’s that that place is embedded with memories, stories like, “This is where my parents married”; “This is where my grandmother landed for the first time and nobody called her a dirty Jew.” It was the tropics, it wasn’t anything that was familiar to her, but suddenly she could just be herself. People weren’t categorizing her as this or that. So I think that gives you a sense of home: that place where you’re free to be yourself. Cuba plays that role for me, but many places in the US do, too.
For some people, the place where they’re from — if it was a site of repression or struggle or sadness or sorrow or loss or death or persecution — can also cease to be home, and I’m very aware of that as well, particularly with my Polish grandmother who said, “I would never go back to Poland. I have nothing to go look for there.” I ended up going to Poland myself, but my grandmother had no interest while she was alive in going back. That place that had been home no longer held any kind of romantic sentiment for her. Sometimes, you’re glad to leave a home that’s oppressive. We also create new homes in different places.
I have a great home in Ann Arbor, and it’s also where my son was born and raised and so that’s become home because it’s where I put down roots and had a child and took that child to the park. So it’s also a place I feel connected to but the roots aren’t as deep there. It’s a place where I feel happy and comfortable, but when I go to Cuba it’s like, “Wow, my great-grandparents were here. This is where they all landed [wearing] woolen coats and they had to find their way.” So there’s something that pulls me more to that place even if I don’t reside there full-time. You can have a sense of a place as home even if you don’t live there.
Would you move back to Cuba if you could?
If it were easier to be there, I would. Absolutely. If I could live there the way I live here — if I had the ability to go back and forth [between Cuba and the US] and if I didn’t have to pledge allegiance to a certain political system to be there full time, I would. If there was a little more flexibility politically and if it was easier to come and go. I have spent months at a time there and I’m very happy when I’m there. I have very dear friends there. But there are some things I don’t like about Cuba, too. Some of them have to do with being a woman; you’re constantly subjected to the male gaze … Walking down the Malecón [a seaside walkway in Havana], all these guys have to say something to me.
I also feel when I’m there that there’s this constant — even within our family — inner dialogue of, “Is this an authentic relationship — whatever that means — or is it about what we can transact with each other?” And then there’s the sense of guilt about even asking that question. For me, there’s no place quite like Cuba.
I understand. Life is very transactional in that sense because of the economic restrictions and the fact that people earn next to nothing for a salary. The only way to acquire things is through these negotiations with social interactions. It’s the only way to really acquire stuff. It’s also a holdover from the socialist, communist system — who you know, getting things through your contacts. It’s a style of life there; you kind of can’t blame people [since] it’s the way the system is set up.
Did your decision to go back to Cuba prompt any rifts within your family?
Oh sure, it did initially. My father still [gets upset when I go], but in the beginning, my father wouldn’t say goodbye to me. There was always a lot of tension around my trips, especially when I started going in the 90s. Now everyone goes to Cuba, but when I started going it was more unusual and it was considered a slap in the face to these exiles who had left in the ’60s [and felt like], “We saved you! We got you out of Cuba!” So at that point, in the ’90s, if you went back to Cuba it seemed as if you were insulting those who had left to give you a better life here and who had made sacrifices. Going back then had different significance than it has now, but initially it was really a statement because immigration was so politicized.
I think that for people of your generation, there’s a sense of, “I get why you [previous generations of exiles] have this chip on your shoulder, but I need to understand this for myself. I need to have my own rationale for whether I should buy into the [anti-Castro] hype. And doing that doesn’t negate your experiences or your feelings, but this is something I need to do.”
Right. You have to discover your Cuba. I could have inherited my parents’ Cuba, but I wanted my Cuba. It wasn’t enough for me to just hear what they had to say, or the community [of fellow exiles]. I wanted to go and create my own set of relationships. I wanted my own understanding of the geography, the spiritual geography. I wanted to walk the streets myself and truly inhabit Cuba and put myself there spatially.
And also to be there and hear Cuban Spanish and immerse myself in this language. Of course, you hear bits and pieces here but it’s not the same as that immersive feeling of being in language. It was a big struggle. My father was furious and many of my relatives were as well. Many of them did come around; many of them became curious and wanted to go to Cuba themselves. What’s different is that they’ve been once — “Ok, I went back, I saw Cuba and the synagogue, and the cemetery …” — and I keep going back. It’s become part of my life and my profession. I’m a professional Cuban. Cuba has become my livelihood.
Anthropology became my passport to go back to Cuba because I could go any time and claim that I needed to update myself [about Cuba]; I need to see what life is like on the ground there. That’s what anthropologists do: spend time in a place and be with people, not just look from afar or read reports. Hanging out with people is mainly what we do. Anthropology was very handy. But obviously, if I didn’t like it so much I wouldn’t go as much as I have. There’s definitely something that continues to pull me back.
What about displacement? How do you define that?
Displacement is being pushed out of a place one way or another, pushed out by economic or political forces. Once you’re displaced you have to replace what you lost with something else. So displacement has been a common path for Jews throughout history; they’ve always been displaced from one place to another, through diaspora, through a sense of expulsion, not being welcome anymore, being truly forced out.
Displacement has all those connotations, of either being pushed out by force or choosing to push yourself out because you don’t see a place for yourself in society for political, economic, or cultural reasons. There are various kinds of displacement we go through in the United States, but we don’t call it that; we call it social mobility. There’s this idea of, “If I can do better in X, Y, or Z, if I want to be an actress, I should leave Tennessee and move to New York …” You displace yourself and it doesn’t necessarily have sad connotations; it’s a question of pursuing mobility and opportunity.
But, classically, we think of displacement more in a political sense [related to] immigration, of people being pushed out for one reason or another. Your society and culture aren’t giving you what you need to develop yourself. You choose displacement in the hope that another place will give you what you need to realize your potential.
Have you found in your research that home and displacement are defined in radically different ways depending upon the political and geographical context?
Hmm. Probably. It’s so hard to talk about this in the abstract, but I think the short answer is, “Yes.” When you think of the period of slavery in the United States, and you think of what was done to Africans brought to this country or to Cuba [and elsewhere] — these places became home, but they were also sites of oppression. It’s home because it’s the place where your family is and where you acquired some sense of self and language and being, but there’s also suffering and sorrow. Home doesn’t necessarily have to be sweet.
You think of a refugee camp, for instance.
Or domestic violence. Or a child or woman who has been sexually abused. She’s home. These are sites of home, but home is where you’re supposed to be safe. The ideal sense of home is safety and security, that place where you’re not being put in a category, where you feel totally safe in the world. Historically, though, we know that places that have been home for people are also sites of discrimination and hatred. I’m very intrigued by that and how people work out that tension.
Displacement has changed over time because people didn’t displace themselves as much in the past. I mean, there were expulsions and wars and displacements in that way, but generally speaking there wasn’t the kind of world mobility that we have now or immigration as such a common form of life.
For me, what’s so fascinating is that you can have, on the one hand, people emigrating to work and, on the other, people traveling just for pleasure. So you have these two flows of people and they’re probably the most common activities going on in the world today: people either coming [to a new country] to make a better life for themselves or going — sometimes to the very places these other people are leaving — to have a wonderful vacation. There are people who are going to Cancún for an incredible vacation and there are others who are trying to get the hell out of Mexico.
Right. It’s like two kinds of people who are ships passing in the night, and they really are, sometimes literally.
That’s exactly it. It’s a question of who has capital, who has money, and who has access to privilege. If you have that privilege, you have access but maybe you’re not getting to fully enjoy life here. This is one of the things that motivates anthropology as a discipline. Anthropologists started out with this idea of, “Oh, these noble savages have a better understanding of how to really live; we’ve become so jaded with civilization and all the comforts and security. But so-and-so tribe somewhere else really knows how to live; they have ceremonies and ritual and color and life.” So there was always a kind of quest to find all of this in “The Other.” It’s somewhat similar to what the expatriates do: looking for more color in life, more joy; it’s a reinterpretation of the noble savage.
With stereotypes there’s always a grain of truth. The expatriates are finding beauty and color and culture — what they’re looking for is actually there. But you have to be aware that you’re part of a social movement. You move to Mexico and think you’re the only expat there, only to discover there are thousands. It’s the Columbus Syndrome. I see it in Cuba all the time.
Are we in a cultural and historical moment where home and displacement are at odds?
You can be home but feel displaced, absolutely. Maybe the question to ask is whether there is any one home for anybody these days. I think all of us have a sense of multiple homes; home isn’t necessarily one place. It’s fluid. It’s mobile. What’s your home today might not be your home 10 years from now and I think we all kind of live with that understanding and it’s not as worrisome as it might have been in the past. But I feel that the era when we migrated in the sixties, it was very much this or that. With so much air travel now, though, you can be in one place for a few months and then somewhere else for a few more months and people have multiple homes — multiple homes literally, in terms of real estate, but also multiple homes in terms of where you feel like you belong.
Uprooting is very, very painful for many people but I think we kind of accept it now as a fact of life, as a condition of modern life. I think in that sense, home and displacement are different from each other in that displacement has become such a norm that home is a much more airy concept. Home is more in flux than in the past. And yet, we all like to decorate our homes and bring things home [from our travels], and I’m very much like that. If you can get me to lug anything from anywhere to bring it back to my house in Michigan, I will. I was in Mexico in August and I was bringing back this Frida Kahlo bag and all this Mexican glass and these things. Do I need them? No. But there’s this urge to bring things back from other places and so I do.
In Traveling Heavy you mention wanting to acquire an apartment in Cuba. Is there a desire to acquire that place so you can fill it up with things and people and experiences and memories? The idea of an apartment in Cuba where you can say, “This is a place where certain memories, where certain chapters of my life unfolded.” Is that appealing to you?
Absolutely. And I think for us as writers, for myself, I need to surround myself with my books, with a vase of flowers and some candles and a nice glass from which to drink water when I’m writing. So I think part of this is a desire to have a place where I can write, where I can sit, where I can be very tranquil, where I can be quiet. That’s important to me. Wherever I am, I need to find that space, whether I’m in Cuba or Miami or wherever, I need to create that space. But really, where I most have that space is in Michigan because that’s where my house-home is. And that’s where I know there’s this desk and it’s crowded with stuff but it’s my cocoon. It’s where I go. I have the same window looking out onto the same tree. So that’s what it’s about: to find the place where we have the stability to create, to write.
When we’re constantly in movement … I don’t think you can keep that up forever. You kind of need to have a place that’s surrounded with beautiful things, with these things brought back from travels, all in one place. It reminds you that we’re mobile and that you have a place to anchor. I don’t think of Michigan as my heart place, but I am grateful for it as my place of stability and security. I go up the stairs and there’s my little room and my books, with my stuff, and my window, and my candles, and my altar where I have pictures of my grandparents and family who have passed away. That’s very anchoring and I do need that. Everybody needs that — some anchor.
Let’s talk more about things. For so many Cubans and all sorts of refugees and immigrants in particular — and for Jews, too — the loss of things is a fundamental experience of leaving home. I mean, think about all the Cubans who are dreaming of going back to Cuba to dig up the silver they buried in the backyard. It’s not about the silver, right? It’s about something else — everything that was left.
Right. All the buried treasure. All the lives they didn’t get to lead. It’s fascinating. One of the things that happened when I was growing up is that we’d go shopping at very inexpensive stores because we didn’t have a lot of money. My mother would buy stuff, bring it home, put it on, and go, “No, no, no, I shouldn’t be buying this for myself.” And then she’d take it all back to the store. She’d buy it and return it, buy it and return it. I do it too. There’s this ambivalence about things: are we trying to buy too many things, especially when people back in Cuba couldn’t have them?
Or what if you’re forced to leave [your home] again, leaving everything behind? The ambivalence about acquiring things is totally understandable.
Right. So with material things, there was this constant ambivalence about acquiring stuff: Did we have enough? Did we have too much? Did we want to have too much to make up for what we lost? You see that a lot among Cubans in Miami; the materialism is incredible. So I think a lot about materialism and material goods: why do I want things? And I mention that in Traveling Heavy, too. Can I leave things behind? It’s like a preparation for death because we all know that we can’t take these things with us —unless you’re going to be buried like an ancient Egyptian. So for me, when I travel I’m stripping down to the essentials and it’s really in preparation for the final journey where I can’t take anything with me. All I’ll really leave behind is whether I was good to people and whether I did some writing I was proud of, that’s about it. So for me, travel is very existential if I stop to think about it. I always try to take that moment to reflect.
In Traveling Heavy you write, “I specialize professionally in homesickness.”
Yes, very much.
How do you define homesickness and what are its features? Does it have a cure?
Well, the only cure for homesickness is more homesickness. I mean anthropology is based on this idea that you go someplace to experience the other place, but you can only tell about it or write about it once you’ve left the place. So there’s always going to be this sense of homesickness implicit in that action. You go someplace else to experience that place, but in that process, you’re missing the place that you’re from; you miss something about it. You’re already homesick, stage 1. Then you’re in the other place and you have to integrate yourself into that place; you do all these things to be part of it, to belong to it, and once you finally belong, it’s usually time to leave. And then you’re homesick again. You think, “Oh my God, I can’t have that mole [a Mexican dish]” or, “I can’t talk in this particular way that people talk in Cuba.” But when you’re there — in Mexico or Cuba or wherever — you’re also missing someplace else. No place has everything you want, so you’re always missing something about another place.
But this is kind of our condition as anthropologists. A lot of people become anthropologists because we’re a little unhappy about the place where we are. A lot of us sort of want to be expatriates. We have that idea and, in fact, some anthropologists do; they “go native,” going to live in the places where they research or marrying someone from that place and trying to bring the place back through that person. So a lot of us are unhappy about our place: Do we belong? Do we not belong? And that compels us —gives us our motivation — to go elsewhere and spend extended periods of time there. And writers have that as well. We have this uneasiness, this unsettledness about us as people, I think because we are curious and questioning: “Is this the only way to be a woman? Maybe if I go someplace else I can find another way to be a woman and things can be different.” So we have that uneasiness about whether the way we live is the only way to live. Is this the only way to do things? Is there another way to configure human life? We’re homesick by nature. We displace ourselves on purpose. It’s a different kind of displacement. It’s an effort to understand what home is.
Thinking about particular people who are being displaced right now — Guatemalan and Honduran children crossing the border; the Israeli and Palestinian issue; Dominicans and Haitians crossing the Mona Passage to get to Puerto Rico because they’ve been told that if they land there they’ll be in the United States; Africans going to Europe — do you have any thoughts about these particular displacements and how we can understand them better?
Well, each one is so specific, but it all comes back to politics and economics. It’s either politics and war, the continuing fight for territory, as we see in the Israeli and Palestinian conflict and what has happened in Gaza this summer. It’s conflict about dominance and security; every side wants to be secure and, unfortunately, the way security has become defined in our time is through militarization and power, so you have more weapons, you think you’re more secure. The use of force in Gaza this summer was so painful for all of us to watch — and as Jews even more because we don’t want that violence being done in our name.
It’s a fight for territory on the one hand; on the other hand, sometimes it’s age-old feuds between usually neighboring peoples about their shared border. We can certainly put the US and Mexico in that category as well. Again, it comes back to war and dominance because this whole area we’re talking about — it was all Mexico. When you talk about the US-Mexico border, it was all Mexico. So we’re talking again about territory and the fight for territory. I know so many people in San Antonio, Texas who are Americans but their families go 15 generations back with ties to Mexico. How do you decide who you are with this sense of being betwixt and between?
Then there are all the economic issues, people who are crossing borders so they can have more than what they can have back home. But the more people we have crossing into the developed parts of the world, the more damage we cause to our world too, because we demand more of the resources of our planet. At the same time, no one should have to live in an underdeveloped way while the rest of us in the developed world are making decisions about their lives.
Tremendous inequality creates displacement. The desire to live better, to create a better life for one’s family, for one’s children, for the next generation, is powerful. We’re all fighting for that next generation that isn’t here yet. Huge inequality is causing all this movement, the movement to figure out: where can we improve our life chances, our survival chances?
Do you think that there’s a particular kind of homesickness with respect to Cuba? In my experience, Cubans have a particular brand of homesickness. Some people can’t go back, so there’s that: an eternal longing. But there are others who go back and they really expect to have a joyous homecoming and they often don’t — for so long, they’ve held onto a fantasy of going back and the fantasy isn’t fulfilled.
I think there totally is and that’s a good way to put it — a brand of homesickness. It has to do with the unresolved nature of things in Cuba: “When is it going to change?” people say. Of course, it’s been evolving constantly. It doesn’t look that way from the American perspective, but it has been changing. It’s a vibrant, lively society of the most brilliant people. It’s an amazing place, but at the same time I think there’s always this sense of disappointment and disillusionment with the ideal of what Cuba was going to be. The ideals that were set forth [vis-a-vis the Cuban Revolution] by this island of 11 million people were really astonishing. And not only did they set forth the ideals, they stood up for them when the US could have easily put its big foot down and suppress it like they did in Guatemala and Chile. So how come they couldn’t squash Cuba? Even those of us who left have this pride that Cubans didn’t allow themselves to be squashed and that they dreamed bigger than anyone ever expected. So the dream was so huge, so amazing … and that it failed … that’s devastating. Part of that dream involved making money not so important. It was just so euphoric and then it all failed so badly. And not only failed but became so horribly ironic — I mean, the double currency! Suddenly all these dreams became a farce. And that’s depressing.
What books are you reading right now? Many of us travel to feel like we’re visiting another place that’s completely different from our own — do you do that? What books make you feel like you’re at home?
There are certain authors I read over and over, among them, Marguerite Duras and her book The Lover. That’s one of my favorites and it takes place in what is now Vietnam; it gives me a sense of that place and an incredible sense of first love. I’m a real sucker for stories about love and particularly love that goes across borders, people who love each other across borders — ethnic, age, whatever. So I read her a lot; I reread her. I like her too because she crossed borders as a writer: she wrote screenplays, stories, journalism; she did all different forms of writing and I really love that.
My favorite Caribbean writer is Jean Rhys. I love Wide Sargasso Sea very, very much. I also read a lot of new fiction: The Invention of Wings I loved because it’s told from two points of view, two women during slavery times in the South. Those are the kinds of topics that interest me, but I also read to learn about other ways to write. How do you tell a story from two different points of view? I like The Hours by Michael Cunningham: three women, three points of view. I’ve been reading some Hemingway recently, partly because of his connection to Cuba. I read a lot of poetry as well. I love Mary Oliver, for example. Cuban poets? Dulce María Loynaz is my favorite. I adore her prose poems; I could read them over and over and over. I need to read more poetry. I want to write more poetry. I’m on sabbatical this year; that’s one of my goals: to write more poems.
What else are you working on?
I’m also trying to finish a novel for middle-graders, 8–11 year olds. It’s told from the point of view of a nine-year-old girl, kind of based on my own story. I was in a body cast when I was nine years old because I broke my femur. [The book] is called Lucky Broken Girl and it’s about trying to recover from this injury, but it’s also about the dream world she creates. That’s all written; I just have to tweak it.
Then I’m hoping to write about my year being on sabbatical — our quest to always have the time to do all we want to do. Each month is going to be a chapter and I’m focusing on different family members and friends and what each one is trying to do to be happy. It’s kind of like a journal, but thinking about how sacred time is and how quickly time goes away. I’m reflecting on time as I’m trying to do all this stuff.
I am writing about Miami, too; I’ve been doing some research there for the past few years. I’m very interested in how the Cuban community has been changing over the last 10 years; it’s been changing radically and I’m fascinated by that. I’ll probably spend a lot of time there in the winter.
One last question. You talk a lot in Traveling Heavy about the rituals you have before a journey, but do you have rituals when you return, too?
Usually it takes me a few days to unpack — literally. The bags kind of sit there. The thought of “My God, I have to unpack this and do something with it.” It takes me a while to reintegrate. Sometimes, if I’m in the midst of a lot of travel, I barely unpack. The ritual is that I’m in a kind of limbo. I stare at the suitcases for a few days. And often, if I’m tired, I throw myself into bed and read books. I need time to come back to the world.
The exchange below took place over email in response to the December 17, 2014 news that President Obama and Raúl Castro had come to a historic agreement.
What are your initial thoughts about today’s announcement regarding US-Cuba relations?
It was with excitement and a pounding heart that I woke up to the news of President Obama’s proposed US policy changes toward Cuba. I fully support Obama’s call for cooperation and reciprocity in US-Cuban relations. I have been a proponent of a bridge to Cuba since 1992, when I wrote my first op-ed essay on the subject for The New York Times. I have traveled back and forth to the island numerous times, searching for home, always hoping that one day my exiled parents who have never been back to Cuba might accompany me. I think normalizing relations with Cuba is a first step in a positive direction to end the Cold War between two nations that were once “flesh and nail,” or “uña y carne,” as we say in Spanish. By negotiating directly with Cuba, and opening a US embassy on the island, the US will be more successful in bringing about social and political change on the island.
At the same time, I recognize the loss and grief of so many Cubans. On the island, there are those who believed in the utopian project of the revolution and sacrificed their personal dreams and comfort for a collective hope of social justice and equality. Outside the island, there are those, like my parents, who had to leave everything behind in Cuba and arrive with only the shirts on their backs to remake their lives in the United States and go in search of the American Dream. We must not forget, either, the many who have died at sea, risking their lives to reach the United States. We need to honor and respect all Cubans and their stories, and uphold Cuban diversity, while at the same time moving forward to create a better present and future for an island that has played such a huge role in modern history and in the modern imagination.
What is your sense of the transitional period, due to this political change, that awaits Cubans in Cuba, and for Cubans in Miami and throughout the US, and Cubans around the world? How does big politics affect the experience of “home” on the most local, intimate levels?
After such a long hiatus, how will things move forward? There are many anxieties about what is in store and many different players wanting different outcomes. The “good Americans,” who have traveled to Cuba looking for an exotic Other and have become “Cuba addicts,” adoring the quirkiness of a country where there are no MacDonald’s, worry that the island’s enchantment will fizzle away as soon as the “ugly Americans” arrive. Cuban-Americans of my parents’ generation still carry the psychic wounds of having had to leave Cuba with nothing but the shirts on their backs and start over. Like compatriots who have been persecuted by the Cuban government or lost family in Cuban jails, they feel disrespected and outraged that Obama wants to hand over an olive branch to Fidel Castro and Raúl Castro. Hardline politicians capitalize on these hurts and insist that the embargo is the only balm for them. In turn, Cubans on the island are now divided between those who welcome the move toward tourism and capitalist entrepreneurship and those who still depend for their survival on the libreta, the ration book, and the state-run safety net that provides free health care and other social services. My former nanny, now 88, who lives in Havana with her children and grandchildren and great-grandchild, told me on my most recent trip to Cuba in November that if they take away the libreta, as valuable to her as food stamps, she will starve, and if the family doctor stops making weekly house calls to check her blood pressure, she will die.
Obama has set in motion a renewed conversation about Cuba that in the best scenario will make it possible for all voices to be heard and in the worst will create further discord and contempt. What should the Cuban future be? Given the legacy of American colonialism, what measures can be put in place so Americans will act ethically in Cuba as visitors and investors? After years of strife, how are we to bring about nonviolent communication, so Cubans of various generations, social classes, racial backgrounds, and political persuasions can resolve their differences? The increase in revenue from remittances, that largely go-to white families, and the flow of money toward tourism, which is noticeably in white hands, will intensify the racial and class divide in Cuba. What can be done to counter this simmering inequality? While the return of an American presence in Cuba might hasten the dissolution of communism, it might create a fiercer hunger for it among have-nots.
No es fácil, as Cubans like to say. Nothing is easy when it comes to Cuba. But I hold on to a small hope that I will get to visit Cuba with my parents. I know Cuba will be at once so familiar and so strange to them. My father still remembers all the bus routes in Havana, and they haven’t changed. But other things have changed drastically in the last fifty years, and I know this will be a very emotional experience for them, and for me. I hope that moment won’t be too long in coming.