I am an island girl. I didn’t grow up on an island, but I’ve long obsessed over them. Perhaps some ancient strain of my Irish heritage still resides in me, inscribed into my consciousness by past generations’ pens. Whatever the initial reason, I can mark all the major eras of my life by which island reigned in my recent experience or in my academic imagination: Galveston Island, the Emerald Isle, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Zanzibar, Vancouver Island, Margarita Island, Kauai, St. Pierre, Newfoundland.
This week, our president, Barack Obama, started the process to naturalize U.S. relations with Cuba. As I read the New York Times articles covering this historic move, I felt a past self flutter-kick up from deep inside me and then heard her whisper to me. She said, Dos partrias tengo yo: Cuba y la noche, quoting the famous Cuban poet and freedom fighter, Jose Marti. I have two homelands: Cuba and the night. I’m not the only one. Obama cited the famous writer when he announced his intent to normalize relations.
My love for Cuba began as a teenager–my best friend was Cuban-American, her parents part of the young generation that fled the island after Castro’s takeover in 1958. My experience in her family–the rope vieja, the easy laughter, the salsa lessons and pan con mantequilla on late Saturday mornings, the cut-off consonants in their rapid espanol that I attempted to mimic–probably led in large part to my choosing Latin American Studies as a major in college, and in my first graduate program in the same field, I focused on the Caribbean, writing two major papers in Spanish, one about how the history of baseball functions as a map of U.S.-Caribbean relations and one about the history of sex tourism in the Caribbean. Between undergrad and graduate school, I worked at an organization that provided college students the opportunity to travel legally to Cuba, and I had the privilege of visiting Havana two summers in a row. I remember feeling so special boarding a Havana-bound plane in Miami when few other U.S. citizens could ever do the same. I remember begging the officer at customs to stamp my passport so that I could be “official” (Cuban customs officers were in the habit of not stamping U.S. passports since they knew most U.S. travelers were arriving illegally).
Havana moved me as few other cities ever have, and I’ve lived in and traveled to many soulful cities. Soul is the right word. Every island I’ve loved has soul. Strange mixtures of people wash ashore and decide to stay. Then they’re isolated together, and a rich soil develops, a seething fertility of ideas, art, genetics, at once collision and integration. The particular pathos of such a history spoke to me. All that encounter, all that beauty. And it made me a writer. I wrote my first short story about Cuba, the story that I used to get into an M.F.A. program, a story my late teacher, Daniel Stern, graciously asked to include in his festschrift–giving me my first published piece of writing in an anthology that boasts work by Edward Albee and Elie Weisel. All that water too. Jose Marti also wrote, if you’ve seen a mount of sea foam, its my verse you’ve seen. Where you’ve seen my writing too, you’ve seen some island.
I fell in love in Havana. I sat at the sea-most edge of the Hotel Nacional’s patio, practically hanging over the ocean, in a white, wrought-iron chair, across from a man I’d just met and almost threw my whole life over for because he had eyes so blue-green I couldn’t distinguish them from the water all around us. I wandered down a cobblestone side street and into a shop that sold hand painted movie posters and bought the one for a Soviet propaganda film, Soy Cuba, which still hangs in my kitchen. I found the clave‘s rhythm on a rooftop dance floor, partnering with young mixed race boys in flip-flops who asked me about Tupac and the Internet. I nodded at bored soldiers on street corners with their machine guns drooping in the humidity. I carried a thin layer of sweat around like a tight, see-through dress. I let the humidity swallow me whole, like a giant mouth. I’ve never forgotten it, la isla bonita.
Like many people, I’ve long hoped for a lifted embargo. And as someone said to me yesterday, “when Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are upset about and against something, it’s probably a good sign that you should be in favor of it.” But I also sympathize with the cause (ironically, those Cuban-Americans who have supported the embargo have also unwittingly supported Fidel Castro); I admire Cuba–what cojones you must have to hold out so long at the enemy’s doorstep. As someone who studied Latin America for years, I know the dangers of U.S. political and commercial presence on the various nations of that continent. As much as I understand the underbelly of Castro’s regime, I feel a legitimate fear for the island, a fear based on real world evidence from other Caribbean islands, a fear of transnational tourist corporations, a fear of tawdry aesthetics, the powerful creep of commodified banality, and economic dependence. The Cubans deserve some freedom–I’ve never met such learned people without the means or avenues to use their learning–but communism hasn’t cornered the market (pun intended) on enslavement. I want to scream from the hot rooftops: go see this beautiful place! But then I want to scream, “But only if you promise not to ruin it!”
Maybe what I love about islands are their “in-betweenness.” In a sea they are the absence of sea. Or, they are loamy way stations. The sea can be a tight embrace and or a daily beckoning. I guess I’d like to imagine a future Cuba that way–as the absence of capitalism and the absence of communism, a borderland, something in the thin, 90 mile stretch between those two vast idea-lands, a truly free-floating place. It has always held that kind of promise.
Let us respect the tide’s posture toward the island. May we allow the shore’s waters to open out when they will, like so many eager arms, and may we allow them to hug themselves closed when they must do that too.
5 thoughts on “Sermon para la isla bonita”
And let’s get some Major League Baseball teams in Havana, San Juan, and Santo Domingo!
Your Dad is also fascinated and drawn to islands and end-of-the-road places. They fill his bucket list.
Your essay took my breath away. I am now going to read as much of your published writing as I can find. I am proud of Obama for making a decision for “good” and damn those who disagree with him. I hope he will make more decisions for “good” before his presidency ends. So many people in my generation think of Cuba only as the country that, in 1960, in alliance with Nikita Kruschev, brought us closer to nuclear war than in any time in history. Defining people by the actions of their governments is foolhardy, arrogant and dangerous. Thanks for posting this link on FB. BTW, did you get your passport stamped in Cuba?