I spent spring break immersed in Cuba's complicated history — and our own
Alexandra Villarreal, Columbia University
“Are any of you spending spring break in Havana?” my Spanish professor asked.
I barely raised my hand, hoping he wouldn’t see. Not because my plans were still up in the air — I had booked my flight weeks ago, and the Airbnb manager had already charged my debit card. But descriptions of the “ugly American” loomed in my mind: scantily clad tourists wearing sombreros and brandishing bottles of scotch, burnt-out college students reclining on beaches and sipping bottomless daiquiris.
I didn’t want him to think I was one of them, the voyeurs who run off to Cuba because it’s a no-lugar, a place without a history, a sensual home to so-called savagery.
He scanned the room, and his eyes settled on my halfway lifted palm that a less careful survey would have never noticed. “De veras?” he asked, smiling. “Well, you’ll have your very own ‘Week-End in Havana.’”
We had just watched the 1941 maraca musical, and he joked that like Alice Faye’s character, I’d stumble into a steamy romance while baking under the hot Havana sun or swaying under the palm trees after dark. But I was not looking to romp with a stranger beneath airy sheets because that, for me, wouldn’t be the escape I needed.
For four days, I needed to be reminded of how it felt to be completely alone, to feel my aloneness in my bones. To inhale deeply and, for the first time in months, to not feel my crushing anxiety over everyone’s expectations shorten my breath into spurts.
And I wanted to see Cuba beyond its surface, which is nearly impossible when you’re distracted by the white noise of long-term company.
A week later, I boarded a plane to José Martí International Airport with only a small backpack and the desire to get far away from the upcoming nor’easter. My seatmate, a man headed to Havana for business, told me the city was stuck in the ’50s and that’s what made it fun.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but when I landed 90 miles from Florida, I at least knew he was wrong. Havana is not eternally stuck in the ’50s, nor any time and place. It is instead torn between its past and modernity, pulled in both directions by a tourist industry that craves an “authentic” old-fashioned ambiance, residents who want a reprieve from their crumbling cityscape, and a government that prohibits all whispers of the 21st-century West.
Sleekly refurbished red and pink convertibles zoom around town, somehow too shiny and functional to feel retro. A Wurlitzer jukebox at the Hotel Nacional looks like it belongs in a soda shop playing doo-wop, but its track list includes a selection from Celine Dion.
Modern Mercedes drive alongside limping gas guzzlers on their last legs, and in a taxi, the driver may hum to rumba rhythms or sing along with Can’t Stop the Feeling! by Justin Timberlake.
On top of its time-travel feel, Havana has an unsettling amnesia. Its people have chosen to collectively forget 400 years as a colony. In Cuba, history begins at the end of the 19th century with José Martí.
This is the country’s appeal — its contradictions and juxtapositions. Its flexible rigidity, and its cautious seduction. Its sanitized danger and its erased memories.
My first impression of Havana was the Plaza de Revolución. During my ride from the airport to Vedado — Havana’s Upper East Side that’s nothing like the Upper East Side — I passed two towering buildings covered with the glaring faces of Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Across the street, a colossal Martí sat like Lincoln at his memorial, sternly judging the passersby. This was the patriarchy, I thought, a male gaze that never leaves you.
Storefronts post signs in their windows that read “Fidel es el pueblo,” which translates to “Fidel is the people.” But not all the people; the pueblo, the peasants. The most marginalized group, whose voice has been easily conquered and exploited. Fidel can be the pueblo, because the pueblo can’t speak for itself. Even in death, the Comandante has more influence than those he represents.
Everywhere, a bust of Martí or poster of Fidel or Che reminds citizens that Big Brother is watching. The Revolution has set up its own icon worship, a replacement for religion that branded its leaders as gods. Martí is the father of the Revolution; Che, its martyr; and Fidel, the man who carried it out.
I thought of the monuments in Washington, D.C., and shivered, because maybe the United States is more like Cuba than we thought during the Cold War. Just like our communist adversaries, we have learned to revere mortally flawed men instead of the unadulterated ideals that defined them.
But back to Havana.
As if an omniscient, omnipresent and immortal dictator and his posse were not enough for the Cuban government, soldiers on each corner reminded residents how liberated they actually are. Without being asked, locals constantly told me that it was safe to be on the streets at night, and they seemed almost too adamant.
When I questioned my driver about why there were so many men policing the area, he went silent. “Well, Havana is very safe,” he said finally. “They are more watching over society.” We had enjoyed a lovely and lively conversation during our drive, but once I prodded at the wrong things, he grew uncharacteristically quiet, even taciturn. When he dropped me off at the Museo de Revolución in Old Havana, I could see relief etched in the contours of his face.
The Museo was an education in itself. Inside the former palace, I learned how the Cuban people are supposed to view Americans, according to their officials. On the second floor, an entire wing is dedicated to U.S. attempts at overthrowing Fidel Castro’s regime. A massive poster details alleged American aggressions in the country, from detonating a bomb at the Post Office Administration in Havana to “treat(ing) the clouds with chemicals to damage the sugarcane harvest.” To them, Guantanamo is an “illegal base” that committed 13,263 “provocative acts and other offenses” between 1962-1992. Even commonplace factory fires have been blamed on the Central Intelligence Agency.
During the latter half of the 20th century, the United States became Castro’s scapegoat for any tragedy, from manmade violence to natural disasters, and because of American document classification and covert actions, it’s nearly impossible for a curious layman like me to track the validity of his claims.
We did direct the Bay of Pigs, and later Operation Mongoose to sabotage the communist government. We did refuse aid to Castro and pushed him into Nikita Khrushchev’s open arms, even after then-Vice President Richard Nixon, a man who had made his career by exploiting the Red Scare, said he did not think Fidel was a communist. We attempted to assassinate the Comandante, many times, or discredit his authority through desperate and sometimes comical tactics.
In the 1960s, regardless of how you feel about Castro, we were antagonists in the story of Cuba. As I perused the walls, I didn’t question whether we behaved with honor — I knew we didn’t. My question was whether we were as strategically wicked as the museum panels suggested.
But facts and nuance do not matter when governments rewrite history. For Fidel and now his brother, Raúl, we were — and are — the enemy. Our sins are writ large in their national chronology, available to any tourist who makes it to the Museo.
And for Americans, they are especially visible. Not every text has been translated into English, but those that mention U.S. collaboration with Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship or that describe the “demoralization and defeat” of mercenaries from the Bay of Pigs make sure that visitors from the north can read them.
Downstairs, in “The Corner of the Cretins,” four caricatures appear: Batista, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush. The latter two stand out most — the elder Bush is dressed as a despotic Caesar, while his son wears Nazi swastikas and skims an upside-down book on freedom. Plaques by each of the four men thank each for his respective contribution to furthering the communist cause.
On the museum’s terrace, amid an exhibition of military equipment, a sign proudly boasts that one of the missiles on display shot down an American U-2 plane that had violated Cuban airspace during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Remnants of the so-called “spy plane” sit beside their destroyer.
One of the guards called out to me as I surveyed his treasures. He winked, looking for flirtation. In that moment, I hated him. He wanted to stir up a fun fling in the same place where the dictatorship his uniform represented boasted of having killed one of my people, where it paraded the shards of his aircraft as a war trophy. Had the pilot’s limp, cold body stayed intact, they probably would have exhibited that, too, as booty. I tried to avoid the guard as I left, and I sighed out of relief when I finally exited a museum that had made me gawk at our capacity for cruelty.
As I walked out of the palace and onto the streets of Old Havana, the soldier was not the only man to leer or cat-call. Cuban men are hustlers, but unless they’re surrounded by shrines to America’s demise, they’re the sweetest hustlers you’ll ever meet. It’s hard to hold much of a grudge.
They’re all bark and no bite, and, regardless of age, they just want you to know that you’re “beautiful.” For most of them, it seems to be the only English word they’ve learned. And that’s okay, I thought, because telling someone that they’re beautiful almost always makes their day. Saying anything more only complicates the situation.
Fernando Ortiz, “the third discoverer of Cuba,” once said that everyone there is mixed race, but “some Cubans are swarthy enough that they look black; others are light-skinned enough that they look white.” Most all of those with predominately European blood must have left the island because now the streets are a melting pot of deep caramels and chocolates.
In this color palette, my freakishly icy veins that peek through translucent skin made me exotica, and it was no wonder the men took notice. To them, I was the “other,” a ghostly image unfamiliar to their daily lives. The women gawked, too. One stopped me to say that my “big eyes and skin looked like the princesses from the movies.” I had never visited a country where I felt so obviously foreign, and yet so coveted.
Because of my eccentricity, the Cuban people couldn’t seem to place me. In the most touristy centers, they pegged me as American and only spoke to me in English. But to taxi drivers and pedestrians, I couldn’t be from the United States because I knew Spanish and was far too shy.
At José Martí’s memorial, an English-language tour guide half-heartedly escorted a group from Europe. “This is a photo of Martí with laborers in Florida,” he said. “They were shipping arms to the Cuban revolutionaries, but then the American government stopped them. They were still supporting Spain, I don’t know why.”
I could feel his contempt, and so I wandered over to read a letter, in Spanish, that Martí wrote to his son before joining Cuban revolutionary forces in 1895.
“¿Hablas español?” he asked, smiling.
“Sí,” I responded. He wondered where I was from, and when I said the United States, he blushed. We had a conversation about Maria Mantilla — he thought that she was Martí’s lover, but I knew she was his illegitimate daughter from a love affair in New York. We parted ways when his tour group grew impatient, but later I saw him at the Hotel Nacional, and he waved.
Unlike this proud tour guide, who saw my country as an imperial menace but liked me just fine, most Cubans felt they had something to prove to me.
“See, it’s not the ugly, dirty place they say it is in America, is it?” one driver asked. I told him I had never thought of Havana as a cesspool, and he seemed surprised. Another man — a former member of the military, no less — assured me that I would not find a single Cuban married to a Russian, their one-time Cold War ally.
Despite 45 years of occupation, the Russians and Cubans didn’t fraternize, he said, which I found humorous because during the early years of the 20th century, Cuban women and American soldiers shared more than one love child. But, he insisted, dating Russians was a line that Cubans would never cross.
So I guess author Edmundo Desnoes was right: to Cubans, Americans have a particular kind of smell, but Russians stink.
When I spoke with residents, I could feel a chasm always divided us. Everyone was pleasant, even congenial, but I could hear them censoring themselves, hesitant to confess the whole truth. Sometimes, my company would slip in subtle comments of protest:
“The Cuban people have always been about helping each other, even before the Revolution.”
“I wouldn’t know that poet because our presses are only used for propaganda here.”
“We can’t travel because countries won’t give us visas — they’re afraid if we leave, we’ll never return.”
A man told me that until five years ago, the government had prohibited anyone other than diplomats from learning our language. Inside the Museo de Revolución, an employee walked up to a couple from Denver to practice her English; she had been studying for two months, she said, for an hour each night.
But offhand asides and friendly exchanges rarely led to more depth. What I couldn’t glean from conversation, I tried to imbibe through immersion. I have always thought that to learn about a culture, you should look to its art for life and its cemeteries for death. And so on a rainy day, I took a coco taxi to the Museo de Bellas Artes and then made my way to the Cementerio de Colón.
Children’s drawings bursting with color lined one of the entry ways at the art museum. Some of the kids had portrayed a crimson-mustachioed Martí or a pentagonal Che; others outlined the orange-striped tees and blue sunhats of tourists.
The professional rooms were darker. A sketched dove settled comfortably in its nest; in a second image above, its tattered wings withered away, revealing a protruding skull. The work was called “War and Peace.”
In another painting, Cuba was a damsel in distress, invaded by palm trees and surrounded by water. The island has always been depicted as a woman, usually a minx, or a stylish vacationer wearing sunglasses and a domineering hat. But here, the putrid greens and grays took away her sex appeal. She was a victim.
Starving peasants cast in sea foam stared back at me with jagged teeth, and in “20th-century in mid-passage,” violent implosions of red corrupted harsh vertical lines in standardized chaos. The museum felt like an anguished but stifled cry that no one ever hears.
The cemetery was also stunning, and heartbreaking. There were imposing marble odes to the Revolution, but most of the elaborately decorated tombs were for individuals who had been deeply loved, who were not just a number within the revolutionary forces. Near the back entrance, an homage to a child caught my eye — his mother had written that she cried of joy when he was born, and now her tears would never cease. Her Spanish phrases expressed more than English ever could, and I didn’t dare take a photo of his resting place. It had touched me too much, and he deserved peace.
I have always felt at home in cemeteries, even before my father died. Line after line of truncated obituaries remind me that everyone thinks their loved ones passed too soon, and that everyone who has lost someone close knows how to feel a real kind of pain. There is solidarity in death, a shared human experience that we lack in life.
As I walked through rows of tombstones, I wished I could tell the people who had laid flowers on graves that I had lost someone, too. Then, maybe I wouldn’t be American, and they wouldn’t be Cuban, and we wouldn’t obey the arbitrary borders placed upon our nations. We would just be human beings grieving the pain we had caused each other in the past, hoping for less hatred and suffering in the future.
I flew back to New York on Thursday, and in class on Tuesday, my Spanish professor asked what I had done in Cuba. Had I made it to the Tropicana, or stayed at the Hotel Nacional?
I thought of the shacks just outside of Havana on the way to Ernest Hemingway’s ranch, and decaying apartments that had never been visited by an inspector. I thought of scenes carved into concrete benches, where Cubans had used the city as their canvas when they couldn’t afford art supplies. I thought of a taxi driver who had pulled over to give her husband a kiss before continuing on our way, and I thought of all those beige and green uniforms plastered on the sweaty skin of men performing their mandatory military service.
“It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me,” he chuckled.
I smiled, glad I had gone, and glad to be home.
Alexandra Villarreal is a Columbia University student and a member of the USA TODAY College contributor network.
IN ENGLISH LANGUAGE
FOR PEOPLE WHO READ IN ENGLISH: ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS IN ENGLISH OR TRANSLATED. PUBLICATION DOES NOT MEAN WE ENDORSE OR REJECT CONCLUSIONS OR STATEMENTS OF AUTHORS