Friday, January 30, 2015

On Cuba: 12 Notes at the Crossroads

 Guest Post by Emma Trelles

Le sombre Malembo, Dieu du carrefour, 1943, by Wifredo Lam

1. After an entire lifetime in South Florida, I now live 3,000 miles away on the central coast of California, in a small city ringed by mountains and bordered by a Pacific which appears paler and vaster than the Caribbean-Atlantic I have always known. This is where I hear that the Cuban embargo is unraveling, the news a fragment floating from my car radio right before I turn off the ignition to trundle groceries from the trunk to our garden apartment. The U.S. will further ease travel restrictions to the island, open an embassy, lift some trade and banking sanctions.  It is as if a mythic bird has winged overhead and I’ve only caught a glimpse of a few bright feathers. My first thought is what was that? It doesn’t really register. 
2.  I get busy putting away eggs and carrots grown at nearby farms. But the news keeps simmering somewhere inside me, a place as intrinsic to me as my ardor for lists or the invisible work of my lungs. It is the tiny island of Cubania I have carried within me since I was a child, born in the U.S. and trying to belong in Miami, a city that, in the 70s, still viewed my Cuban family and so many other recent immigrants as outsiders, no matter how quickly we learned English and how hard we worked. 
3. As a young girl, I saw Fidel Castro as the camouflaged villain standing between the rotary phone in our kitchen and my family in Havana, whom we could only talk to briefly and on rare occasion. I’d shout in Spanish over the crackle of lines and wonder what their faces looked like. We didn’t have any pictures of them. When I eavesdropped on talk of Castro’s demise, a long-cherished topic in Miami, I imagined a scene much like the one in the The Wizard of Oz, where an oppressor is felled with one crashing stroke. Everyone is giddy and sings in three-part harmonies. A land returns to color, and instead of shoes, two black boots would curl and crumble to dust.
4. I think about this part of my childhood when I think of Cubans on the true island-nation, who, like we once did, have begun their own migration from perceived outcasts to rightful neighbors, with whom we share bloodlines and friendships and a percussive, slangy Spanish. I'm not talking about those who created a palm-fringed prison of the body and its free will. I mean the everyday Cubans who have kept on keeping on. Their relentless optimism and resourcefulness are at the core of Cubanía, something that is also seen in the micro, self-written psalm of my people: Todo se resuelve. Everything will work out.
Photo (26)

5. In my imagined island of Cubanía, there is a little boat anchored near the shore and a blue-striped cabana on the beach. It contains a crazy-quilt of culture:
*café con leche, large, and a reservoir of pastelitos de guayaba

*homespun altars to Changó (whose Cuban-Catholic twin is Santa Barbara - at left) and La Caridad del Cobre (Cuba's patron saint);

a garden of white roses and un hombre sincero (first known as José Martí);
*dichos in Spanish like eso es un arroz con mango (Literal meaning: This is a plate of rice and mango. True meaning: What a mess) and tienes que echar pa'lante (Literally: You must move forward. Truly: Never give up); 
*every song Celia Cruz has ever sung with La Sonora Matancera and the Fania All Stars and all the solo stuff, especially that little snippet of a sound check where she’s in Zaire with Fania and busts out la “Guantaramera” in that magma-from-the-earth’s-core timbre of hers and then starts dancing, gliding away from the mic as if caught in the happiest of dreams.
* Wifredo Lam’s oil on canvas, Le sombre Malembo, Dieu du carrefour / Dark Malembo, God of the Crossroads.
*my mother's voice, which can sound like a chime or a siren, depending on the topic of conversation (Chime: I am so proud of you, mima. Siren: Please don't talk to me about Obama).
6. My mother, a Cuban-born American, is intensely Republican, and I am an American-born Cuban and a progressive. When our president won his second term, my mother told my brother she couldn't talk to me for a few days because she didn't want to hear me gloat and because she couldn't bear to see this country go down the same socialist-communist road that Cuba had traveled for more than five decades. My mother confiding to my brother, who passes it along to me, all of this over the phone, because, in my family, a conversation so intimate is unbearable to hold in person. Another Cubanía: Do not confront a person you love with your truthful unpleasantries but freely discuss with others, who will then share them on your behalf.
7. The god of the crossroads stands in a brilliant thicket of green. In my favorite painting by Wifredo Lam, the Afro-Cuban modernist, the deity also known as Elegua in the Santería faith spreads his cloak around a host of horned heads and leaves, an assembly of watchful eyes.
8.  My friends and I, or at least those of us excited by the news, have burned up our phones and laptops with Cuba jabber: articles and songs and old photographs posted and shared; written responses on blogs and magazines; talk of how it all arrived on the 17th, the feast day of Babalú Ayé, the Santería counterpart to San Lázaro, the Spanish-Catholic saint of healing.  We parsed the president’s speech and how, in what my friend Dan Vera called “a baller move,” Obama quoted José Martí,  the 19th-century poet-journalist-activist who fought hard to liberate Cubans from Spanish rule and whose words are often invoked by both island communists and exiles as a tribute to independence.  “Liberty is the right for every man to be honest,” said Martí, “to think and speak without hypocrisy.”
9. I have spoken to my mother about Christmas plans and presents, what time we will Skype. We have not discussed Cuba yet. It might take years. We are both the Great Avoiders and neither one of us wants to tear into this ticking box because we love each other more than we revile one another’s politics. And while I have found many of her other stances infuriating, I can only feel a kind of protectiveness towards her now, towards all exiles who are pro-embargo. After living in our community for so long, I understand what is at stake for my mother, for so many. They are losing everything all over again. To them, normalizing relations with the Cuban government means the Castros not only stole all they loved — they finally got away with it.  
10. Because I am a poet, and thus, a hoarder of images, I kept a notebook that catalogued the details of my farewells before I moved to Santa Barbara from South Florida: the ibis that flashed white while they flew by our windows each dusk, how my brother rocks forward when he’s laughing hard, friends cooking dinner or playing guitars. It felt important to write down what would no longer be in short reach, but I was hardly engulfed in sorrow. How would I feel if I knew I might not see any of it again? What do I know about that kind of heartbreak? Not much.  
11.  Empirical fact: There is no one as patriotic as an immigrant-turned-citizen. When I visited Miami in
Flags in Miami
photo by Charles Trainor, Miami Herald
November, I overheard two Latinas at the car rental discussing plumbing problems. In Spanish and English, they shrugged it off and noted how in this country, that kind of thing was easy to resolver. Both nodded their heads in unison and shared a mmmmm-hhhmm. Subtext: The U.S. rules. In South Florida, Cubans, Haitians, Dominicans, and Venezuelans fly their American flags right alongside the flags of their birthplace, staked on the porches of their homes or flapping from their cars. Their chit-chat is an intricate brocade of English and their first tongue, often in the same sentence, their meals a patchwork of, say, barbecue hamburgers served up with yucca and the ubiquitous rice and beans. In July, my mother texted all of her friends and family to celebrate the anniversary of her arrival to this country. “52 years in the good ole USA,” she tapped. “The best country in the world.” I’ve heard the latter six words from so many immigrants; I’ve lost count.   
12.  Perhaps assimilation, in its realest sense, is not an obliteration of the past, but the making of a new kind of space, one that holds what “was” in the same open hands with what “is.”  At 14medio, an independent online daily launched in Cuba, dissident and writer Yoani Sanchez reported Cubans blowing kisses at President Obama when his announcement was televised in Havana. “Now and again the cry of “I LOVE…” (in English!) could be heard from around the corner.” Are these the beginnings of Cubans and exiles stitching a new embroidery, a cautious piecing together of here and there, them and us, what happened with what we all might become? After half a century that also feels like the quick flick of a wand, I am hopeful. We are moving towards one another again. 

***Emma Trelles is the winner of the 2011 Andres Montoya Poetry Prize. She lives in Santa Barbara. This essay was previously published in the Best American Poetry Blog, December 2014.


Anonymous said...

Emma, me gustó tus pensamientos. - RudyG

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Emma, I love the way your poetic essay weaves in and out of so many places. Nos das tanto para saborear, imaginar, ponder. Gracias for your lovely words.

Unknown said...
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Emma Trelles said...

Gracias, Rudy and Olga, for your generous feedback. It's gratifying to know other readers & writers can relate to a topic that is so dear to me.