More from the archives — this was written about a year ago. I’m not entirely sure if I decided that it was finished or not….
My executive director recently discovered that I’m Cuban. “Oh,” she said, scrolling through an Internet video to show me a particularly cruel squat she’d seen, “are you going to go?”
My face betrayed me, and she caught herself. “Is your family exiles?”
Yes, I said, and she said she had friends who were Cuban exiles; she knew it was a complicated question. Our conversation returned to fitness.
Earlier today I was in a meeting with my immediate director and a co-worker. I don’t know how Cuba came up in the discussion but my boss’s reaction was immediate: “Oh, I can’t wait to go,” she said, then addressed us. “Don’t you guys want to go?”
I’ve only known my co-worker for three days now but she’s quite savvy, and she redirected the conversation before I even had a chance to react. A good thing, because if I had reacted, I would have — at the very least — expressed the same frustrated refusal that I showed my ED, that reminded her of the other Cuban exiles she knew.
The ED’s question, though, was redundant. To be Cuban is to be exile. There are rare exceptions, to be sure, but for almost all of us the identities are inseparable and insuperable, a daily paradox of who we are and who can never really be.
My sister-in-law is an immigrant. She came to the United States from Australia after completing her PhD in astronomy to do a postdoc at Harvard, and then to work at NASA. She did not anticipate living stateside indefinitely until she met my brother; now they have a house and twin babies and her green card is in process, sponsored by their mutual employer. But if they hadn’t accepted job offers at Caltech they would have taken positions at Australia National University, and living Down Under is not off the table of their future. Her mother and sister visit regularly, freely, and the question of whether Jessie would ever like to go back to Australia is freighted only with pragmatic negotiation and personal history. Immigration is never easy, but hers bears no geopolitical scarring.
When non-Cubans ask Cuban-Americans if they will or have ever or would like to visit Cuba, I suspect that they — that you — think you are asking the same question you would ask Jessie.
You are not.
Growing up in Cleveland, I walked the same streets that my father navigated in his childhood. My brother and I went to the same high schools as our paternal aunts and uncles and grandparents; we ate at the same pizzerias; we sat in the same pews, in the same churches. My father’s life has a context that I can never truly grasp — the Cold War, Vietnam, pre-civil rights — but it is also familiar and knowable from having lived there, laying new memories across a well-worn geography.
My mother’s childhood is the opposite of all of that. To walk the streets of her childhood was not only to cross a significant distance but to traverse legality. The US government is frequently blamed for freezing out Cuba, as if we are the sole bad actor, but even with rarely-granted American permission I could not have walked freely through my family history on that impossible island: tourists of any stripe but particularly Cuban-Americans are monitored if they stray from the beaten path of photo-ready beaches and hotels or the picturesque spots of Old Havana, where the nostalgic ideal of Cuba is shepherded and mediated, curated for all those in need of something “authentic”.
Things are changing now, of course, there more so than here. My cousin Teva, a Spanish citizen who can travel more easily, laid her mother’s ashes to rest last year in Santiago.
Someday, I will make it all the way to Marcane.
Marcane is where my mother grew up, a small sugar-cane town in Oriente province, in the southeastern part of the island, along the alligator’s lower jaw. I know it from stories and pictures and fever dreams, and I’ve imagined going back a thousand times.
You may know Cuba from news stories and articles, documentaries and the Buena Vista Social Club; photos might catch your eye, spark your imagination for a moment, inspire a moment of sympathy for those poor Cubans.
To grow up Cuban-American is to be immersed in a place forever out of reach. We know Cuba from news stories and articles and documentaries and the Buena Vista Social Club, from photos smuggled out and every photo that makes the paper, from articles clipped and mailed, memoirs and novels and blogs, links to El Nuevo Herald and Generacion Y. I don’t linger on images of tropical beaches but about a decade ago there was a gif of Fidel Castro tripping on his way to give a speech, face-planting; I don’t normally delight in injuries to the elderly but I watched it over and over and over again, transfixed, gleeful.
We know it from family, from pork and black beans and ropa vieja and empanadas and mojo, from heirlooms that made it out, from letters, from diaries, from memory.
What does it mean to return to a place that you already know by heart?
But of course, I don’t know Cuba at all. I’ve never been there; all I’ve ever lived with is the rupture and the loss, the omnipresent absence. Of course I want to go. Of course I will go. How could I not?
Going to Cuba is your vacation. It is something wholly different for me, and for those like me. Cuba is not about beaches and food and music and vintage cars but about understanding the central trauma that shaped the lives of my mother, my aunts, my grandmother, my grandfather, the interconnected web of extended family.
Cuba is about my mother: a determined and resilient woman who has survived cancer twice. She came to the United States when she was nine years old. Some of her stories I know by heart and some of her stories I will never know; traversing ninety miles of ocean is a hurt that time has mostly turned to scar tissue but hasn’t entirely healed, and I don’t know if going back to Cuba will be enough to close the open wound she still carries.
Cuba is about my grandmother: stiff and aristocratic and unyielding and judgmental; warm and generous and big-hearted, with a laugh that could transcend all of my shortcomings. I didn’t know she had a sense of humor until I was twelve years old and we were in my parents’ sunroom in Cleveland, and her laughter was a revelation. Most of my stand-up material would have shocked and appalled my abuela but she’s so much of the reason I ever did comedy at all.
Cuba is about my grandfather: a hard-riding, cigar-smoking country doctor, friends with Mongo, the overlooked third Castro brother. He died before I was born, before I existed at all, but there are photos of him at my parents’ wedding and him with my brother and it is a miracle that he made it to the US at all — he stayed in Cuba after my mother and aunt and grandmother all left to tend to his sick parents and by the time they died he found himself wanted by the regime, and his escape is the stuff of legend.
In eighth grade English class we had to prepare and present a short speech about an ancestor. Most of our classmates spoke of German and Irish immigrants, hardworking people who sought economic opportunity along Lake Erie’s industrial shores. My brother and I both, one year apart, brought in our abuelo’s whip and pistol and told a story of dodging assassination by one of the great villains of the twentieth century.
We were not, generally speaking, cool, but on that day — on that day, we were the coolest.
I have lived for thirty-one years in a Cuba that may or may not resemble the actual country. This is what exile means: not only to be separate but to be severed, to subsist in suspended, impossible fantasy.
Do I want to go to Cuba? I’ve ached for it for decades. To stand in front of twenty-two thirteen-year-olds and tell a tale of derring-do was, like all boastfulness, an act of concealment; in 1997, I didn’t know if the possibility would ever be real, and in my desperation to encounter the man of myth a bragging retelling was the most I could muster. Now I might soon be able to meet him as a native son; now my grandmother is gone, too, and so instead of her voice and her memories I can only hope to find their echoes amongst the bougainvillea and the mango trees and the sugarcane. Going to Cuba is going home. Of course I want it.
I don’t think that is what they — or you — or they — mean, though, when they ask, and that is why my face falls and my jaw sets at the question. The Cuba you want to see is worlds apart from the one that I’ve always known — but more than that, your Cuba is an erasure of mine, a pretty mask over my mother’s unanswerable pain.
Yes, I want to go to Cuba. And I will.
But although our passports might bear the same stamp, I will never visit your Cuba.