Monday, February 25, 2013

Suffer the Children

A moment of honesty here, I don't suffer children well for any length of time. I am child-less by choice in my personal life, and while I have many, many younger relatives, nieces and nephews produced by my three sisters, as well as great nieces and nephews produced by my nephews and nieces, I prefer living with dogs instead. I love my young relatives, but I love sending them home to their parents even better, when I've tired of their company.

My siblings and friends who are only now enjoying the freedom that I have always had, seem to act as though being happy your kids are no longer in the house, is a guilty pleasure, rather than the nature of things. In other words, you have kids, they grow up and they leave and you get your sanity and life back. I don't see any reason to feel guilty about that at all. It is the way the universe works, right? So while, I do like little people, my philosophy has always been, if you choose, give birth, raise them until they are aged 3, then send them off to boarding school until they turn 18, when it is time for college. Painless child rearing, but not what a “parent” should do. I fully admit that I'm not “parent” material. Just wish others would be more honest with themselves instead of treating their offspring like an acquisition, a designer handbag or something that matches their latest pair of designer jeans.

At least publicly, the children of Cuba seemed well loved and cared for. Many of the cultural events that we attended in Cuba were put on by children, students mainly from what we in the US would consider middle school. Since I've spent my entire life avoiding organized kid stuff, Disney world performances, I was not exactly thrilled, but resolved to put on a good face and enjoy the moment.

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised at the various performances and programs we observed and took part. I had fun, actually. We were treated to song and dance and instrumental music, from a quintet of young women singing an old black gospel hymn to welcome us, to an orchestra made up entirely of guitars. We met the quintet at a school with a music and performance curriculum. The students were selected from all over the city to sharpen their skills with the future intent of teaching or performing. The overall intent is to preserve Cuban culture and pass it on. The school, like all schools was state run and also free for students and parents.

The Orquestra de Guitaras was a neighborhood culture club, so to speak. State sponsored but put together as a result of a neighborhood banding together to teach, and provide practice and performance space and a built in audience. For instance, the only requirement to joining the orchestra was that the child have a guitar. The lessons are free, done by volunteer directors who teach the kids to play the instrument. in three weeks. Most of them don't read music so all songs are memorized. The special performance was nothing short of amazing.

Without exception, even the street urchins, who begged for money or whatever we would give them, were squeaky clean and didn't smell, as Marie remarked. They were pushy but polite as they hustled us. After all, we were tourists there with spending money to burn. Our tour guides cautioned us on the first day that giving to the people was our choice. We needn't feel guilty because all children in Cuba had state provided free health care, free food, and free schooling.

I noticed that the kids always asked for money, but the adults always asked for items like pens or soap or paper. We were told that this was merely a conversation starter in the hopes of getting other items that could in turn be sold on the street for a high price. I ended up giving away small items such as my extra pens and pads of paper and the soaps, shampoos and other courtesy toiletries from the hotel. I was traveling without my computer and had loaded up on writing materials which became dead weight when it became apparent that writing longhand and pictures proved difficult.

There was no quiet time built into the tour to pause and write, or to write at night, so I resorted to mental notes, scribbled notes and many many pictures to jolt my remembrance for when I started to write as I am doing now, after I've returned from my adventure. In my past professional life, I was a news reporter during the time when cell phone cameras and recorders as well as other modern conveniences for documenting life, did not exist. I had to rely on my camera and my memory in order to get the story and get it right. I found and was pleasantly surprised that I have not lost that skill in my older years. My powers of observation are still intact and functioning properly.

More to come....

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Stirring the Melting Pot and How We Got Gitmo

The United States tried to upset Cuba's melting pot from jump. From the beginning, there was a movement to annex both Cuba and Puerto Rico, despite Spain's ownership of both islands, as well as repeated attempts to get the Cuban government to “dehumanize” its Negroes, by implementing jim crow laws and other forms of discrimination routinely practiced on the mainland.

As I said before, it was about the economy and the need for free labor to drive it along with the fear that whites would be murdered in their beds if, blacks were allowed to roam free. So, while rich Spanish/white Cuban slave and plantation owners may have agreed with the US, the government did not. Nor did the rebel forces moving toward independence.

Major General Antonio Maceo, Revolution Square, Santiago Cuba 

Jose Marti named Antonio Maceo, a black man as his Major General. He also used The Mambis. Fighters from the Dominican Republic, who took their name from a Black Spaniard named Juan Ethninius Mamby who fought in the Dominican war for independence and also for the Cubans in a previous war for freedom.

Marti made it clear to the US in his Proclamation of Montecristi, in which he outlined his policy for the War. He said: The war was to be waged by both blacks and whites, black participation was crucial for victory, Spaniards who did not object to the war were to be spared, and private property was not to be damaged if at all possible. The Proclamation did not end racial discrimination by any means. But it kept it from taking root and blossoming in Cuba, the way it did in America. Cuba, to this day recognizes African/Negro contributions to culture, while the United States still does not in any real sense of the word.

Cuba won its War for Independence with the help of the Americans, an outcome that have proven to be a two edged sword. Americans continued to meddle in Cuban affairs under the guise of “protecting” Americans as well as American interests on the Island. By the end of the War that included a military base named Guantanamo, that sits on a bay under an open ended lease, signed in 1903, still functioning today.  GITMO is infamous today for housing the alleged terrorists accused of plotting against America. Most people in the United States want it shut down, however it is still open and in use. The base also is the site of truly American fast food. Mickey D's is there as is Subway. No other American fast food exists anywhere else in Cuba.
Cannon salvaged from USS Maine which was blown up in Havana Harbor

Remnants of the War sit along the Malecon, where you can see the cannons salvaged from the remains of the USS Maine, sent in to Havana Harbor to protect citizens, but blown up as it sat in the Harbor soon after arrival. 258 people died on the ship. The remains of the ship itself sat in full view in the Harbor for the next 14 years. The bombing incident was the excuse the US used to justify its entry in the War itself.

Both Jose Marti and Antonio Maceo fell in battle, but their images are everywhere. A Marti Statue dominates Revolution Square in Havana, among other places. Marti is considered Cuba's founding father. Maceo is considered one of Cuba's greatest generals.

It is hard to describe the feelings engendered by the statue of this man, on his horse. It is a massive stone figure on a hill, located in the Revolution Square of Santiago. It simply dominates the horizon.
General Antonio Maceo

Maceo was even more controversial after death. Shortly after he was buried, he was dug up and his remains, especially his skull, were examined by a team of doctors, who concluded that his skull was “perfect.” So perfect, in fact, that Maceo could not possibly be a black man, despite his very dark appearance and his pre death claims that he was of Negro descent.

From that point on for a while, pictures of Major General Maceo were touched up. In other words, his skin was lightened to reflect his “inner whiteness.” This went on until somebody in government re-found their lost senses.

More to come...

Monday, February 18, 2013

Free to Be...

If I had to describe my time in Cuba with just one overwhelming feeling, it would be “comfortable.” I felt very, very at home where ever I went on the island. I was no longer the “fly in the buttermilk” that I've been all my life, with the exception of within my group. No matter where I went, brown people outnumbered white people and that eased me, unconsciously, sometimes. I guess internally, my mind recognized that I am among my people and there was no need to be on guard.

Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, where Cuban founding father Jose Marti and other  war heroes are buried

In my home land of the United States, Blacks, whether they want to admit it or not, walk around constantly on guard when out and about, both in and out of the ghetto,  out of an innate fear that your actions might be misconstrued by the powers that be. It doesn't matter how rich you are, how long you've lived in the area, where you happen to be. One day the stars can line up and for some reason, the police, your neighbors, your alleged friends, suddenly don't recognize you and things happen. You're thrown in jail or accused unjustly for driving down the wrong street, or walking into the wrong store. We have yet to solve the myriad of problems generated from slavery and the resulting residue of institutionalized racism that persists today.

In Cuba, we were eight fellow travelers from the United States, five white and three Black. Our tour guide was Cuban, white Cuban. Our tour leader, who lives in the United States, was originally born in Iran. In this group I will not use the term “American” to refer to us, because at least one of us was from Canada. True, he was born in North America and lives in the USA. Technically, the term “American” does not apply to Canadians, only those of us born in the USA. We USA born tend to forget that we share the continent of North America with at least two other countries. And, in the rest of the world, outside of the USA, Canadian is good, while Americans are not viewed as positive or good people in general. “Americans” are viewed as rich and generally clueless about the pain and suffering our country, our government causes others around the world.

Our group also represented a very successful slice of US society, professionally and financially. We were all past or approaching retirement age, baby boomers, with the exception of our tour leader, who was a very young 35. Outside of our Cuban tour guide, surprisingly, the next youngest was me at 62.

Another common denominator was our politics. We were all rabid liberals, who spanned the country from east to west, and who had voted for Barack Obama. None of us was happy with his policies, as well as his timid nature in governing, but each of us shuddered at any mention of the currently available alternatives. Of course, none of us knew any of this before we booked the trip. We were complete strangers until we met up at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. The US is more united than we think.

Now I would be remiss if I painted Cuba as this fantasy island totally free of racism and bigotry. It's not. More slaves were brought to Cuba than to the United States. Slavery ended in Cuba, several years after it was outlawed in the US. Rich Cuban landowners practiced the same racism toward Blacks that whites practiced in the US. In fact, just after Cuba's War for Independence from Spain, the USA tried to get Cuba to enact Jim Crow segregation laws in order to “control” the black population. But founding father Jose Marti refused to be bullied. The biggest upshot of the Cuban War was that the country managed to kick out the Spanish, but got saddled with the US and its race/ color based bigotry against blacks, browns and the indigenous peoples.

White racism on both Cuba and in the United States has always been fueled by the need to propel the economy and fear. The need for free labor to work the sugar cane, rice and cotton fields and the fear of possibly being murdered in their beds due to their treatment and disenfranchisement of a huge portion of the population in general. Simply put, slaves and blacks outnumbered whites, therefore whites felt they had to enact rules, regulations and engage in behaviors to convince slaves and free people of color not to mount a revolution similar to what happened in Haiti. 

The current embargo, now stretching 60 years, is very similar to the one the US enacted against Haiti when that island sought to get rid of the French. The US sided with the French for exactly the same reasons. Haiti has never recovered. Cuba despite some hiccups has basically refused to allow the US to overturn its melting pot. Batista, who was overthrown by Fidel Castro was Black, in fact. And that is what fuels my comfort. . It's not about wealth, or importance of position or the amount of material goods that we can accumulate. It's a feeling of internal peace devoid of stress and tension, that my skin color alone, is not going to get me in trouble or prevent me from working or going to school, ever again. 
Ministry of the Interior, Revolution Square, Havana Cuba

I am free in the United States of America. But I feel truly free in Cuba. That is the difference to me.

Part II tomorrow...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sunday and Santeria: Calling Down the Orisha

Dancers and musicians teaching Rumba at Callejon de Hamel

Our first Sunday on the island began at the Callejon de Hamel, the first and oldest Afro-Cuban art project in Havana. Here, was my first authentic introduction to Santeria/Yoruba religious practices. I was familiar in the way that most Americans are familiar with Afro-centric religions. The message from our Euro-centric world is that these religions are not normal. They are not “real religion” being full of animal sacrifice, voodoo, candles, zombies and whirling dervish type black men and women caught up in dancinc around a huge bond fire, where you can cut the sexual tension with a knife.

Instead of being told that Yoruba/Santeria was the religion of our ancestors, we are told these so called “pseudo-religions” are to be feared and shunned as not being religious at all. Not real in the sense that Christianity or Catholicism is real.

However, the truth of the matter is that Christianity and Catholicism are as “made up” as they want us to believe that Santeria/Yoruba is. One has become Euro-centric in practice, if not in origin, while the other remains Afro-centric and frowned upon by those who hold the dominant Euro-centric view of the world.

In 1992, Cuba amended its constitution to allow for total religious freedom. It wasn't always this way, at times, there was a very fractious relationship between church and state. But no more. Cuba is considered a Christian country with roughly 25% of Cubans calling themselves Catholic.

Santeria, which is a blend of Catholicism and Yoruba, is widely practiced. Yoruba religion came with the slaves transported to Cuba by Spain, who baptized their property and taught them simple prayers. The slaves combined this tiny taste of Christianity with their own older Yoruban practice and thus gave birth to Santeria.

In colonial times, the Spanish confused Santeria with black magic, witchcraft, accusing practicioners of being criminals and bad people. These prevailing beliefs forced those who kept the Afro-Cuban cultural practices to worship in secret. For a long time, Santerian believers were persecuted, hunted and sometimes killed.

Santeria Altar inside Callejon de Hamel

Rules for sending wishes to the Orisha

Fortunately, times have changed. At least in Cuba, Santeria is no longer viewed as subversive, but is now considered an important religion in the world outside Euro-centric America. Which brings me back to The Callejon de Hamel, Havana's oldest Afro-Cuban Cultural Center.

Here we learned about Rumba, the dance and its importance in Santeria worship. We learned about the importance of drums, music, call and response, and about how to call the Orisha, the spirits to help in our lives. I can't remember all of the names, because there are many Orisha, 600 by some counts. However, I do remember Yemaya and Oshun, two who continually keep popping up in my own personal world on a regular basis, even when I'm not in Cuba.

Gifts to the Orisha inside a private home

Orisha altar kept behind the door

Yemaya is the goddess of maternity. Her colors are blue and white. She reigns over the seas and lakes. She reveals herself to her followers as their mother. Oshun governs the oceans and hills. Her color is yellow. She is the sister of Yemaya and concubine of Chango, the war god of thunder, fire, drum and dance. His color is red.

There were many statues and offerings to the Orisha, placed in various locations within buildings and homes, as well as without. There were places to pray and to seek favor. The Center had what looked like a closet with no door. Inside was a bell, and a list of rules for calling the Orisha. Say a prayer. Ring the bell and gain relief.

Even though my journey on the island was just beginning, I prayed to the Orisha to bring me back in the future.

More to come...

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Calmer and Less Stressful Time

Going to Cuba is like stepping into a way back machine, beaming back to the time before cell phones and computers and the internet.

To be sure, those things exist in Cuba, but they don't dominate life to the extent that they do in other parts of the world. I was told going in, that my cell phone and my ATM card wouldn't work nor would my credit cards be honored. Everything was cash and carry. Their cash, the CUC. Back in the day, Cuba worked on the dollar, but not anymore. The reason for this is the US' ongoing embargo against Cuba. Nothing USA works in Cuba, not even money, and it didn't used to be like that. For the first time in a great while, I traveled with all the cash I would need, in my pocket. The trick was to budget well enough to get off the Island before the money ran out, because money transfers were also shaky, I was told.

During our tour of ISLA, which is the University of Art, one of my friends remarked at seeing laptops for the first time since our arrival in Havana, nearly a week prior. We were walking down a hallway where some students were seated on the floor, working on their computers. It seemed to be a wifi hotspot. No big deal for a university, except that we hadn't seen it before, except among the tourists in the lobby of our hotel. Wifi is not free. It costs to hook up for even a half hour. And that half hour or hour can be very expensive. 

The same with cell phones. No need to worry about bumping into some fool in their own world walking down the street and not paying attention to what is going on around them, as they shout into the receiver, seeming oblivious to the fact that others don't give a damn about their personal business. You can actually hold a conversation, a real conversation around a dinner table in a Paladar without being interrupted by a cell phone ringer. Our tour guides were constantly using their phones, but only to deal with our ever changing itinerary, or Abel to talk with his wife. Even though he lives in Havana, he lives with his tour group when working, so he touches base like a good husband should. We were able to meet his wife and his daughter, both beautiful women for a beautiful man.

Pay phones were everywhere, unlike in the US where the public phones have disappeared off the streets to discourage drug dealers. Of course, by taking away public phones, poor people were also disenfranchised, but nobody seemed to care.  Like the United States, drug dealing is illegal in Cuba. In fact, so is drug use and it is not tolerated. We were even told by a doctor at a state run clinic that there was no alcoholism in Cuba. We were skeptical until we were accosted by a friendly drunk in the street, while on one of our walking tours. Eliminating public phones is not viewed as a way to fight alcoholism or drug use in Cuba. so public phones were along the roads, some in the hallways outside the toilets.

 Nobody calls them restrooms in Cuba, that is in fact an Americanism. You don't “rest” in a toilet. You are there to do your business, period. You sometimes don't even have a toilet seat covering the porcelain throne. Marie remarked on more than one occasion that the way to make a fortune in Havana was to become a plumber. Toilet paper was also a luxury and if you didn't have tissue in your pocket, you could buy some from the Senora sitting outside the door.

Havana is a city where the stoplights come with a countdown. You actually know how many seconds remain til you can go or stop or have to get through the intersection before the light turns. The roads are very narrow, 18th century narrow, and sometimes cobble stoned. The highway to Santiago was fairly modern while near the city, but became less well paved as we left civilization, so to speak. The speed limit between cities was 100 mph, I'm told, but our bus driver chose to drive under that. His speed was dictated by the condition of the roadway, good in some spots, not so good in others. Traffic signs in the neighborhoods placed the speed limit at 60mph as opposed to the 35 or 25 mile zones in American residential areas.

And no, the pedestrian is not always right in Havana. We were warned not to ever step into the street and walk like an American, as if you own the place. You don't. Failure to yield to the bike, horse, car, goat or two wheeled taxi bearing down on you, could turn you into roadkill.

Regardless of the differences, we adapted to the rhythm of the streets very quickly, which amounted to slowing down and seeing what and who surrounded us. People still look you in the eye and speak to you, here. Men and some women still flirt. Another exhale moment under the afternoon sun.

More to come....

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Kindness of Strangers

I've taken many adventures over the years, and the one consistent thing in all of them is the people that I meet. Like Blanche DuBois, I live for the kindness of strangers. They are strangers only until the moment we meet. Then, they become friends, if only for a very short time.

They succeed in changing my life for the better. We meet. We laugh. We talk. We share an experience and then we move on., both of us changed, hopefully for the better. But I can only speak for myself.

Taking a sun break in downtown Havana

With one exception, that being Marie, I may never see the people in our group again, nor our tour leaders. However, I know that should one or all of us come to stand on the same earth once again, we will be friends, never missing a beat.

Marie is a constant in my life. We have been friends for more than 20 years. I am very happy to have shared this adventure with her.
Marie and the Cigar Lady

The people that I met in Cuba stay real for me because I save the things they touched and gave me, like the thank you note from our hotel maid, that I didn't realize that I saved. There was a woman who gave me a Cuban Peso for luck as I browsed in a bookstore. She told me to keep it close and then disappeared back into the crowd. The Peso is in my pocket now.

The band at Tocororo a Paladar that I really and truly plan to revisit. They treated us like homies out for a night of food and fun. We laughed and sang along with a very talented group of musicians who made us feel at home. They autographed a CD of their music for me.

Joseph, no last name, a student at the University with whom we talked politics and social issues both US and Cuban. American politics. Thanks to Joseph, Mitt Romney will forever be called Mitt RocK-ney by me. Even now the misnomer brings a smile at the memory. Fancy that, finding an Obama supporter in Havana. According to Joseph, President Obama was the man of choice by the people.
Outisde Lazaro's Papier Mache House

The notes and proffered email address from Alberto Faya, a famous man in his country, a performer, TV personality and teacher, who left me with a thirst and hunger for learning “history without the holes” punched into the story fabric by wannabe larger than life, Europeans, fearful and disdainful of indigenous peoples they seemingly conquered.

Said Faya, it may seem like they erased Africans, erased slaves, erased the indigenous people, but they really didn't and Cuba is proof of this.

Entertainment outside El Morro Castle
Pro Danza Dance Company

Preserving culture is preserving life,” Faya told us, and he drew the parallels and connections allowing us to see history in total, for the first time. I struggle to explain to you what his short lecture taught me or how it made me feel, except to say that I want more of it. I finally exhaled in understanding what it was that he said.

During our entire time in Cuba, Marie and I never saw another Black American and it was okay. Not finding Black Americans anywhere but the USA is pretty much the norm in my travels and Marie's too. We talked about it. We are troubled that American Blacks don't travel and don't seem to want to. Both of us talked about how we were greeted with perplexed stares and silly questions after revealing that we were going to Cuba. The first question from our acquaintances, family and friends was always “why?”

We say, “why not?” If they did travel, it would help make the cosmic connection that “we” are not alone in this universe, that slavery, never did define “us” as a people and that “our roots” run so deep that we will never, ever be eradicated by any so called conqueror who fears “our existence.”

The people of Cuba are our home, our familia.

More to come...

Monday, February 4, 2013

A Dog Day Afternoon

Leaving the Paladar, the first thing that struck me were the number of stray dogs hanging around, near where our driver, Camillo had parked the bus. I assumed they were strays because they were unusually thin and hungry looking as well as small in stature compared to the dogs I see in the US. Wiry little and medium sized terrier mixes were all over.

They were also not aggressive. Many, and there were about 10 or so, lying on the ground taking a nap. Others were playing. That many stray dogs in one spot would have caused concern, here at home. However, these dogs were as laid back as the people who were also nearby buying goods and snacks from a small store that fronted the parking lot. Neither the people nor the dogs were concerned about each other. It was obviously a peaceful, non stressful co-existence, one that I saw replayed in every venue in which we ventured. The dogs were literally everywhere, and it is a situation that does not exist in the US.

The Cuban dogs showed me that our dogs, our pets are as high strung and stressed out as most of us are. American dogs are very vocal, very aggressive, very jumpy and very leery of people, especially with strangers. You almost never see in public a pack, of dogs, let alone one or two at a time.

Where I went, there were dogs, most of whom were obviously strays, dirty, mangy, showing signs of combat and survival, ribs showing. They were looking for food, or napping in the middle of the square, or taking shade near a big planter as people walked by pursuing their day, not concerned about the dogs. The dogs not concerned about the people.

During my entire time in Cuba, I counted four dogs being walked by leash, two pekinese living the life on a parch over a Paladar getting set to open and doing the American thing of barking at passersby. The two peks were shiny and obviously well kept, real lucky dogs.

We treat our pets like possessions, like a new hat or designer label adornment, denying or refusing to allow them to express their “animal-ness,” preferring to turn them into furry little human like critter/companions. In Cuba, a dog is a dog, an animal that is also part of society or existing on the fringes, with an equal right to the planet.

More to come..