Cuando me veo y toco
yo, Juan sin Nada no más ayer,
y hoy Juan con Todo,
y hoy con todo,
vuelvo los ojos, miro,
me veo y toco
y me pregunto cómo ha podido ser. – de “Tengo”, Nicolas Guillen
I first fell in love with Cuba over the poem “Tengo” by Nicolas Guillen. It was my introduction to la poesia negra. In it, Guillen reflects on all that he had not been able to do as a black man in Cuba and how his life changed after the Revolution.
Tengo, vamos a ver,
que siendo un negro
nadie me puede deterner
a la puerta de un dancing o de un bar.
O bien en la carpeta de un hotel
gritarme que no hay pieza,
I loved “Tengo” because of the ways in which Guillen makes me feel this freedom – the ability to call one’s home truly home. It’s the type of freedom I long to feel. The kind that comes with deep breaths not stopped by jagged knives of bullets that barely miss you. And as I walked along the old walls and waves of the Malecon and the winding streets of Havana Vieja, I thought of “Tengo” and wondered what Guillen would think of the Cuba of the last several decades and today. If he would still feel as though he had everything.
For as long as I can remember I have wanted to travel to Cuba. It has beckoned to me. I became especially restless to reach it after my two years living in Miami. The Cubans who live in Miami, while unique in their own ways, represent a particular subset of Cubans – the ones who fled Cuba on the eve of the Revolution, and those who managed to leave after the Revolution. They live a life of exile, many declaring they will never return to Cuba until there is no Castro in power. They will tell you of a beautiful Cuba they miss and daydream of those days. It has always made me uncomfortable. Because while their truths lie in stories of fleeing Cuba and losing the lives they had there and everything they owned, much of that ownership was built on the backs of Cubans who were not longing for this “beautiful” Cuba of days old. And I see the face of Adriana.
Adriana was our tour guide on an Afro-Cuban religious tour who is an Economics professor at the university. We spoke about different economic models and the flaws of each. She told us that before the Revolution there were no professionals in her family, but after her mother became a scientist, she was a professor, and others had professional jobs. It was not the only time that we would hear how the Revolution shifted the realities of the poor and the darker skinned in Cuba. When we went to the contemporary art museum there was an Afro-Cuban exhibit and one art read (when translated) that it was not hard to be human, but that it was hard to be black. So while I do not and cannot doubt the horrors that Cubans have faced fleeing in the night on boats to cross the ocean for a different life and jail cells overflowing with dissenting opinions, I also cannot ignore Adriana, and her assistant tour guide, and our taxi drivers, and Roberto, and everyone else whose voice would not have been a visible and loud fabric of every day Cuban existence to share those realities with me.
If there is one thing revolutionaries have right, it’s that there is a price to pay for the chance of everyone to breathe freely. What Fidel Castro did not have was the ability to radically imagine what that might look like. It is the fault of many before him and it will be the fault of many after. Edward Said writes about the failure of those who overthrow an abuse of power to conceptualize of a new way of living beyond the oppressions they had known. So they reproduce them. This is true too of Cubans in America who largely support policies that oppress black and brown people in America. And as I talked to more and more Cubans during my stay, what emerged was a portrait of a man led by his fear of losing power instead of a vision that changed a country. So while Castro may have started in some ways as a revolutionary, he lived for years and died as a dictator. We cannot trade some freedoms for others – they are all critical to achieving an environment that best supports the liberation of the people.
Cuba is not the perfect land that some black Americans believe that it is. You cannot escape or erase its hardships. But black Americans know hardships, and we also know the weight of daily life in America. Cubans by and large, though, are happy people, and it is an intoxicatingly enchanting country. While it is not perfect, Cuba is a reminder that I can breathe air that is not tinged at the end with daggers. That I can dance at 3am on dark streets without fear. That I can see a part of myself reflected in so many. That I can be welcomed like I am being welcomed home. It is not perfect, but it has captured something special. There is something unique about the Cuban spirit of survival. Our Airbnb hostess Rosie declared one night to us, “Cuba needs change, but it needs a Cuban change, not an American change.” She went on to describe that she does not leave Havana because Havana is safe and that it is not lost on her that her son can go out on the streets at any time to play. And that even if some days preparing a meal may be tough, that finally they eat and their children play.
I’m not even sure if children born to me would live to see adulthood on these streets paved with anti-blackness. I miss the way my skin glowed in Cuba.
As Adriana and I discussed together, the models that we need to foster and build have yet to exist in full forms. But in the middle of the night, in the margins of the people, I can hear the early cries of something different. Maybe the only true revolutionaries we should champion then are the ordinary – yet extraordinary – Cuban people. The ones who constantly seek ways to move one day at a time toward declaring the truth of Guillen’s “Tengo”: Tengo lo que tenía que tener.
I have what I had to have.