Tuesday, January 11, 2011
“Hot” Summer in Havana
One Saturday morning, on a quiet street in the El Vedado section of Havana, Cuba, my classmates and I, who were attending a Spanish language immersion program at the University of Havana, were mounting our bicycles getting ready for a guided tour of the city. I noticed an attractive Afro-Cuban woman observing us from across the street and went over to introduce myself. Her eyes lit up like a neon sign as I heard virtual cash registers ringing in her head. Just because I'm an American she seemed to have felt that I’m a black relative of Bill Gates or Donald Trump and sought to get what she could.
In turn, I saw Luisa as opportunity to practice my Spanish and get immersed in Afro-Cuban culture. I met her two children Miguel (7) and Ingrid (5); her mother Isabel, and other members of her family who lived in a rough-looking housing project. However, after visiting Luisa numerous times, I realized that although the people were poor, there was hardly any crime. The Cuban government is very hard on crime. What might get you a slap on the wrist in the USA can easily get you 10 to 20 years in Cuba.
The first time Luisa and I were alone, her first request was that I take her back to the United States. The last thing I wanted from Cuba was a wife; especially one who couldn’t see past my wallet. She started telling her family, that I was going to take her. My response was that I wanted to stay here in Cuba with her and support the revolution. That shut her up! But later, as we went shopping, she lured me over to the appliance section trying to get me to buy her a refrigerator; way over my vacation budget.
As I got to know Luisa better, I realized that she was not being devious. She was desperately trying to make ends meet for her and her children. And with this unrelenting trade embargo against Cuba, it was evident that it isn’t hurting Castro nearly as much as it is hurting innocent people like Luisa and her children. For this reason, I felt good about helping Luisa and her family in ways I could afford. The day before my departure, I gave the children Miguel and Ingrid gifts that they thoroughly appreciated. You can just see the exhilaration in their eyes. I also handed Luisa's mother some money. After returning home to Oakland, Luisa and I stayed in touch by phone and by mail. I just feel bad that it is so difficult to send money or gifts without the Cuban government's greedy interference.
My trip to Cuba was a vacation from heaven. There was something about the energy of the Cuban people that made me feel like a long, lost member of the community who finally came home. Words cannot express how uplifted I felt to just walk about town hearing salsa, merengue, and Afro-Cuban music blaring from homes and businesses. One day, there was a group of us walking through Central Havana as we heard this loud salsa song coming from a restaurant. I couldn't take it anymore. I reached out and grabbed a woman, and we danced right there in public. Of the 12 countries that I've visited in my life, Cuba is the only country from which I returned feeling homesick.
In fact, many Latin-American people suspect that I myself might be Cuban. Even Cubans thought I was Cuban until I opened my mouth. I couldn't even fake a Cuban accent. At a popular Havana night spot, I was so flattered when a lovely woman asked my date if she could cut in to dance with me. I took her into my arms and busted one of my favorite salsa moves. She was NOT impressed as she blurted out in astonishment, ¡tu bailas como extranjero /you dance like a foreigner!). I guess she thought I was Cuban too.
The Cubans have a name for people like me. It's called “Yuma,” a slang word for an American, and rightfully so. I was born in St. Louis, MO and lived in closely knit African-American community called “The Ville” before moving to New York City where I was influenced by my Puerto Rican neighbors to learn Spanish and love salsa music. Perhaps, I may have been Cuban in another life? I tend to think that just might be the case.