Relationships are all about communicating, my mother has always said. They’re about understanding where the other person is coming from, even if it’s difficult. She’s been married for more than 25 years, so I think her advice is definitely worth taking… it’s just a little bit more difficult when your loved one doesn’t speak your native language, and when he’s from Cuba [you know, that island only 90 miles from Florida thats so close yet somehow so shrouded in mystery].
I’m really trying, but it’s hard, so I’m starting to get creative…and like a good recent college grad I have turned to reading everything that I can about Cuba.
You can take the girl out of Latin America, but you can’t take Latin America out of the girl, so I began winter break with a stop at the Strand in New York City, where I spent far too long digging through the Latin America section. When I emerged from the shelves of my personal heaven, I purchased a solid collection of books on Latin American history and politics–including Havana Real by Yoani Sánchez, Cuba’s most reknowned and controversial blogger. The book includes a selection of her blog posts from 2007-2010, and provides a fascinating account of the daily life of a Cuban, a story that demands to be told and has been far too long coming. She explains in detail everything from the ways to navigate the black market to buy heavily rationed meat and seafood, to the crackdown on home appliances that makes everyday life more challenging, and the dreams of many Cubans to leave the island.
Its not the prettiest picture of Cuba today by any means, but Yoani’s first-hand accounts of daily life pull back the nation’s shiny veneer of tropical paradise and idealistic socialism and show how Cubans experience Cuba. She even tells of her illegal arrest and imprisonment for simply writing her blog, and how being followed, harassed, and other forms of state intimidation have become a regular part of her daily life. It’s a different picture of Cuba than I’d ever seen before, and one that I didn’t necessarily want to see. My 2012 trip there was filtered just enough for me to see the positive impacts of Cuba’s free healthcare, education, and social safety nets without seeing any of the shortages or political repression…reading this book and talking to José has shown me something entirely different.
As a Latin American Studies major in college I have been exposed to plenty of Latin America history, politics, sociology, and more, even taking an entire class on Cuba that allowed me to travel to Havana in 2012. But it’s one thing to study something, even first hand by being there for a short period of time, and its another thing entirely to live it. There are many things that I will never fully understand because I have never lived them, although the pride inside of me tries to convince me otherwise. Its right to try to understand, and its deeply deeply needed. But it’s also important to remember that academic studies shouldn’t override lived experiences, and political philosophy can’t trump how citizens interact with their nation.
I’m going to keep reading books about Cuba, and keep asking José to share stories about his life, because I want to understand. I want to understand Cuba because I’ve always had a passion for Latin America and find Cuba so interesting, and I want to understand José better via the culture that shaped him. But first its going to take a stripping down of what I think I already know; I’m not interested in having an idea of what Cuba is, I’m aiming for knowing what it means to those that live it.