Three times, legally, I’ve crossed the Straits of Florida to that elegant, aging lady lounging ninety miles to the south, Havana. Once the crown jewel of Spanish America, Havana was the primary point of entry for settlers and slaves and the last point of departure for the gold and sugar reaped from the depths of Spain’s colonial empire. Now, the weathered dowager is home to around three million restless, educated, cultured, industrious souls who barely have five cents to make a dollar of, let alone fifteen. Cubans (on the island, not the exiles) are the physical embodiment of what’s good and bad with the 49-year-old Castro regime: a well-educated, physically-fit, intellectually-sophisticated population with every basic human need provided for and absolutely none of the wants. Cubans keep their one good guayabera or Sunday dress sparkling clean and pressed, their one pair of patent leather pumps or loafers gleaming despite the torn insole or the worn-down heel. They stay clean and fragrant when there’s barely any soap and sometimes share clothes with friends so as not to always be seen in the same outfit. They remain keenly aware of world events, despite hardly ever being allowed to leave their own island. They could be a street sweeper with a masters in engineering or an ecology-degree-holding fisherman. They could be a prostitute with a law degree who speaks five languages and the hope of one day using one of those languages when some European decides to take her away. They know all about Li’l Kim and Li’l Wayne, and they can identify a black American male by the li’l hop or pimp that we do when we’re walking in “don’t fuck with me” mode. They are easy to become friends with and will take you to their homes to meet their families and share with you the lil-bit-a-nuthin they have for dinner. They’ll order food for you on the street to keep you from paying foreign prices. They’ll take you to the beach and to the best ice cream place in town, Coppelia. No matter what age, they’ll dance to 90s hip-hop and 40s mambo, and again, no matter the age, they celebrate everything with a rumba. They’ll pick you up on the side of the road in their 1958 Studebaker and take you to the other side of the island, if that’s where they’re headed. They’ll make you want to leave your suitcase of clothes for them when you leave, knowing you can replace everything on the outside. I did that once. And I also left my half-read copy of The Souls of Black Folk with an English teacher who worked at my hotel.
See, Cuba, in its virtual isolation from modern Western consumerism, has retained its blackness, more than any other place in the hemisphere except Haiti. You see Santería practiced openly. You see the swaying hips of Africa in every dance, salsa included. It’s in their faces, their attitude, their friendliness, their loudness, their sense of humor. You see Tío Juancho and Pepe arguing just as fervently about politics/sports/women in the barbershop as Uncle Junebug and Pookie-nem, only in Spanish. And while you see lots of kids running around trying to be grown (the children are referred to as “futuro” – the future), you also see lots and lots of elders; they aren’t locked away and kept from sight…they’re out and about, dancing, flirting, remembering the past and participating in the present (I remember how one of my friends’ elderly father thought I was an American spy…how fuckin cool is that?!).
I can’t give you a post full of links to night spots and restaurants in Havana. All I can do is show you the paltry 20-some-odd photos to which I have digital access and hope that you’re inspired enough to find a way to the island before it is opened completely to the utterly destructive power of mass tourism. While I wish for my brothers and sisters there to have the same rights and freedoms I do, I secretly rue the day when the dollar casts a death blow to the already waning innocence of these amazing people.