My Aunt Meca

Alfredo Prieto
Alfredo Prieto

My aunt Meca called me with the news: the United States Interests Section in Havana had denied her a visa to go and see her sister Lala, an elderly woman over seventy who has lived in Tampa since before 1959. She was accustomed to going there every year, driven by the urge for family reunification and the memories of a Havana past in which she went to hear Benny Moré at “Ali’s Bar” and at the end of the evening cleaned the drinks out of her system in the Vapor Plaza with shark soup and Chinese fried rice.

In the entryway of her house, very close to the Rancho Boyeros Air Terminal, amid the smell of the pines and the chirping of the crickets, Meca would tell me about her outings in Tampa Bay; the automobile crossings over the Skyline, a bridge where you could almost touch the sky with your hands; her escapades in Ibor City, among the old factories and the most sophisticated restaurants; her pilgrimages to the school where Jose Marti had spoken the famous phrase “With everyone and for the good of everyone” and especially the artistic evenings in the home of her friends Mamita and Margot, over there in West Tampa, where good coffee was never lacking and those strawberry cheesecakes which the doctors always prohibit, although in the end it’s impossible not to try them.  But now, she told me, it wasn’t about these things. Lala had taken a fall and needed an urgent hip operation.

On a day in November, she received her interview appointment from the United States Interests Section on the corner of Calzada and L Avenue in the Vedado neighborhood. The first cold front of the season had come in and the sky was partially overcast. The official who received her had asked a pair of irrelevant questions, and when she presented him with news of the accident and showed him the medical records, he did nothing more than listen to her with courtesy, but from a chilly distance. The next moment, he banged down a stamp and handed her a paper with a complete denial, a happening that my aunt related while lifting up her arms with a certain degree of violence and affirming that this man must be the son of a US sex worker. He had the face – she told me – and who knows why this occurred to her – of a Texas oil magnate.

I didn’t mention this to her over the phone, but personally I believe that the ultimate reasons for this and similar actions rest on an illusion: the idea that by “tightening the screws” people will take to the streets to demand an end to the system.  This is a belief constructed from ignorance about the psychological mechanisms, the identity and the political culture that operates in Cubans. Instead, when people feel the impact of such measures affecting their lives, they cannot do otherwise than look towards the government to the North with anger and resentment.

English has a word for this: “gap” which I want to translate now as a “vacuum.”  The current Commerce Secretary of the United States, born on this island, once assured everyone that Cuba was just like North Korea. This suggests that before he was taken out of the country in the sixties, he had never had the chance to attend a rumba party in a Havana tenement. For this reason, my aunt liked Obama from the beginning, and now dreams not only of the idea of returning to her cheesecakes but also of Margot’s being able to visit whenever she wants, instead of every three years, when her hip operation has been reduced to a scar they can kid about in the entryway of the two houses, the one in Mulgoba a Havana suburb, as well as the one in West Tampa.