Friends who have Emigrated

Irina Echarry
Irina Echarry

Living surrounded by water makes people a little more unstable. Each person debates whether to stay in the place where they’re from or let themselves be carried off on the waters to other latitudes.

I say “water” to maintain the metaphor, but people don’t leave only by sea. The air is another escape route. In the era of the eighties there was a lot of popular indignation directed against those who left. They had eggs and tomatoes thrown at them; with my own eyes as a frightened child I even saw a melon hurled at the head of a man who had decided to live far from his country of birth.

Almost all of my friends have left. I couldn’t say precisely when the emigration began. I only know that it was a long time ago and occurred in very different ways.

Bertha had to leave Cuba to keep from going crazy with the shortages of the “special period.” She managed to borrow several thousand dollars and paid for a marriage of convenience, with all the documents and even a trip for the “husband” who with the passing of time has become a close friend.

She has been living in Mexico for the last nine years and works in a bar, although she is a teacher by profession. She had to pay off the debt, of course. Now she comes to visit every six months. She doesn’t live a life of luxury, she doesn’t go a lot of places, she works to help the family she left behind and she misses her old neighborhood.

Abel was a journalist working for an unauthorized Cuban news agency. The authorities dogged his every step while he lived on the island and he felt that he was constantly under surveillance. His daughter had left for Spain some time before, when Abel found himself obliged to leave the country. They all but demanded it, he said. He couldn’t continue working for the agency and could no longer work anywhere else either. At least that’s what he thought – he didn’t have a chance to find out.

At fifty-some years of age he embarked on an adventure to the motherland, together with his elderly mother that he didn’t want to leave in Santa Clara. His daughter paid the fare for both of them. Now, ten years later, my good Abel is a night watchman somewhere in Valencia while he records his nostalgia for the island in poems and novels that one day will reach the streets of Havana, recounting fragments of the life of an exiled Cuban.

There are two empty apartments in my building. The tenants live abroad. In one of the homes, a young man left in 1993 on a work contract and didn’t return. Later he helped his other brothers to leave, and still later his mother. Some live better than others. They come to Cuba rarely, for brief visits or to legalize some document. They say that they don’t miss anything because they have frequent contacts with friends who have also emigrated.

The other apartment was a different story. That was a couple whose only daughter fell in love with a foreigner. After some years they were reunited in the United States. Of course, such reuniting doesn’t take place in Cuba, it’s always better in the other place, wherever that may be. People leave, miss the place, long for it, remember it, the sparrows trap them, as they say, but they don’t come back to live in the place where they were born, met their friends and were shaped as people.

Here they are considered traitors for abandoning their country, but this rejection is no longer from the people, only from officials. Now people leave to improve themselves, whereas before they went from the “best” to the “worst.” The situation has taken on other nuances.

At times I ask myself if one should choose their country or simply resign themselves to the place where they were chosen by chance to live. To leave, go to other places, look for a change: Is that treason? If tomorrow I decide to join my friends, am I betraying something or am I searching for my real country: the one of dreams, illusions and memories?

8 thoughts on “<em>Friends who have Emigrated</em>

  • Irina,
    It’s good to have feedback but in Internet you will have all kinds of comments, intelligent, dumb, not knowing what they are talking about, etc, all kinds, even sometimes from the government disguised in ordinary people.
    Some people think that because they go to Cuba and spend some time there, they already know what happens and they might know two things more than the foreigner who hasn’t been in Cuba but they will never know the reality. Walter is an outsider, he doesn’t understand and never will.
    I am from your generation, I am from Havana and now live in North Florida, I left not long ago. I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT. It’s not whining, it’s disillusionment. Our beautiful generation, those you were kids in the 80s, has a lot to offer and we were forced to leave the country or stay and say good-bye at all your friends while the government turns its back and keeps taking away our best years.
    There is no reason for Cuba to be like this. Cubans should have the opportunity to work, earn a decent salary and have their own business if they can, there is no other way to improve the economy. The government doesn’t want to lose control and it has costs us dearly. It will keep on costing…
    Irina, sigue escribiendo. There are people here listening to you, don’t get discourage for some of the comments, son gajes del oficio. This is your space and you say whatever you like, you don’t have to give a full analysis of anything, you just write what you feel and think, that’s all.
    And you do it very well.

  • Off the top I have to object to the notion of some earlier comments that Irina’s writing is whining. Asking questions about legitimate observations and experiences is healthy. It’s also vastly more effective in creating understanding when true passion is threaded through the words. Something Irina does quite well.

    Do Cubans need to improve? Absolutely, I doubt there is a speech made by any Cuban politician that doesn’t touch on the need for more participation from all Cubans. But the nature of that participation is the question. Those of younger generations need to have a voice, and I think the Havana Times is an excellent example of that.

    At the same time I understand the justified caution many Cubans have over the dangers of giving the American government any opening that might possibly encourage internal dissent. The last 8 years are clear evidence of just how dangerous the US can be. The slaughter they are responsible for in the Middle East is truly a mammoth crime, and one that as yet has gone unpunished.

    What’s more, colonial exploitation of developing nations has been a tradition of not just the Americans, but of all the western industrialized countries. They gladly conduct business at the expense of local populations if it increases profits.

    Given all that overwhelming evidence, Cubans should have little doubt, even with Obama as the new president, that the US would exploit Cuba ruthelessly if given an unfettered opportunity. You only have to look to Haiti to see the logical conclusion of that kind of exploitation. As hard as life is in Cuba, it’s better than the life of a slave to a foreign power.

    How to walk the path between voicing legitimate concerns about Cuban life, while also providing a united front in the face of aggressive American power, is something Cubans have to negotiate on their terms. Clearly that negotiation something many Cubans want, and I salute the efforts of both the younger generation intent on questioning the country they love, and of the older generation intent on protecting the incredibly hard fought gains of the revolution with a love no less powerful.

  • Message to the readers

    If someone had told me that expressing the sadness felt from having some friends far away and briefly describing the way some left the country was going to bring so many commentaries, I wouldn’t have believed it. It’s good to get reader feedback, very good. That’s why I want to add something.

    When I write for the Diaries from Havana section, the name itself implies intimacy, a space where I can express my feelings, past or present experiences, to people who don’t know me and don’t live like me.

    It’s like showing a mole on my body or a spot on a nail. From the mole, nobody could specify what my body is like. From the spot on a nail, nobody can judge my hygiene habits or my physical health.

    Therefore, from one, two or three diary posts read, nobody is qualified to say who I am, how I live and what I think about all aspects of life.

    It’s odd, I wrote a post about the subject of trash in Alamar, the place where I live, and I didn’t manage to draw the attention of the readers. Or better said, nobody felt like expressing themselves. It’s a delicate subject; it deals with the public health of a place where thousands of people live. I even provided some photos to visually show the situation.

    However, when I touched (and in a very personal way) on the topic of emigration, it became a delicious plate that many would like to eat.

    My objective isn’t to argue about any political issue, that doesn’t interest me. Havana Times didn’t arise for that. I just write about what I feel or have lived.

    And now, well into the 21st century, I think it’s time that people respect others opinions, especially if we don’t live in the same circumstances or don’t share the same memories.

    Karl Marx said in his time that people think like they live; and I repeat, I am a Cuban living on the island, someone who bears it and loves it.

    I am fond of peace and I try to live in harmony. I write for children and I try to teach them to love. That’s all. We already know that with love anything is possible.

    Irina Echarry

  • I would like to thank Irina Echarry for her impressions, which I have enjoyed since discovering her at Havana Times in December. I think she has every right to whine about the frustrations of day-to-day (and, for that matter, year-to-year, even decade-to-decade) life in Cuba. (Anyone who does not complain would have to be catatonic, or as emotionless in the delivery of their song as was “The Singing Mummy”)! * Yet her whining does not have that irksome, plaintive, –not to say convoluted and enigmatic–and entitled tone of another commentator, whose blog I regularly visit. Hers is a more philosophic, empathetic, simpatico whineniness. In the end, I feel her sort of dissatisfaction has more potential.
    It is interesting that one of the emmigres Irina mentions went to Mexico, now works in a bar, but apparently makes enough income to return to Cuba regularly and share her wealth with family. In a recent feature story on one of our satelitte news channels, the reporter accompanied a resident down the street of a middle-class neighborhood in a provincial Mexican city. As they walked through the neighborhood, the resident reported that the inhabitantsof this house, and that house, etc. had gone North in search of better economic life. The residents were, for the most part, professionals, who had to take under-the-counter, unskilled, jobs, after arriving in the U.S.A. Yet even faced with this downward mobility in status, they still felt themselves better off than remaining in Mexico. And if this is true of Mexico, it is true of Central America–and Cuba. It will be interesting to see what happens now. With the dramatic downturn in our own economy, the surplus army of the unemployed native born U.S. citizens are increasingly scrambling for even these “shit jobs,” and will be vigorously competing with the illegal aliens.
    In the end, however, the problem is how to create conditions so that Cubans, or Mexicans, or citizens of any country for that matter, do not feel that they HAVE to emmigrate to obtain a tolerable economic life. Hence, in Cuba, the task is to determine what went wrong with the Revolution, and how to fix it. According to Hobbes, societies are instituted to make things easier, more predictable, than in the “state of nature.” If the structure of society fails to fulfill the basic economic, social and cultural necessities of its members, it needs to be changed. Or, as our own Thomas Jefferson once said, a Revolution needs to take place in every generation!.

  • There are more than a few people living in Cuba in a state of generalized despair. Irina Echarry seems to be one of these. She’s by no means alone in despairing of a better life here in Cuba. One wonders if she tries to do anything to make life better in this very challenging country, or does she simply spend her time looking at the dark side of life.

    Truth is, I’ve been reading her work for as long as it’s been presented on HAVANA TIMES. I spend long periods of time here in Cuba. The workers are working. The retired people are retired. The loafers are loafing and most of the children are going to school.

    Most people are struggling to make ends meet economically. Most all Cubans I know complain about one or another aspect of daily life here on the island. I often think that Cuba’s national religion is neither Catholicism nor Santeria, but rather whining.

    Is Irina Echarry doing ANYTHING to try to make life in this country better, or is she simply documenting her personal sense of helplessness and hopelessness about life in this country? Sad reading indeed.

    Walter Lippmann

  • A really good book on Havana architecture, written by in part by Cubans, but in English:
    “Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis ” by Joseph L. Scarpaci, Mario Coyula, and Roberto Segre

    Joseph L. Scarpaci is professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

    Roberto Segre is professor of architecture and urbanism at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

    Mario Coyula is an architect and planner in Havana, Cuba

    A few comments Irina. I’ve been in love with Cuba, and Havana in particular for about 11 years now. I know a fair number of Cubans both in Havana, and quite a few who have emigrated. The most common reaction of the emigrants seems to be a mix of disappointment that their new home isn’t as wonderful as they imagined it would be, and nostalgia for the social life they had in Cuba.

    While most of them seem to feel that Cuban economic and political hardship is largely due to American aggression, that doesn’t reduce their frustration with aspects of the government. And for that reason they all would not choose to live in Cuba. Perhaps that will change if the Americans can ever learn to be reasonable, and stop trying to prevent Cuba being Cuba under Cuban terms. I would love to see improved economic circumstances, and the opening up of more opportunity for Cubans; something that the Americans could easily help bring by replacing aggression with friendship.

    I also had to comment on your ending with “searching for my real country”. For me that’s Cuba, especially Havana. My Cuban friends think I’m crazy, especially the ones in Cuba; and I’m well aware of how hard life is there. But I would love to live and work at least part of the year there. My career background is information technology: computer software, and the internet. I would like nothing better than to help Cuba build an I.T. infrastructure… ah dreams and illusions…

  • As a Cuban living inside the island, I would say that this article leads with migration in a very old-fashioned way and therefore ignoring the changes that took place at the Cuban society at large during the 90s. The writer´s assumption is simplistic: people deal wtih migration in a very normal way, while officials consider the Cubans living abroad as traitors to the homeland. Not true. It used to be like that in the old days, when the Cuban Revolution faced all kinds of military attacks from Miami Cubans and Cuban society divided itself on the issue of supporting or not the Revolution, but not anymore. So next time, please, a little more contextualization would be apreciatted.

  • Irina,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while and am thoroughly enjoying it. Hope you won’t give up and keep on writing about you life and Havana, a place which is still rather unknown and mysterious to us in Europe.

    Also, I wanted to ask you for an advice. I’ll be soon doing a research paper for the university. The subject of my interest is the colonial domestic architecture in Havana in the 18th and 19th century (particularly, I’m talking about the old mansions of the oligarchy, I would like to research which styles influenced them and how they reflect the domestic life of the city elites of the past). Since I know that you must know a lot about the history of the city, I wanted to ask you if there are sufficient sources on this subject I could dig into, how well preserved those mansions are. I have searching for some information on the Internet, but the sources seem pretty scarce. Are you aware of any Spanish/English literature on colonial Havana and domestic architecture that would be of any use to me? Really, any hint would be very helpful


Comments are closed.