A Cuban in the Land of the Selfish

Isbel Diaz Torres

I arrived in Chicago on a cold, rainy night and suddenly found myself in the middle of a derelict street – without money, without a public phone at hand and without a concrete address to head to.

HAVANA TIMES – Today, I want to share with you a number of very surprising experiences I had in Chicago this year, for they contradict the idea that Cuban schools and media have constructed regarding the egotism that a country like the United States – the epitome of industrialization, barbarism, competition and dehumanization – allegedly encourages in people.

I didn’t want to share all of my experiences outside Cuba too soon. I wanted to think about them and develop a more balanced opinion. That is why, as readers have noticed, my posts about Brazil are separated by long periods of time, and I hadn’t written anything about my experiences in the United States until now.

I arrived in Chicago on a cold, rainy night and suddenly found myself in the middle of a derelict street – without money, without a public phone at hand and without a concrete address to head to. After nearly an hour of dragging my suitcase down the wet streets and not seeing a single soul, an African American woman, evidently working class, suggested I went into a nearby hotel (belonging to the Marriot chain) and asked for help there.

Chicago bridge.

Used to being treated like a pariah at Cuban hotels, I decided to try my luck, convinced I would be kicked out of the premises like a “dirty Latino immigrant.” To my surprise, not only was I cordially welcomed by the doorman and the lady at the reception, they also allowed me to make all the calls I needed free of charge.

When I headed outside to wait for the people who were going to pick me up, the hotel people didn’t let me. They insisted I sit and wait at the luxurious and warm lobby, where we had a lively conversation for the almost one-hour-long wait.

Days later, while skipping a LASA conference, another Cuban and I arrived at the entrance to the monumental Art Institute of Chicago by chance. I was happy enough to have gotten there and to be able to take photos of the incredibly beautiful façade and surroundings.

My friend and I ventured into the lobby to take a furtive picture of the inside when something unexpected happened. A man we had crossed at the door asked us: “do you want these two tickets I’m not going to use?” We couldn’t believe that was happening.

At the Chicago Art Institute

This way, I was able to see the first great works of art of a long list of pieces I enjoyed there. Some spectacular stained-glass pieces by Chagall, a large collection of Hindu art and models and sculptures by Picasso were particularly striking – and we enjoyed them free of charge!

Without a cent to my name, I was able to visit Chicago for a week thanks to the kindness of friends, colleagues and new acquaintances, among whom I should mention Jesus Guanche, Armando Chaguaceda, Ted Henken, Stansfield Smith and even a pair of would-be Cuban “security agents” who invited me for a snack in order to obtain information about my treacherous plans in the land of egotism.

To all of them, both friends and acquaintances, I say thank you. You helped me rid myself of yet another cliché and I feel a little bit freer for it. You also helped reaffirm my “faith in human improvement”, as Marti said, and to see that not even a heartless superpower like the United States can rid its own citizens of goodwill.

Isbel Diaz

Isbel Diaz Torres: Pinar del Rio and Havana are my cities. I was born in one on March 1, 1976, and I’ve always lived in the other. I am a biologist and poet, though at times I’ve also been a musician, translator, teacher, computer geek, designer, photographer and editor. I’m very non-conformist and a defender of differences – perhaps due to always having been an ever-repressed “model child.” Nothing enthralls me more than the unknown, nature and art; these serve as my sources of mystery and development. A surprising activism has been born in me over the recent period. Though I’m not very sure how to channel it, I feel that it’s a worthy and legitimate energy. Let’s hope I have the discernment to manage it.


40 thoughts on “A Cuban in the Land of the Selfish

  • November 28, 2014 at 10:37 am
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    Because Ted Henken > USAID or DAI > the American taxpayers DO have money, and the first three habitually pick up the tab for anyone willing to speak badly or lie about their government and country.

  • November 28, 2014 at 10:02 am
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    I guess you haven’t had political discussions with many Americans and I guess you’ve never watched FOX news or listened to the Republicans in our elected congress. But hey, keep your rose colored glasses on. I wouldn’t want to spoil your fun.

  • November 28, 2014 at 9:36 am
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    I make them sound like beggars? That certainly wasn’t my intention. But if that HAD been my intention, I must admit, I don’t have a problem with what you call “beggars” and it is a term I would NEVER use. I would never call anyone on this planet a beggar. Including the down and out homeless alcoholic living in the Bowery. Now let me make this VERY clear – making significant contributions to this world has nothing to do with possessing money or even, for that matter, being homeless on the streets.

  • November 27, 2014 at 10:52 am
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    Actually, the US has called for democracy in China & Saudi Arabia. I’m not saying the US is consistent in their foreign policy, but one should be aware of the facts.

  • November 27, 2014 at 10:50 am
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    In my experience, Americans tend to be warmer, more helpful & friendlier than most other people. Stop a random person on the streets of New York to ask for directions: I’ve received warm smiles, polite assistance and a helpful tip on finding a good restaurant. Now try that in Paris and you will get a shrug, a frown and muttered expletive en française.

    Isbel’s experience in Chicago is not all that unusual.

  • November 27, 2014 at 9:53 am
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    Next time go to Los Angeles – chicago is a dump

  • November 27, 2014 at 9:01 am
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    Truman pointed out to Robeson that lynching was murder and as such was already illegal. The problem was the failure to enforce the law, not the lack of a law.

    I understand the extent of systemic racism which created the problems which in turn lead to an unemployed, poorly educated, young black male robbing a store, beating up the shopkeeper, smoking drugs, assaulting a police officer and then ultimately being shot dead in the street by the police.

    To excuse African-Americans of the responsibility of behaving in a civilized manner is racist attitude. Systemic and interpersonal racism exist in the US, including inside the African-American culture.

    The African-American gang bangers who murder African-American children are just as guilty of murder and racism as are the KKK lynchers.

    The easy reaction is to blame the cops. The far tougher challenge is to look at all aspects of society and deal with the fundamental problems which contribute to and perpetuate racism. Welfare has destroyed the African-American family. Rappers who glorify gangsterism, drugs and the abuse of women should be shunned, not given Grammy awards and invited to the White House.

  • November 26, 2014 at 8:31 pm
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    As another non-US citizen, I too can speak of the hospitality and friendship I have experienced in the states. Never heard a single scream!

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