I am ‘Underground’

Isbel Diaz Torres

HAVANA TIMES — “Are you guys ‘underground’?” a young woman asked us recently, as Jimmy and I were going to visit a friend in the hospital who was about to have a baby. Of course the question didn’t end there.

She looked at us up and down, as if measuring us. In reality we didn´t know what to say. The problem was that this young woman, along with a nurse, was in charge of the ward, where we had arrived after the end of visiting hours. So, we had to be careful since a wrong answer could have kept us from being able to see our friend.

All things considered, I didn’t think the label of “underground” was something that bad, even though I consider myself rather conventional in my appearance. I no longer have a thin braid in my hair or a goatee. As for Jimmy, he always dresses plainly and simply, meaning that her use of that word was that much more unjustified.

In any case, I smiled and said yes, even though I still wasn’t sure what “underground” meant to her. What went through my mind were certain “types” of people whose external appearances could more easily lead to that description. I was thinking of rappers, Rastafarians or artists, for example.

I know, of course, that such an understanding involves a superficial and gratuitous assessment.

Then the girl explained what she meant to us – or at least she thought she explained it.

“It’s that you guys are neither mikis [preppies] nor repas [salsa/reggaeton fans mostly from poor neighborhoods].”

We could barely contain our laughter. Those terms — currently used by Cuban youth to describe certain groups based on their clothing, their favorite musicians (within a very narrow range), and the places where they hang out — couldn’t be applied to us of course.

But to think that if you’re not a “miki” or a “repa” then you’re necessarily “underground” made me realize that the people are focused on their own logic and daily dynamics, something that prevents them from penetrating the realities of so many different individuals.

Could things be otherwise? I thought about that, but I still don’t have a clear answer. I recalled how my own mother comes up with small-minded phrases like “But everybody likes Alvaro Torres,” and I imagine it’s fairly common for people to consider their standards to be universal.

“The conceited villager believes the entire whole world to be his village,” Marti said at the beginning of his beautiful essay “Our America.”

As if trying to confirm my thesis, the young woman in question went even further and extended the application of her label onto everyone who had visited our friend up until then.

After continuing to analyze all of that, I discovered something. In certain intellectual circles, where it’s common to find people examining “marginality” or what’s “popular,” “alternative” or “folkloric,” the perspective is reversed. In instances like those, the illustrative and lively young woman who questioned us would herself have been considered “underground.”

In such circles, the term could even have elitist and racist connotations, like the position of that doctor who not long ago, in a cultural studies symposium, yelled at me from the table of the jury panel saying “one can only expect chaos from marginality,” as her puritanical hatred made her white, well-cared-for skin turn red.

Shortly afterwards, I saw her at the Institute of Anthropology during the presentation of a valuable book titled Los marginales de las Alturas del Mirador. Un estudio de caso (The Marginal Residents of Mirador Heights: A Case Study), by researcher Paul Rodriguez. Why would she want that? Was she looking for weapons from the enemy to defend her thesis?

On the other hand, in a country where being “underground” in the economic sphere is the handiest way to break through the government’s barriers and to succeed at surviving by living on illegalities and corruption, few would succeed at steering clear of that title.

So, I feel pretty comfortable with my new label’. I’ll just add it to the many others that society constantly imposes on individuals and groups. Without taking it too seriously, I think it’s just enough to keep one safe.