Family in a Daze

By LEONARDO PADURA FUENTES

One of the many concepts that Cuban life has seen transformed is that of the family. Photo: Caridad
One of the many concepts that Cuban life has seen transformed is that of the family. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, March 13 (IPS) – Almost without us having realized it, the first decade of the century is concluding. The quickening race of time -or the sensation of that dizzying pace- doubtlessly has a great deal to do with the acceleration of changing political, social, scientific and even ethical circumstances in which we human beings live.

This age of globalization, criticism, overheating, unpredictability and, above all, ideological imbalance, is a moment in which almost nothing remains too long, and in which for many the strongest belief systems (including political faith) are reduced to the most elementary notions of what might be good and what seems bad.

In this world in change, Cuba has also changed. Although the essence of its political and economic system, its slogans and the islands leaders are the same ones as fifty years ago – with the notable physical absence of Fidel Castro, still present in decision-making and in dictating policies- the dialectic of life is unstoppable. Likewise, many notions and realities have been gradually transforming, for good or bad, in the present and in looking to the future that will inevitably arrive loaded with change.

One of the many concepts that Cuban life has seen transformed is that of the family, at least in terms of how more traditionally and possibly conservatively this is understood on the island.

In a nation so young and still in formation -possessing barely two hundred years of its own identity- the root concept of family was unquestionably one of the cornerstones that long ago established a mode of being, behaving and coming to grips with life in that society.

The Cuban family was for decades a nucleus for the conservation and transmission of values; a unit that, amid all the changes, attempted to preserve feelings of belonging, fraternity, respect and order.

The revolutionary process begun in 1959, and its later institutionalization, introduced important changes in the traditional structure of the Cuban family. The most decisive of these had to do with the social and economic ascent of women – a change that altered their role in the context of the clan.

As a result of those needed changes, generated in the 1960s, women began to play a varied role in the family, with new tasks and responsibilities.  Because of this, it is now common to see families headed by single women, families in which the woman is the economically most solvent element and even lesbian couples that share a roof, budget and destiny, and who constitute a family.

Ever-extending realities – such as this new socio-economic position of the woman; the proliferation of consensual unions, to the detriment of traditional marriages; and even the demand for the recognition of the family bond, advocated by homosexual couples- have pointed to the increasingly commented upon need to introduce changes in the Family Code approved in Cuba in the 1970s.

However, the most painful and burdensome alteration that the Cuban family has suffered has been related to physical and intellectual atomization. This has been due to directly economic realities (the lack of resources), and those of an even more complex nature (as in the case of the Cuban diaspora, where political factors have also had an impact). Over the past 20 years, this change in the family has acquired an oppressive presence throughout the country.

The impossibility of preserving customs -whereby, for example, the family gathered around a table, or the considerable difficulty in moving from one place to another in the country, and even within a single city- has contributed to the distancing of the younger generation of Cubans and to disintegrating the family entity.

Instead of the parents emigrating first, to later claim their children, as occurred especially in the 1960s, now it is the children who rush to emigrate in search of their own horizons. Photo: Caridad
Instead of the parents emigrating first, to later claim their children, as occurred especially in the 1960s, now it is the children who rush to emigrate in search of their own horizons. Photo: Caridad

Insufficient living space and the absence of new housing, on the other hand, while having contributed to sustaining obligatory physical proximity, has often atrophied normal family growth and development, as well as introducing countless sources of friction. Added to these elements, the lack of a masculine-paternal model (in families separated by divorce or by the emotional estrangement of the parents) alters the balance that, up to now, was considered more natural for children.

Cubans families in the diaspora, on the other hand, which until the 1970s were characterized by the migration of the entire nucleus (at least that was the intention of the majority), began to change in character starting with the Mariel exodus (1980). A new typology was defined in their emigration from the 1990s on.

Since that time, a variant was introduced with force. Instead of the parents emigrating first, to later claim their children, as occurred especially in the 1960s, now it is the children who rush to emigrate in search of their own horizons.

Often this option is pursued without the least intention of bringing or sending for their parents – who are frequently not interested in being uprooted, too old for the undertaking, or not willing to run the risks of that decision.

This different attitude, now predominant in these times in which many professional youth have left Cuba and numbers of young women have married foreigners, has slowly introduced an important mutation in many Cuban families.

These households have witnessed a break in their relations of continuity and, accompanying it, the transmission of values, customs and domestic cultures that are always acquired in the family home. With respect to adults, this has left them alone and uncertain of the future.

For a country that is aging quickly, and whose population has even decreased in recent years, this new reality of weakened or definitively broken family ties will acquire increasing social and cultural weight.

The generation of those who today are between 45 and 60 and whose children have left the country has a future quite different from that of their parents. Meanwhile, the grandchildren of those Cubans in the diaspora will have increasingly marginalized relationships with the country of their grandparents and parents, and, in many cases, they will no longer see it as their own.

In this way, the Cuban family is facing the challenges of post-modernity, economic crisis, women’s equality, globalization, cultural superseding and the diaspora. These elements, highly diverse in nature, are sufficient to dumbfound and daze this indispensable nucleus of society: the family.



2 thoughts on “Family in a Daze

  • I’ve been meaning to finish this comment for a while now, but work has kept me busy.

    Interesting article Leonardo (I hope you don’t mind the more familiar address, and that goes for everyone on HT who’s articles I comment on, it’s something the internet seems to encourage). Back when you wrote Pasado Perfecto you showed a deep interest in issues related to the family.

    In that story, I’d argue Mario Conde survives, because of his familial attachment to Skinny and his mom. I get a sense that without them Conde would disintegrate, or perhaps he feels he would.

    Given that intuitive sense you have of family’s importance, but also of the ways in which people can create family from non-blood ties, I think you realize people are more than capable of finding ways to fulfill familial needs under the most trying of circumstances. But I do think recognizing its importance does require an awareness many people have difficulty attaining.

    I’d also argue that the issues of atomization and social isolation you raise as some of the challenges Cuban families face are magnified many times over amongst us Norteamericanos (or Yumas if you prefer *wink*). And believe it or not, one of the main culprits is an excess of entertainment goods and services. Families are very spread out here. My own immediate family is spread out across Canada.

    But I think there is another very important issue that you haven’t touched upon, but one that has an immense impact on family life in North America, specifically: so much of our entertainment encourages social isolation. We watch TV or DVDs of movies at home alone. We play computer games at home alone. We shop through the internet at home alone. Fear over young children getting hurt or abducted without parental supervision means parents prevent their young children from doing little else beyond staying at home alone, usually watching television (something that was almost never a concern when I was young).

    There was even a recent animated movie called Wall-E that made fun of this predicament. The humans in the movie are on a giant spaceship that has left Earth while the planet is being cleaned by robots. The humans all ride around in hovering chairs that have communication video screens and feeding apparatuses attached. All the humans are immensely fat, and can barely move unaided. At one point two human friends are physically right beside each other, but instead of turning to talk to each other face-to-face they use their communication video screens.

    I’ve had (and hope to continue having) the luxury and priviledge of experiencing family life in Cuba. One thing I can say fairly strongly, based on my experience, is that Cubans seem on average to have far more ability and comfort communicating face-to-face than average Norteamericanos. The that lack of skill is getting worse in North America, and I think a large part of the problem is due to social isolation caused by people communicating with each other here through the phone or over the internet instead of face-to-face. They may live in the same city, or perhaps even the same neighborhood, but it is more convenient to use cell phones to text friends and family, than actually spend time enjoying their physical company. I swear many people here seem to have the attitude that, god forbid they should have to use valuable time talking to others, when they could instead be watching the latest episode of some crappy TV show.

    So in addition to many of the problems you have already mentioned, such as globalization and cultural superseding, I would argue actual physical isolation, especially in North America, is an added component in the daze challenging family cohesion.

    Reply

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