HAVANA TIMES, August 26 – Since my earliest memories, my goal was to live in New York, a city of skyscrapers that frighten with their sheer size. There, in a photo, was my father waiting for us, dressed in his cap and overalls alongside a snowman.
I still remember the first photos that my sisters and I took of ourselves, in turn, “for daddy” with a Russian camera. And to this day I’m still paralyzed by the mailman’s whistle, which back then would compel me to race to the window.
In 1993, when I tried to go to New York, I had to apply for a visa to “get to know my father” (that’s what I filled out on the form). From this attempt I still recall:
1. The memory of that blond stone-like woman who, through the little window at the US Interests Office, asked me: “So your father left Cuba when you were three years old?” To which I responded, “Two and half years.” And she then exclaimed sarcastically: “Aww, so you must be suffering something dear!”
2. The one stamp in the passport reading “application received,” which is the same as saying “visa denied.”
3. The memory of the amenorrhea (skipped menstrual cycle) caused by the shock of that resounding “NO.”
As revenge, I wrote in a page of my own passport: “Changing one’s place doesn’t save us from rituals, needs or biological misery,” but this has not stopped from being a mental journey.
I still try to understand all of this by combing through the experiences of distant émigrés. I conducted interviews by e-mail with two them:
Maria Villares, a painter, designer, musician, writer, astrologer… She left Cuba heading for England, where she lived for several years. At the moment she lives in Spain.
Geli Alvarez, a balsero (rafter) at sixteen, he is a poet, musician and painter… He has lived in Guyana, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, the Bolivian forest and Mexico. He currently resides in Miami.
HT: WHY DID YOU LEAVE CUBA?
Maria: The issue of leaving is something very relative. We’re always leaving or returning from somewhere. Of course when one is born in Cuba, there’s the terrible difficulty of not being able to look upon travel as something natural.
The act of leaving winds up being seen as some type of desertion… This makes leaving the island something that becomes even compulsive. One ends up thinking that the mere fact of departing will solve all their problems.
Geli: Maybe now, after so many years away, I can understand it better. I remember that sometimes in Cuba I would get depressed when I didn’t have any clothes or shoes to go out, or when I got to the point of even being hungry, but those things didn’t make me think of leaving the country.
I had my first girlfriend, and I realized that my clothes prevented her from letting me kiss her in front of her friends… I had some rough times on the island, but I can’t say that I was prepared for anything.
Maria: In my case, I always knew that some moment in my life would come in which I would be compelled to explore other lands, though that didn’t mean I felt I would leave for good. The existing laws are what suggest that idea to us. They give you a certain amount of time to return, and if you don’t, you can no longer come back with the same legal status as others, though you’re still legally a Cuban. It’s something that’s really absurd.
Geli: Actually, I never I imagined leaving like I did. Some other people suggested that I take the place in the raft of another person who decided not to go because of the choppiness of the sea and the forecasted bad weather. So I said yes.
I remember that I didn’t say goodbye to more than six people; it was as if I were only going away for a weekend. I wasn’t afraid, and at no moment of the journey did I think of death; it was an adventure. I didn’t have ideological problems or any other types of difficulties.
Maria: Immigration laws in general restrict human beings from their freedom of movement, even when it’s supposed to be a universal right. Borders, citizenship… everything is designed in a way that more than living as human beings, we’re political beings…
Geli: Right now, thinking of that day, the first thing that comes to my mind is my mother in Alamar…of saying goodbye. She spoke to me of a new life and the need to be super strong…to be a man. It was a true encounter with sadness. She cried a lot. It took me two years to adapt, or for me to believe I had adapted, but that never completely happens.
HT: What did you hope to find outside of Cuba, and what in fact did you find?
Maria: As I headed to the so-called First World, I of course hoped to find a higher standard of living and social advantages well above those that existed on our island. And certainly some of this I could see, but it was not like I had imagined.
Geli: Well… they picked up us up off the raft and sent us to Miami via the keys highway. But when I looked at those enormous US flags, I cried and cried asking myself what I had done.
Maria: I could note that what is called their First World is nothing more than a conglomerate of worlds stacked in the shape of a pyramid, one where you encounter many other worlds underground… It gave me the shivers to see how in the cities there are automatic teller machines on almost every corner. And at these you can see people dressed in suits and ties, with briefcases, putting their credit cards in the money machines to take out money, while to their side might be a beggar, wrapped up in a dirty sleeping bag, with cloudy eyes and lost in emptiness, lifting up his hand hoping for some little bit of charity.
Geli: Now, what I found travels with me everywhere. It is almost like being in a “suspended state” or “not belonging.” Like that poem by Mario Benedetti: “More than once I feel expelled and with desires to return to that place of exile that expelled me…” Then I find that I no longer belong anywhere, to anybody.
Maria: Observing the mechanisms that govern human society, I’ve realized how tremendously restrictive and ridiculous they are. Eighty-five percent of the energy that is produced on the planet is consumed by the First World, though extracted from the Third World, when the First World consists of less than a third of the world’s population! On the other hand, there are people who live in agrarian communities, people who still maintain a direct bond with the earth, who are destroyed in the name of “technological development.” This is a battle that is occurring before our blind eyes; and whether we want to or not, we all support its occurrence in one way or another, depending on where we’re moving the wheel of chance.
HT: Don’t you believe that Cubans look at the alternative of emigration with a certain degree of naiveté?
Maria: The fact of losing ties with the land where you were born, where the whole fabric of your memory lays, and to dive into the unknown requires enormous courage. Not everyone is prepared to start over from scratch and to forge another life in a land where you’ll always be a foreigner, an uprooted being. That’s why I believe there is indeed naiveté; there’s also the lucidity of a traveler who can detach themself and leap into that void with an open spirit.
Geli: I think so. The idea of living a “prosperous” life is taken very lightly. We don’t truly know what freedom implies, or if it exists like it’s described in the dictionary: as trust, a condition, a right… They sell us a different idea, a new road or a way of living, one that is theoretically free. But when that idea is discovered in all its breathe, we discover (or at least I discovered) that I had been deceived, that I was a kind of puppet as a result of the circumstances, like so many other people.
Maria: I believe that human identity has been built through travel in search of new places, for new species and visions. This is part of the basic survival instinct and the yearning for intensity that we all carry within.
HT: But that’s only discovered on a physical journey?
Maria: The paths are always relative to each individual. Of course there are inner and outer paths, and both coexist, though I don’t look at them separately. All the decisions in our lives should be impelled by an attempt to evolve ourselves, by a conscious search, and each person does this in their own way.
Geli: I believe in the inner search, yes. Each person must travel across that boundary that leads to themself. It’s very difficult for one to feel truly happy, free. It doesn’t matter where you live if you yourself don’t live life to its fullest, internally and externally.
Maria: The fact of leaving on a physical journey can presuppose an inner road, and at the same time an inner voyage can be a way of crossing spheres of consciousness and experiencing different realities, without moving from a place. I believe that it’s always a personal decision.
Geli: Central and South America demonstrated to me a strange thirst for emigration that reminded me a lot of Cuba. I saw in myself and others who had left their lands that each road leads to a new point of departure.
After so much time I discovered that the émigré is older than any nation. All change, all of the cycle of life, is a constant going into exile, from second to second.
HT: Don’t you believe that this exodus deprives Cuba of people with desires to act and transform their own Cuba?
Maria: Yes. There’s a lot of good energy that has emigrated, a great number of creative and intelligent people, true luminaries, who today live outside of Cuba. But I never look at this in definitive terms; it’s a question of time, and time is the most relative thing that exists. While those people are alive, it’s possible that their energy is focused on doing things in Cuba, in impelling transformation in Cuba.
Geli: I’m reminded of a Cuban movie right now: “Nada.” The letter that the boy writes to a girl telling her that he wants to emigrate: “You’re free and you leave. I too thought about leaving at one time, but people always leave without making it to any side. They abandon things; they give up, missing the opportunity to improve things. And if everybody leaves, no one will ever change anything. No one, never, nothing.”
Maria: The person who has intentions of working for the Cuban cause never gives up on their task, even if they wind up living in another country for a while; rather, they are preparing themselves, collecting information, building bridges, becoming stronger and more lucid, working in their own way for its renewal, because this is something that begins from within each Cuban, until coming to manifest itself in whatever expressive sphere…
HT: What do you think is needed in Cuba?
Geli: A free opportunity to live in other cities, on other streets. To walk on another Malecon, to shout in other languages…! Artistic and cultural exchanges. Even the transmutation of all those desires that are repressed, and to return with the experience of other realities. It’s necessary to transform everything, include classes on spiritual studies, classes on self-knowledge, to help children become parents and parents to again become children. To encourage youth to question themselves in terms of where, why, how…
Maria: I would propose the need for each person to assume a responsible attitude in the face of their own reality, that each person believe that change is possible, and that they attempt it from their own circle. We always fall into the position of complaining, of looking for who’s guilty, of recriminating each other… What is really required is for people to assume an active and conscious position, and to try to improve things with all our energy. This is what has been called having a “proactive vision” – the opposite of being reactive and always reacting against what’s there. It’s important to know that we’re all in agreement on what we want to change; however, it won’t be enough to merely affect change for the sake of change, we must carry out an evolutionary leap.
Geli: Here in the US, Cubans have two ways of looking at themselves, as you well know: that of before and that of after 1959. It is our mission to break with those taboos, to change the perception of those generations that hold on to so much bitterness. Cubans are Cubans, wherever they are. The task now is for artists to serve as bridges and to create new ways of acceptance. For me —more than a conflict— this is an opportunity.
Maria: The posture of denying all of the past to carry out change is not fully conscious, because it would fall into a new vortex… Beyond assuming new economic models and politicians trusting the supposed effectiveness of those, it will be necessary to work toward the empowerment of citizens, from their spheres of action. There are tons of projects flourishing in all corners of Cuba, overcoming walls, bureaucracies and censorship. I believe that good energy always overpowers nonsense, and that the key is to maintain a firm approach.
Geli: Someday I would even like to see the word “émigré” exchanged for “preparation.” Wasn’t that how it was used previously? Some left to return later, to establish paths; paths toward a better understanding of this minuscule season that we call life. Jesus, Buddha, Moses… and even our very own Marti forged remarkable changes when they returned to their birthplaces.