A Light Pressure in the Lower Back

By Juan Carlos Cremata (El Estornudo)

Juan Carlos Cremata

HAVANA TIMES – I felt a hand pressing lightly on my back, near the waist. Like someone who invites you with a little extra push to advance confidently, with no shadow of a problem, before throwing yourself over an obligatory cliff. That was the last physical contact I had with Cuban officialdom. That unpleasant and bitter sensation of: “Get out, we don’t want you here”.

“We don’t need them here,” he’d decreed, in one of his habitual tirades, both hysterical and historical. The one who in 1959 rose to be the owner of all Cubans’ lives for over half a century.

With camouflaged cynicism, the young customs official approached me hurriedly, when he saw that I had placed myself at the end of the line. Maybe it’s just a notion of mine, but in a country where distrust is cultivated, no one knows what true intention lies behind the acts, or behind the simplest, most common attitudes. With his pistol on one hip and his walkie-talkie on the other, he addressed me quickly, decidedly and assuredly:

“Our you going to travel?” As if one might be at the airport buying lunch. “Come right over here.”

Luckily, he didn’t call me compañero, that beautiful word converted into a Caribbean communist slogan. Without giving a crap for those in front of me, the official escorted me to a deserted booth to check my passport. It was my last departure from Cuba. That’s the moment he employed that little forced caress.

I know of those who’ve received a lot worse, that’s for sure. Real mistreatment. Kicks, blows, prison, bullets, eggs, stones, scorn, shouts, indignities, offenses and even being spit on, merely for thinking differently or desiring to live somewhere different.

I’d entered and left my country many times. No official had ever approached me to facilitate my escape, flight or trip. Just a month previously, I’d represented Cuba at the equivalent of the Oscar awards in China. No one gave me a hand. Not even the ICAIC (the official Cuban Film Institute), the organization I belonged to and through which I’d been invited, since my film was in part realized with their production assistance.

Very few people were aware of my decision to leave. They could be counted on the fingers of one hand. But, somehow, the information had filtered out and reached some unwholesome ears. It’s so difficult to keep a secret on that island!

I still travel with a copy of the document a lawyer from the Ministry of Culture made me sign. It decrees that “for the rest of my life” I could never again direct a play in my country. Nor make films.

In fact, I was only able to film amid huge difficulties, almost clandestinely. I’d made a short – the fourth, and until now the last, of my Crematorios series – and the beginnings of a feature-length film called “Semen”.

I haven’t yet, nor do I know if I ever will, be able to finish it someday. Filmed in secret, without permits. With inquiring eyes on me all the time. One foot ahead of that unjust and excessive “legality”, imposed through tyrannical provisions and lies repeated daily.

I was condemned to ostracism, to silence, and to a living death, without any concrete order from a particular person. Or at least, no one ever showed their face. Maligned and buried up to my neck with just my head sticking out. By “orders from above”.

Then – through the habitual campaigns of discredit for anyone who dissents – they brought to light, as if I had hidden it, my situation as an HIV patient. They lamented my deep ingratitude and selfishness towards “the revolution that had shaped me”. They even accused me of working for the US embassy, or as a CIA agent.

In the Cubanized version of Eugene Ionesco’s “Exit the King”, a classic work of the theater of the absurd, I had failed to respect the Maximum Leader, the Caribbean Mao, the Kim Il Sung of the marabou wasteland, and the global lie.

They hung a “traitor” sign on me and I still don’t know for what. Although I was born there and they worked continually to indoctrinate me, I never swallowed their arbitrary and absurd actions, simply because they’re not fair or rational. I was now considered a vestige, a wretch, a stinker, a non grata, untrustworthy and even avoidable by many who had sung my praises and sought favors before the “scandal”.

“Get out of here!” a drunk journalist yelled at me in the door of the Mella theater. “Culture is for the revolutionaries!”, he spit out with an odor of old beer on his breath.

Their raw censorship hasn’t stopped pursuing me today. I frequently lose my own voice. This censorship thrust me onto the wheel of incriminations, suspicion and resentment of those who believe that “everything is clear to them”, in their dark, black and white minds.

I left it all behind. Like so many.

Years of education and a career; successes; unmeasurable dedication; cherished places; loves that remain alive; essential books; music; art collections; crafts; photographs; and icons from different parts of the world. Souvenirs of trips, shared air, local colors, unforgettable friends.

A daughter for whom I suffer and breathe. And my mother, my anchor, who I risked never seeing in the flesh again. Thanks to her I still exist, knowing myself protected under her mantle of inextinguishable support, and drenched in her customary remembrance.

The story of every exile.

Mine isn’t the story of one who leaves to chase a dream, but of one who escapes an antiquated, rooted, tangled and stagnant nightmare that’s lasted over 60 years. I had to swallow that nightmare throughout my own more than 56 years.

I never thought of leaving Cuba. Previously, never.

Having had the possibility, having lived many years outside of her, I always returned. To give the best of myself.

Until they denied me the right to create, which is the only way I know to breathe. Anyone lacking air goes to find it. I learned very young to swim, and I do it perfectly. If I had stayed there, I would have drowned, without even choking.  

I don’t feel, or see myself, or foster any desire to be a martyr. It’s not my vocation or my style.

I also can’t stand that old story of patriotism, overflowing with bureaucratic national heroes. They disperse distressing anniversaries that coexist with loud parties, macho displays, trashy behavior, and institutional embezzlement.

None of this nourishes me, or even interests me. I had plenty of it, on all sides. I escaped, fed up with so much veneer, disguised as historic truth.

I emigrated already older, it’s true. When the strength, the drive and the verve of yesterday aren’t the same. That’s a disadvantage. But I’m clear that I didn’t go into exile to build a career. Instead, it’s an attempt to live what’s left to me without hiding who I am or having to offer reasons for what I think or do.

When the plane rose in flight, other things were also left behind. The unfounded allegations, and the castrating outrage. Another life opened before me. Another movie began.  As bad as being out of Cuba might get, I still feel that remaining there would be a horror.

That conviction is dictated by the huge fear the mere thought of returning produces in me. Something that I shouldn’t feel, if we lived in a normal country. Or rather: “if we had a country”.

I long to return one day, I hope it could be as soon as possible, to bid farewell to my mother’s ashes. And to at least give the daughter I idolize my most deeply felt hugs and kisses.

But – I’m afraid. Returning terrifies me. There are no guarantees there of what could happen. What intense and inexplicable pain comes from this mix of pride at having created a film called “Viva Cuba”, and feeling myself banned from my country.

I carry a tattoo forever, branded like cattle with a sizzling iron. That light pressure on the lower back that I recall. However, I’ve been thrown out of better places. And I’ve returned!


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