Reveling in Havana, Cuba

Yusimi Rodriguez

Charanga Habanera in Havana. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 12 – Popular dance music is one of the song categories with the most fans here in our country.  In it is included salsa (or “casino”), timba and others that a great many Cubans enjoy listening and especially dancing to.

While I don’t include myself in that majority —since I can’t dance salsa— I do enjoy watching couples execute the complicated steps to the music’s rhythm. Likewise, I like the “casino wheel,” a choreographed rotation between several couples.

Perhaps because I don’t in fact dance, I have more time to stop and analyze the lyrics of songs than those who are occupied in moving to the music’s beat with such elegance and grace. Then again, maybe I suffer the defect of thinking too much.

For months we’ve been hearing a song that made the list of top hits across the country.  When it’s not on the radio or TV, people hum it in the streets and on buses.  The song is “Gozando en La Habana” (Reveling in Havana), by Charanga Habanera, a band directed by David Calzado and one that has been one of the most popular in Cuba for almost twenty years.

In this song, the lead singer is directing his words toward his ex-girlfriend, who has emigrated from Cuba to live in Miami – in the United States (or in “the Yuma,” like many Cubans say).

At the beginning of the song the chorus sings, “Tell me, how could you leave if you’ve known such happiness?  Tell me, how are you doing?  Here, I’m doing fine, but you over there, what’s up?”

The song’s lyrics then recount the life of the young woman in the new country: “You say you feel good, that Miami is crazy, but you miss Havana, the gossip and the flavor…”  I suppose that here you perceive the sadness considered inherent in the act of emigrating.

Emigrating for a car?

I’ve spoken with people who left the country.  Even those who are doing well economically are assaulted by homesickness and nostalgia – not only for their families and friends, but for the smells and flavors, the voices, a way of life and the feeling of belonging to something.  Someone told that me emigrating is like being born again in a new country.

Nighttime in Havana. Photo: Caridad

What does it take for people to make a decision like that of abandoning their land? Many Cubans travel to reunite with their families or because they marry a foreigner.  But what the song allows us to see is that the motivations of many youth are material: “They say she has money, the car of her dreams…”

Could it be that people emigrate only to own a car? Or could it be that only through emigration can most Cubans aspire to have a car?

Previously a Cuban living in Cuba was not allowed to buy a car, unless that person was a prominent athlete, an artist or a member of the Council of State or having earned the right to buy it in regular pesos at their workplace back in the 1980s.

Even in remote cases of those who had the money —sent by a relative, a foreign friend, or simply saving for years, buying a vehicle was not an option. The situation changed about two years ago.  Now Cubans residing in our country can acquire a car…if they have the money and can pay in foreign currency (though of course Cubans continue to be paid in national currency).

A skirt so short

Another song on the same Charanga CD caught my attention. “With the same crazy woman,” the singer intones, “…wearing such a beautiful blouse and a skirt so short, I had to pick you up in my car.” How lucky for her.

Photo by Joyce Corbett

Nowadays to give someone a lift is not a question of humanity, in this country with all our transportation problems.  A ride is usually not given unless the person needing the lift is sufficiently attractive and wears the right clothes.

Perhaps women who hitchhike can take this song as advice. But I wonder if the author can reconcile this song’s superficiality with the previous one’s criticism of the young woman for emigrating to get her superficial dream car.  It appears he doesn’t have that problem – he already has a car.

You win some, you lose some

Returning to the song that concerns me, “Reveling in Havana,” there’s another moment in which the backup chorus says: “You’re crying in Miami and I’m partying in Havana.” I don’t find it at all implausible to imagine a Cuban emigrant crying in the United States.

You win some things with emigration, but you lose others on both sides.  Many leave with the idea of helping their family from there and returning to visit after a year.  Suddenly they find themselves faced with situations that are not so easy, so it takes them a little longer to send their first remittance, and a lot longer to make their first trip.

On this side, when a close relative emigrates, people see it as a possibility for economic advancement, but the cost of that potential advance is the distance and the life they’ll no longer share.

I personally knew two couples who had stable relationships for years.  In both cases the man went to the United States only because there was not enough money for both of them to travel.

In each case, the plan was for the guy to save up some money and then send for his wife. In the first few months there were phone calls, promises and tears; then silence and resignation. Things didn’t turn out as expected.

In both instances the men had to find other women, since life there is difficult.  But such is life. In one of the cases there was a child less than a year old when his father left.  I’m sure that because of situations like this, Cubans who emigrate to the United States or any other country end up crying.

Who’s reveling in Havana?

What’s not exactly clear to me is who are these people that are reveling enjoy in Havana. Evidently it includes those who can pay a 20 or 50 or 100 dollar admission for a reggaeton concert, as well as the musicians, many of whom have cars.

Not only can these artists revel in Havana, but also in the other countries they are allowed to travel to.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s fair that they enjoy themselves. They’re doing it with the money they earned from their art. It’s not money stolen from people, nor are they responsible for the country’s economic situation.

Havana by day. Photo: Caridad

But it’s good to make it clear that this small group is not most Cuban people, the working people who generate the country’s resources. Here, the immense majority of people don’t have the money to buy a car or stay in a hotel or pay a of 100 dollar cover – not even one for 10.

Most people, including myself, live with the uncertainty of the future of ration books, low wages, basic product prices, payments on home appliances, and the housing crisis. In any case, like a friend reminded me, there are other forms of reveling in and enjoying life; ones that don’t depend on material goods.

This is despite the constant promotion of the oppositie in videos by Charanga and other reggaeton singers, who show off their gold chains, cars and designer clothes. The video clips give the impression that these are the things to which we should aspire, and to be an artist is a means of obtaining them.

It’s interesting that Gozando en La Habana criticizes a young woman, who after all is pursuing the same thing the musicians themselves present on the screen; only for her the road was emigration.

Acting like a “yuma”

Yet the refrain that grabs my attention the most is: “If you act like a ‘yuma’, you better leave.” I’ve asked a lot of people what they understand to mean “acting like a yuma” (with yuma being a way Cubans refer to foreigners, especially those from the United States).

People shrug their shoulders as they continue humming and dancing to the song. The truth is they’ve never asked themselves.  What for?  Somebody told me it means to do something foreigner style. Other people told me “acting like a yuma” is to be brash or showy, to believe oneself to be better than others. Is that our vision of “yumas”?

Do foreigners really show off and believe they are superior?  Are they to blame for coming here as tourists, to work or to study, and that their currency has more value than ours? In any case, I’m not able to see the relation between acting like a “yuma” and the desire to emigrate as a legitimate alternative for improving one’s economic situation.

Nor do I understand how someone can have the right to decide who can leave. Maybe it would be better to join in with those who dance to forget their problems. They accomplish just that, at least for a while.

One thought on “Reveling in Havana, Cuba

  • Very good article. Quite a group of Hypocrits, this Band. I don’t know the Yumas they are talking about- every one I have met in Cuba went out of his way to help the locals. Usually for small appreciation, accepted as if it was the person’s due to be helped. And what have you done for me Lately? Hope Charanga likes their cars and gold chains- looks like They have no need to go to “el Yuma”. Lighten up on the rest of those who don’t have Your opportunities, Boys. Muy orgullosos is my opinion of Changera. And the music’s not much either.

Comments are closed.