HAVANA TIMES — What is national identity? I don’t know. I didn’t choose to be born in this country or anywhere else. When I came into the world, the flag that I had to salute was already here – just like the national anthem I had to sing and the slogans I had to chant.
Almost every Friday I read the “Letters to the Editor” section of the official Granma newspaper. In the September 21 edition of the paper there was a letter titled “In Defense of Our Pride in Our National Identity,” signed by J. Pozo (who I assume is a man).
He was alarmed by the fact that many people “either out of naivety, ignorance or to draw attention to how they dress, make use of the attributes projected by the flag of the nation whose long line of administrations have each attacked us with their despicable slander, shameful manipulations and their worsening politics of hostility against our people.”
Isn’t that also the flag of the Pastors for Peace and the late, great friend of Cuba, Reverend Lucius Walker? Is it that the members of that organization don’t salute the American flag or sing the national anthem of their country?
“Undoubtedly, these attributes are part of a design that is fruitfully manipulated,” wrote J. Pozo.
I wonder if that’s the case with Che’s picture, which appears on shirts and bags that are sold in state-run hard-currency stores.
What is a flag?
Several months ago, I was at an exhibition of photographs belonging to the finalists in a competition. The photo that attracted me most showed a towel with white and blue stripes that was hanging on a clothesline. On a parallel line, in front of the towel, appeared a pair of red underwear. I can’t remember the photo’s title, but I do know that it ended up being the winner of the contest, and that it was impossible not to look at it without thinking of the Cuban flag.
In history classes back in elementary school, I was taught that after the (1953) assault on the Moncada Barracks, many young women dressed in black and red along with some detail in white as a way of mocking Batista’s soldiers by displaying the flag of the July 26 Movement.
I was also taught that the blue stripes on our flag represent the blue sky, the white ones stand for the purity of our ideals, and the red triangle symbolizes the blood of our martyrs.
As a hard-working student, I learned that explanation by heart and would have continued repeating it if I hadn’t attended the Rutas y Andares (Routes and Walks) activity organized by the Havana Historian’s Office every summer (the first time I participated was in 2008).
My first guided tour began at the Palace of the Captains General. There, in the Hall of Flags, the young historian who was guiding us told us the true story of our national emblem.
Firstly, almost all flags in those days were of the colors blue, red and white, because they were inspired by the French Revolution.
Secondly: Our flag — adopted in 1902 as the island began its “Republican era” under effective US control — was created by the annexationist Narciso Lopez and was inspired by the flag of Texas. The flag of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes (the leader of our independence from Spain) was inspired by that of Chile’s, from where he had hoped to receive support for Cuba’s war of independence.
So, the Cuban flag is the flag of annexation?
I didn’t know that. Don’t believe me. But that was the story told by the young historian, who I’ve never run into again.
In competitive sports, athletes have to be organized in some fashion, which is to say they have to be divided against each other onto teams. As such, they compete — fairly in the best cases — on behalf of a country and for their flag.
Here, we were taught to regard as a traitor anyone who leaves the country in search of better opportunities or who decides to represent another country and flag in a sports competition.
We human beings are indebted to the motherland, to the flag. To convince us that we owe something to our country and flag is the best way to keep us under control.
People go to war and kill other human beings in the name of their flag.
Just days before reading the letter by J. Pozo in Granma, a friend of mine had quoted a phrase by the Indian writer Jiddu Krshnamurti that went: “On behalf of a piece of cloth they call a flag, humanity does terrible things.”
“Nothing to live or die for”
By my writing that phrase, I hope no one accuse me of coming up with propaganda in the enemy’s own language, to the detriment of our mother tongue, bequeathed to us by the Spanish colonizers by the way.
To defend our pride for our national identity, J. Pozo suggests “from an early age, in the home, in the family, in the community… through teachers, we need to place value on the patriotic and political-ideological significance of those attributes identified by those symbols, as opposed to the alienating bombardment of everything “Made in the USA.” We mustn’t squander the opportunity to be better educated and to strengthen the National Symbols Act, and the rules governing its use and conservation.”
I also hope that we will become better educated and that we will pay greater attention not only to that law but all of them – including our constitution by the way.
It scares me to see indoctrination disguised as education, but above all I’m frightened by the possibility that in the interest of defending our pride in our national identity we will violate the rights of those who wish to wear the American flag the same way that fans of Che wear images of him on their shirts and bags.
The American flag isn’t itself a fascist slogan. It represents not only the government of that nation but also its people, the same people towards whom J. Pozo said “I don’t harbor any animosity.”
Then came the part of his letter that confused me. At the end it wasn’t about a feeling of rejection of the American flag, but “to expose the lies behind that stream of propaganda.”
How can you, J. Pozo, determine which people are the ones showing off the American flag out of solidarity with the people and which ones are obsessed with the “American Way of Life”? Couldn’t it be that the only winter coat or the only pair of shoes they have is a gift from someone who admires the “American Way of Life,” or maybe they just like the design of the American flag?
It’s common for us in Havana to have gifts from foreign friends hanging in our closets.
But ultimately, where is the right of any Cuban to have their judgment clouded by with the American Way of Life?
Hopefully the authorities won’t interpret this article as an exhortation to violate rights in the name of national identity. It wouldn’t be the first time. And, besides, they would do it with the argument of responding to a complaint from the people.
Later, someone could think that perhaps we consume too much American music and too many US movies (which I personally don’t consider them the best on the planet).
I don’t want any flag covering any part of my body. I don’t want pictures of leaders, popular artists or athletes on me. I admire John Lennon and Gandhi, among others, but I don’t know if I would wear a shirt with a picture of them on it.
But mostly, I don’t want to owe anything to any flag. I don’t want to live, much less die, for a flag. It’s not only the hymn, the coat of arms or the flag that make me a part of Cuba. My country is my personal story, my memories, my family, my friends, my customs – everything that’s here.