Thursday, April 23, 2009

Notes on Cuba, Part 1 + Poem: Nicolás Guillén (Langston Hughes Translation)

Before I write anything about the trip, let me first thank poet Aracelis Girmay (author of Teeth, whom I've highlighted on here before!), who passed the email about the Cuba trip on to me via the Cave Canem listserve.*

What follows are undistilled notes; please forgive the roughness of what I'm posting, but I wanted to put some of these ideas down publicly before too much time had passed.


I went to Cuba as part of a 40-person (or thereabouts) educators' tour sponsored by the Center for Cuban Studies in New York City. The Center, which is four decades old, aims to increase knowledge about and research in Cuba, and to develop relationships between Americans who are sympathetic to Cuba's interests in the world. I hadn't heard of the Center before I received the email, but a friend of mine assured me that it was legit, and mentioned that he'd been on one of their tours before. He spoke highly of the director Sandra Levinson, whom I haven't met but hope to in the future. To participate in the tour, I had to submit my CV for consideration and acceptance, and was relieved when it was accepted.

One of the questions the application asked was knowledge of Spanish, and although I noted that I possessed it, what became quite clear to me on this trip was that while I can read and write Spanish decently, speaking it, especially the rapid-fire idiom spoken in Havana. I can say that speaking Spanish in the Dominican Republic was good preparation, however, as far it goes (and my trip by myself to the Book Fair in Santo Domingo in 2005 really was a good prep), but understanding some of the event speakers in Spanish required intense concentration, and even then in a few cases I was only picking up bits and pieces. It was much better one on one, when I could say "Otra vez" or "más despacio," and in stores and so on, where I found the Spanish simpler. (I did speak Portuguese with one of my fellow tour members, and French with a group of Swiss tourists, which did not help one whit in staying in a Spanish mode of thinking.) The experience underlined for me that one of the things I hope to do over the next few years is find language partners, particularly from the Caribbean and Mexico (whose idiom is predominant in the US) to practice my Spanish with on a regular basis. Facility in Spanish, especially a Caribbean idiom, will definitely prove a bonus if you go.

Speaking or not speaking Spanish was not really an issue, though, because while a good portion of the participants spoke Spanish as their first or second language, or had studied or lived or both in a Spanish-speaking country (Spain, DR, Nicaragua, Argentina, etc.), some participates barely spoke, read or wrote it at all, so we had translators throughout. These included both our official state-provided tourguide, Tatiana Rodríguez (Tati!) who was excellent, whether exhausted or not, and members of the group who would step in at times as well. I tip my hat to all of them.

The CCS divided the 40 or so participants into 2 groups, and I was one of the 20 people constituting Group 2. Jesse Alter, the tour's ebullient overall leader, also was the Center's designated leader for Group 1, while our Center representative and leader turned out to be my roommate for the trip; a young Havana native and visual artist now living in the US, Bernardo Navarro was a great person to room with and a font of ideas and information. He also knew all kinds of special places in Havana to visit, so though I didn't get to attend either one, he took small groups to some of the underground paladares, or private restaurants in people's homes, that the Cuban government allows to operate (more about private businesses later). People who went on either night could not stop raving about how amazing the hosts and food were. I did get to accompany him when he went to fetch a personal item from the home of the famous artist Zaida del Río, and though we only saw her for a hot second, she was a hoot. On the first night we were in Cuba, he and I ranged through a good swathe of Cuban literature and art, some of which, like the paintings of Wilfredo Lam and the constructions of Kcho, I later got to see when we visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana as part of our tour. This portion of the visit was quite significant given that Havana was hosting its international Biennal de Artes, and so there were art exhibits, including ones featuring US artists, at galleries, cultural institutions, and other spaces all over the city, including the Fine Arts museum.

Before I'd left, my cousin had asked if the trip was a "vacation," and I was hesitant to label it that, because while it would be and was a break from university work, which I've completely plunged back into now, the schedule, if we hewed to it at all, promised to provide an intensive engagement with Cuban educational, arts and cultural figures and institutions. And it did. While this was required by the terms of our visa--we had to spend somewhere along the lines of 60%-80% (correction?) of our days engaged in research--the tour and our guide, Tati, did not stint one bit. Whether we were in Havana or the mountainous, picturesque rural province of Pinar del Río, to the capital's west, we were either visiting or shuttling, to the extent that usually, by the late afternoon, almost immediately after we hopped on the bus, we were passing out. I joked that the officials were doping our food and drinks with a chemical that would turn us into diehard Fidelistas when we returned, especially once we popped the gift DVD on the Revolution into our DVD players, but the reality was--and is--that we really did make the most of every day, meeting officials, students, cultural figures, everyday Cubans, and diving into real conversations, which sometimes became bit sticky and uncomfortable, but which, I now think, at least given the short amount of time we were there and the constraints we or any other official tours operate within, brought us closer to a real sense of the situation in Cuba today.

As I noted, my group consisted of around 20 people; many were public school teachers, ranging from elementary school to high school. There were also several principals, a person who conducted diversity training seminars, a practicing professional photographer (there were several people who were photographic artists), several writers, a person who had worked as a writer and coordinator of video and multimedia projects, and a medical doctor. Most of the attendees across both groups were from New York City or the surrounding area, though a few were from other parts of the US, like Minnesota, DC, and California. In terms of age, most of my group was in the 23-35 age range, though a few of us were upwards of 40 (I was one of the oldies). Despite the relative youth of my fellow travelers, many had lived in other countries for extended stays, and had done quite a lot of travel. In addition to a few who had visited Cuba before, many have lived in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. One person had lived in taught in Brazil; two others in Costa Rica; another in Turkey; and yet another had visited China many times. I realized about halfway through the first day that this sort of experience would draw adventurous people, but I continue be impressed by how many of my fellow tour members have explored the world, especially given how young many of them are, and, after discussions with them, how they have incorporated these experiences in their teaching and art practice.

In preparation for the trip, I took the advice of a friend, librarian and translator Herbert Rogers, who has traveled several times to Cuba, and I would suggest it to anyone who's thinking of heading there. First, take about $1,000/wk. if you can, because Cuba is very expensive. (I say more about this later.) Unlike the DR or Brazil, two other countries in the hemisphere I've traveled to, everything--especially everything that tourists might be interested in--but bottled water was costly, including meals at seemingly simple restaurants (except one we went to in Havana's Chinatown). Second, convert the dollars into euros (or Canadian dollars) before you arrive in Cuba, so that you aren't levied the 10% conversion tax on Cuban convertible pesos (CuCs, which we pronounced "kooks"). Even the falling euro was a better bet than the levy, and I returned to the US with some to spare. Third, set aside exactly enough euros or 25 CuCs so that when you get ready to leave Cuba, you can pay the departure tax. Otherwise, you will be sitting in José Marti International Airport and wishing you'd taken this little bit of advice. Fourth, keep a running tally of your spending, and unless you can't help it, splurge just before you leave (i.e., if you're traveling to Cienfuegos province in the middle of your trip and want to get stuff there, do so, but otherwise, make sure you have cash because there's no way to get money otherwise). Fifth, don't assume that you can haggle prices down. I found that only a single vendor, originally from the Ukraine, was willing to haggle anything down. Everyone else held out as if the concept were utterly foreign. And be prepared to see CuCs just disappear into thin air at times--more than a few times I think someone was exacting a tax I didn't know about, and no santeros were anywhere nearby.

I'll also say that traveling to any Caribbean country for a week with two bags (a suitcase, a backpack) also provides good practice for Cuba. Carrying too much would have become a problem because we had to weigh everything on the way to and on the way out of Cuba, and pay if we exceeded the 44-lb limit. (I didn't). We were forewarned--and it proved correct--thatthe style of clothing there is very casual. (This casualness operates even to the level of language, as I learned: after the Revolution, the familiar "tú" form was emphasized over the more polite "Usted" [the form you tend to learn in school] to show that everyone was on the same level--though the plural "Ustedes" appears to be in place rather than the comparative rare-in-the-Americas "vosotros.") Sneakers, flipflops, polo or t-shirts, shorts or capri-length pants, khakis, and so on were all appropriate. I did take a navy blazer and Oxford shirt just in case, but never wore either--not only was it too hot--but even at the dressiest events, a nice polo shirt and slacks were fine. Not a single one of the governent or institutional officials we met were dressed up, and some were dressed even more casually than I imagine would fly in the US. One thing that did become clear, however, was the scarcity of clothing many Cubans faced; because things are so costly, even for them, I'd recommend taking some t-shirts or other fashionable clothing to give away as gifts. Several members of my group did so (and I'll say more about scarcity and gifts in my next post), and it's a nice gesture on many levels, including the karmic.

In my next posts, I'll try to say something about Cuba's political and educational systems, larger topics like race, gender, sexuality, HIV/AIDS, and so on, but I will broach all of these in distilled form by noting that the Monday before I left, I went with some members of the group to the Cuban Mission in New York to meet with two members of the Cuban embassy, who provided us with an overview of the country and answer questions we had on specific topics. One of the tour members posed a question about race, and the response that we got was two-fold: on the one hand, the government had banned racism since the Revolution. That is, officially, there was no racism. Unoffically, we were told--and as became clear when we got to Cuba--racism dies hard--as it does in the US. The old attitudes had not been eradicated in just 50 Revolutionary years, let alone in only over a 100 years since Cuban slavery had ended. Some of the black and mixed-raced Cubans (whom I believe I read are a majority) told us that racism was alive and well, and one tour member also heard that African students studying in Cuba, whose universities are both free and renown for medical training, also experienced racism; and yet, both of the officials at the mission, and a number of the government officials we met, were black or mixed-raced. So there you go. As with so many things, the reality was more complex than a slogan. The same struck me with regard to gender and women's issues. At the mission, we were told that one of the first institutions created after the Revolution sought to address women's rights and equality, and over the years, women had achieved parity in employment, had won autonomy and equality in many areas, and played a key role in contemporary Cuban society. And yet, when pressed, one of the officials did note that there were still problems as a result of machismo; issues of violence against women, sexual harrassment, parity at the upper levels of various institutions, and so on, were still issues that the society was working through. What I noted was pretty much what we'd been told; women were directing or in leadership positions at the institutions we visited, and I believe the statistic we got was that women constituted 60% of the labor force (while being somewhat over 50% of the population), but as to the upper reaches of various institutions and other issues regarding gender equality and women's right, the reality was unclear or more complex.

I'll stop there, and post more tomorrow.


NicolásI haven't forgotten the poems! Here, in the Cuban spirit, is a poem by one of Cuba's greats, Nicolás Guillén (1902-1989), a major figure in Cuban, Caribbean, and African Diasporic literature, and one of the champions of Cuban culture's African roots. The following poem comes from his famous first collection Motivos de son (1938), which invokes, in its title, the African-musical form, "son," which lies at the roots of so much Cuban and Caribbean musics. The play on "son" also points to his playfulness around "sound" ("son"="sonido") itself, for one of the things his early poetry is best known for its rich and distinctively play with sonority, aurality, and orality. This is clear in "Negro Bembón," which, even if you speak zero Spanish, can and should be read aloud so that the playfulness of the music becomes clear. The third stanza, with the repeating phrase, "Negro Bembón," is particularly wonderful, as is the refrain, "Caridá te mantiene, te lo dá tó." Disfruten!


¿Po qué te pone tan brabo,
cuando te dicen negro bembón,
si tiene la boca santa,
negro bembóm?

Bembón así como ere
tiene de tó;
Caridá te mantiene, te lo dá tó.

Te queja todabía,
negro bembón;
sin pega y con harina,
negro bembón,
majagua de drí blanco,
negro bembón;
sapato de dó tono,
negro bembón.

Bembón así como ere
tiene de tó;
Caridá te mantiene, te lo dá tó.

Copyright © 1979, Nicolás Guillén, Nueva antología mayor, Havana: Editorial Letras Cubanas. All rights reserved.

And, here's a special treat: Langston Hughes's co-translation!


How come you jumps salty
when they calls you thick-lipped boy,
if yo’ mouf’s so sweet,
thick-lipped cullud boy?

Thick-lipped as you is
you got everything.
Charity’s payin’ yo’ keep.
She’s givin’ you all you need.

Still you go around beefin’,
thick-lipped cullud boy.
No work an’ plenty money,
thick-lipped cullud boy.
White suit jes’ spotless,
thick-lipped cullud boy.
Shoes two shades o’ honey,
thick-lipped cullud boy.

Thick-lipped as you is
you got everything.
Charity’s payin’ yo’ keep,
she’s givin’ all you want.

Translated by Langston Hughes and Ben Frederic Carruthers, in Cuba Libre (1948).

*I'd hoped that Aracelis and others affiliated with CC that I knew of would be participating, but it turned out that two of the wonderful people in my group, poets Christine Blaine and Ellen Hagan, not only are writers, but have a CC connection; Christine had participated in two of the city workshops and also been mentored by CC grad fellow Tyehimba Jess, while Ellen (and her husband David, a photographer on the trip), a close friend of Aracelis, was a student of CC grad fellow Kelly Norman Ellis, and is one of the Affrilachian poets, so CC was in the mix.

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