As I walked through U.S. customs down the hall and out the electric doors into the Los Angeles sunlight, I was excited to see my mother. My mother, upon seeing me, both smiled and then winced, looking at my face and condition.
Her first words to me after five weeks of absence were, “Pareces como si fueras barrando las calles para propinas.” ("You look like you have been sweeping the streets for tips.")
I shrugged and agreed, only to respond, “I actually looked pretty well-kept in Cuba. I was noticeably more well-kept than the others there.”
Mami made a reluctant-I-don’t-want-to-believe-that “pssshhhh” noise, waved at me with disregard, clicked her heels together, and began to move towards the garage. While she was happy I was home, she was not about to get dirty for our ride home to San Diego.
Mami knows Cuba; she was born there. And while I was never born there, I was always told I was displaced from my heritage – I was supposed to have been born there. Because I missed my birthright, I dedicated my life to Cuba: learning about the island, writing about the island, getting my doctoral degree in history on Cuba, and making as many people aware of the island, its situation and possibilities. I never felt outright American; Mami was Cuban, Papa was Cuban (and part of the ranks of children who came on the Peter Pan flights), my great uncle was a great Cuban war hero and political leader (Manuel Sanguily), both abuelitas and abuelitos were Cuban. I was seriously displaced.
My displacement made me feel as if I was born in a plane and then parachuted from the sky only to land on earth for the first time by chance. I was a duck out of water, a baby fallen from the sky. Before my birth, my life was displaced and relocated. So I made it my job to return to my homeland. To return to the place of rhythm, sun, guava, heat, rooftop restaurants, palmeras and Godfather II.
While I had been to Cuba before, this time was different. I was alone, and being a woman alone in Cuba is, in and of itself, a difficult task. The machismo of the ‘50s is still very present, which means that knees turn heads, let alone shoulders, arms, thighs, necks, breasts and any other body part that might need air in 90+ heat. Men ask you if you need help, given you are alone. When you answer that you are fine, their response is automatic: “You are beautiful.” As if that were the kind of reassurance I needed or wanted.
The little annoyances were not going to deter me from my main objective: finish researching and collecting document to finish my dissertation. Each day, I would walk from Havana Central, onto the Prado, through Parque Central, across the Plaza to Calle Obispo, turn right at Compostela, passing Convento Belen, traversing stagnant pools of water, mold, gaping holes in the cement, dog feces, strewn old fruit, fruit sellers, the man who worked on cleaning a home filled with trash and barbed wire, metal and fences, until I reached, 35 minutes later, the Archivo Nacional de Cuba.
By the time I would enter the Archivo, I was covered with the soot of the city. Dirt, grime, tiny little flea-like animals radiating around my skin, sweat-covered arms, and achy feet would accompany me the next six hours as I pored over the pages of 19th-century documents. Refuge only found in looking at the other researchers, feeling miserable and looking as beaten as myself. Exasperated and hot, constantly washing their hands in the stinky bathroom’s washbasin, stating that the same bathroom wasn’t so bad if one just could just “hold your breath.”
This was my routine for a month in Cuba. This is generally the routine of most women researchers in Cuba, sparing individual differences, of course.
I had experienced the grittiness of the city before, but this time it felt more strident, more pulsant, more unpleasant than ever before. When I asked a colleague of mine, after working in the archive all morning, “Doesn’t the city seem dirtier than usual?” she responded, “Of course.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant by the “of course,” but she continued, “You know there is cholera, right?”
Immediately, I remembered the uproar over cholera in Haiti after the earthquakes. I began envisioning pictures and videos from the Congo on the cholera epidemic there, I thought back to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book and looked at my colleague in disbelief, “Cholera? Really?”
She looked at me dead-on, “Yes, we all need to be careful. No love affairs, no tap water, no off-the-street drinks, and no hanging out with sick people. The official reports from the Cuban government are that it is only taking place in Matanzas, but there exist some reports of possible cases in Havana and in Cienfuegos.”
“How do you know of the possible cases?”
“They announced it on the news, but they made it sound like it wasn’t serious. As if cholera was....somehow.... not serious. But, furthermore, I heard from friends in Cienfuegos, and my hosts tell me, that everyone is whispering about possible cases in Havana. Technically, we shouldn’t be talking about this. So let’s whisper.”
I began to whisper.
“So how do we prevent ourselves from getting cholera? The water touches everything, there are pools of muddy water on the streets and dripping from the buildings. I don’t know how one can evade the problem.”
Lacie whispered, “I don’t know how to prevent it. Maybe, just, think about it all the time and watch your hands and mouth?”
We walked along the dirty streets, careful to press our lips together as we saw water dripping from above, kicking up soot with each of our shuffling steps. We spoke about Haiti and how close Cuba resembled the island before the earthquake.
“But Haiti never had cholera until after the earthquake, Lacie.”
“Haiti had cholera before and after the earthquake. But the earthquake made cholera relevant. Supreme desperation and poverty made Haiti relevant. Cuba’s problems aren’t relevant yet, because complete and total destruction has not completely taken over the city. When all the buildings have fallen, when floods swallow the city, when rubble is on every corner and not every third corner, then Cuba will be recognized. A state of emergency will be sounded. But we have to reach complete destruction before that can happen.”