In the summer of 1896, yellow fever, civil unrest, an independence war, collapsing buildings and general economic despair threatened the lives of the entire populace of Havana, Cuba.
In the summer of 2012, cholera, civil unrest, a struggling revolution, collapsing buildings and a general economic depression plagued the entire populace of Havana once again.
Despite the almost 100 years’ difference, Cubans continue to struggle with definitions regarding citizenry, national independence, what it means to be “human” and what the human condition should afford each individual being. That said, love was never a disputed issue (not in 1896, and certainly not today).
In 1896, a culture of love held a constant presence in the city of Havana and was the main cause for a social event despite despair and decay. Love was a means to normalcy – a weapon soldiers steadied their hands on in order to survive.
Much in the way that 116 years has only changed the struggles of Cubans in minuscule terms, Cubans continue their enchantment with love. Alongside reports on the different ways that Cubans suffered in 1896, magazines and newspapers published marriage and engagement announcements. These periodicals published poems of admirers dedicated to their loved ones, and editors provided men with instructions on how to use fans and handkerchiefs to signal to potential mates the seriousness of their romantic intent and rendezvous points throughout the city.
While the tradition is no longer to wave fans or publish poems in the newspaper, love in the city of cholera is rampant today. Graffiti (acting as replacement for the fluttering fans and perfumed handkerchiefs of the past) is one major way for loved ones to mark their eternal love (in the most dangerous of forms given the Cuban government’s cruel punishments for loitering, public defacement and destruction of property) to those they admire. In fact, graffiti trumps songs, poetry shouted out buildings, and poetry books sold and then re-bought on corners.
This article celebrates all kinds of Cuban love: “Gritty” love, “poetic” love, “the outright and public make-out sessions of youth on park benches” love, “under framboyan trees and whispering” love, “handkerchief-exchanging” love, “unrequited but longing (añoranza)” love – this is a Cuban love story; this is my love story.
The summer of 2012
I walked around Havana trying to find my abuelito's law office in the middle of the old city. It was just after noon and the sun was at its peak. The white cobblestones only seemed to soak in the sun and then reflect its rays like water does. Standing in the heat was a man who looked barely 20.
When he saw me, he smiled and immediately started asking questions. He asked where I was from and what I was doing.
I told him I was Cuban and he said, "Well, maybe you are, but you are very light-skinned."
I responded, " Yes, that may be true, but I am still Cuban."
He asked if I was from around “these” parts, and I told him, "You know the answer, so why ask?" Immediately, I felt embarrassed. I had snapped at him and I knew it. I was becoming the standoffish American (Cuban-American); a cold fish.
In a sort-of apologetic manner, I retreated from my answer by saying, "Listen, I need to find this address. I need your help." He did not flinch at my moodiness. He looked at the address, told me it was an "ancient" address, and then began to walk swiftly through the narrow street. He moved quickly past me into the shade until he reached where the shadows from the surrounding buildings on the pavement gave way to the blasting sunlight.
He hurried me with his hands, waving me towards him. I could not walk as fast as him. The sandals I brought to Cuba had extremely cushion-y soles. My feet slid in them because of the heat and I worried I would break my ankles. I reached where he was standing; he pointed up and said, “That's where that address would be located before.”
I looked up and there was a small apartment-looking building located above a large open-air, but enclosed, market. My mother used to talk about visiting her father and drinking mamey shakes in the bodega underneath.
I sat there for a while. I took video and pictures of the building. I forgot about the man, who was still watching me. Then, I sat down on the curb and asked one of the vendors for a mamey shake. The vendor pointed his finger up to the sky and motioned to me that they had no mamey.
“Solo hay banano y frutabomba.”
He only had banana and papaya available. I bought myself a papaya shake; the man chimed in and asked for a banana shake at the last minute. The vendor looked at me as if asking me for permission to give the shake to the teenager. I nodded my head "sure." The guy drank the banana shake in what seemed like one gulp. He then asked me if I had any extra time to spend with him. I told him that I wanted to keep it to the milkshake, but I appreciated his help. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and walked away.
His leaving was abrupt – so much so, that I shrugged back at him. As I turned away, I heard him yell, “muuuuuuuuchacha!” He was yelling loudly enough that people pointed towards him. These people, while pressing their lips, grabbing handkerchiefs from their pockets (which they shook at me fiercely) and moving their heads upward at me, signaled that I needed to turn back. When I looked back, he was running and I thought he was going to rob me. When he reached me, he stopped within three inches of my body, looked down and said, “tremendas tus tetas (your tits are tremendous)." I was stunned. I backed up. I wasn’t expecting those words to come out of anyone’s mouth, let alone this guy.
I didn't know what to feel other than I needed to walk away. I pointed my finger at him to motion that he stay a distance away. I walked around him. He smiled.
As I left him, I passed a line in the pavement where the blasting sun crossed into shade once again. I looked back and the man was in the middle of the street winking and prancing in one spot like a horse in a march. He had grabbed a white handkerchief and was waving it at me. He waved vehemently, as if vigorously flagging me down would somehow motion the breeze’s strength enough to pull me in his direction. I turned, pointing my finger at him again, and continued to walk.
That is when I saw the most beautiful graffiti I had ever seen. I stopped immediately. I no longer cared that the man was still calling after me, waving white cloth, or that my feet were slipping and
sliding in my sandals. I read the graffiti and was dumbstruck by my own rushing thoughts.
“Mientras la ciudad duerme, yo pienso en ti.”
I kept thinking about the person who wrote that beautiful line on the wall and wondered how dark the night must have been to actually write it in the middle of the city. I wondered how quiet the streets must have been in order for the person to be able to paint these words on the side of a building in a city that snores as it sleeps (despite nightfall, a whistling hustle is always present). I wondered what type of courage it took for the artist to sign their signature at the bottom of the piece in a country whose government officials are fiercer in their laws against property destruction than those in Singapore.
I immediately contrasted that imagined moment to the instant I was living – a moment so loud and bright (given the screaming man and the brutal sun). My mind whispered to my subconscious and brazenly reminded me of my own love: something I’d hoped to forget through hard work and isolation.
I promptly sat on the curb and took pictures of the quote. I took pictures of my grandfather’s old office from the area by the graffiti and I lingered. I pouted and I smoked. After 20 minutes, I noticed the man had stopped screaming for me and the street’s normal bustling sounds continued, hushing the city with noise. I wondered what my love was thinking about in that moment.
A year later, and my experiences in Cuba – and the sentiments of love that I dragged around that island – only exist as hazy memories: a fog that every once in awhile opens between the reflections of sun and shadows in the pavement.
The breaks in my haze have come to me through dreams. I had many dreams with my love in them – back turned, only to quickly walk away. Only the gasp of exasperation could calm this love of mine, followed by a shake of the head. Eyes fluttering, I would know not to speak. In my dream, I knew silence was golden and while the city slept, I dreamt.
1896 in 2013
In the winter 2013, I wrote the poem Anochecer and I realized that it greatly reflected the style of the Cuban poets who admired their lovers from afar. Those loves were often unrequited, but loved nonetheless.
In the spirit of those great writers, as a dedication to the Cubans on the island and abroad, and because of the courageousness of the graffiti artist of last summer, here is my Cuban love song.
To S. R.:
How woozy my breath and heavy my heart; I loved you so. But it's over now. You never looked back.
Antes que anochezca
el cielo abre y rompe.
Por el piso todo los vidrios
del horizonte quedan caídos,
cortados como diamantes,
pedacitos de navejas.
Sepas que te amaba.
Te amaba incontrolable
quieta, por mucho tiempo.
Mientras que mis pies caminaba
por los diamantes cortos rudos
de nubes, sol e azul –
no me querías.
las estrellas, la luna, las galaxias
Las cometas, los satélites
pero no importa sin tu amor.
No había vista,
aire, noche, día.
No había un arriba.
pero mi cabeza
pesaba, cerré los ojos.
Por eso insinué,
mis pies por las joyas
las cuales cortaban los pies.
No me quieres
porque te amaba.
Eso fue mi error.
Y me castigas
por quererte en el pasado
y por siempre decirte la verdad.
Por el cielo, ando.
No hay estrellas, cometas, galaxias
y respiro la materia oscura.
No veo vista, polvo de luz,
y yo miro ciegamente.
Para que sepas,
I give up.
I give in.
I'm done trying.
Hay agua en el aire,
y me llena los pulmones.
La realidad me habla.
Antes que anochezca.
I know now that the Cubans who wrote poems in 1895 did so to calm their ever-beating hearts.
They walked quietly, under shady trees and bar-laden windows, in noisy spaces, to contemplate their loves and then, through published words, express their pointed affections to their lovers in a public forum. As I end this article, I remember walking along the streets of Havana in sun-bursting heat, experiencing quiet in noise, finding constancy in a love unrequited, and trying to calm an ever-beating heart. This article is my expression of pointed affection – to a lost love, to Cuba, to the past, and to the unknown.
I wonder if love and struggle will always be a constant for all Cubans.
I wonder if I, a Cuban with no land, will ever love without struggle.
Mientras la ciudad duerme, yo pienso en ti.