Who woulda thunk it? First, the Berlin Wall comes down and now they’re planning to open a United States Embassy in Havana! And the Cubans will open an official embassy in Washington, D.C.
Years ago I met Fidel Castro in La Habana and made him chuckle. Recent diplomatic developments brought that memorable experience to mind.
The current easing of tensions between the governments of the United States of America and la república de cuba sent me scurrying to the garage to unearth my notes from a trip I made to Cuba in 1982.
I was a fulltime journalist and I went to La Habana to write about the Havana Film Festival. I went in the company of a delegation of earnest Chicano filmmakers. Frankly, I was as much Gulliver as Edward R. Murrow. I was as much wide-eyed tourist as hardened journalist as I took in the sights and spoke to everyone I could. I spoke constantly to everyone from street vendors (whose jolting shots of espresso are aptly named “infusiones”), to students to cops to waiters to writers to government officials. I have to admit I was a bit giddy about it all. I was fresh from graduate school. This place sure was, well, different.
La Habana was much cozier than sprawling, frenetic Mexico City. It was nothing like my native Los Angeles. And it certainly didn’t have the vibe of New York City where I went to graduate school at Columbia University—this despite the number of Caribbean Latinos in Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx. No, Cuba and its capital city were decidedly different.
You have to remember that in 1982, 23 years after the thunderous Cuban Revolution and the blockade that followed, it was still pretty rare for people from the United States to visit Cuba. Hey, Canadians and Germans had been going to post-revolutionary Cuba for years, enjoying the predictable sunshine, beautiful beaches and cheap prices. But for people in the United States, oooh Cuba was a scary, forbidden place.
All the while, the United States government and corporations routinely went about their business, trading with China, Vietnam and even that big bad bear, Russia.
The blockade imposed by the United States remains a ridiculous (and harmful) reality. Almost as ridiculous as the perceptions of Fidel and Raul Castro as a virtual dynamic duo of Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter.
But change is clearly in the air.
Fidel Castro and Che Guevara became somewhat attractive political symbols for some folks in the early days of the Chicano Movement. We’re talking about the 1970s. I realize that seems like the Pleistocene to the Smart Phone Generation. Lots of politically active Mexican Americans embraced the imagery of Fidel and Che. Chicano activists weren’t communists, of course, and they weren’t well schooled in the intricacies of Marxist/Leninist theory. (Most of us were more familiar with the works of Groucho Marx and John Lennon.) But the notion that Che and Fidel represented a struggle for equality and fairness appealed to early activists in California. Most Cuban Americans view all of this quite differently than Chicanos, of course.
That’s another reason why mainstream media pundits should definitely not assume that all Latinos in the United States are of one mind. We can be as different as a guitarron is different from a tres.
When I was in Cuba in 1982, a lot was going on in the world. Nicaragua and the Sandinistas were heroes at the festival. Remember, these were Latin American filmmakers and artists. Ronald Reagan was at the height of his popularity in the United States – not so much in Latin America. Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez had just been announced as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature and I got to meet him in Cuba where he stopped for a few days on his way to Stockholm to pick up the prize.
I had interviewed the Cuban minister of culture and he invited me to a couple of soirees. That’s how I got to meet Márquez. And I got to meet Fidel, the man some regarded as a hero and whom many in Miami regarded as The Devil.
It was a small party, maybe 40 people. There were clusters of folks: the Nicaraguans over there, the Peruvians over there, the Mexicans in that corner. I was a fly on the wall, walking quietly behind Castro as he strolled from one group to another. I recall vividly that the moment he got to a particular group, he would immediately delve into the literature and culture of that huddle. He knew their national poets, their artists. He made instant conversation effortlessly with each group.
At one point I was at his elbow when someone mentioned that Ronald Reagan seemed to claim an inability to hear as reporters on the White House lawn peppered him with questions as the Marine One helicopter thump-thumped in the background. I said to Castro, “El Presidente Reagan no más se hace sordo cuando le conviene.” (“President Reagan only acts heard of hearing when it suits him.”) Not a Richard Pryor-quality line, I concede. But Castro looked at me and chuckled, smiled broadly, laughed and shook his head from side to side. I remember smiling at making him smile. Hey, this guy is a big political and cultural icon – no matter what your ideological proclivities.
Then he turned and asked a U.S. filmmaker about the New York Yankees’ chances of getting to the World Series in the coming season. I was there. I looked carefully, but I didn’t seem to find any horns coming out of Fidel Castro’s head.
Copyright 2015 by Luis Torres. Luís Torres, a regular contributor to Latinopia, is the author of “Doña Julia’s Children: The Life and Legacy of Educational Reformer Vahac Mardirosian.” Luis can be reached at: Luis.firstname.lastname@example.org Photo of the Malecon sea wall in public domain. All other photos copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc.