What on Earth is ‘Authentic Latin Flavor?’

latin2

I’m going to need some help here… Anybody?

Mexican Independence Celebrations are Here… Stay Safe, my Friends. Wear a Mex Mask!

Going to celebrate ‘El Grito’? Don’t leave home without them

I know we cannot wait for all the food, drinking and piñatas coming our way this September, but the pinche coronavirus is still with us, people, so please plan accordingly and #WearADamnMask.

 

Biden Campaign Launches the ‘Todos con Biden’ Salsa Because Latinos Love to Salsa

The ‘Todos con Biden’ salsa is the latest effort to appeal to my dancing-loving fellow Hispanics.

If you have been paying attention, you’ll know by now that Latinos understand things better if they come in the form of music, whether it is to inform us about the perils of coronavirus; to let us know how great things would be under Bernie Sanders or how disappointed my people are with Donald Trump.

And so in keeping with the tradition, the Biden campaign has released the Todos con Biden salsa, a 3:30 minute long Spanish-language song with some “inspirational” words to help pitch the message of abuelito Joe among my people (i.e. The Latinos). Performed by Ander DeFrank (aka El Negro que Canta) the song kicks off by telling us that a Biden presidency will restore the nation by doing several things, including extending access to education and put an end to detention centers at the border, among many others.

For the monolingual, the chorus goes kind of like this…

Biden, Biden is the safe road

Let’s walk together, hand in hand

All for one, one and for all 

Biden, Biden

Biden is a serious, honest and trustworthy man…

You get the drill. Now WATCH (if you can endure the 3-plus minutes of this thing; I’m off to make myself a drink.)

Act Now! The Grammatically-Challenged ‘Latinos for Trump’ T-Shirts Are Now on Sale

LatinoParaTrump

Via: Zazzle.com

#AgentOrangeVirusMan: An American Nightmare

web-version-Alexis-Agent-orange

In December 2017, inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical, I recreated Fidel Castro’s history as narrated by the Cuban people he subjugated for over five decades of dictatorship. (You can listen to that song here; trigger warning: it’s in Spanish.)

After the 2016 election, I wrote an opinion piece for NBC News about the moral dilemma that teachers would face in the age of Trump; since then, I have made a point of not normalizing his execrable behavior. Other than tweets (I know, the irony!), I didn’t write anything of greater length about him because I had nothing new to offer that hadn’t been already said by someone else. Until yesterday, when, frustrated by having to advocate for starting the fall semester remotely (isn’t it obvious?), I asked myself, “How does a deadly virus…” and realized that I had to go back to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song and answer that question and pose others with his familiar beat and his memorable melody.

At home we avoid saying the name of the current president of the United States, as we believe that his ego inflates anytime anyone mentions him. So, to the question, posed by Valerie Block, my wife, of what would I call him, she herself responded on the spot with “Agent Orange Virus Man.” She gets full credit for the title. (Thank you, @vblock12!)

That’s the tea. If you record it, please upload it, use the hashtag #AgentOrangeVirusMan, and tag me on social media.

And remember that Election Day is Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020.

***

Agent Orange Virus Man: An American Nightmare
Music: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lyrics: Alexis Romay

[Covid-19:]
How does a deadly virus, deeply ignored
by a Statesman, strutting in the middle of a golf course
in Florida with his third wife in their manor,
create such disaster and such squalor?

[US Electorate:]
The tax-hiding con got a loan from his father,
got a lot farther by shouting a lot louder,
by threatening a lot faster,
by pretending to be smarter.
By his teens, he’d learned nothing that really mattered.

[US Electorate:]
And every day while people were dying and being carted
away because Covid, he lied and kept his guard up.
Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of.
The whiner was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter.

[Puerto Rico:]
When a hurricane came, and devastation reigned,
the man threw paper towels with contempt and with disdain.
Put a finger to his Twitter, connected it to his brain
and he wrote his first refrain: a dog whistle to white pain.

[US Congress:]
Well, the word got around, they said, “This guy is insane, man.
Let’s get him impeached and see if we can save this land.
Remote education for next fall will be the game, and
the world’s gonna know your name. What’s your name, man?”

[Agent Orange Virus Man:]
Agent Orange Virus Man.
My name is Agent Orange Virus Man.
Four million cases as of yesterday.
Let’s not test more today…

[US Electorate:]
Every time he is criticized, he promptly cries, “FAKE NEWS!!!”
He’s demonized Black people, Brown people, Muslims, Jews…
He’s called for white suburban mothers to rise up from their pews.

[Friendly Reminder:]
So on November 3rd remember this before you choose.

[US Electorate:]
Moved into the White House, and his wife was not by his side,
the inauguration crowd left him with nothing but ruined pride,
a voice saying: “Agent, you gotta fend for yourself.”
He started retweeting and tweeting every thought that crossed his brain.

[US Electorate:]
There would’ve been a lot left to do
for someone more astute.
He wouldn’t have tweeted past midnight
just to make this country fight.
Started talking about hydroxychloroquine,
and when I heard that, I almost lost my mind.
Scanning for every woman he can get his hands on.
Planning for postponing an election as he stands on…
Wait. What? That’s not the Law of the Land.
Congress is not going to back up that plan.

[US Electorate:]
Congress is not going to back up that plan.
Congress is not going to back up that plan.
Congress is not going to back up that plan.
Congress…
Is not…
Scratch that plan!

[US Electorate:]
Agent Orange Virus Man (Agent Orange Virus Man),
we are not going to vote for you (not going to vote for you).
You always double down,
you always have to insult everyone. Oh.
Agent Orange Virus Man (Agent Orange Virus Man),
when people don’t vote for you,
they will know what they overcame.
They will know that they saved the game.
The world will never be the same, oh.

[US Electorate:]
The election is within sight now.
See if you can spot it.
And no more children
coming up from the border
will be locked up in cages
‘cause you shouted, “LAW AND ORDER!!”

[US Congress / US Senate:]
We fought with him.

[Roger Stone:]
Me? I lied for him.

[Anti-vaxers:]
Me? I trusted him.

[Alt-Right:]
Me? I love him.

[GOP:]
And me? I’m the party that propped him.

[US Congress / US Senate:]
Four million cases as of yesterday.
Do more tests!

[Влади́мир Пу́тин:]
Как тебя зовут?

[Agent Orange Virus Man:]
Agent Orange Virus Man!

***
Lyrics: Alexis Romay
Based on Hamilton: An American Musical, by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Music: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Orchestration: The Hamilton Instrumentals, by Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton
Illustration: Garrincha

#AgentOrangeVirusMan: An American Nightmare

web-version-Alexis-Agent-orange

In December 2017, inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical, I recreated Fidel Castro’s history as narrated by the Cuban people he subjugated for over five decades of dictatorship. (You can listen to that song here; trigger warning: it’s in Spanish.)

After the 2016 election, I wrote an opinion piece for NBC News about the moral dilemma that teachers would face in the age of Trump; since then, I have made a point of not normalizing his execrable behavior. Other than tweets (I know, the irony!), I didn’t write anything of greater length about him because I had nothing new to offer that hadn’t been already said by someone else. Until yesterday, when, frustrated by having to advocate for starting the fall semester remotely (isn’t it obvious?), I asked myself, “How does a deadly virus…” and realized that I had to go back to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song and answer that question and pose others with his familiar beat and his memorable melody.

At home we avoid saying the name of the current president of the United States, as we believe that his ego inflates anytime anyone mentions him. So, to the question, posed by Valerie Block, my wife, of what would I call him, she herself responded on the spot with “Agent Orange Virus Man.” She gets full credit for the title. (Thank you, @vblock12!)

That’s the tea. If you record it, please upload it, use the hashtag #AgentOrangeVirusMan, and tag me on social media.

And remember that Election Day is Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020.

***

Agent Orange Virus Man: An American Nightmare
Music: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lyrics: Alexis Romay

[Covid-19:]
How does a deadly virus, deeply ignored
by a Statesman, strutting in the middle of a golf course
in Florida with his third wife in their manor,
create such disaster and such squalor?

[US Electorate:]
The tax-hiding con got a loan from his father,
got a lot farther by shouting a lot louder,
by threatening a lot faster,
by pretending to be smarter.
By his teens, he’d learned nothing that really mattered.

[US Electorate:]
And every day while people were dying and being carted
away because Covid, he lied and kept his guard up.
Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of.
The whiner was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter.

[Puerto Rico:]
When a hurricane came, and devastation reigned,
the man threw paper towels with contempt and with disdain.
Put a finger to his Twitter, connected it to his brain
and he wrote his first refrain: a dog whistle to white pain.

[US Congress:]
Well, the word got around, they said, “This guy is insane, man.
Let’s get him impeached and see if we can save this land.
Remote education for next fall will be the game, and
the world’s gonna know your name. What’s your name, man?”

[Agent Orange Virus Man:]
Agent Orange Virus Man.
My name is Agent Orange Virus Man.
Four million cases as of yesterday.
Let’s not test more today…

[US Electorate:]
Every time he is criticized, he promptly cries, “FAKE NEWS!!!”
He’s demonized Black people, Brown people, Muslims, Jews…
He’s called for white suburban mothers to rise up from their pews.

[Friendly Reminder:]
So on November 3rd remember this before you choose.

[US Electorate:]
Moved into the White House, and his wife was not by his side,
the inauguration crowd left him with nothing but ruined pride,
a voice saying: “Agent, you gotta fend for yourself.”
He started retweeting and tweeting every thought that crossed his brain.

[US Electorate:]
There would’ve been a lot left to do
for someone more astute.
He wouldn’t have tweeted past midnight
just to make this country fight.
Started talking about hydroxychloroquine,
and when I heard that, I almost lost my mind.
Scanning for every woman he can get his hands on.
Planning for postponing an election as he stands on…
Wait. What? That’s not the Law of the Land.
Congress is not going to back up that plan.

[US Electorate:]
Congress is not going to back up that plan.
Congress is not going to back up that plan.
Congress is not going to back up that plan.
Congress…
Is not…
Scratch that plan!

[US Electorate:]
Agent Orange Virus Man (Agent Orange Virus Man),
we are not going to vote for you (not going to vote for you).
You always double down,
you always have to insult everyone. Oh.
Agent Orange Virus Man (Agent Orange Virus Man),
when people don’t vote for you,
they will know what they overcame.
They will know that they saved the game.
The world will never be the same, oh.

[US Electorate:]
The election is within sight now.
See if you can spot it.
And no more children
coming up from the border
will be locked up in cages
‘cause you shouted, “LAW AND ORDER!!”

[US Congress / US Senate:]
We fought with him.

[Roger Stone:]
Me? I lied for him.

[Anti-vaxers:]
Me? I trusted him.

[Alt-Right:]
Me? I love him.

[GOP:]
And me? I’m the party that propped him.

[US Congress / US Senate:]
Four million cases as of yesterday.
Do more tests!

[Влади́мир Пу́тин:]
Как тебя зовут?

[Agent Orange Virus Man:]
Agent Orange Virus Man!

***
Lyrics: Alexis Romay
Based on Hamilton: An American Musical, by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Music: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Orchestration: The Hamilton Instrumentals, by Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton
Illustration: Garrincha

Réquiem para La Habana

La Habana cumple quinientos años. La hermosa Habana: mi ciudad natal, la ciudad que me vio crecer, la ciudad de mi juventud, la ciudad de mis miedos, la ciudad de la que me escapé, la ciudad que simultáneamente me enseñó que todos los hombres (y las mujeres, pero no te pongas a pedir demasiado) eran iguales y que debería estar agradecido a la revolución pues bajo la dictadura previa alguien como yo ni siquiera sería considerado persona. La ciudad en la que aprendí que alguien como yo significaba un ciudadano con características y que ambos eufemismos eran usados para referirse a mestizos y negros. La ciudad en la que los policías que me detenían a diario por el color de mi piel eran de mi tez o más oscuros. La ciudad en la que vivía con el temor de que me fueran a matar por el crimen de caminar, en esa piel, en un país que, en teoría, había erradicado el racismo.

La ciudad que se hizo indistinguible de su gobierno. La ciudad en la que aprendí a hablar en código. La ciudad en la que perfeccioné el arte del lenguaje corporal. La ciudad en la que aprendí la importancia del subtexto. La ciudad en donde la violencia doméstica es normalizada. La ciudad en donde aprendí a amar. La ciudad en la que aprendí que el amor era aceptable siempre que no cruzara las líneas raciales.

La ciudad en la que su junta militar prohibió a Celia Cruz. La ciudad en la que no pude leer la obra de Guillermo Cabrera Infante porque sus libros estaban proscritos. La ciudad que escondió I Love Lucy de su audiencia natural. La ciudad que hizo todo lo posible por borrar los logros de los cubanos que vivían mares allende, por ser considerados contrarrevolucionarios. La ciudad en la que este texto no podría haber sido publicado ni en mis años mozos ni ahora. La ciudad en la que sus habitantes tienen el derecho a decir que odian visceralmente al presidente… de los Estados Unidos. La ciudad en la que el periódico Granma, “el órgano oficial del Partido Comunista de Cuba”, publicó epítetos raciales para referirse al anterior presidente de los Estados Unidos. La ciudad que me enseñó —que te enseñó— a llamar “revolución” a una dictadura.

La ciudad que me enseñó lo que significa el odio. La ciudad que me enseñó a odiar. La ciudad en la que me inculcaron específicamente que odiara a mis parientes exiliados que vivían en los Estados Unidos; los mismos parientes que nos enviaban dinero, comida, vitaminas, zapatos, ropa; los mismos parientes sin los cuales no habríamos podido sobrevivir luego del colapso del bloque socialista de Europa del Este; los mismos parientes que no deberíamos mencionar; los mismos parientes a quienes debíamos colgarles un sambenito: gusanos.

Oh, La Habana, o lo que queda de la ciudad que simultáneamente me enseñó que el racismo había sido erradicado con la llegada de la dinastía Castro y que no era de buenos modales mencionar la raza.

La ciudad que me enseñó que yo valía menos que mis colegas blancos, que tenía pelo malo, que me tenía que casar con una mujer de piel clara para “mejorar la raza”, que los blancos que no eran inteligentes eran “una lástima de color y pelo”. La ciudad en la que mis amigos blancos me hablaban de lo mucho que querían a sus abuelos racistas y se aseguraban de decirme cuán racistas eran (los abuelos, se entiende). La ciudad en la que la madre de una amiga les inspeccionaba (in)discretamente la encía a los muchachos que querían salir con su hija para ver si la tenían demasiado oscura (la encía, se entiende); la ciudad en la que me decían que me cortara el pelo bien bajito para que no se notaran mis ancestros negros.

Los hombres le explican cosas a Rebecca Solnit. Los americanos me explican La Habana a mí.

Cuando los americanos me preguntan si puedo ir a La Habana… Fíjate que los americanos no me preguntan si he ido a La Habana o si tengo en planes ir. Me preguntan si puedo ir. ¿Tengo permiso para ir a la tierra en la que están enterrados mis abuelos? Es rara la ocasión en la que reconocen lo anómalo de la pregunta. Jamás abordan quién tendría que darme permiso o por qué tendría que pedir permiso yo en lugar de simplemente ir. Algunas veces los americanos están ansiosos por decirme que tienen un viaje venidero a la isla. ¿Hay algún lugar que deberían visitar? Pero, ¿cómo le dices a alguien, en un tono educado, que es inmoral que te traten como a un rey en un país en el que los nativos son considerados piltrafa de quinta categoría. Eso era obvio bajo el apartheid. ¿Por qué no es igual de obvio bajo Castro y sus acólitos?

He comparado a Cuba con Westworld, el documental de HBO que muestra un parque temático en el que los visitantes se permiten privilegios con los cuales sus habitantes no podrían ni soñar. He compartido ese ensayo con los viajeros en potencia. Aun así, van. Y, cuando lo hacen, se la pasan de maravilla en la ciudad en la que no quise ser padre. La ciudad que me hizo quien soy. La ciudad de la que tuve que huir para ser quien soy. La ciudad en la que no podría caminar con mi esposa sin ser blanco del acoso policial y la subsiguiente humillación por incurrir en algo doblemente peligroso para un cubano mestizo o negro: caminar de la mano de una mujer blanca y caminar de la mano de una extranjera. ¿Puedo ir? ¿Ahora que cambió el apellido, pero la dictadura sigue igualita? Para decirlo en palabras de Barak Obama, uno de sus más recientes visitantes: “quédate con el cambio”.

¿Qué hay que celebrar de una ciudad dilapidada? ¿Qué hay que celebrar de una ciudad cuya gente prefiere una balsa y noventa millas de tiburones e incertidumbre a vivir un día más bajo un régimen que ha durado seis décadas? ¿Celebración de qué? ¿Por qué no guardamos un luto colectivo ante esta tragedia?

De vuelta a la pregunta: además de hablar y escribir a placer, cosa que me hace persona non grata para el régimen cubano, hay impedimentos (meta)físicos para que visite o regrese a La Habana. En primer lugar: uno visita un zoológico, un museo, a un amigo. ¿Pero puede uno visitar su pasado? ¿Sigue ahí donde lo dejó? Heráclito nos recuerda que nadie puede nadar dos veces en el mismo río, pues tanto la persona como las aguas han cambiado. De igual modo: La Habana no es la misma ciudad de hace un par de décadas. Y yo no soy el mismo hombre.

Cuando mis amigos americanos me preguntan la edad les respondo que no tengo. Piensan que es un chiste. Pero lo digo en un sentido literal: no pertenezco a ninguna generación. Desde que me les escapé a los Castro he vivido fuera de los límites del tiempo y el espacio. Eso es precisamente la condición del exilio: existir fuera del tiempo y el espacio natural de uno.

Pero lo cierto es que viajo a La Habana siempre que quiero. Me explico: a través de la literatura, el cine, la música. Fue esa Habana, que alguna vez me perteneciera, la que me vino a la mente hace diez años cuando viví en Roma durante un par de meses. Ahora, en su quinto centenario, quiero evocar a esa ciudad en la distancia con un poema que escribí entonces y que todavía revela mi verdad:

Los pasos perdidos
—a los Mallozzi-Sammartino

Con estos zapatos
que conocen el polvo de la ciudad eterna,
que intuyeron la gloria que vivió el Palatino,
que supieron andar las veredas insomnes
de una Ostia Antica inerte,
que subieron colinas y montes y estamparon
una huella profunda que yo quise indeleble
en la bella campiña cercana a Colleferro,
que habitaron a gusto a la sombra tranquila
del barrio dedicado a ese Jano Bifronte,
que tuvieron tropiezos hasta ayer memorables
entre los adoquines y las piedras que acaso
por el correr del tiempo y los pasos ajenos
fueron desnivelados en la ruta que antaño
indicaba que todos los caminos del mundo
llevaban al viajero a la Roma que añoro,
que todavía recuerdan el susurro del río
durante esos paseos nocturnos al Trastevere
con amigos que quiero abrazar a menudo,
que marcaron un gol y luego otro y que dieron
un pase celestial y una patada injusta
en la tibia de un tipo que parlaba italiano
y no era mi enemigo sino solo adversario
en cancha improvisada en el patio espacioso
de una sobria academia
entre adultos que fueron, quién lo duda, muchachos
que corrían jadeando tras el balón de cuero
mientras la primavera imponía su encanto,
que en su afán de pisar los lugares comunes
se fueron desandando con este escriba a cuestas,
a conocer Pompeya, a husmear en Herculano,
a recorrer las calles de Piano di Sorrento,
y que un día volverán a la tierra de Dante
a recitar los versos antiguos e inmortales
que nos legó Petrarca para nuestra fortuna
y yo declamaré con mi acento cubano
mientras el sol se acuesta por siempre en la Toscana
y un buen vino acompaña las buenas compañías
y esos bellos sobrinos que no son consanguíneos
de mi hijo ni míos y que quiero a distancia
me recuerdan, qué dicha, que familia, por suerte,
no se escribe con sangre,
con estos zapatos que ahora calzo, queridos,
jamás caminaré las ruinas de La Habana.

***

Título de la obra: ¿Seremos como quién? (díptico)
Artista: Rafael López-Ramos
Técnica: acrílico y tinta / lienzo crudo
Medidas: 36 1/2″ x 37″

Texto publicado originalmente en inglés en World Literature Today. El texto en español fue publicado en la revista Replicante.

A Tale of Two Cities

RLR-pioneras

Havana just turned five hundred. The beautiful Havana: the city of my birth, the city of my upbringing, the city of my youth, the city of my fears, the city I fled, the city that simultaneously told me, taught me, that all men (and women, but don’t push it) were equal, and to be thankful to the revolution because under the previous dictatorship someone like me would not have been considered a person. The city where I learned that someone like me meant a citizen with characteristics and that both euphemisms were used to refer to people of color. The city where I was racially profiled daily by policemen (yes, they were all men) who were my skin tone or darker. The city where I was afraid of being shot for the crime of living while brown in a country that had, in theory, eradicated racism.

The city that made itself indistinguishable from its government. The city where I learned doublespeak. The city where I mastered the intricacies of body language. The city where I learned the importance of subtext. The city where domestic violence is normalized. The city where I learned to love. The city where I learned that love was acceptable as long as it didn’t cross racial lines.

The city where Celia Cruz was forbidden by its military junta. The city where I couldn’t read the writings of Guillermo Cabrera Infante because his books were banned. The city that hid I Love Lucy from its natural audience. The city that tried to erase all accomplishments of Cubans living abroad because they (now, we) were considered counterrevolutionaries. The city where this text could not be published in my youth or now. The city where all its inhabitants have the right to say that they viscerally hate the president . . . of the United States of America. The city where the paper of record, Granma, “the official publication of the Cuban Communist Party,” published racial epithets to refer to the previous president of the United States of America. The city that taught me—that taught you—to call a dictatorship a revolution.

The city that taught me the meaning of hate. The city that taught me (how) to hate. The city in which I was instructed to specifically hate my exiled family members who lived in the US, the very family that sent us money, food, vitamins, shoes, clothes; the very family without whom we could not have survived after the collapse of the Eastern Socialist bloc; the very family that we were not supposed to talk about; the very family that we were supposed to refer to as worms.

Oh, Havana, or what remains of the city that simultaneously told me that racism had been eradicated with the advent of the Castro dynasty and that it was not polite to talk about race.

The city that taught me that I was lesser than my white peers, that I had bad hair, that I had to marry a light-skinned person “to improve the race,” that white people who weren’t smart were “a waste of color and hair.” The city where my white friends told me how much they loved their racist grandparents and made a point of telling me how racist they (the grandparents) were. The city where the mother of a friend would look at her date’s gums to see if they were too dark; the city where I’d be told to cut my hair short so that it wouldn’t show my black ancestry.

Men explain things to Rebecca Solnit. Americans explain Havana to me.

When Americans ask me if I can go back to Havana . . . Americans don’t ask me if I have been to Havana, or if I plan to go to Havana. They ask me if I can go. Am I allowed to visit the city where my grandparents are buried? They rarely acknowledge the anomaly of the question. They rarely address who would need to allow me or why would I need to be allowed to go instead of just simply going. Sometimes, Americans are eager to tell me that they have an upcoming trip to the island. Is there a place they should visit? But how do you say politely that it is immoral to be treated like royalty in a country where the natives are treated as fifth-class citizens? That was true under Apartheid. Why isn’t it true under Castro and his acolytes? I have likened Cuba to Westworld, the HBO documentary that depicts a theme park where the visitors are afforded privileges that the locals couldn’t possibly dream of. I have shared that essay with potential travelers. They still go. And, when they do, they even have a great time in the city in which I did not want to become a father. The city that made me who I am. The city I had to escape to become who I am. The city in which I could not walk with my wife without facing the police harassment and subsequent humiliation of doing something that is doubly dangerous for a Cuban male of color: holding the hand of a white woman and holding the hand of a foreigner. Can I go? Now that the last name changed but the dictatorship remains the same? Do I want to go? To quote Barack Obama, one of its most recent visitors: “Nah, we straight.”

What is there to celebrate about a dilapidated city? What is there to celebrate about a city where its people would rather take a raft through ninety miles of sharks and uncertainty than to live one more day under a regime that has lasted over six decades? Why are we not collectively mourning this?

Back to the question: aside from shooting my mouth off in conversation and in print, which makes me persona non grata to the Cuban regime, there are (meta)physical impediments for me to visit or go back to Havana. First: one visits a zoo, a museum, a friend. But can one visit one’s past? Is it still there? Heraclitus reminded us that no one can swim twice in the same river because both the person and the body of water have changed. Likewise: Havana is not the same city it was two decades ago. And I am not the same man.

When my American friends and colleagues ask me how old I am, I respond that I am ageless. They think it a joke. But I mean it in a literal way: I belong to no generation. Since I fled Castro, I have lived outside the confines of time and space. That is precisely the mere condition of exile: to exist out of one’s natural time and space.

But the truth is that I do travel to Havana whenever I want. Through literature, film, and music, that is. It was of that Havana, which once was mine, that I thought about ten years ago when I lived in Rome for a couple of months. Now, in its five hundredth anniversary, I would like to evoke that city from afar with a poem I wrote then, and it continues to speak my truth.

The Lost Steps

to the Mallozzi-Sammartino

With these shoes
that know the dust of the eternal city,
and sensed the glory that was the Palatine,
and walked the insomniac trails
of the crumbled Ostia Antica,
and climbed hills and mountains and stamped
a profound mark that I wanted to be indelible
in the beautiful meadow near Colleferro,
and lived happily in the quiet shade
of the neighborhood devoted to two-headed Janus,
and stumbled almost memorably
among the cobblestones and the rocks that perhaps
with the passing of time and the passing of people
made uneven that ancient road
that indicated that all the paths in the world
would bring the traveler to the Rome of my longing,
and remember the whisper of the river
along those nightly walks besides Trastevere
with friends I would want to embrace as I write,
and scored a goal and then another and gave
a celestial pass and an unfair kick
on the shin of a guy who was speaking Italian
and was not my enemy, just an adversary
in an improvised pitch in the spacious backyard
of a sober academy
among adults who were, who would doubt it, just kids
who ran panting behind the soccer ball
while the spring imposed its ubiquitous charm,
and in their effort to step on commonplaces,
took a pilgrimage with this scribe in tow
to visit Pompeii,
to sniff around Herculaneum,
to cross the streets of Piano di Sorrento
and one day will return to the land of Dante
to recite the ancient and immortal verses
that we inherited, for our fortune, from Petrarch,
and that I will declaim with my Cuban accent
while the sun sets in the sublime Tuscany,
and a good wine is paired with even better company
and those beautiful nephews who are not related
to my son or to me, and I love from a distance,
remind me, what joy, that family, thank the heavens,
is not written in blood,
with these shoes that I am wearing right now, dear fellows,
I shall never walk the ruins of Havana.

***
Art (title): ¿Seremos como quién? (díptico)
Artist: Rafael López-Ramos
Acrylic and ink on canvas
36 1/2″ x 37″

This text was originally published in English in World Literature Today. The Spanish text was published in Replicante magazine.

A Tale of Two Cities

RLR-pioneras

Havana just turned five hundred. The beautiful Havana: the city of my birth, the city of my upbringing, the city of my youth, the city of my fears, the city I fled, the city that simultaneously told me, taught me, that all men (and women, but don’t push it) were equal, and to be thankful to the revolution because under the previous dictatorship someone like me would not have been considered a person. The city where I learned that someone like me meant a citizen with characteristics and that both euphemisms were used to refer to people of color. The city where I was racially profiled daily by policemen (yes, they were all men) who were my skin tone or darker. The city where I was afraid of being shot for the crime of living while brown in a country that had, in theory, eradicated racism.

The city that made itself indistinguishable from its government. The city where I learned doublespeak. The city where I mastered the intricacies of body language. The city where I learned the importance of subtext. The city where domestic violence is normalized. The city where I learned to love. The city where I learned that love was acceptable as long as it didn’t cross racial lines.

The city where Celia Cruz was forbidden by its military junta. The city where I couldn’t read the writings of Guillermo Cabrera Infante because his books were banned. The city that hid I Love Lucy from its natural audience. The city that tried to erase all accomplishments of Cubans living abroad because they (now, we) were considered counterrevolutionaries. The city where this text could not be published in my youth or now. The city where all its inhabitants have the right to say that they viscerally hate the president . . . of the United States of America. The city where the paper of record, Granma, “the official publication of the Cuban Communist Party,” published racial epithets to refer to the previous president of the United States of America. The city that taught me—that taught you—to call a dictatorship a revolution.

The city that taught me the meaning of hate. The city that taught me (how) to hate. The city in which I was instructed to specifically hate my exiled family members who lived in the US, the very family that sent us money, food, vitamins, shoes, clothes; the very family without whom we could not have survived after the collapse of the Eastern Socialist bloc; the very family that we were not supposed to talk about; the very family that we were supposed to refer to as worms.

Oh, Havana, or what remains of the city that simultaneously told me that racism had been eradicated with the advent of the Castro dynasty and that it was not polite to talk about race.

The city that taught me that I was lesser than my white peers, that I had bad hair, that I had to marry a light-skinned person “to improve the race,” that white people who weren’t smart were “a waste of color and hair.” The city where my white friends told me how much they loved their racist grandparents and made a point of telling me how racist they (the grandparents) were. The city where the mother of a friend would look at her date’s gums to see if they were too dark; the city where I’d be told to cut my hair short so that it wouldn’t show my black ancestry.

Men explain things to Rebecca Solnit. Americans explain Havana to me.

When Americans ask me if I can go back to Havana . . . Americans don’t ask me if I have been to Havana, or if I plan to go to Havana. They ask me if I can go. Am I allowed to visit the city where my grandparents are buried? They rarely acknowledge the anomaly of the question. They rarely address who would need to allow me or why would I need to be allowed to go instead of just simply going. Sometimes, Americans are eager to tell me that they have an upcoming trip to the island. Is there a place they should visit? But how do you say politely that it is immoral to be treated like royalty in a country where the natives are treated as fifth-class citizens? That was true under Apartheid. Why isn’t it true under Castro and his acolytes? I have likened Cuba to Westworld, the HBO documentary that depicts a theme park where the visitors are afforded privileges that the locals couldn’t possibly dream of. I have shared that essay with potential travelers. They still go. And, when they do, they even have a great time in the city in which I did not want to become a father. The city that made me who I am. The city I had to escape to become who I am. The city in which I could not walk with my wife without facing the police harassment and subsequent humiliation of doing something that is doubly dangerous for a Cuban male of color: holding the hand of a white woman and holding the hand of a foreigner. Can I go? Now that the last name changed but the dictatorship remains the same? Do I want to go? To quote Barack Obama, one of its most recent visitors: “Nah, we straight.”

What is there to celebrate about a dilapidated city? What is there to celebrate about a city where its people would rather take a raft through ninety miles of sharks and uncertainty than to live one more day under a regime that has lasted over six decades? Why are we not collectively mourning this?

Back to the question: aside from shooting my mouth off in conversation and in print, which makes me persona non grata to the Cuban regime, there are (meta)physical impediments for me to visit or go back to Havana. First: one visits a zoo, a museum, a friend. But can one visit one’s past? Is it still there? Heraclitus reminded us that no one can swim twice in the same river because both the person and the body of water have changed. Likewise: Havana is not the same city it was two decades ago. And I am not the same man.

When my American friends and colleagues ask me how old I am, I respond that I am ageless. They think it a joke. But I mean it in a literal way: I belong to no generation. Since I fled Castro, I have lived outside the confines of time and space. That is precisely the mere condition of exile: to exist out of one’s natural time and space.

But the truth is that I do travel to Havana whenever I want. Through literature, film, and music, that is. It was of that Havana, which once was mine, that I thought about ten years ago when I lived in Rome for a couple of months. Now, in its five hundredth anniversary, I would like to evoke that city from afar with a poem I wrote then, and it continues to speak my truth.

The Lost Steps

to the Mallozzi-Sammartino

With these shoes
that know the dust of the eternal city,
and sensed the glory that was the Palatine,
and walked the insomniac trails
of the crumbled Ostia Antica,
and climbed hills and mountains and stamped
a profound mark that I wanted to be indelible
in the beautiful meadow near Colleferro,
and lived happily in the quiet shade
of the neighborhood devoted to two-headed Janus,
and stumbled almost memorably
among the cobblestones and the rocks that perhaps
with the passing of time and the passing of people
made uneven that ancient road
that indicated that all the paths in the world
would bring the traveler to the Rome of my longing,
and remember the whisper of the river
along those nightly walks besides Trastevere
with friends I would want to embrace as I write,
and scored a goal and then another and gave
a celestial pass and an unfair kick
on the shin of a guy who was speaking Italian
and was not my enemy, just an adversary
in an improvised pitch in the spacious backyard
of a sober academy
among adults who were, who would doubt it, just kids
who ran panting behind the soccer ball
while the spring imposed its ubiquitous charm,
and in their effort to step on commonplaces,
took a pilgrimage with this scribe in tow
to visit Pompeii,
to sniff around Herculaneum,
to cross the streets of Piano di Sorrento
and one day will return to the land of Dante
to recite the ancient and immortal verses
that we inherited, for our fortune, from Petrarch,
and that I will declaim with my Cuban accent
while the sun sets in the sublime Tuscany,
and a good wine is paired with even better company
and those beautiful nephews who are not related
to my son or to me, and I love from a distance,
remind me, what joy, that family, thank the heavens,
is not written in blood,
with these shoes that I am wearing right now, dear fellows,
I shall never walk the ruins of Havana.

***
Art (title): ¿Seremos como quién? (díptico)
Artist: Rafael López-Ramos
Acrylic and ink on canvas
36 1/2″ x 37″

This text was originally published in English in World Literature Today. The Spanish text was published in Replicante magazine.

Escuadrón 349: pronto en tus pantallas

vengadoresInspirado por el sostenido y gradual éxito del Universo cinematográfico de Marvel —en inglés: Marvel Cinematic Universe, a menudo abreviado MCU— y con el objetivo de presentar a la juventud cubana una alternativa al reguetón de superhéroe afín al modelo del Hombre Nuevo, el Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) anunció esta mañana, a puerta cerrada, el próximo estreno de la serie Escuadrón 349. 

Alerta de Spoiler

Siguiendo el formato de los cómics de Marvel, los miembros del Escuadrón 349 son reclutados y dirigidos por una figura enigmática y central, que logra mantenerse en las sombras, mientras ejecuta su Gran Plan. (En el primer episodio se le ve, de espaldas, paseando a un perro chihuahua, mientras vocifera órdenes a diestra y siniestra —sobre todo a siniestra—, pero no es hasta el octavo episodio que se revela su indisputable identidad: Miguel Barnet, que se interpreta a sí mismo).

La misión de este grupo consiste “en respaldar a toda costa lo estipulado en el Decreto 349”. En las filas del ICAIC, algunos detractores del nuevo serial televisivo objetan que, aunque quiere funcionar como metáfora, “es obvio que el escuadrón de marras es la UNEAC; por lo menos podían haberse gastado la sutileza de cambiar al director”, comentó uno de los susodichos, que optó por el anonimato.

En declaraciones a La Jiribilla, el otrora escritor —ahora desdoblado en superagente— asevera: “Soy la respuesta cubana a Nick Furia, pero con los dos ojos y sin los problemas de ira. Yo no tomo meprobamato”. 

Lo cierto es que mientras celebra actos de repudio en contra de la sociedad civil, firma cartas de apoyo al gobierno cubano e imparte conferencias en universidades públicas de Estados Unidos, el líder de Escuadrón 349 se ocupa en dar contenido y forma a un proyecto que, según el difunto dictador cubano, “ya no funciona ni siquiera para nosotros”.

Al margen de sus claras funciones represivas, algunos personajes de Escuadrón 349 han sido creados como obvios alivios cómicos. De todos, el más reconocible es Flan-Man —con su nombre en Spanglish— que encarna al cubano de a pie, capaz de hacer el famoso postre sin leche ni azúcar ni huevos ni electricidad ni gas. 

El serial Escuadrón 349 será transmitido en los canales de la televisión cubana a partir del próximo 28 de enero, para conmemorar el natalicio de José Martí, quien es, según Barnet, “el autor intelectual de esta nueva e importante teleserie”.