by Veronica Vega (photos: Caridad)
HAVANA TIMES — Not long ago I had a strange experience. I was at the Torre de Letras (a place for literary activities on the top of a building in Old Havana), where a writer read an essay that began with: “I was born in a country that no longer exists…”
I ignored the fact that she was born in the former German Democratic Republic since I had no doubt that she was talking about Cuba. But what was most curious was that I wasn’t alone in having that impression.
Then, thinking about that, I realized that this sense of loss and of exile that’s embedded in Cubans who left is also something that we feel, those of us who have stayed. It’s the sense of the Cuba we almost believed to have inhabited as having left us, breaking up without us even realizing when that occurred.
It’s like deaths that occur without the notice of a last gasp, with no ultimate moment of tension or spasm. We only realize it by the slow deterioration of the body, the stench, the loss of movement.
Where is the country that they promised us when we were children in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s? Where did the Cuba end, whose mere mention now causes a look of boredom in those born after 1990?
They were the hardest hit, believing in a “morning” where they didn’t see anything. For them, there were no preserves from the central market or Bulgarian apples that anyone could buy at the agro-market, nor the malt in bulk, fine breads or the candies that really did break your jaw (which weren’t the best, but even these we miss!) Nor is there real Coppelia ice cream…
They experienced none of those things from those times when the word “salary” was more than a paradox, a mockery, a symbol.
The generation of my teenage son has inherited the shadow of a country that vanished in its attempt to be, in the offering. He has inherited shut-down sugar mills, low-cost buildings, an urban landscape designed in fragments, and nature crushed by human vicissitudes and experiments.
For him there are schools that operate to the detriment of everyone, teachers who don’t believe what they say, heroes whose images are so retouched that now they confuse everyone… Pretending is almost the first thing one learns, as a growing cynicism hardens one’s looks, gestures and words.
There’s is the country described so well by the writer Antonio Ponte in the documentary “Arte nuevo de hacer ruinas” (The New Art of Making Ruins), with its cities devastated by a war that was never waged but whose very destruction proves the ubiquitous threat of an enemy they’ve warned us so much about.
Because that is the proof: buildings that fall under the weight of a promise that can no longer hold anything, a morality that’s reinvented with increasingly weak arguments, a “morning” that no one hopes for and that many have replaced with an achievable horizon – one consisting of a passport and a visa.
To them, those born after the ‘90s, “the country no longer exists,” they’re not interested in it. They want something tangible. As for us, the stunned offspring of a ghost nation, we wander picking up the scraps of the past (and the future?), strangers in our own dream.
Where to go without a country
You can be born and die anywhere, but in living life it is at least important that the earth we touch becomes an extension of our identity. This produces stable families and generations based on cultural, social, spiritual values.
I suspect that the Cuba that many of us are still desperately seeking is between the lines of the “official” story – what’s between the political propaganda and those tourist postcards. It’s between our nostalgia and the skepticism of the young, amid anger, pain, indifference and escape.
In the space of humanity that they denied us, they wanted us to forget about the person “that was leaving,” our neighbor, our family, our friend.
Cuba is now situated precisely where fatigue begins when we realize that life goes on, under its ruthless wheel, trampling ideologies and discourses.
Some time ago I saw a documentary by the Russian actor and director Nikita Mikhalkov. It was titled Anna. Through the evolution of his own daughter and how she raises a number of simple questions each year, the author shows us the development of an entire nation.
At the end of the documentary, the girl — by then a young eighteen-year-old woman, was going to study in Switzerland — when asked about her country, she couldn’t help but cry. She says that the “homeland” is big, as vast as Russia.
But Mikhalkov really doesn’t end there, he repeats the same questions to his youngest daughter, who has now grown and is as old as Anna was at the beginning of the film.
The girl, who doesn’t have the experience or the pain of Anna, says that the “homeland” is rather small, so small that it can fit into the space of her two hands put together.
Just watching this scene, I felt that this is what we lack.
To free us from the constructed and imposed greatness that distances us from the more essential, our own greatness which is in the frailty that we all share, in common spirituality, in the common and ancient desire of a more just world but without those who are chosen or excluded.
The only real enemy we have — which is also all of us — is the ability to forget this basic principle.
Meanwhile we continue searching for Cuba and for those we care about. In nostalgia, (with fetish objects), in cyberspace, among the attempts at dialogue, in cities with falling down buildings, or in that small space — like Mikhalkov’s daughter described — that you can take anywhere.