Cuba is a small country, yet it is the largest island in the Caribbean Sea. In square miles, including the many keys and islets that dot its coastline, it is just a bit larger than Tennessee. Put another way, it could hold Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New Jersey with a little room to spare. Because of the island’s long, narrow silhouette, Cuban poets have employed the image of a sleeping alligator bedded down at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico. If that reptile were to turn and crawl up the East Coast of the U.S., the distance from its snout (Cape San Antonio) to its tail (the point of Maisí) would extend from Washington DC to somewhere south of Savannah, Georgia. No point on this landmass is more than sixty miles from the sea. Together, these facts should be sufficient to convey the overwhelming importance of the sea to Cuban nature, history, society, and culture.
But this seabounded essence is matched in significance by the island’s position in the political geography of the past five centuries. The Spanish expeditions that conquered Mexico departed from the port of Santiago de Cuba—and it must be remembered that Mexico, at that time, included California, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico. From Havana sailed the expeditions that explored the vast plains of southeastern North America, annexing to Spain all the territory between Florida and the Mississippi Basin. Those who lived on the island were shaped by the turbulent history of its location, and by its role as a crossroads of the Caribbean, the axis of routes that connected the New World to the Old and, running counter to the rotation of the earth, opened the doors to the Far East. Cuba’s inhabitants kept watch for the threatening approach of pirates, of rival European powers, of hurricanes swirling toward landfall. When the nineteenth and twentieth centuries arrived, their land became the scene of great revolutions and armed conflicts (with and without the U.S. Marines).
Men and women of all kinds came from around the globe to pass through or settle in this natural and social environment, lying just below the Tropic of Cancer, with temperatures and trade winds nearly constant throughout the year. They included European adventurers, peasants escaping the famines and epidemics of the Old World, enslaved Africans from Calabar and the lands surrounding the Congo River, Chinese indentured laborers, Arab merchants, Jews from central and eastern Europe, and other islanders from as far as Japan, as well as those from the smaller Caribbean isles that form a crescent stretching south and southeast from Cuba.
All these groups contributed their traditional wisdom, their music, their cosmologies, spices, cuisine, medicinal plants, and gods to the local culture. Many stayed, while others—either themselves or their dependents—kept moving on to other lands. Their common experience was the voyage, whether voluntary or forced. The island became a place of passage, arrival, or departure for millions of people, and many of these millions became its population, who today are identified not primarily as Afro-Cubans, nor Spanish descendants, nor Cuban Chinese, but as Cubans, one and all.
From the 1820s on, exiled revolutionaries, such as the poets José María Heredia and José Martí, dreamed of a free Cuba while living in New York. Heredia imagined Cuban palm trees even while awed by the torrent and mists of Niagara Falls: “The palms, delightful palms / That rise from my sun-splashed land / Born of its light, ripened into smiles, / Sway in ocean breezes under a pure blue sky.” From then on, and throughout the nineteenth century, one-tenth of the people identifying as Cuban lived in the United States—as a result of the revolutions seeking independence from Spain, but also as a result of the overwhelming proximity. As can be seen in the well-known twentieth-century novels of Oscar Hijuelos, Our House in the Last World and The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, a great tide of economic emigrants had already headed north in search of opportunity and a better standard of living prior to the most recent Cuban revolution (that of 1959); the wave of such emigrants from Cuba was surpassed only by those from Mexico and Puerto Rico. Now, after half a century of estrangement, Cuba and the United States have entered a new era of relations that will be facilitated by the recent political rapprochement between the two governments.
Naturally, there is more than one way to represent the meaning of being Cuban. Some visions include what Miguel de Unamuno called the tragic sense of life, a certain Hispanic reflex that expresses events like departing, or leaving behind, in almost biblical terms (exodus, diaspora) or that dramatizes (sometimes as melodrama) scarcity, poverty, or the high cost of living not as daily tribulations but as matters of life or death. From this point of view, we Cubans are a people in constant loss, half adrift, surviving in spaces of supposed devastation (like the city of Havana) under the unblinking eye of a Big Brother, in a dystopic environment awash in a sort of posthistory.
In contrast to these extreme representations, others express the Cuban condition in a manner that is more gentle and reassuring, and that emphasizes connection with others. These visions are not necessarily composed in a key of pleasure or happiness, but in a minor key that avoids the strident phrase, the emphatic declaration, the word as weapon. From this perspective, the Cuban sense of space can include outsiders. Foreigners are considered not as enemy or invasive bodies, but just as different, as those with whom life may even be shared, but according to different values or ways of seeing. A Cuban may live somewhere else without abandoning or losing the island, just as the past, though gone forever and unrepeatable, is alive in memories shared with others. This longing involves loss and melancholy too, but they are as natural as the wilting of a flower or as any farewell.
How do we know that certain works express a Cuban sense of place? Is it because they refer to recurrent images in Cuban art and literature, like the fireflies called cocuyos, or royal palms, santería deities such as Changó (the Catholic Saint Barbara), endless sandy beaches, forests full of strange sounds and mysterious creatures, bales of aromatic tobacco leaves, swarms of insects or butterflies, mountains that bear the signs of the submerged seafloors they used to be? Is it because the texts contain sayings that could never be anything but Cuban, such as “Nobody thinks about Santa Bárbara until the thunder sounds?” In the end, the task of defining a space in which the condition of being Cuban is expressed is too much for me. I venture only to say that the existence of such divergent visions—the alarmist and the intimate—may reveal better than anything else the irregularity or nonconformity that is intrinsic to this condition, and which finds expression in the Cuba of today.
Many thanks to the Christopher Reynolds Foundation for its generous support of this project.
look and don’t neglect them.
the islands are apparent worlds.
cut off in the sea
moving past in the solitude of rootless lands.
above the water’s silence, a stain
from having dropped anchor only that once
depositing remains left by storms and gusts
on the waves.
here the cemeteries are beautiful and small.
they are beyond ceremonies.
I bathed before sitting down in the grass
it’s the zone of thick sea mists
where mirages occur
and I smile again.
I don’t know if you’re here or if it’s the danger
I begin to be free between those interchanging limits:
surely dawn will come.
the islands are apparent worlds
blankets of exhaustion on those who would bring about
I know the reality was only inside me then
an interval between two kinds of time
cut off in the sea
I’m thrown onto a more tenuous place
girls who will be young one more time
in the face of the wisdom and the rigidity of those who aged
without the motions and contortions of the sea
the islands are apparent worlds salt stains
another woman I don’t know, thrown on top of me
only the lesser life
the unhurried gratitude of the islands in me.
—Reina María Rodríguez
Cotranslated by Kristin Dykstra and Nancy Gates-Madsen
The heart knows how to wait,
the heart knows that it waits and what it waits for.
let’s get that Persian gypsy down
from the raised grave that the Christians built.
They only studied theodicies
but never the thunder or lightning
or the axe in a scabbard made of palm;
they collected fables from the pastors of Dalmatia
or is it Croatia, or Serbia, or Montenegro
just like others created the Thousand and One Nights
from a handful of Turkish stories, if those Turks even exist
Mamma, li turchi! they say, in Florence.
All things are pastiche. Times that rush onward
from the atoll to the fish, from the brothel
to the iron grave erected by procurers
for that pretty daddy’s girl
monogamous virgin dedicated to the infinite
dictatorship of traffickers in arms and homilies:
And let the gold-standard patriarchs judge illusions
of the proletariat to be trash: savages!
worshippers of icons: Michael Jackson, Ruud Gullit,
same thing: war is there in the Balkans.
But she, who possessed a little, just a few inches tall,
Santa Bárbara* of dyed wood with an axe of gold and ruby
confessed to me that the sainted lady
wanted to live and to die eating plaintains.
So says my grandmother, Balkan, volcanic,
offering reverential thumps on the ground
when it thunders.
Translated by Kristin Dykstra
*The Catholic Saint Barbara has been adopted by the Afro-Cuban religion of santería as the Yoruba deity Changó, who is associated with thunder and lightning.
I WENT SO SEE MY FATHER—DECEMBER WAS ENDING—
I went to see my father—December was ending—
and we sat in the old porch where one day
I sang green copal trees, eucharist flowers.
And he said to me, wrapping himself in his rags,
with a line that linked his childhood and mine:
I would like to see a savannah filled with flowering.
You know, savannahs completely dressed in white?
I know, father. In me, too, in certain months,
the strong waves rise in my blood and I want
to see the country’s youth, that first space, the sheaves, cattle!
I went to see my father—December was ending—
and together we went back to silent places, to spots
that can only be seen with your eyes gone.
And I said to him, after we’d both parsed
and untangled the threads of our thoughts:
Are there still those enormous fireflies here
that didn’t want us to catch them, speaking to us, afraid?
Or when the road mud cracked open,
those masses of butterflies folding, unfolding, their wings?
Or that fine air that touched the houses,
arranging with its fingers for the gathering of August?
December was ending. Ending in silence, going
like a fish, flowing into our bodies’ bone-chill.
My father wrapped himself in evening’s mute rocker
and I left—voyager sunk in his memories—
walking invisible through the deep-rutted land.
Translated by Steven Reese
”In the bright splendor of the morning,
I saw the leafy tree of Creation,”
said the Antillean poet
on his way home one very cold night.
The child in his dream awaited other words.
Mist from the port is falling now.
It climbs up the hill.
Up the mountain.
Parts the dry jungle thicket.
Enters the damp caves filled with stalactites.
And clusters of ferns held fast
to the blackened walls of the waterfall.
Soroa Falls at the mouth of the Caribbean.
Lines of the curious encircle the rocky slope.
Nature carries off the strange scent of
No one gave a thought to childhood.
The air all around glowed bright.
Life was so filled with that air it was
a crime to think.
To be there and to long for the lagoons,
the waters and that air that flows and falls
and takes us back to the first celebration of trees and flowers.
From the window of my house,
in the first light of midday,
I’ll glimpse the sea sponge,
the oscillating path of the murex snail.
The most beautiful love once found it
in the sand
and I fearlessly left it behind forever.
So it was that everything turned green again—
the lilac bougainvilleas,
poplars, buds on trees and Easter lilies,
morning glories and those thistles far larger
than time itself.
They say Ochún,* all covered in honey and butterflies,
will make her way
into her dwelling.
I’ll see the swarm whirling above our
and we’ll cast oblivion into the nearest river . . .
Translated by Pamela Carmell
*The Yoruba goddess of love, fertility, and rivers.