I have had the good fortune to travel to Cuba multiple times over the last three years, meeting with faculty from the University of Havana, writers and artists, and extended family. My wife Alicia was born in Havana in 1962 and her family left Cuba in 1968 when her family in the United States sponsored their emigration. Her experience in the U.S. was typical of a lot of Cubans who came here during that time—only Spanish spoken in the house, homes in Cuban-American communities, and Cuban traditions of food, family, and holidays. As she herself would say, she is mostly American but always with a sense of her Cuban-ness. Through her family both in the U.S. and in Cuba, I have been able to build good working relationships with folks in Cuba focused on the issue of sustainability while trying at all times to avoid political conversations. My friends and colleagues in Cuba have become some of my closest friends—teaching me about resourcefulness and sharing their homes and food, even when one may have little to share.
Those interested have long known that the easing of restrictions talking place between the U.S. and Cuba would occur. Most of my research in Cuba has been around environmental education and outreach through the arts, but many in Cuba have worried about the anticipated environmental impact of increased tourism. Cuba and Cubans want increased exchange with the U.S. But they are also keenly aware of possible environmental costs. I have much to learn from them—I can only hope I offer them kindness and attentiveness in return.
Selected Writings by Jose Martí, translated by Esther Allen
Walk into any schoolyard in Cuba and you will find a bust of Jose Martí. Listen to a conversation of Cuban literature, and it wouldn’t be surprising to hear a reference or nod to Martí. Though I don’t pay much attention to the political speeches, Martí is the historical figure most commonly invoked. Even Cuba’s iconic song “Guantanamera” was given its verses from Martí’s Versos Sencillos and the versos del alma—the verses of the soul. His essays and poetry pervade Cuban culture. Readers should note that Martí spent part of his short life in the United States raising awareness for abolition in Latin America, the plight of Cubans under Spanish rule, and noting concerns about United States expansion. Begin here!
During my first trip to Cuba I was wandering Havana Vieja (Old Havana), a generally beautiful but touristy area. In the Plaza de Armas, 30 to 40 Cubans set up stalls and tables to sell tourist curios, movie posters, t-shirts with Che’s or Hemingway’s bearded image, and books. Some of the books are truly antique, some are resold from private homes, but most are reprints of revolutionary literature and standards of Cuban literature, mostly Martí. One of the booksellers noticed I was looking for Martí’s poetry and handed me a stapled copy of Martí’s Versos Sencillos printed by Centro de Estudios Martianos. ¿Cuánto cuesta? “It cinco CUC” (Cuban currency equaling about $5.50), she said. Bueno, I said, thinking I had gotten a deal. Later I found out I could have purchased this volume for a tenth of that cost. Bookstores in Cuba are numerous and excellent and (non-controversial) publishing is partly subsidized by the government. If you travel to Cuba, go to a bookstore near a university.
Long story, short description: Versos Sencillos is a short volume of seemingly simple poems, but Martí is never a simple writer. My suggestion is to look over one of the many translations and then get a copy of the Spanish. Find a Spanish-English Dictionary and translate it with cursory word-to-word exchange. Get a sense of the rhythms and play with your “translation” and then go back to better translations. Between the two, something of Martí might come to you.
On Becoming Cuban by Louis A. Pérez
Louis Pérez’s book is the single best glimpse into the tangled history and cultural borrowing between the United States and Cuba, prior to and after the Spanish Revolution. Moreover, the book touches deftly on complexities of calling oneself Cuban-American, or in my wife’s case, having left Cuba at age six, American-Cuban. Pérez details a fascinating history of exchange and exoticism. He articulates the difficult sense of identity for a people of a diaspora. No book has helped me more to understand dizzying distance of the short 90 miles between Key West and Cuba.
Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo by Ned Sublette
Sublette’s book gives readers a deep history of Cuba’s unique place in world music—an island where African rhythms and cultural traditions were melded to Spanish traditional music to give the world not just a new music, but a new notion of engagement of music in dance. Sublette traces the religious and secular traditions of African music and how they became part of Cuban culture during slavery and after, leading to the music we now know as the conga, rhumba, cha-cha-cha, mambo, salsa, etc. The book concludes its investigation at 1952, but Sublette is currently at work on the second volume. Sublette is a great writer, so the almost 900 pages are a joy to read.
Toward a Nature of Culture: Environmental Policy and Sustainable Development in Cuba by Pamela Stricker
Stricker does an excellent job of placing Cuba in the context of sustainability at the time of the book’s publication. During the 1990s, Cuba was forced to address sustainable agricultural and environmental practices because of the fall of the Soviet Union, leading to the “special period,” a time of food shortages and economic difficulty. According to a World Wildlife Fund report in 2006, Cuba was the only country in the world to reach a sustainability standing, because the country covers its present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Stricker, who comes from a tradition of political science, details the agencies and government choices that led Cuba to address sustainability comparatively early.
Read David Taylor’s “Restoration,” a poem in seven parts, in Issue 14 of Terrain.org.
All photos courtesy of David Taylor.