The Power of Names — Op-Ed in The Miami Herald

The Power of Names

Alexis Romay 

Earlier last month, I visited an independent school in Connecticut, to speak on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, about Hispanic Heritage Month, the power of names, and the power of naming. Names are a critical component of our identity. Names reveal —or conceal— who we are. Let’s start with “Connecticut,” which takes its name from an Algonquian word that means “land on the long tidal river.” I made that point from a podium in the land that belongs to the Nipmunks, the Sequin, the Matabesec or Wappinger, and the Pequot-Mohegan. I might have mispronounced those words, and I might have omitted others. And that is a direct consequence of the systemic erasure of “Indigenous Peoples” from our curricula, our media, and our collective narrative.

“Indigenous Peoples” is a shortcut to identify a large and diverse set of cultures who didn’t call themselves “Indigenous Peoples.” That is an umbrella under which they’ve been placed by external sources with the power of naming. “Indigenous Peoples” is a product of colonialism.

The independent school that hosted me is located in New Haven. But a “New Haven” for whom? Certainly not for the “Indigenous Peoples,” who were forced to leave their land and go on a long trail of tears to find their new haven.

I mentioned that I’m Cuban. “Cuba,” a beautiful Taino word, which means “great place.” For me, the great place from which, 23 years ago, I fled the Castro dictatorship, a totalitarian regime that has lasted more than six decades, and today is terrorizing the Cuban people who are reclaiming their right to have rights. Children, adults, and elderly people are barricading the streets and shouting “freedom,” because they believe, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did, that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” And, also, because, as the late congressman John Lewis said: “We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now!”

Cubans, on the island and in exile, are speaking loud and clear. They are voting with their feet, by crossing the treacherous path from Central America to the United States, by braving —on makeshift rafts— the ninety miles of sharks and uncertainty that separate Cuba from the US, or by putting their bodies in front of the police force of the Cuban government, a political system that has simultaneously lost all touch with reality and what little credibility it still had in the international arena.

Let’s go back to the power of names and the power of naming. Let’s take a look at Latino, Latina, Latine, Latinx, Hispanic… and all the possible permutations of those identifiers. Well, that’s not what I call myself. I am Cuban. My Colombian friends are Colombian. My Puerto Rican friends are Puerto Rican. My Chilean friends are Chilean. And so on, and so forth. Yet, we have been placed under a massive umbrella.

The powerful thing about shared umbrellas is that they offer shelter against the tempest. The problem with shared umbrellas is that once you’re under them, you have very little room to move about freely. You are confined to a crowded space in which you might become indistinguishable from the people next to you. You might gain a collective identity at the risk of losing your own —individual or national— identity.

Much like there are cultural differences between the people of New Haven and the people of New Orleans, the people from, say, Lima (Peru), and Cuba’s capital —Havana, another Taino word— share a common language, which is also a product of colonialism. But they differ greatly in their history, traditions, idiosyncrasies, cosmogony.

Let’s think about another continent. But, first, let’s think about the Ukrainians. Slava Ukraini!

We talk about the French, the Italians, the Germans, the Spaniards, the Greeks, the Irish; we even make distinctions for the members of the United Kingdom: the English, the Scottish, the Welsh. We don’t throw “the Europeans” under one big umbrella. They get to retain their national identities.  

Therefore, I am writing this to invite you to extend the same courtesy to Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Because Africa is not a country. Asia is not a country. And America is not a country.

Let’s normalize calling our nation by its proper name: the United States of America; the US or USA, if you are in a rush. And, yes, “our nation.” I use the possessive pronoun, because, in the immortal words of Langston Hughes, “I, too, am America.”

***

This Op-Ed was published —with slight modifications— in the print edition of The Miami Herald, on 10/27/22.

How many dead do you need?

How many dead do you need?
How many more people killed
by a government so skilled
in implementing its creed
that after it does the deed
of sinking a fleeing boat
it accuses the scapegoat?
Cuba is a dictatorship.
Spare me photos from your trip.
My friends in Cuba can’t vote.

________
Author’s note: This is my recreation and condensation, in English, of my décimas published this week in the Spanish edition of 14ymedio

Colonel Mario Méndez (shown above), a high-ranking officer of the Ministry of Interior, gave me the fuel for this text with the question that he repeated ad nauseam during a TV program apropos of the latest massacre perpetrated by the Cuban regime: “How many more dead do you need?”

Please, keep in mind that this post —as well as the entirety of Ideological Deviation, my weekly column— is considered a crime by the Cuban government..

The Power of Names

Here’s our premise for this morning:

– I am a Cuban in Connecticut,
– Who is here to talk on Indigenous Peoples’ Day,
– About Hispanic Heritage Month,
– To an audience of 700 people,
– In under 14 minutes.

The Cuban People Have Spoken

Protesters in Old Havana

The Cuban people have spoken:
they have voted with their feet,
they gather on any street
to talk about what’s been broken
for so long that not a token
from the government can quench
the thirst, the hunger, the stench
stemming from that institution
that some call “the Revolution,”
which digs its grave and its trench.

____________
Author’s note: This text is my recreation and condensation, in English, of my décimas published this week in the Spanish edition of 14ymedio. Remember, this post —part of Ideological Deviation, my weekly column— is considered a crime by the Cuban government.

A Belated Ode to the Worker’s Union

Screen capture of the 16-second video in which workers from state-owned Prodal company, in Havana, shout: “Long live the sausages!”

In Cuba, the Worker’s Union
is just a branch of the State.
It doesn’t allow debate.
It curtails any reunion
of people seeking communion
of ideas by themselves,
while there’s no food on the shelves,
and there’s widespread condemnation
of the Party as the indignation
of the Cuban people swells.

____________

This text is my recreation and condensation, in English, of my décimas published this week in the Spanish edition of 14ymedio. Remember, this post —part of Ideological Deviation, my weekly column— is considered a crime by the Cuban government.

The Castro Media Way

All the news that’s fit to print
when the government controls
radio, newspapers —their trolls!—
in a never-ending sprint
that doesn’t mention or hint
at the truth, and talks all day
and all night, and gets away
with lies, alternative facts,
and their multiple impacts:
that’s the Castro Media Way.

____________

This text is my recreation and condensation, in English, of my décimas published this week in the Spanish edition of 14ymedio. Remember, this post —part of Ideological Deviation, my weekly column— is considered a crime by the Cuban government.

Behold the Cuban Revolution

Agent of the Special Brigade of the Ministry of the Interior on July 11, during the repressed protests in Cuba. (EFE)

The Cuban people are tired
of a regime so repressive,
cruel, controlling, obsessive…
The whole nation has been mired
by a clown nobody hired:
a buffoon whose greatest feat
is his mastery of deceit,
to our dismay and confusion.
Come, behold the Revolution,
it kills with a rumba beat!

____________

This text is my recreation and condensation, in English, of my décimas published this week in the Spanish edition of 14ymedio. Remember, this post —part of Ideological Deviation, my weekly column— is considered a crime by the Cuban government.

Public Displays of Affection, Cuban Dictatorship Edition

Díaz Canel has a wife
whose tackiness knows no bounds.
It’s not as cute as it sounds,
in the midst of Cuba‘s strife,
when she says that, in her life,
he’s “The Dictator.” For sure!
(Lis Cuesta is done with demure.)
Cubans long to live in peace.
That regime is a disease,
and we are ready for the cure.

***

This décima is part of Ideological Deviation, my weekly column in 14ymedio.

Apropos of “Ideological Deviation”

I will be brief. These terrifying words began many of the interminable speeches of the Mansplainer-in-Chief who, pistol in hand, took control of Cuba 62,000 millennia ago. With this introduction to my new column in 14ymedio, I propose to do exactly the same. (I’m referring to being brief, not to taking over the Island. I hope the results are not so devastating.)

The column will appear weekly under the banner Ideological Deviation, which in addition to being the title of my book of décimas, is a horrible legal concept with which the government frightened me in my childhood and youth in Havana, and for which any Cuban can still be imprisoned in the land I fled. The décima is a style of Spanish poetry created in the XVI century by Vicente Espinel. The format is 10 lines, eight-syllables each. It rhymes ABBAACCDDC. Jorge Drexler did a beautiful TEDx talk about it.

Does this mean that I am going to write an opinion column exclusively to the rhythm of the décima? Well, yes. The reason is simple: the meter and rhyme  —and, hopefully, the content— ​​will render them memorable. This will make it easier for them to be recited in morning assemblies at schools throughout the nation. From preschool to sixth grade! To infinity… and beyond! Pioneers for dropping bars, we will be like Espinel!

My octosyllables will come in a variety of tones and registers —lyrical, nostalgic, satirical, parodic, animal, vegetable, and mineral— which are my ways of thinking and feeling Cuba from a distance. Thinking and feeling are crimes in totalitarianism, and the Cuba that the Castros took for themselves is no exception. (Ah… and I aspired to write a presentation without mentioning that last name that produces gagging, nausea, hives).

I escaped in order to be, an action that in Spanish is split into two verbs: ser and estar. I fled in order to think and to feel. Beyond the seas and decades later, I admire those who are, who think, and who feel in Cuba. I could not imagine my life in my land, but I celebrate that there are those who can do it and do it every day, against the winds and the tides of an implacable regime. These verses, and those to come, are for you.

The People,” “the Cuban Nation”

“The people,” “the Cuban nation”
is not the same as “the State.”
(No need for you to debate.
Go on. Have a revelation.)
The “Revolution,” that station
in Dante’s Hell, is a trap:
the government does kidnap
the Cubans who dare protest;
at Díaz Canel’s request,
they get erased from the map.

***

The photo in this post shows Cuban artist and two-time Latin Grammy-winner rapper Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo, who has been detained at the maximum security Pinar del Río prison since May 2021 for his song “Patria y vida.”

We don’t talk about Castro

We don’t talk about Castro

Music (and original lyrics): Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lyrics: Alexis Romay

We don’t talk about Castro (no, no, no).
We don’t talk about Castro. But…

It’s been six decades.
Sixty-two years of hunger, repression, and fear.
(No one’s allowed to speak).

Castro walked in with a murderous grin.
And he destroyed Cuba’s dreams.

Castro said, “Elections, what for?”
(In 1959.)
In doing so, he ruined us all.
(Abuela, get the boats.)
Let’s go to Miami now… but anyway:

We don’t talk about Castro (no, no, no).
We don’t talk about Castro. But…

Hey! I grew up in fear of his endless stumbling,
he was always on TV, muttering and mumbling.
I associate him with the sound of exile.

It’s a heavy lift, with a pain so numbing.
Abuela stayed in Cuba with the family wondering,
grappling with prophecies they couldn’t understand.
Do you understand?

A greasy beard,
guards along his path.
When he calls your name
it all fades to black.

His spies see your dreams.
They feast on your screams. But:

We don’t talk about Castro (no, no, no).
We don’t talk about Castro.