Category Archives: Art

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 The city where this text could not be published in my youth or now.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.

“Nemesis” Art Protest Honors Cuba’s Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero

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Press release from Cuba Archive

April 7, 2013, New York City.

Last night, artist Geandy Pavón staged his latest “Nemesis” upon the façade of the building of Cuba’s permanent mission to the United Nations at 315 Lexington Avenue, New York city.

In Greek mythology, “nemesis” represents the persecutory memory of divine justice. The innovative art-protest consists of digitally projecting images onto buildings hosting Cuban government offices. Pavón “imposes the face of the victim upon the assassin using light as an analogy of truth, reason, and justice.”

Saturday night’s performance was dedicated to Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero. Payá, age 60, was founder of a movement calling for a peaceful change to democracy widely regarded as Cuba´s leading opposition leader (see www.OswaldoPaya.org in Spanish). Cepero, age 32, was an activist of the group. Both died July 22, 2012 after what the Cuban government reported as an accident of the car in which they were traveling with two foreigners. But, the family reports having evidence, now corroborated by the driver from Spain, that a vehicle in their pursuit had caused the crash. Plus, the two Cubans had apparently survived the crash and died later of unverifiable causes. The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, among others, have reported on the case.

The art-protest was timed to coincide with a visit to New York city of two of Payá’s three children, Rosa María and Oswaldo Jr., who were invited and on site. (See video of Nemesis Payá-Cepero.) Rosa María, age 24, has been on an international tour calling for an independent investigation of the deaths.

Mr. Pavón launched his art-protest in March 2010 at the same building of the Cuban Mission to the U.N. with the image of Cuban prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata, who died February 2010 while on hunger strike. Since then, he has staged Nemesis in Barcelona, Madrid, Washington, DC, and on several different occasions in New York city. In May 2011, he displayed the image of Chinese artist/dissident Ai Weiwei at China’s consulate in New York.

Geandy Pavón was born in Cuba and graduated from the National School of Fine Arts in Havana. He was part of the independent group “La Campana,” formed in 1988 to produce art critical of the lack of freedom in Cuban society. Exiled since 1996, he lives in New Jersey. His work can be found in private and public collections throughout Mexico, Cuba, and the U.S. (See www.geandypavon.com.)

Cuba Archive called for an international investigation soon after the death of Payá and Cepero and produced a report on their case as well as on “Strange Accidents and Unexplained Deaths.” (See www.CubaArchive.org, Reports and Alerts & Releases.)

*See PDF version and the Spanish translation at www.CubaArchive.org.

Judge this book by its cover

My book of poetry Los culpables [The Guilty] features on the cover artwork by Cuban visual artist José A. Vincench. Vincench lives in the island and, since 2005, has incorporated onto his work iconic images from the Cuban Black Spring of 2003, when 79 peaceful dissidents where arrested throughout the island and sentenced in kangaroo court trials to prison terms ranging between six and 28 years. Their images are among the many things that the Castro regime, for obvious reasons, would rather keep away from the public.

I invite you to visit the artist’s page and, while there, peruse a series entitled “Abstracto parece pero no es” [It seems abstract, but it isn’t], where you can find the faces of several Cuban political prisoners, as well as images of the human rights activists group Ladies in White during their pilgrimages through Havana’s Fifth Avenue, or in front of Santa Rita’s Church, the point of departure for most of their walks demanding the release of their unjustly incarcerated loved ones.

The artwork that I selected to illustrate this text (as well as the cover of my book) is entitled “The things I can tell you with Rachel Whiteread, what History hasn’t told you” (2007). I chose it not only because I found it visually appealing, or because it was made out of a collage of books; not even because the face it portrays is very similar to that of XIX Century Cuban writer and patriot José Martí, a feature that all my fellow countrymen have pointed out. The main reason it graces my book is that “The things I can tell you…” is a re-creation of the portrait of a specific human being, a Cuban political prisoner. It is the face of Dr. José Luis García Paneque, who was unfairly incarcerated during the Black Spring of 2003 and whose sentence, after seven years behind bars, was commuted by the Cuban regime to a forced exile to Spain.

Other than in the cover of my book, a canvas version of Vincench’s work is featured at the entrance of my home. It is the first thing people see once they cross the threshold. And, thus, here’s a likely first question: whose portrait is it? Not intending to be heavy-handed, that is a natural segway for the “repression in Cuba” topic, which means that at the end of the visit, the non Cubans walk away with a clear picture of the hellish conditions faced by anyone willing to think for him or herself while living in Cuba. Selecting that image for the cover was not fortuitous. The first cycle in the book carries the Kafkaesque title of “The Trial” and consists of “Spring with a broken corner,” a 23-sonnet suite named after the aforementioned and unfortunate Black Spring that inspired it. One of those poems, XVIII to be precise, earned me the friendship of Ernesto Ariel Suárez, after appearing in “Fe de erratas (link in Spanish)” [The Corrections], an article of mine published in May 2003 in the online edition of the much-maligned by the Cuban government and Madrid-based quarterly Encuentro de la cultura cubana [Encounter of Cuban Culture]. Some of the political prisoners from the Black Spring were charged with having published their writings in Encuentro…. Five years later, and perhaps to close a cycle, Los culpables received a laudatory review (link in Spanish) in that publication, signed by Jorge Salcedo. (A side note: alongside Suárez and Salcedo, among other human rights activists, I was a member of the organizing committee of the campaign #OZT: I accuse the Cuban government, which demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in the island. Both, Salcedo and Suárez, went on to become dear friends of mine. And not only in Facebook. From here, once again, I salute them.)

And now you know: in this occasion we cannot apply the age-old axiom that states that appearances can be deceiving. Whether you buy the book or not, whether you read it or not, whether you decide to ignore it or you prefer to keep it by your night table, friend and foe, please be kind enough to judge Los culpables, The Guilty, also by its cover.

“Nemesis”: portrait of Ai Weiwei

“Némesis” is a project of Cuban artist Geandy Pavón. For more info on the project, click here.