I will dedicate this event: – to #KeenanAnderson, a high school teacher, who was murdered a couple of days ago by members of the Los Angeles police department, for the crime of being Black and asking its officers for help; – to artist @luismanuel.oteroalcantara and #Grammy-winning rapper@maykelosorbo, both #Cuban citizens who are languishing in prison in #Cuba for the crime of thinking while Black; – to Black women in Cuba and the US, who have to fight against the violence of misogyny and racism on a daily basis; – to descendants of enslaved Africans in every country built upon the rubble of the Atlantic slave trade; – to my African ancestors, whose lineage I do not know due to that form of violence that is institutional oblivion.
The personal has always been political.
As Dr. King said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
All those racists I remember were good revolutionaries. I would write their obituaries, from January till December. One was a high-ranking member —and a puppet— of the State. Will my anger dissipate? He was Brown, but passed as white. He was my father. That’s right. He’s still a coward. Checkmate.
I don’t usually write commentary to explain what I write. What I write explains itself. Or it doesn’t, and that’s that. However, I’ve made an exception this time because, after these seventy lines, I still had more to say. I want to highlight the discomfort that confronting racism and its many forms of violence causes in our society —I’m taking about Cuba, yes, and that is also applicable in the United States. But let’s focus on Cuba.
There are people who have told me all my life, in Spanish and in English, “I don’t see race or color,” and, in saying so, have always had the best of intentions. But whoever doesn’t see race also doesn’t see racism. And those problems will not be solved if we prefer to think they don’t exist. To not have to think about race, to not see race, is an immense privilege. I see it every time I look in the mirror. And yes, it’s a social construct, and all that, but I didn’t invent it. It was already here when I got to the party, like Augusto Monterroso’s famous dinosaur.
Since we are at it: it’s also a privilege to not have to think about gender, or money, or sexual orientation, or migratory status, or physical abilities, or about other factors that I don’t mention here, because I don’t see them, because they don’t come to mind at this moment, while I write this.
I’ve never had the option of not thinking of myself as a racialized being, including long before I acquired this vocabulary. I didn’t have that choice when authorities during my Cuban upbringing repeated that racism was a remnant of the past —that thankfully had been eradicated in Cuba—while they taught me to hate my hair. This hair, this beautiful hair. The conjunction of this feeling of racial consciousness with the fallacy that we learn —that we learned— at home, that “the family is sacred,” was the starting point for this cycle of décimas. No, folks. We have to talk about racism, and we have to talk about it in public. And this conversation will have to be uncomfortable, especially for those who have never stopped to think about this subject. Believe me: more uncomfortable —more dangerous!— is racism itself. And another thing: family is who behaves as such. Family is also chosen. (My Aunt Lucy, who is not a blood relative, is more my family than my entire paternal line. I’m making use of this opportunity to send her, publicly, my everlasting love.)
In this week’s column, I maintain my policy of not telling a lie and punching all the way up. Here, as everywhere, the personal is political. Furthermore: my childhood demonstrates the resounding failure of the Cuban regime in promoting and implementing racial justice and equity on the island that I escaped, as so many thousands of my compatriots are doing right now.
I know that the State is a system and, that in my poem, I refer to individuals. But the gears of a society function —for better or worse— because of the people who implement them. These creatures and their sickening racism passed through my life. And they all openly supported “the Revolution,” while reiterating that, in the previous dictatorship, I “wouldn’t even have been considered a person.”
Therefore, I owe it to the child that I was to settle this score in public. I dedicate these rhymes to the racists —of all genders and latitudes— who have defended —and explained to me!— the Cuban Revolution.
The love for the homeland is learned at home. So is racism. Educate yourself, and educate your offspring.
Don’t forget that the dictum of “don’t air dirty laundry in public” is an effective way of protecting those who oppress you.
Tell your truth. Remember, as Audre Lorde said: “Your silence will not protect you.”
Last year, my friend Juan Milà, Editorial Director at Harper Via, called to ask me if I’d be interested in translating the speech I Have a Dream, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At first, I thought I had misheard him. I couldn’t believe this monumental pillar of the Civil Rights movement hadn’t been published in book form in Spanish. I said yes immediately…
And now the book is out!
It has been my greatest honor to bring this timely and timeless speech into my native language. I also had the privilege of translating a moving prologue, written for this edition, by Amanda Gorman. In translating both texts, I benefited from wonderful suggestions from my editor (and now dear friend) Ariana Rosado Fernández, as well as from my dear Juan Milà.
In the process, I was aware at all times that this was a speech. Therefore, the text had to sound good. Beyond the content, I had to convey a cadence, a musicality, and a rhythm from one of the greatest orators in the English language. So I recited every sentence and the entire speech, in Spanish, over and over…
For the first few days (or was it weeks?), I still couldn’t believe that I was going to be the vehicle through which Dr. King’s words would reach a Spanish-speaking audience. Yet, rather than intimidate me, that responsibility inspired me and kept me focused and grounded.
Since the final draft, I have lost track of how many times I’ve read my translation out loud. And my voice still cracks, and my heartbeat still races as I read it. This is personal. I have skin in the game. I, too, have a dream. I, too, share Dr. King’s dream. I, too, wonder, with Langston Hughes, what happens to a dream deferred.
My translation of I Have a Dream is available through your local bookstore. You can also ask your public library to include it in its collection. Go ahead, read it. Believe in it. Make the dream come true!
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.