Cuba is Not a Spectator Sport

You cannot go to a cajon and sit there, with your arms crossed.  You have to loosen up those shoulders and start dancing.  You have to puff on the cigar and drink some aguadiente.  When someone hands you a cup of green liquid and leave, you eat it.  You eat it because they have so little but invited you into their home and fed you anyway, and you eat it because how else would you know it’s actually the most delicious soup on the planet?

At a rumba show tonight I just wanted to get up and dance.  Rumba is not meant for dressing in an “ethnic” shawl and sitting down in neat rows.  How do you sit up straight and tall, not even a toe tapping to the beat?  It’s meant for that fresh santero who let loose and danced up and down the aisles, and it’s meant for my teacher Falla who kept making eye contact and singing along with different friends and students throughout the night.

When Obsesion had their show, they kept pulling other poets and rappers up on “stage” to join in.  they demanded audience participation, from call and response to getting your hands up to kicking the chairs aside and dancing.

Cubans might be born dancing, but they’re not necessarily born good at it.  They have a certain daring that we gringos lack.  If you spend all your time against a wall lamenting your lack of rhythm, of course you won’t be able to salsa, no matter how much time you spend here.  The ability to dance is not an amoeba; you can’t just pick it up by accident.

I guess this is how I feel about last night’s rumba show, and this trip to Cuba, and the country as a whole.  If you’re not going to live it, you may as well be reading about it in Reading, Massachusetts.  No culture is so high and impressive that you can’t participate.  This is why I write in books–you have a relationship, and active partnership with exchange.  It’s also why the Mona Lisa is boring, but the art of a man who came to my class the other day is exhilarating.

Culture is not for taking pictures of or watching or even writing about.  It’s for living.  Ruminate later, but would you rather have pictures of other people doing things; insights on what you saw?  Or stories of what you did?

Los Campesinos

I haven’t done a full write-up of this past weekend’s trip to Viñales and Pinar del Rio, but here are some pictures to whet your whistle.

Pinar del Rio is a province to the West of La Habana province. It's a lot of farms and beautiful countryside, like at this rest stop.
Che is everywhere, even in dreary little towns. It's unclear who exactly does all these murals, but I heard that artists have to uphold the revolution if they want to paint murals, so perhaps that's why there are so many on average people's homes
A giant mural on the mountains. It gets repainted every two years or so, and you would never know it was there if it weren't for all the tour buses.
We stayed at a rustic hotel. And by rustic, I mean there was running water and awesome food but also a stable that included horses and these guys.
Kristina rides a horse past some bamboo (!).
Fording a river
Tobacco fields that are the livelihood of the region.

“I Don’t Understand This Place At All”

I truly believe that it’s called writer’s block (not writer’s lack of inspiration) for a reason other than brevity.  Sometimes you just can’t write anything else until you write through the block.  So that’s what yesterday was.  Back to regularly scheduled programming.

There’s a lot that I don’t understand here, a lot that none of us do.  Even Profe, who’s Cuban-American and has been here upwards of ten times is still trying to figure things out.  As Abby says, we probably won’t understand what we’ve learned here for at least another ten years.  Some information is scarce because people don’t want to talk about it, but often it’s because the government doesn’t state certain things publicly, and chooses not to ask certain questions on its census.

I’m looking forward to learning a bit about how the ration books work later on this week.  From what I hear, the rations only realistically last about two weeks, and don’t include essentials like meat and milk.  It’s towards the end of the month, which means we didn’t have bread or eggs last week, and water is scarce this week.  For our Cuban friends, this means going days without eating and trying to sell your stuff.

There is basically no fresh milk here, it’s all powdered.  Most people here in the Real World House turn up their nose at it, and it goes untouched many days.  As far as I know, Cubans who aren’t babies don’t generally get access.

There is no lottery here, because gambling is illegal.  There are of course numbers games on the street.  There are no taxes, because EVERYTHING is taxes…the government is just kind enough to take them out first.  The sidewalks are all cracked and a mess, with big holes or rusty bits of metal sticking up out of them.  Sometimes the holes are repaired with sand or bathroom tiles, but more often they aren’t repaired at all.

There are CDRs, Comites por Defensa la Revolucion.  Essentially, they were started to keep watch on their neighbors.  They have since become leaders in distributing vaccines and helping during a natural disaster.  They remind me of The Duke’s system of block captains and precinct captains for grassroots political organization.  I suppose the only difference is that here, it’s not grassroots.

There is not 100% employment.  Some people say if you lose your job it’s your fault.  Some people say there just aren’t enough jobs to go around.  Almost everyone does more than one thing.  Doctors are dancers; professors are cab drivers.  A single income just isn’t enough, and access to CUC (instead of just Moneda Nacional) is necessary for luxury goods.  Like any meat of quality.  By quality, I mean the most basic cuts and qualities that you would find in the US.

There is no lawsuit culture.  Are there even lawyers?

Because of the emphasis on culture, your state-sponsored job could be to rap, or dance traditional afro-cuban dances.  Because of the focus on tourism, your state-sponsored job could be walking around Habana Vieja dressed in all white, chomping on a giant cigar, taking pictures with everybody.  Basically, your job as a good revolutionary could be to hussle gringos.

These are all just bits and pieces of every day life that don’t fit in anywhere else, and stuff that doesn’t make sense to me, put here in an attempt to fill in the holes of my portrait of Cuba.

Befuddled, or Tiny Violin Day

There was a point when I felt like my life path was always waiting for me, like that mini-game with digging for treasure in Mario Party, and I was lucky enough to be uncovering what was always there.  With Arabic, the Egypt trip and working at Amnesty, I felt confident in my direction, if not my skills.  I had a great answer anytime someone asked what I was up to, and in my daily life I felt like I was stretching, learning and adding to the conversation.

Then I came home and Andrew and I broke up.  I started working and trying to recover from losing not only Andrew but some of my closest friends.  I moved in with some strangers, and tried (and failed) to get back to where I used to be with my freshman year friends, and the great new people they had acquired in the meantime.  That of course only served to remind me that they all live together and I lived with strangers.  UNA was a constant source of negativity, although many would argue that I was that source.  And finally, I got a poor review from Amnesty that I wasn’t expecting at all.

That leaves a lot of things up in the air, like human rights and nonprofit as a career choice, as well as the basic people I spend my time with.

I don’t know what I’m going to do with where I live, whether I go on coop in the fall or spring, traveling, or even writing this blog.  I had wanted to try for an international coop at the Arab League this spring, but now I’m questioning my wherewithal to live alone in Cairo for six months.  I don’t know if my tutoring job is waiting for me, though it probably is, and I have no idea what to do about UNA.  I miss the debate and the camaraderie (when it was there), but I don’t know if there’s a place for me there anymore.  Even if there is a place, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  For a long time people on both sides of the aisle have been wondering why I’m wasting my time, but I have yet to determine if that premise is true.

So that’s where I am today.  It’s a grey day in Cuba and I’m 21 years old and I have no clue what I’m doing with my life, or even with my time here.  It’s not pretty, succinct or resolved; it’s just today.

Inspiration: here, via here, Mariseca y les Aldeanos

Religion: a Smorgasbord

Implements of a Babalao, which is someone in the Ifa tradition (part of Santeria). This belongs to Juan Mesa, a friend, guest lecturer and CASA employee

There is no state religion here, and while there was a long stretch of time after the Revolution when religion had to be underground, that is no longer the case.

Most people here are religious, in some way or another.  Here, though, it’s like a plate at a buffet.  You take what you want from each station, and it all blends together.  No one sees these as contradictory or problematic, although Pope JPII did refuse to meet with any Santeros when he came here.

A Santeria altar at Juan Mesa’s house. This belongs to both he and his wife, who are both santeros. The altar is taller than either of them.

Most people are Catholic to some extent (and yes, you can be varying degrees of Catholic, and you can practice Regla with even more varying degrees), but they also tend to add other things.  There’s a decent sized Jewish population as well.  Many add onto that Santeria, which is the most prevalent religion here.

There are different levels of involvement with Santeria, also known as Regla de Ocha.  You can go to a padrino and have your shells read if you are curious or have a particular problem you want assistance or consejo on.  You can also start to get your collares, or necklaces, for the varying orichas.  You can attend cajones or tambores or several other religious ceremonies.  I’ve done several of these things, but I’m not a santera, an initiate of Santeria.  That would involve many more collares, receiving the guerreros (warriors), and a week-long initiation rite.

A great visual of Cuba: Juan Mesa wears beads from a Santeria ceremony on the same hand as a gold crucifix ring.

Everyone here expresses a similar idea: even if you don’t believe in Regla, you respect it.  Why?  “Becuase I’ve seen things I can’t explain.”  Things like what I’ve seen, when a  man gets glassy-eyed and is possessed by a female oricha, and comes up to you for a hug.  Or when my Changó beads broke when I went into a Catholic church that had oricha altars in it, after Elleguá told me not to go near Santeria anymore.

Abakuá paraphanalia, including the costume of the Irime, a ritual dancer

Santeria is the most prevalent, but there’s also Regla de Palo (sometimes just Palo) and AbakuáAbakuá is just for men, and is sort of like a Masonic lodge with African roots and more drumming.  It’s a secret society that often mixes in Regla, Masonry, Christianity and anything else they can think of.  Palo is like Santeria but a little more intense, a little more scary, because paleros (practitioners of Palo) actually have the spirit of a dead person who works for them.  They can do good or ill, and they do it only for that palero.  There’s also Ifá, which is just a different tradition within Santeria.  It considers different orichas to be the most important, involves more work and another initiation, and is often seen as being better/having a more accurate divination process than Regla alone. Vódou comes from Haiti and can be found in Oriente, and is seen as similar to Ocha.  Some consider it “darker,” but I don’t know enough about it yet to say.

I’m going to get into my various experiences with Santeria more soon, as well as the ins and outs of Santeria specifically since it’s what I’ve had the most exposure to and will be discussing the most.  I just wanted to dispell some myths and quiet some question you may have had on the subject of religion in Cuba.

La gente

Carla and Andy dance while Jose and Reuben look on
Abby y Diana, my roommates, at a recent baseball game
Alex y Govani at a baseball game
A local man exercises, al lado de la Malecon
Herardo, our tour guide from CASA, goes on a test run on Miles' board
Aliesha gets some unwanted attention in Matanzas
This girl is all business
Brittan and a local musician rock out
This man's picture is in every guide book ever written about Cuba


Los Industriales de la Habana contre Guantanamo

It felt so good to be out in the sunshine, watching baseball.  My previous sporting events here included the surreal super bowl and watching the Beanpot via twitter updates and Jared’s blog.  I went to a few games last week, on against the atrocious Guatemala team and one against Santiago, which is like the Sox/Yankees match up of Cuban provincial baseball.  I saw a few Sosa jerseys, and remarkably few Yankees hats.

I sat next to Reuben, which was useful because he could answer all my questions.  I think he got a little annoyed at how often I wanted to know if something was the same as in los EEUU, but he obliged.  I was told that they sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame and have a seventh inning stretch, but I never saw it.  They play like the AL, although pitchers do bat at the amateur level.  We even got to see the slaughter rule invoked during the first game, rung in with a home run by Los Industriales.

The inexplicable mascot, "King Carlos III"

Yes, that’s right, Havana’s team is called Los Industriales, which is perhaps the best name  ever for a socialist baseball team.  The city has three professional stadiums–one for the Industriales, one for the national team, and the third no one particularly explained.  I was told that the players, though not earning US-standard salaries, still do quite well.  They’re also rewarded with material goods, like cares (which few Cubans own) and nice homes,  their very own Industriales building.

There are no chairs in the stadium, just wide, cement steps that everyone sits on.  Up the next level of the stadium the steps have wooden slats bolted above them like benches, which is where we sat.  Upon second visit, there appear to be blue wrought iron patio chairs along the 1st and 3rd base line, but only about four rows of them.  No word on how you get to sit there, since it’s separated by security and the rest of the seating is a free for all.

The scoreboard, complete with adjacent propaganda. The Industriales building is the blue one in the background with the white "I" on it.

There’s a scoreboard, but they don’t always use it in order to save electricity.  Even when they do, it’s often too sunny to read.  Everyone just remembers the score and inning, and they all know the names of all the players.  Occasionally the announcer declares something as audibly as a driver on the T, but not very often.

There is no alcohol because everyone is too poor (or too cheap? I couldn’t quite tell which one Reuben meant) to buy it.  The stadium loses money when it buys alcohol because everyone just brings rum in water bottles and then buys TuKola.

Just some minor mid-game repairs

The most popular noisemaker was some sort of bike pump jerry-rigged to two air horns.  Delightful.  The games take place in the afternoon to save money on lighting the field.  They are shown on tv later that night.  Only in Cuba could that work.  I suppose wtih no twitter and little internet acces and few cell phones, its much easier.  Doesn’t hurt that the news stations are simply instructed not to report on the games until after they happen, and they oblige.  No one was in the outfield seats, trying to catch ho-merunz, at least until the Santiago game.

Someone selling "food" at the game. I couldn't help but be reminded of the Force uniforms.

Perhaps the strangest thing of all occurred when a Guantanamo player committed an error.  Suddenly, and in rather perfect unison for a crowd of that size, everyone started doing the Cuban hand-snappy thing and chanting “Palestinos! Palestinos!”  I looked to Reuben to verify that I was hearing what I thought I was.  It’s by no means a functioning metaphor, but the basic idea is that los Orientales, people from the East, move to Habana and swarm it, often living undocumented in ramshackle huts.  They are seen by many Habanaros as a loathsome trouble of useless country bumpkins.  There roving, unwanted nature is thus likened to the Palestinians.  Of course, I would argue that Palestinians are trying to get home, not to someone else’s city, and also that the Orientales are just trying to escape an area of their country with almost no economic prosperity, but those two facts have little bearing on baseball, apparently.

Despite the lack of beer and peanuts, and the bizarre ethnic parallels that are reminiscent of some European soccer squabbles (the “Jews,” anyone?)  both games were great, and I plan to take in a few more soon.  At 3 CUC for a foreigner and a peso for a student, it’s quite a steal to watch some of the best players in the world.

And yes, they do kick the ass of any American team that dares to enter Estadio Latinoamericano.

¿Después de la Victoria? Siempre.

Every Cuban we meet tells us they’re going to America.  They say they will come visit, they’re excited for their freedom.  As one young man told me, the price of my happiness is an American passport.  But what then?  They tell me, in America, no one will give them trouble just for being black. They tell me they will always have enough food to eat, and their children will get to drink as much milk as they need.  They will be able to find a good job and make money, as long as they work hard. 

Their naïve hope reminds me of just how far our country has left to come.

There is such an intense focus on this goal for so many people here.  For most of them, it’s America.  For others, it’s somewhere in Europe.  People talk about it, plan for it, take English lessons, enter lotteries and apply for scholarships.  I worry for a lot of the Cubans we meet here.  They tell me how everything will be fine once they go to America.

But what about when you get what you’ve always wanted, whether that’s a revolution, an American passport or your freedom?  Will you be like the slave in La Última Cena, and sit back down with the master because you’ve been so thoroughly institutionalized that you don’t know what else to do?  Or will you be like Fidel, and let in tourism and cozy up to the USSR because in politics you need more than just ideals, and you simply can’t see another way to keep everyone fed and happy?

What do you do with yourself, with your country, once you get everything you’ve always wanted?


Everyone is so frank with their nicknames here, which are more like blunt descriptors.  Every guy with Asian heritage is Chino, which is kind of confusing.  We often hear people called Gordo, or fatty, and men call out to women to call them Gordita, which they think is a compliment.

At this point, I should explain that a lot of terms that sound un-pc and racially not okay to American ears are not at all negative here.  Negro is an adjective, not an insult, and mulatto is the same way.  Chino is the correct term for a Chinese person, they just use those terms with a greater familiarity and frequency than we do.

Beyond that, all of our names have changed a bit.  Brittan is Bree-ton, Justin is who-steen, Abby is usually Awee, Dan became Danielle, Diana is Dee-ahna, and Aliesha becomes Alicia or Alish.  Brittan is also Músico, and Aliesha is called la mulatta, much to her chagrin.  She’s not actually mulatta, but there are basically no people here who are just black, so if you’re anything other than white or Chino, you must be a mulatto.

No one has any problems pronouncing Kristina Escalona.

I’ve become Dell-ee-uh, which I expected.  Entertainingly, the Americans have all taken to calling me this as well.  Some of them I think are just used to hearing me called that, the way I pronounce Diana the Cuban way out of habit and affection.  Many of the Michigan kids, though, honestly think that’s the correct way to pronounce my name.

Foto Friday: Propaganda

I know I’m a day late, but cut me some slack–there was an earthquake and now there are 15-25 mph winds, and the Malecón is flooded.  No one’s injured or worried or anything, it just means our internet is extra-slow.  So here it is, the second installment and already we have a Foto Saturday.

Outside of a gas station (“your friend, 24 hours a day,” “black gold”) there is a bust of Jose Marti so big I can see it from the bus.  The most basic, obvious form of propaganda here is the ubiquitous billboard.  They are used for no other purpose, and are actually quite compelling.  Some are just text, while others are giant, childlike drawings.

Here’s a sampling of some of my faves from around town.

My question: who are these aimed at?  Who are they actually convincing?

There are tons more, but I usually see them out of a bus window.  There will be plenty more in the future.  Unfortunately, I’m so used to it that upon further scrutiny I don’t actually have pictures of many of my favorite slogans.

A man sits across the street from an elementary school.
A typical storefront sign. Many of the decorations from the 50th anniversary last January 1 remain, however.
Brittan and Aliesha with a Che flag in the Hotel Nacional, which used to be owned by the mob
"For peace and friendship"
Hasta la victoria siempre!
Some campaneros stroll past a large version of a ubiquitous logo

There’s actually a conscious effort in Cuba not to deify the living, which surprises some.  Jose Martí is everywhere, usually in statue form.  Che figures heavily in the billboards and murals.  I’ve only found one mention of Raúl, and unfortunately it was pitch black and the picture came out terrible no matter what I tried.  Fidel is around, but not as much as you’d think.  There’s a ton more of the propaganda that’s great, but it’s hard to get good pictures.  I’m fairly fascinated by it, so there will definitely be more.  And some of the best pictures are being save for later, like the US Special Interests Section.  All you UNA, polisci kids would be all a-quiver to see it, so stay tuned.