"¿Como te llamas?"
"Aquí decimos Victoria."
"No es mi nombre."
"What's your name?"
"Here we'd say Victoria."
"That's not my name."
For a group of Americans living in Havana, Cuba for four months, this is not an infrequent interaction. My friend Victoire, with her French name, has unfortunately become a prime example of the language barrier with which we are currently living. While we all speak Spanish, there's a constant disconnect; "Spanish" encompasses an enormous range of accents and dialects, cultures and regional influences. We speak some Spanish. We are learning to understand and speak Cuban Spanish. But it is difficult to accept that a name - something that you'd think might be a constant, a fixed point to hold onto in a transition as turbulent as this one - can be so easily dismissed.
"Buenas noches, beautiful girls."
"¿De donde eres?"
"¿Quieres novio Cubano?"
"Lindas, lindas, ¿donde van?"
"Good night, beautiful girls."
"Where are you from?"
"You want a Cuban boyfriend?"
"Beautiful girls, where are you going?"
Walking around the streets of Havana, names are sometimes foregone entirely in favor of a different sort of labeling. Catcalls follow anyone who looks vaguely female and vaguely foreign. Cuban culture involves a heavy emphasis on a particular idea of masculinity, which often translates into an objectification of women that is expressed quite vocally - something to which few of us on this program are accustomed. Foreigners are especially singled out for this treatment. A part of me wants to think they're just being nice, giving compliments. A part of me wants to throw something against a wall.
But even as we are labeled - linda, extranjera, mujer - we also represent an enormously privileged group. Today, the average salary in Cuba hovers around 20 USD per month (1). This means that plane tickets to Havana cost, at the least, ten times what the average person makes in a month here. The fact that we have the privilege to be here at all, to spend our time exploring and being taught, differentiates us from the world we are in. We are students, residents even, but we are tourists. We are in someone else's space. We are here to learn, not to take. This country is not ours.
Even labeling the island as "Spanish-speaking" blots out an entire history of Indigenous and Afro-Cuban heritage. Cuban culture is a fascinating mix of tradition and modernity, rebellion and compliance. At the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, the walls are lined with snapshots of cultural history, from celebrations of indigenous communities to the destruction brought by the Spaniards to the wave of national pride projected and encouraged by the Revolution. Havana itself is a living testament to this multivalence. Wandering through some of the neighborhoods in the city, you might stumble across a Santeria ceremony or an alleyway painted in bright murals and comprised of art studios, filled with people singing and laughing and dancing. In one such place, a tiny room flooded with natural light, walls painted in bright reds and golds, an artist sat motionless in a chair while one of his students spoke to us about the artwork and the culture in Cuba. "You are welcome here," he said in English. "Come here to learn, but do not try to understand."
The Revolution is everywhere: a hand painted sign in a shop window reads "la revolución es invencible." Murals on every street corner declare "más unidos y combativos…por la unidad de mi barrio, seguimos en combate…defendiendo el socialismo…en cada barrio revolucion." Quotes from Fidel and Raul Castro spill across city blocks, reaffirming the struggles of the Cuban people for equality. Outside the city, billboards along the highway condemn the US blockade and celebrate anniversaries of the Revolution. And, in the Plaza de la Revolución, the bearded image of Fidel ("vas bien Fidel") and the immediately recognizable face of Che fill the skyline, five stories tall, the Cuban flag just a few feet away next to the words "hasta la victoria siempre." Until the final victory.
Yet the Cuban Revolution and its effects are too complicated to be defined by the idea of an absolute victory. The country has changed a good deal even since the crisis of the 1990s after the fall of the USSR, which left people homeless and starving. Today, there is free universal healthcare. There is a ration system that seems to ensure that people have access to food. University is free for Cuban citizens. While pickpocketing and crime still exist, they are vastly less common than in many European cities. Art flourishes in Havana - jazz clubs, modern dance troupes, ballets, museums, studios, theaters. Many of these are subsidized by the government and therefore extremely low in price and affordable for a good percentage of the public.
Despite all this, there remains a visible gap between what the Revolution is and what it wants to be. The Revolution preaches equality; while the average monthly salary in Cuba is equivalent to about two and a half hours at US minimum wage, state officials drive around in Mercedes. Before-and-after photos of buildings in tourist areas display the beautification projects undertaken by the government; in many of the same neighborhoods, people live in broken-down rooms or in unmaintained and overpopulated apartment buildings that are liable to collapse. Because of the Revolution, college and higher-level education is free, but doctors often make more money driving taxis than they do practicing medicine. The Revolution says that racism in Cuba does not exist. The Revolution has established an idea of victoria that is simultaneously undefined and unreachable.
It was at the Plaza de la Revolución that I found myself at six in the morning on September 20th, along with a significant portion of the city of Havana and a good contingent of foreigners, to attend a mass given by Pope Francis. Me and a group of American students on my program had straggled, bleary-eyed, out of our apartments just before five in the morning and begun the long walk across the city to the Plaza. The morning was heavy with humidity. We followed the streetlights and each other and the policemen directing traffic up the hill in the sticky darkness as the city yielded up more and more people - wanderers like ourselves, all streaming towards the same location, and then more groups, and buses filled with senior citizens, and nuns in their habits talking excitedly among themselves. We reached the square just after six, the sun not yet risen, the sky dripping indigo across the grey cement faces of the buildings, the backlit images of Che and Fidel watching serenely over the growing crowd. We sat on the ground, heads on each others' shoulders or resting on knees. The sky was inky, the light of the rising sun slowly diluting the color: a transparent stain. I closed my eyes for a minute and when I opened them again the world was almost totally devoid of color, as if dust had been smeared across the horizon, grey stone and cement and haze fading into one another until my gaze caught the deep scarlet of the Cuban flag next to Che's distant eyes and suddenly the grey was no longer grey but the most delicate smoky blue, and then I could see bright swatches of color across the crowd - flags from other countries - the greens and reds and golds and blues of Spain and Nicaragua and Venezuela and Argentina and Brazil, and then the sun flung itself from behind a building and bled pink and orange light across the sky, and the day began. There was a surreal quality to the mass. Organ music rippled across the crowd and broke over the rigid concrete buildings. People murmured along with the words being spoken over the loudspeaker, a gentle chorus of Spanish spoken in all different accents. And over the whole scene, in my head inseparable from the vitality radiating from the crowd, the watchful eyes of Che.
To accept something exactly as is - no expectations or judgements - is difficult. My challenge here has been accepting that all these contradictions exist as part of the same society. Places, like people, are three-dimensional; they are contradictory, temperamental, vibrant and confusing. Cuba is very much alive, and it is changing in ways that we as Americans do not have the right to judge as better or worse. It is turbulent, it is colorful, and it is beautiful.
(1) Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas, Cuba