Recently, a good friend who happens to be a Cuban-born artist living in Miami wrote me an e-mail that ended with this sentence:
Looking forward de vernos en la Habana.
The e-mail was in Spanish with the exception of this one line which, in its simplicity, embodies many contradictions – linguistic, cultural, and political. When I first travelled to Cuba in 1999, I told very few people. It was controversial in Miami to travel to Cuba, and I wasn’t trying to make a political statement although I recognized the very act of going landed me to the left of an ideological line that bent far right. For me, it was a personal journey: I wanted to get to know the country of my father, a Cuban exile in Miami who I had met for the first time when I was twenty. My father was a distant, enigmatic figure, and I thought if I could understand where he came from, I would better understand him. That turned out to be untrue, but the reward was getting to know Cuba and its people – and in doing so, a little more about myself. What I learned is that to know a place, we must open ourselves up to its realities and nuances, and that hopefully, from this, we can gain self-awareness and new perspectives. In fact, my trips to Cuba inspired me to spend the next several years writing and eventually, publishing a memoir about travel, family, and identity.
The last trip I made to Cuba was in 2002 for a people-to-people style exchange between Cuban-Americans and our Cuban counterparts on the island. We were a group of writers, artists, economists, and other professionals sitting around a conference table for hours discussing culture, identity, and politics. The structure of the dialogues and the care with which they were organized created a secure place within which we could confide, argue, debate, and laugh. I made this trip with my friend, the photographer and curator, Elizabeth Cerejido, and for many years after, we talked about that experience and the impact it had on us. Now, I return to Cuba for the first time in thirteen years to observe and write about the Dialogues in Cuban Art project that Liz has envisioned and created. She has assembled a diverse group of Cuban-American artists who will participate in a series of exchanges and discussions with artists in Cuba. Later artists from Cuba will come to Miami to do the same. The hope is that meaningful conversations and artistic collaborations will emerge from these experiences.
It’s been almost twenty years since my first trip to Cuba; yet, I still travel and write about it with some trepidation. I am sensitive to the fact that some of my Cuban-American friends believe travel to Cuba supports a repressive regime and betrays their family members who gave up everything to start a new life in the United States. On the other hand more Cuban-Americans are traveling to Cuba than ever. What has changed and what hasn’t in Miami and Havana? This is one of the many questions I hope to explore in these blog posts. I am also excited and honored to write about the artists participating in this project all of whom are all traveling to Cuba for the first time.
Travel doesn’t offer up easy answers (and for Cuba that is doubly so); however, if we are lucky, travel helps us ask more interesting and nuanced questions. After years of reading, writing, and speaking Spanish, the Castellano equivalent to “looking forward” still eludes me. There’s something open-eyed, enthusiastic, and yes, perhaps gullible in the English version that I can never quite capture in Spanish. Con muchas ganas de verte en la Habana. Deseando verte en la Habana. The Spanish translations seem freighted with more emotion and sentimentalism than “looking forward.” I’m guessing my friend was also aware that her “Looking forward de vernos en la Habana” echoes “next year in Havana” – a well-known expression among exiles that is a painful reminder that the Cuban Revolution was supposed last briefly and that return to Cuba was imminent. Maybe enough time has passed in the history between the U.S. and Cuba that looking forward is best said and understood in two languages.