Originally published in the Summer 2017 MLA Newsletter
As I stood near the Hotel Inglaterra on the Parque Central in Havana in early March, I was consciously occupying Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s vantage point as represented by the cover image of La Habana para un infante difunto. It shows a photographer reclining against a lamppost with his old-fashioned camera, ready to snap pictures of tourists and locals, a custom I saw repeated on my visit nearly four decades after Cabrera Infante’s work was published (“Photo, lady?”). My knowledge of Cuba had come through literature, history, art, and scholarly writing, and I was eager to put my feet on Cuban soil now that travel to the country had been eased.
Little in my theoretical training prepared me for the lived realities of contemporary Cuba. I expected Havana to be a mix of beautifully restored buildings and crumbling colonial-style ruins, and I was not disappointed. I had not imagined Centro Habana’s stray dogs and cats scavenging for food in the roads, where pedestrians walked because the rubble-filled sidewalks were often impassable. I knew that daily life presented major challenges for Cubans, who have lived with the United States embargo for over half a century and have endured the Special Period following the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly two decades ago. Seeing the store shelves empty of basic goods brought home to me what scarcity means on a daily basis. Watching Cubans compete for my peso convertible—the currency that can purchase household goods, a restaurant meal, or an airline ticket, if authorization to leave the country can be granted—made me feel constantly solicited.
Everyone knew that I was a foreigner, even though I speak Spanish fluently and do not look the blond gringa type. People asked, “Where you from, lady?” as I passed by. In situations where I had to give an answer, I didn’t always say “the United States,” mostly because of the legacy of my country’s actions toward Cuba since the nineteenth century. My spoken Spanish links me to the madre patria of Spain, but I quickly inflected the mother tongue with a Caribbean accent and, Canadian dollars in hand (to avoid the 10% penalty levied on US dollars), passed as some hybrid (North) American. Vaya gringada.
It’s a particularly potent time to reflect on what it means to be an American (read: citizen of the United States). The Cubans with whom I spoke were eager to talk about “Troomp” and seemed well aware of many aspects of American culture, knowledge gained through the weekly download of the underground el paquete, delivered by hand on a flash drive to anyone with the convertible pesos to pay for it. The guard in the museum of Cuban art asked me if we had paintings like the ones by Wifredo Lam in the United States, and she quickly moved to the question of how much my airline ticket cost, noting many Cubans would like to leave the country. I didn’t anticipate such openness to the United States. Yet the positive attitude makes sense, given the age of these Cubans (the revolution is all they’ve known) and the cultural influence of American media, consumer goods, and even food.
Cubans talked to me with dismay (which I share) about the wall between Mexico and the United States that Trump has threatened to build and the ban against citizens from majority-Muslim nations. The Modern Language Association has communicated a collective sense of outrage against immigration policies that violate human dignity and opposed the drastic cuts in the 2018 federal budget that would eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Endowment for the Arts, and other cultural and educational programs. Cuba is a country in which prominent writers like Nicolás Guillén and Miguel Barnet have participated actively in the intellectual and political life of the nation. It is true that they must align themselves politically with the regime to play such a role, something that writers like Cabrera Infante ultimately refused to do. Yet, it should be noted, intellectual freedom in Cuba was a fraught issue long before the 1959 revolution; for example, the United States–backed dictator Gerardo Machado had the writer Alejo Carpentier arrested in 1927 for subversion and shut down the university in 1930 in the face of student protests.
And what of the writers, historians, literary scholars, artists, poets, and other practitioners in the United States, with its vast material riches and tradition of infrequent government interference in cultural production, especially in the modern era? The United States government offers relatively little economic support to the humanities community. Less than 1/21,000th of the federal budget goes to fund the NEH annually, an amount that is barely more per capita than the cost of a postage stamp. The NEH might be seen as the forgotten research and education outreach institution in Washington: it represents less than one percent of the federal budget for scientific research and less than one tenth of one percent of the federal research-and-development budget. In the current political climate, in which public defunding and privatization are rapidly becoming the norm, the NEH, even costing the minuscule amount that it does, is endangered. The federal budget functions as a mechanism for setting policy, and by eliminating funding for the NEH, we as a nation would be saying that the humanities don’t rank at all among our priorities. This sorry state of affairs is certainly not as dire as government censorship and persecution of writers in Cuba like Reinaldo Arenas, but make no mistake: it constitutes neglect and ostracism of our intellectual heritage. It calls for “survival American,” a continual public discourse of resistance and opposition to the threats to our humanistic work that emanate from our government.
In Cabrera Infante’s first novel, Tres tristes tigres, the interplay between Spanish and English constitutes a major component of the pleasure that the work offers to readers who know both Spanish and a fair amount of conversational English and American popular culture. In the section “Los visitantes,” the story of a cane is purportedly told and retold by Mr. and Mrs. Campbell, then corrected by Rine Leal. The mistranslations from English to Spanish and vice versa give the text its nonsensical quality, but the reader’s ability to read between languages rescues it from unintelligibility. Mrs. Campbell, on arriving in Havana for a weekend, supposedly observed to her husband, “¡Miel, éste es el Trópico!” (186). In Spanish, miel (“honey”) does not connote endearment, and the oral stress on the definite article, unlike in English, fails to transmit emphasis (the stress would fall on the noun) and thus sounds rather silly. I realized I was at moments seeing Havana through the language of Cabrera Infante. I observed myself as the American who, despite proficiency in the common Spanish language that allows me to travel to so many countries and be understood and despite having studied so much about Cuba for decades, knew so little on the ground that I might as well have uttered “¡Miel, éste es el Trópico!” myself. And that is because humanities learning always starts anew. Survival of the humanities requires continual personal, societal, and governmental commitment and investment. The America that makes me proud upholds and supports its writers, thinkers, artists, and creators, and it’s an America well worth fighting for.
Cabrera Infante, Guillermo. Tres tristes tigres. Seix Barral, 1970.
Read earlier columns in my “survival” series: “Survival Spanish” (Summer 2007), “‘Tan cerca de Dios’: Survival Poqomchi” (Spring 2008), “Return of the Pensative Daughter: Survival English” (Spring 2011), and “Tamales for Dollars: Survival Guatemalan” (Spring 2013).