Can you look at me as a person and not a revolution?

As we plunge into what it means for the US to normalize relations with Cuba, I hope we will honor the complexity of the situation.

We are 2 million Cubans in the US, each one with a completely different tale of how, when and why we got here. About half that number were born in Cuba.

There are about 11 million people on the island. The population of Cuba in 1953 was about 5 million. If there are a million here and more elsewhere, that means at least 7 million people were born in Cuba since then.

Just as you had in Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are people on both sides of the equation who love the very same thing: the house, the apartment, the playground. One can visit the island and say, “oh this was my grandfather’s home, look his name is still engraved there.” And that’s important and valid. On the other side of that conversation is a totally innocent child who was born into a situation they had no control over and they too developed an attachment to those old plaster walls and that little patch of garden in the morning light.

The moral questions of whether property was abandoned, forcefully redistributed or rightly inherited vary case by case by case. Just as they did in Germany. And while we are still trying to figure out what happened in the 1930s, it may take a while to figure out what happened in the 1950s, case by case.

The Myth of Cuban Isolation

Last year when I was working on putting together an exhibition of Cuban art, someone I respect very much said to me: “I want to look at the artists on the island whose perspective have not been tainted by US influence.” I like this person very much so I tried to go with it.

It was deeply troubling to me though. I couldn’t shake it. I went to Cuba committed to staying neutral on that question.

Are Cubans really isolated?

Of course what I found were artists who have been remixing content for a long time. Contrary to isolation, there was a sophisticated consumption and questioning of global ideas.

Today I was speaking with Lydia after the DU lecture on Cuba about that question. Her response was: “WE are the ones that are isolated from Cuba, not Cuba from us.”

I thought it was a beautiful summary. I laughed to think of my uncle coming to visit the US in 1990 from Cuba and the labels in his pants read “made in Mexico” and his shirt read something like “made in Poland” and every piece of his clothes had been made somewhere else.

Canadians, Europeans, Africans, Asians—-countless people from many countries have visited Cuba these last decades. That artists hold a special, pure vision is a myth and a legacy of the 1950s Hollywood romanticization of Cuba.

My Cuban cousin asked me this question recently:
“Carmen, I don’t understand the fear people have of visiting Cuba. Isn’t it just like visiting Africa?” I laughed and replied: “Ariel, most people in the US don’t visit Africa either!!”

What’s in a name?

My parents emigrated from Cuba to Spain to the US. My grandparents were Cubans and Spaniards; I grew up in the United States from the time I was 9 months old.

I have two passports: American and Spanish. In my blue, US passport I am Carmen Garcia Wiedenhoeft. I left “Garcia” in there as a bridge after I took on my husband’s last name. In my burgundy, Spanish passport I am Carmen Teresa Garcia Marchante. It always strikes me how different the names are from one another: yet they’re both legally valid for me any time I want to exercise one. German colleagues seem to be the ones to most notice the dichotomy of “Carmen” and “Wiedenhoeft”: the stereotypical stormy Spanish temperament coupled with the cool German intellect.

Spain passed a law in 2007 called The Law of Historical Memory. For the first time in my lifetime, it allowed one to apply for Spanish citizenship without renouncing another citizenship (for me, US). This fact was pretty key as I’d never want to jeopardize my US citizenship, which was conferred on me as a 7-year-old child. I acquired my Spanish Nationality under that law in 2011 at age 39.

My guess is that the vast majority of men in the United States don’t think about the ramifications of their name as much as women do. The notion of “maiden name”, whether to change your name, and what to do with your name following divorce with kids seems a distinctly feminine issue.  In Spain, women don’t change their names upon marriage. That makes it easy to figure out your family history: you always know who the mother is even if there was question of the father throughout history!

Recognizing Justice Within Injustice

I had an interesting conversation with Kurt today. I have been afraid to speak up about some ideas I have because I fear they will be deemed to idealistic or utopian. His kind response was: “You need to share those ideas. They are fundamentally who you are. The people who would criticize you will either not be reading somebody like you anyway or it just won’t make an impact on them, and those that do care and do understand may have the resources to help you do something.”

I recognize that I have a pervasive fear of saying what I **really** think. After my trip to Cuba in March this year with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver it was abundantly clear to me that my parents, especially my mother,  had suffered severe post traumatic stress disorder after leaving her family in Cuba in the 1960s that none of us ever spoke of and the key component of that disorder was our internalizing as a family the message: “there are dangerous consequences of speaking up; better to stay quiet.”

Very literally, my father was arrested for speech. He was arrested for being friends with the young man who owned the printing press that had printed pamphlets for the youth group at the local, rural Catholic Church. It was not an anti-revolutionary pamphlet.  It was not something he actually did or said. Yet they were arrested and put before a firing squad.  Through the intervention of my mother’s college friend, who wrote on their behalf to testify he really was NOT the regional director of any movement, they were released. Still, the random imprisonment and threatened penalty, were enough to send shockwaves psychologically through all of us for decades.

Just last week, for the first time in my life, my mother told me the story of walking in that day on the police, the equivalent of the “gestapo” she called it, as they went to arrest her. My mother, hilariously to me because all her life she has been a very strong woman, said to them: “You cannot arrest me! My father doesn’t even know where I am!” Some decency, respect for women, respect for fathers, something intervened and she walked right out and went home. Upon arriving, my grandfather informed her they had already been there and collected all her letters with my father and ransacked her uncle’s home. I never heard any of these stories growing up. I just know that I can look back and see it’s taken people close to me in my own life to say “speak up!” before I’ll actually do it.

Once I came to terms with my own fear, I realized perhaps the biggest lesson here is that there were people who behaved justly on this day just as there were people who behaved unjustly.  While he should have never been arrested in the first place, there were people who behaved with justice and released him. That is why he is alive. I recognize that many others were not so lucky.

One of my brothers was upset with me for even going to Cuba in the first place. I studied Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution for this reason. I see that we are 11 million people who must find a way to deal with each other through justice one person at a time, recognizing that in “bad situations” there can be “good people” and that in what we perceive as “good” situations there can be bad behaviors too. I realize that to stop speaking as if nothing would happen for the absence of words, is the greater crime.

1/30/2015 note: When I first posted this, I titled it “Fear of Speaking Up” because FOR ME, I was moved to find that I myself had developed a fear of speaking up. What I was really interested in about this story, however, is the second half: the fact that in these complex situations like the Cuban Revolution we must recognize that there are behaviors that are “just” right alongside behaviors that are “unjust”. There is individual accountability, not just a big societal wave. That is true in every situation. To fail to acknowledge that is in itself unjust. Hence the new title.

The Lens

“I write because I believe in the power of what I have read.”

These are the words of Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian novelist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982, and who is considered one of the most important authors of the 20th century. These words were in his novella, Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004). Quite the title for a book by a 76-year-old man: reminding us not to be shy about our meanings.

The quote is poignant in the context of his lifetime of writing, raising awareness of literature and politics in Latin America as a novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist.

He stakes out the contours of our minds–how those contours come to be defined by what we read and absorb, and the lens through which we see it all. When he accepted his Nobel Prize, in his speech[i] he described the fantastic, supernatural lens the world has applied to Latin America for so long in her art, literature and politics, therein lying her cultural “solitude,” echoing his masterpiece, the novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” He recounted the fantastic tales of Magellan and so many others after him who described fanciful creatures. He goes on to question: “Why is the originality so readily granted us in literature so mistrustfully denied us in our difficult attempts at social change? Why think that the social justice sought by progressive Europeans for their own countries cannot also be a goal for Latin America, with different methods for dissimilar conditions?” He challenged his audience to consider the lens through which they see the world. It’s a pretty bold thing to do: to stand in front of the Nobel Committee in 1982 and say this. It is a question that has changed our cultural dialogue. Twenty years later, authors of the educational curriculum at every level would be calling for more understanding of non-western views, in which this was oddly lumped. While Marquez’s reality is far from our own, it is a very powerful example of how everyone creates a lens and how a lens can affect an entire body of people for a century.

Imagine your world without everything you’ve read. Now try to reflect for a moment on the lens you apply to it all.

[i] “Gabriel García Márquez – Nobel Lecture: The Solitude of Latin America”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 7 Sep 2013. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1982/marquez-lecture.html>