A requiem for Havana: A Tale of Two Cities

By Cuban American Alexis Romay at World Literature Today:

A Tale of Two Cities

Havana just turned five hundred. The beautiful Havana: the city of my birth, the city of my upbringing, the city of my youth, the city of my fears, the city I fled, the city that simultaneously told me, taught me, that all men (and women, but don’t push it) were equal, and to be thankful to the revolution because under the previous dictatorship someone like me would not have been considered a person. The city where I learned that someone like me meant a citizen with characteristics and that both euphemisms were used to refer to people of color. The city where I was racially profiled daily by policemen (yes, they were all men) who were my skin tone or darker. The city where I was afraid of being shot for the crime of living while brown in a country that had, in theory, eradicated racism.

The city that made itself indistinguishable from its government. The city where I learned doublespeak. The city where I mastered the intricacies of body language. The city where I learned the importance of subtext. The city where domestic violence is normalized. The city where I learned to love. The city where I learned that love was acceptable as long as it didn’t cross racial lines.

The city where Celia Cruz was forbidden by its military junta. The city where I couldn’t read the writings of Guillermo Cabrera Infante because his books were banned. The city that hid I Love Lucy from its natural audience. The city that tried to erase all accomplishments of Cubans living abroad because they (now, we) were considered counterrevolutionaries. The city where this text could not be published in my youth or now. The city where all its inhabitants have the right to say that they viscerally hate the president . . . of the United States of America. The city where the paper of record, Granma, “the official publication of the Cuban Communist Party,” published racial epithets to refer to the previous president of the United States of America. The city that taught me—that taught you—to call a dictatorship a revolution.

The city that taught me the meaning of hate. The city that taught me (how) to hate. The city in which I was instructed to specifically hate my exiled family members who lived in the US, the very family that sent us money, food, vitamins, shoes, clothes; the very family without whom we could not have survived after the collapse of the Eastern Socialist bloc; the very family that we were not supposed to talk about; the very family that we were supposed to refer to as worms.

Oh, Havana, or what remains of the city that simultaneously told me that racism had been eradicated with the advent of the Castro dynasty and that it was not polite to talk about race.

The city that taught me that I was lesser than my white peers, that I had bad hair, that I had to marry a light-skinned person “to improve the race,” that white people who weren’t smart were “a waste of color and hair.” The city where my white friends told me how much they loved their racist grandparents and made a point of telling me how racist they (the grandparents) were. The city where the mother of a friend would look at her date’s gums to see if they were too dark; the city where I’d be told to cut my hair short so that it wouldn’t show my black ancestry.

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1 thought on “A requiem for Havana: A Tale of Two Cities”

  1. Oh, look! A perfect backdrop for another Rihanna photo shoot! Cue the fashion mags and the music video people! Is this decay picturesque or what? It all depends on how you spin it, or how you can USE it.

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