Before I left for Cuba, my grandmother reminded me: “No hay nada más parecido a un boricua que un cubano.” It’s an idea that has held a lot of weight in my family over the years. When my grandparents moved the family to Park Slope, Brooklyn decades ago they were just ahead of a big wave of Puerto Ricans who would be moving down from Williamsburg in the years that followed. At the time, it was a working-class neighborhood of Irish and Italians, with a couple of Cubans scattered about for good measure.
In the absence of an established Puerto Rican community, my family gravitated naturally toward the Cubans. Like many Boricuas of their generation, my grandmother was an espiritista and my grandfather a mambero who frequented the casinos and nightclubs that gave the world Mongo Santamaría and Tito Puente. Their cultures were deeply interwoven, and they looked to the Cubans with a mix of familiarity and admiration, as one looks upon an older sibling. They learned their slang, picked up their idiosyncrasies. My grandmother went so far as to visit the island in the early nineties on a religious pilgrimage.
I suppose I was following in their footsteps. I had inherited a love of Cuban music, a fascination with Cuban folklore, and in my own adolescent, revolutionary zeal I had discovered a passion for Cuban cinema. At some point in my undergraduate years I got it in my head that I wanted to go to film school on the island. I didn’t know how – hell, I didn’t even know if there was a film school in Cuba, but sure enough, a few short years later I was bidding farewell to friends and family as I prepared for a three year stint at Cuba’s Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión.
Most Boricuas are familiar with the refrain, “Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas.” It’s a phrase evoked in speeches, radio hits and public relations engagements year after year, often misattributed to some salsero or other. In fact, it was written in the late 19th-century by radical Puerto Rican poetess, Lola Rodríguez de Tió. Much like her contemporaries, Ramon Emeterio Betances and José Martí, Rodríguez de Tió subscribed to the nascent philosophy of Antillanismo, which celebrated a common culture and a common revolutionary destiny for both Cuba and Puerto Rico.
It was a logical project given that the two islands were the last Spanish colonial holdings in the Americas. In reality, Puerto Rico had been much more closely tied with Santo Domingo during the colonial period, and the revolutionary conditions of each island were vastly dissimilar. Nevertheless, the idea took root – Puerto Ricans and Cubans worked side-by-side on revolutionary committees in New York and created national flags to reflect their common identity. Our intellectuals traveled constantly to, and sometimes settled in Cuba (as was the case with Rodríguez de Tió); and, when the Cuban committee managed to catch the ear of Assistant Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, the Puerto Ricans stepped in to humbly request that he consider liberating our island as well. Whoops.
Be that as it may, from then on our identities were forever bound up with one another – a connection only solidified by the rise of mass media and the vibrant cultural dialogue that followed in its wake. Yet, for all our fraternal good feelings, our destinies took radically different paths.
The Cuba of 2014 is a place unlike any other. I’ve always found it revealing that, over the years, Cubans have developed a word – one single word for everyone who’s not Cuban; “Yuma”. It’s an interesting window into the psychology of a people who for decades have been isolated from global society, given cruel, fleeting glimpses into life outside by an interminable parade of tourists and pirated American TV shows. Cubans take a defensive posture toward life, its them versus the world, and perhaps rightfully so.
Tourists come and go; German, Canadian, Mexican, Panamanian. They fill their SD cards with photos of crumbling walls and shoeless children playing on the street. They smoke their habanos and dance in sanitized, disney-esque callejones with everyday folks who play to their exoticizing fantasies in hopes of scoring a few bucks. On the ground, dysfunction reigns. Every aspect of daily life is permeated by it. It’s not something easily reducible to words like ‘poverty’ or ‘scarcity’ – though that’s all part of it.
In Cuba, existence is an incessant, droning litany of frustrations, and in order to adapt and survive, Cubans have developed a whole parallel system of social intercourse. It’s invisible: communicated through coded words, winks and unspoken pacts. There’s a sense of common struggle, an understanding that their survival hinges upon cooperation and solidarity in spite of a world that seems at every turn to conspire against them. If Puerto Ricans have a special relationship with the verb bregar, for Cubans it’s resolver. Todo se resuelve – a revelatory refrain for a people who see life as a series of problems to be resolved.
Who, then, could really understand what it means to be Cuban? Nothing is as it seems on the surface, and the deeper you penetrate, the more surreal and incomprehensible their world becomes. As a Yuma you are at best a well-meaning interloper; at worst a walking dollar sign. So what of our common destinies? What of this great bird of which we are the two wings?
“Mark Anthony!”, “Wisin y Yandel!” These are the exclamations with which any Boricua will invariably be greeted in Cuba. Cubans love playing the ‘origins’ game. They’ll spot you on the street, stake you out, then strike with a well rehearsed inquiry: “¡Oye, tú! ¿Dominicano? ¿Venezolano?” Each country of origin carries its own conversational script: Baseball Players, Hugo Chávez, lo que sea. Truth is, most of these 20 questions-types are just hustlers looking for a way in. But something special happens when you say you’re Boricua. There’s a sparkle in the eyes and a sincerity in the grin. As one Cuban I ran into on the street once told me, with fierce pride in his voice, “Anyone whose flag looks so much like mine is my brother.”
The Antillanista philosophy is still a cornerstone of their public school education. José Martí is, as they say, El Apóstol, and his words are cited like passages from the Old Testament. Puerto Rico’s struggle for independence, they are taught, is the same as Cuba’s, and our common project is as yet incomplete. If there is an official government policy toward Puerto Rico, it would have to be cariñismo – and the sentiment is deep and sincere.
The Cuban people take a slightly different stance. There is a sense of shared culture, of some deep existential link, but I always felt something else – a melancholy and desperation underlying their love for Puerto Rican music and their insatiable curiosity about Puerto Rican life. After several months, I finally heard it articulated in a tone of bitter resignation: “Puerto Rico is what Cuba would have been had all this never happened.” Then I heard it again, and again. To many Cubans, I realized, the idea of Puerto Rico is a sort of nostalgia for what could have been, for a past that was robbed from them; a parallel universe where everything worked out for the best. “Son dos alas, pero una se quedó coja,” is the running joke, one generally accompanied by an ironic smile tinged with a deep undercurrent of regret.
Of course, I always felt the obligation to clarify, to bring this idealized construction of Puerto Rico as ‘lo que pudo haber sido’ down to the very urgent reality of economic collapse, corruption, narcotráfico and endemic violence. I would mention that nearly the whole of my extended family is leaving the island en-masse as part of this new exodus, that the island’s homicide rate is staggering, that for decades progress has been measured in flat screen TVs and automobiles rather than more pressing human or spiritual necessities.
Then I would turn it around and reformulate the joke: son dos alas, pero una se quedó coja y la otra está quebrada. Most would sigh in agreement and begrudgingly acknowledge at least some positive things about their country. To me, it became ever clearer that Cuba and Puerto Rico are islands that have tended toward different extremes in response to the same crippling conditions: a legacy of feudal colonialism and the constant encroachments of a powerful, overbearing neighbor with an insatiable appetite. We are brothers who chose different paths and, over half a century later, stumbled upon dead ends.
Today, the realities of our people are varied and deeply complex, but I suppose all that’s left to do now is take out the machete and abrir camino. Maybe along the way we can come closer once again and remember that, for all our differences, family is who you turn to when there’s nowhere else to go.