Havana and its Diasporas

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by: Zaira Zarza

“The portable city: Havana and its diasporas”

The diaspora space has been one of the most relevant cultural realms to interrogate the sense of Cubanidad and map contemporary notions of Cuban nationalism and ethnicity. Islanders, children of the early and late socialist stages of the Revolution, Cubans and particularly Havannians on and off the Island (the ones who left and the ones who stayed) have lived a complex ideological relation that was and still is affectively, economically and politically traversed by migrant experiences and subjectivities. Three recognized massive migratory waves have shaped these relations in the post-revolutionary period: One from 1959 to 1962 (from the success of the Cuban Revolution to the Missile Crisis), another one in 1980 known as the Mariel Boatlift and a third one in the early 1990s due to the fall of the Berlin wall, the Soviet bloc and its economic subsidies to Cuba. This latest exodus reached its peak with the so-called balseros crisis in 1994.

To the date, a wide range of literature has dealt with the Cuban diasporic experience. Just to comment on some of them in the realm of non-fiction, there is Antonio Benítez Rojo’s The repeating island whose in-depth reading of the Caribbean cultures reminds us about the multiple iterations of space and the legacy of colonialism that unites the region. More specifically, The portable island: Cubans at home in the world by Ruth Behar and Lucía M. Suárez imagines Cuba not as a country but as a geo-emotional condition, a haunted cosmos that is hard to let go. Also exploring the multiple intersectionalities between gender and migrancy Mirta Yáñez, Dick Cluster and Cindy Schuster edited the compilation Cubana: Contemporary Fiction by Cuban Women in 1998 to gather a number of texts by Cuban and Cuban American female writers and poets.

These and many other works have created grounds on which to build up contemporary realities and imaginaries around the diaspora. Cuba today lives a relative new access to mobility -by eliminating the state’s previously mandatory exit permit- and the new private economies have changed the approach of many citizens to the challenges and expectations of migration. Specifically it has made travelling an actual possibility for some and a total impracticality for others since it is still a form of agency and status construction that strengthens social difference between citizens. The social repercussions of these new translocal connections are yet to be researched on in its multilayered complexity.

Probably film and music are among the art forms where these social transformations have been more incorporated. Particularly in the United States there is a whole universe of cultural production specifically by Cuban Americans. Musicians such as Celia Cruz, Gloria Stefan and Arturo Sandoval from Havana, Willy Chirino from Pinar del Río and the santiaguera La Lupe developed most of their professional careers in the USA and have been central to the reinforcement of the Latino culture. Among the globally recognized second generation migrants maybe the most well-known celebrity today is recording Miami-based artist Pitbull but also actors Eva Mendes and Andy García.

León Ichaso has been maybe the most thought-provoking diasporic Cuban filmmaker of the pre-2000 “exile generation”. His first work was El súper co-directed with Orlando Jiménez Leal in 1979. Produced on a very low budget it portraits the life of a Cuban migrant family in New York during the blizzard of 1977. The main character is Roberto a superintendent who he refuses to learn English and lives in a basement in a large tenement on the Upper West Side. Ichaso also directed Azúcar amarga in 1996 and more recently Paraíso which explores generational and class divides within the Cuban exile community in southern Florida. In the realm of documentary Conducta impropia (Improper conduct) by Néstor Almendros and Orlando Jiménez Leal made in 1984 deals with the coercion of homosexuals and intellectuals in the early years of the Cuban Revolution while Nadie escuchaba (Nobody Listened/ 1988) by Jorge Ulloa and again Néstor Almendros is a critique of the controlling and absolutist policies and forms of repression of the Cuban government.

Then again, Cuban performers do not only live and work in the United States: Gema y Pavel and Havana Abierta lived for years in Madrid, the rap quartet Orishas profusely worked in France while hip hop artist Telmary Díaz has been working between Toronto and Havana in the last five years. An increasingly large community of Cuban actors is working nowadays in Colombia and other Latin American countries. Jorge Cao, César Évora, William Levy, Jacqueline Arenal, Mijail Mulkay, Bárbaro Marín, Taimí Alvariño, Caleb Casas, Laura Ramos, Rafael Lahera, Carlos Ever Fonseca are only a few of them. Also, the latest edition of the musical project Playing for change signals yet another transnational collaboration of Cuban musicians since it features a version of the globally-known song Guantanamera, played this time by over 75 Cubans in places as diverse as Tokyo, Barcelona and Santiago de Cuba.

Not only the particular migratory experience of the artists but also the theme of migration as a constant subject in Cuban music and cinema reveals in work such as Carlos Varela’s songs Foto de familia, Como los peces y Lucas y Lucía, Buena Fe’s Dos emigrantes, Charanga Habanera’s Gozando en La Habana, Frank Delgado’s classic La otra orilla and Willy Chirino’s Ya vienen llegando. The list can be enlarged not only the films made in Havana about Cuban diasporic experiences -Suite Habana (Fernando Pérez, 2001), Conducta (Ernesto Daranas, 2014) Juan de los muertos (Alejadro Brugués, 2012), the soon-to-be-released Vestido de novia by Marilyn Solaya- or films made by foreigner filmmakers about the same phenomenon such as Havana Blues (Benito Zambrano, 2004), Heirate mich (Cásate conmigo, Uli Gaulke and Jeannette Eggert, 2003) and Una noche (Lucy Mulloy, 2012) but also the dispersed but fascinating work made by young Cubans abroad.

Heidi Hassan directed Exile (2005) Miserere (2006) y Tierra roja (2007) in Geneva, Switzerland; Daniellis Hernández made Extravío (2007) in Manchester while Susana Barriga filmed The Illusion (2008) in London, England and Miguel Coyula finished Cucarachas rojas (2003) and Memorias del desarrollo (2010) from New York. Milena Almira and Lester Harbert made short films that emerged from the Kinomada worskshop in the Province of Quebec and Laimir Fano is working half way between Milwaukee and Miami where Magdiel Aspillaga and Malena Barrios are exploring new narratives of mobility and displacement. Many female filmmakers live and produce audiovisual works currently in Spain: Patricia Pérez, Jessica Rodríguez, Alejandra Aguirre, Bebé Pérez and Vanessa Batista just to mention a few and in Toronto Yanay Penalba and Rodrigo Barriuso.

The possibility of return was also exerted by filmmaker Miguel Coyula and musician Descemer Bueno who were in New York City for over a decade as Kelvis Ochoa did in Madrid before coming back to the Island. Latin Grammy double nominee Elaín Morales’s first steps as a musician were also in Havana before moving to Florida. He worked there for over ten years and then finally returning to his home country. Recently Isaac Delgado has alsojoined this long list of Cuban transnational musicians coming back home.

There are narrations where the diasporic experience is only tangentially articulated such as in Orages d’eté (Heidi Hassan, 2008) or most obvious representation of the process as it occurs in the Catalan documentary Balseros (Carles Bosch and Josep Maria Domènech, 2002) and in the Spanish-Cuban fiction 90 millas (Francisco Rodríguez Gordillo, 2005) Their audiovisual interventions are helping to unsettle the idea of the USA and particularly Miami as the only center of the Cuban community abroad. For decades the Cuban imaginary established “Miami as the utopian capital of the Cuban diaspora (…) [I]t confirms the city as a sort of parallel economic and cultural capital of the Island. In the Cuban cultural imaginary today, Miami is more important than Santiago de Cuba: it functions as a kind of sub-Havana.” (Fowler, 113)

Today the increasing eclecticism of routes by Cuban cultural producers in the world is truly impressive. Heidi Hassan, Patricia Pérez, Tamara Segura, Aram Vidal, Laimir Fano, Sebastian Barriuso and many others are young film and media artists whose paths have taken them far from the country and/or keep them going and coming back and forth between one shore and the other. They, we all bring a bit of Havana in our suitcases. It goes with us wherever we go and it is unpacked more or less according to where we are, what we have left behind and our own need to be accompanied by it or not.   

Behar, Ruth and Lucía M. Suárez (eds.). The portable island: Cubans at home in the world. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 

Benítez Rojo, Antonio. The repeating island: the Caribbean and the postmodern perspective. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.

Fowler, Víctor. “A Traveler’s Album: Variations on Cubanidad”, in boundary 2 29:3, 2002, 105-119.




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