By Maggie McCarthy, Department of German Studies
As many of us murmured among ourselves upon return to Charlotte, I didn’t and still don’t really have the words for my Cuban experience. At the risk of sharing too much, I cried for a full five minutes after walking in the door at home. Given that response I can say for sure that it was a remarkable time. This brief reflection will try to sift through the emotions, while looking back to my application proposal as a point of reference. Initially, I had expressed interest in Cuba as a projection screen in recent films, if not the locus of pre-emptive nostalgia for a disappearing world. While that frame remained throughout, and the creative in me could have spent ages soaking in all the visual stimuli, I’ve come back with deeper questions about the end-point of Enlightenment values shared by Cuba and the U.S.
My academic self brought a decidedly German filter along. Thank you, Wim Wenders, (I guess) for providing the checklist of all things authentically Cuban: colorful, decaying building facades; the pastel hues of 1950’s Chevy convertibles; and of course The Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. (It did sound odd, at first, to hear “Chan Chan” without Ry Cooder’s twangy slide guitar.) Encountering all that – practically on a platter and within the first few hours – raised the first unanswerable question: when does the “authentic” pass into the realm of commodity offered up for tourists? I kept thinking about the fact that you can still buy bits of the Berlin Wall and GDR military paraphernalia that have surely been manufactured in more recent times. On our final day I discovered a Moorish-style apartment building that I had seen a few years ago in a Wim Wenders’ photo exhibit in Düsseldorf. Another box checked, even if I was, in fact, utterly transfixed by it.
It was in moments like that – where I couldn’t stare long and hard enough to satisfy some kind of obscure desire – that my filter was far less German than personal, though in still mysterious ways. I remember staring out the station wagon window at the urban blight of Philadelphia in the 1970s and experiencing for the first time the melancholy in knowing that some people have far less than me. I remember witnessing dreary landscapes from an overheated bus during a brief trip to the Soviet Union in 1986. Then, as in Cuba, I experienced something analogous to being part of the 1% that has ridiculously more than so many others. I thought abstractly about the class anxiety I’ve experienced from a very young age, which may be a form of cross-generational trauma from parents with impoverished, Depression-era childhoods. American-style Socialism – the Aid for Families with Dependent Children my grandmother received when she became a widow with four small children and the G.I. benefits that financed my father’s education through graduate school – ensured my stable middle-class childhood. I also became ruefully aware of the middle-aged version of my middle-class self who wants some HGTV home fixer-uppers to parachute into Havana and begin restoring homes with love and respect. Their highly individual, sometimes quirky architecture was a balm to this sub-division dweller. What also deserves mention is the basic mechanism of one’s own identity being thrown into relief when displaced to new terrain. I’ve spent enough time in Germany to feel a little self-conscious about my stereotypical American exuberance. Cuba made the same feel more than a little overwrought given how deep divides separate Americans right now from our loftier ideals of freedom and justice for all.
That’s where my reflections move hesitantly towards something more intellectual, for lack of a better word. Our meetings with Cuban professors were extraordinarily resonant for me in different ways. First, we all observed how the answers to some of our most basic questions traveled along highly circuitous routes, with the same pattern repeating itself: an extended history lesson topped off with meditations on Cuba’s island-based identity. Only in the last breath did one start to get the beginnings of a concrete answer. After witnessing this strategy numerous times I started to wonder whether I use my own intellectual wherewithal to parry and side-step blind spots, while remaining confident in the ultimate rightness of my values. As a German scholar, I was genuinely interested in the possibility of a Cuban “third way,” what East Germans considered all too briefly before Capitalism swallowed them up. This would have been some sort of a corrective to the shortcomings of Socialism but one that nonetheless retained its ideals. I think many of us asked, in numerous and polite ways, how the Cuban professors imagined the future, but again the answers were frustratingly evasive. Then again, if someone asked me to imagine an alternative to the excesses of Capitalism, I wouldn’t know what to say. Somewhere during the trip I heard that change will happen slowly given that an old guard still remains despite Raúl Castro’s departure. That slowness might open up the possibility for something genuinely different.
The best discussion – frustratingly just out of acoustic reach since it took place in one of our many tiled restaurants that dialed up the volume on American exuberance – happened between Dan Layman and one of the professors who traveled eleven hours on a bus from Santiago to be with us. Both of them shared an extensive knowledge of the Enlightenment values that Americans and Cubans share. For Walter, the Cuban professor, Socialism was their logical extension because no one can be free, he said, in a country without universal healthcare and where the gap between the rich and the poor is so pronounced. Dan reproduced the basic points of their discussion later on and elaborated on his notion that the right has largely defined our American understanding of freedom, which I take to mean that individual liberty has been elevated above the fight for freedom and justice for all. Unlike the Cuban professors in our first session, Dan spelled out for me his own utopian view of the future – one that blends Socialist-style benefits like health care, free education, and a basic income with an otherwise laissez-faire government invested in the autonomy Americans tend to crave. I couldn’t help but think what a wonderful thing it would be to stage an exchange of ideas between Dan and Walter in front of a Humanities class.
In what felt like the cracks we started to get a fuller sense of Cuban views on the future. In the open plaza beside the Museum of the Revolution, with its tanks and planes and Fidel’s boat under glass, our guides off-handedly shared with the handful in their orbit at that moment how Obama gave Cubans hope for a brief while. All three of them had university degrees but went into the tourism industry because it offered better wages. I admired their low-key pragmatism, goes-without-saying generosity of spirit, and seemingly spontaneous capacity for joy. But then again that could all just be projection on my part that wants some Cuban authenticity as the salve for my own antsy American-ness. At the same time, something definitely rubbed off on me. Even though Kevin Smith said our mini-vans, with their missing seat belts in places, reminded him of the “death trap” vehicles he knew from Africa, I got very attached to my seat at the very back, furthest from the door. I think I felt cocooned by my 14 cohorts’ unflagging cheer and collegiality, especially towards an introvert mesmerized by the scenes unfolding outside my window. For better or worse, much of what I saw may soon be gone.