Reflections on Cuba, Colleagues, and Cancer

By Angie Willis, Department of Hispanic Studies

June 1, 2018: Written, Journaled, the Day after returning from our trip.

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President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas Second Plenary Session in Panama City, Panama, April 11, 2015.

A few years ago, the Bacca Family Foundation generously gifted a hefty wad of money to Davidson College for those interested in dreaming up creative ways of approaching the study of the Humanities (the sciences tend to get more $; Humanities folks, well, not so much). At that time, Obama was president and recently, he had really reopened relationships with Cuba—as in for the first time since the Cold War, a sitting US president and a Cuban president (then Raúl Castro had taken over for his brother; as I write this, just a few weeks ago, Raúl stepped down) met; Obama and his family had even visited Cuba; the US embassy was reestablished in Havana. Around campus, I had heard numerous rumbles of interest about traveling to Cuba with these magical funds. As a person who works with contemporary Cuban writers and one who wanted and needed to return (I had been a few times before, when diplomatic relationships had not yet been reinstated), I thought that seeing Cuban culture through the interdisciplinary perspectives of my wise colleagues would be worthy of a grant attempt. Over the course of a few weeks, in conjunction with a few other colleagues, I wrote a grant proposal to travel to and study Cuba in a transdisciplinary way. We ended up adding non-Humanities professors too, and our group was all the richer for it.

Months later, finally, we were elated to learn that we had received the grant.

Laundry hanging off a porch while classic cars drive by on the street
A street in Cuba in 2003

But, shortly thereafter, our hopes were crushed. First, President Gloom and Doom was elected; then, diplomats at both the US and Canadian embassies complained of bizarre sounds that reportedly caused physical damage (though many Cubans think that this was made up by Trump’s people to have an excuse to maintain the embargo and to undo Obama’s good deeds. There have been all kinds of theories about what caused the strange noises—the effects of Cold War era type spying, psychosomatic symptoms, and even crickets. Yes, crickets.). Relationships with Cuba started to spiral and to deteriorate anew. It looked iffy that we would go.

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Angie in an infusion chair

Then, my own personal tragedy struck. I was diagnosed with breast cancer early in September of 2017. My vision of going to Cuba with friends and colleagues began to not only to blur, but to vanish.

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Fortunately, my colleagues decided to persist, hoping for the best. Some incredibly generous colleagues, a few in particular—Amanda Ewington, and later, Sharon Green and Cara Evanson– stepped up and took over all of pre-trip coordination. I read the planning emails from afar, often from my infusion chair in a semi-drugged state, and from home, melancholic, resigned to the probability that I would not be going, despite my oncologist’s cautious optimism. I was thrilled for my peers, while tremendously sad for myself. I am thankful that my doctor continued encouraging me.

But here I was, months later, on the last night of a 10-day trip, sitting around a shared table at a community art center, Lawton, in a poor part of Havana (“poor” by Cuban standards), enjoying the company of my American and Cuban friends. Tomorrow, I would have to head back to the infusion chair, but for now, I was treasuring my last hours of forgetting about cancer.

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All over again, I fell in love with the Island and its people. It is simply too difficult to put succinctly into words. Cuba always breaks my heart in both new, and repeated ways. I have heard Cuba described as both enthralling and haunting. It is just that.

Mosaic-covered sculptures
Fusterlandia, a neighborhood in Havana filled with artist José Fuster’s mosaics

I must first reassure my Cuban exile friends that I have not been “duped,” as some may say. Though I am not Cuban, I do know that Cubans, Cuban-Americans, those both on and off the Island, those “living on the hyphen” (Gustavo Pérez-Firmat) have suffered in ways that I can only imagine. I mourn their loss. I mourn their lost childhoods, as they were separated from their families to work in the fields; their lost careers, lost fortunes, and lost potential of all kinds; and most importantly, I weep for their lost families. Cuba and its descendants are often divided, broken, irreparably damaged families and people. Scarred permanently. They have been destroyed for ideals that were not shared by all. I mourn for the writers, the activists and dissidents that were (and are) silenced, sent to concentration camps, even killed. I weep for those who kept waiting to return, but never could. I feel the ache of those who gave up on living on the Island, but who at least wanted to be buried where they were born, but whose bones still await interment here.

Books piled high in stacks inside a narrow entrance
Bookstore in Havana

I see the cities that were once splendor, and are now in ruins, like old, washed up whores, waiting for the good times to return. I have squatted over the countless toilets without lids, without paper, without water, without soap. I have been on the roads that are washed away, generally eerily empty of cars, instead filled with horses and carts, as if we were still in the eighteenth century. I have seen the bridges that lead to nowhere. I know.

And, I know that this is not my country, that this was not my house, my job, my family, nor my home. But I still see the loss. And I mourn.

But I also see the beauty just below—and above— the surface. I am hypnotized by the flight of the Cuban emerald hummingbirds, locally known as zunzún because of the noise that they make, endemic to Cuba (and some parts of the Bahamas). I, too, drink up the sugar-nectar-rum, the flowers, the rainfall, even the Cuban state propaganda Kool-aid, if just for a bit. I sincerely admire the gains that the Revolution did make for some of the poorest and most neglected, for the starving children, for the illiterate, for those without access to health care, for women and those of color —though much remains to be done. I applaud the public art that serves to feed and educate its communities. I hear the constant beat of the simultaneously tragic and amused/-ing music. I have tasted the mangoes grown with so much pride on the small farmer’s plot/ sculpture garden, where art decorates the landscape, right beside his crops and bee boxes, as both agriculture and art are seen as of fundamental importance, as interlaced. I am endlessly impressed by the ingenuity of Cubans engineers, mechanics, and entrepreneurs, their ability to make everything out of nothing (el invento cubano). I am infinitely amused by Cuban choteo, or as it is now more commonly described by our young Cuban guides, jodedera, ironic and playful humor that helps to counter the often impossible realities of daily life. I deeply embrace Cuban generosity, kindness and warmth.

Six men stand in front of a low red wall with a green valley behind them
Our drivers and guides, Yasniel, David, Ramón, Ernesto, Daniel, and Fredy

I —we, my fourteen colleagues and I—have made new, fast close friends, in particular, our 20-30- something -year-old guides and drivers. They kept us safe, fed and even entertained during a tropical storm, bringing us a spontaneous salsa lessons and a band when we were rained in, thanks to Tropical Storm Alberto. During our trip, Cuba experiences its greatest rainfall in thirty years. No matter. Our first-world caution went out the window as we drove through waters that are at least a foot deep; we danced unabashedly until late; we drank rum and smoked cigars; and most importantly, we forged and cherished our new friendships. Our guides also gave us their all. We really hope that they know that we will be there for them going forward. You see, that’s why so many of us cry when we leave. We go back to our easy, planned, organized sanitized lives, filled with American optimism and “can-do” attitudes, leaving it all behind. Effortlessly, we hop on a plane, and instantly, enter a new, easier reality. They do not.

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Angie smokes a cigar in Viñales, Cuba

Besides the Cubans, my relationships with these fourteen colleagues have grown in new and immeasurable ways. We have traveled, shared, broken bread and communed, groused about bathrooms, and danced (generally laughably, but, hey! We tried!).

 I am part of a new community, one that transcends stale militant and political boundaries grown out of Colonial and Cold War diplomacy, divisions strengthened geographically in seas that provide natural and often impenetrable borders (Virgilio Piñera’s infamous description of Cuba as “la maldita circunstancia de aguas por todas partes” {“the damned circumstance of having water all around me”} in “La isla en peso” comes to mine). This new community is both international and local, as it has also fortified previously tepid relationships with colleagues, ones only ever so slightly initiated in the hallways of my campus … We are a circle forged in mutual understanding, respect, and intellectual and cultural curiosity. May it endure.

Appropriately, the voices of Cuban-American Camila Cabello, alongside Young Thug, haunt me “Havana, ooh na-na…half of my heart is in Havana, ooh na-na….”

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Tonight, part of my heart and mind are still there.

A green hummingbird perched on a branch
Cuban Emerald Hummingbird (Chlorostilbon ricordii) in Viñales

I will watch North Carolina’s ruby-throated hummingbirds on my porch tomorrow, after perching for a while in the infusion chair.

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