Elizabeth Mirabal

How to approach, with the requisite academic rigor, a brief and informal essay about the “sugar curtain” that has supposedly separated Cuba and the United States? How, when, and at whose hands has the heavy curtain been lifted, allowing for safe passage from one side to another, to leave, to return, to remember, to find, to come to know, but also to reject, to define oneself in the negative?

I think of one memorable paradox: how Dolores Borrero, the oldest daughter of Dr. Esteban Borrero Echevarría, was one of the many teachers who traveled to Harvard University at the beginning of the twentieth century in order to receive pedagogical lessons that she would later deploy in Cuba. In his legendary story “The Enchanted Deer,” her father had warned of the threat of the boa constrictor, in a clear allegorical reference to the United States. Even so, awareness of that danger hadn’t prevented his oldest daughter from setting out on an adventure that would pull her out of the vigilantly protective circle her father had drawn around his offspring in Havana’s Puentes Grandes neighborhood. In a country recently devastated by its war for independence, Borrero hoped the time was nigh for moral reconstruction. A letter addressed to La Lucha, one of Cuba’s dailies, articulates his position:

In everything having to do with the American administration and where it touches me I formally declare that I will support it only in those cases in which I believe it does right; and this is the only appropriate position for those who love our country; and for those who, like me, support the [unreadable] moral principles of the Revolution, to which I have dedicated my long and eventful life without ever faltering [...].

In that moment, he felt neither rejection nor distrust: “I can’t and won’t look at the man from the North, who saved the Cuban people from the extermination to which they were doomed, like an enemy: I feel no unease, suspicion, or depression about any of them.” His wariness was rather directed at those opportunistic Cubans who had remained loyal to Spanish authority but quickly turned to seeking recognition for apocryphal sacrifices. He called on people to work, to dedicate their energies to Cuba; he warned that schools were empty, and defended the intelligence and ability of the American teacher Alexis E. Frye to contribute to that effort. Borrero would not be blinded by intransigence; he saw in Frye a cultured man whose knowledge could help Cuba, and he attacked extremists, defending the country’s right to move forward.

I can only broach this topic by superimposing scenes, like visions in a cinemascope. I remember a painful letter in which the writer Calvert Casey, son of a Cuban woman and a Baltimore-born man, bemoaned his stupidity in having renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1947 in “a fit of patriotic bullshit.” His regret has a date: it was after 1959 and he was wrapped up in the migratory worries he had encountered in his Italian exile. This, after he had left an Island to which he had returned to get involved and be a part, to publish his first book of stories, and to check out the Cuban theater scene of the time. In front of visitors to the Casa de las Américas [a literary and cultural institution established by the revolutionary government], this student of Katherine Anne Porter would, in a daze, proclaim the ethical superiority of what Cuba was building in its mission to achieve social justice. After leaving Cuba following revelations of the first homosexual men being interned in the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP camps), Casey would later categorize this message as the drone of a broken record. And now, in Rome, under the weight of innumerable translations, the once prodigal son would try to survive, resigned to the moral dilemma of publishing his books with Seix Barral accompanied by the clarification that he had lived in Cuba when such things were not true, and maintaining his fruitful friendship with Italo Calvino. His backtracking was that of the tightrope walker: disillusioned enough to take some distance and, at the same time, pragmatic enough to realize that his contact with the political Left would keep him alive.

Reinaldo Arenas would soon rid himself of this burden, which for Calvert implied a relationship with a Left already riven by disenchantment. He would locate himself in an extreme position from which he would look clearly at his new context: “Already in one of my first statements after leaving Cuba I had said: ‘The difference between the communist and the capitalist system is that, though both of them will kick you in the ass, under communism you have to applaud them for it, and in capitalism you can scream; I came here to scream.’” Even so, the agitator behind open denunciations of Fidel Castro, the critic par excellence of the process he had once symbolized in his literary promise, the skeptic of anything that smelled too much like the Cuba that had vomited him out from the maritime port of Mariel, would write a few timely notes to his mother Oneida Fuentes, asking about her health and wellbeing. There we find announcements of the earnings he had managed to acquire through various means, the constant concern for his cousins. This wasn’t Arenas, homo politico, but rather the “relative from outside,” the provider, who sent modest sums of money in order to alleviate the hardships of those he loved.

The strained relationship between Arenas and a mother who never understood why her son wore those tight pants, the tyranny of a love so perfectly personified in his literary work, where it coincides with another repressive force, brings me back to the mirror image of the visual artist Ana Mendieta, the Peter Pan girl, who returns to Jaruco in 1981 so that she can reproduce in the limestone of her series Cave Sculptures the material curves of a country she desires to recuperate in its primitive form, in the artistic recreation of the gestures of its first inhabitants, of the female deities worshipped by the Tainos. As if, in imitating aboriginal art with its open womb, she cried out for a protector Island, mother to all, and, at the same time, virgin of the great avatars. An Island still beautiful in its natural state, purified by the pain of childbirth, not yet contaminated by the History that would put it on the international geopolitical map. A touching return that has to be found in its surfaces, in synthesia, in its skin, in the most primitive and, for that, the most essential spaces.

The echoes that reverberate in my small Cuban pantheon unearth another strange name: Anna Veltfort, who until very recently was (to the U.S. academy) the mysterious woman to whom Lourdes Casal would dedicate a poem of homage in the Cuban-American tradition, those devastating verses that reveal she is too much an habanera to be a New Yorker and too much a New Yorker to be anything else. The Cuban who, out of place between two cultures, enters into a communion with the American woman brought by her parents to the Island-kingdom-of-the-proletariat in 1962. She has walked the streets of Havana, made Cuban friends, studies in the University there, she has lived the life that might have been Casal’s. What brings them together is precisely the intersection of their paths, the fact that one leaves when the other goes; that the other goes back--to such a degree that she returns even in her remains, when she decides to die in Cuba--when the other departs forever.

When Veltfort has had to leave and return to the U.S. after a decade of living in Cuba, the country in which her parents didn’t want her to live, already permanently wounded by intolerance and social isolation, having suffered, alongside her friends, homophobic repression within the exalted world of the Escuela de Letras, Casal builds bridges to grant her a second opportunity in the country where she was born and grew up and left at age 23. Through her work she approaches the Island in a brave attempt to perhaps understand herself. In titling her poem with a dedication “For Anna Veltfort” she transcends solidarity and compassion in her knowledge of that disillusioning microhistory: the unjust beating to which Veltfort and her friend were subjected on the Malecón in 1967 for the simply fact of having been identified as lesbians, and the subsequent senselessness with which the victims (little more than 20 years old) were converted into the aggressors, accused of “public scandal” in a police station by their burly male attackers. Anna Veltfort, the existence of her wounds, is another reason why Lourdes can’t go back to being “another thing”: condemned to that eternal between, to a life on the hyphen, per Gustavo Pérez Firmat.

The hostile reality Anna has experienced distances Lourdes from the spiritual space she has tried to recuperate. The emotional trauma visited on the American girl who believed in the Cuban revolutionary utopia, could have been hers, too, if destiny had elected for her to stay in her country. Her poem is the realization in words of the desire she would confess in a letter to Anna: to take on, explicitly, the pain of her memory. The best way to do so is to convert that history (relegated to oblivion) into a title, into a matter of first importance, into words visible to all. For Cubans who saw the film Lejanía by Jesús Díaz, Lourdes Casal’s poem was the hymn for those young people who, like Ana Mendieta, traveled to Cuba in a magazine with an ancestral name: Areito. To enfold themselves once more in an originary space, in a joyful celebration of the first settlers of Cuba, in the hopes that they might connect with the profound feeling of a country painted as their beginning and their inheritance.

Dolores Borrero escapes and comes back converted into a Harvard-graduated teacher, still saddled with her mistrust of the self-interested U.S. presence on the Island, but believing in the benevolent actions of an educator; Calvert Casey struggles with the tangled web of his hybrid condition; Arenas finds refuge for some time in a New York that will later rally around Anna Veltfort, but Ana Mendieta will commit suicide on the same stage. The sugar curtain has been breached; it morphs, weaving and swaying around the beings who feed on its amniotic fluid, repelling and then pulling them back in. It is not a sugar curtain, it is something more labyrinthine, intricate, at once durable and delicate; it reveals itself to be a spider’s web where the prey, even when detached, drag along the translucent and clinging threads that give away their unsettled belonging there.