There are times one roams, eyes nailed to the ground, through sewage strewn side streets and alleys, when one can’t help but ask “What of the future?” Where is the future in a city that teeters on the edge of physical extinction. A city that can barely afford to feed its own children. Because I’m convinced that Tito’s cynicism and humor, his resigned acceptance of “problems with the system” disguise a barely repressed rage. Rage at a system that jails a man for killing a cow and turns women into “state investments”; a system that has no work for fathers or brothers and turns a blind eye to teenage girls selling themselves for the dollars that keep their families alive. It is a rage that Pierre, a Frenchman who has lived here for over ten years, talks about passionately over dinner in Marinao, a slum in the north of Havana.
“I’m the contact person down here for the French who want the “real story.” But noone wants the real story. A month ago, I took a journalist to a club here in Marinao. I told him that there had been thousands of kids, squeezed into these streets, protesting. They were wearing American flags, stitched together from pieces of red, white, and blue rags. The State passed a law. Anyone caught wearing anything resembling a flag would be arrested. So you know what the kids did? They shaved their heads and tattooed their scalps with logos for Coca Cola and Nike. But all the French guy wanted was photographs of old men, playing guitars.”
I think of Pierre at the wedding, a bizarre, surreal affair at the elegant old Hotel Nacional. Foreigners seated in rickity bridge chairs on one side of a glorious, gilded room while Laura’s father and family are seated, mutely, on the other. There is an interminable wait for an elderly female lawyer who reads, as if asleep, through the State Marriage Contract. Vincenzo stumbles through his “vows” holding, tightly, onto to Laura’s hand before giving her a gentle kiss. Then I watch her family shuffle, quickly, out to the veranda where they stand, dumbstruck, soaking up a view they will never see again. A view of manicured, green grass, a swimming pool, and sunbathing tourists. (Cubans aren’t allowed in hotels. I’ve seen Security Patrols escort them out.) What are they feeling, I ask myself? Are they angry? Humiliated? Disappointed?
It is only after the wedding when everyone travels on to a deserted mansion by the sea to dance that both sides of the family, finally, unite. And this is where I catch a glimpse of the future. Because the future is, as always, in the moment. And in Havana, it is music that brings one back into the vividness, the intensity, of that moment. Music is everywhere in this city. Twenty four hours a day. It’s in the gardens of a 19th century governor’s villa; a garden where conservatory students come to jam and to practice saxophones, congas, and trumpets in the open air. It’s in the group of gnarled old men who cluster together in cafes and sing son. It’s on the public beaches near Miramar and in nightclubs like the Macamba, a Xanadu-like tropical hideaway for Cubans only where taxi meters are shut off and one arrives and leaves by a back door. There is such defiance, such ferocity and joy in the response to music that one suspects it is the only thing that keeps the heart, the hopes, of this country, intact.
As I sit, quietly, on the staircase of the deserted mansion, I watch Laura’s father move, slowly but proudly, onto the dance floor. Not long after, even he has surrendered to the delirium, the euphoria, of the moment. And I am reminded again. Havana is a city of pride not arrogance; a city that survives not simply by virtue of what Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott, calls “The triumph of stubborness” but by its ingenuity and grace. Perhaps, because its music, like the rhythms of mood and desire, reminds us of the importance of human versus digital connections; of how it is humanity not the most sophisticated software that continues to create memories and passion. This is why the sound sof Havana hits home. It hits home for those who leave it, longing to return and for those who have yet to arrive.
the last fuck