A Tale of Two Cities

December 18, 2019

A Cuban writer living in the US writes a requiem for Havana, a city of contradictions, to mark its five hundredth year.

Havana just turned five hundred. The beautiful Havana: the city of my birth, the city of my upbringing, the city of my youth, the city of my fears, the city I fled, the city that simultaneously told me, taught me, that all men (and women, but don’t push it) were equal, and to be thankful to the revolution because under the previous dictatorship someone like me would not have been considered a person. The city where I learned that someone like me meant a citizen with characteristics and that both euphemisms were used to refer to people of color. The city where I was racially profiled daily by policemen (yes, they were all men) who were my skin tone or darker. The city where I was afraid of being shot for the crime of living while brown in a country that had, in theory, eradicated racism.

The city where I was afraid of being shot for the crime of living while brown in a country that had, in theory, eradicated racism.

The city that made itself indistinguishable from its government. The city where I learned doublespeak. The city where I mastered the intricacies of body language. The city where I learned the importance of subtext. The city where domestic violence is normalized. The city where I learned to love. The city where I learned that love was acceptable as long as it didn’t cross racial lines.

The city where Celia Cruz was forbidden by its military junta. The city where I couldn’t read the writings of Guillermo Cabrera Infante because his books were banned. The city that hid I Love Lucy from its natural audience. The city that tried to erase all accomplishments of Cubans living abroad because they (now, we) were considered counterrevolutionaries. The city where this text could not be published in my youth or now. The city where all its inhabitants have the right to say that they viscerally hate the president . . . of the United States of America. The city where the paper of record, Granma, “the official publication of the Cuban Communist Party,” published racial epithets to refer to the previous president of the United States of America. The city that taught me—that taught you—to call a dictatorship a revolution.

The city that taught me the meaning of hate. The city that taught me (how) to hate. The city in which I was instructed to specifically hate my exiled family members who lived in the US, the very family that sent us money, food, vitamins, shoes, clothes; the very family without whom we could not have survived after the collapse of the Eastern Socialist bloc; the very family that we were not supposed to talk about; the very family that we were supposed to refer to as worms.

Oh, Havana, or what remains of the city that simultaneously told me that racism had been eradicated with the advent of the Castro dynasty and that it was not polite to talk about race.

The city that taught me that I was lesser than my white peers, that I had bad hair, that I had to marry a light-skinned person “to improve the race,” that white people who weren’t smart were “a waste of color and hair.” The city where my white friends told me how much they loved their racist grandparents and made a point of telling me how racist they (the grandparents) were. The city where the mother of a friend would look at her date’s gums to see if they were too dark; the city where I’d be told to cut my hair short so that it wouldn’t show my black ancestry.

Men explain things to Rebecca Solnit. Americans explain Havana to me.

When Americans ask me if I can go back to Havana . . . Americans don’t ask me if I have been to Havana, or if I plan to go to Havana. They ask me if I can go. Am I allowed to visit the city where my grandparents are buried? They rarely acknowledge the anomaly of the question. They rarely address who would need to allow me or why would I need to be allowed to go instead of just simply going. Sometimes, Americans are eager to tell me that they have an upcoming trip to the island. Is there a place they should visit? But how do you say politely that it is immoral to be treated like royalty in a country where the natives are treated as fifth-class citizens? That was true under Apartheid. Why isn’t it true under Castro and his acolytes? I have likened Cuba to Westworld, the HBO documentary that depicts a theme park where the visitors are afforded privileges that the locals couldn’t possibly dream of. I have shared that essay with potential travelers. They still go. And, when they do, they even have a great time in the city in which I did not want to become a father. The city that made me who I am. The city I had to escape to become who I am. The city in which I could not walk with my wife without facing the police harassment and subsequent humiliation of doing something that is doubly dangerous for a Cuban male of color: holding the hand of a white woman and holding the hand of a foreigner. Can I go? Now that the last name changed but the dictatorship remains the same? Do I want to go? To quote Barack Obama, one of its most recent visitors: “Nah, we straight.”

I have likened Cuba to Westworld, the HBO documentary that depicts a theme park where the visitors are afforded privileges that the locals couldn’t possibly dream of.

What is there to celebrate about a dilapidated city? What is there to celebrate about a city where its people would rather take a raft through ninety miles of sharks and uncertainty than to live one more day under a regime that has lasted over six decades? Why are we not collectively mourning this?

Back to the question: aside from shooting my mouth off in conversation and in print, which makes me persona non grata to the Cuban regime, there are (meta)physical impediments for me to visit or go back to Havana. First: one visits a zoo, a museum, a friend. But can one visit one’s past? Is it still there? Heraclitus reminded us that no one can swim twice in the same river because both the person and the body of water have changed. Likewise: Havana is not the same city it was two decades ago. And I am not the same man.

Since I fled Castro, I have lived outside the confines of time and space.

When my American friends and colleagues ask me how old I am, I respond that I am ageless. They think it a joke. But I mean it in a literal way: I belong to no generation. Since I fled Castro, I have lived outside the confines of time and space. That is precisely the mere condition of exile: to exist out of one’s natural time and space.

But the truth is that I do travel to Havana whenever I want. Through literature, film, and music, that is. It was of that Havana, which once was mine, that I thought about ten years ago when I lived in Rome for a couple of months. Now, in its five hundredth anniversary, I would like to evoke that city from afar with a poem I wrote then, and it continues to speak my truth.

The Lost Steps

            to the Mallozzi-Sammartino

With these shoes
            that know the dust of the eternal city,
            and sensed the glory that was the Palatine,
            and walked the insomniac trails
of the crumbled Ostia Antica,
            and climbed hills and mountains and stamped
a profound mark that I wanted to be indelible
in the beautiful meadow near Colleferro,
            and lived happily in the quiet shade
of the neighborhood devoted to two-headed Janus,
            and stumbled almost memorably
among the cobblestones and the rocks that perhaps
with the passing of time and the passing of people
made uneven that ancient road
that indicated that all the paths in the world
would bring the traveler to the Rome of my longing,
            and remember the whisper of the river
along those nightly walks besides Trastevere
with friends I would want to embrace as I write,
            and scored a goal and then another and gave
a celestial pass and an unfair kick
on the shin of a guy who was speaking Italian
and was not my enemy, just an adversary
in an improvised pitch in the spacious backyard
of a sober academy
among adults who were, who would doubt it, just kids
who ran panting behind the soccer ball
while the spring imposed its ubiquitous charm,
            and in their effort to step on commonplaces,
took a pilgrimage with this scribe in tow
to visit Pompeii,
to sniff around Herculaneum,
to cross the streets of Piano di Sorrento
and one day will return to the land of Dante
to recite the ancient and immortal verses
that we inherited, for our fortune, from Petrarch,
and that I will declaim with my Cuban accent
while the sun sets in the sublime Tuscany,
and a good wine is paired with even better company
and those beautiful nephews who are not related
to my son or to me, and I love from a distance,
remind me, what joy, that family, thank the heavens,
is not written in blood,
            with these shoes that I am wearing right now, dear fellows,
I shall never walk the ruins of Havana.

New Jersey


Photo by Valerie Block

Alexis Romay is the author of two novels and two books of poetry. He has translated novels into Spanish by Ana Veciana-Suarez, Margarita Engle, and Stuart Gibbs and a novel into English by Miguel Correa Mujica.

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