Testimony of an Exile/Testimonio de Un Exiliado

Text: Francisco Collazo
Translation: Julie Schwietert Collazo

Photo: waitingalessio

Time and distance heal all wounds… so goes the old saying. It’s one that’s always been close to me as an immigrant. Sometimes it’s been a true description of my experiences, and other times, not so much.

For example, those experiences that compelled me to leave my country haven’t miraculously transformed into an equally compelling reason to return. That which hurt me continues to hurt, but with the passage of time it’s attenuated a bit by nostalgia’s particular ability to rescue other elements of experience and identity that I wasn’t even aware of before.

Music and food, in particular, are the elements of identity that resuscitate my “Cubanidad.” I travel into my own depths to recover that which I’d never paid much attention to before. Old songs that were never relevant or interesting to me in the least capture my attention and release a torrent of intense emotion capable of hair-triggering tears. These songs aren’t even from my generation, they’re not from my hometown, they’re not representative of my own experiences, but they still touch me. And deeply.

A few hours ago, I heard for the first time the songs of Maria Teresa Vera with my soul’s ear. Vera, a Cuban composer, penned immortal classics like “20 Years,” “Nena,” and “Aurora,” and interpreted “Black Weddings” by Colombian composer Carlos Borges Alberto Villalón, “I’ve Lost With You” and other ballads from the Cuban trova period that today are repackaged and resold for a new generation. I look and in Vera I see a genuine and original voice singing for all the trovadores of all eras. Online, I find emotional comments about Vera’s songs that are so passionate they almost fill me with embarrassment for not having paid Vera much attention before.

Cuban trova; Photo: Cybertiesto

I know I’m not alone in these types of experiences, but I continue to feel surprised when I look at myself feeling profound nostalgia for the images and experiences these types of songs bring up. For example, my memories of Barbarito Diez, who some radio stations opposed. The duo Los Compadres, which I detested because it was their music that woke me up when I was serving in the military–“Wake up, Cuban!”–when I was 16.

Of Cuban cooking… ah, there’s a strange nostalgia there, too. I’d never eaten okra in Cuba- I associated its slimy texture with the mucus from a contagious cold. But today I buy okra regularly and experiment with all its possibilities.

It’s true–right?– that last winter wasn’t as cold as the one that’s coming. The rain that soaked me was soft and refreshing. In some cases, time changes our memories of the past. My home in Cuba was large and cool… when in reality, when I returned, it was tiny and dark.

Exile is the natural enemy of memory; it changes you. You become your memories, you’re forced to look through old drawers to find the parts of yourself that can be salvaged. As strange as it seems, today I miss those things that never meant anything to me. I miss the`sounds of old trova, the compositions of María Teresa Vera, and the insipid taste of okra.


Photo: Robin Thom

La verdad es que con el tiempo y la distancia se olvidan las penas, un conocido dicho expresa. Para mi este ha sido un hecho muy presente en mis experiencias en el exterior, algunas veces muy verdadero y otras no muy reales del todo.

Por ejemplo, aquellos incidentes que me sacaron de carrera de mi país de origen no se han convertidos en una razón maravillosa para regresar de nuevo. Aquello que me dolió sigue doliendo, pero con el andar del tiempo la nostalgia ha ido rescatando otros elementos que antes no lo tenia en cuenta. Y la música y las comidas son en especial los elementos de identidad que rescata la cubanidad en mi.

Viajo en mis adentros para rescatar lo que en algún tiempo ni siquiera consideraba. Viejas canciones de antaño que no tenían relevancia alguna llegan a mi como un torrencial de emociones vivas que me sacan las lagrimas a a por botones al oírlas cantar. Estas no son ni siquiera de mi tiempo, ni de mi región natal, ni de mi experiencias pasadas, pero me llegan y me llegan muy fuertes.

Hace unas horas apenas por primera vez escuche con el oído del alma las interpretaciones de María Teresa Vera, compositora cubana de canciones inmortales como “Veinte Años,” “Nena,” e “Aurora,” “Bodas Negras” del compositor colombiano Carlos Borges Alberto Villalón, “He Perdido Contigo,” y otras baladas de la trova cubana de tiempos pasados que hoy se venden en copas nuevas. Busco y en ella encuentro la voz genuina e original de las canciones y versos de amor cantados por todos los trovadores de ayer y de hoy. En la red electrónica encuentro comentarios muy emocionales que pones casi al borde de llanto y me llenan de vergüenza ajena por no considerarlas antes.

Se que no estoy solo en estas experiencias. Me sorprende verme añorando cosas que son muy, pero muy ajenas en lo que ha música y comidas se refiere. Por ejemplo a Barbarito Diez lo oía porque lo oponían en otra radio. Al duo Los Compadres los detestaba porque eran ellos lo que me despertaban a sones de retreta de campaña en la unidad militar con su- “Levantate cubano que esto y lo otro” cuando tenia 16 años y sentía después de dormir un sueño viejo que no se apartaba de mi juventud.

Photo: Aaron Escobar

De la cocina cubana jamas comí el quimbombo, porque en mi mente lo asociaba a las descargas nasales de catarro contagioso. Sin embargo hoy lo confecciono en latos deliciosos y lo compro con mucha frecuencia.

Es cierto que el invierno del ano pasado no fue tan frío como el que vendrá, y que la lluvia que me mojo era suave y refrescante. El tiempo en algunos de los casos me cambia sin duda la impresión del pasado. Mi casa en Cuba era grande y fresca, cuando en realidad cuando volví era pequeña y oscura.

El exilio es el enemigo natural de la memoria, te cambia y te transformas en otro. Te conviertes en recuerdos y te fuerza a buscar en las gavetas con moho por algo salvable. Lo cierto es que por asombroso que parezca, hoy extraño en mis oídos la vieja trova de Los Compadres, las composiciones de María Teresa Vera, y el sabor insípido del quimbombo. Y que para bien sea, ya que complejas son mis memorias de casi 30 años.


Text & Photos: Francisco Collazo
Translation: Julie Schwietert Collazo

If I associate Mexico with the “danzon” dances in public parks on Sundays, I associate Puerto Rico with its romantic “bohemias” on Thursdays and weekends. Before, this word “bohemia” held allusions to the past. I imagined a singer in the middle of a medieval garden, singing to his lover, or an artist with his watercolors, traveling from one village to another. The way people talked about bohemians made them sound like irresponsible dreamers, lazy vagabonds. It was a word that mothers said to their daughters to discourage them from getting infatuated with a boy: “My dear, don’t get fixated on him; that kid is a bohemian!” and with that, she’d said everything. It was, in short, a bad word.

I’d never encountered a “bohemia,” besides a Cuban magazine by that same name. But in Puerto Rico, I learned that “bohemian” and “bohemia” have an entirely different meaning. A bohemia (as a noun) is a reunion of romantics who are falling in love with life for the second or third time. The majority of the people who gather at bohemias are older adults. Their children are grown and have left home. In some cases, they’re divorcees, not out to find a new marriage partner, but in search of someone with whom they can laugh, sing, and dance.

The majority of bohemias take place in cafes, bars, or restaurants, though these aren’t the only sites, just the most accessible ones. The people who attend bohemias often dress formally. Lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, often retired, all gather to present the best of their dance repertoire. Many of them sing and all of them love romantic music. The majority of the songs played at bohemias are greatest hits from the past. The singers take special requests– everyone knows every song.

There’s a difference between bohemia and a karaoke bar, and that’s the fact that there’s a pianist or a guitarist accompanying the singer. Many of the musicians have also had successful careers in the past. Now, they’re playing not for money, but for the love of music.

But don’t get the idea that bohemia is just for older people or some throwback to the past. Young people also participate in bohemias and it seems there’s a resurgence of interest in bohemias among younger age groups. The commonality is that everyone loves the music, a repertoire that’s so diverse that it often includes artists like Andrea Boccelli, Armando Manzanero, and Francisco Cespedes, among others.

The atmosphere at a bohemia is generally warm and friendly. It’s easy to talk and make friends, especially because these are places where a new face is recognized easily. The aficionados attend regularly and are ready to welcome newcomers.

Often, while I listen to the people singing at bohemias, I wonder why the singer devoted himself or herself to studying medicine or law instead of music. They might have made a career of singing. It’s easy to feel the power of music at a bohemia. I can’t decide whether the bohemias are a requiem to the past that slips away from us bit by bit or if they are a celebration of life and a reaffirmation of love, but what I know for sure is that it’s impossible not to be a bohemian when you’re at a bohemia!

TRAVEL TIP: If you’d like to participate in a bohemia in Puerto Rico, three excellent–and very different–places to experience bohemia are Amadeus Bistro Bar (Edificio Torre Chardon, Avenida Chardon #350, San Juan, 787-641-7450); Alquimia Bistro Club (located right next to the Doubletree San Juan Hotel in the Condado section of San Juan); and Diego’s (Avenida Domenech #124, Hato Rey, 787-758-0908).

Si a México lo asocio con los bailes de danzon en los parques públicos los domingos, a Puerto Rico lo asocio por sus bohemias románticas los jueves y fines de semanas. Antes para mi esta palabra “bohemio/bohemia” tenia algo del pasado. Me imaginaba un cantante en medio de un jardín medieval cantándole a su amada, o a un artista con sus acuarelas viajando de pueblo en pueblo. De hecho siempre escuche bohemios como algo de soñadores, irresponsables y vagabundos. Era una palabra que las madres les decían a sus hijas para que no se fijasen en un jovencito: “Ay no, mi hijita… no te fijes en fulano que ese es un bohemio!” y con eso lo decía todo. Era como una palabra mala.

Nunca antes había yo encontrado una bohemia aparte de la revista cubana que creo que no existe con este mismo nombre. Aprendí todo lo contrario en Puerto Rico. Realmente es una reunión de románticos y románticas que aman la vida por segunda o tercera vez. Personas en su mayoría de edad madura, con familia ya crecidas y en algunos casos divorciados, sin ganas de casarse otra vez, pero buscando una pareja para reír, cantar y bailar. En fin un…ah, bohemio en el mejor sentido de la palabra.

Mayormente estas bohemias tienen lugar en cafés, bares o restaurantes, aunque no son estos únicos sitios, son estos los mas accesibles. Las personas se visten de modo casual, pero muchas veces elegantes. Abogados, doctores y profesionales ya retirados se encuentran entre los presentes para brindarles al publico presente lo mejor de sus repertorios. Todos cantan o son amantes de la música romántica. La mayoría de las canciones han sido grandes éxitos. Hombres y mujeres comparten el escenario y responden a peticiones por parte del publico que ya conocen sus canciones.

Lo que diferencia la bohemia de un karaoke bar es que hay un pianista o guitarrista acompañándolos. Ellos acompañan a la melodía grabada e improvisan con acordes nuevos y espontáneos. Muchas de estos músicos han tenido una carrera exitosa. Solo que ahora lo hacen por amor a la música.

Recientemente me di cuenta que ya no era una cosa del pasado y de gentes de edad media o avanzada. También la juventud esta participando masivamente en estas bohemias, haciendo de ellas un lugar para los amantes de la música y nada mas. Los temas y los artistas a imitar son tan diversos como Andrea Boccelli, Armando Manzanero, Francisco Céspedes, y otros.

Por lo general el ambiente es ameno y muy cordial. Se puede conversar y hacer amigos o amigas; estos son lugares donde las caras nuevas se reconocen fácil, porque a decir verdad hay un porciento elevado de regulares o aficionados que son muchas veces los fundadores de estas bohemias. Todos ellos forman una comunidad de personas con gustos artísticos muy similares.

Mientras escucho los temas que se cantan, me pregunto por qué el que canta decidió medicina o leyes en vez de la música? Le hubiera ido muy bien por ese camino a ella o a el. Veo y siento el profundo poder sanador de la música en todas sus manifestaciones. Están todos enamorados de algo o de alguien-me digo- es imposible no estarlo aquí y ahora! No se si estas bohemias son un réquiem al pasado que se nos va en el día a día y en lo cotidiano, o es una celebración a la vida y una re-afirmación cantada al amor. Después de todo, de una forma u otra todos somos, o hemos sido bohemios!

Historic Photo Exhibit Opens in Cuba This Friday

Who knew that the gift of a simple point-and-shoot digital camera five years ago would lead to this?

When I first met Francisco’s son, Brayan, in 2003, I gave him a simple Pentax. He immediately fell in love with photography, and even his earliest images proved that he had an incredible eye and the innate skill of framing a person, place, or experience in just the right way, drawing the viewer’s eye exactly where it needed to be.

Since then, Brayan bought his own camera, has given himself intensives in the history of photography, taught himself sophisticated shooting techniques, developed his own film, and taught himself how to use Photoshop and other software that’s probably a copy of a copy of a copy of some family member’s CD.

He’s had two solo exhibits in Havana, has sold his work in these exhibits, and–like the luck of his father–has walked into situations that seem scripted for a movie: collaborating with photographers from Cigar Aficionado, planning international collective shows with artists from Spain, and, most recently, collaborating with the American photographer, Melani Lust, on the exhibit CarHavana, which opens this Friday in Havana.

The exhibit, which features images of Havana’s famed old American cars, is historic for at least two reasons. First, the Cuban government commissioned Brayan and Melani to collaborate on this show, which is being presented under the auspices of the Historian’s Office of Havana. Second, once the show closes in Cuba, it will be packed up and shipped to the United States for exhibition. According to Melani, it’s the first collaborative exhibit between a Cuban and an American artist that’s been shown in the US AND Cuba since President Obama’s inauguration.

If you’re in Havana, we hope you can make it to the show, which is previewed in the video below. If not, we’ll keep you posted about the US show details as soon as we have them!

The Yoani Sanchez Phenomenon

A few years ago, I was reading the Sunday Times when I saw it: the full page ad in the Arts and Leisure section announcing that Sean Combs (you know, the man who’s variously gone by the monikers Puff, Puff Daddy, Puffy, P-Diddy, and Diddy) was now starring in “Chicago” on Broadway.


Photo: nycarthur

Daddy Diddy started his career in music, enjoyed admirable success, and then launched himself as an all-purpose brand, following in the footsteps of other celebrities who have achieved success in one field and crossed over (dubiously) to another. A clothing line, a few colognes (including the latest, “I Am King,” not, allegedly, a reference to himself, but to Dr. Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, and President Obama), a Ciroc Vodka deal, a reality show, a couple of restaurants, and a few acting credits later, the artist now known simply as Diddy is reported to be one of the richest men in hip-hop.

I’ve always been puzzled by and more than a bit suspicious about this phenomenon–this tendency of big business to pick up a person who’s successful in one genre and appropriate their cachet by importing it wholesale into another genre for which that person hasn’t expressed any particular inclination or talent. I mean, I get it on a purely entrepreneurial level–the idea is to ride the wave of someone’s image and success as hard and far as possible before it crashes and ebbs. But from a philosophical standpoint, I don’t get it at all–there are plenty of people more talented than Diddy waiting tables, paying Equity dues, and auditioning for Broadway, but the more people like Diddy (and Sarah Jessica Parker, and Jennifer Lopez, and on and on) genre-cross for the sake of making a buck, the tighter the market becomes and the less likely the talented but struggling actor, perfumier, or restauranteur to be has a chance to make it.
So who is Yoani Sanchez and what does she have to do with Diddy?

Photo: blogpocket

I first learned about Yoani Sanchez, a Cuban blogger, over a year ago. I’d read an article about her in The Miami Herald, where she was praised as a bold, courageous woman using the Internet to question the Revolution and to do so in front of the world. The Cuban government had blocked her blog, only adding tinder to the quickening flame. Shortly after the Herald article, Yoani’s name was everywhere: the New York Times, Newsweek, NPR. She was named one of 100 of the world’s most influential people in TIME Magazine in 2008, she won an Ortega y Gasset prize for digital “journalism,” and was sent messages of solidarity from as far away as Myanmar.

I’ll admit that I even contacted Yoani in February 2008 with the idea of writing a story about her. She responded positively. But uncharacteristically of me, I never responded to her and decided I wasn’t really interested in interviewing her at all. As I thought more and more about Yoani Sanchez, what I couldn’t help but think was “What about the other Cuban bloggers?” Yoani had become an international media phenomenon, and despite her own efforts and beliefs, had effectively drawn attention away from any other blogger in Cuba.

What bothered me–and what bothers me still–isn’t what Yoani believes or what she writes about. Rather–and this is important–it is the fact that the international media have treated Yoani–and continue to treat her–as if she is the sole blogging voice of Cuba. It’s the fact that the media pick up Yoani’s words as if they’re the only opinion of her Cuban peers. And most of all, the fact that they don’t really learn anything more about Cuba, about how complex and contradictory it is, or even really about Yoani herself. She’s become Cuba’s token blogger.

This became evident recently when TIME and CNN named Yoani’s blog one of the 25 best blogs of 2009, but referred to Yoani as a “he.” (The error has since been corrected.) Her blog is, it seems, the only non-U.S. blog on the list. TIME and CNN call her writing “fascinating” and “brave” because she’s writing from “one of the few places where it’s still dangerous to be a blogger.”
Recently, Yoani was offered–and accepted–a position blogging for the wildly popular Huffington Post. She published an article in my favorite Mexican magazine, Gatopardo.

She’s not a cross-over in the Diddy sense, but you get my drift, right? The media, like big business (hell, the media are big business), will ride the wave–and pull us along with them, if we don’t stop and question them–as long and hard as possible.

And that’s all well and good. What Yoani has to say is important. But hers is not the only voice. When we practice tokenism, when we ride that wave of the brand we’ve helped someone become, we run the risk of not being able to hear voices that are just as powerful, just as talented, and just as important.

Book Review: The Island of Eternal Love

Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Dragon/License Plate Photo: Brayan Collazo

I’m not a regular reader of fiction. I find real life far too interesting.

But it was my interest in real life—specifically, my own work interviewing Chinese Cubans in Havana that began in 2008—that led me to Daina Chaviano’s novel, The Island of Eternal Love, translated into English by Andrea G. Labinger and published by Penguin’s imprint, Riverhead Books, in 2008.

The novel isn’t specifically about Chinese Cubans. In fact, it’s about what Chaviano refers to as “the three origins…of the Cuban nation” (Spanish, African, and Chinese). But it may just be the first novel published in English that includes the Chinese Cuban community in Havana as one of its principal subjects.

Though the rest of the world is largely unaware of the fact, Chinese immigrants began arriving in Cuba’s capital and main port city by the thousands in the 1840s, lured by promises of work and financial stability, which were lacking at home. (Francisco’s maternal and paternal grandparents were among the Chinese immigrants). Today, there are more than 10,000 living descendants of these immigrants on the island, Jorge Chao, secretary of the Casino Chung Wah, a social club for Chinese Cubans in Havana’s Chinatown, told me when I interviewed him last May.

Chao talked about the hardships Chinese immigrants faced, and these are rendered accurately in Chaviano’s novel—the decision to change Chinese names to Spanish names to gain acceptability in Cuban society; the difficulty of integrating into a culture whose sounds, sights and tastes were frustratingly foreign; the social isolation young Chinese immigrants experienced in schools; and the self-imposed isolation the Chinese Cubans experienced when they clustered in cultural enclaves intended to foster mutual aid and maintain traditions.

For the reader unfamiliar with Cuban history and culture, these details are likely to come as interesting surprises. Chaviano peppers the novel with historically correct details that are also wonderfully evocative—the smell of steaming pork buns and fish soup, the symbolism of the Chinese lottery—still played in Cuba today–, and the inclusion of Cuban sayings that reveal how Chinese Cubans were both integrated into and isolated from the dominant culture.

Despite Chaviano’s firm grasp of Chinese Cuban history and culture, the novel can be difficult to follow. The author introduces more than two dozen characters, located in or evoking four countries and one continent (Spain, Cuba, China, the US, and Africa), all spanning several generations. Even the most interested reader may have a hard time keeping track, but for the reader lacking any point of reference about Cuban history, I wonder if the novel may feel more onerous to read than pleasurable.

There’s also the issue of the writing. The Island of Eternal Love is really about the main character, Cecilia, a Cuban American journalist living in Miami who is desperate to understand herself, her history, and the mystery of a ghost house that appears and disappears in various locations in south Florida. Cecilia becomes interested in new agey mysticism as a means of resolving these tensions, and the novel begins to feel weighted with clichés about crystals, auras, and women who see or intuit things about others that remain obscure to the person affected. The effort, it seems, is to evoke a sense of the mysterious that does—as any visitor to Cuba can attest– seem to shroud the island and Havana in particular. But the metaphor feels too obvious, too forced. Unfortunately, there are many instances of these all too obvious “as if by magic” narrative devices. Perhaps they read more convincingly in the original Spanish, but they often seem silly in the English translation.

Still, the book is a worthwhile read, especially for those with an interest in and basic knowledge of Cuba. It may be most appropriate for Cuban Americans, many of whom are likely to recognize the complexity of their own experiences and emotions in Cecilia’s character. For other readers, sticking around for the ending may be a challenge, but if you can forgive the occasionally affected language, The Island of Eternal Love is an engaging and worthwhile read, a fictional account that brings some fascinating and overlooked aspects of Cuban history to life.