Diary of a mothering worker
WANDERING THROUGH Havana’s streets and Cuban history this week, I wondered what lesson to draw from their contradictions.
Then, independent Afro-Cuban artist Nancy Cepero softly shared a saying she lives by, “Cuando la verdad despierta, no puede volver a dormirse.” In English, “When truth wakes up, she cannot go back to sleep.” I’ve been walking with it since.
I was here in 2004, still dreaming of the 1959 Cuban revolution and its renegade socialist idealism. The Museum of the Revolution, with its bullet holes, and letters and photographs of lost, loved comrades, struck my heart with the intimacy of its remembering.
Trinidad and Tobago has nothing like that for the 1930s height of Indian-African labour solidarity nor independence in 1962 nor Black Power consciousness in 1970 because we identify with the modern and Miami, as if our past and its foot soldiers have neither familiarity nor value.
It’s like Ziya said to me during one of our moments of internet connection, “Auntie is travelling to a better place than you.” “Where’s that?” I asked. “Walmart,” she responded, leaving me mid-sentence about the devastation of hurricanes on the Cuban economy, the crumbling dignity of once-beautiful buildings, and the inspiration of a place that bravely waged armed war against imperialism and injustice.
Now in 2018, I know better than to over-invest in myth. At the same time, I still can’t shake off admiration for a boldfaced, small-island Caribbean experiment that might have succeeded if not for the punishment of a half-century US blockade, the wielding of tightly controlled state power, and human fallibility.
Listening to lectures on sociology, economics and international relations with the 14 UWI graduate students whom the Institute for Gender and Development Studies brought here on a study tour, we heard the official story: everyone has a house, women are excelling in academics and professions, sex workers are assisted out of their exploitative occupation, the nation is a democracy, and racism is firmly rejected by the State.
Later, as we listened to the marginalised voices of Afro-Cuban scholars, grandmothers, lesbians, transwomen, sex workers, poets, artists and activists, the official story rang as both narrow and untrue.
In her own youthful experience, Nancy felt too excluded from the Cuban revolutionary dream to identify with its national women’s organisation, the Cuban Federation of Women (FMC), to which all women automatically belong.
In her twenties, she was a generation too far from 1959 for nostalgia. She hasn’t seen enough Afro-Cuban or politically independent women, or both, to feel such state politics is truly inclusive.
She’s not alone. Afro-Cubans describe the invisibility of their role in Cuban struggles and how blackness still correlates with greater poverty. It’s a continued injustice that one isn’t really supposed to organise against. Still, once alert to your reality, it’s impossible to be lulled by yesterday’s dream.
In old Havana, we almost missed a small plaque dedicated to the massacre of about 3,000 Afro-Cubans who were forming an independent party in 1908.
Such struggles against racism are hardly taught in schools, we heard. Many countries, including the US, with its whitewashing of vast indigenous genocide, are guilty of such amnesia. That’s why truth awakens and then quietly seethes.
The polishing-up of Old Havana has meant that its urban neighbourhoods are increasingly becoming wealthier and white as poor Afro-Cubans are pushed to outskirts.
Their buildings may be left to fall apart slowly over years and eventually become unlivable, while a new hotel might be up and running in the same spot in a year. All over the world, valuable urban real estate changes hands through such gentrification.
The IGDS brought our graduate students here so that they could be intimate with iconic places of Caribbean envisioning and resistance; so that they could know our own regional history of small-island big dreams. The kind of dreams that confront the Goliath of elites, empires, global economic orders and big-stick neighbours with a slingshot, small like Haiti, Grenada or Cuba.
Students also learned a lot about the risks and challenges of being truthful about failures amidst hugely admirable successes in health, education, international solidarity, and equality.
In sleep, you can dream to change the world. However, having awakened, you can learn from the ancestors and become better makers and movers of history.
It’s a less romanticised Cuban revolution that teaches the lesson students need. When truth wakes you up, do not go back to sleep.