Real People of Cuba
As an American expatriate living in Merida, Yucatan, I was eager to taste the forbidden fruit that is Cuba. Nothing, however, could prepare me for what I found. In every respect, Cuba is a country torn between the old and the new, and the dichotomy is pervasive. Cuba is at the cross-roads of modern history, and this profound truth is nowhere more reflected than in its amazing people.
“I am Tony Montana; say hello to my little friend.”
With that perfect rendition of Al Pacino in Scarface, Tony also sets the perfect tone for leading us on our trip. He is a young, forty-something man with the personality of a star and the intelligence, experience, and knowledge of a political-science professor. He has been guiding foreigners (yumas) through his beloved country for twenty years, and it shows. He understands Cuba’s culture, politics, and people in depth and detail, and his sharing of this intriguing knowledge is mesmerizing and beguiling and capped always with disarming humor and a twinkle in his eye.
A stunning beauty, Yenni (Jenny) shines as one of Cuba’s newest generation. Bright, educated, curious and ambitious, she speaks English fluently and with vernacular fluidity. Yet, she remains: my Daddy’s little Cuban girl. She interrogates her tourist charges with an engaging and endearing persistence, bringing into her experience a knowledge of the world unavailable in books, and she is delighted by both the added information and her personal interactions.
We asked them to adopt us. Lovely Rafaela and her sprightly funny husband Oscar invited us cordially into their home, fed us with a gourmet breakfast, waited up for us at night, tucked us into bed, and treated us like beloved children. At least, that is how I remember them, because their overwhelming charm and generosity made me want to call them Mom and Dad. We did not feel like yumas after. They told us we were family now. Always and forever.
We are on the road. Up into the mountain jungles, down into a seaport village. Off the beaten path. Down a thinly sliced strip of beach-front property – the poorest kind. To a tiny, wood-stripped house with broken steps. Into the yet tinier living room of a man and his wife, to sit on several child-sized wooden chairs spaced along the walls. It is hot and humid. Confined.
The man is old. Outside the open door, we can see the sea. The man does not meet our eyes. He looks only at the guitar he holds. And then he sits, cradling his guitar like some beloved pet, or friend, or both, and gently begins to strum his song. And then he sings, and suddenly we hear old Cuba. And in his eyes we see the heaven to which his blissful voice is singing.
He mans the boat we take upriver. Quite literally, he does. We form a group of nine, and then himself. We are heavy yumas, most of us; he is not. He is one man, not so very tall, but lean and strong, and willing to work so very hard without complaint. The boat is but for rowing. The only motor is this uncomplaining man who must row us up the river – against the current. He never breaks the rhythm of his rowing. What we are witnessing is Cuban spirit – a determination to proceed no matter what the work required, without a single word against the work. He is not stoic; he is simply working for his living. He drops us on an island while he rows his boat downriver – where further work awaits him.
You might expect the worst, but I do not expect correctly when I see him standing just beyond our group. He listens to every word our guide is speaking. He seems lost among the details of the history our man is telling. Maybe he is there. But he is waiting, and he bides his time as patiently as I have ever seen a human do. Until our guide is done and then we break. Then he touches just my sleeve, as lightly as the slightest breeze, and softly rubs his fingers. By instinct, I say no. He does not press, but sadly shuffles to his bench where he sits down quietly to eat. I walk to him and place some Cuban coins into his soft and wrinkled palm, but his eyes do not light up with gratitude. They simply say, thank you for doing what is right. Turns out, I am the grateful one.
She is but one of many Cuban children we encounter. Like most, she remains quite shy and somewhat timid, but she insists also on inclusion and participation. She stands inside the doorway, watching. These children watch us yumas with wary fascination; unsure, but just too darn curious to ignore so many strangely-talking humans. Like Cuba herself, they wonder how best they might approach. Do we mean them harm? Or do our words encourage trust. Dare I say, love?
These, then, are the real people of Cuba. The young and the old, the workers and the beggars, the singers and the children. All representing a country at the cross-roads of its life, yearning with hope and optimism for a prosperous new future, yet defiantly proud of their independent and glorious but complex past. A generous and welcoming people, wary of the stranger, yet smiling him inside.
By Joel R. Dennstedt
Author – Journalist – World Traveler