Chapter 37: An American in Cuba

I was 19 when I first went to Cuba and I fell in love with the country almost instantly. There was so much beauty in Havana – the colors, the buildings, the people, the music, the ocean. I was there on a study abroad program for four months, but I rarely did any studying. I spent my days walking in Vedado and Havana Vieja, learning to salsa and meeting new people. I went out for dinner almost every night. I went out dancing almost every night. And I drank alcohol and smoked cigars almost every night. I brought $1,400 with me for the duration of my stay and that amount of money afforded me a very comfortable lifestyle in Cuba that I had never had in New York City, where I was born and raised. It was a lifestyle that was completely inaccessible to most Cubans, but I didn’t give it much thought at the time. Of course, my stay wasn’t all magical and wonderful. I had bad times. But for the most part, I spent every day seeing only what I wanted to see. I was so young and, in many ways, so ignorant, and I projected so much romanticism onto this place. For me, being in Cuba as an American felt like being in on a secret.

When I got back to New York, I spoke about Cuba constantly. I knew the real Cuba, I thought. At parties, I spent my time talking at people, telling them how different the country was from how it was portrayed in school and in the news and movies. I would go on about how strange it felt to come back to capitalist America and see advertisements everywhere and fully stocked supermarkets. 

Shortly after my return, the U.S. restored diplomatic relations with Cuba. I was a little dismayed, only thinking about how this would threaten my illusions of Cuba, and not how it might affect actual Cubans. Before we know it, it’s going to look like Times Square, I thought. I kept saying how lucky I was to have been there before it changed, before America influenced it. But the truth is, America has been influencing Cuba for decades, if not longer. The U.S. embargo on Cuba has played an enormous hand in shaping the country. At the time, I evidently was not thinking about this. 

I returned to Cuba on vacation with friends for a second time a year or so later . Things had changed a little. For one, there were more Americans. Many Cubans I spoke to were excited about this. Americans meant more money, they said. In my selfishness, it was a point I had not considered. But once again, I was in Cuba to relax, to party, to see old friends, to explore.

The third time I went to Cuba was to report. I had just finished graduate school and I had been awarded a longform journalism fellowship from Columbia to write a story of my choosing, which would later be published in what ended up becoming the Delacorte Review. The fellowship would last four months, and the pay was great. I knew I wanted to use some of the money to travel. At the time, I had aspirations of reporting internationally, of being able to travel for work and getting paid to write about foreign places and people. I thought Cuba would be an ideal place to report from. With a longform story related to Cuba, I would be able to show that I could report on a place that was inaccessible to many journalists, that I was able to find good sources, that I could report and interview in Spanish and then turn that content into an English piece. I decided to write about rappers in Havana and the censorship they faced. This was a world I knew little about.

It was my first time being in Cuba alone and I felt lonely right away. There was no internet access where I was staying and I spent my nights alone reading “A Little Life,” which is perhaps the worst good book you could possibly read when you are alone and a little sad. I spent my days trying to track down sources via landline and most of my money on hotel internet so I could message on Whatsapp. To be a journalist, especially in a country that is not yours, you have to observe and learn as much as you possibly can about what you are writing about. I wanted so badly to paint a complete picture of what Cuba was like in this moment in time. And to do so, I had to open my eyes and see both the good and the bad. No place is all good or all bad. But I think I came into my reporting thinking that everything that was bad in Cuba was because of the United States. I quickly learned that many Cubans were exhausted of hearing this. Their government blamed everything on the U.S., they said. They took accountability for nothing. People were exhausted.

On my first trip, I spent a lot of time trying to tell Cubans about America’s many flaws when they said I was lucky to be American. But I should have shut up and listened. I am the daughter of Colombian immigrants who left their country in search of something better. I am American because they sacrificed so many things to get here so that we would have more opportunities, and I have so much privilege simply because I carry an American passport. I shouldn’t have dismissed people for simply wanting a different reality than their current one. Most of us are trying to get to somewhere else, whether it’s a place or a lifestyle or a mindset or something else entirely.

I wasn’t expecting my reporting experience to make me feel so guilty. I met many incredible and talented people and learned so much about Cuban rap and its history on the island. This was all exciting and encouraging. But it was impossible to forget that I had parachuted into a place and was extracting information about the lives of people who faced much harsher realities than my own. I was just taking; taking their life stories and experiences for my story. And in the end, I would leave. They could not leave whether they wanted to or not. I wasn’t paying them. I couldn’t promise them a thing, except that I would do my best to tell their stories honestly. 

I also questioned whether I was the right person to tell this story. Here I was, an American, a light-skinned Latina, trying to write a story about mostly Black rappers in Havana whose experiences I could not relate to. I had not considered any of these things when I pitched the story or when I fantasized about what reporting abroad would look like. I always read and heard stories about these scrappy white men living abroad, writing masterpieces about wars and immigration and mysterious countries. And I wanted to do the same. But I since realized that its easier said than done and it’s not all that romantic. (The fact that these were my problems was a glaring example of my privilege.)

Growing up is, in many ways, realizing that things are not as they seem. They are usually worse and more sad. That’s a cynical take but one that I’ve found to be true in my twenty-seven years of life. Looking back, Cuba meant so much to me (and still does) because it’s the first place I felt truly connected to my Latin American heritage. I attended a very white, very wealthy college. White students there would tell me how they were more Latinx than me because they danced better or were curvier than I was, they mocked my parents’ accents when they visited, they called my hair weird and frizzy. Going to Cuba made me feel so fucking proud to be Latinx. 

I heard our music in the streets and everyone spoke our language. We were all so different and yet we shared so many commonalities. I will always cherish that experience. But I’m also glad I woke up and stopped idealizing everything – places and reporting especially. I have no answers; questioning things is a start. Illusions are meant to be shattered.