The plane was about to take off—a Super-Constellation on its daily run from Havana to New York. The four propellers whirling at half throttle, the doors closed, the stewardesses making sure the passengers were not walking up and down the aisle on takeoff, as Cubans were prone to do if left unattended, and shepherding them towards their assigned seats. It was early September 1959 on a sunny morning in the middle of the rainy season, like most mornings at that time of the year unless a storm was making its way from the Caribbean Sea into the Gulf of Mexico. It had taken me ten days, ten days to decide I didn't want to stay, ten days to turn down the two jobs I had been offered, a commission in the new Cuban army and a position at the labor union's national headquarters, and to forgo any others that might have come my way. I had returned to Cuba to take one of the two jobs offered, probably the one with the army. My exile was over, I thought. But here I was ten days later waiting for the plane to take off. Still, I sat there, questions and doubts in my mind, looking out the window and not seeing anything. We had struggled to overthrow a tyrannical government and had succeeded. We fought the good fight and won, and looking back I could see a path strewn with bodies of friends and acquaintances: Chúa, blown up; Porfirio, who made it through World War II in the Pacific without a scratch, torn apart by the Cuban secret police; Mario, tortured and shot and his wife crying and comforting their kids; Ñico, always in a hurry, his skinny long legs permanently in high gear—at least he died fighting; Fructuoso, and our never-ending discussions about Argentina and Peronismo, assassinated; also Carbó, who I liked but could never bring myself to take seriously; Machadito, who I always ran into, for some inexplicable reason, at the exact junction of Infanta and Concordia Streets, regardless of the time of day or day of the week, also murdered.*
The tortured and badly beaten were too many to remember and, ultimately, they had been lucky; they had survived. And then the new images: the excitement and optimism bubbling and overflowing like a freshly uncorked champagne bottle, a national fiesta which included even those who had never joined in, or even approved of, our fight against Batista's dictatorship. So as I sat in the plane waiting for it to get airborne, second-guessing myself with these remembrances and lingering doubts, I didn't notice the engines die and the door open; I just saw two uniformed armed men move down the aisle past me, stop three rows ahead, yank a middle-aged, heavy-set man out of his seat, and march him unceremoniously out of the plane. Doubts and remembrances evaporated, and I was left with the cold double realization that I didn't care if I ever saw the island of Cuba again, and that I had already been made into what I was always going to be.
*Chúa, whose full name was Francisco Cardona Orta, and Porfirio, who ran the Havana Law School coffee shop and whose last name I never knew, died in bomb blasts—either they were in the process of placing these devices or, more likely, the police so claimed after murdering them. Mario Fortuny, one of the leaders of the Triple A underground organization was tortured, shot and his body left in a car by his home. Ñico, Antonio López, was part of the small group of men that landed in eastern Cuba with Fidel Castro in December 1956, and one of the first to die fighting. Fructuoso Rodríguez, Julio César Carbó and José Machado participated in the attempt to kill Batista in March 1957 and were assassinated after a member of the Cuban Communist Party betrayed their hiding place to the Cuban police.
I was born twice. Same country—two worlds. The first time I was delivered into a feudal family in a time that no longer was; the second, I was hurled into a revolution in a time that was never to be. I was brought into the first world in 1934 by a white doctor, into the second in 1952 by a black soldier. Eighteen years separated the two births, but in the tropics time moves on its own accord, unrestrained by the unimaginative inflexibility of numerical sequence, so the chronological progression is meaningless, if even discernible, and those years remain suspended in my memory, hazy silhouettes fixed against the cacophony of human frenzy, music and gunfire.
Cuba provided a vivid and dizzying introduction to life. Exuberant to stridency, aimlessly intense, hopelessly inchoate, pretentious and jejune, the island floated in a sea of noise, movement and ebullience as if engaged in a mad dash towards some imperceptible but irresistible destination. Speed of thought and action valued above clarity and accuracy in an unceasing feast of sound and color, presided over by a scorching sun, moderated only by the tenderness of the trade winds and scented by the perfumes of the tropical night.
My father had no noble title, but he certainly was a feudal lord. Luyanó was the largest industrial neighborhood in Havana, a sprawling continuum of working-class poverty sprinkled with lower-middle-class clean shirts and aspiring hopes. In the midst of all this our house stood out, an early-nineteenth-century structure that had been the country residence of the Count of Villanueva, a Spanish grandee, and our street properly was named after him. It was a large, solid, and spacious construction, converted into a school in the days of Fidel Castro, with windows covered by eighteen feet of wrought iron from floor to ceiling, and a main double door entrance, also eighteen feet, in double mahogany. A garden protected the two sides of the house facing Villanueva and Rodríguez Streets, itself surrounded by an aggressive six-foot black wrought-iron fence with nasty sharp spikes on top and in the middle. One of my earliest childhood memories is that of a little neighborhood boy hanging from one of those spikes, screaming in pain as my father unhooked his hand.
Early memories are imprecise visions that emerge out of the foggy recesses of the mind and present themselves in inexact sequence and in response to changing circumstances. My first recollection is usually of my mother, although sometimes it is my uncle Alfonso bending over my crib. My father, grandmother, sisters, uncles and aunts all come in later and in no clear order. I really don't remember the first time I became aware of most of them; they surfaced as inhabitants of shadowy corners who slowly, almost begrudgingly, took independent shape. Maybe there were so many aunts and uncles that this was inevitable, or perhaps it was I who was remiss to recognize and differentiate them, or that's how it always is.
There was my grandmother, my father's mother, Doña Consuelo: white hair, blue eyes, always either in the garden tending her flowers and herbs or resting in her large rocking chair. She was the unquestioned señora de la casa; she ran the house. She had had eighteen children, twelve alive, eight of them living at home, and eleven who had supper together every evening. It was much closer to a clan or a tribe than to a family, and it took some time before I realized how out of the ordinary, even by Cuban standards, we were—a throwback to some bygone era that clung to time with unconcerned but unwavering tenacity.
My father was the eldest son and, therefore, the man in charge. Things fell nicely into place because he also provided the house, which came with his job. He ran the warehouse and shipping office of Victor G. Mendoza y Cía, a large supplier of machinery and parts for sugar mills. It was a double warehouse with an adjacent yard that served as a baseball field for the neighborhood boys on weekends; the warehouse, yard and living quarters occupying an entire square block—a fenced-in and self-contained castle-fortress that insulated us, at least partially, from our immediate surroundings.
We did not rule the neighborhood, but in our castle-fortress we were above it—separate if not independent. It wasn't that we did not communicate with our neighbors, we did, but we didn't consider them neighbors, just people who happened to live nearby. Women and old men would come by and ask my grandmother for herbs for all sorts of ailments, especially of the eye and stomach, and she would dispense her jazmín, vicaria, albahaca and yerba buena with friendly aloofness; and boys would come by every afternoon to play taco or quimbumbia, or some other made-up game with my brother and me on Rodríguez Street, which was unpaved, or in the backyard after the warehouse and office had been closed for the day.
The black family that lived across Villanueva Street supplied us with a cook and three servants for years—the mother, Tomasa, replaced the first cook I remember, Adelaida, who had been with us for many years and who had left for reasons unknown to me, and who was much missed since Tomasa couldn't prepare a good meal to save her life. Tomasa's daughters, Chela, Manuela and Maíta, did the washing and the cleaning, especially on weekends, her husband, Papo, would run occasional errands, and their son, Papito, who had a head that seemed way out of proportion to his body, came over to play sometimes after school; and they were part of my life for years, but I never learned their last name, nor was I ever curious to know.
Despite our distance from the neighbors, we were very much part of the neighborhood and helped to give it its character as an aberrant urban relic of a world that was disappearing without ever actually having been.
My sisters were born before me but came after me in the social hierarchy of our family because I was the first son of the first son. My position was acknowledged by my assigned seat at the end of the long rectangular dinner table, directly opposite my father. My higher rank was accepted as a matter of course, although as far as I was concerned it didn't help me any in disputes with my sisters, or fights with my brother, or with anything else I could think of. Training as the eventual head of the family meant learning that responsibility was its own, and only, reward—if any young boy or emerging adolescent can call that a reward.
School fit in with everything else. I was scheduled to go to a private Catholic school outside the neighborhood and I knew this and must have been looking forward to it because when someone had the bright idea of sending me to a local school in preparation, I would have no part of it. The effort must have been halfhearted since the person who took me to the local school was Nené, who was never trusted with anything of weight. I was six at the time and my recollection of the event is quite clear. What I don't remember as well is the sequence of events concerning Nené, whether this was before or after his marriage to Rosaura, or before or after their divorce. Events in Cuba followed a pattern that although perhaps abstruse or recondite to others was in absolute harmony with the spirit of the place and the music of the day. To begin with, Nené was not a relative; he just pretended to be one. His mother, Nina, was my uncle Luis's mistress. Being his mistress, she was neither allowed to come into the house nor allowed to be in my grandmother's presence—that would have been a violation of a basic canon of propriety. Luis slept at her house every night after he had had supper at ours, and no one objected to the sleeping arrangement; obviously, it was not as important as the eating one. Nené would come to our house, never to a proper meal, of course, but to visit or have coffee or to go on errands for my aunts after he had stopped being a fireman. The reason he and his brother, Kike, and nephews, Yayo and Ando, pretended to be our relatives was as old as life: we were the local aristocrats, and they wanted some of our social prestige to rub off on them—and we had to find ways of correcting such a misunderstanding without being unnecessarily cruel, and the truth was that our objection to acknowledging any kinship with them had less to do with social pretentiousness than it did with intellectual embarrassment: Nené, Kike, Yayo and Ando were the dumbest bunch one could possibly imagine. Yayo would routinely spend entire afternoons trying to impress people by uncapping Coke bottles with his grotesquely large and malformed teeth. Ando, his brother, once got into an argument with me, on the day of my grandmother Consuelo's funeral, about the meaning of a popular saying that ran Muerto el perro, se acabó la rabia, When the dog dies, rabies ends. He insisted that the phrase meant that if a dog bit you and gave you rabies all you had to do was find that dog, kill it, and your rabies would be gone. The dispute between the two of us became so loud, and was so out of place at the funeral with the house full of people crying and eating and looking sad and trying to balance their coffee cups that Tarzan, my aunt Adela's husband, had to intervene and try to explain to Ando the error of his logic. Tarzan was no genius himself, a man whose specialty was inventing things that already existed, his most successful creation being the six-pronged ice pick, but even he had no trouble seeing where Ando's thinking had gone awry. Ando was subdued but not convinced and all throughout the funeral kept looking at me with a sarcastic sneer that proclaimed absolute confidence in the correctness of his interpretation. I remember wishing for a rabid dog to show up and bite him right then and there so he could try his logic.
In any event, Nené courted Rosaura, a local seamstress, in accordance with the mores and traditions of the time, and they went out properly chaperoned and waited for sex until marriage, and waited for marriage until they were in a position to afford it. Their courtship lasted twenty years, long but not unheard of in those days and latitudes, until Nené with much effort and through the influence of one of my uncles got a job as a fireman—civil service, livable wages, guaranteed vacations, eventual pension—and then they married. Six months into the marriage Nené showed up unexpectedly at home in the middle of the day and found Rosaura in bed with the local grocer. No one ever told me what ensued, but apparently Nené did everything wrong and ended up divorcing Rosaura with no legal case against her, which meant that he had to provide alimony and a share of his job's benefits. Outraged by finding himself in such a predicament, he did the only thing he could think of to preserve his honor and to spite Rosaura: he quit his job and never again sought proper employment, so there would be no benefits for her to share in. So the Nené who took me to the local school might have been waiting to marry Rosaura, or maybe he was already divorced. In any event, he took me to a neighborhood school a few blocks from home. Once there I looked around, said good morning to the teacher and told him I wasn't staying. I remember the man's bafflement and his asking Nené whether I was staying or not, and Nené shrugging his shoulders and not knowing what to say, and my grabbing his hand and leading him out of there and back home. It is amazing to me that I remember all this with absolute clarity but have no recollection of what happened when we got back to the house. Probably nothing.
My uncles were divided into two types: blue-eyed and brown-eyed. The blue-eyed—Luis, Enrique and Norberto—were all odd characters; the brown-eyed—Angel, Alfonso and Marcial—were normal, at least comparatively. The aunts could also be divided by eye color: Adela, Carmela and Pastora, blue; Consuelo and Charo, brown. The former were nurturing and the latter aloof, or perhaps only somewhat less nurturing. There was a blue-eyed uncle, Manuel, who was not an uncle although we called and thought of him as one. He was my grandmother Consuelo's cousin, and his eyes were an exact replica of hers. Manuel was my introduction to the blue-eyed weirdness that ran through the family. He lived a few blocks away with his mulatto mistress, Lola, and like Luis, had supper with us every evening before going to his woman for the night. Manuel also had a wife, whom apparently he had never gotten around to divorcing, and three grown children in a neighborhood at the other end of Havana. He was the only member of the family interested in books, strange books though, on chemistry and biology and surgery, and he kept a sort of lab in one of the back rooms facing the enclosed backyard. He also had some chickens in a coop near where the family chickens were kept, and he raised and trained fighting cocks. Manuel was a man of many idiosyncrasies, and I remember once coming back from school and going into the backyard and finding a chicken hobbling around on a wooden leg. In a last-ditch effort to save the animal's life through amputation, Manuel had designed and fit the chicken with the artificial limb, and the leg seemed to work, but the chicken died the following morning. Manuel's most outstanding idiosyncrasy, however, was one that took me some time to realize and which I never fully understood: he couldn't tell the truth. Well, not exactly. He could be truthful if he was talking on his own initiative, but if you asked him a question, any question, he would answer with a lie. It didn't matter what the question was, he just could not bring himself to answer truthfully, and when I detected this trait I asked one of my uncles, I think Alfonso, about it, and I immediately realized I had asked a stupid question. Was the sky blue? Of course Manuel was a liar. It was known, accepted and thought nothing of.
My father's family and my mother's family were worlds apart. Clannish, cohesive and rabidly supportive of one another in the face of the external world, the Morenos, my father's family, were an amalgam of individuals who differed markedly from one another and moved full steam ahead in their respective directions without doubt or vacillation, or ever paying the slightest attention to what other people thought. It was not that they would question or challenge the mores, values and opinions of others. It was more that what others thought was of no consequence; it was never discussed, taken into account, or referred to—not even to question or dismiss; it just didn't exist.
My mother's families, the Sierras, were the opposite; they were concerned above everything else with propriety and appearance. There was a grandmother, an aunt, an uncle and their kids, five cousins in all, three male and two female, all of whom were much older than my siblings and me. My mother's mother, Gertrudis, who was referred to by us as Ayita and by everyone else as Doña Tula, was an unpleasant scrawny lady with a scalding stare, always sadly dressed in gray or black, who would occasionally lapse into Catalán, and who we would kiss perfunctorily in her wheelchair and escape from as fast as we could, something my brother and I could manage more easily than our sisters, who, being older and female, were subjected to a much higher dosage of her unhappy presence and sour character. Ayita lived with Aunt Cristina, my mother's sister—who, for no known reason, we children called Ana—and her family in the Loma de Chaple area, a quiet upper-middle-class neighborhood on a hill that always felt cooler than our own. Cristina's family was a pretentious bunch who, in Cuban jargon, se tiraban los peos más altos que el culo, farted above their asses. My brother and I dreaded the visits to their house, and although I can't speak for my sisters, I doubt they enjoyed them much either.
While my father's family didn't give a hoot about what anyone else thought about them, my mother's family was totally dependent on other people's opinions. Aunt Cristina, who was a handsome woman with a striking mane of shiny white hair, was always not only properly, but elegantly, dressed. Her husband was the star salesman of the same company my father worked for and had made quite a bit of money, but as he was both a womanizer and a gambler their financial footing was shakier than they pretended. Their eldest son had been sent to the United States to study, something not many Cubans could afford in those days, and since this cousin never learned much of anything anywhere the decision to send him abroad was probably more socially determined than educationally motivated. I clearly remember Aunt Cristina gloating over the fact that her son was "studying in the United States." The Sierras' pretentiousness was perplexing in its shallowness because they had at least one tidbit they could have boasted about had they been concerned with anything other than their affluence.
My mother's mother, Doña Tula, was a first cousin of Federico Capdevila, one of the most heroic Spanish figures in Cuban history. Capdevila had been an officer in the Spanish army back when Cuban opposition to Spanish rule was beginning to mount and had been appointed defense counsel for a group of eight Cuban medical students who were accused of desecrating the tomb of a known Spanish journalist and who were being railroaded through a military trial. The charges and the legal procedures responded more to the colonial government's desire to punish the Cubans and suppress further acts of defiance than to proper judicial practice or the search for justice. After a spirited defense and upon hearing the tribunal announce the draconian sentence of death for the eight young men, Capdevila, outraged, took out his sword, an official accouterment of every Spanish officer's formal uniform, and broke its blade over his knee in a symbolic gesture of disapproval and defiance. By doing this, he was deliberately and unabashedly declaring his contempt for the action of the military court and letting the judges know what he thought. His army career ended, for all practical purposes, right then and there—and he became the only Spanish soldier of his time depicted with respect and admiration in Cuban history books.
Justice and propriety were the two epicenters around which each family moved in complete contraposition to one another. In the Moreno household everything was discussed in terms of "right" and "wrong"; with the Sierras it was "proper" and "improper." Of course, determining what was right and wrong among the Morenos was always left to interminable and often heated discussions, although the family concerns seemed limited to cigars and politics with an abundance of knowledge about the first and an overabundance of opinions about the second. These discussions were limited not only in subject but also in time, space and participants. Debate did not begin until after dessert, when coffee was brought into the dining room and the women left the table and congregated in a small pantry by the kitchen's entrance. My brother and I were allowed to listen but knew better than to venture a comment or an opinion. Once, I did, and we were both told that los niños hablan cuando las gallinas mean, children talk when the chickens pee, and we immediately went to the coop behind the house and discovered, after long hours of observation, that chickens don't pee.
With the coffee came the cigars, all kinds of cigars, brevas and cazadores and panetelas and an array of others, and these were invariably followed by the critical appraisal of what everyone was smoking, an appraisal that went into painful detail about the quality of the leaf wrappings, the texture and coloration of the inner leaves, the virtues of Vuelta Abajo versus Vuelta Arriba (the two main tobacco-growing regions in Cuba), the aroma, the ashes, and so on and so on and so on. For a child forced to listen to at least part of the conversation before being allowed to leave the table, these cigar discussions were excruciatingly tedious, and my mind would fly in all directions, although I couldn't escape completely the ceaseless barrage of opinions and information which drove me to never put a cigar to my lips until many years after I had left Cuba.
Politics was something else. I didn't understand everything that was being said, but I found the conversation, references and arguments intriguing and appealing to my curiosity and imagination. The discussions were always couched in terms of war or its political variants: struggle, strife, confrontation, rebellion, insurrection, revolt, revolution. The whole history of Cuba since 1853, when the first armed attempt against Spanish rule took place, was viewed as a never-ending fight. First were the wars for independence, which lasted, with breaks in the military action but none in the overall effort, until 1898. Then the American occupation until 1902, after which a quasi-independence was granted under the colonial tutelage of the Platt Amendment, which gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuba whenever it pleased—and which the United States proceeded to do. From mutilated independence until 1933, when the American-imposed amendment was abrogated, Cuban nationalists struggled to turn their county into something other than a gringo protectorate, and these were years of corrupt and inept administrations, landings of Marines, racial massacres, endemic armed revolts, incipient labor militancy and chronic student unrest. Capping this era came the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado, a popularly elected veteran of the war against Spain who decided his constitutional term of office was too short and extended it arbitrarily in 1928, provoking widespread political unrest and providing a rallying point for all dissatisfied factions and individuals.
Most years drag themselves in and out of existence and disappear from memory without leaving behind anything but a perfunctory reference to a number; others slap a whole country in the face and make an indelible mark in its consciousness, becoming mandatory references for generations to come—1933 was such a year for Cuba. First, the dictator Machado was brought down by middle-class political activists with the tacit support of the United States, which was seriously concerned with the deterioration of the Cuban market for American products. Then, after a few weeks of confusion, emerged the man who was to reign over Cuba for the next two and a half decades: Fulgencio Batista, army sergeant, wannabe politician, and black. It wasn't that Batista was a full-blooded black man. Ethnically, he was a mixture of Indian and African probably with a little white here and there; but what caused him to be seen increasingly as black by white Cuba was not what he was but what he stood for. After coming to power in 1933, Batista could have been cast as either black or white, race in a Latin environment not possessing the absoluteness and permanency that it does in the Anglo world. A successful black, Indian or mestizo who accepts the ways of the whites, speaks and behaves as whites do, respects the same formalities and worships the same idols will, sooner or later, be viewed and classified as white. This of course doesn't mean that racial prejudice is absent, or any less cruel and arbitrary than in any other place; it simply means that in these societies it is possible for some individuals to move from the ranks of the discriminated into those of the discriminators. Batista, however, became blacker as time went by, and the foundation of the island's politics as I was growing up was the tug-of-war between the black sergeant-turned-general and the white Cuban middle class.
When Batista took over the army and the country through a coup d'état on September 4, 1933, he enlisted the support of the radical young nationalists who operated out of Havana University and let them run the government for slightly over four months while he solidified his control of the military by getting rid of the overwhelmingly white officer corps. For these four months the young radicals did what young radicals were supposed to do in a protectorate struggling to feel like an independent land: they nationalized American-owned public utilities; ran their government offices with a colorful and volatile mixture of passion, honesty and inefficiency; shouted anti-imperialist slogans right and left; and incurred the wrath of the new Roosevelt administration in Washington, which refused to recognize their government.
After four months Batista felt secure and made his move. He arrived at an understanding with the American ambassador, kicked the young radicals out of their official positions, replaced them with older pro-American politicians and got the new government recognized by Washington. He ruled the country from Camp Columbia, the army headquarters, and although his official position was commander in chief of the army, everyone understood he was el amo del país, the master of the country.
Batista's rise was a three-act play that began at the slow rhythm of an old and romantic habanera with distant sounds of African drums. The first act was the dismissal of the professional white officer corps, and this turned out to be low comedy. The officers, my mother's brother Fernando among them, never knew what hit them, and when they tried to react they were outmaneuvered and outwitted by the mostly mestizo sergeants, and were forced to show their ineptness for all to see as they were ridiculed into political oblivion. The second act was the dismissal of the radically nationalist student government, as the music slid into danzón with a stronger drumbeat and a more vibrant mixture of tunes and influences. The white army officers had gone without much pain or glory because they had been viewed as in cahoots with the fallen dictator, as part of the despised past political structure and as inept. But the removal of the student-controlled nationalist government was a different matter. Batista immediately became a Yankee lackey in the eyes of the idealistic nationalists and the incipient socialist and communist factions flourishing in Cuba, as in the rest of the world, in the train of the Russian Revolution. The end of 1934 and the beginning of 1935 saw the opposing camps clearly demarcated: Batista, the American embassy, American sugar interests and their Cuban associates on one side; the idealistic nationalists and the socialist and communist groups on the other; and the rest of the country, probably the majority, neither here nor there, just observing the action with the apprehensive detachment of those who are powerless and know their fate is in someone else's hands. The opposition to Batista grew in intensity, and by March 1935 it exploded in a general strike to the tempo of martial airs and the lyrics of revolutionary proclamations that mixed the rhetoric of the French Revolution with the aspirations of the Russian one. The strike gained momentum and appeared to be on its way to paralyzing the country and forcing the collapse of the government when the third act unfolded in the form of high drama, as the African drums moved loudly and forcefully into the foreground.
Batista broke the strike and squashed the threat to his rule by making a deal with the Communists—by buying them out. The Communists broke ranks with the rest of the forces supporting the strike—exactly as they had done two years earlier in a strike against Machado—and in return were given the right to organize labor unions and all the fringe benefits befitting the new dictator's allies. The deal, when coupled with the repressive measures taken against those who remained opposed to the government, destroyed the effectiveness of the opposition, consolidated Batista's grip and fixed for a long time to come the way Cubans looked upon the Communist Party since no dialectical legerdemain, or Marxist mumbo-jumbo, could disguise the fact that they had betrayed the strike.
The final scene was pure tragedy. The leader of the fight against Batista, initially a member of the nationalist government supported by Batista and the students, the man who had issued the decrees expropriating the American utility companies, the man who had come to symbolize idealistic nationalism and opposition to American interventionism, Antonio Guiteras, was captured and murdered—and with his murder all effective opposition came to an end. Two things about Guiteras come always to my mind: his full name was Antonio Guiteras Holmes, born in Philadelphia; and he went to his death from my aunt Cristina's home, where he had been hiding.
\The counterpoint to politics was music. It is all but impossible to convey an accurate picture of Havana, even to think of it, without considering the sounds that encompassed and pervaded all aspects of city life. It would be like watching a movie without the sound track, where the mood and atmosphere become difficult to interpret, and scenes lose subtlety, complexity and often meaning. Sounds and music always frame the action, give it character, denote context, indicate direction and build expectation. Sometimes we are vividly aware of the background sound, sometimes we incorporate it unconsciously into the action—but it is always there. And so it was in Havana. There was noise and there was music and they were different; at times they ran on parallel tracks without touching, and at times they overlapped without integrating, and at other times they collaborated in peaceful harmony, and at still other times they fought and crashed violently into each other.
The street vendors would shout their pregones, their selling cries, announcing themselves and the virtues of their wares, and the radio would broadcast the music, or musics, since there were many of them in Havana, and the pregones sometimes became songs—"El manisero," the peanut vendor, the most famous but by no means the only one—and there were songs that had been, or were destined to be, pregones by appropriation, adaptation or transmutation. The lines were never clearly drawn, and there was a constant back and forth from street noise to music and back to street noise.
The city was a virtual battleground for rhythms and styles that seemed to share little in common; boleros, guarachas, guajiras and danzones were homegrown, but Cuban music did not monopolize the field and had to share it with music from Spain, Mexico, Argentina and the United States. From Spain came pasodobles, zarzuelas and flamenco; from Mexico, corridos and boleros; from Argentina, tangos; and from the United States, big bands, supreme among them, Artie Shaw.
Who listened to what was difficult to tell. Among my aunts and uncles there was a clear preference for Spanish and Cuban music. I liked all the music, American the least. My sisters had no use for anything that was not Cuban or American. Most of my friends liked Cuban music first and whatever else second, and I was surprised when I discovered that they did not share my enthusiasm for tango. What was conspicuously absent from the radio was Afro-Cuban music. It is true that most if not all twentieth-century Cuban music was heavily influenced by the rhythms, instruments and cadences that black slaves brought to the island, but still it was rare to hear the purer forms of Afro-Cuban music on the airwaves, even though the same music could be heard in the streets of all the popular neighborhoods in Havana and definitely in ours. Two or three months before carnival time the sound of bongós, bongo drums, would invade my house night after night, floating in from the black enclave on Acierto Street, right behind the warehouse, with a persistent and mesmerizing monotony that disguised for those not attuned to it, like me, its melody and meaning. Still, I was fascinated by the mixture of joy and sadness, temporal joy and ancestral sadness, the drums seemed to convey.
Havana danced frenetically and simultaneously to many tunes, and the incongruous behavior of its people kept pace with the melodies. There were those who thought of life in bolero form and indulged occasionally in mild melancholic romanticism; those who moved to the rhythm of tango, replete with tearful melodrama and emotional affectation; some who saw the world as a corrido and perceived existence as truculent challenge and boisterous violence; and some who viewed their surroundings as zarzuela, amusing and sardonic with sentiments and emotions always in a minor key; and still others who saw life as a wild animal to be fought, adjusting their vision to pasodoble time; and still more who faced life as guaracha, humorous and picaresque and not to be taken seriously; and the young who wanted to be part of the modern world and moved with the big bands; and a final group, perhaps the majority, who approached life as a combination of some or all of the above, exhibiting overlapping and contradictory tendencies that would have left an outsider convinced of their insanity but which to us, natives, made perfect sense.
Politics and music, fighting and dancing, these were the two beats that formed the harmonic texture of the island, and it would have been impossible to understand the country without taking into account these two forces and their interconnected rhythm. It also would have been impossible to fully comprehend Cuba without coming to terms with how and why this small piece of land, with a modest population of six million and no significant accomplishment to its credit, could have engendered in its inhabitants the high opinion they had of themselves. Maybe it was insularity, or maybe the twists of the country's history, or maybe some unpredictable genetic factor, or the Caribbean air, or the large amount of coffee we drank, or some undetectable cosmic variable that produced such high self-esteem, but whatever was responsible for it, there it was, front and center—and we all partook in it. This feeling of vainglorious satisfaction had its highest expression in middle-class Havana, but it was not limited to a social class or to a region; it ran through the whole island, and it was ingrained in the Cuban personality.