La Peña Goes to Cuba

Alison Luterman

I wonder what the customs official in Santiago de Cuba thought as our group of 26 bedraggled Norteamericanos (and one Chileana and one Chicana) singers and musicians checked in, lugging bongoes, guitars, tambores, toilet paper, syringes, crayons and pens, latex gloves, and 6,000 condoms.

He tried to keep a straight face as he opened one box and came upon the cache of "personal appliances" which were donations we were planning to leave with Cuban AIDS health educators. The collapse of the Soviet Union five years ago has left Cuba cash-poor, and the continuing U.S. embargo makes it excruciatingly difficult for Cubans to get medical supplies, clothing, paper, pens, and other neccessities of modern life. Although the La Peña chorus' official reason for visiting Santiago was to participate in the third international festival of chorusses, we also wanted to bring some supplies in as a gesture of support.

"For personal use?" the official asked the musician who had agreed to haul the condoms with her luggage.

"Yes," she replied.

"Well," he shrugged, and waved her through. "Have fun in Cuba!"

And we did, although it was more than that. I don't know what to say to friends who ask, "How was Cuba?"

I say, "It was intense." What else can you say? It was not fun to see the shortages of vital supplies or to hear the stories of how difficult our country has made it for ordinary Cubans. It was inspiring to see the ingenuity of the Cuban people. Because of the gasoline shortage, there were horse-drawn carts on the streets. When we did see cars, they were vintage automobiles, lovingly preserved and kept running. Schoolchildren were beautiful in their white blouses and red shorts--and when we looked more closely, we could see that all the hems on their uniforms had been let out as far as they could go, and the clothes were shabby and worn.

There was very little trash on the streets--either because there wasn't enough excess to throw away, or out of civic pride. It was moving when people received us with open smiles and tears in their eyes, declaring over and over that they didn't confuse the government of the U.S. with the heart of its people. It was confusing and heartbreaking when we were asked repeatedly for money, soap, pens, clothing--and had to refuse, choosing to give to organizations rather than individuals, so goods could be distributed fairly.

Our trip had been arranged through Global Exchange, which promotes responsible tourism to third-world countries. Working with a Cuban agency called Amistour, we rented a big, bus, indispensible for hauling all our equipment, and we were assigned an interpretor/surrogate mother named Teresita who hustled us off to our gigs, ran interference between us and any obstacles, helped arrange our "encuentros" at schools, church, synagogue, and an AIDS sanotorium, and told us stories of how she worked for the revolution when she was a teenager.

The whole time we were there we were surrounded by the Sierra Maestra mountain range, where Castro and his guerillas hid out and planned battle strategies in the '50s, while citizens of Santiago, like Teresita, helped get them supplies and organized the resistance movement in the cities.

Today, forty years later, we were trying to decipher the real gains and losses of that revolution. And we were there to sing, to share our voices and songs with the twenty-five other chorusses who were there from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and from all over Cuba.

The first time we heard one of the Cuban chorusses sing, we wanted to put our collective tail between our legs and slink home. They sang with an artistry and professionalism that made us feel about an inch high. As it turns out, they were professional. Poor as Cuba is, it still supports its artists; in Havana there is the National Chorus, under the direction of a beautiful woman named Digna Guerra, and Santiago has its own professional chorus also.

The Coro Nacional of Havana had requested an encuentro with us, so we went to the Friendship House in Santiago. They sang and we were reduced to tears by the purity of their voices singing as one voice, and by our knowledge of the daily difficulties our country was causing them. None of us wanted to sing after their performance, but the event was supposed to be an "intercambio", an exchange, so reluctantly, with tears streaming down our faces, we got up and faced them.

Our spokesperson Dickie Magidoff, who has been with the group for over ten years, stepped forward and said, "We've come here as a gesture of solidarity and support. We represent many many Americans who do not agree with the blockade and who want friendship and peace between our two countries." Then we sang for them. We sang "Harriet Tubman", and "Usted Pregunta Porque Cantamos" ("You Ask Us Why We Sing"), whose words were written by the poet Victor Jara who was murdered in the stadium in Chile after Allende fell. We sang a song for Nelson Mandela, and when we looked up they were crying also.

Cultural differences, political differences, and our self-consciousness about musical skill all fell away as we faced each other, crying. There was a little space of floor between them, the audience, and us, the performers. A minute later there was no space as both groups surged forward, embracing, shaking hands, asking, "What is your name?"

They thanked us and thanked us for our performance. We were overwhelmed and found it hard to accept compliments from such accomplished musicians.

"Listen," one woman said in Spanish, taking me by the hand. "Singing is done not with the mouth, but with the heart." She pointed to her chest for emphasis.

For me, this was the crowning flower of the many gifts the Cubans gave us.

Later that week, five men from the National Chorus came to our hotel and serenaded us under the full moon with a selection of songs that included the Black spiritual, "It's Me, It's Me O Lord, Standing in the Need of Prayer." We drank rum and danced the salsa with Cubans who had ball bearings in their hips. We visited an AIDS sanotorium and gave away all those thousands of condoms. We sang "Silent Night" in a Protestant Church, visited the Virgin of Charity who appeared to three shipwrecked fisherman in a vision and corresponds to the Yoruba love-goddess Oshun, and we saw the synagogue that was filmed in the documentary about Jews in Cuba. We even got to go to the beach.

Throughout, our visit was laced with painful contradictions. Cuba is so in need of cash that scarce resources are going toward tourists who will bring in foreign revenue, while average Cubans go without. We were served meat three times a day at our hotel, while university students eat rice and beans for both lunch and dinner, and ordinary Cubans are rationed eight eggs a month. Taxis and restaurants only accepted dollars, not pesos; therefore, only tourists could use them. Cubans were not even allowed to dance in some of the hotel bars--they were only for tourists.

Because dollars are so valued, there is fierce competition for jobs which provide access to tourists. We heard of surgeons moonlighting as bellhops because the dollars they make in tips come to more than a doctor's salary. A culture of prostitution has grown up around the tourist industry so it was hard to decipher people's intentions. Seemingly innocent encounters would segue into requests for cash. Seven dollars in American money represented a month's average salary for a Cuban, but the hotel charged a dollar for a Coke. We were not in a position to argue with the decisions the Cuban government had made, but what we saw was how difficult the choices were.

Still, everyone appeared to be housed, and to have enough to eat. If there were medicines available, people were treated free of charge when they were ill. Fairness and sharing were emphasized everywhere, down to our smallest dealings. The romance of the Revolution, the legions of heros and martyrs who fought against slavery and colonialism, and now against U.S. imperialism, is still alive today. One mother told me, "It's very hard, when your children ask you for things and you can't give. Children can't understand. But we can't give in to force..." The Cubans we met were sophisticated about politics and wanted to talk about the embargo. They wanted to know how their country was perceived by us and what we would say when we got back.

They are proud people. At one university, after we had sung a concert, a radiant student representative got up and said, "Our guests have given us a magnificent performance. In return, we can not do less." Then the student performers got up and enacted some Afro-Haitian ritual dances which took our breath away.

Cuba is a country which loves her poets. Great musicians could be heard on every streetcorner. In the words of the songs, in the beauty of the faces, were reflected the Cubans' great love for their mountains, sea, sun, and history. But a giant undertow of despair ran through everything. As one member of our group said, "Undercurrents. You always feel the undercurrents."

We couldn't really know, because we hadn't lived through the last five years of deprivation with them. We could see the pain on the faces of the older generation as they watched the Revolution's hard-fought gains being eroded by the struggle for survival in the '90s. And we could see the frustration on the faces of younger people who saw no opportunities for their future in Cuba. We sang with them and for them, and we left behind our aspirin and our cold tablets, our vitamins and Tampax and toilet paper and the toothbrushes we had brought. We took with us the memory of their faces, their songs, and the promise we had made them to share their stories with our friends back home.

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