BY CARLOS EIRE
Yes, connecting with the past was part of the experience, but what I encountered most intensely was not the past or what was lost, but rather the present and the future.
Yes, I met a man born in 1910, a living relic. Yes, I saw many images of Cuba when it was vibrant and on the cutting edge rather than a labyrinth of ruins: the Cuba in which I was born, the Cuba that ceased to be. And, yes, I met many kindred souls who shared the same history, the same loss, the same gain.
Yes, I also heard heavenly music from a distant past, reinterpreted in many ways. Some bands were better than others, but many of them seemed to love the same mystic refrain from the song “ El Bodeguero,” which I kept trying to decode: “ Toma chocolate, paga lo que debes.”
Drink chocolate, pay what you owe. It seemed an encoded message of sorts, a summation of the karmic debt that brought all of us Cuban exiles together in this extreme corner of Miami, so close to the Everglades, so far from our past.
Bodeguero. This word conjured up all that we lost. Bodegas were stores that sold all sorts of goods. They weren’t supermarkets: you had to ask the storekeeper, the bodeguero, for the items you needed. Most bodegas were on busy street corners. They had slow-moving ceiling fans and a radio or jukebox, and music was part of the ambiance. Some had bars, and all of them seemed to be owned and run by some neighbor.
The song “ El Bodeguero” celebrates the effervescence of that Cuba killed by the Castro mafia, a prosperous Cuba where goods were readily available in an atmosphere unlike any other in the world, where neighbors dealt with each other as kin, and mere buying and selling could turn into a party.
El bodeguero vailando va, the storekeeper dances as he goes,
y en la bodega se baila asi, and in the store we dance like this,
entre frijoles papa y aji. in between the peppers, potatoes, and beans.
Fidel confiscated all the bodegas, handed out ration books to everyone, turned off the music and also transformed the chocolate, peppers, potatoes, and beans into inaccessible luxuries for most Cubans.
I found no chocolate to drink at Cuba Nostalgia. But even if I’d found some, I’d have passed it up. I needed something stronger and colder, something that would steady my gait in this torrential confluence of past and present, which was overwhelming.
Face it, I told myself, this is not just about the past: We’re all thumbing our noses at Fidel, expressing ourselves freely, testifying with our very presence here that we will not forget our homeland, and, most importantly, that we have the wherewithal to resurrect it.
I saw the future rather than the past. Volveremos, I realized. We shall return. We owe it to ourselves and to our homeland. We had to flee, but we have proven that we could not be defeated. We’ve learned to become Americans and have excelled at achieving the American dream, not because we had to change identities, but precisely because we are Cubans and always will be. We carry within ourselves the best of our past along with the seeds of the future.
We are the real Cuba. Forget the nightmare slave plantation created by Fidel and his cronies. The real Cuba, the Cuba that never died and never will, lives in exile, and within the bruised bodies of those still on the island who oppose the Castro regime. Whether we are in Havana, or Miami, or Connecticut, or Paris, those of us who refused to be enslaved are still around, and most of us are willing and ready to transform Cuba when the time comes, as it surely will.
Fidel has lost, despite all his slogans, despite all the adulation from those foolish or depraved enough to admire him. His “Revolution” is a disaster, and will surely be recognized as a Dark Age by historians in the future. Forget Raúl: He will always be a footnote, and a very pathetic one.
When the time comes — tick tock, it’s fast approaching — Fidel and Raúl will croak. And when they do, their house of cards will collapse and those of us living in exile or those resisting within the homeland will truly prevail. We’ll not only bring back the corner bodega, its sweet chocolate and its music, but improved versions. It won’t be easy. All of us know this. But it’s certainly more than possible: It’s inevitable.
As inevitable as having to pay for your chocolate.
Toma chocolate, paga lo que debes.
Carlos Eire is professor of history and religious studies at Yale University and author of Waiting for Snow in Havana. The excerpt above first appeared in its entirety on babalublog.com during Eire’s visit to the recent Cuba Nostalgia event in Miami.