Saturday, September 1, 2007

Literary Interlude: Variation on a Theme


Otherness came to me on Mami’s knee,
actually, it must have been the babysitter’s,
‘cause Mom was always working in the
perpetual immigrant nightmare- took it in with
the formula- no La Leche in league, daycare or ballet-
as soon as I could be bullied into fear, they left me,
left me all alone, just me and Quick Draw McGraw,
and aluminum tray tables garnished with
cool little boxes of Frosted Flakes.

Wordless I first learned otherness-
strange words running in rivulets over
the big shiny raincoat of my mother tongue-
a lesson relearned with whiptail words,
wielded with childspite, because...I
Oh, the shame of being foreign and smart,
of being less than and not equal to those with
bouncy blond curls.

But having lived with otherness all my life,
I think I’ve learned the truth. Audreys,
Eileens, Marys, they, too, were afraid of
being alone...only difference

...I learned all about the importance of words.

The Underside of the Melting Pot

What emerged for me from this week with the brouhaha over the Oliphant cartoon was the similarity of Cuban American experience. In his letter to the editor, Professor Carlos Eire recounts a childhood incident where a boy named Max spit in his face and called him a "Spic." A young woman writes that when her new Spanish teacher found out that she was Cuban, he raised his fist and shouted "viva Fidel." The ghost of Jose Marti is resurrected in the form of a letter to the editor from 1889 in response to a derogatory cartoon, a letter which is eerie in its similarity to our present situation. All of this on Babalublog, which has been on fire the last few days.

I, too, have those experiences. Because I moved to Staten Island in seventh grade, I was forced to attend public school where I lived in fear for a year and a half. There was no one to protect you, and you couldn't tell anyone; you learned to survive and cower. So when the time came, I applied to Catholic High School. You can imagine my joy when I was accepted into one of the best schools on the island, an ivy-covered haven for smart girls.

It was the first week of school, a Wednesday. On Wednesdays the school closed at 12:15 and sent us all to cultural, educational, and recreational venues for the afternoon. It was called the Wednesday afternoon program. I had been to the bowling alley and was on my way home in a NYC bus. The bus stopped and a crew of neighborhood hooligans got on. I sat there minding my own business. When they spotted me, they launched into a chorus of "mira, mira," which is how they had started hounding me every time our paths crossed. Then one of them, Benny, spit on me. This in full view of the other passengers and the bus driver. No one said a word.

I got off and ran to the house in tears. There was no hiding it anymore. When my father heard, he came to get me, and one by one, we went to the houses of the ringleaders. I can remember my Cuban father: "This time I came to see you," he would tell them, "but if this ever happens again, you will have to come find me." The message was that if they ever came near me again, he would personally beat the shit out of junior.

One family, our neighbors up the block, was horrified. They were Italian; they understood. But when we got to Benny's house, his father answered the door. His very drunk mother came striding out. Upon hearing the tale, she demanded of my father, what his thirteen year old daughter had done to her son that he spit on her in full public view? My father, sizing up the situation, just told her to make sure her son never bothered me again.

And they didn't, you know. I think they were afraid of Dad. I know they should have been. And that's the happy ending.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Hey, Wayne Smith, Christian Science Monitor, CBS

Recently an article appeared in the Christian Science Monitor touting the release of some political prisoners in Cuba and was picked up by CBS. Read it here. The releases are seen therewith as a sign of hope. Also commenting in the article is the ubiquitous Wayne Smith.

Let's put this hopeful sign to the test. I love reading Payo Libre because the news is directly from Cuba. It is in Spanish, so I took the liberty of translating and summarizing some bits of recent articles.

Dispatches for 8/31/2007
Government Threatens the Freemasons- Concerned that an "enemy of the revolution" might be elected head of the masons, the government raises the specter of their becoming an illegal organization.

Cuban Oppositon Members Detained- A group of young activists involved in the noncooperation campaign, meeting at a church, were seized, hauled off to the hoosegow, pushed around, threatened, and fined a 100.00.

Cuban Opposition Member Detained- José Ramón Cuellar Méndez reported that he was kept at the police station for 24 hours and interrogated, having been accused of posting libelous images of Fidel. He reports that there were a group of young men at the station, awaiting "trial" on charges of "dangerousness," some as young as 17 or 18.

Dispatches for 8/30/2007
Holguin Author Visited and Threatened- visited by a member of the "Political Police," he was threatened with twenty years in jail, the loss of his job. He was already expelled from university. His wife, a journalist, was suspended from her job.

Opposition Member Accosted in Park
After being taken down to the police station where a member of the political police awaited him,
he was threatened.

That is not even two days worth of dispatches. I tired of translating the same thing. Given the illegality and lack of access to means of communication, there are probably only the tip of the iceberg.

So do CBS, The Christian Science Monitor, and Wayne Smith still want to talk to me about hope?

Words, Words, Words: The Lexicon of Struggle

Those of you who know me know I love words: little ones and big ones, plain and fancy. One of the things I particularly enjoy about words is that they can say so much more than they would seem to on the surface. For instance, using fifo for Fidel Castro. I like using this one because it diminishes him, makes him laughable, like the tin pot dictator he has been. Perhaps the greatest cruelty of what has befallen Cuba is that it has happened at the hands of a buffoon, as if some vile sentient force was having a laugh at the expense of a whole people.

Now that I think about it, some scholar were he or she so inclined could probably link the whole homicidal clown thing to the Trickster archetype, especially by including other such notables as Idi Amin and John Wayne Gacy. Of course, all three lend themselves better to the Gnostic notion of the demi urge whom they would seem to have served.

I have settled on using Castrism to denote the melange of Marxism, totalitarianism, and opportunism that make up the ruling ethos. I like it because it sounds like a disease. I can't get those Levitra ads with their warnings of Priapism out of my mind. Poor old King Priam. It's an association I find particularly fitting, as apparently Priam was also an aged ruler with a hard on.

Castroite, which sounds unnatural, stilted, has a lot going for it. As an adjective, it has a dense, rocky, impenetrable ring to it, aside from the obvious similarity to Kryptonite. A Castroite, the noun, reminds me of those early UFO movies, like They Came From Beyond Space.
"Sir, we must do something, or the Castroites will destroy the world as we know it."

Lately, I've taken to using Raulian as a way of differentiating his policies or lack thereof. Face it Raulista doesn't have the same ring as Fidelista. And after a certain point, the use of Spanish really becomes an affectation unless you are writing for a Spanish audience.

Yes, sir, as I used to tell my students, words can be fun.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Timing is Everything

For some reason MSNBC-I don't generally watch it- is on in the background as I sit in the office. I swear they have spent two hours running and rerunning the Craig thing. First of all, there is a very prurient overtone to all these proceedings, particularly the way Matthews has been running the arrest interview over and over again. Uh, oh, I think to myself. There goes the election. Do we really need to hear what goes on in restrooms?

Something similar happened last election with the Mark Foley scandal. Despite the Democrats seeing their gains as a mandate on Iraq, etc... when voters were questioned leaving the polls, the single biggest concern was corruption. One has to question the timing on these things. The Craig incident took place months ago. Why didn't it surface until now?

So now all the talking heads are at it about how the Republicans are hypocrites and immoral, as opposed to the ostensibly more virtuous party in which anything-but-traditional-values goes. I can only imagine what they have saved up for the general election. The Republicans had better hire some very good gumshoes tout suite.

The Art of the Cuban Sandwich

Rafael Martel has a post touting the best Cuban sandwich as the one from Union City's Mi Tierra restaurant. The restaurant looks strikingly like the old El Artesano which also made a mean pan con lechon. It would sadden me if they went out, but nothing stays the same, including the Cuban Sandwich.

In the early 1960's when there were few Cubans to be found in the NYC area, and no one knew what a Cuban sandwich was, my father would take us to the Broadway Sandwich Shop in Union City which made absolutely the best I've ever had. There was the taste of the garlicky pork in combination with the ham, the counterpoint of the pickles, the thin, crunchy Cuban bread, the crust of which shattered with the first bite. Ah, those were the days.

Over time, even their sandwich changed. As it became more readily available, the pork began to disappear. In fact, it's became a glorified ham sandwich. When I moved to Florida years ago, I was shocked that you could find the Cuban Sandwich everywhere, even the supermarket, the local convenience store, etc... Something was lost in the translation to America.

I was fortunate that my late father was a master at the art of culinary construction. He used to put a substantial amount of pork, some ham, cappaciolo (or salami, if we didn't have the first), Swiss cheese and sour pickles. And they absolutely had to be sour pickles. I swear he put butter, which he said was important, mayo and mustard. I still can't figure out how he slathered all three on two sides of bread, but who knows. Since we didn't have a press, he would toast them on the stove, using two black cast iron skillets. Dad loved to cook, and he loved to eat, and it showed in his food and his girth.

The memories.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


Earlier I suggested that before Mr. Oliphant places me in a rowboat, he should take the Mayflower our of mothballs. It gets better. Apparently Oli the Elephant in the WP's room is from Australia, an immigrant, unlike many of those he would send to Cuba. Displaying the same mastery of history he has (see Batista in the offending scribble), I had better amend my directive to the "convict ship" out of mothballs.


CANF, the Cuban American National Foundation, responds to the scurrilous Oliphant cartoon in The Washington Post in a letter to the editor. Care to take bets whether they'll publish that our the excellent De La Cova letter? Nah. So where are our Cuban American politicians? They could at least comment from Europe. And Senator Martinez, I don't even want to go there. They also have a direct email form to the WP so you can express your opinion.

Cartoon Double Standard discussed on Hannity and Colmes last night and the Today Show today. Unfortunately in discussing the Opus cartoons pulled from papers on Muslim sensibilities concerns; no one mentioned the Oliphant rant.

Moving article in Diario Las Americas via Yahoo explains part of why Cubans can't let go.

In the "At Least They're Doing Something" department, since they've done nothing in the case of the Washington Post's blood libel against Cuban Americans, some of our representatives are in Eastern Europe to thank some of our only allies in the battle against Castrism. Read here

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

He's Not Cuban, But:

I remember my parents crowding around the black and white just to here what he was saying. He reminds me of Liberace.

Read and Reel: Lone Survivor and Perfect Stranger

Gave up on the Disraeli book. Summer is no time for macaroni. Couldn't resist. Deeply into Lone Survivor, but took some time off from finishing it to watch Perfect Stranger with friends. What a contrast. Both also indicate what has become of our society.

Perfect Strangers is not a bad little movie. It's got an interesting twist at the end. I was put off by the obligatory liberal propaganda thrown in: you know, the stereotypical pro-family, anti-gay politician who cavorts with male interns and complaints about the pictures the press can't show. I immediately think, oh, the people falling to their deaths on 9/11, but no they're pictures of the dead coming back from Iraq. Fortunately these distractions come at the beginning. I mean, if I wanted to watch left-leaning political proganda, I don't need to rent a Bruce Willis movie. All I have to do is turn the TV set on to Keith Olberrman.

On the other side of the coin is Marcus Luttrell, Texas boy, Navy SEAL, and patriot. I always find it difficult to read a book where I know the people I am reading about will die. That's why I never read The Lovely Bones in which the narrator is dead. Suffice to say that men like Luttrell and the SEALS to whom we are introduced make us feel good about being Americans. It is a gut wrenching story of an operation in Afghanistan which goes bad and results in the deaths of just about an entire SEAL team, in part because of state of our society. I'm gonna devote a bit of space to just one quote that says it all for me.

Thus we have an extra element of fear and danger when we go into combat against the Taliban and al Queda- the fear of our own, the fear of what out own navy judge advocate general might rule against us, the fear of the American media and their unfortunate effect on American politicians. We all harbor fears about untrained, half-educated journalists who only want a good story to justify their salaries and expense accounts. Don't think it's just me. We all detest them, partly for their lack of judgement, mostly because of their ignorance, and toe-curling opportunism. The first minute an armed conflict turns into a media war, the news becomes someone's opinion, not hard truths. When the media gets involved, in the Unites States, that's a war you've got a damned good chance of losing...

Oh, No, Not Again: Elian Redux

We're in for it now, both CNN and Fox News have picked up the story of the little girl. I have no pony in this race, although the father seeking custody was reportedly abusive to the abusive herself mother who now wants to return to Cuba. I have no idea.

More importantly, the American public has even less. All they know is how they would feel if one of their children were taken away. They've never been put in the position of the mothers before Solomon. So what do they see? They see Cuban-flag waving exiles who would break up the most sacred of bonds over politics, screaming and carrying on in the streets in a most unAmerican way. Not my opinion. That's how they see it.

We have to be very careful, my friends. This is a Raulian trap. The plummeting perception of Cuban Americans can be dated to the Elian affair. All the goodwill we had garnered over decades being the good little Hispanics was lost in a manner of weeks. We cannot afford to lose any more credibility, unless of course, we want to go down in a grand quixotic gesture. If we want to have any hope of influencing the new Cuba policy, and I'm pretty sure there will be one, we need to be smart.

If this goes as I suspect it will, let's express our displeasure by making it known to our representatives, to our senators, etc... We still have some sway with them. I would discourage demonstrations, save that for the Fidel is Dead as a Doornail party. But if you feel you must, make sure you have lots and lots of American Flags on hand, else we remind them of the illegal immigrant demonstrations.

What we have here, folks, is a perfect political storm in the making. The juncture of the fifth column agenda, rabid xenophobia, and the tinderbox of the residual Elian hard feelings. We need to be careful.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Ain't No Standing in the Way of History......

"Hillary and Rudy share tired view on Cuba policy" is the headline of a column in yesterday's New York Daily News, which takes both presidential candidates to task for supporting a "failed" policy. It accuses both of pandering to Cuban American voters, but cautions

... both candidates may be barking up the wrong tree. Every recent poll shows that a majority of Cuban-Americans and a whopping two-thirds of all voters nationally agree that the current Cuba policy has failed.

Now if toppling the Castro government were the only reason for the present policy, the columnist, himself a Cuban, might be right. But what about the other considerations. What to do about the hundreds of millions of seized American property? What about the moral issues?

I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that the current restrictions on travel and what's left of the trade embargo will eventually be lifted. The Cuban American votes are not going to be enough to stem the troika of greed and ignorance and propaganda overtaking them. To an extent, Hillary is right (my God, I never thought I would say that). Now is not the time to be proposing changes, as in we all know FC is dead as a doornail, or as good as, and some sort of transition or succession has to take place.

So to my fellow Americans, I say, if you just can't wait, go ahead, lift it all: travel restrictions, embargo, all. But while you are cavorting on the beach, remember that a Cuban cannot use that or any other decent beach. They are for tourists only. When the middle-aged pool boy hands you your towels, please note that he is an engineer condemned to a life of towels in order to eke out a living from your largess, so please make your tips commensurate. When you get thirsty, sidle up to the pool bar that is verboten to citizens of Cuba. Please be aware that all the employees who will make your stay miserable earn twenty cents of every dollar Melia or whatever company pays in salary. The difference will be pocketed by the military. On the streets, do not approach an ordinary Cuban. If you do, he or she might get hauled off to the local headquarters. They will have to do without your democratizing influence. You wouldn't want them to join the mass of political prisoners accused of "pre-criminal dangerousness." But then you don't care do you? It's a cheap vacation. You no longer have to resent those Europeans having all the fun.

To those who would do business with the regime, do it with my blessing. Please, extend the government credit. There is a slim chance that with all the new cash coming into the coffers from tourism, oh, wait, that's going to the generals as a cut. Don't fret, there is still a slim chance you will get paid. "Who knows" is a wonderful basis for making a business decision. And think, then we can open our markets to Cuban cigars, nickel, and sugar. That'll make our producers really happy. Those in the tourist industry can look forward to investing all of the money in developing hotels, etc... and giving 50% to the government, as well as the complete payroll.

Just think of how mutually beneficial the arrangements will be. The Cuban government, the enlightened liberals, the wanna be bourgeoisie, and the hungry corporations will all share in the spoils. And the Cuban people, well, you don't care about them anyway. They're those little brown natives. I mean, it's not like they're real people who lost a real economy, are they?

How About Some Suggestions?

Now for what I really think.

Somehow with all the reading I've done, I've never read The Art of War, but I do know the concept of a strategic retreat. I think that's what we need to do now. Let's pretend that we don't mind how they're going to try to take apart the Cuba policy. Messrs. Flake and Rangel are at it again, you know. And as they say about terrorists, they only have to get through once. Besides, our present attempts to hold the line make us look intransigent.

A while back at Killcastro, the idea was raised that a sort of Free Cuba be established in Guantanamo for those who are fleeing the dictatorship. I thought it was a great notion. Picture a model town where Cubans can work and live and even eat. Let's provide air conditioning. Build a Cuban Mayberry. What better demonstration of the joys of capitalism and democracy?All of this can be funded with some of that money designated to help bring democracy to Cuba. Anyway, this discussion got me to thinking that there are all sorts of ideas out there.

I may be wrong, but I think that we need to retreat to the nearest hill, preempt those who would steamroll over us by presenting our own ideas for policy before we face what I fear will be a humiliating rout, one which will strip us of whatever credibility we have left after Elian. So let's collect ideas. I'll even start with some of my own half-baked propositions, this being a warm up exercise. I'm really counting on someone else to come up with something good.

  • Let's start with the hardest nut to crack- political prisoners. No matter which way I parse it, this will be the toughest. Why would the regime make itself vulnerable? Only thing I could come up with is greed. So why not dangle the biggest carrot? If Cuba releases it's political prisoners, it can have access to our markets. Even if they don't accept it, we look like good people. I mean who can root publicly against political prisoners?
  • How about tourism? Okay, American enterprises will be allowed to join with the regime to build hotels, run tourist companies, etc... as long as they pay full salary directly to employees in American dollars. We could also get fancy and say they have to allow Cubans also. At the slightest hint that the regime is playing games, a moratorium on American tourism will be imposed.

  • Speaking of tourism, all Americans will be allowed to visit Cuba. However, they can only stay at approved hotels, those that pay employees directly in American dollars. That'll learn the Europeans, as well as steer American tourists to American-owned hotels.

  • Oh, and about seized American corporate assets, impose a surcharge on travel to and transactions with Cuba and set up a fund to pay back claimants.

I'm sure there are many objections, so tell me about them. Tell me your own ideas. I'll even try to disable the comment moderation for this one. All I ask is that while we may not agree, (and being Cubans, we won't) we be respectful of each other's opinions. Agent provocateurs will be removed.