The Not-So-Slow Leak

Almost 18 years living here and to some things I cannot adapt. The Farmer Hanky. Public zit popping. The heat. Other things I’ve been forced into accepting and conceding. The tedious bureaucracy. The piropos. And the leave-takings.

Emigration is complicated. It’s never easy and often terribly trying. Painful. Dangerous even. Different people handle it differently – and I refer to the emigrants and those they leave behind. Regardless of the promises and desire, intentions and proclamations, we are left behind. It just happens. Emails start arriving less frequently or cease altogether. Phone calls, rare in the best of times, become a once or twice annual surprise – around New Year’s usually or Mother’s Day. Valentine’s Day maybe, depending on the person and your relationship. Even with new technologies (for us) like roaming data and WhatsApp, communication drops off after a few months. It’s as if Cuba and the emigrant are Velcro – together they compose a strong, useful bond, something capable of changing the world. Separate them and you’re left with something senseless, not living up to its potential.

Emigration plays powerfully and violently with identity – it can shred it, dilute it, confuse it, strengthen it (temporarily anyway: distance in space and time, plus acculturation and adaptation to a new country and culture, erodes an emigrant’s grip on their homeland and grasp of its evolution). This is one of the reasons Cuban artists, regardless of genre, lose relevance if they continue creating island/revolution-themed works without returning periodically to recharge and reboot with “Cubaness.” I’m an immigrant and often wonder ‘what am I?!’ as I commit social faux pas in New York – sitting too close, inviting more people into an almost-full elevator, making casual conversation with strangers and eye contact with passersby. Stateside, I catch raised eyebrows as I kiss people hello and goodbye at parties and functions. I suppose similar awkward moments beset Cubans living off-island.

As for keeping friendships whole and strengthening them across miles and years, I’ve worked very hard (‘not hard enough!’ I hear some clamoring) to not leave my people behind – or be left behind. It’s a two-way street after all. I write letters infrequently, but postcards when I can and make phone calls when I can afford it. I run around visiting people when I’m in the States, just like Cubans do when they return. There’s never enough time and someone is always left unvisited and upset.

For my first 15 or so years here, only a few people I love left. But now, my friends and family are slowly leaking out.

“I have a dentist appointment tomorrow and the gynecologist the day after. I have to get it all done now, you know.”

“Caballeros…”

“I’m going to wipe old peoples’ asses, spoon-feed them pablum – anything, I don’t care.”

Jenry. Alejandro. Carla. Jose. Eduardo. Ray. Frances. Daisy. Julio.

A dancer, a dentist, a writer, an actor, two filmmakers, a bartender, a pianist, a photographer.

The slow leak is now a deluge.

Some are tired. All are broke. Some are gay or trans and suffer for it. All have professional ambitions beyond what they can achieve on a blockaded island.

Some are leaving with their small children. Just as I get close to the little ones, just as they let me in, they’re leaving. That’s the shittiest part of emigration, I think. Choices are made, decisions are taken, in which the kids have no say. And BAM! They’re gone. It’s like an ice cream brain freeze on my heart. Kids are adaptable and I know they’ll do all right wherever they land, but I do miss the little buggers and lament that such weighty change is thrust upon them without their consent or consult.

How Cubans leave varies. Some marry foreigners. Others overstay tourist visas. A few never return from work contracts abroad. There are those who claim political asylum (some valid, some not). Some take advantage of family reunification programs. This is a resourceful, creative people, emigrants and otherwise. ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ is an axiom particularly Cuban.

Mexico City. Miami. Moscow. Stockholm. Berlin. Quito. Buenos Aires. Munich. Merida. Brussels.

My friends are strewn around the world. They’re marrying and having children. Letting their queer flag fly. Landing great jobs, studying for second careers, and buying property (both Here and There, wherever ‘There’ may be). They’re converting dreams into reality.

So why do I feel this ache in my heart? I know the moment I land in any of these cities (except Miami; I avoid that cesspool at all costs. Sorry Carla, Max, Leo, Yanelys, Yarelis, Yoanna), I will find home, hearth and hugs with my people. I’ll meet their spouses and children. They’ll take me to see their office/screening/exhibit. We’ll laugh and catch up. Most of them will be friends for life. Despite the distance and day-to-day disconnect.

Is this heartache I feel because I still don’t fit in here, even after so long, and know they’re going through the same? Or is it because I choose to stay here when I don’t have to? This is a question I’ve fielded from curious Cubans for decades and I’ve recently started asking it myself (and I’m not alone in this – a trio of long-term resident foreigner friends are considering leaving and another has already left). Is it because they’re changing without me? Or because I’m changing without them? Is it because I have a few, fierce friends and I feel our bond and intimacy slipping away? Maybe it’s because I feel robbed of the energy, time and affection I’ve spent strengthening friendships and then pfft! Like that, they’re gone (but not gone)?

I can’t pinpoint the source and reason for the heartache but it’s making me skittish – like a cat in the dog pound. There’s definitely a fear factor involved. ‘Who’s next?’ is constantly at the back of my mind and bottom of my heart. Jenny’s had a lot of doctors appointments lately and Delio just had his eyes checked and new glasses made (one thing all future emigrants do is complete checkups and medical, including dental, care before leaving – Cuba’s free universal health coverage is something they ain’t gonna find abroad and they know it). Roxana asked if we had a spare suitcase and Raul wants to know how much the paperwork costs to marry a foreigner.

Some people deal with their impending departure by saying nothing, others throw bon voyage parties. I can understand both approaches but the former makes me sad and a little mad sometimes. Sure, if the exit is illegal, you’re not going to broadcast it, but a couple of very near and dear friends just disappeared and I didn’t know they had emigrated until they sent me an email from allá. As if I’m not discreet. As if I can’t keep a secret. It feels like when very good friends don’t come out of the closet to me. If you think I’m capable of outing someone or shaming them for their sexual orientation you don’t know me at all.

Who’s next? I shudder to think. I’m anxious about the next departure, the next person to join the drain. I fear it’s going to be someone I just truly do not want to live without. I’ve survived these types of leave-takings fairly unscathed (one as recently as last month), but a couple of them – Berlin, Stockholm – still leave a stone in my gut and furrow my brow. It hasn’t changed my behavior – I’m still supportive of their (difficult) decision and offer any help I can – within reason, within the letter of the law. I wish them success. Genuinely and respectfully, with my heart behind it.

But damn it hurts. I’ve provided succor and a shoulder to several people left behind who are facing life here without their nearest and dearest – sons and daughters, lovers and husbands. I fear I’ll be needing succor and a shoulder next. But those I typically lean on in these situations are fewer and fewer by the year.

Indeed: as my close friend Miguel and I shared coffee the other day during one of his weekend passes, he told me he can’t take it anymore and he’ll be leaving as soon as he’s able. I’m ashamed to say my first thought was ‘at least we’ll still have some time together.’ Miguel has two years remaining on his sentence and can’t leave during parole. I don’t know how long he’ll be with us after being sprung, but the selfish part of me knows it won’t be long enough.

Any immigrant reading this: call someone you love on the island today. Write them an email. Pen a letter. We miss you and love you and wish you were here (the selfish part of us anyway).

UPDATE: Since crafting the first draft of this post a couple of weeks ago, I’ve learned that another very close friend will soon be leaving. Cue more heartache.

22 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life

22 responses to “The Not-So-Slow Leak

  1. Stephen Culp

    Lovely writing, as always

  2. Well they all know your commitment that you made to the country and its people. So they know you might try to convince them that Miami is not so friendly for people without money and that medical care is very expensive there.

    It is a pity but they have to find out themselves. I hope that your friends will read the excellent blog and that it will make them thinking it over. You did what you could do!

  3. Folks make decisions based on their beliefs and your rendering of these situations are both heartwarming and sad. lets hope their dreams are realized one day they return.

  4. Tess

    This was lovely.
    I’m a Cuban girl born in Ohio & raised in Miami.
    I won’t set foot in Miami, either. But it’s because both my parents are dead and I can’t bear to be in my home without them.
    I enjoy your emails because they reinforce the fact that being Cuban has nothing to do with where you are born or where you live.
    Thanks for the reminder!
    PS-I especially loved your appearance in HONY. My husband is also an American introvert. Our visits with my family were always so draining for him. Cubans are so invasive and proprietary. Once you’re ours, we’ll never leave you alone.

  5. Cort Youngen Greene

    I had a few tears reading this a sad story, my wife lives in Mérida, Venezuela and we have seen many people on all sides of the spectrum leave because of the problems caused by both internal and external factors. She refuses to leave the country and would never come to the states ( I don’t blame her). The problem for me now is because of Trump, I have no way to get a visa for visits and to help her and others in many ways at this point but we will keep on trying.

    • Cort – this is terrible. Policies of the USA which keep families apart (we know our fair share of this on this side of the Straits) are criminal and inhumane. I could easily be in your shoes. I empathize and have no words to offer except: when it seems like you can’t go on, focus on self care (whatever that means to you: yesterday we went into “airplane mode” binge watching movies only leaving to walk the dog) and continue forth when your strength is recharged. we HAVE to be stronger, more dogged, and more principled than these wacky politicians using us like Risk pieces. Its just that some days, I can’t face it. Today, luckily, is not one of these days, thanks in large part to notes like yours sharing and ending with “WE WILL KEEP ON TRYING”.

  6. Brenda

    Deeply touching. I hope you do take care of yourself. It sounds like an epidemic.

  7. Jenny C.

    Thank you for writing. (Not just this.)

  8. M C

    My heart is aching after reading this. I can imagine you feel hurt because you choose living there for a reason, probably the people you are close with are one of the top reasons. This was very heartfelt and raw about the big problem of emigration. Xoxo

    • Thanks MC. Just got news of ANOTHER person very close to me who is leaving. Each day and departure gets a little harder. I thought it would get easier, that I would become inured somehow but no such luck….thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts

  9. Leonie Reeves

    This has nothing to do with what you wrote this month ( does it?) but you wrote a brilliant article in this issue of Medicc Review . IMHO.
    http://mediccreview.org/six-decades-of-cuban-global-health-cooperation/

    • Hola Leonie. Yes! Im a journalist in my other (real) writing life. Ill be presenting on a panel with Cuban “internacionalistas” about Cuba’s international med cooperation on Dec 18 in Havana if you (or anyone you know) happens to be in town.

  10. Lori

    Conner, amiguita mia, your post resonates deep in my heart. I also think about these decisions and the effects, especially on los abuelos when their nietos leave. Heartbreaking. Y ahora, just today, commercial flights to Cuba have been cancelled to every city except Havana. And you know how much this affects me. Me cago en diez. Soul sister, keep your head up, take care of yourself, and TQM.

    • Thanks so much for your note Lori. I empathize deeply with folks who have loved ones in the provinces and have just been essentially shut off. This move, and the closure of the US embassy, forcing cubans to travel to third countries for visas, reunification papers and other documents from the US, is heartbreaking. I hope we can all survive this another year and that we get a new, more moral, dedicated, informed, honest, and forward-thinking administration in 2020.

  11. John Corbett

    Hi Conner , I really don’t know what to say except I feel for you . Even in highly developed countries now migration is a fact of life especially for the young . I’m still optimistic that Cuba’s future is bright and everyone will want to come home some day . There is no other place in the world like Cuba those that leave will eventually discover that . There’s no substitute for friends and family .

    Cheers !
    John

    • Hi John. Thanks for your note. Its some solace to hear from people from around the world facing these same realities. What the USA is doing – at the border, to Cuba, to Venezuela, to Syria – is deplorable. A violation of human rights and various international conventions. At the moment and with the new cruel policies coming out of the Trump camp, Cuba’s future doesn’t look bright at all. Im hoping we can all make it through the next year relatively unscathed and that we have new representation in DC in 2020.

      • John

        Hi Conner I didn’t mean to compare or downplay the dreadful foreign policy of the U.S. against Cuba and Venezuela I think it’s criminal and I can’t explain the lack of outrage around the world including Canada which seems to , for the first time in recent memory siding with the U.S. And it’s aggression . I was just pointing out that even in the town I grew up in there is no one that I knew left . The jobs are gone and everyone has moved away . It’s bad but in no way compares to the suffering in Cuba caused by Donald J. Trump . Hope to meet you next time in Havana . Cheers !

  12. I wander off this blog for periods of time but I never stop thinking about you, a complete stranger, whose writings I look to for authenticity and perspective as an ex-pat in Cuba. Thanks for your work. 🙂

    • Thanks so much, stranger! Im writing more infrequently due to all sorts of troubles, from computer, to health, to bureaucracy. Not easy but never dull! Happy Monday

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