Category Archives: Relationships

Trumped Cubans

Everyone’s talking about it, stunned still. Cubans and foreigners alike are godsmacked by Trump’s victory and Republican control of Congress. A steady stream of locals and Yuma have been making their way to Cuba Libro, dazed, incredulous, tears in their eyes. No matter if they hail from here or there, everyone posits the same question: WTF?!

Just this morning one of our Cuban regulars came in and said: ‘Conner, explain this to me.’ What amigo? Trump? I asked. ‘Yeah. What the fuck?’ He was followed by a pair of Tulane students on a semester abroad at the University of Havana, heads hanging in their frappuccinos, questioning everything: what future do young people of color have in the USA? What happened to our country’s moral compass? Should I be afraid to go back? They admitted they are afraid to go back.

The shock Cubans are experiencing (US election news has been all over the TV, on the radio, in the papers, and on the street) is accompanied by confusion. A lot of people are askin me to explain the electoral college, not understanding how more people voted for Hillary but she lost regardless. They’re not alone and I’m buoyed by the emergence and strengthening of initiatives to abolish the electoral college and unite progressives (read: the sane) across the country. Many Cubans are also wondering why the two instances in recent memory where the candidate winning the popular vote lost the election were Democrats.

What Cubans do know is that the USA is a very polarized country – something many have sensed, either through conversations with family and friends or by traveling there themselves, but which they’ve seen taken to the extreme in this presidential election. They also know about the crash of the Canadian immigration webpage in the wake of Trump’s unexpected triumph. They know Californians (or some of them anyway) are mounting an initiative to secede. They’re quite aware that the House and Senate are under complete Republican control – and this is causing no small measure of fear and anxiety; the George W Bush years are still fresh in everyone’s mind here. Including mine – I survived two terms in Havana under that regime. It was brutal and cruel: family visits only once every three years, regardless of circumstance, including death of your mom, dad or other immediate family member, reduced remittances, and harassment/prosecution of US citizens and residents traveling to ‘the forbidden isle.’

Other interesting comments revealing Cubans’ analytical capacity and knowledge over the past few days include:

– “And that email shit the FBI pulled a week before the election? With no demonstrable evidence? That’s democracy?! They totally screwed with the election!”
– “We’re going to see a lot of Cuban viejitos returning to the island after their Medicare is cut.”
“Michael Moore was right.”

Logically, what people here are watching closely, almost exclusively, is Trump’s platform (to use the term very loosely) as regards Cuba. Rolling back all the Executive Orders put into motion by Obama; returning Cuba to the list of nations sponsoring terrorism; and assuring the embargo stays in place (guaranteed regardless, since only Congress can lift it). Of course, what Cubans fear the most is any change in their extraordinarily privileged immigration status. For those still unclear how the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy works: any Cubans reaching US shores, by whatever means, receives a financial aid package, housing placement, job training, free English classes, and food stamps. This is complimented by the Cuban Adjustment Act which bestows an ever-coveted US green card to Cubans after a year in the country. I know many Cubans who have taken advantage of this sweetheart deal and the difference it makes for a recently-arrived immigrant – even if they arrived illegally – is immeasurable, unbelievable, yet totally real.

Under Trump, all of this preferential treatment is in danger of going the way of Bernie Sanders. Cubans from Mexico to Brazil, Sandino to Maisí, are crapping their pants. For some, the decision to emigrate across the Straits is easier than cheating on their spouse (kind of a no-brainer here). The process and cost and risk of emigrating is a huge burden, don’t get me wrong, but the decision? Some Cubans – no matter how much they love their native land, no matter their affinity for their pueblo – can’t or won’t tolerate it here. For them, the decision to go is easy.

For others, the decision is one of torment and stress. I have a dear friend who fell in love with a Mexican and although she had never considered leaving Cuba, you know the things we do for love. She left her mother, father, brothers and ailing grandmother, not to mention many friends, and moved to Mexico. Most Cubans “moving” to Mexico only do so in order to cross the border to the United States, where they receive the aforementioned benefits extended to Cubans leaving the island. This is a very popular way to go north – so common that Cubans buy work contracts in Mexico for $6000. Alternatively, Mexican women make themselves available for marriage to Cubans (making them eligible for a Mexican visa), for the tidy sum of $10,000. My friend, who struggled with her decision but ultimately surrendered to love, discovered after several months that love which ignites fast burns out faster. And she also discovered that Mexicans can be ‘insuportable.’ So she’s been desperately trying to save enough money to cross the border into the States. She hasn’t enough savings as of this writing to get a bus to the next town, let alone to the border and beyond. Now with Trump – he who wants to erect a wall between the USA and Mexico – my friend’s plan will probably crumble. I fear for her. This is heavy stuff for a 26-year old who had never traveled far from Havana.

Then there’s Enrique. He stopped by yesterday to unburden himself. Last weekend, he sold his house in La Lisa and stashed the $9000 with some trusted family members, with instructions to not release a cent, even if he came begging. I do this for Cuban friends who don’t trust themselves with money. I congratulated Enrique – on both the successful house sale and his sage decision to park his fulitas with family in a faraway province. But he looked worried.

‘What’s up chico?’ I asked.
Little did I know what was coming.

‘It’s this Trump shit. I can’t believe it. I can’t sleep. I’m not sure what to do.’

This is Enrique’s story: the house sale was to finance his emigration to the United States, a place he never wanted to live, never wanting to be ‘just another Cubanito among millions.’ He’s even had job offers, good job offers, in Amerika. But he has a two-year old son he has never met and his Japanese wife of nine years in Tokyo. Getting from Cuba to Japan takes money and a visa and then what? He arrives in Tokyo just to be a burden to his wife, a stranger in a strange land, where he’ll struggle to communicate, find work, and have fun. So he made the difficult decision to sell his house and emigrate to Florida, working in his cousin’s construction business and saving to travel to Japan in year or two’s time. Enrique’s plans are also slated to go to shit under Trump.
He sipped his cappuccino. ‘I’ll just have to wait and see.’

As for me, things have just gotten too weird. President Trump? Secretary of State Giuliani? Sign me up for the alien abduction.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Expat life, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

Your Man vs Mine

It’s confession time. I confess I really didn’t like living in San Francisco – loved the access to nature, but the striving, wannabe, hipster attitude? Not so much (besides, I’ll take a hippie over a hipster ANY day). However, my 6+ years in residence in that burg did deliver a gift for life: I met my best friend and go-getter writer and adventurer, Alexandra D’Italia. Over two decades later, we continue to constitute and grow our mutual admiration society, driving each other to live, love, and create to the fullest.

And I have another confession to make: on my recent quick trip to LA (to spend time with Alexandra living, loving and creating to the fullest, among other things), I actually started thinking about spending a chunk of time in the USA; this thought had never crossed my mind in any meaningful way since moving to Cuba in 2002. I know it sounds a bit crazy given the complete insanity going on this election cycle, but the nature, the intellectual stimulation, my gift for humor in English, the fast internet and Trader Joe’s – it got under my skin, rang my bell, got my Kappa key a-jangling. Writing alongside award-winning Alexandra (who is now accepting a select number of creative clients so that you, too, can be inspired by her) was a big part of this ‘ah-ha’ moment and as we walked home one evening among the adobe-style bungalows, their gardens perfumed by datura, a writing challenge presented itself…

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My First Daddy Issue
Alexandra D’Italia

I was not a girl who could just watch TV without the parental okay—Three’s Company? Too much jiggling. Laverne & Shirley? The characters were morons.

M*A*S*H was the exception. Mom loved B.J. Hunnicutt. If they had those allowable cheat lists back in the seventies, he would have made my mother’s list after Remington Steele.

I was planning on becoming Laurie Partridge and marrying Keith Partridge —fictional incest didn’t matter much to me back then. After all, I was pre-preteen and sex didn’t matter.

Then Hawkeye became the IT man of my life.

My parents would roll their eyes: “Alan Alda directed this episode, it’s going to be overwrought.” But damn, did I disagree. Any episode he directed melted into my psyche. In a dream, Hawkeye is limbless and unable to save a child with a belly wound. My parents’ stories of war protests didn’t have meaning until Hawkeye. He put the picture in my brain. He made me a dove.

And he had all that brown hair I wanted to touch. When he smiled, I smiled. You could tell he lit up a room. I wanted to be in that room!

Empathetic yet sarcastic, irreverent yet responsible —he was always right. He not only lit up the room, he was the smartest one in the room. No rule couldn’t be broken. No authority couldn’t be challenged. Get the job done and get me my martini. He was my dream personality.

Then there was his soft side. That man could give a good hug. Didn’t you see when he hugged Hotlips? Her stiff veneer broken by his warmth?

That Hawkeye was a Ladies’ Man only added to his allure. I wanted Ken, Jeff, Andrew, Chris, and Peter to follow me around the way the nurses followed him. [This never happened.]

Hawkeye even looked like my dad—handsome and lanky, brown hair parted on the side, piercing eyes that saw things you didn’t want to be seen. They both had that aura of dashing.

But he seemed much more approachable than Dad at the time who in a Buzzfeed quiz—What M*A*S*H character are you?—would have gotten Major Charles Emerson Winchester III. At the time, Hawkeye was easier to hug.

Then Hawkeye got real. My mother called Alan Alda a feminist. Oh glory be! This during the last gasps of the Equal Rights Amendment. Say what you want about the power of parents over a first child, but swoon did I! Snarky, smart . . . and a feminist? Dreamy.

So was it the man or the character? The man. My favorite Woody Allen films? Mr. Alda is in them. When I discovered he was in the Broadway production of my favorite play, Art, I wept that I missed him in it.

And finally, this man made me love a republican.

What?

No, not Trump. Not Reagan. Not Bush, HW or W. His conservative Senator Arnold Vinick on The West Wing, every liberal’s political porn.

Now that’s a first love. Or at least a first daddy issue.

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‘Tween Spank Bank
Conner Gorry

‘Tween Spank Bank
I’ve long been an avid masturbator and am not afraid to admit it. In the States, you don’t talk about these things in polite company. But here in Cuba? Stories are enthusiastically shared and notes compared. After 14 years in residence on this beguiling isle, I’ve heard enough to fill pages. One day I’ll reveal the cream of the crop (pun intended), but rather than shock and appall – and some of these tales are truly shocking, if not appalling; the masturbating dog (true story) being the least of it – I’m going to stick to the topic at hand: my early days of getting off.

Although I’m generally known for my moxie and grit, this isn’t a topic I’ve considered exploring previously. However, on a recent memorable, transformative trip to my native land, my best friend, (a woman I respect for myriad reasons, including the notches on her lipstick case), confessed to a detail which demanded a response. It was one of those moments to which you wish you weren’t witness; when someone presents an image you wish you could un-see – like my Cuban co-worker talking about how he looks in his leopard print g-string (another true story). My friend told me her ideal man growing up, the one she dreamed about, swooned over, and who filled her fantasies, was Alan Alda, Hawkeye, of M*A*S*H fame. Don’t know WTF I’m talking about? Click away; you’re not my ideal reader.

“Alan Alda?! Estás loca? Yuck.”

She took umbrage; defended her man – ethical, responsible, funny, a great father figure. These are all terrific qualities, we can agree. But to jack off? No, mi hermana.

“So who was the man of your wet dreams?” she asked me, throwing down the gauntlet.

“Mine? He was virile. Strong. Cut. And in command.” The One. The Only. Starfleet Captain James T. Kirk, Starship Enterprise.

Looking back, it’s cliché, I admit. The uniform. The take-charge attitude by a blond-haired, blue-eyed Adonis who motivates men, makes women weak in the knees, and saves the day – most of the time. Kirk was the stereotypical ‘mangón’ as we say in Cuba. Now that I think about it, it’s no wonder I go gaga over Cuban men – I was weaned on the machismo, bossy, and egotistical Captain Kirk, who says crap like ‘Mr Spock, the women on your planet are logical. That’s the only planet in the galaxy that can make that claim.’ Drilling down further, I see now that Kirk was kind of a douchebag – especially in the relationship realm. He was a product of his time, I guess, but so am I; as I grew older and up, my taste has skewed aggressively towards people who are ahead of their time.

Reflecting on my preferences for getting off, both then and now, I realize my friend – once again – is both ahead of her time and much more intelligent than I. In the short run, for a night or three, Captain Kirk is your man. But for the long haul, what every woman wants is Hawkeye.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Expat life, Relationships, Writerly stuff

Cubans are Cockroaches

Cuba – Cubans – defy odds. The longest, harshest embargo in modern history. Back-to-back-to-back hurricanes. The Special Period (very special as the joke goes here). The dearth of feminine products. Their tenacity and resiliency make them the cockroaches of the human race: they will out-survive us all.

I’ve had the privilege of living among this tenacity and resiliency for over 13 years. It’s an ‘I can do this, this can be done’ perspective, as opposed to a defeatist, ‘can’t be done’ perspective. The former is superior. Even if it leads to failure at least you’ve tried (fuck you, Yoda).

And then there are times when ‘this can be done’ leads to legacy. From the 16 staffed and equipped field hospitals Cuba sent to post-quake Pakistan to the biker who smuggled six vintage Harleys to Miami piece by piece. There’s the Fabrica de Arte. La Farola. Cuban drag queens.

Once, flying down Boyeros from the airport, I saw a handicapped dude in an electric wheelchair giving a rope tow to his buddy – also in an electric wheelchair. If that’s not the epitome of a can-do attitude, I don’t know what is. Although, as I write this, I remember another graphic example of that same attitude: one night I walked in to my friend’s kitchen to find Noche, the cat, mounting Lola, the dog. I’ve seen gay canine sex in Cuba. I’ve seen furry threesomes. But interspecies? Cuban pets can (and do!) do it! Then there was the time Dina – the dog up the street – was in heat. She’s epileptic, so her owner had to keep her sequestered behind a fence; were she to screw, she’d likely die. This didn’t stop Toby from licking her red, swollen privates through the fence everyday. ¡si, se puede!

Seduce and woo a foreigner for a couple, three years to get a fiancé visa and then split upon arriving abroad? It can be (and has been) done. Throw a 105mph fastball? Aroldis Chapman can do it! There are those old cars (and more “modern” Ladas, too) converted to run on propane tanks – the same kind of little tank you have hooked to your BBQ in the backyard. Tucked away in the trunk, drivers can switch, with the flick of a switch on the steering column, between propane and actual gas. There’s the literacy campaign which taught the entire country to read and write. There are bike brakes held together with string. No brakes? No problem! When you hit a downhill, just brake with the heel of your tenis (this has happened to me).

There’s the mojito. I always empathize with the poor bartender staring down that 10 mojito ticket, crushing mint until their wrists hurt. I know at that moment when they’re swishing around yet another sprig, they’re thinking: ‘couldn’t we have a less labor-intensive national drink?!’ (Pro tip: get on your barman’s good side by ordering a Cuba Libre). But they do it – crank out a dozen mojitos at a time (and look damned good while doing it).

And the best part of the ‘I can do it perspective?’ It rubs off.

There’s a dark side to this, too (isn’t there always?). From people taking to dangerous seas in unworthy vessels to reusing disposable diapers. Unfortunately, in too many cases, it’s the chronic scarcity here that obligates Cubans to this tenacity, resiliency, and ingenuity. But that’s a different discussion and besides – I think Cuba’s recent history with all the scarcity and want, and importantly, the humanity there sown, bodes well for what lies ahead. This back story puts Cuba – and Cubans – in an advantageous position to figure out the economic piece of their present story, in a sane way.

Have doubts? We all do. The question is: Are you a cockroach?

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

Conner’s Letra del Año

I’m back in the swing of things here in Havana and if I’m reading the signs/between the lines correctly, it promises to be a memorable year. Already some unpredictable ($200,000 cars?!) and unexpected (Fidel rolling up at Romerillo?!) things have happened, about which I promise to post at a later date.

‘Surprising’ and ‘fast-paced’ are the catch phrases for the foreseeable future as far as I can tell. Indeed, 2014 has proven illuminating and educational, adrenaline-rushed and not a little bit hectic – and we’re only a few weeks in.

It’s exciting – I’m excited – but I get the feeling that this year is going to obligate us to work, HARD, to maintain balance; we will have to be master jugglers these next 12 months. It will be tricky keeping all our professional, personal, and spiritual balls in the air, but if we stay focused and true to course, I think the payoff will be well worth it.

In an effort to measure the tenor of our times and steer a tentative course through the exotic, but potentially choppy, waters of 2014, I offer you my Letra del Año. For those readers unfamiliar with this annual declaration, it’s a collaborative document issued each new year by the major Afro Cuban religious associations. It contains everything from conjugal advice and health warnings to what foods and saints should be offered and attended.

While I’m not an adherent, I, like innumerable others on the island, pay attention to each year’s Letra. When I read 2014’s, I was a bit shocked (and encouraged – maybe I’m on the right track!) to learn that one of the sacramental foods this year is the pomegranate. Not only is this extraordinarily rare in Cuba (so an odd sacrament, for any year), I’d bought one and shared it with a friend on New Year’s Eve before this year’s Letra was published.

And will my Letra del Año be prophetic? Maybe not at all or possibly in part, only time will tell, but here’s my take on 2014 and what we might expect:

Love is in the air:
I’ve known Alejandra since I moved here. She’s both family and friend and a helluva woman. She lives with her aging parents, works in a thankless job for 20 bucks a month and has struggled with mental health issues over the years. For the first decade I knew her, she was completely alone – ‘pobrecita,’ they said. I don’t remember her ever going on a date, even. Then, a year ago, Alejandra met Evaristo, a good and good looking guy, who helped around the house, got along with the parents, and had a decent job. And for whatever reason known only to them (or not even – love, after all, is one of life’s great and wonderful mysteries), they clicked and swooned and grooved.

Last weekend, they tied the knot in a beautifully simple ceremony in Alejandra’s front yard. The look on their faces, on that of their parents, siblings and every last guest was pure bliss. You could feel the love before the first teardrops of joy fell. I have another amiga getting married next month and a dear friend of mine for whom the seeds of love have been slowly, carefully sown over the last year or so and are about to bloom. Another few couples are marrying over the summer and well, all you need is love, right? I say: let’s spread it and do our part to silence the bitter and hateful.

Healthier habits and routines:
Whether or not related to love and matters of the heart, I foresee folks around me (and myself included, hopefully, but unlikely), adopting healthier habits. Smoking and drinking less, sleeping longer and more soundly, eating healthier and doing some exercise will be in the mix. Watching less TV (no matter how classic or well-made) and reading more and better literature fall under this rubric, as does consuming less “news”, which just serves to make us more anxious and at the same time apathetic if you ask me.

Globetrotting:
This will be a year of travel, people. Already my trip calendar is filling up fast, with Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ohio, Hawaii and Ireland on my itinerary. Cuban friends are also planning to travel (some ‘definitively’, as we say here, leaving us holding our aching hearts) to the usual places – Mexico, Miami, Madrid – but also to Canada, Germany, Amsterdam, and Thailand. Seems like everyone took a turn around the block with their luggage this December 31st, one of our year-end traditions/superstitions.

Consolidating creativity: I and many people I know put (too) many wheels in motion in 2013 – work projects and personal relationships, new businesses and novel challenges. Last year saw lots of this and now the time has come to focus, buckle down, and channel all this creativity into attainable goals. It’s important to emphasize attainable, since the majority of mi gente are overachievers and tend to set themselves up for defeat with all the complex, long-term (some life-long!) goals they set for themselves. We have the energy, we have the intelligence, we’re motivated and we’ve set 2014 up for success – let’s make it happen, one milestone at a time.

Time management challenges: Doesn’t it seem like everyone’s overworked, over-scheduled and just rushed overall? In my world, it looks and feels that way. Keeping everything together, tying up loose ends, leaving time for the people and things we love – this is going to be difficult in 2014. This is especially true in Havana and New York, the two places where I pitch my tent so to speak and where the rhythm of life is different and more hectic (increasingly so in Cuba) than other latitudes. Managing time, while still living in the moment and being present, will be even more difficult. Slowing down to smell the roses, sing to babies, and ask after our neighbors will be important this year. Please remind me when I forget.

Last but not least: have a fabulous and healthy 2014 everyone.

Let life be peachy.

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Havana Vice: Titimanía

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

I’m what’s known in these parts as a ‘temba.’ The term generally applies to anyone, male or female, over 40. It’s not a hard and fast rule – a younger person who looks older may be called a temba – nor does it infer, like other terms such as ‘tía’ and ‘pura,’ that the person is over the hill sexually, physically or otherwise. Temba is not derogatory; it’s simply a category of Cuban, used here to describe a state of being, similar to our use of descriptive terms like negro, chino, flaca, santero or maricón (see note 1).

One thing I love about Cuba is its integrated, inter-generational nature. This facilitates friendships with Cubans aged 12 to 84 – something I cherish and which is harder to achieve in the United States. Naturally, however, many of my colleagues and consortes are other tembas. Over years of observation and recently a more in-depth investigation into Cuban sexual practices and mores for a larger piece I’m writing, a couple of tendencies keep cropping up: flexible fidelity is one, titimanía is the other.

Simply put, titimanía is the compulsion temba men have to date impractically young women. This is not limited to Cuba, of course, but by parsing how universal behaviors play out here, I hope to provide insight into the particularities and peculiarities of the Cuban character – for all our sakes (see note 2).

Before proceeding, I should disclose that I’m no stranger to the attractions of older men: at 16, my first serious boyfriend was 26, an arrangement for which he could have been prosecuted in our hometown of New York. While I think statutory rape laws are ridiculous in cases where everyone consents to getting it on, I admit there is something creepier when the ages are more advanced and the age differences greater.

Take my friend Carlos. When I met him a decade ago, he was 40 and his live-in girlfriend was 18. Jenny was gorgeous, of course, but a child – intellectually, developmentally, and practically. Just out of high school, she’d never had to pay a bill, work, or worry about a leaking faucet or roof. After four years together, the relationship ended disastrously, with Jenny hightailing it to Miami taking Carlos’ expensive gifts – jewelry, clothes, electronics – with her. Pre-ordained, perhaps, but that didn’t faze Carlos.

He quickly “recovered” (I’ve noticed men, Cuban and otherwise, tend to rebound fast – but incompletely – from ravaged relationships) and before long had Tania living with him. Prettier than Jenny, smarter, and worldlier, Tania was 22. After a few years, that relationship also ended badly, worse even than the one previous. Tania and Carlos barely speak today, which is uncommon in Cuba where circumstances and reasons too complex to elaborate here fairly obligate exes to remain on good terms. Uncommon and sad: their kids from previous relationships had become siblings and when they split it signaled an end to their blended family to the detriment of everyone involved, even if they don’t realize it.

Today, Carlos is 50 and has recently taken a 20-year old wife. I haven’t yet met her but have heard through radio bemba (our grapevine) that she’s hot and terribly boring, limiting dinner conversations to her new shoes, so-so manicure, and how the sushi she tried last week ‘totally grossed her out’ (see note 3).

Not all 20-somethings are that vapid and clearly, I better understand what’s in it for the women. Older men tend to be better than their younger counterparts in bed (if less athletic and enduring); have more status and economic possibilities; and generally have a clearer idea of what they want in life and are already well on their way to getting it (or should be).

However, once men hit that temba threshold, what they want are girls young enough to be their daughters. My 48-year old friend Elena is finding this out the hard way: after 15 years of marriage, she’s divorced and dating. Elena’s not looking for a new husband or live-in (the two are synonymous here); far from it. She just wants a healthy, available guy for a good time. You’d think this would be easy in libidinous, gregarious Cuba. Not so for Elena. ‘No niños for me,’ she tells me. ‘I don’t want to teach them the art of the orgasm or have to finance our affair. I’ve got my own kids, I don’t need another.’

Elena is looking for someone age appropriate and therein lies the rub: every man her friends try and fix her up with is interested in women her daughter’s age. They are, in short, suffering from acute titimanía. She has actually been told to her face: ‘you’re too old.’ And although they always put it in the nicest way possible, it’s getting her down. Once you rule out the married, infantile (of which there are many), gay, and titimaniacal tembas, Elena’s roster of eligible men is as short as Fidel’s speeches were long. And she’s discouraged, pobrecita.

The titimanía phenomenon came up the other day while I was talking to our mutual friend Alejandro. Clever and fit, with a comely face that belies his 50 years, Alejandro is one of the guys posited – and rejected – as a possible hook up for Elena; he likes them younger. Cubans are very frank about such things, which is efficient at least: while men here might date fat, unemployed, gold-digging, or gap-toothed women, age is not negotiable and they don’t waste time saying flat out ‘you’re too old’ (in the nicest way possible).

Alejandro could tell I was irked by his titimanía and its inequitability. “What chance is there for Elena and her ilk, when you guys are chasing skirts just out of high school?”

Mira, mi amiga,” he said smiling, his eyes crinkling around the corners they way they do with happy people, “from the age of 15, girls try to look older and do all kinds of things to enhance their beauty and heighten their self-worth – fake nails, fake boobs, dyed hair, high heels, the works. Old guys like me don’t do any of that. Instead, we pump up our egos by dating young women.”

“So tembas like you have the mentality of a teenage girl?” I wanted to say, but didn’t.

Laying my indignation aside, I could see his point. It’s about the self-esteem boost for everyone involved. But where does this leave Elena? Alejandro couldn’t provide an answer beyond: “I don’t know, but she’s too temba for my taste.”

Notes

1. This last term, meaning ‘fag’ or ‘queer’ is used in Cuba to denote male homosexuals. And while it’s inherently homophobic – which is why I don’t use it – many highly-educated and cultured people use maricón to classify gay men (or derisively with their straight friends). I employ it here by way of illustration only.

2. Equally as interesting are behaviors which don’t manifest here. For example, the reverse – a young Cuban buck getting jiggy with a cougar or MILF hasn’t caught on here like in the United States (the 13-year old who couldn’t peel his eyes from my temba friend Lucia’s cleavage, declaring her ‘hot and chesty,’ notwithstanding). But I’ll leave this for another post.                                                                                                                                                             

3. While I predict this marriage will be short-lived, I have friends who have been in one of these May-December relationships for ten years. They’re healthy and happy and while it remains to be seen what that relationship will look like when she’s 35 and he’s 63, so far so good. More power to them.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Expat life, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Relationships

Cuba: The Eternal Education

Some of you may remember my catharsis about know-it-all Cubans, a semi-measured rant dissecting the Cuban ardor for being right – even when they’re talking out their ass.

Not surprisingly, there’s a similar breed of foreigner, an expert on Cuba after two weeks, two years or tenure (see note 1). Maybe you’ve overheard them at the next table at one or another of Havana’s overhyped paladares prattling on about how to unify the currencies or make Cubans more efficient (the most vulnerable rarely have a seat at this table, literally and figuratively). Perhaps you read a blog written by an absentee/wannabe Cubanologist or transient traveler who proclaims to be an authority on political bell weathers or sexual proclivities here.

No matter the source: those claiming to have Cuba pegged are usually off base or worse – not even in the ballpark. Whereas it used to be difficult to understand things on the ground from afar, today it is near impossible since economic reforms are changing the landscape here fast. For us living it, we’re learning something new every day, the details and mechanisms of which cannot be fully known from wherever you are reading this.

Although the economic changes are injecting a level of uncertainty and accelerating individualism (here in Havana at least) that trouble me, I still give daily thanks – or try to – that I live in a time and place that continually teaches me new things. After all, learning something new every day is one of the key ingredients in the ajiaco of life – another reason why I love Cuba. Judging by the experience of certain friends, I’m confident the eternal education Cuba provides is a constant regardless of outside forces or how long you’ve been here.

Take my friends Ann and Alicia. North Americans both, they’ve lived here full-time for a collective 55 years and are still learning. Recently they separately admitted to having just learned that the red ribbon hanging from the undercarriage of 6 out of 10 cars here is to ward off the evil eye. And they both own cars! Such discoveries after so much time in residence encourage me to keep observing, keep meeting and talking to new people, having new experiences, and writing about this complex place where there’s always something new to be learned. In the past several weeks alone, my Cuban education has schooled me thus:

El Torniquete: The observant among you have likely noticed women and young girls chancleteando through the streets of Centro Habana or La Vibora with empty rolls of toilet paper spooled tightly around their tresses and piled atop their heads. This is knows as the ‘tourniquet’ and is a simple, free way to produce a fancy, going out ‘do. Although I’ve long marveled at the ingenuity, I never knew this technique had a name until a friend helping to gussy me up showed me how it’s done. For those wondering, I’ve only been partially successful in my gambit to improve my “look” due to my rabid aversion to shopping and my preference for substance over style. Furthermore, with only 24 hours in a day, other pursuits (e.g. cooking; bike polo; visitas) take priority of personal primping. Clearly, I still have a lot to learn from my impeccably turned out Cubana counterparts.

4/4 Time Dies Hard: I’ve recently taken up salsa lessons which have been measurably more successful than my half-hearted attempts at honing my fashion chops and style. I have an amazing dance teacher – talented, patient, encouraging, and easy on the eyes – which is a large part of the equation. Last class he admitted: ‘I thought it was going to be much harder to teach you’ and after just a few lessons, we’re both impressed that I’m already spinning around the dance floor without spinning off beat. But a lifetime 4/4 habit is a bitch to break, I’m learning, and I still tend to misstep, especially when in the arms of a taller, drunker, or clumsier partner than my teacher.

El Baile de Perchero: Along with salsa, I’ve recently become privy to another dance form known as the Hanger Dance. Surely a Cuban invention, this is when a couple dances themselves out of their clothes and on to more carnal endeavors and pleasures. It’s a testament to Cuban propriety that the name of the dance involves hangers: my clothes usually end up on the floor.

Vestido de Iwayó: Admittedly I know very little about Afro-Cuban religions – Yoruba, Palo Monte, Abakua, et al. But I, like many readers I assume, can’t fail to notice initiates walking around in these parts wearing head-to-toe white clothing. Even accessories – headbands and hand bags, hats and umbrellas – must be white for those haciendo santo and formally entering the religious ranks. It’s one of the most obvious outward manifestations of Afro Cuban religions here, but I’ve only recently learned that it’s called dressed as/for iwayó.

Life on the Inside: Given my insatiable craving for learning about new Cuban customs and culture, I’m very grateful to a friend who admitted he spent five years in a maximum security prison here. For my/our purposes, it matters not the crime for which he did time (though it was non-violent), so I won’t go there. What is important is the crash course he gave me about life inside a Cuban jail. He graciously endured and answered hours of my questions on everything from food and escape attempts to rape and overcrowding. Suffice to say that what I learned was so fascinating, I’m writing an article about the cultural dark side here entitled Havana Black & Blue. Any interested editors reading this are heartily encouraged to contact me as I look for an outlet for this piece.

Of course, the one thing everyone here – visitor and resident alike, whether they like it or not – is always learning, is how to maintain patience and good humor in this sometimes frustrating, but never dull island….

Notes
1. The so-called ‘Cubanologists’ who sit in their ivory tower offices in developed world academies of higher learning (or their cubicles in think tanks), espousing how it is in Cuba (where they visit once a year, perhaps), especially chap my ass.

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Queer Cuba

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]
I’m what’s known in the vernacular as a ‘fag hag.’ It was not choice, calling or custom that threw me into the gay orbit at an early age, but rather a fortuitous convergence of nature and nurture. My family is peppered with homosexuals and my oldest brother loved to tell us of his escapades with The Eagle Scout, The Priest, and The ‘Straight’ Guy. As a tween, I was already accustomed to seeing men kiss and knew about the dark and personal horrors of the closet (from the likes of The Priest and Eagle Scout, not my brother who was loud, proud, and occasionally obnoxiously, gay; see note 1).

I’ve been to leather bars, bear bars, piano bars and clubs where the dress code is naked and go-go boys dance in cages. I remember one of our tribe – the hottest, most coveted among them – telling me he wished he was straight so he could get with me. I love the humor and the hubris, honesty and fashion/design sense of my gay friends. I go to them for sex tips and appreciate having escorts who won’t try to grope me. They throw the best parties and usually have kismet with the downtrodden, being an oppressed group themselves.

By way of context, I’m talking about pre-AIDS New York City, when there were still dungeon clubs and working “girls” in the offal-slicked streets of the Meatpacking District (see note 2). Back then, bath houses called on gloomy days and condoms were for breeders. But most relevant to this post: straight girls like me were part of the gang.

This wasn’t the case in San Francisco where I lived for seven years after NYC. The queer scene there, to me, felt hyper segmented, with gay men, women, and everyone everywhere along the sexual diversity spectrum siloed in their individual worlds. It smacked suspiciously of tolerance, a weak and non-sustainable stand-in for the unity and community I’d known in New York.

Back here on this island, I’m happy to report that years of tireless, often unappreciated and highly criticized, work by CENESEX (headed by Mariela Castro), the HIV-STI Prevention Center, El Mejunje, advocacy groups like GPSIDA, MSM (Men who have Sex with Men), and the straight allies who support them, is gaining traction.

sorry girls Im gayteeny

Nowadays, men hold hands in public (in Havana anyway), transgendered folks go shopping, clubbing, and to work as their real selves and there are more and more places for the community to convene (see note 3). And every year, Cuba’s International Day Against Homo/Transphobia grows bigger, more fabulous, and better focused. Last night, I attended the World AIDS Day gala which was as sexy, saucy, and talented as you’d expect of this place and the theater was SRO with the entire rainbow representing. I hesitate to say it’s a movement which is a bit of a dirty word here, but I’m heartened to see my queer friends and compatriots finding their stride. It feels like pride, but that’s another questionably good concept in the Cuban context since it implies superiority of one group over another and replicates hegemonic constructs they’re trying to break down and through.

But there’s rhetoric and there’s reality and as the wave of sexual diversity rolls towards a crest, I’m asking myself: will it manifest like NY, SF, or something altogether different? The evidence is conflicting, the analysis complex, and even after talking to lots of friends – gay, straight, and in between – from here and away, I’m still not sure where all this is going. But here are some factors at play in gay Cuba:

The Machismo Hydra – Once again, the scepter of male dominance and perceived superiority rears its ugly head (no pun intended) and underscores human relations here. I’m fairly certain this is part of the reason gay men have more visibility, mobility, and are more tolerated (there’s that sticky wicket again) here than gay women. Just yesterday I overheard this exchange between four friends hanging around their Lada slinging back Bucaneros: “who care if there are fags there? Deep down we’re all fags” (see note 4). The underlying meaning? Men-on-men action is not only within the realm of possibility – no matter how subconscious – but could even be desirable. Is it the power two men together represent, the simple carnality of it? Is it a way to neutralize machismo in an effort to liberate mind and body somehow? Once again, I’m not sure, but while a Cuban guy can say ‘deep down we’re all fags,’ chances are high that same fellow would say of a lesbian: ‘she just hasn’t had the right macho’ (and immediately propose himself as the one to convert her). Almost to a one, lesbians here, foreign and Cuban, have confirmed my impression that a) it never occurs to most men here that a woman can only be into women and b) once they know, it’s simply a question of ‘having the right macho’ to show them what they’re missing. What’s more, lesbian friends often mention the discrimination, including derogatory terms, leveled at them by gay men. This is troubling.

alejandra

The DINK Phenomenon – DINK stands for Double Income No Kids and savvy marketers have long carved out a niche among gay men who on the whole have more disposable cash and fewer familial responsibilities than straight and lesbian couples. So it’s no surprise that many of the loveliest, most successful new bars and restaurants here are owned and operated by gay men – out and not, it’s worth noting. This is great – the boys are cute, the décor classy (or camp), and the food and drink of high standard. I’ve had memorable times at several gay-owned establishments. At a few however, the vibe is decidedly cold shoulder, reminding me of San Francisco, i.e. you’re not one of us, but we’re running a business so we’ll put up with you. Again: troubling.

The Generation Gap – The older I get, the more I understand how age affects human relations, which is one of the reasons I so energetically nurture relationships with people of all ages. Queer relations in Cuba are no different. Talk to a gay men of 60 here and you’ll get a very different perspective from that provided by the 20-something set. The younger generation generally, has a much more open and organic take on sexual diversity – regardless of gender. I remember one night at the Cine Club Diferente film debate here when an elder gay icon stood up and expressed his opinion on the gay politics reflected in the film and its relevance to Cuba. He was followed by a young university student who said he respected the older gent’s opinion and experience, but didn’t share them. And then he told the story of arriving at his dorm the first day of school and telling his roommate: ‘I want you to know I’m gay and if you have a problem with that, we’ll have to make a change.’ The other fellow had no problem with it, they became roommates, and remain so a couple of years on. Meanwhile, young women are increasingly experimenting with other women and although a friend assures me this is just a fad, I have to ask: And? Even if it is a fad – one of those ‘yeah, there was that one night with a friend in college’ type things – doesn’t it open people’s minds, expand their horizons, and break down bias?

Of course, all of this has to be couched in the Cuban context, where there’s a housing crisis, with its attendant lack of privacy (keeping many folks in the closet); salaries are absurdly low (affecting entertainment options, autonomy, and a whole host of other issues related to mental health); and sexually diverse people have experienced very real discrimination. And while friends from the States tell me all of this (i.e. the discrimination, alienation, confusing orientation with preference, etc) sounds familiar, I do think it’s substantively – at least legislatively – different here. Voters in Villa Clara have just elected their first transsexual public official for example, gender reassignment surgery is provided free for those who qualify, and same sex unions will soon be legal nationally.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I love gay culture and sensibilities and while I don’t know where we’re going, I hope to continue to be a part of it. Remember: though we may be straight, that doesn’t mean we’re narrow.

Notes

1. Is that politically incorrect? You let me know, but those who knew Bruce know he could be obnoxious – charmingly so, but obnoxious all the same.

2. R.I.P. My last Giuliani/Bloomberg nerve snapped when I dared to venture down to my old stomping grounds around Little West 12th Street last year. I never thought I’d see New York go generic, but there it was; it could have been Any City U.S.A. (Yes, I’m bitter about “progress” in Manhattan).

3. My Havana Good Time app has a dedicated LGBT category if you’re interested.

4. As with all things, conversations, and events related at Here is Havana, this is 100% true.

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