Tag Archives: Cuban youth

Just When You Think You Know Cubans

Loud, machista, brand-loco, bossy, gold medal (but loose and slippery) lovers: one – or several – of these stereotypes applies to most of the Cubans I know. Judging by the search terms used to land here (‘why are Cubans so rude’; ‘Cuban men are controlling/known for being cheaters’; ‘STD from resort staff in Cuba’), many readers can relate.

It’s true Cubans tend to be noisy, romp with aplomb, and sow their oats with gusto and few regrets. They are also big talkers – waxing eloquent on topics about which they’re clueless or avoiding silence at all costs; I know a lot of women here, for instance, who never, and I mean ever, shut their mouths, talking about whatever minor thought skips across their brains (I always send a silent shot of strength to the spouse when I meet a woman like this). Then there’s the Cuban classic, which I call ‘blah, blah, blah’: giving a long, considered response – to an entirely different question than the one asked. Actions belying words also falls into this “classic” category.

These are all generalizations of course – but that doesn’t obviate their veracity. Indeed, stereotypes exist because they apply to huge swaths of a population. And if you know Cubans, you know that these generalizations are true for many or even most. Which is why I’ve become fascinated with stereotype-defying folks here. People who break the mold anywhere have always intrigued me, but Cuba has traditionally emphasized unity over individuality, is small and (relatively) isolated, meaning there are fewer mold-breakers.

These are what I call, for lack of a better term, ‘not-very-Cuban’ Cubans. Each one was born and raised here, lives on the island still, went to all the same schools, political rallies and lame concerts (Air Supply, ahem) as the rest, but exhibit few typically Cuban traits. Sure, they’re missing teeth, can be unreliable, and are prone to slack; in the end, they’re a product of their context and yet…not.

I’ve met a couple of their kind over the years, but recently I’ve come to know several fairly well – they intrigue and puzzle me in equal measure. For instance, not one of them has been off-island and each works for the state (as well as ‘por la izquierda’ because that’s how survival rolls here). Age might be a factor – the folks I write about are between 25 and 40 – but I’ll have to think more on that since I don’t have the analytical energy just now. By chance (or not), each person described below is also male, but again, my analytical reserves fail me.

What I’m coming to realize as I write this is that place – la siempre fidelíssima Isla de Cuba – has much to do with their character (each is proud to be Cuban), but little to do with their mold breaking: these people would be, and will be, who they are, no matter where they are.

The Musician: I’m not sure I’ve met a Cuban as callado as this guy in the nearly dozen years I’ve lived here. He’s so quiet he makes me nervous. Have I insulted him? Is he bored? Does he simply have nothing to say? This last I discount not only because he has that ‘still waters run deep’ thing going on, but also because when he’s on stage playing his cutting-edge compositions, he speaks volumes.

When I asked a mutual friend: ‘what gives with Daniel? I’ve known my share of strong, silent types, but he kind of takes it to the extreme, doesn’t he?’ She laughed. ‘Yeah, I’ve known him my whole life and I’d swear he was born in Europe instead of La Ceiba.’ Quiet, measured, urbane, and bling-free: he actually reminds me of some New Yorkers I know, this ‘not very Cuban’ Cuban.

The Born Again: One of Cuba’s new frontiers is being mapped out by pews and altars, chapels and collection plates (big, deep ones). As an agnostic skeptical of all organized religion and someone who has seen both the good and bad wrought by evangelical churches throughout Latin America, I have to say all the conversion going on around here has me concerned. The phenomenon is replicating itself from Sandino to Baracoa, with record numbers of converts packing pews most nights and some days too, as they attend bible study, Sunday school and other church-y activities (see note 1). The people I know in Havana who have been sucked in belong to these churches are usually either not too bright or dealing with some social issue – alcoholism or delinquency, for instance.

But not my ‘not very Cuban’ Cuban friend, who breaks even this mold: he’s smart, has a good job, a wife, his own transport, a nice place to live and two happy, well-adjusted children. Furthermore, he was always more of a rebel than a joiner, rejecting the mob mentality. Flash forward to any recent Sunday, however and he’s wholly subsumed by one of these churches – to the tune of several times a week for 8 hours at a clip. And the proselytizing has begun, with non-responders feeling the freeze-out.

The Gamer: Hyper observant and curious, this ‘not very Cuban’ Cuban takes people to task for littering and ‘envidia’ (see note 2), has lovely manners, smells naturally great in the heart of summer (see note 3), and pardons himself when he (infrequently) interrupts. He’s also vehemently anti-gossip and comfortable being alone – criteria enough to make him a peculiar Cuban. Surely this aversion to the maddening crowd is the gamer in him – he admits to shutting himself in for 8 hours or more when he’s mastering a new game – but I thought everyone here was hard-wired for social gad flying. To an extent, anyway. This guy, however, would hole up on a mountaintop with just the bare necessities given the chance, which sounds extreme even to me, a solitary mountain girl at heart.

In another inversion of a Cuban stereotype, he’s not afraid to ask questions, learn about what he doesn’t know, and pursue new experiences – including hard work. He’s got a hunger for knowledge and the confidence to seek it out I don’t see that often in Cuba’s 20-somethings. It’s refreshing and hopeful, especially because it comes from the next generation, too much of which has lost hope here.

Notes

1. Let me emphasize that I’m referring to anti-scientific, charismatic churches (what’s sometimes referred to as neo-charismatic or neo-Pentecostal), not the traditional kind where you go on Sunday to pray and catch up with the congregation. The kind that freak me out are the ones where the pastor fairly preys on his flock, encouraging adoration of him and distance from non-believing friends and family.

2. This is a very negative, very Cuban concept which literally translates as ‘envy’ but runs much deeper, to the roots of want, need, greed, and paranoia.

3. I’m currently preparing a post on Cubans and their cologne/perfume habits; gas mask anyone?

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Travel to Cuba

For: My 20-Something Friends, Love: Your 40-Something Tía

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false] Sometimes I bore myself with all this Cuba talk and expat navel gazing; granted, there’s a lot to say on the subject (see note 1), so I’m not beating a dead horse per se, but it does make me feel like a wordsmith one trick pony. So very occasionally (e.g. when I was in Haiti and occupied Wall Street), I muse on things which have nothing to do with the beguiling isle.

But this post is a complete departure for me since in addition to being not at all Cuba-related, it’s also the first time I’m writing for a particular readership (see note 2). Inspired by my cohort of young friends on both sides of the Straits (who are remarkably similar in their youthful optimism and doubt, impatience and drive), I wanted to share a bit of wisdom to help ‘abrir caminos’ as we say here (see note 3).

I’m guessing most Here is Havana readers are – like me – “older,” but surely you have some young friends and family who might benefit from my blather. Or perhaps you’ve hit your fourth or fifth decade and have pondered the passage of time and its relation to the parable of life in ways discussed below. Regardless, I’m hoping said blather will resonate, no matter your biological age.

Party hard while you can – Partying until dawn at 40 is an entirely different undertaking from that at 20-something. At your age, you suck it up after a big night out and snag a couple of hours of sleep before going to class or work or both. But when you crawl in at daybreak at my age, you’re looking at a 24 hour recovery period. In short, the day after is totally lost, a write-off, while you drag ass, rest, maybe have a little hair of the dog, followed by more resting. My advice? Party hard while you can because that in itself gets harder as you age.

Shape up now – Your mind, depth of experience, and perspective grow as you grow up (if not, you’re doing something wrong), but your body? Hell in a handbasket, my friends, and you’ll eventually reach the point of sagging muscles and tone loss, slackening skin accompanied by its evil twin wrinkles, and gravity working its black magic on your boobs, balls, and god knows what all. My advice? Eat healthy, exercise, and don’t smoke or drink to best hedge your bets (says the woman suggesting you party hard while you can). I largely ignored this advice at your age, so I’m not throwing stones here, but rather signposting the road of life for my young friends. (I should admit here that I’m also a wee bit nostalgic for the taut, hard body I had at 20.) My advice? Enjoy it while you’ve got it, but know that maintenance is essential if you want to remain fit and bed-able at 40. This is particularly true for young XX readers, since women are saddled with an unjust and inequitable standard of youth and beauty as compared to men.

Get jiggy now– You might not think much of it at the moment, but once you’ve passed 40 or 50 springs on this earth, Viagra will become tantamount. For males, it’s a modern miracle. For us women, it sucks 16 ways from Tuesday. First, there’s straight up anger. They get Viagra and we get menopause?! Where’s my Viagra coño?! Second, those little miracle pills trick men into thinking they’re unjustifiably hot, omnipotent, and virile (some are dupes in this sense regardless, but that’s another story). On the upside, we ladies usually hit our sexual stride much later than guys – i.e. when most age-appropriate males can’t keep up without the help of Big Pharma. My advice? Enjoy yourself (safely!) now and entertain the cougar cruisers when your time comes.  

Some things don’t fix themselves – In addition to penile erectile dysfunction (see above!), other problems in life like clogged drains, yeast infections, back taxes, and bad tattoos (see below!) don’t get better on their own. This can also be said of HIV infection and I feel a little sorry for my 20-something friends who have only lived in the post-HIV world. My advice? Embrace latex and call a professional – whether it’s a sexual health expert, plumber, gynecoloigist, accountant, or laser wizard – when things go awry.    

Resist brand tyranny – Whether it’s Apple or Converse, Mercedes or Harvard, I urge you to resist marketing mania and associated pressure to buy and flaunt labels. Hilfiger or Louboutin, Ed Hardy or Kate Spade: no matter the brand, wearing it will not make you smarter, better looking, or more kind. True, I’m a fashion disaster, but in these matters, I defer to my favorite billionaire who observed: why shell out $10,000 for a Rolex when my $15 Timex keeps the hour just as well? My advice? Think twice before buying into the brand.

Love stinks – Sorry to break it to you, but even at my age you probably won’t have the love thing figured out. Sure, you may be with someone, engaged, married, or in love even, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. On the contrary, love makes everything more complex and in that complexity lies the problem. My advice? Tellingly, I have none; please let me know if you’ve had any revelations on the relationship front.

Think before you ink – I’m speaking from experience here guys: the tattoo that seems daring, romantic, or artistic at 20 can become a real problem at my age. Trust me – the choice between cover-up and removal isn’t pretty (or cheap) no matter how you cut it. My advice? Think long and hard about the statement you want to make and if it needs to be permanently emblazoned on your body and where.  

Older doesn’t necessarily mean smarter – Which is my way of saying: you don’t always have to listen to people older than you. Authority figures sometimes get off on that alone – i.e. the authority of age and position – and that can be dangerous for reasons too convoluted to go into here. My advice? Question authority, as much for your own benefit as for those wielding that authority because once they go unquestioned, they can do anything. And we definitely don’t want that.

Take the long view – I have a young friend who lost her zest for college two-thirds of the way through and she’s thinking about dropping/copping out. I say copping out because the lion’s share of the work is done and she just needs to suck it up a little longer to successfully attain her degree. Three semesters seems like forever to her at 21, but that ain’t nothing in the scheme of things, baby! I beg those of you close to completing school, a project, or a dream to persevere even though it feels like it will be forever until you reach your goal. My advice? You can do it – just go easy and take it slow when your patience runs thin.  

Keep your finger on the pulse – I’ve learned in the two decades since I was in your shoes that it’s important to befriend, mentor, and seek out and the opinion of, people younger than you. My advice? Whether you’re 20, my age, or double that and your next step is death, nurture relationships with people younger than you to keep your horizons expanding.

Live your dreams – As so many have said, life isn’t a dress rehearsal; it’s the only shot you’ve got. My advice? Make the most of it.

This post was motivated by the friendship of many 20-somethings in Cuba and beyond, including Caitlin, Benji, Joelito, Jenny, and Pablo. I dedicate it to you!

Notes

1. Which is why I’m writing a book (some would call it a memoir, a word that makes me cringe for several reasons) on the topic.

2. If you’ve landed here because you’re interested in Cuba-specific reading, I suggest trolling past posts and checking back in a few weeks – I’m preparing something juicy on the Pope.

3. For the curious: ever since I was 16, I knew I didn’t want to have kids and at 42, I remain exhileratingly child-free (and I’m not alone: check out this group Green Inclinations, No Kids or GINKs). But I adore being an aunt – tía in Spanish, which is a double entendre in Cuban since it loosely means ‘a woman of a certain age no longer considered sexy or eligible for seduction.’ I remember the first time a young Cuban buck called me tía – it smarted, yes it did!

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Here is Haiti, Relationships, Writerly stuff