By Mario Reinaldo Machado
Growing up in a Cuban-American family, I had the incredible fortune of absorbing a near-mythical image of the island that my grandfather had left as a boy in 1946. In the beautiful, pregnant syllables of my grandfather’s heavily-accented English, he told the stories of his childhood in Cuba with such regularity that I soon found myself reciting them as if they were my own. And in a way, they were. These tales became my Cuba, a place I did not know and had never visited, but a place that occupied so much of my thoughts and dreams regardless.
Following several international stints working in development, specifically focused on rural agricultural communities, I found myself a graduate student in search of a research topic for my thesis. By this time, Cuba had become a hot topic in the press. President Obama’s unprecedented announcement in December of 2014 about the normalizing of relations with Cuba sent shockwaves through the Cuban-American community. Since the early 1990’s, Cuba had also embarked on what would prove to be one of the most remarkable transformations of any domestic agricultural system. By significantly shifting from heavily-industrialized production to agro-ecological and organic methods, the Cuban government and Cuban people aimed to address the acute food crisis that was sparked by the fall of the Soviet Union.
My thesis would practically write itself, I thought. Not to mention, I would have an amazing opportunity to visit Cuba and reconnect with family over the Caribbean’s finest rum and cigars.
If only it were that easy.
I arrived in Cuba in early May 2016 on a grant from National Geographic’s Young Explorer program with the aim of researching food and agricultural realities in rural communities—a seemingly straightforward task for someone with several years of experience working on similar projects elsewhere in the world. But the politics of Cuba, and in particular the politics of food in Cuba, soon proved to be greater obstacles than originally anticipated. While the questions I was attempting to ask seemed simple enough, they were steeped in the long, tense history of mistrust between the U.S. and Cuba. As I would come to find, it did not matter the content of what I was asking as much as the fact that it was I—for all intents and purposes, an American tourist with a peculiarly Cuban sounding name—that was asking it.
During the roughly 60 years that Cuba and the U.S. have been at odds, the amount of vitriol and animosity that has been heaved both ways over the Straight of Florida (the narrow strip of ocean separating sovereign US territory from sovereign Cuban territory) is almost immeasurable. Despite recent changes in political posturing, the inescapable reality is that the damage of such an antagonistic relationship on the people in both countries will take many years, maybe even generations to fade. This divide has become particularly poignant with the passing away of Fidel Castro this past Friday evening. While the Cuban government declared nine days of official mourning with many Cuban citizens proudly identifying as Fidelistas, Cuban-Americans across the U.S. celebrated and danced in the street.
During my project, I had naively conceived of myself as being “just a researcher,” when in reality my position in Cuba was steeped in a context far deeper than just myself or my family. Everywhere, it seemed, I found an impediment to my research. I would follow one lead only to hit yet another dead end, another person who did not want to talk to me for this or that reason.
And at the same time, food was ubiquitous.
I could see it growing in the fields, along the roads, and even on the rooftops in the cities. I could smell it cooking in the streets of Santa Clara and I could taste it in the myriad of hole-in-the-wall restaurants in la Habana. But at the end of each rum-soaked, cigar-filled night, I was no closer to figuring out how food actually worked in Cuba and no closer to answering most of my research questions. Instead, I became increasingly confused as to who I was and what I was hoping to accomplish in this place.
Eventually though, it all began to make sense—the tropical sun does seem to have a way of working things out in the mind, however slowly. After such a long and difficult history fighting forces far bigger than Cuba alone, the people here had gone through something incredibly profound and completely unique: the Cuban experience would be hard for any outsider to fully grasp. Cuba had successfully resisted the titanic power of U.S. imperialism, something that few other countries in the region could claim. And at the same time, its people had been made to suffer hardships that relatively few, and certainly not a privileged Cuban-American graduate student such as myself, could understand. What right do I have to tell a part of their story?
Cuban humor, as I have learned through my family and particularly my grandfather, is a characteristically tight weave of tragedy and comedy. Much like Cuban history itself, the heaviest episodes provide an opportunity for the true strength and perseverance of the Cuban people to shine through. This is not to paint a completely rosy picture of Cuba, but simply to say that the Cuban people have yet to meet a challenge they cannot overcome, in their own way and on their own terms. But these are their stories, stories that would amend themselves with great difficulty to the lenses through which most people view Cuba.
There are so many things in Cuba that have changed since my grandfather left in the 1940s. And yet, it seems that many of the most important things have stayed the same. Even now, as I sit and reflect on my attempts to research agriculture in Cuba, I realize two distinct things. The first is how little I know. The second is, despite this, how familiar it all feels. When I walk the streets of Havana, I can see and hear and feel my grandfather everywhere.