The real Cuba, the indie scene, the bombshell barfers, and how Cubans made Miami

Letters from the Issue of July 21, 2005

Also, in Cuban street slang la Yuma does not just refer to the USA, as Glasgow claimed, but rather to any foreign place outside the island. A Cuban woman with an Italian boyfriend has snagged a Yuma as surely as one with a North American hubby like me. And finally, the chorus in the Don Omar song Glasgow cited is not "Aay, a mi, me gusta la Yuma," which she jingoistically translated as "I like the USA," but rather "a mi, me gusta los Yumas." This little change makes a lot of difference in the interpretation.

The woman is not singing that she likes the U.S., or any other foreign land outside the island, but rather that she likes foreign men inside the island. Most Cuban women have never had the opportunity to leave their country, so how would they know whether they liked la Yuma or not? One thing they certainly do know is that latching onto a Yuma, a foreigner, is a sure ticket to upward economic mobility, unlike studying at school or working hard at a job. This is the social commentary that Omar's song is making, but Glasgow apparently didn't catch it. To give her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps her translation error occurred not owing to Miami arrogance that assumes every Cuban's obsession with American life, but rather because she is unaware of the very characteristic habit here of biting the s off of the end of a word. Hence los Yumas -- which in Cuba-speak is pronounced lo Yuma -- sounded like la Yuma to her.

José Castillo

Holguín, Cuba

Q: Why Do Cubans Stay Home and Drink Rum?

A: Because they can't afford to go out and drink rum: Having just returned from about a month-long trip to Cuba, I was deeply moved by Kathy Glasgow's poetic journey through that country's complex cultural and social landscape. This was my second visit, my first being a year ago, also for about a month. I am now a medical student in San Francisco who was born and raised (and currently writing this letter) in Miami, with a strong penchant for issues of social justice, public health, and the complexity of humans' relationships with plants, fungi, and synthetic molecules with psychoactive properties.

I have helped teach courses on these topics at Berkeley and was very fortunate to travel this last time to Cuba with a dear friend who was the principal professor of these courses. I traveled to Cuba officially for research purposes, to study its healthcare system (a marvel among nations today, but almost an entirely separate topic) and the unique development of various relationships between the Cuban people, economy, and plants like coffee, sugar cane, tobacco, and cacao.

While I think Ms. Glasgow captured one dimension of Cuban people very well, especially out in the Oriente, her article troubled me a bit. I have a few comments I hope might provide some insight. When in Cuba, I stayed mostly with friends and spent my evenings just hanging with folks, because Cubans generally don't have money to go out. This usually meant lots of rum, music, rum, and dancing. And lots of rum.

I am always moved by the resilience of the Cuban people despite what appear to be continually worsening circumstances. Yet even in only one year I have noticed more dampened spirits and a duller luster among my Cuban friends, findings that have been corroborated by many others, including Ms. Glasgow. I have begun to understand this downtrodden hope of a people sustained mostly by foreign money and who feel trapped in their own land, especially after fighting so hard and so long for independence. Match that with an underproductive economy (an understatement) that directly leads to boredom, especially among the youth, plus an abundance of cheap domestic alcohol (one of the few products that never really seems to be absent from the shelves), and voilà -- you have an incredibly high rate of alcoholism. With a dramatic drop in sugar exports, there are only a few things left to do with it: Feed it to the animals, the power plants, or the people. The use of alcohol can never be separated from its economic and social circumstances.

Here in the U.S., and especially in Miami, there is tendency to portray the plight of the Cuban people as a sort of internal mess, a diabolical plan of the evil mastermind Fidel Castro, who cares little for his people. To a certain extent this may be true now, in Fidel's old age, though I am always ready to argue in favor of the amazing improvements for Cuba's poor brought about by the revolution. And then there's the issue of the United States, without whose involvement Cuba can never be understood. I think it could even be argued that the U.S. has had a much stronger influence on Cuban history than el comandante en jefe himself.

While I applaud Ms. Glasgow's general avoidance of the politics surrounding the island and concentrating more on the day-to-day, she must know after being there that discussing Cuba independent of politics is essentially impossible. Every discussion about Cuba or Cubans is necessarily political. And so, to me, it becomes necessary to implicate both of the main players here, Fidel and his U.S. enemies. In this propaganda war, it is important for journalists to take a more moderate view, which is more true to the reality.

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