Pepe Billete: Memories of My Abuela
Photo by Pepe Billete
Fidel Castro is dead.
I've lived the majority of my life under the watch of the admittedly impulsive eye of the exile community. I've celebrated Fidel's death in the streets of both Hialeah and la saguesera at least three times in the past 15 years, but this time the news isn't coming from el primo mio Carlito que trabaja en Radio Mambí or el mechanico mio "Fix It Luis" que es tremendo troll y me dice vente mil cosas para joderme la vida. No. This time it is coming from una gringa culona I met in L.A. during the 2013 American Music Awards who works at a national news network in New York.
As the credits begin to roll on a red-carpet screening of Kevin Hart and Josh Gad's new comedy, The Wedding Ringer in theater number 17 at the Regal South Beach Cinema Thursday, January 8, I've completely forgotten where I am because I'm frantically texting the music-awards gringa. Are you sure? Five minutes later, the stage is set, the credits are nearing their end, the house lights begin to come on, and she sends me pics of the news graphics they're ready to run.
Though I've been preparing for weeks, refining my questions and scripted introduction to absolute perfection, I miss my first mark. I was supposed to be at my podium to interview two of the movie's stars, Kevin Hart and Josh Gad, before the lights come on, and the theater is dead silent. In hindsight, I should have stayed away from the podium until I got my shit together enough to read the script in front of me. Pero ni pinga, my Cuban impulse got the best of me and I'm standing in an eerily silent theater como un sapingo, where 90 percent of the people have no fucking idea who I am, but I don't care because it's taking every ounce of my energy to fight back the tears that are beginning to flood my eyes and clench my throat.
I start talking out of instinct to ease the tension and stumble over the portions of my script memory pushed through the more prevalent image in my mind -- the image of my hand nestled between the gentle, comforting hands of my abuela as her paper-thin-skinned palms tenderly stroked the top of my hand for the last time as death transported her lucidity in and out of the bed where she died at Mercy Hospital.
Abuela lived her life until the end completely free of regret. Out of principle, she had shunned any consideration of ever returning to Cuba with a willpower and pride that kept her from relatives and even from visiting, one last time, the grave of her first-born son, whom she lost on the island 40 years prior. And while Abuela was a pillar of strength and integrity in the 92 beautiful years God leased her to humanity, her final visions spoke volumes to me about the weight such resolve bore on her heart.
But in this South Beach theater, I'm trying hard not to shit my pants. I've got a lot of things working against me, though: (1) I'm sitting in an aluminum chair behind the projection screen under an enormous subwoofer suspended 20 feet above me; (2) I'm in a packed theater with more than 300 people, including a few dozen members of the local and national media; and (3) I'm ten minutes away from conducting the biggest interview of my career.
"KEVIN!" I awkwardly yelled as I flashed back into the present reality. "I feel like you're a part of my family, meng." That was a line I improvised, but in retrospect, it was symbolically truer than I realized at the time, because Kevin, Josh, and the 300 or so people in that theater had unknowingly become my companions in a personal catharsis.
This realization illuminated within me the true nature of a belief that had taken me a lifetime to build in Miami as a son of exiles and a grandson of patriots living under the faithful hope that the death of the Castros would somehow bring about a change to the island that would cause a collapse in the regime and usher in a new era of democracy and freedom for future generations. This realization was cocooned in my abuela's emaciated hands, that time had withered those hopes of true freedom into nothing more than a dream to salvage a Cuba that was lost long ago... It was a realization that the death of both Castros means nothing. To take to the streets after having this realization would be nothing short of a celebration of his greatest accomplishment: the damage his regime has done to the culture of my abuela's generation.
Photo by Stian Roenning
To say today's Cuba is a façade of the Cuba she was forced to leave is a gross understatement. Through necessity, propaganda, and rationing, the Castros have successfully reprogrammed the psychology of the people into a state of perpetual dependency upon the government and skewed ethics to a point where stealing from the government, or any other giant, faceless entity, is a necessary part of life. When one generation reinforces that survivalist ideal daily upon the next generation, it becomes more and more decriminalized in the mind of the subsequent generation.
In other words, a father may feel the full ethical guilt of stealing from his job even if he's forced to do it to survive, but the son who grows up watching him won't. That guilt will naturally be diluted in justification in the son's eyes. Now take that example and multiply it by four generations, where the father is now the great-grandfather. How do you think the great-grandson will feel about stealing? That's the amount of time the Castros have had to destroy the ethics of Cuban culture.
How long will an American business last in a country where paying off police or military officials with dollars to look the other way is commonplace? How long will a Starbucks in Havana stay open before all the Frappuccino mix suddenly goes missing and coquito stands suddenly start popping up on the beaches? Cubans on the island are still as willing to work and struggle to make a dollar just as hard as my abuela did, but the taboos that guide the generation of Cubans the Castros engineered are definitely built upon a very different set of ethics.
You can't place the blame of having these skewed ethics on the Cuban people of the Castro era, because for the last four generations, it's all they've ever known. It's the engineers who systematically oppressed the people into submission who are to blame; it's the Castros themselves, because it was their methodical destruction of the Cuban culture masked under the veil of imperialistic rebellion, which was used for them to leave their legacy on the world and earn a ticket to immortality.
Just for the sake of a comparative analogy, consider how long it has taken to abolish American racism toward dark-skinned people. Racism is a far more obvious and in-your-face example of a moral and ethical wrong in society. Slavery was abolished 144 years ago, yet it took another 100 years from the day it was abolished for this country to finally recognize how unethical it is to discriminate against people because of their skin color enough to pass the Civil Rights Act.
It's now been 50 years since that law was passed, and though progress has been made, can anyone say racism has been eradicated from American culture? So if it has taken that long to get rid of something as obviously wrong as racism, imagine how long it will take to undo the psychological decriminalization of personal gain that the Castros have programmed into Cuba's people in order to show the value in something as subjective as utilitarian work ethics.
Fortunately, the unrealized truth is that my abuela's dream to see democracy for Cuba flourish was actually achieved. It just happened on a different piece of real estate. The Cuban culture of my abuela's generation strongly lives on in the hearts and minds of the four generations of Cuban-Americans that have prospered in the United States since their displacement. It is her generation that bore the pain of exile to assure that the Cuban culture they were taught would have its own place in history and its own expanse of fertile soil that welcomed it to blossom into everything they dreamed it one day would.
Their culture lives on in their children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren who still proudly identify themselves bi-culturally as Cuban-Americans. And it is their culture that laid out the blueprint that eventually allowed me to have the opportunity to stand tall next to the biggest star in Hollywood, regardless of how short he is.
Visit Pepe Billete's website 305plp.com
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