Crazy for Cuba

By Ian Craig

The Havana Habit, by Gustavo Pérez Firmat
(Yale University Press, ISBN: 978-0300-1413-2-0, 256 pp)

What do you think of when you hear the name “Cuba”? Ask ten people in the Caribbean this question and record their responses; chances are, the answers will be considerably more varied than if you substituted “Colombia,” for example. Depending on age, you might get: Fidel/Che/Raúl, cigars, doctors, salsa-mambo-chachacha, santería, Grenada, Bay of Pigs, missile crisis, embargo, Mariel, Bacardi, Gloria Estefan, cubalibre-mojito-daiquiri, Posada Carriles, Cubana bombing in Barbados, Elián . . . Ask a slightly different question: how do you feel about Cuba? All but the most parochial will feel some way or another, whether they’ve been there or not. Swap Colombia for Cuba again, and many more will just shrug. Whatever you think about Cuba, you’ll concede it’s very, very hard to ignore.

It’s even harder to ignore, it turns out, if you’re not supposed to go there. Gustavo Pérez Firmat’s book The Havana Habit is a sophisticated and eminently readable account of the meanings of Cuba — “that back-of-the-mind country” — in the US imagination, traced through colonial chronicles, travelogues, popular music and dance, film, television, printed cartoons, food and drink, rhetoric . . . The book seems to cry out for a ten-part TV spinoff, or at least some kind of hyperlinked presentation, such is the sensory range of its source materials. Thankfully, Pérez Firmat includes at least some of the graphic material he discusses, so the reader can enjoy gems such as the map on page 207 entitled The World Around Cuba, taken from a 1950 geography book, and showing a bird’s-eye view of the globe with Cuba in the centre and the rest of the world almost literally revolving around it: “The hemisphere centred in Cuba includes the Americas, Europe except Moscow, and small parts of Africa and Asia. Cuba is the centre of gravity of the Americas.”

Visit Cuba posterTravel poster, c. 1950s

When I started teaching Spanish in Barbados, I was always bewildered by students’ references to all native speakers as “Spanish,” regardless of their nationality. The students agreed they would object to being referred to as “English” purely based on their official mother tongue, and that a citizen of Venezuela — independence 1811 — might justifiably feel aggrieved at being called “Spanish” at this stage of the game. While I now grit my teeth when confronted with this usage in English-speaking social situations, in order not to be revealed as a pedant, I nonetheless feel I’m right to continue demanding that students do not say español when they mean dominicano, chileno, boliviano, or whatever. This is mostly a practical matter of ensuring their personal safety: to get a sense of what I mean, try repeatedly referring to Cubans as ustedes los españoles to their faces and pretending not to understand their objections. The Havana Habit eloquently explains the American equivalent of these conflations:

[Dean Martin’s] Dino Latino (1963) contains an English version of the old Cuban song “La paloma”: “When I left Havana nobody saw me go, / except my little gaucho maid who loved me so.” A gaucho maid in Havana is incongruous enough, but not less than the album cover, a sketch of Dean Martin dressed like a matador. Put it all together and this is the picture: an Italian-American crooner dressed like a Spanish bullfighter singing a song about an Argentine girl who lives in Havana.

Since an atmosphere has no history, no borders, no flag, atmospheric Latin Americanism turns Latin America into a continent of interchangeable parts. Removing the indicia of nationality to replace them with a crude version of what today we might call ethnicity, atmospherics breeds denationalisation, the most important feature in American perceptions of Latin America. The Hollywood “Latin” of the 1930s and 1940s is a forebear of today’s “Latino,” which is one reason why contemporary America has so easily assimilated the notion of the nationless “Latino,” a politically correct version of the old stereotype.

You don’t have to be an Afro-Ecuadorean wondering which box to tick on a census form — or a Grenadian being lumped in with the “Jamaicans” on a work detail — to nod recognition as you read this. But The Havana Habit is not, by and large, a vindication of Cuban distinctiveness in the face of gringo homogenising. As a Cuban who arrived in the US at age eleven in 1960, Pérez Firmat has heard his fair share of strident identity rhetoric and is clearly not interested now, if he ever was, in making any kind of campaign out of national origin (the title of an earlier work, Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way, already indicates wry acceptance of his in-between status). Instead, he charts the US-Cuba relationship as an interminable love affair, sometimes, as now, a wistful long-distance relationship across the battle lines of feuding clans (which one is Romeo, which Juliet?), at others times such as the early twentieth century, a torrid, if essentially exploitative, concubinage.

It’s important that Pérez Firmat doesn’t feel indignant at this curious channelling of Cuban cultural forms to generate a denationalised “Latin feel” that causes American pulses to race. While his tone is inevitably sardonic at certain points — the channelling is sometimes too crass to make it otherwise — he clearly feels that once you’re in on the imposture — and the appropriators, both Latin and North American, usually were — much of the stereotyping can be taken as a historical artefact to be enjoyed. This does not imply a bland even-handedness: the one thing he can’t finally accept in a playful spirit are late-twentieth-century characterisations of Castro and Cuban exiles as comically deranged figures of fun, remarking: “But in real life comandantes are not comic and exiles are not exotic.” This is the one moment he perhaps contradicts himself, having said earlier that “Fidel has inspired ridicule as well as reverence, even among many Cubans on both sides of the Florida straits,” suggesting Fidel is comic, sometimes, to “real-life” Cubans, however solemn or bitter some may feel about him too.

But Pérez Firmat’s tone is otherwise celebratory of the playfulness he finds in the appropriations of Cuban cultural forms by artists in the US. He discusses the “latune” — English-language songs with Latin beats — at length, concluding:

Like other latunes, rumbas have often been denigrated as watered-down or flaccid Cuban music. But their ersatz quality doesn’t bother me, because it doesn’t bother them. Rumbas make no pretence of being anything other than bowdlerised Cubanism . . . There is always something delightful, a pleasant culture shock (sceptics might say, schlock), in an American rumba. The hidden melody of the words, the music of the English language, finds an unexpected home in the company of maracas, claves, and bongos.

It is hard not to relate these sentiments to the author’s own history, gleaned from published interviews: “Although America is a part of me, it’s not the most important part of me. No matter how assimilated I may act or look, there is always an unassimilable remainder, a Cuban core, which only seems to get larger with the years.” Or, “it’s always the language I’m not writing that is my home. I can’t write in English without missing the Spanish that is missing. I can’t write in Spanish without missing the English that is missing.” It seems, rather touchingly, that the artful fusion of Cuban melodies with English lyrics by a Hoagy Carmichael or an Irving Berlin allows Pérez Firmat to imagine, however briefly, a realm in which his own sundered pasts are reconciled, rather as Nabokov’s Antiterra in Ada might be seen as the author’s dreamed integration of Russia and the US.

Though Pérez Firmat’s own “Havana habit” may put him in wistful mood, he fully recognises that the broader US version can be a downright dirty habit at times. His analysis of the “whitening” that takes place when Cuban lyrics, scenes, and characters are transferred into English songs and Hollywood films casts a fascinating, if unflattering sidelight on the “economy of desire” that obtains between the two countries. While the ugly racial politics underlying twentieth-century US culture are hardly news to anybody nowadays, Pérez Firmat’s scrutiny through a Latin lens trained on such apparently innocuous forms as the “latune” reminds us just how insidious this phenomenon was only a very short time ago.

Like all of Pérez Firmat’s non-fiction work, The Havana Habit is an academic book only in the best sense, meaning that it offers a nuanced and rigorous interpretation of a significant cultural phenomenon. It is not an “academic” book in the off-putting sense of straining to talk over the heads of non-academic readers or of shying away from being entertaining, in case this is mistaken for frivolity of purpose. I found myself smiling often while reading it (the account of the “dire effects” of the mambo on practitioners in the 1950s, for example, finds a curious echo in more recent admonitions regarding the “dutty wine”, “daggering,” and other such “pernicious foreign crazes”). In short, this is a masterful survey of the most self-evidently “co-produced” cultural identity in the region. Whatever you think and feel about Cuba, you won’t regret reading it.


The Caribbean Review of Books, March 2011

Ian Craig is senior lecturer in Spanish at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. Born and educated in England, he lived in Spain before moving to Barbados, where he teaches Latin American film. In 2007 he co-ordinated a documentary workshop at the International School of Film and Television in Cuba, and he now co-curates the Africa World Documentary Film Festival at Cave Hill.