We invited Walter and Betty Parks to join us on Tom Miller’s Literary Tour of Havana in early January. Miller published Trading with the Enemy in 1992. It is the best single piece of writing we have seen on Cuba in the Castro days. When we returned, Walt (The Miracle of Mata Ortiz, Rio Nuevo Publishers) shared his personal trip journal with the other travelers in our group and now agrees to share it with you. A wonderful trip, a wonderful read. Ross Humphreys and Susan Lowell, Rio Nuevo Publishers.
By Walter Parks
[CORRECTION: The name of actor and director Pedro Ángel Verá was inadvertently left out of the description of the theater visit and his background was mistakenly attributed to Edgar Estaco. The paragraph has been corrected.]
It was raining as we piled on the bus for the morning activity at the Teatro Bertolt Brecht. I chatted more with Danny Okrent about the prohibition era. He said alcohol consumption did not reach pre-Prohibition levels until the 1970s. An additional fact about him was that he was the editor of Life Magazine from 1996 to 2000, when it became a monthly. It folded in 2006.
In the theater, a black-box arrangement, we sat and listened to director Pedro Ángel Verá and playwright Edgar Estaco. Pedro mentioned his training in the then-Soviet Union, where his teacher was a student of the great Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1938). He also described his own remarkable experiences in the post-revolutionary Cuban theater. Edgar is the author of the black comedy Carne de perros, a scene of which was then rehearsed for us.
The rain had eased as we moved on to a synagogue and community center, La Casa de la Communidad Hebrea de Cuba. We listened to Adela Dworin, the center’s president, tell of the Jewish experience in Cuba. From 15 synagogues prior to 1959, the constituency had declined to about 1500 in Havana. They don’t have a regular rabbi, but only periodic visits from a Chilean rabbi. Kosher food is a problem. She keeps kosher, but few do. Their Sunday school and Hebrew class has grown to 100 children. The state tolerates them, but clearly they struggle to maintain their religion and culture. She told many stories. Before 1970, they could see only Russian or East European films. The first U.S. film allowed was “The Way We Were.” Now they love U.S. films. Before 1970 Russian was compulsory in school. Now it is English.
Here we left the toothbrushes and drugs we had been asked to bring and donate. The Center collects such things and runs a free pharmacy. Here was another Cuban contradiction. If medical care is free and supposedly of good quality, why do they need such a free pharmacy for the poor? We also left “New Yorker” magazines for their library.
The Original Sloppy Joes was the lunch venue. This institution dated to 1917, and apparently got going in the 20s with drinking tours in the Prohibition 20s labeled “Where the Wet Begins.” We sat with John Treat, who teaches at Yale, specializing in the politics of Korea and Japan. He speaks both languages. This continued earlier conversations about his work.
From there we went with the Humphreys to the craft market. This large warehouse-like structure was full of stalls with tourist knickknacks and second rate paintings of standard Habana scenes – old Chevys in front of one of Hemingway’s drinking holes plus Marilyn Monroe and Che Guevara. We covered it all in a half an hour. Daughter Katy had bought a painting on her trip in June, but we asked and looked in vain for the artist, finally realizing that his work would not be in this place.
A jinetero latched onto us and got a 57 Chevy taxi to take us to the Plaza de Armas. The driver said that he had inherited the vehicle from his grandfather. To buy it would cost $28,000. We walked to the art deco Bacardi Building. Katy had been enthusiastic about the view from the top, but security was adamant that the elevator did not open until 3:00. View or not, we enjoyed the old building. Bacardi’s Cuban assets were confiscated in 1960 and they no longer produce rum in Cuba. Fortunately they had moved much of their assets to the Bahamas in the Batista regime. Castro confiscated another rum company, Havana Club, and expropriated the name for today’s state-run rum producer. Havana Club advertisements appear everywhere.
This time the taxi was a 51 Dodge. Ross and Susan needed to return to the hotel. They left us in Habana Centro at 544 Animas, the address of poet Reina María Rodríguez. Tom told us to yell up to Reina María on the top floor of the tenement and the key would be thrown down. Betty told a couple of women leaning out a first floor who we were looking for. That worked. They came out in the street and started shouting, “Reina María.” Instead of the key falling into the street, a young man came down, opened the door and escorted us up five flights of shaky wooden stairs painted bright blue. Fortunately, the two-by-four railing was reasonably solid, and we made it – our aerobic exercise for the day. In her tiny multi-hued apartment on the roof, we met the internationally-known poet Reina María Rodríguez and her young American translator, Kristin Dykstra.
Betty and I were ahead of the group, and we talked alone for 15-20 minutes. My Spanish kicked in, and I was able to answer Reina María’s questions reasonably well. Of course, Kristin, totally fluent, was right there. At first Kristin wanted to continue working on the translation of the poems they would present to our group. We, of course, were happy with this, but in a few minutes their natural courtesy turned all of their attention on us.
Reina María has been called a “revolutionary within a revolution,” championing the cause of Cuban poets outside the state system. Her own work has won international awards, and she appears to be Cuba’s most acclaimed poet. However, beyond her own success, she has become a mentor for others and focal point for this revolution within a revolution. During the Special Period when Russia no longer shipped oil to run the power plants, electricity service became erratic. Some technical aberration made it impossible to cut the power to her apartment. The reliable availability of light — and, I am sure, her own charisma and developing reputation — made her rooftop rooms a regular meeting place, a sort of salon for emerging poets. They called it la azotea de Reina.
Kristin, from the University of Northern Illinois, came to Cuba a few years ago, called on Reina María, and became her translator. She described the difficulty of converting to English a poem’s spirit and ideas from the original Spanish. With a grant from her university, Kristina had Reina María’s book Violet Island and Other Poems published by Green Integer in Los Angeles. It cannot be purchased in Cuba, and Kristin and other friends have brought in the few copies that exist there.
The rest of our group arrived out of breath, and after introduction Reina María began to read. Following each poem, Kristin read her translation. One about a seamstress was a metaphor for writing – cutting, unraveling, thread, blood, etc. Two other poets, Victor Rodríguez Nuñez and Armando Suárez Cobian read their work in Spanish. We all then milled around looking out over the dilapidated city from the terrace. Reina María gave us copies of a small hand-bound, copy-machine produced book of Armando’s poems.
Susan later told me this kind of publication is called a “chap” book. This was a nice souvenir, but Kristin said it was very special. It is almost impossible to publish in Cuba outside of the state system even something this simple. It seems there is always some other priority at the printers. Reina María works hard to get it done because she wants to promote those she mentors. I hinted about payment or a donation but this truly is an altruistic endeavor, much like Salvador González’s art studio in Callejón de Hammel. I talked with Armando and he autographed my book. It turns out he works in the theater world in New York and travels back and forth. Another contradiction – how can someone working in NY be considered an impecunious poet in Havana?
Tourists travel in a bubble, but in this place I felt I came close to Cuba’s reality.
We survived the stairs, and Darwin was there to haul us to the hotel. In route, Carol talked with Betty about her book “Henry James’ Midnight Song.”
That evening the reentry into the bubble consisted of drinks at the Hotel Nacional. Meyer Lansky is dead, but his spirit and those of all the other pre-Revolution high rollers live on. It was a grand place, and our group seemed to fit right into the daiquiri scene.
Many of us ended the day at the Starbien restaurant and sat together at a huge banquet table. The food (I had shrimp curry) and wine were good. I had wonderful conversations with Charlie Firestone and Elena Delbanco. She teaches writing to students planning to go into government work. Charlie knew Larry McMurtry back in the 70s when Charlie did legal work for McMurtry’s antique store in New York. They attended together the opening of “The Last Picture Show.”
Tomorrow: A day of art, ritual, the writers union, and jazz.