by Roland Vazquez, Associate Professor, Social Sciences and Anthropology
Hablemos el mismo idioma
Da me la mano, mi hermano.
[Let’s speak the same language
Give me your hand, my brother.]
–Gloria Estefan, Mi tierra
This past summer, through the generosity of a UIU Faculty Summer Stipend, I conducted three weeks of research on Basque ethnicity in Cuba along with my wife Magdalena Vazquez, UIU Spanish instructor. The Basques are an ancient Iberian-Peninsula population. As with Spaniards in general, several waves of Basques came to the Americas and, precisely because of their sense of a cultural identity, diaspora Basques re-created a sense of community in enduring ways that carriers of other Spanish regional identities did not. Our readings indicated that of all of these “new-world” Basque experiences, the Cuban has been by far the road less traveled, so we decided to set out on it, one footstep at a time.
Our quest took us on a whirlwind tour of many places, including the cities of Havana, Cienfuegos, Ciego de Avila, Camagüey, and Santa Clara, and smaller towns like Trinidad, Remedios, and Zulueta. We followed the traces of the past, delving into the biographical-historical reality of some renowned 19th century sugar plantation owners and slave traders. We searched for linguistic influences and places that mark a Basque past in Cuba, such as cemetery pantheons and handball courts. We made institutional contacts at, for example, the University of Havana and the (Anthropological) Ortiz Foundation. One tentative conclusion: a Basque identity is now “on the menu” in Cuba in a way that would have been problematic even a decade ago, but it is only one menu item out of many in an increasingly global Cuban reality of necessity opening up to the outside world—not the least via tourism.
Any research project on the island ultimately strikes us as a means to the greater end of entering the kaleidoscope that is Cuba. The country is remarkable, full of lavish beauty in both the built and natural environments. In our role as outsiders, it was hard not to feel both closeness and distance. Taking a bicycle taxi through the center of Havana in the midst of an 11 p.m. blackout, we could almost touch the people in the street, but we could see only their silhouettes. Sometimes, even when we could see Cubans, such as those piled into a makeshift truck-bus like sardines, our status as foreigners prevented us from joining or interacting with them. We seemed to live in parallel realities. And yet, there were moments. In true anthropological spirit, there is no substitute for “being there.”For example,when speaking with a Cuban academic, even about questions restricted to Basque identity, other cultural allusions invariably emerged. My favorite was a citation of Nicolás Guillen, Cuba’s poet-laureate until his death in 1989 about the one white grandfather and the one black grandfather (from the poem Balada de los abuelos, or “Ballad of the Grandfathers”) — true in many Cuban families but also symbolic of the country’s culture as a whole.
Our experience was enriched by staying in family homes, which allowed extensive contact with real individuals: the housekeeper for whom three eggs would cost over 1 percent of her monthly salary; the apartment owner unable to visit an ill relative in the U. S. due to the state of bilateral diplomatic relations; the 19-year-old driver blasting reggaeton music out of the iPod mysteriously attached to the cassette player in his 1983 Russian Lada as black fumes belched out the tailpipe. And a long et cetera, as one might say in Spanish. These were shared conversations and experiences that were gifted to us in a segregated and problematic world.