Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.
“Cuba is a Ceremony”, Interview with Mabel Cuesta
3 / abril / 2023
My father used to always say in front of me: “life is more fertile than the imagination.” It’s been that fertile with me this last year, at least when it comes to meeting good people and making friends I could have never expected.
One of the people that has brightened up my days is Mabel Cuesta, who I am interviewing now, not with the desire to comb through her literary work – which I could do – or her experience researching – which would be interesting -, but rather for her to tell me about her relationship with Cuba, its symbols, its rough edges, its beautiful and ugly parts, its beloved people – our people -, her neighborhood, her province, her memories and experiences.
I have to say that Mabel has been surprisingly affectionate with me, like a maternal figure that makes me forget that she’s actually younger than me, with a tenderness we should all receive, with the sweetness of sugarcane juice without ice, who lets me enjoy her friendship without always having to be on her good side. That’s because Mabel offers you the comfort of the wicker armchair in the shaded patio door.
But it’s not fair to forget that Mabel Cuesta is a prominent academic at the University of Houston. She’s a poet, essayist, teacher, and activist for saving the Homeland, which she prefers to feel and understand as the Motherland.
Mabel, what do you have left in Cuba? Why do you travel back to the island so much, aside from just wanting to?
My women are in Cuba. My grandmother, my mother, my aunts. The people responsible for my life and upbringing. A few years ago, all my cousins were still there, now there’s only one left. One cousin who we jokingly say “we’ve left as the guard at the old people’s home,” because my cousins have been slowly leaving one by one. I have dear friends (who are also leaving en masse, but some are still here). I have a small house in front of the bay that makes me dream of a future which is stolen from me every time a new edition of Granma newspaper is printed.
Last of all, I have many corners that know me as well as I know them. Look, here I broke my jaw open and leg trying to ride my bike. Look, I sang Raulito Torres’ songs there with my eyes closed, back when we were friends and he wasn’t a ghost of his former self. Look, look, here they put on a blue neckerchief, and then a red one. And so on… It’s strange, because I’m not normally a nostalgic person; but I do have a good memory and, well, Matanzas is the city God made on the day of rest, that’s why it’s so beautiful. If you don’t believe me, just ask Marta Valdes, she’s the one who sung it to us.
Do you think Cuba and the Cuban people, our culture remained there in the Caribbean, or did you bring them with you?
Cuba is a ceremony and so it’s portable. Like an ad in the ‘80s that promoted a concert by the Yaguarimu Orchestra (from Matanzas, of course), and on that poster it said “stage: wherever they put it.”) Cuba is with me (wherever I put it) because I wanted to rip it out of me when it was already too late. Leaving is a way to release it. A painful ritual that tries to move towards oblivion, chance and also a rebirth. You lose to win or that’s what you tell yourself. I wanted to do this, but it didn’t work. Suddenly, I was in Madrid, New York or in Houston talking about the damn island all day long. Thinking about it all the time. That’s when I embraced it properly and began to consciously take it with me to every bend in my road, as if it were a stage. Cuba doesn’t need to be this physical space limited to the nationalist policies they want to teach us. You have to really look at Marti, Emilia Casanova and even Felix Varela. They have all of the answers and possible mutations of the burning idea of what it means to belong somewhere.
Do you write about Cuba, with Cuba or for Cuba?
I do, yes, yes and yes. That’s all I’m good for. And that’s OK. I walk in New Orleans looking for the doorways of towns in Matanzas and along the beach promenade in Tel Aviv thinking about how beautiful it’d be to see this same urban design in streets along the Malecon and in Varadero. If what I’m saying isn’t a direct answer to your question, that’s because I write as I’m walking. Even though I’m always on the hunt for an adventure, it’s hard for me not to think about Cuba and write about it in these games… ah, and another thing: she is my girlfriend. A gruff girlfriend, oh, so gruff; but irresistible.
Does your love for Cuba make you suffer or bring you happiness? How would you like Cuba to be for you to want to go back and live there?
Suffer a lot. Every day. I open Granma and a whole arsenal of curse words that I know come to mind and I know a lot. I open Facebook and see complaints by activists, and the same thing happens. It’s very hard to feel shame and anger for the place that holds such a place in your heart, which perhaps forms part of your DNA. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t also bring me happiness. Its music, for starters. Cuba dentro de un piano (that magnificent album by Jose Maria Vitier) reminds me of pretty much all of the good things the island produces from every corner. Cervantes’ Cuban dances. The clave which, according to Mexican writer Alberto Ruy Sanchez, makes even children having a meltdown on a plane stop crying. The rhythm when dancing. The cheeky and sarcastic gestures almost all of us know how to use at the right time. Your irony on a Miami night, telling neighborhood stories is one of the dearest Cubas I’ll take with me and that I’ve enjoyed like nobody knows (not even you). Seeing people devour my croquettes which aren’t anything special next too Spanish cocido croquettes; but I know why they like them so much, because they taste of meat goddamit! All of this and a million kisses and orgasms more I’ve enjoyed, in the physical and portable Cuba.
And yes, I know what kind of country I’d come back to. A country where nobody is afraid to pass the line at Immigration Control. Coming in or leaving. One where Robertico Carcasses can play his heart out in La Piragua while he curses the Government of the hour, and a group of people are celebrating the X anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Barracks ten blocks up… and everything’s fine. A country where young people haven’t left or are crazy about leaving who, during the COVID-19 crisis, in July 2021 to be exact, they’d write in my Facebook saying just this: “I don’t have medicines or money, but I’m young, I have a bike and I can deliver antibiotics wherever you send me.” Children who didn’t know me from anywhere, but somebody had told them that I had medicine to distribute…
A country where the elderly can live a humble but dignified life with their monthly pension, because that’s why they paid in and contributed to the State’s coffers during their productive years. A country where you form part of the Supreme Court after you’ve been checked out properly, as well as a couple of aggressive religious members, and a gay and a lesbian and some black women, just because, because they deserve it for their professional skills; but because the masses deserve them more, who need to know they are being represented. The above in our Courts, Congress, Senate… I have lots of ideas, but they all boil down to one thing: democracy now.
Has your Cuban nature been a stone in your shoe or a kite flying high during your experience in the United States?
That’s a really hard question. The only honest answer I can give you is that I don’t know. Or maybe “it depends”.
More than my “Cuban nature”, other things have been a stone. Speaking English with an accent is one (gosh, the faces!); not wanting, not really feeling like writing my academic articles in English because I feel like it’s a very colonized way of acting (some people will tell you it’s laziness and I’ll say of course it is); or being stunned and not knowing how to answer when a waiter at this restaurant or that offers you 12 different kinds of bread for breakfast, these have been uneasy experiences. But they aren’t exactly linked to me being from the island, but rather with me not being from here or even with me being from a working class neighborhood.
Perhaps the hardest thing I’ve had to unlearn is the bad policy of being sincere… This business of saying what you think, this barbarism of giving your opinion and letting it all out… Oh, no! The shitstorm! But I think the Spanish and Argentinians are having just as rough a time as me.
It’s not exactly a kite flying high, either. The only times I’ve taken out a Cuban flag have been when the Houston Astro’s have won and Gurriel and Alvarez scored. But that’s because sports make me lose my mind, then I come back to myself and know how to behave and I tell myself: “girl, cool it.”
In short, I think I’ve gone above and beyond to prove to you that I have no idea how to answer that question.
Do the croquettes you make, which I’ve tried, have a Cuban touch or have you broken away from cumin and bell peppers for good?
I answered that; but here’s a new twist: my croquettes aren’t food, but a gesture from an older sister who wants everyone to eat something delicious today because God knows what’s coming tomorrow. I think you’re teasing me about breaking away from cumin and bell peppers because nobody can be good 24/7. Not even you. So no, thank you, in true Eleanor Roosevelt style, “No one can hurt me without my consent.” Bye.
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