Today I screwed up my courage for one more try at the machinas to visit my dear friend Norma in Centro Habana. A soft rain was falling but the skies looked threatening and I wanted to get there as quickly as possible. As soon as I put out my hand, copying the particular downward wave of my fellow travelers on Linea, an ancient black Ford pulled over. Hasta Infanta y San Lazaro. I had memorized the corner where I needed to arrive. The driver nodded once and I climbed into the car, which already had three other passengers. The driver took a circuitous route, weaving through the now familiar streets of Vedado, and then the narrow streets of the central part of the city. I tried in vain to see the street names which are either carved into little pyramids of stone that sit on the street corners, or painted on plaques attached to the walls of corner buildings.
I knew more or less where I was going, but was relying on the driver to let me off at the right corner. Big mistake. Down San Lazaro we barreled (yes, these cars are still miraculously capable of speed), up another street I didn’t recognize, until before me loomed the iconic form of the Capitolio. The Cuban Capitol building is ironically an exact copy of the U.S. Capital in Washington D.C. Impossible to miss…and very far from where I was supposed to get off. This was getting to be a routine, one I very much wanted to interrupt. San Lazaro y Infanta? I asked, thinking he might be doubling back. Ay! The now too familiar cry of a driver who had forgotten my stop. No problem. Just get off here and take another machina down Neptuno. Sigh. I’m getting too good at this.
Finally I arrived at Norma’s casita…a very old house with impossibly high ceilings that she has moved to recently. Her former apartment was up 3 rickety flights in a building that was falling down around itself. She had been very ill for a few years and needed to be close to her hospital for treatments and to be on the ground floor.
How happy I was to see her in this palace of an apartment. A large open living room with beautiful painted tile floors, a dining room where she served me a delicious meal, a spacious kitchen and two large bedrooms down a very long hallway. Upstairs, two more rooms where her daughter stays with her novio. Room for visitors, room for the living room conferencias that she convenes, room to breathe.
And the best news of all—the cancer that had attacked her and sapped her energy and health appears to have disappeared completely. She was treated with chemo and radiation and an experimental cancer vaccine that Cuba has developed…and she appears to have vanquished this dire threat.
I first met Norma some years ago when she was touring in the U.S. with Maestra, a magnificent film about the literacy campaign in Cuba in the first years of the revolution, made by the talented filmmaker Catherine Murphy. Norma was born in 1946, a few months after me, and when she was just 15 years old she left her home and her family in Santiago de Cuba and, along with hundreds, maybe thousands of other young people, she became una alphabetizadora—teaching campesinos in the countryside to read and write. It was a huge and hugely successful campaign and the film captures the courage, the spirit and the determination of brigades of young people who set up shop in wooden huts, in kitchens, in the fields, wherever they could, with makeshift blackboards to create access to the magic of literacy. Cuba now has one of the highest literacy rates in the world and many of the alphabetizadoras, like Norma, went on to be come successful, highly educated professionals.
Norma, a black lesbian feminist, is a sociologist, a writer, a teacher and a fierce advocate for bringing visibility and acknowledgement to issues gender and race in Cuban society. She is one of the founding members of the Network of Cuban Women of Afro-Descent. A few days after my arrival, I went to an event where she was honored for her work. So, I asked her the question I have been asking everyone…the elections? the changes that are happening? What do you think?
No se puede ser peor, it can’t get worse, she began. And then explained that Cubans had already passed through so many challenges and showed themselves to be resilient and capable of finding a way to overcome…so any changes can only be for the better. Of the elections, she agreed with most that the current Vice-President, younger at 50 and in synch with the changes begun by Raul Castro, would most likely be elected the next President of Cuba. And the changes need to continue, she went on. New ideas are important in this moment.
In terms of the place of women in Cuban society and the theme of gender equality she sees significant change…including an openness and visibility for lesbians. She pointed out two popular bars on one of the most lively streets in Cuba for nightlife that now have Friday night events for lesbians where they are able to dance together openly and celebrate their relationships…and where many heterosexuals, Cubans and tourists alike, join them for a night out. The Federation of Cuban Women, after many years of insisting that there was no need for a separate organization for black women because in Cuba everyone is equal, is now creating a space for their network to meet and develop.
These are all good things. Of course, the new President will probably be a white male…but Cuba is far from alone in crossing that barrier…the state of U.S. politics comes to mind immediately. It was such a pleasure to sit with my friend in her spacious new home and absorb her ideas and perspective. We even got to gossip a little. Turns out, her street is a route for the machinas that could carry me home. And guess what? I got off exactly where I should have and trudged four blocks through the rain and arrived, wet and triumphant.