What’s with the Cuban Women?

This is Part 2 in a series about the time I spent in Cuba not long ago. To see all posts in chronological order, Click Here.

On Sunday, a 28-year-old novelist, whom I’ll call Raffi, joins us for the day’s sightseeing. Wearing a straw hat with a black band, gray pants, and sunglasses tucked in the V of his yellow polo shirt, Raffi has an open face and dark eyes quick to smile. He’s a friend of one of our leaders, Trish, who’s guided many trips to Cuba.

IMG_0135Raffi, two others and I climb into a taxi—a ’55 Chevy that’s been painted “Havana blue” and completely refurbished, with air conditioning, a rebuilt motor, new upholstery and paint, and stereo sound coming out of the ancient radio. The drivers use ingenuity and parts they scrounge on the black market to keep the cars in peak condition.

Raffi tells me the driver makes more than surgeons, who earn about $25 a month. “I have friends with Ph.D.’s who drive taxis,” he says, explaining that there are two currencies in Cuba—CUC’s (called kooks), for tourists, and CUP’s, or pesos, for Cubans. The CUC is worth about a dollar but the peso is worth four cents. Taxi drivers and others who work with tourists get paid in CUC’s, but all other Cubans get the measly pesos, and they can’t live on pesos alone. Some earn cash from illegal activities and others get money sent from relatives abroad.

Cuba SD carRaffi says his grandfather was a founder of the Cuban Communist party, but his grandmother hates the revolution. “She had a business that they nationalized and took away,” he says. “She thinks the revolution ruined the country.” His grandfather, who owned a small coffee shop, was so passionate for the revolution that when officials came to his shop, he said, “Take it!” Raffi smiles. “They were like cat and dog. That’s why they were so in love.”

We pass a billboard, “United for a sustainable socialism.” I ask Raffi why I haven’t seen or heard the word “communism.” He shrugs. “Today we don’t speak of communism. We want a socialism where the government controls the most essential parts of the economy but not all. A socialism that can survive without being subsidized by Russia or China.”

“Do you think that’s possible?” I ask.

“We don’t know. We hope.”

Marti

Jose Marti

 

 

Raffi is working on a novel about Jose Marti, which, he says, “has helped me a lot. When you learn about the man, you fall in love with the country he lived and died for.”

“What do you think Marti would make of Cuba today?”

Raffi throws back his head and laughs. “That’s a question I ask myself every day.” He says Marti would have wanted the revolution and the good things it brought—free education and health care for everyone. “But…” He raises his hands, palms up.

Cu Sanchez

Yoani Sanchez

I tell him I’ve read Havana Real, by the dissident blogger, Yoani Sanchez, who describes how she grew up hungry and obsessed with food, had to wait years to get a pair of eye glasses, and had her blog repeatedly shut down by “faceless censors.”

Raffi nods. “What’s revolutionary at one time can become orthodox tomorrow.” He believes this is what happened with the Cuban revolution—the idealistic cause became frozen into a defensive and rigid bureaucracy. “We have to revolutionize the revolution,” Raffi says.

I suggest that the same could apply to the American revolution. What the founders conceived of as a system of checks and balances has devolved into obstruction and paralysis. “We need to revolutionize it.”

Raffi and I learn we share a love of “Cuban fusion music,” made by young musicians who merge traditional Cuban melodies with other genres—rock ‘n roll, reggae, African, and Brazilian. He tries to find a fusion concert that night, but not hearing of one, takes me to a large club, the Casa de Musica Habana. There are two show times in Cuba: the matinee, from 5 to 9 p.m., and the night show, from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. We arrive during the interval when the place is closed, so we wait on a nearby park bench. Raffi lives in this neighborhood, with his grandmother, a cousin, her husband and their baby.

This is central Havana—drab, crowded, and ugly—where a building collapses every three days. The buses are so full that people have to fight their way inside, so they often walk the distance or splurge on a bicycle taxi.

Raffi spots a cluster of 10-year-old girls who live on his block, sitting on a bench across from us, singing in harmony. Raffi waves and calls, “How come you don’t say hello?” The girls jump to their feet and run over, forming a line in front of Raffi. As if moving down a reception line, each girl takes Raffi’s hand and touches her left cheek to his, then her right cheek to his, then takes my hand and does the same. It’s the sweet Cuban greeting—touching both cheeks—that I’ll come to savor.

After the girls run back to their bench, Raffi tells me he’s different from most of his peers, because his mother was a diplomat who took him with her to other countries. “I’ve seen the world, but others my age want to see what’s outside Cuba.” Most of his friends, including his girlfriend, say, “There’s no future for us in Cuba.” They study at university, complete graduate work, but then find there are no openings for the jobs they’ve been trained to do.

None of his friends are married, and if they were, they wouldn’t be able to find housing and would have to crowd in with relatives. Most of them want to leave, but not Raffi. “I’m happy in Cuba,” he says. “The country is changing, but people don’t believe it yet. They self censor, holding back their real thoughts out of fear.”

When the club opens, they charge me 10 CUC’s and him 3 pesos to go inside, where the music is reggaeton, not my favorite or his, and it’s loud. Eardrum-busting loud. I watch young women grind and shake, rubbing their boobs in men’s faces or grabbing hold of a guy’s buttocks and slamming their crotch into it.

Cu dirty danceWe leave after twenty minutes and I’m disoriented. In the early days of Women’s Liberation, I was part of the cohort who stopped shaving our legs and were annoyed when guys whistled at us on the street. We insisted on being seen not as sex objects but as full and fully valued human beings. What’s with the Cuban women?

TO BE CONTINUED.

 

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31 thoughts on “What’s with the Cuban Women?

  1. James Angleton

    There seems to be a similarity between the women Ms. Davidson describes in Cuba and the women of the Dominican Republic, who Mario Vargas Llosa describes in his “Feast of the Goat, “an excellent novel about Trujillo. They are comfortable with their gender and delight in adopting a sexually confrontational manner when they encounter men.

    Reply
  2. Peter Lake

    Raffi sounds like a total idiot, completely out of touch with reality and happy in his denial.
    I suppose that could be said of many Cubans who persist in enduring their misery.

    Reply
  3. Tracy Ehlers

    What’s with Cuban Women? Great question that some really good social scientists have addressed. There is a terrific literature out there about Cuban women, Cuban tourism, and the future of the revolution given the transformation of the society. I urge you and your readers to track down material by Florence Babb, a wonderful anthropologist, author of “Che, Chevy’s, and Hemingway’s Daiquiris: Cuban Tourism in a Time of Globalization,” in Bulletin of Latin American Research, 2011.

    Reply
  4. Martin Kimeldorf

    Though the people struggle for both increased freedom and some necessities they still have a superior health program to what is available to US citizens. I hope your report a bit on the health and education freedoms they do enjoy. And I do enjoy your personal insights about peoples lives and struggles and accomplishments

    Reply
  5. Annette

    Hello Sara –

    I’ve read your work since you were writing for Esquire in the ’70s. I enjoyed your blog post. Just a comment about the “Cuban women”: I’d guess this is more of a generational thing. Every good-sized city, I’d guess, has an area where young women dress like the women in your picture, and go out and dance as you described. I’m sure that women your age and mine (I’m 56) comport themselves a bit differently.

    Also – my 21-year-old daughter, who considers herself an ultra-feminist (and is always policing my remarks for required political correctness), feels that every woman should act or dress however they want, whenever they want – no “slut-shaming,” in other words.

    What I got out of your post, that I really enjoyed, was that you were going to a club to (I assume) DANCE! I sometimes feel self-conscious when I go to a rock club, and I’m the oldest person there. Why aren’t there more women over 50 still doing the things we loved when we were younger?

    Anyway – thanks for writing this. Good to learn more about Cuba.

    Reply
    1. Sara Davidson Post author

      Thanks, Annette, for your thoughtful resposne. Yes, why aren’t we still dancing? Most of us still love it?
      There are so few venues where we’d feel welcome. Hope that changes.

      Reply
  6. Kitty

    Hi, Sara. Thanks–as usual–for your fine writing.

    It’s more than sad that your experiences in Cuba–or in any country, culture or situation (for that matter)– remind you that women condition themselves and/or are conditioned to be sexual entertainment, especially for men (who have used female bodies as targets for rape and other violent acts, justifying those crimes as merely sexual acts) (!) I’m sorry for your experiences; I was sorry to read your last sentences here. Misogyny wins in Cuba, too? It will take many more years to extinguish the self-hate.

    I look forward to reading your next posting.

    ~Kitty D.

    Reply
  7. Gail D Storey

    Thanks for sharing this marvelous take on Cuba, Sara! Informative and charming. Wow, huge congratulations on both the forthcoming pb and Finalist for the Jewish Book Award!

    Reply
  8. Steve Hollis

    Sara, please look up this contact who I met in 1991 at a Zeolite Conference in Havana. He is a good guy and I don’t know what has happened to him.
    Dr. Manuel Hernandez Velez
    Instituto Superior Pedagogico “E. J. Varona”
    Facultad de Fisica
    C. Libertad. Marianao
    C. de la Habana, Cuba

    This is fate. Then come back and ski with Diana and I.

    Steve

    Reply
  9. Sophia

    What’s with Cuban women? I’ll tell you what’s up with this Cuban woman. I’m mad. Your article is garbage. Are you really condemning a whole group of women for the actions of a few? Are you really shaming all Cuban women based on 20 minutes in a Cuban night club? Not every Cuban wonen bumps and grinds on men at night clubs every night. Why aren’t you writing about other racist of women grinding on men in night clubs? Your articles title is very inappropriate and offensive to morally upstanding Cuban women. I’m a Cuban-American Electrical Engineer in the United States and I take great offense to your article. Who are you to judge us?

    Reply
    1. Sara Davidson Post author

      A number of you have voiced this feeling — that I made a gross generalization based on 20 minutes. I did not mean to judge, I posed a question, which I will investigate in future installments. I will also talk about some brave and influential Cuban women, like the dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, and the gay rights activist, Mariela Castro. And at the end, I’ll come away having some different understandings. Hope you’ll stick around.

      Reply
  10. Jennifer Sanders

    Sara,
    Your Loose Change book meant so much to me! I’m a 58 year-old woman and I still treasure it. Is there any possible way that you could let me know what Susie and Tasha are doing today? I’ve wondered so many times what happened to all those amazing, creative people – like Rob. If you can’t I would understand, but those characters became entrenched into life that I felt like they became part of me. Thank you for your time and consideration. Jennifer Sanders

    Reply
  11. Alicia Bay Laurel

    Thank you for all of us, your reading audience, on your trip to Cuba, a place about which my partner and I have emense curiousity. I’ve learned a lot already from your first two posts!

    As a fellow revolutionary from the second wave feminist movement of the sixties and seventies, I am thinking in response to the question posed by your second post, that it is possible to have strong boundaries and self-respect and also frolic with unabashed enthusiasm in the sexual realm.

    However, I can’t know what is going on in other people’s souls unless they tell me, and even then, they still might be pretending to feel some way they don’t, for reasons even they might not know.

    So…good question!

    Reply
  12. Dru

    Hola Sara,
    I do hope you’ll endeavor to find out “What’s with Cuban Women”. We likely share in interest in that subject — from very different perspectives. My observation of Cuban women, similar to that which you presently have access to, is that they aren’t socialized with the silly, shameful American sex tabu and aren’t as worried about being sex objects as most American gals. Perhaps sex for Cuban gals doesn’t have to be sacred, selective, special or even romantic to be enjoyable, not that they would spurn those qualities were they available, I’m sure. Biology would likely make them more reticent than they seem, but the exuberant Cuban culture apparently pulls them in the opposite direction. Probably not that far from the “biological” norm, but way away from what American women would think proper. I’m curious as to what your opinion will be after some research and interpersonal conversations. Buena Suerte con tus estudios!! I hope you’ll share it. Dru

    Reply
  13. Oji Dunia

    It appears you’ve experienced some Cuban women in an enviroment – a night club, that caused you much discomfort and you immediately went into judgement of Cuban women. Wow, did I miss something. This is truly a subset of “some” women in a society. Have you spoken to any Cuba women, uneducated or educated, mothers, grandmother, daughters, priestess’, liberators, women seeking change for Cuba. Cuban women with dignity, intergrity. Did I miss something in your articles. You can ask the same question of “some” young American women, Jamaican, Canadian, Bermudians, Europeans. I would like to read an article about the contrast in our world and how we can just might learn from it.
    Oji -Blango- Dunia

    Reply
  14. DG

    “We insisted on being seen not as sex objects but as full and fully valued human beings. What’s with the Cuban women?” … did you take the opportunity to ask any of those Cuban women?

    Reply
  15. Peter

    Rife with life and discovery and love. The best writing is engaged–smelly, shocked, surprised, dismayed and delighted. There’s the germ of a book here that can help us re-engage this sad country with its people who can teach us how to be happy with eyes wide open. Do it, Sara.

    Reply
    1. Sara Davidson Post author

      Yes, Peter, that’s the magic of Cuba, that people who have so little and are under so many restrictions are able to create joy, music, laughter, and dancing. Stay tuned….

      Reply
  16. Sherrie Phillips

    I’m enjoying your travelogue of Cuba. I’ve never been, but my niece and her husband went recently and really enjoyed. We didn’t discuss the politics. I forwarded your first piece to her. She does a blog providing weekend travel itineraries http://theweekendertravel.com/author/lauren/ I love to travel on my own or, vicariously through others accounts. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  17. Ren Feldman

    I just loved this particular blog. Sara, you sure can write! Raffi is cool, and you’re right about us needing a revolution too. Reading this blog is just what I’ve needed to start my engines this morning. Let’s get together–you, Cedar, and me–before too longer. Missing the mother/father of these wonderful words. Love, Ren

    Reply
  18. Winifred Rosen

    Sara– I really, really enjoyed these pieces. Oddly enough, when the first one appeared I was in the middle of Havana Nocturn, by T. J. English, a detailed and quite riveting account of how the American mob took over Havana in the 1950’s and then lost everything, literally overnight, in the revolution. Interestingly, although the mob bosses, headed by Meyer Lansky, had total control over all gambling and drug-smuggling on the island, they were never involved in prostitution, simply because prostitution was an absolutely ubiquitous, well-established, and thriving institution when they arrived. In fact, Cuba, the Pearl of the Antilles, had been a magnet for sexual tourists of all stripes for decades. The fabulous hotel-casinos built (at enormous expense) by the mobsters featured bevies of nude dancers and groups of people performing live sex acts at all hours of the day and night.

    Reply
  19. Beverly Kai

    Hi, Sara, again I am sorry I missed you in Honolulu.

    As for Cuban women in night clubs—-I saw some behavior very close to what you describe in a nightclub here in the states.. But it was twenty years ago at the now-defunded Wave Nightclub in Waikiki, mostly frequented by local young people, few tourists.

    The young women danced without touching their partners, and with hands raised above their heads, hips rotating, they caused me to wonder if they knew how sexual their style really was… and I wondered if, as at a nude beach, the dancing men were used to the raw sexuality of the young women, and were not aroused by it.

    As a grandmother, I was reluctant to ask the young people I was with, so I never found out. It could be that the Cuban women and their style are degrees past what I saw twenty years ago at The Wave.

    Young women today don’t seem to be aware of how restrictive Society was concerning women’s behavior, just fifty years ago. You and I Sara, were born into that restrictive milleu. It still resides in our deep consciousness. It is utmost irony that Sara Davidson herself appears to be shocked at the sight of young dancing women using their sexuality to have a good time.

    They are free to do so – — partly because we said, “fuck it” to restrictions, back in the day. Cuba was a Catholic Latin country .. . . I can’t imagine what kind of dancing was allowed there before the Castro Revolution. But it seems that the women embraced the sexual revolution as happily as we did.

    One has to live in a place to truly understand it. But a short visit is a start.

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  20. Bonnie Sundance

    Hi Sara,
    Glad you got to go to Cuba. I went in 1969…a much different time.
    Feedback: you said blog was about Cuban women …but only put in a paragraph at end and a very limited view of Cuban women. I appreciated many of your other comments but was looking for some positive reflections of the women who are working to make Life Good in Cuba for the Cubans…which is what I encountered in 1969. I have a slide show about my trip — an hour long, if you are ever interested. I wonder what Cuba would be like if the US weren’t so rigid and denying them recognition for the good they have created in their country: free health care, education for all….and limiting the ill effects of capitalism, which we in America are suffering from — including no real work opportunities for young people out of college.
    Thanks,
    Bonnie

    Reply
  21. Mario

    So you start an article about Cuban life and pooitics that could have been really pleasent to read to end it talking bs about the way Cuban women dance in a damn club? That’s kinda stupid and nobody business. Do not compare societies. Cuba is far, far, FAR behind any western culture. Tou should know that since you seem to be willing to explore my country.

    Reply