Fidel's Death, Our Fathers

On special weekends, my dad would set me on the back of his Schwinn cruiser and cycle us over to the Firehouse Pizza in San Jose. I’d eat peanuts while he drank beer and talked politics with the owner. On their list of world problems, Castro occupied first place. I remember one serious discussion when the barman outlined his plan for how he and my dad would take Cuba back from the communists. Communism was my father’s life-long bugaboo.

My dad accused me of communism for the first time when I was in 4th grade. I had written a report on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and when I proudly shared it with my dad, he turned angry. Did I not know that King was one of the most violent and dangerous men in the history of our country? Did I not know the terrible division he had caused? King was a communist, for Christ’s sake! As you might imagine, in my family, my dad made the decisions. Voicing dissent, having an opinion of one’s own, was to risk humiliation and physical violence.

I learned Russian for a year in high school, studied Marxist theory in college, and visited Cuba for the first time as a young activist. Blame the California public school system–I have always wanted to make up my own mind.

During my first visits to Cuba, I was often the only “Yuma” folks had ever met. At cultural events and parties–like the birthday celebration for Changó–people assumed I was Spanish or South American. They were shocked when I told them otherwise but they responded the same: Welcome, welcome to Cuba. This generosity impressed me. Instead of anger at my government’s aggression, I encountered curiosity. The people I met wanted to talk Charles Mingus, Robert Altman, and baseball.

I traveled with a Salvadoran delegation on the first, newly introduced, direct flight between San Salvador and La Habana–a package deal to the revolutionary homeland purchased through a monthly payment plan. Somewhere over Guatemala, the ancient vessel–a kind of Russian tractor with wings–encountered turbulence. With each cavernous drop or sickening jump of the plane, these big men–elite athletes from the national Nicaraguan and Cuban baseball teams–screamed out in fear. Meanwhile, the Salvadorans–hailing mostly from the northern province of Chalatenango and flying for the first time in their lives–sat in stoic silence. Not a sound. Many seemed to be praying. I know I was. When the pilot announced an emergency landing, the elderly Chalateca seated next to me made the sign of the cross, and without a word, took my hand. I copied her preventative measure and only released my grip when we landed safely. Welcome to Cuba.

In my bag, I carried one of the tastiest of pastries, a Salvadoran quesadilla destined for my Cuban host family. When they didn’t open it for two nights and three days I worried I had made a mistake. Did they not like my gift? On the third night, the building committee organized a welcome party for our delegation. My family had divided the quesadilla (intended for one family of three) into a multitude of bite-size pieces. This act of generosity moved me.

To this day I regret not recording the arguments and debates between the revolutionary Salvadoran delegates and our Cuban hosts. One host offered a tempered, diplomatic critique of what he determined to be the limits of the revolution. In subtle language, he suggested there was no freedom of expression. Another host bemoaned the endless bureaucracy and the sense that nothing ever worked. The Salvadoran delegate shouted back in disbelief, but you have everything you need here! You don’t understand what true poverty is! WE know poverty! It is painful when the reality of your paradise is not what you had sacrificed, and fought for, envisioned, and imagined.

When I became sick in Habana, I received excellent medical attention–complete with two home visits from a neighborhood doctor who stayed on for coffee after checking my progress. But how can one account for the deep melancholia of the island? It moves well beyond the embargo, and the hauntings of all who have left. It speaks through the people who told me unexpected things–stories of being harassed by police and military. I never noticed being followed during my visits but some of my friends were convinced we always were. As anyone who knows Cuba will tell you, it’s complicated. O sea, no es fácil.

I might always admire Fidel his defiance of the United States–in the same way I admire any individual or nation their determination, sovereignty, and courage. Standing up to the US is no simple matter–ask the Standing Rock Sioux. But just as I didn’t dance in glee at Fidel’s death, I won’t chant his old slogans either. For this, I have my father to thank. As the daughter of an authoritarian patriarch, I have a life-long distrust of “maximum leaders.”

One of the last things I read from my Dad was a note he sent to my brother shortly after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. He wrote he was happy to be an old man because he would not live to see our President turn the United States into a communist country. My Dad never traveled to Cuba–he never saw for himself. He never danced to Los Van Van live with Juan Formell in Varadero. He never saw Suite Habana in the Charlie Chaplin cinema.

Last week I had a drink with a psychoanalyst friend of mine. We talked about Drumpf, Fidel’s death, and our fathers. I asked him what it means to father oneself. He didn’t understand the question so I explained that in the US, psychologists often speak about “mothering the self” but rarely talk about fathering. What does it mean to become your own father? First, you must symbolically kill the patriarch, he told me. From there, you are free to develop your own sense of authority; from this freedom you determine and protect your values.

So, here’s to the death of patriarchy. And through its death may we better determine or own sense of authority–a supple authority free of dogmatic, rigid thinking; authority that values true wisdom and knowledge; authority that holds diversity as sacred; authority that stands uncompromisingly for love and against hatred. Que viva el agua! Que viva la vida!