First brave new world

I’m here to neither bury el Almirante, as Dominican protocol insists he be called, though the one time I went looking for his remains I couldn’t find them, nor to praise him. I leave history to better minds. So whatever you want to call today is fine with me. Raised as a Spanish Catholic from a former colony, I grew up with Descubrimiento mythology, but also with Cuban republican ideology which insisted that Spaniards were a bunch of shits, never mind that Cubans like me were Spanish criollos, under whose boot we suffered until we rose against them. The first to rise, however, were not criollos; they were the people el Almirante called ”indios.”

The Black Legend, an exaggerated (but only exaggerated) tale of Spanish cruelty toward natives spread by Spain’s European enemies, took hold with Cuban republicanism, and if we hacked Spaniards into picadillo with machetes in our wars of independence, it was their comeuppance for all the shit they’d done since they landed, again never mind that I was as Spanish as the picadillo’ed imperialists.

But what about the indios? The first Americans, way before there were Americas or indios, are all over the hemisphere, nations that have refused to die in spite of massive linguistic and cultural loss. Here in the north they present a quandary that extends to nomenclature. Native Americans? First Nations? Indigenous people? Indigenous? Natives? Or to yield to el Almirante, who wasn’t quite right in the head I’ve heard, Indians. Years ago, I gonzoed my way into a closed (no whites) powwow in Albuquerque. The only word I heard was “Indian.”I suppose the only correct, meaning not politically but courteously, way of referring to those whose DNA and cultures precede the rest of us in this hemisphere is to use their nation’s name in their national language. Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows how difficult that would be, and we are talking here about many languages.

They are called “Indians” in Sherman Alexis wonderful stories, which feel natural to me, but what do I know? Is it noble savage myth that makes me sympathize with Indians? Why, when I hear the cadences of Indian English among the Hopi and Navajo I feel comforted? Some kind of chill flows through those cadences that tamps down my neurotic overheat. Is it because I want to believe in shamanic powers? We got plenty of that in the culture I grew up and partially live in. But, like everything from that culture, it’s not chill.

I was at a sweat lodge once and I didn’t do so well. To my shame, I had to exit in the middle of the ceremony because I was feeling claustrophobic from the cramped quarters and the extreme heat. What I did like was sitting outside under the Southwestern night sky and later sharing a bong with the Indian shaman or whatever he was as he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye that asked, are you high enough yet?

My own culture was no stranger to shamanism or purifying rituals, but I wondered . . . Is the spirit world of the American Southwest as imbued with pícaro tricksterism as the world of afrocubano orishas? I imagined such Indian spirits conspiring: let’s fuck with this Caribbean white boy’s head, he who fancies himself more authentic than the Anglo hippie types who sweat in the lodge because he, after all, knows a thing or two (mostly bookish) about animism.

Still, no orisha came to my rescue from indio embarrassment as I slinked out of the sweat lodge. Or maybe it was one of them who whispered in my ear, don’t be such a comemierda, you’re going to have a heart attack because you want to stay macho and hip. I punked out to party with the spirits another day. Actually, that very night, as the shaman looked at me with great encouragement while I sucked on the bong.

An hour or so later I was in my rented car from pre-GPS days, driving from the house in whose back yard lodge I had tried to sweat away the toxins of Western civilization and failed, in a city I did not know, stoned as a goose, wondering which way was my hotel. How I found it, I have no clue. Other than the spirit world that had threatened to roast me alive, like the Spaniards did with the first Caribbean chieftain who rose against them long ago in my native island, took pity on me and showed me the way.

No Comparison

I haven’t kept up with the discipline after its forages into theory, but time was a person “with literature”, which is what a comparatist basically is, had to know at least Latin, without which you were an illiterate; Greek as well, and probably Hebrew, for how are you going to understand the Judeo-Christian tradition if you don’t know the first half. I am schooled in Comparative Literature, but I learned no classical languages. What I’ve read is thanks to translators, my heroes.


I know the classics sustain an ideology of privilege. In my Comp Lit student life I heard  Harry Levin lamenting, in his address as president of the American Comparative Literature Association, that students were foregoing Latin and learning Swahili instead. Today that sounds racist, as it already did to this grad student in — when else? — 1968.


I never studied Latin — or Swahili for that matter. And yet I am a comparatist. Of no stature, that’s true; in fact, I left the discipline a long time ago. But I am a child of the classics. I lived in the times of Achilles, as the movie Troy ends saying. The classical era began the times I was born into, something that calls itself Western Civilization. I dive into those stories like Narcissus desiring his own lips.


My parents gave me a young persons’ book collection, El Tesoro de la juventud, a kind of Encyclopedia for kids. It had simplified yet lively retellings of the Greek epics and myths. I was enthralled. Was I primed to love these narratives because I was born into Western culture, that is, into that constructed arc that begins in classical times?


Possibly. For whatever reason I fell hard, as my choice of a sword-and-sandal movie as a cultural reference plainly shows. The world, East and West, North and South, has many mythologies. I’ve been exposed to some. But none resound like the classics. An ordinary man comes home. And still he is Odysseus. I am no less ordinary. And still I am transfixed by Eros. And if I had to choose a goddess I’d choose she who would promise me Helen and launch a thousand ships. We may not always have Paris, but we will always have Venus Aphrodite.

 

Les mamelles de Tirésias

She thought my notion that women were the initiators was my refusal to admit agency, a seducer’s (graceless) pose. I think she was beginning to feel I was not so simpatico after all. I concede she may have been right. Quizás, quizás, quizás.

Do men have as much agency as women think we do? We have privilege, yes. But have you observed men in the middle of their privilege and don’t they (we) look ridiculous, like kids in daddy’s clothes? When men act in privilege, reveling in agency, they are, to my eyes and ears, cretins.

I’m sure I’ve played at privileged agency. I’ve also played with cap guns. Maybe the men who play with real guns feel they’re not playing, maybe they are full of confidence and free of self-doubt. Don’t know. Never been there. I’ve heard women, feminists even, admit they find it terribly erotic.

Do gay men know men better than straight men? In Women in Love, D.H. Lawrence had his men get naked and wrestle so they could experience the sweaty intimacy they had with women but without sex. The men, or at least one of them, was reaching for the knowledge of another man at the same level of perfection as the greatest sexual love with a woman.

Yes, yes, Lawrence was an asshole, but he was asking haunting questions that would echo through his century. And yes, he came up with fucked-up answers sometimes (The Plumed Serpent), but he thought things through — and was probably a bore for it.

What do men want? The ones I see in the news wanting, wanting, wanting, and usually grabbing, don’t look real. They don’t seem to have changed since the days of Spiro Agnew. Made in some factory. Stepford Husbands. Expensive clothes but no finesse. A big V8 but shitty suspension, and brakes, what brakes?

I don’t recognize them as my species, never mind my gender.

But that woman who no longer found me simpatico probably thought I was more of a pain in the ass than the Stepford Husbands, what with my constant self-doubt spoken without a censor. And my impossible neediness. You want every woman to fall in love with you, an unhappy girlfriend told me once in accusation — and in front of my wife! I felt guilty as charged.

Can a man know a woman? A transgender question. A Tiresias question. Does a man need to know?

(When I started hormone therapy I knew it could bring man-tits, but it brought no prophetic sight from Apollo, nor a greater understanding of women, same old, same old, same old me.)

A Muggle’s Late Life Confession

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I've been binge-reading. Harry Potter.

When the books and the movies came out I noticed them the way one cannot help notice cultural phenomena. It’s there, it makes a splash. Being more inclined to watch popular movies than read popular books, I caugh some of the former. I saw much of the first movie, which featured whiz-bang special effects, like a wizard-school sport played on flying brooms and the usual digital monsters, and some snatches of later ones where Harry and his companions spend a lot time talking — about what I never caught on — wearing really nice sweaters.

There were major actors, like Alan Rickman playing his trademark sneering heavy, Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson and many more. There were wizards who seemed straight out of Lord of the Rings but weren’t. And there was that whole English public school ambience, except with lots of supernatural stuff. Basically I wasn’t interested. Fantasy is not a genre that appeals to me — except Game of Thrones, go figure. Besides, years of literary studies still held me in its grip and I gave popular literature wide berth.

But I changed. Age perhaps. Certainly boredom. First, I started to glut on thrillers. No boredom there. Having sated my appetite for perv Scandinoir, I set out looking for adventure and whatever comes our way. Lord of the Rings, why not? Not bad. Not fab either. And that’s when I plunged into Harry Potter — gently prodded by the lady Joyce, who holds my affections. To my surprise I liked the books. In fact, I thought they were very good. Where I expected nerdy cuteness — after all they were children’s literature — I found growing darkness, with no concessions to reassure the kiddies who were supposedly reading, or being read to, about these accounts of evil and mayhem. 

Don't expect likeable characters to live, I realized. J.K. Rowling litters her fiction with bodies with all the gusto of an Elizabethan playwright. Big prices are paid for any restoration of order. This ain’t Disney.

I wondered, if I liked these books so much, why was I so uninterested in the movies that I never followed the plot or the dialogue and wound up turning them off. The answer lay in technology. Sure, the tableaux were dazzling. Trouble is: too much so. Harry Potter movies are not the Transformers. They’re not even Avatar, a film experience that, though far from deep, integrates special effects deftly into the narrative. The effects are, in fact, distracting. They detract from the complex storytelling and from the themes of power, love and death interlacing in those stories.

Like all good narratives these books leave no loose ends. Everything plays a part. But in a movie, a flying broom eclipses a broken wand. A sneering villain is no match for a digital monster. And, worse, the temptation to leave special effects on screen while more subtle moves are afoot is too tempting for filmmakers, while a writer is forced to turn down the knob on fantasy when dialogue is called for. Great film and great writing can overcome these obstacles. But the Harry Potter films are not great. The books are.

 

 

X

Cisgender and, closer to my ethnicity, Latinx are words that reek of academic smugness, of what POTUS (a word that just reeks) and his supporters call elitism. Weird words served over a bowl of quinoa and kale, both of which, to set the record straight, I eat with gusto. Or gustx.

Father, why do these words sound so nasty?, as the lyrics of a Hair song go. Frankly, I seldom write or say them. Not out of any ideological objection; on the contrary, I sympathize with the ideological matrices in which they are embedded. But I find that they don’t come trippingly on the tongue or the page — or the screen. In our rush toward futurism, that very politically suspect notion, we forget tradition, a non-scientific, non-specific and vague-by-definition concept that has, nonetheless, valence.

How long does it take for tradition to normalize words? Depends. Media is a force here, but so is the beginning of words, the place where they were first normal. Because of popular acceptance of and affection for such beginnings, normalization can happen very quickly. It’s one of the paradoxes of race that, racism notwithstanding, Black English penetrates mainstream English at a fast pace. That’s because of the dialectics of race. For every ugly notion about Blacks among whites there’s a strong current that insists that Black folk are admirable, and so is their use of language. Check me as someone happily swimming in that current.

So, not only was the lingo of rap and hip hop (used to be jazz and r&b) hungrily assimilated by whites, but so were the genres themselves. If it comes from the street we love it.

But from snooty, obtuse, and most certainly not-street academia? My own reluctance to cis and x springs from an allergic reaction to the smugness of intellectual elitism, an allergy I share with the POTUSians and their Foxy friends — to whom, to be clear, my physical response is, beyond sniffles, puking.

Can ideology trump (like a good Catholic I just crossed myself) linguistic allergy? I think so. I find myself drawn to gender fluidity, in part because it makes intellectual sense and in part because, born and raised in the Latino/Hispanic (no x’s here) home turf of machismo, I find the latter a big fat lie. A beautiful one sometimes, as in the wonderful Mexican corridos I know by heart. Oh, to die like Juan Charrasqueado yelling, ¡soy buen gallo! But their charm to me lies in that I will never die like that, looking for my pistola and trying to get on my caballo. More likely, I’ll be yelling, give me more morphine! Or begging sweet cousin cocaine to lay a cool, cool hand on my head. Like Mick in his morbid song, I’m trying to score.

For different reasons I wear the same buzz cut as Emma González, the young cubanita that has become the face of the Parkland survivors activism. Proud of the sister. ¡Vaya, mi negrx! (Being Cuban here, so make no racialist assumption). If you call yourself Latinx, I, regardless of my cis-ness, will too. You’ve turned my language inside out.

Cubanito cubanito

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The Great Cuban Sandwich Polemic has surfaced on my Facebook newsfeed. Was it invented in Tampa, Miami or (duh) Cuba? Is the Tampa custom of adding salami to the usual roast pork, sweet ham and Swiss cheese mix correct or sacrilege? Was the original pressed or not? The battle continues.

Most partisans agree on nixing lettuce or tomato, as well as its accompanying emulsion, mayonnaise. Otherwise, yellow mustard and slices of dill pickle, yes. Bread, Cuban, of course, and many sing the praises of Tampa’s palm-frond threaded Cuban bread.

I'm one of them. Having lived my adolescence in Tampa, I’m a big fan of its bread, especially from the legendary La Segunda Central bakery, still going strong in Ybor City. In fact, Ybor, today a section of Tampa, was founded by Cuban and Spanish cigar factory owners and workers in the 1890s, and was the home of great Cuban sandwiches, though good ones were and still are found in West Tampa, second home of the cigar industry in the city.

Then there are those who advocate for Key West, the first settlement of the expat cigar industry that moved north fleeing the turmoil of the island’s wars of independence from Spain. Though I’ve never sampled them, there seem to be fine cubanos still made there today.

Some cubansandwichologists explain that Tampa’s inclusion of salami was the influence of the city’s Italian community. Others, and I count myself among them, say that Cuba’s original sanwiche mixto already included something like it. I do recall having those sandwiches as a child at a couple of places in Havana where they added, if not salami, probably a Spanish cold cut (sobrasada?) that gave the mix in the mixto a nice pungency.

The big issue, though, is which are better. Here, even without my Tampa credentials, I would vote for the Florida west coast city. Years ago, I wrote an article on Miami’s Cuban sandwiches and, like so many other Cuban foods there, the traditional ones (non-orthodox innovations were a lot better) were all practically inedible, made with the cheapest ingredients. It seems they have improved as Miami has turned foodie. I hope so. But what I would argue passionately is that the great emporium of the Cuban sandwich was The Silver Ring in Ybor City, where, in truth, I don’t recall if they used salami.

What may be more surprising is that their house-roasted pork was not cooked with mojo, the Cuban garlic marinade and sauce that has become an American staple. According to a journalist I assigned a story on The Silver Ring for a magazine I edited in the early 90s, when the storefront deli was still around, the owner revealed that their pork had no such seasoning. Years later, the father of Rosy, of the great Rosy Bakery in the Sweetwater district of Miami, told me mojo turned pork shoulder too dark while roasting, so he seasoned his with just salt and pepper and brushed mojo on the sandwiches. Curiously, that was only for pan con lechón — pork sandwiches. At Rosy the cubanos don’t include pork, though they’re still good thanks to the bakery’s terrific bread.

These days when I visit Tampa I get great Cubans — and their cousins, medianoches — at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop. In my youth, the Fourth of July Café, also in West Tampa, was a classic, though I don’t recall their Cubans that well: el Cuatro de Julio being the kind of place that was open at the end of a long night meant visits there were made while one was, well, hammered. In recent times, the famous Columbia Restaurant, only survivor of the many Cuban/Spanish eateries of old Ybor City, made a big show of bringing back their original cubano. I tried it and it was fine, but it didn’t blow me away. Maybe you can’t go home again.

However, on my first visit back to Havana in the 80s, I went to a tourist-oriented café near the port where they served tapas of Cuban-made Spanish cold cuts, like the kind I remembered from my childhood’s sanwiches mixtos. It seemed that for all the decline of food in the island they never lost their way with Spanish fiambres. Do they make Cuban sandwiches in Cuba today? Possibly, though I have not been back in years. After all, the Cuban sandwich is known around the world, sometimes in versions that barely reference the original, from Miami, Tampa, Key West or Cuba itself. No matter. Long may it reign.

 

 

 

 

Leave ‘Em Laughing

I love ethnic jokes. I hate racist comments or epithets, but I can’t resist a good joke, even it includes racist epithets. Emphasis on good. It has to be clever; otherwise, it’s just hateful. And, I’ll lay this out upfront, I’m always on the lookout for jokes that make fun of us Cubans. I haven’t heard that many. Sure, there’s the one about the Cuban in Puerto Rico looking for a good arroz con pollo like the ones we ate back home. And another about the Museum of Rare Latin American Specimens that manages to insult a number of nationalities. Interestingly, they both end with the word mierda. 

Here’s one I can tell in this semi-public space. How many Cubans does it take to change a lightbulb? Three. One to change the lightbulb. One to hold the ladder. And one to stand on the side saying: these are not like the lightbulbs we had in Cuba, those really were bright.

You didn’t laugh? OK, OK, it’s not that funny. Maybe because it doesn’t end with the word mierda.

I used to justify my fondness for blatantly racist jokes by arguing that it was better than going around shooting and bombing one another. I no longer do that, and I simply admit my like probably comes from some ugly corner of my soul. As with so many things, mea culpa.

There are ethnic jokes that make fun of the Other, which are often mean-spirited, though that doesn’t mean they’re not funny. And there are ethnic jokes that make fun of one’s own. At some point, comics learned that they could get the crossover market by sharing that humor with the dominant Other. Crossover Jewish humor is not always explicitly ethnic. When it is, it requires some cultural savvy. Mel Brooks as a Yiddish-speaking Sioux chief in Blazing Saddles.

Black comedians push the envelope. Their standup for a crossover audience makes fun of their culture’s foibles and uses epithets without restraint for white audiences that eat it up. Here I wasn’t far off the mark with my hypothesis. White folk are laughing because it’s a guilty pleasure to laugh at blacks — though black comedians make fun of whites as well — and that pleasure is authorized by the comic’s black skin and exaggerated ethnic language and demeanor. Minstrelsy? I’ll let others judge.

There is Latino standup, of course. Sometimes I find the ethnic self-deprecation forced, but probably a black person would say that about black comedians I find hilarious. It can be brilliant. I once saw Paul Rodriguez do a bilingual set for a mixed crowd of Spanish and English speakers, the former all bilingual themselves, the latter primarily monolingual. He claimed to be translating faithfully, while he spoke about mutual understanding in English and launched into a militant Latino rant in Spanish. The best.

I had a friend, now gone, who would email insider Jewish jokes. To me they were funny. To some Jews, particularly Jewish women, maybe not so much. They sounded genuine. But what do I know from genuine?

Gay humor can have a poisonous sting. Still, I laugh. Though maybe it’s because, as with my friend’s Jewish jokes, I’m doing so because I’m enjoying the privilege of an outsider allowed inside the culture for a moment. One thing I learned, though, is not to share identity humor other than my own’s. I just come off as a racist, misogynistic, anti Semitic homophobe with absolutely no sense of humor at all. 

So I’ll stick with Cuban and other Latin American jokes. El subdesarrollo slows down political correctness, which in itself is a politically incorrect statement. ¡Mierda!

 

Behold!

I used to think the Old Testament was really neat, what with all the sex and warring of the rousing adventure movies I loved. And indeed, some Biblical stories were turned into the movies I saw as a kid, all about what Philip Lopate, remembering these movies, once called “the great Jewish lovers.” While the New Testament was a bummer. A sweet, innocent and apparently celibate man is calumnied, arrested, tortured and cruelly executed. Sure, he rises from the dead, but what sticks in the mind is the crucifixion, the Sign of the Cross. Many movies about this as well, including Mel Gibson’s grisly version.

Only recently, I watched a video of Franciscan friar Richard Rohr (gracias, Cristina) explaining how it was the founder of his order, Francis of Assisi — that poet, saint and high aesthete of poverty — who shifted the emphasis in Christian tradition from Easter, which includes the gory fate of Jesus, to his birth. To Christmas. Sure, he died for our sins, he rose triumphant from the grave, but what matters most is that he was born. Joy to the world.

What am I now? A lapsed Catholic? A slowly born-again one? My friend and colleague Peter Occhiogrosso included me in his book Once a Catholic: The title tells it all, Catholics never stop being Catholics. It’s not exactly in my DNA — on both sides, the generation before me was not religious and some were virulently anticlerical — but it’s in my schooling and also in some corner of the structure of my personality. 

I’d say that I’d never return to the Church but perhaps the Church would return to me, knowing full well there was no chance in hell of that. Well, I’ll be damned, to stay with the Inferno conceit, if it’s not doing just that, thanks to the bishop who took the name of Francis, he who got Christmas rolling. My father, a youthful atheist and a mature practicing Catholic, was a devout Franciscan, and my home always had a number of images of the saint. It’s now my house and St. Francis is still around. So it turns out that I’m not only an evolving Catholic but a Franciscan.

I think I’m beginning to understand the New Testament, including the sweet man’s terrible fate. To Christians, the Son of God. To Muslims, a prophet. To Jews, an eccentric and possibly inconsequential rabbi. It would be an understatement to say that Christian treatment of Muslims and Jews has been and in many cases still is shoddy. Nonetheless, like all of us I inherited history. My role in it has been very minor, and I’ve tried and continue to try to act, well, Christian, in what I believe is the true sense of the Gospels. Love. And I try to be catholic in lower case: all embracing. In this season, I embrace you all.

It’s unlikely that the historical Jesus was born on December 25. It’s also hard to know what he actually said and did, since his scribes, the ones who actually wrote down the Gospels, did not know him. But though the New Testament lacks the stories of lust and war that made for thrilling action movies, it does have stories. Nuanced, enigmatic, defying common sense, coming from the lips of Jesus. A reliable narrator? Well, you got to believe a lot of impossible shit to think he’s reliable. Does that sound like modernist and postmodernist narrative? Did I need to study such narrative before I could appreciate the parables and the koan-like answers to questions? Possibly. 

No matter (all spirit). I wish you all, followers of the religions of the desert, lapsed and practicing; practitioners of the spiritual arts that flowed and flow from Mother India; children of the orishas; rapturous seekers from the plains and mountains and jungles of the Americas (pásamelo, hermano); ancestor worshippers; activists and contemplatives; fundamentalists of their respective Books who could use a little less literalism and a lot more literacy; agnostics and atheists; jokers and smokers and midnight tokers: a very merry Christmas!