Both Sides Now

It didn't matter that I only wrote about Cuban culture, not politics. They had me pegged as a Cuba hand, which I guess I was, and more basically, a Cuban. My mailbox at work -- email was still a few years ahead -- always included missives from all kinds of Cuba groups. Two kinds, really. For and against the Cuban system. If anyone in these groups bothered to read what I wrote they would've seen how I despaired at this battle line, how I balked at being placed in one category or another, how I hated estar claro -- "being clear" about my position, a phrase used on both sides of the divide. I didn't want to be clear -- about this or about anything. I wanted, I insisted on my American right, to be murky.

But mailing lists can't factor in murkiness. So I got mail from groups for and against the system that calls itself the Revolution. Those for were the American Left. Sure, there were some Cuban-Americans in it. In fact, there were and still are contingents of the exile community sympathetic to the Revolution. First, the maceítos, members of my generation radicalized in American colleges in the '60s, who joined the Brigada Antonio Maceo (the name of the top general of the Cuban War of Independence against Spain), which were organized trips to Cuba for such Cuban-Americans. Then the dialogueros, Cuban-Americans involved in the famous (or notorious) dialogue between exiles and the Cuban government. As always, things were more complicated. Many maceitos "broke" with Cuba, meaning their sunny view of the Revolution faded after seeing it with their own eyes, and they were publicly critical of the Castro government. Same with the dialogueros. Not all turned critical, but the honeymoon was over.

I belonged to neither group. But because of my interest in Cuban culture, I traveled frequently to Cuba and wrote enthusiastically about music, film, art -- some said nostalgia made me look at Cuba romantically and I suppose they were right. And because I was a Cuban in the States, I was associated with the exile community. So I got mail from pro-Cuba groups and from exiles opposed to Castro.

The latter was astoundingly revealing. I learned, for example, that there were Cuban anarchists in exile. Yes sir, old-fashioned anarchists who were opposed to the Castro government, probably because it was government more than because it was Castro. Even more mind-blowing was mail I got from Cuban anexionistas in exile. There had been, as there is in Puerto Rico, some who believed the island should be part of the U.S. And though probably a tiny majority, they too had a mailing list. By the way, everyone quoted José Martí. Go figure.

My schizophrenic mailbox reached its climax when a solidarity with Cuba rally was scheduled in New York. Which prompted an anti-rally by exiles. It came and went, but I stayed away. The following year, another pair of opposing rallies. Someone from the pro-Cuba group called to invite me. I said yes. After all I was a journalist who covered Cuban matters, though I think my caller was thinking of me more as a sympathizer than a reporter. Then the counter-rally people called. I said I might. In fact, I was thinking of hitting both for a story. A story? That's not what they wanted to hear. I had to take sides. I tried to explain journalists were supposed to look at both sides. The conversation got heated. I decided, fuck it, I don't need this. I was fortunate enough to pick some of my own assignments. All this for and against Cuba was feeling like not worth the trouble and basically inconsequential, except to the partisans on either side.

I pretty much forgot about it. It was a cold New York winter Sunday when I pushed my toddler through the snowy sidewalks in my neighborhood. I heard some commotion so I wandered near. The pro-Cuba rally was taking place at an auditorium a few blocks from my apartment building. Across the street, the anti rally had set up shop in a Cuban restaurant and the participants, a rather small crowd, had gathered on the sidewalk yelling through a megaphone at their antagonists across Broadway.

I stood there, amazed that these events to which I had decided to give wide berth had practically hounded me and found me. The exile with the microphone was yelling the usual "Communists!" epithet, in Spanish of course. Then he said, "that man over there is a Communist and a drug addict." And he added, "he's a homosexual." That turned into a litany that began "homosexual!, homosexual!" and quickly degenerated into a number of Spanish-language words for queer, ending with "maricón!, maricón!"

I was awe struck at how quickly we Cubans slip from political hostility into machismo and homophobia. As usual, Cuban exiles were not showing their best face. But my aloof tsk-tsk quickly vanished when the man with the megaphone went on to identify the object of his epithets. "Yes, I mean you, the guy with the beret."

Suddenly I realized I had grabbed a wool beret on my way out of the apartment to protect my head from the cold. Was he talking to me? Was I the pro-Cuba, drug-addicted, homosexual he was insulting? Was this a continuation of my heated phone conversation with a representative of the anti-Castro rally who had accused me of being a fellow traveler? Horrified, I turned the baby carriage around and maneuvered it through the bumpy snow banks away from the confrontation.

On my way home, I came to my senses. The guy was yelling at someone across the street who also happened to be wearing a beret -- or wore one in honor of Che Guevara. I was an innocent bystander. A New York dad taking his kid for a winter stroll on a Sunday. But I was shaken. My tropical homeland had slithered up to a cold city street in "the North, turbulent and brutal", as Martí called it and the Revolution never tired of quoting, to bite me in the ass.

I don't think I ever wore that beret again.