Neither Here nor There: Fluid Identities and Exile in Jesús Díaz’s Dime algo sobre Cuba (Tell Me Something About Cuba) (published in NDQ 84.1/2)
With the renewal of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States under the Obama Administration, travel restrictions to the island have also begun to ease, to the chagrin of the powerful Cuban-American political establishment. American cruise, airline, and ferry companies are hurrying to lock in contracts to develop an untapped market. The over five-decade-long economic embargo and hard-line policies against the Castro brothers’ regime has made Cuba a de facto forbidden-fruit destination for many Americans. From the Cuban side, the impossibility for most Cubans to leave the island in the wake of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 propelled different waves of dramatic exodus to the United States, such as the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 and the Rafter crisis throughout the 1990s.
Jesús Díaz’s novel Dime algo sobre Cuba (1998) takes place during the aforementioned Rafter crisis, when thousands of Cubans, defying their government’s restrictions, threw themselves into the ocean in makeshift rafts, hoping to reach Florida. Cubans were willing to risk their lives at sea and fend against hurricanes, scorching sun, dehydration, and sharks, rather than endure the stark economic conditions Cuba began to suffer as a result of the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the subsequent end to the influx of subsidies from its former Eastern European allies. The Clinton Administration imposed the so-called “Wet Foot, Dry Foot Policy” to handle the crisis. It allowed Cubans who reached U.S. soil (dry foot) to stay in the country while those caught at sea (wet foot) would be returned to Cuba directly or via a third country. Framing the hardships of the ninety-mile crossing with a subtle veil of humor reminiscent of Cuban choteo, Dime algo points to the absurdity of such a policy. After Díaz’s main character, Stalin, defects to the U.S. via Mexico, his Miami-based brother concocts a scheme in which he is to become a balsero (rafter). Stalin will hide on his brother’s rooftop at the mercy of the blazing sun and water and food deprivation until he can look the part. At that point, Stalin would be set loose in a raft a few miles off the coast of Florida in the hope of reaching land before the U.S. Coast Guard apprehends him at sea.
Beyond the political subtext, Dime algo delves into the meanings and spaces of exile, belonging, and alienation. Critic Gustavo Pérez Firmat has written extensively on the Cuban-American experience. Through essays, fiction, and memoirs, he has tried to make sense of “his obsession for a lost homeland” (Stavans 681). In his 1994 study Life On the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way, Pérez Firmat puts forth three stages in the experience of Cuban exiles in the U.S.: substitution, destitution, and institution. In the first stage, the exile creates copies of the native culture in the new land and imagines himself there, not here. When the fantasy of recreating home in a new environment collapses, exiles enter a state of destitution—they feel estranged and disconnected. Whereas in the first stage they were still there—at home—at least mentally, in the destitution phase Cuban refugees are nowhere. With time, Pérez Firmat argues, exiles develop a new relationship with their American surroundings. Although the feeling of rootlessness may not dissipate completely, they find themselves at peace and are able to adopt the new cultural system and balance it with that of their remembered homeland. This state of institution is the one Pérez Firmat is most interested in, for it is the one that applies to what he calls the one-and-a-halfers: the generation that came to the United States at a young age, embraced American customs, and absorbed Cuban culture through their parents’ longing for their homeland. This generation of the one-and-a-halfers—to which Pérez-Firmat belongs—are “translation artists,” for “their intercultural placement makes them more likely to undertake the negotiations and compromises that produce ethnic culture” (4).1 They are able to choose from both cultures (language in particular), but, as in a tug of war, one at the expense of the other. The one-and-a-halfers maintain a level of biculturation—that hyphenated zone—as far as their parents continue “being” Cuban and they—the offspring—become American. In Cincuenta lecciones de exilio y desexilio (2000), the scholar confesses to the turmoil of living in the hyphen and how he longs to settle down in one place, one culture, one language, and one country (118).2 The constant negotiation occurring in the hyphen becomes an active performance of the Cuban-American experience, of building an identity that ultimately seems to lean more heavily toward the American side.3
In Dime algo, the harsh physical conditions on the rooftop of his brother’s building send Stalin on an six-day emotional journey which, in effect, make the character experience Pérez Firmat’s first two stages of exile in a very condensed time. Stalin sets off on his journey by recounting the events in the last five days of his life as a way of making sense of his actions and understanding himself. The novel is structured as six journal entries, headed by the day of the week and the day of the month. Although the year is absent from the entry titles, the events are set during 1994, at the height of the balseros crisis. The journal structure of the novel emphasizes the intimate—and thus uncensored—nature of Stalin’s words while capturing, at the same time, the feel of a travel narrative.
The use of self-narration in Dime algo is similar to other works by Díaz, in particular Las iniciales de la tierra. It is through personal crises, being accused of a crime in that novel or going into exile as in Stalin’s case, that Díaz’s protagonists question authoritative discourses and succeed in building their own system of language and meaning.3 Through the debacles of his characters, Díaz exposes the always turbulent relationship between culture and politics on the island in the wake of the Cuban Revolution.
Fidel Castro’s government tried to control this relationship from the beginning. In his famous closing remarks to the meetings that took place in 1961 between the nation’s artists and intellectuals and the government, Castro passionately proclaimed that the success of the Revolution was above everything, including artistic freedom: “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing. Against the Revolution, nothing, because the Revolution also has its rights and the first right of the Revolution is the right to exist and in opposition to the right of the Revolution to exist, there can be no one” (11).
Díaz’s characters often reflect the writer’s own troubled relationship with the government, from being an exemplary revolutionary writer to forced exile. Díaz fully adhered to the Cuban government—as exemplified in Los años duros—until the 1980s, taking part in the official condemnation of Heberto Padilla’s “counter-revolutionary” writings and supporters during the highly-publicized Padilla Affair in 1971. In the mid-eighties, Díaz began to show a progressive dissatisfaction with the regime, especially with regard to freedom of expression. Díaz’s own Las iniciales fell under the scope of official censorship and the author had to shelve it for twelve years until its publication in 1987. Despite his falling out with the Cuban government, Díaz’s exile, first in Germany and later in Spain, never became a banner for anti-Castro politics. His persistence toward the need for change on the island through dialogue among all the affected parties caused critics like Ambrosio Fornet to declare that Díaz never belonged to the Cuban exile (46). Indeed, Díaz made a distinction among the Cuban expatriates, calling those in Miami “el exilio” and the others dispersed elsewhere “la diáspora” (Pichler). After settling in Madrid, he founded the cultural journal Encuentro (meeting/encounter), which aimed above all “para dar a todos el beneficio de la palabra” (to let everyone speak) (Ortega 247). The journal and its online version have become a space of dialogue and tolerance. Beyond its political inclusiveness, Encuentro has also provided a forum in which to discuss Cuban cultural production inside and outside the island, making it one of the most dynamic cultural magazines.
Despite the recognition of Las iniciales and Los años duros as key moments—each for different reasons—in Cuban letters and the quality of his other works, Díaz remains a marginal figure in the Cuban canon. He is “one of Cuba’s best kept literary ‘secrets’: a secret produced by the inclusion and exclusions of literary-canon making” (Vera-León 67). It is possible that Díaz’s complex trajectory on the island and his insistence that the diaspora create a space for dialogue has made him hard to pigeonhole in the traditionally polarized debate about Cuba, and thus it has been easy to relegate the artist to obscurity. Dime algo belongs to what could be called Díaz’s diasporic writing. The novel is usually linked to the other three novels Díaz published in the last five years of his life: La piel y la máscara, Siberiana, and Las cuatro fugas de Manuel. Although the few critics who have reviewed Dime algo have not considered it at the level of Las iniciales, they have praised it as part of Díaz’s attempts to de-center exile discourses.4
Las palabras perdidas was also published during Díaz’s exile in Spain, but the novel revisits the relationship between the Cuban government and artistic expression. The text follows a group of Havana university students wanting to create a literary journal and the challenges they face. The publication of the novel itself represented a triumph over the Castro government’s cultural policies: “both a chronicle of repression and tangible evidence of the victory of the artist over the bureaucrat” (Buckwalter-Arias 367).
Díaz had already dealt with this theme of exile in the 1970s while living on the island. The first years of that decade witnessed increasing censorship and marginalization of writers (emblemized by the Padilla Affair), which led Cuban critic Ambrosio Fornet to coin the term El Quinquenio Gris (the gray five years) to refer to those dark years from 1971 to 1975. Working under the attentive eye of the Cuban state, Díaz no doubt absorbed (forcibly or willingly) the strict dichotomy imposed by the Cuban government regarding exile: with us or against us. He showed the importance of place (the island) and experience (the Revolution) to claim a Cuban identity. In the essay “De la patria y el exilio” (1978) and its film version, the documentary 55 hermanos (1978), he registered the reception in Cuba of a group of young Cuban- Americans called “the Antonio Maceo Brigade.” They had been taken to the United States as children at the beginning of the Revolution and decided to accept Cuba’s invitation in 1977 to visit their native land. Despite emotional family reunions and good will on the part of visitors and Cubans, Díaz showed that the brigadistas would never be accepted as Cubans because they had not experienced the Revolution and that the Cuban-American community would never understand the brigadistas’ desire to establish a dialogue with the Cubans on the island.
This failure to reunify Cubans is also addressed in his film Lejanía (Parting of Ways, 1985). Those who had left the island after the Revolution appear morally flawed compared to the hard-working, self-sacrificing Cubans contributing to the collective goals of the Revolution. The individualistic, consumer-driven society lured Cubans into exile, corrupted them, and thus made them unfit for the new Cuba under the Revolution. Díaz’s dogmatism, whether self-imposed to align with state policy or willfully adopted, hindered the film’s ability to delve deeper into the complexities of exile beyond superficial caricatures. The writer revisited Lejanía from his new place of exile in Europe by rewriting the film in his novel La piel y la máscara. The novel centers on the making of the film and is narrated by its five actors (characters of the novel). The polyphonic nature of the narration creates different versions of reality and events, thus challenging the monolithic grand narrative of Lejanía. The interactions among the characters and their own monologues show them motivated by individualistic goals, able to “act” the part of a revolutionary Cuban and willing to defect if the film takes them on tour abroad. As Antonio Daniel Gómez points out, Díaz’s rewriting underscores the significance of the place of enunciation when representing Cuban reality. Beyond the writer’s attempt to redeem the aesthetic and ideological failings of the film, La piel y la máscara is as much an effort in “unwriting” Lejanía as in presenting the silence and vacuum that it displays eleven years later (184). Writing from exile and about exile is key here. Exile, as place and condition, appears then in Díaz’s work as the locus from which to reassess the past and reinscribe the present, to deterritorialize national discourses, and to pluralize the narratives. Díaz rewrites himself as he rewrites moments in Cuban history.
In Dime algo, Stalin’s self-narration leads him to the path of reassessing his life and his relation to the island. His memories become fragmented and disrupted by a constant reevaluation of his past actions. This process of self-introspection wracks his brains as he agonizes over his previous opinions. His internal narrative reflects the delirium and shock imposed by the severe environment on the rooftop. This vacillating also points to his negotiation of two cultures and systems of belief. Early on, Stalin reveals this unsettled mental space, declaring:
Until when could he stand the thirst, the loneliness, the hunger, and the memories on that rooftop? Being there, half-naked and alone, with his head and skin boiling, was it not much more unbearable than being a dentist and a waiter at the same time [in Cuba]? Why did he not give up, go down to the street, approach a policeman and tell him: “Look mister, I am Cuban and I want to go back to Cuba”? But, to go back to fucking what, if in Cuba he was considered a deserter and did not have a wife, a job, a fan, nor a bicycle anymore? (56-57)5
By referring to himself in the third person, Stalin empowers himself as a narrator and detaches himself from the “real” Stalin. He establishes a distance not only with the Stalin who was in Cuba until a few days before, but with the Stalin who is currently in dire straits in Miami. As a result, the reader has access to two levels of introspection: Stalin’s stream of consciousness as he carries out the action taking place and the narrator’s judgments of those actions and thoughts.
Stalin’s desire to remain in Cuba until just a few days earlier is rooted in his love for his wife Idalys, who stayed behind. Stalin’s feelings for his wife parallel those he has for Cuba. In fact, it is easy to see Idalys, a beautiful mulatto woman who works as a showgirl at the famous Tropicana, as the embodiment of the island’s attraction. Foundational and national discourses have traditionally inscribed Cuba within a mulatto framework, as a way to acknowledge and symbolize the country’s rich mixture of cultures and races. Idalys is beautiful, loving, fun, and fifteen years younger than Stalin. His concerns about Idalys’s fidelity begin to shake his faith in Cuba itself. He fears that she would go out with tourists from the club. Indeed, the presence of tourists in this novel refers the reader to the new opportunities and frustrations in Cuba since the 1990s.
As a result of the break-up of the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence in the early 1990s, Cuba lost its main trading partner and a major source of subsidies. The resulting economic crisis shook up the social system. Tourism became the quick fix to generate immediate hard currency. The government, after some waffling, legalized the dollar and the euro, but then reversed the measure in 2004. The influx of foreign tourists and currency encouraged the growth of services that were only available to foreigners or Cubans with access to foreign currency. As a result, acquiring dollars became the main goal for most Cubans during that period. When Stalin, who had trained as a dentist, is ordered to go to a hotel to help a tourist with a toothache, he internalizes and fights his second-class condition in the new Cuba:
Why had I answered as a servant? He was wondering now. . . . Why had he felt so ashamed walking through tourists on his way to the elevator? How was it possible that he had reached the point of desiring to make himself disappear, fade away, become invisible as if he was somebody committing a crime? Ah! If he could ever tell anyone the exasperating humiliation that being Cuban meant in Cuba. (45)
His reservations about Idalys are then paralleled by his reservations toward his job and his country. The fact that he is a dentist but makes less money than a doorman at a hotel shakes his loyalty to the Revolution. His disillusionment has begun to grow internally, but he is still emotionally paralyzed.
When Stalin happens to be riding on a Havana commuter boat that is hijacked by Cubans who want to flee to the U.S. (based on a true event), he becomes angry, but for unexpected reasons—not because he is a true revolutionary or because he is afraid of reprisals. The hijacking inconveniences him because he was looking forward to going home, hoping to catch Idalys cheating with another man. That incident would resolve his ongoing suspicions and make his life much simpler. For
Stalin it is important to determine the status of his marriage for it is in many ways what drives his existence in Cuba. He does not want to leave Cuba on a whim. When U.S. authorities detain the commuter ferry and offer him the chance to stay in the U.S., he refuses and asks to be returned to Cuba. That same day, when he arrives at the island treated as a hero, he finally finds his wife with another man in his bed. He then plots to poison Idalys by mixing rat poison with the meager coffee left in the house. Stalin frames the break-up scene with Idalys as a nightmare:
Tired of suffering he clung to the illusion that what had happened since the hijacking of the commuter boat named New Dawn had been only a dream, and he entered a state of lethargy in which he was no longer able to discern if he was in his Havana bedroom with Idalys, caught in a nightmare in which he was forced to suffer sun stroke on a roof top because a stupid kid had confused him with Fidel Castro, or if he was in Miami dreaming something better, that Idalys had died while suffering atrocious pains like a cockroach poisoned by a little coffee. (171)
The suffering from his wife’s infidelity becomes intermixed with Stalin’s present-time physical pain from the harshness of the sun. Without his wife and fed up with the lack of basic consumer goods and cash, Stalin becomes emotionally detached from his homeland—while in Cuba and then as he thinks about it from Miami. He defects while on a work-related trip to Mexico, which he ironically had won for refusing to stay in the U.S. during the hijacking incident. As he ponders his defection from his blazing hideout, Stalin no longer yearns to stay on the island. He realizes that Cuba goes beyond the physicality of the geographic island and that he will be able to find it again elsewhere. Pérez Firmat’s destitution phase kicks in.
Pérez Firmat characterizes individuals in the phase of destitution as feeling displaced, estranged, and disconnected with their surroundings. It is a liminal space—neither here nor there. The loneliness and physical and emotional isolation that the rooftop imposes on Stalin symbolize this transition. The climax of the first memories has brought Stalin to a no man’s land. Cuba no longer appeals to him, he does not want to return and he damns himself for not having left sooner when he had a chance on the commuter boat. On the other hand, he looks at Miami and does not like what he sees. He assesses the American city through his brother’s transformation. His brother’s new (American) life stuns him; Stalin does not yet understand his brother or his choices. His brother changed his name from Lenin to the more American-pleasing Leo. He used to be a lawyer in Cuba and in Miami he has become a well-known performing clown. Leo’s wife, also a Cuban émigré, code-switches from Spanish to English, and what Spanish she retains is outdated. Leo and Cristina discourage their son from speaking Spanish “to shake Cuba off of him.” Stalin realizes that being Cuban in Miami is not the same as being Cuban in Cuba. Things, even language, change.
Stalin’s intense suffering at the mercy of the sun and blazing heat sends him into a delirious nightmare in which he dreams he is adrift in a raft with others. In this dream the boat is about to sink when Yemayá, the Afrocuban deity personified as his wife Idalys, emerges from the water and ignores his pleas for rescue. The Yoruba goddess Yemayá is considered the mother of all beings. She controls the oceans and seawaters and all the creatures that live therein. In the dream, Stalin feels both the humiliation of abandonment and the horror of sinking. When he wakes up in a sea of sweat and screams, he thanks God for being alive despite his current state of thirst, hunger, loneliness, and fear. More importantly: “He told himself that he would erase Idalys from his life as she had done with him, and he wondered when he would need to go downstairs to the house to the bathroom, making a conscious association between Idalys and shit” (61). The role of Yemayá in the dream is twofold. On the one hand, the goddess’s indifference to his pain and her resemblance to his wife allow Stalin to break away from his attachment to the physical motherland embodied in the person of Idalys. On the other hand, because Yemayá is the source of life and controls the ocean, she metaphorically allows Stalin to emerge from the waters with a new life. This nightmare, as well as the one he had while remembering the breakup scene with Idalys, represent the purgatory of the voyage, from which Stalin eventually emerges in a new light.
It is not surprising that right after this nightmare with the goddess Yemayá and his symbolic rebirth Stalin begins to build a new life. He enters into Pérez Firmat’s institution phase with the help of Miriam, one of Pérez Firmat’s one-and-a-halfers. She is the niece of Cristina, Stalin’s sister-in-law. She is young, green-eyed, and attractive. Although born in Cuba, she came to the U.S. at the age of two and does not speak Spanish. While immersed in the nightmarish mix of dreams, recollections, and starvation, Stalin hears a voice: “it is a miracle, he thought when he heard that voice that was saving him from death, lightening him as a breath of fresh air” (76). When he hears the voice again and opens his eyes to witness “the miracle,” he describes Miriam as a nurturing, mothering goddess:
In between the veil of sleepiness and hunger he managed to see a young woman from whom a clean and clear aura emanated. She was carrying a straw basket in her right hand, like in children’s stories, and like in those stories she had small white, aligned teeth, long hair, as black as the nights without electricity in Havana, and green eyes [green often denoting hope in Hispanic culture] like the hope of having woken up in another dimension that shook him up and made him sit up clumsily in the cot. (76)
Miriam feeds him and brings him to life. She has successfully replaced Idalys and become his new Cuba.
Although the protagonist realizes that he is still in Miami, he senses a new stage for himself through Miriam. She talks to him a little bit in broken Spanish but mainly in English, a language he barely understands. He resorts to the English he remembers from song lyrics of groups such as the Beatles and to clichés from American films. The act of reaching out to communicate through a different cultural referent with Miriam denotes his will to move forward and get out of his emotional rut. Stalin is moving toward the American side of the hyphen. Miriam’s hybrid nature, her condition as a one-an-a-halfer, helps Stalin navigate both worlds, the here in Miami and the Cuba of his memory. He thinks Miriam is as beautiful as his ex-wife, but in a different way. Miriam, like Idalys, embodies a state of inbetweenness:
She had wavy hair, as black as evil, super white and small teeth, light sienna-colored, tanned skin; and shining green eyes. . . . She looked like a nineteenth-century criolla. Could she be Cuban? No, because if that were the case she would speak Spanish, although she was not a Yankee either, of course. (120)
Stalin’s uncertainty about Miriam’s identity is echoed by the young woman herself when he is finally able to convey to her that she seems Cuban and she responds in English:
I would like to [be Cuban], you know. . . . Sometimes it is difficult to live here, you know. . . . Who am I . . . I’m not Cuban. . . . I’m not exactly an American. Those WASPs, you know, those Jews, those Hispanics, those Blacks, I’m afraid they hate us. I don’t know. Anyway, I ask myself, who am I? Can you tell me? (120)
Stalin then realizes that Miriam’s insistence that he tell her something about Cuba goes beyond a mere formality. In the same way that Stalin is remembering his actions in previous days to find himself, his motives, and his identity, Miriam hopes to find something to identify with in Stalin’s stories and memories of Cuba. The reader never hears the stories he tells her in the same way the reader never hears the confessions of the protagonist of Las iniciales. Stalin has built a language with Miriam that is no longer translatable for us, the readers. They symbolize the “translation artists” Pérez Firmat alludes to in his analysis of the one-and-a-halfers. Both characters find Cuba and their place in the U.S. in each other, through a new language and vocabulary.
Both Stalin and Miriam need each other at this crossroads in their lives. Miriam needs him to keep her in touch with some notion of Cuba and Stalin needs Miriam to establish a link with the Miami that confronts him. They sexually consummate their relationship and their biculturation the day before he is set to leave for the raft trip. Despite the pain Stalin feels from the sun and food depravation, the pleasure he experiences in the sexual encounter reaffirms the new beginning. Similarly, the emotional embrace with his brother Leo in the yacht that will take him to the sea signals the closing of the insurmountable distance between the polarized ends of the hyphen. Realizing the potential danger of the enterprise on which he is about to embark, Stalin does not want to leave without apologizing to his brother for having denounced him as a traitor when Leo left Cuba—similar to Díaz’s role in the “Padilla Affair”—and for cutting ties with him all these years. They both purge their bad feelings in the ocean, the locus of Stalin’s nightmares and rebirth. Partisanship is left behind and brotherhood foreshadows a new era of tolerance and understanding. As he drifts away in the dark, Stalin does not reject his past but he does not feel tied by it to Cuba (the island) anymore. He has stripped himself from the rhetorics and discourses that kept him exclusively “there.” Meeting Miriam and embracing his brother have helped him dismantle the “here” and “there” construction. Being a “translations artist,” Stalin’s vision of Cuba (and Miami) is now fluid like the waters surrounding his raft. The last entry of the journal is a blank page with just the title, “Tuesday 28.” Stalin knows he can now build a new life, a new language, with which to write a new narrative. Díaz points to that blank page as the site of dialogue and personal liberation in which each individual can inscribe his own version of exile and national identity.
1See Pérez Firmat’s “The Facts of Life on the Hyphen” for the critic’s own struggles translating his memoir Next Year in Cuba, originally published in English, into Spanish.
2María de los Ángeles Torres rightly points out that Pérez Firmat fails to include in his discussion of the one-and-a-halfers those who veer toward the Spanish/Cuban side of the hyphen or who go back and forth.
3“no me resigno a vivir en el hyphen, en el ‘entre,’ en ese vaivén que he tratado de reivindicar en algunos libros. No niego que la vida pueda satisfacer a otros; sólo afirmo que no me satisface a mí. Carezco de vocación de alambrista; el vaivén no me asienta, me marea. Y eso es lo que busco más que nada; asentarme, como lo estoy ahora en este butacón, en un solo idioma, en un solo país, en un ambiente con gente” (118).
4I borrow this argument from Antonio Vera-León. In “Politics of Self-Narration in Revolutionary Cuba,” Vera-León focuses on Las iniciales and contends that the crisis for Díaz’s protagonist in that novel, which well applies to Stalin in Dime algo sobre Cuba, arises when faced by the discourses of Cuban revolutionary modernization (69).
5See Ortega, Ordonqui García, Rubio Cuevas, Guerrero, and Yulzari.
6Translations from the Spanish original are all mine.
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Patricia Catoira is Associate Professor at Montana State University. She teaches Latin American literature and culture. She is the Coordinator of the Latin American and Latino Studies program at MSU. Her publications have focused on gender and race in Cuban literature as well as Cuba’s cultural production and globalization after the breakup of the Soviet Union, during the so-called “Special Period.” Her current research focuses on violence and masculinity in contemporary crime fiction from Latin America.