By David Duran
My fascination with Cuba was finally realized this past year when I visited the small island country for the first time in 32 years. The last time I was on the island was when my mother was pregnant with me and had returned to visit friends and family and, of course, show off her belly. My mother left Cuba shortly after graduating university and was fortunate to be granted permission to enter the United States legally with my grandmother. It was years later, while in my early teens, that I began to ask questions about Cuba. My mother worked so hard for years to legally bring her sister and her family over from the communist country by sponsoring them each and petitioning both governments, which she finally succeeded in doing in 1992. All I would hear was the negative about the government but sprinkled within the hatred, there was always beautiful stories of how life use to be.
My grandmother was in love with the U.S. She got to live out her fantasies of dressing up, putting on makeup, wearing perfume and just being a woman. I would always tell her as teenager that I wanted to visit Cuba and she would quickly dismiss my curiosities. Later in life, after my list of travels expanded beyond two hands, my family opened up to the idea of me visiting their homeland. I had put in two years of living in Bolivia, my father’s place of birth, so in their minds, I had passed the test of the third-world living conditions. I then had full support from my overly cautious family to plan a trip. The only problem now was getting through the long visa applications.
Just six months before my trip, was when my fascination became an obsession. In a rare and controversial occurrence, Mariela Castro, daughter of the Cuban President Raul Castro, came to the U.S. to speak on a two-week press tour of New York City and San Francisco. This was the niece of Fidel Castro, the man responsible for all of horrible stories my grandmother and mother would tell me about growing up. I jumped at the opportunity to hear her speak; especially when I found out her topic of discussion was LGBT rights in Cuba. I was also fortunate to be able to attend a private reception with her the following night where I met her and candidly spoke with her about her efforts in Cuba.
From the stories my family told me about growing up in conservative Cuba, I was shocked at what Mariela was preaching. Looking back, my Cuban family didn’t take my coming out as harshly as I thought they did at the time. It was mostly just denial and not talking about my life in front of family members. After hearing how Cuba was changing, I finally felt a deep connect that I had been longing for to go and see for myself where my family was from. One month before my flight, my family decided to shock me with news that I still had a cousin left in Cuba, two to be exact. I couldn’t believe the news because I am very close with most of my family and the fact that I had cousins I didn’t know existed was painful but quickly changed the purpose of my adventure.
The moment the plane landed in Havana and everyone around me began to clap their hands, I shed a tear. I had finally made it. I walked down the stairs of the aircraft toward a relatively new Chinese-made airport shuttle bus, and my sensory overload was in full effect. The Havana airport was crowded and I immediately felt like I had stepped into a time warp as I peaked outside the doors into a cloud of cigarette smoke. Through the thick air of tobacco, I saw what I had only heard of but never imagined would be the reality I was seeing with my own eyes; vintage cars. The ride to my hotel was mostly me crying and looking at old cars while my traveling partner would grab my shoulder and pinch me every 20 seconds or so because he was in complete culture shock. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he should be pinching himself, instead of me. But for me, it wasn’t just the old cars and the lush green we were driving by, it was the interest from the van full of foreigners who were all so inquisitive and intrigued in everything they were seeing. I knew from that moment that I was in for something that would change my life.
Cuba was everything I had dreamed of. The old cars, the gorgeous mansions that were now converted to office space or museums, and lots of music accompanied by some of the best mojitos I had ever had. The beautiful coastlines of Havana were breathtaking. It’s made up of an extended sidewalk that stretches the entire span of the city and each night the “malecon” would be full of life as mostly locals would socialize, drink and just hang out all night. All that was missing was the quality food that I grew up eating all my life. When I asked my mother after returning why her food tasted so much better, she quickly pointed out that she had spices and condiments available to her in the states but that in Cuba salt was pretty much the most flavoring one would get; the food in Cuba is as good as they can possibly make it.
Havana has to be one of the most picturesque cities I had ever visited. I found myself snapping photos of cars, superb architecture and just people living their life. Early in my visit, I had set up a time to meet with my long lost cousin and drop off a backpack full of clothes I had brought him. It was the least I could do after not even knowing he existed. I walked into the hotel lobby and there he was. I had no idea what he looked like, or a description of what he was wearing, but somehow, our eyes met and we just knew. It was one of the most important embraces in my life. I forced him and his uncle to eat at my hotel restaurant buffet and was so confused to only see them pick up one tiny potato and a piece of toast. I insisted that it was a buffet and that they should fill up on all they wanted. Now that I think about it, what they had on their plate was a good representation of what would most likely fill up their unaccustomed stomachs.
The attitudes of most every Cuban I met on the streets were ones of joyfulness and interest. Everyone had so many questions about the United States and the world. People were so nice as to offer private tours and show you their Cuba. And it’s not all about the money they want from tourists. I encountered folks who at times just wanted someone to talk to and show their city off to. I would commonly ask the question, “If you could live anywhere, where would you live?” The overwhelming response was always, “Cuba.” Most pointed out that Cuba is so beautiful and its people are naturally happy, loving people. Of course, they wish they didn’t live the way they did, but they tolerated it, not because they had to, but because what else where they to do? Cubans in general had made the most of a rotten situation and were thankful for what they had. In the end, I still gave them money but it was hard not to when you realize there are two types of money; one for tourists and the worthless one for them. My cousin worked independently as a mechanic to earn more money than he would be getting working for the government. The average Cuban, whether a doctor or a plumber, makes anywhere from $10-14 per month. Many Cuban’s have side jobs or work privately to make more money instead of being employed by the government. Luckily, that option is now available to them. Lots of changes had happened in Cuba in the last few years. People were now able to sell their property and own their cars, as well as attend gay pride events if they so chose to.
Cuba’s gay scene is alive and active. Although it’s not normal to see two people of the same sex walking around holding hands, there are areas in Havana that are now considered gay cruising or meeting spots. It’s a large area in the city where everyone feels comfortable to be who they are and find out where the gay parties are happening that particular night. On our first night we went to the Yara Theatre, the best of the best cruising spots to learn about any parties that night. We were immediately approached by two younger boys who quickly started up conversation and complimented insistently. It’s not uncommon to find male escorts in these areas. (They are actually the best sources for these gay parties.) We happily offered to pay their taxi and party entrance fee if they would take us and made certain that our deal ended immediately afterwards. We still somehow ended up paying their bar tab, but we didn’t care, we were in Cuba! Later in our trip we discovered a private cabaret built on the roof of an old home in the outskirts of Havana that seated about 50 and put on one amazing show. “El Show de las Estrellas,” was a highlight of the trip.
And it’s not only in Havana. Even in the small town of Trinidad, I met gay men who couldn’t wait to tell me about the monthly drag show where the entire town comes to watch. Cuba wasn’t nearly as repressed as I had imagined. In Trinidad, we met a young man who, together with his cousin and mother, ran a gay bed and breakfast. We stayed at a nearby hostel and our young hostess was so eager to introduce us all to each other after finding out we were gay. When speaking to him and his mother about gay life in Trinidad, he quickly opened up and confirmed everything I was experiencing. He even openly told me about being HIV-positive and how the government paid for all his medical care. But it was his mother who was so proud of him and supportive of her son that opened my eyes to the love that exists there. When asking gay Cubans about Mariela, there was an overwhelming support of love, respect and gratitude toward her. I couldn’t find one person that had anything negative to say about her. I even went out of my way to meet strangers on the street who appeared to be heterosexual couples of all ages and somehow bring up Mariela just to get their input. Again, nothing but praise for the woman who helped change the minds of so many in her country.
Mariela, who is the Director for the National Center for Sex Education in Cuba, decided to take her fight in strides, focusing on one issue over the course of a year. She went on national television and educated the population first. With the support of the people, she then took her fight to her father and his government, where surprisingly enough, she got through to them. First focusing on transgender rights, Mariela broke ground by helping pass legislature to allow gender reassignment surgery to be covered under the basic government healthcare system. The following year she took on causes championing gay men, followed by bisexual men, and most recently she focused her efforts on HIV services. After talking to many of her activists and volunteers, it’s possible that her next move will be to fight for equal benefits for same-sex couples as those that are afforded to married couples.
I never had the “talk” with my cousin and his family about me being gay, but I knew that they knew from the topics of conversation I had brought up from my travels. It wasn’t until I returned home and received an e-mail from him where he told me that he and his family loved me no matter what and they too support Mariela’s efforts in Cuba. What I took away from my visit was not only the beauty of the Cuban people, architecture, rundown cars, bland food or up and coming gay scene. Instead what I learned was to appreciate my life and where I came from.
There are currently strict visa requirements for American’s entering Cuba. Unless you are on a humanitarian mission, religious excursion, a member of the media or come from Cuban decent, entry is not legal and comes with potentially severe consequences if apprehended jumping borders to enter. The U.S. embargo on Cuba is hopefully within eyesight’s view of ending and when it does, American’s will be able to experience something they could only have dreamed of.