A Visit to Havana: A Book That Takes on Immigration Myths Makes its Cuban Debut
February 22, 2013
Aviva Chomsky is Professor of history and Coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts. Her many books include They Take Our Jobs! And 20 Other Myths about Immigration, and A History of the Cuban Revolution. A new book on immigration, Undocumented, is forthcoming in Spring 2014 from Beacon Press.
Aviva Chomsky in Havana. Photo courtesy of the author.
I’ve been traveling to Cuba regularly since 1995, for research, to attend conferences, and to take students on short-term study abroad trips, when those have been allowed under the Clinton and Obama Administrations. (Such trips were prohibited under the Bush Administrations.) I’ve published several articles in Cuban journals, mostly about Cuba-related themes.
Last weekend, I was in Havana to present the new Cuban edition of ¡Nos quitan nuestros empleos! (the Spanish translation of my book They Take Our Jobs!, which was published by Beacon in 2007) at the International Book Fair in Havana.
Shortly after They Take Our Jobs! came out in English, friends in immigrants-rights organizations told me that we needed a Spanish-language version. It took a while to find a publisher (Haymarket Press) and even longer to finish the translation. My Cuban friend who helped with the final editing of the Spanish version, Alfredo Prieto, offered to help me find a publisher in Cuba as well. He put me in touch with Fernando García of Editorial Nuevo Milenio, who ended up bringing out the beautiful Cuban edition. I am thrilled to have the project come to this fruition, and that I was able to be Havana for its release.
Most often, my trips to Cuba begin in Miami, a strange, liminal place that always seems like a good way to transition from the United States to Latin America or vice versa. The driver of my hotel shuttle asks me where I’m going. “Cuba,” I tell him. “You are going to my country,” he replies. I switch to Spanish and ask him how long he’s been in the United States. Since 1998, he tells me. “Here you work very, very, hard,” he goes on. “I’ve lived well here, don’t get me wrong. But Cuba is my country, and that’s where I want to live. Cuba is wonderful. It’s just the government that’s bad, that’s ruined everything.”
Even though my flight doesn’t leave till 9, I have to check in at 6. This is an improvement over the last time I went, using the same charter company, Marazul Tours. Last March I was told to arrive at the airport four hours ahead of the flight and look for an agent wearing a blue t-shirt in Terminal G. Needless to say, there was no blue-shirted agent anywhere to be found, and nobody answered the phone at the several numbers I had for Marazul. Nor were there any counters that seemed connected to our charter flight, which didn’t appear on any of the “departure” screens. Finally a rumor reached our ears—other passengers looking for the same blue t-shirt thought we should try Terminal D. With little else to go on, I and my 13 students trudged over to Terminal D. Still no blue shirt, and no flight listed on any screen, but the rumors grew thicker, and, finally, we found ourselves at an anonymous-looking counter checking in. It was like being in Cuba before we even left Miami—somehow you just have to figure out how to do things that seem impossible—resolver, as the Cubans say.
This time, though, I arrive as instructed with only three hours to spare. Terminal G is teeming with blue-shirted representatives, and multiple flights to Havana are listed on every screen. There are only two people ahead of me in line, and I am quickly checked in. The only sign that this is not a normal flight is when I try to use my credit card to pay the $20 to check my bag. “Sorry, we only take cash,” I am told. The blue-shirted representative says he’ll wait for me while I run to the ATM.
I usually try not to check my bag, but this time I’m carrying many bottles of medicines and hand sanitizer that my Cuban friends have requested. I’m also carrying a half pound of baker’s chocolate—they want me to bake brownies while I’m there.
A grey-haired gentleman going through the same lines asks if I’m with a group. No, I say, and you? “Yes, we are a gentle group,” I hear him reply. I look around—his companions look gentle enough, but I’m still confused—are they Quakers, or something? Then he starts to tell me about the activities they’ll be doing in Cuba, and I realize that they are dentists—a dental group.
By 7 I’m at the gate. I order a cafe con leche from a nearby stand before I sit down. “Ya está dulce,” the server tells me kindly as she hands it to me. We’re almost in Cuba—the coffee automatically comes sweet, and in Spanish.
My seatmate on the first leg of my journey—from Ontario, California, where I am teaching at Pomona College, to Dallas—was a graduate student in Spanish returning home from a job interview. I’m reading a book called Dangerous Trade: Histories of Industrial Hazard across a Globalizing World. The third chapter is about a mercury mine in Almadén, Spain. “That’s where my father worked—he was a mining engineer,” she offers. When the mine closed, the town died—now there is hardly anyone left. She came to the United States to study, and will probably stay. Migrations and global connections are everywhere.
My seat partner on the plane to Havana tells me that she is going back to Cuba for the first time since she left, in 1968, at age 13. “Look, I’m trembling,” she tells me as the plane touches down. Her grandmother left Spain for Cuba in her 30s, and returned for the first time when she was 80. “I’m almost as bad,” she says. I’m embarrassed to tell her that I’m going to Cuba for the publication of my book on immigration.
If the Miami airport experience has improved, the Havana experience has not. The line through immigration takes over an hour, and the bags have still not appeared when I finally get through. Nobody seems to know which of the two baggage claim areas our bags will be on. It’s hot, noisy, and crowded, and it’s not clear where there are lines to stand in and where we are supposed to go. Somehow, though, my suitcase appears and I manage to pass through the required lines and exit the terminal. As always, there is a huge crowd of excited friends and relatives waiting for people from the Miami flights.
Every time I travel to Latin America, I’m reminded how important, and how complicated, water is. At home, we expect clean water to flow reliably from every pipe whenever we turn a faucet or push a handle. Kitchen sink, bathroom sink, shower, toilets—there are so many places where something can go wrong—assuming that there is water at all, and that it’s not contaminated. The TV screen in the airport welcoming travelers to Cuba flashes health warnings, one of which is (in Spanish) to always boil your water before you drink it. This time, my friends advise me to use boiled water to brush my teeth and to rinse dishes and vegetables in boiled water after washing them.
Sometimes you can avoid the foreign-tourist-in-Cuba experience of being “hustled” by staying away from hotels and tourist sites. This time, though, I’m approached while waiting on a busy street in Centro Habana outside my friends’ apartment. It’s 96 steps up, and someone has to come down to unlock the street door for me. “Are you visiting Cuba for the first time?” a young man asks me from inside a neighboring storefront offering “economist/accounting services.” “What are you doing here?” I’m a professor, attending the book fair, I tell him. “Oh, a professor, what do you teach? Are you interested in economic issues?” Yes, I say. “My friend just wrote a book on cuentapropismo, he reveals. “I have a dozen copies at my place down the street. Do you want one?” Maybe, I say guardedly, but I don’t have much room in my luggage. “Are you married?” he continues without missing a beat. “I really like you. (Me caes muy bien.)” “Yes, I’m married” I lie. “It doesn’t matter!” he exclaims. “It can be our secret dream! Nobody has to know!”
The book fair is amazing. The main installation is at the El Morro fort just outside the city. The parking lot is filled with buses and cars, and walkers are flowing in as well. The many streets inside are packed with people. Publishers’ displays are interspersed with food stalls, children’s activity stations, and performances. There is no security visible, and the crowds are relaxed and jovial. The only thing I can compare it to is First Night in Boston. But here everyone has come to look at books!
A young man approaches me after a presentation by the sister of one of the Cuban 5, national heroes, imprisoned in the United States on charges of espionage. They were spying on right-wing Cuban American organizations that had planned and carried out armed attacks against Cuba. “You probably don’t recognize me,” he says shyly. “You were friends with my mother in 1995, when you were in Cuba with your kids. I was a baby then, but when you left, you gave my mom the child seat from your bicycle. I rode around in it for years.” He’s the same age as my son, in his third year at the university.
There are multiple rooms with concurrent book presentations going on all day, every day. Mine is at 3:00 Saturday afternoon. About 30 people fill the room. Two commentators precede me: one describes my book in detail, and the second one gives my biography. I hope he is around to write my obituary, because he gets it all so right: my intellectual trajectory, my activism, my work life. It’s exactly how I want to be remembered.
I decide to tell the audience about four life experiences that brought me to write They Take Our Jobs!. They were experiences that opened my eyes to the myths I had been living with, and together made me want to write a book that would do the same for others. There’s a great word for it in Spanish: concientización. There’s no perfect translation in English, but it’s something like consciousness-raising, or political awakening.
The first experience was when I left college after my first year, in 1976, to work for the United Farm Workers in California. I was looking for something different to do, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had, of course, been eating fruits and vegetables all my life, but as far as I knew, they came from the supermarket. It had never occurred to me that everything I bought at the store had a history, and that someone had to plant, care for, and harvest all of that produce. With the farmworkers I was thrown right into the middle of a world I had no idea existed: a world where almost everyone was Spanish-speaking and Mexican, and where they worked long hours under harsh conditions to harvest the food we blithely purchased in Massachusetts.
The second experience I recounted was at UC Berkeley, where I was exposed to Chicano Studies and had the chance to study with, and then teach for, one of the discipline’s founders, Carlos Muñoz. The whole premise behind the Chicano Studies movement—like those that pressed for the creation of African American and Native American studies programs during that same tumultuous decade of the 1970s—was that existing curriculums were basically the study of white people, and had left out the experiences of people of color in the United States. Once again, this was an eye-opener. All that history I had been learning all of those years, that was an exclusive, politicized, history? There were whole histories that it had left out? I decided to become a historian.
The third experience was when I got to Bates College in 1990, fresh PhD in Latin American history in hand. Being in Maine, one of the coldest and whitest states in the country, Bates had been very slow to diversify, and its Latino student population was extremely small and extremely new. Both students and faculty urged me to create a course on Latino history, and I was eager to do so. A lot had changed since my Chicano Studies days, though. Latin American immigration had skyrocketed, and it had diversified both in its origins—including far more Caribbean, Central American, and South American immigrants—and in its destinations, moving out of its traditional centers in California and the Southwest. The new discipline of Latino—rather than Chicano, or Boricua (Puerto Rican) studies—was developing. I jumped on the bandwagon and decided I needed to become part of this new wave of Latino history.
Finally, the experience that led directly to They Take Our Jobs! came in May of 2006, with the massive immigrants rights demonstrations. I participated in a small part of the nation-wide movement, in Salem, where immigrant-owned businesses closed and children stayed home from school on May 1, the national “day without an immigrant.”
The next day, I was in my department office conversing with an African American colleague. Nearby, some white students were complaining about the demonstrations. “I don’t have anything against immigrants, only illegal immigrants. My ancestors came here legally! These immigrants should do it the right way, following the law, like my ancestors did.” This was a discussion I had engaged in a million times already, and I had my response ready: Your ancestors came here legally because they were European, and there were no legal restrictions on European immigration at the time. But somehow, looking at my colleague, it struck me for the first time: Only white people say that! Of course the ancestors of most African Americans came here “legally” too—because their enslavement was perfectly legal. But white people who are so proud that their ancestors came legally are basically saying that they are proud to have benefitted from white privilege.
I decided not to get into an argument at that moment, but when I got home and opened the local newspaper, the front-page article about the demonstrations quoted a white observer making the same comment. It seemed more useful to compose a letter to the editor explaining my thoughts, so I did; it was published the next day. And a few days later an editor from Beacon Press called me saying that she had seen my letter, and wondered whether I’d be interested in expanding it into a book. That was the seed of They Take Our Jobs!.
The eminent Cuban historian Jorge Ibarra attends my talk. “Whatever happened to your book on Haitian migrant workers in Cuba?” he demands. On my first visit to the island, he had provided invaluable help orienting me to the historiography, and the archives, relevant to my research. “I never wrote the book,” I confess. “I published the research I did here as an article in the Hispanic American Historical Review, but then my work ended up moving in different directions.” “I still have the original, typed manuscript of that article!” he tells me proudly. “You gave it to me when you came back the next year, when you were working on it.”
As I get ready to leave the fair, I’m asked to sign a statement, a letter to Comandante Presidente Hugo Chávez Frías. “The undersigned intellectuals, artists, writers, and guests who are participating in the Twenty-second International Book Fair in Havana, from the San Carlos Fort in La Cabaña, wish to send the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez Frías, our solidarity and our commitment to accompany him day by day in these moments of his recovery, because we know that he is carrying out a battle and his spirit of struggles continues intact in these difficult but hopeful moments he is living through,” the letter begins, in somewhat typical flowery Spanish-language style. “You have succeeded in extending ties of unity to other continents and countries besieged at this time by the twenty-first century wars of recolonization, and you have always accompanied them with your solidarity. Dear Comandante, you have succeeded, along with other compañeros, in achieving the uncompleted dream of Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín, and other heroes of our independence, frustrated by another imperial expansion that framed our dependence since the end of the nineteenth century... You are at the forefront of this battle with your strength, courage, and love. Adelante, Comandante, our peoples are waiting for you.”
It sounds a lot like a song I played for my students at Pomona last week, “Simón Bolívar,” written in the early 1970s by the Chilean group Inti Illimani.
Simón Bolívar, Simón,
revivido en las memorias
que abrió otro tiempo la historia,
te espera el tiempo Simón.
Simón Bolívar, razón,
razón del pueblo profunda,
antes que todo se hunda
vamos de nuevo Simón.
You still live in our memories, Simón
History has opened another era
Time is waiting for you, Simón...
Before everything is lost
Let’s try again, Simón.
The letter is not written exactly with the words I would have used, but I don’t care, it’s basically a get-well card, and I sign it, imagining that one day David Horowitz will discover it or the National Enquirer will splash a headline, “Aviva Chomsky claims Hugo Chávez at ‘forefront of battle’ and calls for him to forge ahead!” But I doubt I’m important enough for it to merit any notice at all. And it feels like the least I can do.