If Cuba opens up, my heritage stays shut away

MARCH 22ND, 2016 — POST 078

This week is monumental in the history of the island nation of Cuba. The world’s eyes are trained on President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama as they are the first holders of the United States’ highest office to cross the Carribean in eighty-eight years. A Spanish colony turned American playground turned communist bastion, Cuba has been economically crippled by the embargo imposed upon it by the U.S. in response to the ideology of its revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. The desire of President Obama to lift this embargo and have Cuba opened to the world economy might well prove one of his most significant legacies.

But there’s a small part of me, albiet not a very nice part of me, that wishes Obama wouldn’t, at least not yet. I told myself I was going to travel to Cuba before it was opened up. I know: this is about a nation and not about me, I get it. However, my feelings spring from more than some millenial entitlement, I promise.

My full name is Daniel Aaron Villanueva Holliday. When I tell people this you see their head go: White, White, What? In 1970, my mother and her family fled Cuba to Gallicia in Spain to try and obtain immigration into the United States. During the two year period they waited in Spain, Australia made a push to increase immigration. So in 1972, a 9-year-old Diana Clara Villanueva landed in Sydney.

My connection with Cuba is only really as far as my genes and a name no one uses. Culturally, I’m about as Cuban as a pre-mixed mojito. I had a period in my teens when I played with and hung around Latin musicians. My friends of Ecuadorian, Chilean, and Colombian descent, in playing Cuban music, all seemed more Cuban than me. For one, I never learnt Spanish. When my mum’s first day at a public school in the south-west suburbs of Sydney involved seeing her younger brother pelted with rocks for only speaking Spanish, she was going to do all she could to learn English. So her Spanish level stayed that of a 9-year-old and at some point within a few years, she told me, she started to think in English. Additionally, my mum and her siblings were utterly incentivised to not preserve their culture. Becoming white became the most efficient suit of armour. They rapidly lost any trace of their accents and tried as much as possible to wear Cuban only in their name. Even mi Abuela, who worked in an Arnott’s biscuit factory, was banned from speaking Spanish on the factory floor with other Latin American and Spanish immigrants. This was Australia’s stance on immigration: we’ll take you because we need the workers but keep your wog shit out of here. So the name I bear seems to point to something spectral. Even its pronunciation has been Anglocised to (and read this with hard anglophonic ‘L’s) Villanova or Villanurva. Los Villanuevas de Havana have become The Villanovas of Macquarie Fields.

If I want, I occasionally can peek through a tiny keyhole into the family that left Cuba. Mi Abuela, now in her late seventies, will turn from worn down, from tired, from eternally stoic to a sprightly adolescent on a balmy night at the slightest mention of her life in Cuba. She told me that, as a little girl, she’d ride into town on the back of a mango cart eating all the mangos she could. Mi Abuelo, sporting the thinnest of pencil-thin moustaches, would take her out dancing during the height of the salsa big band in the 1950s. Despite thick cigar and cigarette smoke in the clubs and streets of Havana, a single taste of a tobacco was enough to turn mi Abuela away from smoking for life. These stories, recounted over a late-night coffee that would follow an Easter of Christmas dinner, are all I have to tell me my heritage is anything more than a name, thick hair, and darker-than-average colouring.

This is why I wanted to get to Cuba before it opened up. The severe economic impotence the embargo forced upon Cuba did have one benefit for a white guy from Sydney: it kept the country a timecapsule. I felt that, in going there, I would have my ethnicity vindicated by a nation that looks so much like it did when my mum and her family fled. If Obama’s efforts succeed as much as I hope they do, the Cuba I’m a tangential product of will be locked away in history. For the country, that’s exactly where they want it. For that not-very-nice part of me, that’s exactly what I was afraid of.

At least I’ve got mi Abuela’s stories.

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