I’ve never liked baseball.
It doesn’t appeal to me at all. There are too many innings with too much time in between moments of brief action. They’re not great for watching on television, and the only upside of going to a baseball game in person is the promise of junk food, funny chants and spending time with friends. The game itself? Unimportant.
But on Tuesday, March 22, there’s a baseball game I’m going to watch. The Cuban national team will play the Tampa Bay Rays in a recently refurbished Havana stadium, and President Obama will be in the stands to see it. This is the first time a U.S. President has visited Cuba in 88 years. It’s the first time a U.S. President will visit my country of origin in my lifetime. He’ll be going before me.
Politicians will do anything to bring about either the illusion or reality of perceived peace between begrudging nations. But, this time, Obama’s going for the very heart and soul of American patriotism and Cuban nationalism. After a botched attempt to overthrow Cuba’s government, a Cold War and more than 50 years of isolation, the President had to do something that would pull at both American and Cuban heartstrings: a bit of baseball diplomacy.
There really isn’t anything more American than eating a hot dog at a baseball game in the summer. The thing is, though, baseball is pretty Cuban too. Even though Americans like to claim the sport as their own, both countries grew to love the game in tandem.
The first baseball club, the New York Knickerbockers, formed in 1845, and more clubs sprung up around New York City right before the civil war, a total of sixteen by 1857. The sport reached Cuba in 1864 after a few students returned home from studying in the U.S. Two teams played the first game of the professional Cuban baseball league in 1878.
The Cuban League ran the games in the island nation until Fidel Castro took control of the government in 1959. Before Castro, the U.S. and Cuba shared both a deep love of the sport and more than a few players. Many cubanos joined the U.S. major leagues, and islanders closely followed U.S. games from afar.
When Castro took over, he ended all professional sports in Cuba. He replaced the Cuban League with the Federación Cubana de Beísbol, a government-run operation. As the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba cooled with the rise of Castro, and eventually completely ended with the U.S. trade embargo in 1962, so did the two countries trade of players — at least the legal ones.
Both continued to love the game just as much as they ever had.
More than 50 years later, President Obama is opening up an old wound to try to permanently repair it. This is a painful process that won’t have any clear victory. There are plenty of Cuban-Americans who think that Obama’s plan throws away any last chance the U.S. had at bringing democracy to Cuba. Many other Cuban-Americans just want to go home or be able to send things to the friends and family who didn’t leave the island.
This visit opens up a wound I’ve been carrying with me for 24 years.
Growing up Cuban in the Washington D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia didn’t mean much to me for a long time. My Cuban mother dyes her hair blonde, and my father is an Eastern European Jew, so it was easy to blend right into the mostly white middle class world I was born into.
After moving to the United States, my mother shortened her name from Amalia to a more American Ami and used my dad’s Kaufman last name more than her own Cuban Cuervo. She insisted that people would treat us differently if she was a Ms. Cuervo instead of a Ms. Kaufman. But she was always quick to slip into her fluid Spanish when talking to a cashier in a drive through or checking out at a department store register. Her hispanic identity jumped out when she wanted it to, but she was well-versed in blending in. She would have to be. She arrived in Miami from Havana with her mother, both not knowing a word of English, in the fall of 1961.
As a kid, being Cuban meant listening to my mom talk to my grandmother in Spanish on the phone and understanding she didn’t want me to know what they were saying. It meant visiting Palm Beach, Florida, where my mother had lived during high school, and hearing about how similar the place looked to her real home, the one she would never see again. It meant many fights about learning how to speak Spanish and keeping Cuervo as my middle name over the one I liked more, Sofia.
I pushed the Cuban part of me away. None of my friends were hispanic, and I didn’t speak Spanish. I wasn’t going to ever visit Cuba, so why bother focusing on a part of myself that didn’t seem to have any relation to who I thought I was?
Like all parts of our identity, especially the ones we try to bury, the cubana caught up with me. It hit me like a freight train coming straight out of the endless darkness in a bad horror film. I was 19, and I was living in Cádiz, Spain for five weeks.
I’m not going to bore you with another cliché “I went abroad, and it changed my life” story. What I will say is, there are moments in your life when you meet someone, go somewhere or do something that permanently shift your perception of yourself. These moments are unplanned, humbling and frightening.
In a short time, I realized that I had been denying myself a part of my own being. I fell in love with hearing Spanish on the streets every day. I fell in love with the openness of the small city, from the buildings to the ocean breeze to the people I met. And just as quickly as I realized there was another part of the person I thought I had known, it was time to leave.
I’m still on the very edge of my cubana. I know much of that part of myself, the part with the given name Elena Sofia Cuervo, has yet to emerge. This part listens to Spanish music to calm down when she’s stressed. She finds comfort in the old hispanic women who share her pre-war Brooklyn apartment building because they smell and sound just like her grandmother. She would spend every day on the beach or in the water if she could.
My Cuba isn’t real. It exists in cobbled together second-hand memories and a legacy of longing. Longing to go home. Longing to feel whole. Longing to belong.
Even though I’m not a big sports fan, I can recognize its strange, transcendental power. It can unite a loud bar, a neighborhood, a city, a country. Can it also bring together two?
In The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach writes, “Talking was like throwing a baseball. You couldn’t plan it out beforehand. You just had to let go and see what happened. You had to throw out words without knowing whether anyone would catch them — you had to throw out words you knew no one would catch. You had to send your words out where they weren’t yours anymore. It felt better to talk with a ball in your hand. It felt better to let the ball do the talking.”
On Tuesday, Obama’s going to let the ball talk. He can’t end the trade embargo — only Congress can do that. He can’t erase 50 years of isolation. He can’t apologize to the displaced Cuban-Americans who haven’t been able to go home or to the people on the island who’ve been holding out for something to happen for so long. But he can watch this baseball game.
The New York Times’ Azam Ahmed writes, “They wait, coiled with anticipation. For web pages to download. For tourists to hurry up and buy something. For a flag to be raised. Cubans know how to wait.”
I’ve been waiting too. For a dictatorship disguised as communism to shift gears. For an evangelical democracy to stop hiding behind a policy of doing nothing with the feigned purpose of inciting change. For a chance to go home, for a country that is a part of me to have a promising future, for its people — my people — to have a better life.
The defeated don’t wait. The ones who carry around a sliver of hope — just enough hope to get out of bed in the morning and keep going — wait. They open up their shops. They sail out in their fishing boats, searching for the next big catch. They show up to practice, knowing that if they just keep hitting, one day they might get to run those bases across the 90 mile stretch that separates the island from its northern neighbor.
But hope needs fuel to keep it going. And after 54 years of waiting, it’s about time.