Love, Discomfort and the Language of the Tribe

This is the third post in our forum on Megan’s new book. We are delighted to welcome Dunja Fehimovic, a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge working on the relationship of film to national identity in Cuba in the 21st century. Dunja is author of a number of investigations of those themes in Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies and Bulletin of Latin American Research, as well as forthcoming in Cuban Cinema Inside Out and The Routledge Companion to World Cinema.


When From Cuba with Love arrived in the post, my first thought was, ‘What a beautiful book.’ It was the kind of book that drew me in – the kind of book, in fact, that might catch the eye of anyone browsing the shelves of their local bookshop. Its cover illustration reminded me of the endlessly-proliferating coffee table books about Cuba, including one I myself own about pre-Revolutionary Cuban advertising and design. It appealed to the vague, pervasive nostalgia for the ‘good old days’, roughly associated with the 1930-50s, that seems to be doing the rounds of late – all cupcakes, vintage posters, Cath Kidston and red lipstick.

From Cuba - Red Cover

But like the señorita in the picture, whose skirt is slashed to show a titillating amount of thigh, this had added appeal. The added sex appeal of Cuba, that is. As reactions to my topic of study have confirmed over time, Cuba is a sexy subject. Sex in Cuba is a very sexy subject. Daigle’s book, then, immediately evokes all of the stereotypical, exotic or erotic associations that we reveal or conceal through our reactions to Cuba as a place and subject of study. From its front cover onwards, it triggered uncomfortable reflections on my own contradictory, complex fascination with the country – a fascination that evolved, tellingly, from a love of salsa music and dancing through to a touristic experience during my undergraduate years and to the present day, as I move towards the completion of my thesis on contemporary Cuban cinema and national identity. In her introduction, Daigle warns that this is not a comfort text. True enough.

When I started reading From Cuba with Love, I got in touch with Megan to say that I had a feeling that this was going to be one of those books I wish I had written. And at certain points, I felt as though I had. The atmosphere and situations she so eloquently describes, particularly in the introduction and conclusion, were all too familiar to me as someone who has also spent time doing research in Cuba. I, too, lived near the Callejón de Hamel, and spent many afternoons pushing through the crowds, fascinated and frustrated in almost equal measure. As the rumba music picks up, Megan tells us, ‘the divide between dancers and onlookers blurs’. Crucially, though, the divide between foreigners and Cubans never does. I’ve never been sure how much of this is caused by my own self-consciousness, and how much is ‘objectively’ evident in the behaviour of people around me. Most likely it’s another case of the chicken and the egg, a self-perpetuating cycle of self-alienation and othering from both sides.

From Cuba - Callejon

Every day I spend in Cuba, a phrase from Brian Friel’s play, Translations echoes through my head: “Even if I did speak Irish I’d always be an outsider here… I may learn the password but the language of the tribe will always elude me”. Daigle’s book captures some of this feeling – which cannot be mine alone – of being endlessly drawn in and blocked out at the same time. Of course, this is not what this book is about, but as an experience and frame of mind it certainly pervades the text. For me, it is this honesty and self-reflexiveness, combined with an engaging narrative, which makes the book successful.

There are many other aspects of the text, though, that lie beyond my personal experience. Moments of understanding between the author and her interviewees suggest that ‘the language of the tribe’ has not eluded Daigle, and her reading of these encounters allows even the silences to speak eloquently. The perseverance, courage and sensitivity needed to establish contact and speak with the different participants in this study should not be underestimated. I cannot think what might be more difficult: tactfully navigating Cuban bureaucracy or broaching a potentially awkward or offensive subject with a sullen teenager. The result of these conversations is varied with regards to the amount and nature of information disclosed, but in all cases Daigle weaves the narrative so as to give sense to the gaps and create a coherent line of argument throughout. 

As someone with no background in international politics, I am not well placed to comment on the text’s contribution to that field. However, in typical academic style, I will venture some thoughts nonetheless. Daigle suggests that hers is ‘the first explicitly political treatment of this subject’. Anyone who studies Cuba will be hard pressed to avoid the political, no matter their field or discipline. It is perhaps for this reason that I felt the book fitted in quite comfortably with existing analyses that the author identifies as approaching the issue from anthropological, sociological or cultural perspectives – examples such as Duke University Press’s edited volume on Reggaeton (2009) or Sujatha Fernandes’ monograph, Cuba Represent! (2006) come to mind. As a reader, I shared the author’s frustration with the limited access to and input from official entities such as the national police force (PNR) or mass organisations such as the youth union (UJC). Perhaps I would have expected more analysis of official discourse and processes from a text that makes the above-mentioned claim to originality. Regarding the international aspect, I might also have expected a comparative element that could consider different approaches to prostitution, sex tourism, and local-foreigner relationships. However, as a Cubanist (or even just as someone who has spent time in the country), I understand the particular circumstances and oft-cited exceptionalism that must have contributed to the relative absence of these elements from the text.

From Cuba - Police

To turn to a more detailed consideration of the text, I begin where Daigle herself does: with aptly chosen epigraphs from sources as diverse as Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, José Martí and Michel Foucault. Whilst I insist that these work well in terms of their relation to the discussion that follows, at times they call out for contextualisation and direct discussion. In particular, I felt that the decision to open the introduction (and therefore the book as a whole) with a quotation from Pedro Juan Gutiérrez raised fascinating issues regarding the exoticisation and commodification of certain aspects of Cuban reality, specifically issues of sex, love and money that form the core of Daigle’s project. This author made his name internationally by expounding what has since been labeled ‘dirty realism’; expressing aspects of life in Special Period Cuba with a morbid delight in the sordid and/or the sexual, Gutiérrez occupies an ambivalent position in relation to Daigle’s openly-developed ethical stance to her subject. As I read on, I lamented the missed opportunity to draw parallels between the marketing and success of Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana trilogy and the use, abuse and omission of sexuality in/from Cuba’s tourism campaigns, for example.

From Cuba - Balcony

Listening to them, I felt I was watching the saddest part of Cuban socialism’s last chapter – living proof of the island’s own nihilistic version of a Generation X without any dreams of a future beyond the next purchase.

– Coco Fusco, ‘Hustling for Dollars’

The above epigraph precedes the second chapter, entitled ‘Love, Sex, Money, and Meaning: Interrogating Jineterismo on the Ground’. It raises interesting themes regarding generational differences and aspirations for the future, and indeed, Coco Fusco’s work is cited productively throughout the book. Again, though, these citations lack discussion of the political and intellectual context of Fusco’s work. For those less familiar with studies of and from Cuba, such an omission is not merely inconvenient; it detracts from a full understanding of the references made and the relationship between the author and her sources. In the specific case of Fusco, it is almost certainly of interest that this second-generation Cuban has grown up in New York and has developed a consistently insightful but critical discourse to Castro’s Cuba through both textual and performative media. Moreover, this example relates to a wider point about the book, namely its inconsistent assumptions of knowledge. Indeed, the identity and nature of the ideal reader for Daigle’s text remain unclear; is she expected to be Spanish-speaking? Is she to be a Cubanist, with a thorough understanding of the country’s history and politics? Might she specialise in issues of gender and sexuality, or in sex tourism? I think that it is to Daigle’s credit that the text does not consistently assume such specialised knowledge, but there remain certain aporias that not only prevent a smooth reading but also leave interesting, self-reflexive avenues unexplored.

Although all of Daigle’s interviews are translated, certain Spanish words (most often unitalicised) pepper the text without explanation or translation. One particular example from the first chapter comes to mind: ‘Unregistered women who behaved flirtatiously or boldly in public were frequently arrested as fleteras.’ (p.46) Whilst the etymology of the term fletera (coming from flete, meaning freight) is mentioned briefly in Daigle’s notes, a discussion (perhaps even comparative across countries) of the relationship between prostitution and the harbour and/or maritime trade would have made an interesting contribution to the generally excellent first chapter. Whilst the latter does provide an illuminating historical overview, it is to be presumed that spatial constraints prevented the author from a thorough explanation of all the relevant aspects of Cuba’s history and current political system. For example, at one point the CDRs (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution) are referenced with little to no elaboration. Although there is a hint of the obvious panoptical, disciplinary aspects of this system, the absence of detailed discussion threatens to detract from the Foucauldian analysis of Cuban society developed explicitly towards the end of the text.

Like the web of disciplinary mechanisms he describes, Foucault pervades the text from the first page to the last. It is more than surprising, then, that he is not explicitly referenced until page 103. Whilst the following comments may fall under the category of personal preference, I did find the choice to allow theory to remain implicit until the end of the book (in the fifth chapter ‘Conduct Unbecoming: Bodily Resistance and the Ethics of the Self’, which, not coincidentally, I found to be the strongest) frustrating at times. Daigle does an excellent job of creating a narrative flow in these first few chapters, and although the issues raised by her experiences and interviews are often clear, they lurk under the surface, forcing the reader to wait rather a long time for analysis. This results in a considerable amount of repetition throughout, as interconnected ideas feature in each chapter only to be restated and fully treated later on. On another, albeit related, theoretical note, Daigle’s discussion of the co-optation and subversion of terminology in chapter 2, amongst other examples, seemed to me to highlight the absence of de Certeau and Bourdieu from the analysis. Their theories of tactics, strategies, habitus and cultural capital, respectively, shed considerable light on the way in which individuals can find agency within existing systems of constraint and would therefore be productively employed in relation to Daigle’s subject. The discussion of the changing connotations of terms such as jinetera also called to mind queer theory, which might have proved an interesting comparison to consider (albeit, I concede, one which might have required an unfeasible amount of extra discussion).

In this aforementioned first reference to Foucault, Daigle cites History of Sexuality to discuss the way in which activities congeal from ‘temporary aberration’ to form ‘species’ (in this case, the jinetera) over time. At this point, I wondered how the idea of the jinetera as a luchadora (fighter) ties into the all-pervasive discourse of struggle (lucha) in Cuban life, a discourse which, as Daigle notes, locates virtue in austerity and so calls on Cubans to become full citizens through a practice of sacrifice. Although this discourse is discussed later in the text, I remained curious about the implicitly interconnected temporalities at play in this sedimentation of aberration into species on one hand, and the repeated call to make sacrifices on the other (as occurred throughout the Special Period, which, by technical definition at least, was finite). As diverse authors have suggested, crisis and change have been permanent features of Cuba’s landscape, increasing in intensity since 1990 to the paradoxical point where constant change has become stasis, flux has turned into sameness. For example, repeated threats from within and without have sedimented into a ‘siege mentality’. It remains to be seen to what extent the ‘temporary aberration’ of the Special Period will form a ‘species’ of Cuban citizen defined more than ever as a luchador embracing austerity and sacrifice. If there is some element of truth to this speculation, however, it could be a good starting point to explore further the connection – touched on in the text – between informants’ rejection of the term jinetera and their rejection of a lifestyle in which the present is sacrificed for some constantly-deferred future fulfilment.

From Cuba - Street

This double rejection has obvious political implications for these young people’s engagement with the socialist grand narrative, implications that are present in much recent Cuban fiction, from Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Trilogía sucia de La Habana to Ena Lucía Portela’s Cien botellas en una pared. In texts such as these, the protagonists’ quest for instant gratification (through sex, drugs and alcohol) is inseparable from their anomic rejection of all things political. Daigle discusses this rejection convincingly as above all a rejection of the oppressive embrace of state care. Whilst it remains extremely difficult to engage Cubans on the issue of politics, a fact that the author acknowledges in her text, I couldn’t help but crave a more detailed examination of the political stance or rather, apoliticism of these young people. No doubt this fell outside the scope of Daigle’s project, but would instead form the basis of a book that remains to be written, one that I would like to see link an analysis of the different temporalities that I mentioned above with political and personal understandings of the future in Cuba.

My final, related thought brings together the personal reflections with which I started and the theoretical considerations I have just raised. I couldn’t help, whilst reading, but think of my own encounters with younger Cubans, in which I was often struck by a certain anomie and apoliticism. I wondered, at times, where this pervasive, low-level pessimism fits into Daigle’s narrative. Although the text does mention young people’s increasing cynicism in relation to romantic and sexual relationships since the Special Period, it focuses more on reclaiming a variety relationships and behaviours from their habitual negative connotations. This valid and necessary endeavour is complemented by a conscious emphasis on the subversive potential of jineterismo as an assertion of agency. Whilst I found the book’s overall argument convincing and remain sympathetic to its political aims in this sense, I couldn’t quite shake the idea that there is a darker underside. Daigle, through her informants, lucidly describes ‘another world where love and money are not mutually exclusive, and where morality and sexuality do not exist in separate spheres’. If this means that a ‘real’, affective attachment can exist in relationships that involve material or monetary exchange, it also demonstrates that there is no purely affective sphere free from pragmatic considerations relating not only to survival, but also to profit. Are we not dealing, in this ‘other’ world, with the omnipresent, inescapable market as the most effective form of social control (Deleuze’s ‘Postscript to the societies of control’), Levinson’s pervasive ‘neoliberal consensus’ (Market and Thought: Meditations on the Political and Biopolitical), or the post-ideological world evoked by authors such as Jon Beasley-Murray (Posthegemony) and Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri (Empire, amongst others)? If this is so, and we expand our frame of reference from Cuba to an ever-more interconnected, interdependent international context, to what extent can jineterismo still be seen as a practice of resistance or self-creation?

On this note, I’ll leave you with a Cuban musical number, or rather two, that relate to the issues I’ve just raised. The first is a classic timba by Los Van Van that laments that ‘there is no love anymore’ (se acabó el querer). The second tellingly reworks the first through the hugely successful, commercial genre of reggaetón:

Oye,
Es que esta noche estoy pa fiesta, tengo money arriba
la que quiera que me siga
y no me vengas con cuentos porque no me lo voy a creer
que aqui nadie quiere a nadie
Se acabó el querer

Hey,
Tonight I want to party, I have plenty of money
Whoever wants to can follow me
Don’t give me any excuses
Because I won’t believe them
Here noone loves anyone
There is no love anymore

Bibliography

Beasley-Murray, J. (2010). Posthegemony : political theory and Latin America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. October, 59 (Winter), 3–7.

Fernandes, S. (2006). Cuba represent!: Cuban arts, state power, and the making of new revolutionary cultures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Friel, B. (1981). Translations. London: Faber.

Gutiérrez, P. J. (1998). Trilogía Sucia de La Habana. Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama

Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2000). Empire. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press.

Levinson, B. (2004). Market and thought: meditations on the political and biopolitical. New York: Fordham University Press.

Portela, E. L. (2010). Cien botellas en una pared. Ed. Iraida H. López. Doral, Florida: Stockcero.

Rivera, R. Z., Marshall, W., & Pacini Hernández, D. (Eds.). (2009). Reggaeton. Durham: Duke University Press.

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