For Those Who Fled, a Retort to Cuba
Josh Haner/The New York Times
Carmen Peláez created a play about her parents’ homeland. “I had somebody come to me after a show and say, ‘Don’t ruin Cuba for me!’ ”
By DAVID GONZALEZ
Published: March 10, 2008
Carmen Peláez is a liberal with a deep laugh and a great sense of the absurd. All of those qualities are tested when she encounters fellow New Yorkers who still admire Fidel Castro.
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Audio: Rum & CokeCarmen Peláez, a Cuban-American actress, discusses her new play, Rum & Coke,with The Times's David Gonzalez. Related Article
Ms. Peláez, a Cuban-American actress, was born in this country and raised in Miami. She came to New York in 1993 to study acting. In the mid-’90s, she traveled to Cuba to explore the world of her great-aunt, Amelia Peláez, a noted painter who died in 1968. All those experiences pulse through “Rum & Coke,” a one-woman show in which she channels relatives on both sides of the Florida Straits and weary Habaneros stuck on an island forgotten by the outside world.
The play was her retort to the fascination with Che T-shirts, solidarity tours to Cuba and the endless praise of the revolution’s twin pillars of health and education.
“When I started writing the play, I thought people just didn’t know what was happening in Cuba,” she said after the show closed its monthlong New York run last week. “But the longer I live here, the more I realized, they don’t care.”
She was reminded of that last month when Mr. Castro finally stepped down as president after nearly 50 years in power. The move prompted wistful reflections from old rabble-rousers and praise from some politicians. Representative José E. Serrano called Mr. Castro a “great leader” whose retirement ensured the future of the Cuban system and its achievements, which he said enjoyed “a broad base of support” on the island.
What really stumped Ms. Peláez was how the Bronx congressman’s only brickbats were against the “twisted policies” of the United States government.
“They would rather keep their little pop revolution instead of saying it is a dictatorship,” Ms. Peláez said. “I had somebody come to me after a show and say, ‘Don’t ruin Cuba for me!’ Well, why not? They’re holding on to a fantasy.”
This city has long attracted Cuban artists and intellectuals in exile. Many of those who now live here thrive on the city’s culture, its mix of people and even its weather (four seasons, instead of hot and hotter). Perhaps the greatest Cuban exile of all, José Martí, lived and worked in 19th-century New York as he rallied his countrymen in the fight for independence from Spain.
Exiles and refugees are still coming to New York, having decided that life in Castro’s Cuba — the only life they ever really knew — was not worth the sacrifice of personal freedoms. This month, some of them will observe the fifth anniversary of the Cuban government’s crackdown on 75 dissidents, independent journalists and librarians, who were sentenced to as many as 28 years. Most of them are still in prison.
Paul Berman, a writer in residence at New York University who has written critiques of the American left and Cuba, said the plight of these recent arrivals does not strike the same chord here it once did for those who fled the Soviet bloc.
“Back in the ’70s and ’80s, some mathematician would come out of the Soviet Union and there would be a meeting of intellectuals to greet him,” Mr. Berman said. “That kind of human rights zeal just seems to have disappeared.”
Cristina Martinez came of age in the Soviet Union, were she was sent to study electrical engineering in 1985 after graduating from high school in Cuba. Her extracurricular lessons were unavoidable, watching as perestroika and glasnost swept through society.
“The press was starting to bring to light everything they had hidden during 75 years of Communism,” she said. “It was a lesson, that this was the future we wanted to go to. This is the light. We had all toyed with the idea of changing the Cuban reality, to criticize it, to make it better.”
But as walls fell and borders opened, Cuba clung to its way. Disillusioned, Ms. Martinez fled to Spain, where she taught at a university for six years. Her politics were leftist enough that her Spanish friends joked she was “the reddest person they ever met.”
Maybe not in New York, where she has lived since 1996, working as a computer systems administrator at an Upper West Side school. Though she still considers herself a liberal who favors the underdog, she is puzzled by the image of Cuba as an international paladin.
“The image is one of the defender of the oppressed and defender of just causes,” she said. “People who understand the Cuban reality know it is not like that. It is not something they would want for themselves or their own country. Or, they are opportunists who use Cuba as a symbol knowing full well what is happening.”
Although Enrique Del Risco knows what has happened on the island where he was born 40 years ago, he still gets odd looks from college students when he tries to explain Cuba’s reality. He left Cuba in 1996 and settled in New York two years later, teaching Spanish at New York University.
“I grew up believing in the system,” he said. “Quite a believer. My parents, too.”
He, too, thought there would be change during the late 1980s. Instead, he found himself slowly suffocating, with his writings earning him reprimands.
“I was more scared of surrendering than being put in jail,” he said. “I was scared that I would stop being myself. I was someone who thinks independently and expresses that.”
Yet to try and tell that to some of his students, he said, was like talking about extraterrestrial life. He knows to expect a dual riposte — yes, but what about universal health care and education?
“At the root of that is a great belittling of Cubans,” he said. “It’s like we are some sort of little animals who only need a veterinarian and someone to teach us tricks and we’ll be fine.”
He is dismayed by the way Cuban officials deflect questions from university students who wonder why they cannot travel overseas or stay at Cuban hotels, which are essentially reserved for tourists. Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, told one such questioner that when he was a diplomat posted in New York during the 1960s and ’70s, shopkeepers would eject him the moment they learned he was Hispanic.
“There is a fear of the future that comes from control of information,” Mr. Del Risco said. “You can see that in what Alarcón said. You can only dare say what he said in a country that is disinformed.
Mr. Del Risco’s New York is welcoming.
“I feel more at home in New York than in Madrid,” he said. “From the first day you get here you feel like you are from here. There is not that distance or someone asking you what you are doing here.”
He loves the variety. The rush. The chance to do it all. Or do nothing at all.
“I was always in love with New York,” he said. “Even when I was an anti-imperialist, I was pro-New York.”