Cuba: Up Close and Personal

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callejon de hamel is a celebration of afro-cuban cultureCuba is one of those places I always yearned to visit. I am sure part of the allure is its rich African tradition, as well as the fabulous music I wanted to listen and dance to, up close and personal. My wish came true in February 2011, when I visited Cuba with a librarian research group from Baltimore.

By the time I had filled out the application, received approval and my visa, and departed from Miami, I was well on my way, in my essence. The plan was to visit museums, art and literary cultural institutions and a select list of libraries in various cities, and attend the 20th International Book Fair in Havana. Hotel Victoria in Vedado, Havana, and Hotel Jagua in Cienfuegos were my home base while in Cuba. The group also journeyed to Trinidad, Cojimar, Matanzas and Varadero. It was eight nights and nine days of magical discovery. It was also a time to explore the land and her people from the vantage point of Cuba’s strong literary and cultural traditions.

The people were warm and inviting; music was everywhere. Live music could be heard throughout the city of Old Havana, as well as on the street corners in the cities of Cojimar and Trinidad. Musicians were part of the landscape in every city we visited. I spent a couple of days walking around Old Havana and Vedado and became comfortable with the rhythm and flow of the streets. Brothers and sisters stopped me to say hello and to find out where I hailed from. I had a few candid conversations about the Cuban and U.S. economies, racism, and about folks creating opportunities to care for family. I told most of them that some of us were having the same conversations back home.

As I sat curbside on a block one afternoon in Old Havana, resting after a long day traipsing about the city, I heard a young girl’s voice in song. On a terrace, up above, a child of about five or six years of age was singing and dancing her heart out. She was delighted and I was as well.

Callejón de Hamel is the Afro-Cuban music, art, dance and spiritual nucleus of Havana. It’s a 21-year-old living shrine to the palpable African influence on Cuban culture. Callejón de Hamel is also a neighborhood where art and community coexist every  day, along with the people and the orishas (manifestations of Olodumare, God of the Yoruba religion). Chango, Oshun and other deities visit and show out during the afternoon rumba and dancing jam session every Sunday. Children play soccer and elders relax on the bench, holding court among the frenetic activities of the regular Sunday gathering. Some of the residents of Hamel Alley are as colorful and spectacular as the music and pulsating energy of the vibrant, elaborately created sculptures, paintings and metal works of Hamel’s creator and founding artist Salvador González Escalona.

As far as the eye could see in Hamel Alley, there are murals, statues and poetry, all created with deference to the mighty orishas. Bright yellow, red, blue and white dotted the one street in testament to life and spirit. It was easy to get lost on that single block for an entire day. The tour guide had to drag us away from the wonderful celebration to get to the 20th International Book Fair.

If the United States could create just one book fair with the energy and magnitude of Cuba’s 20th International Book Fair, the publishing industry would be reignited and revolutionized. The fair was held over 28 days in 16 cities around the island, with more than two million people in attendance and more than one and half million books sold. Tens of thousands were in attendance at the Havana location the day I went. I was shoulder to shoulder with many as I made my way through the crowds. A large number of families visited the book fair together. The gathering reminded me of a huge family reunion and a mega block party with books, authors and lots of fun. The longest lines were not at the food court but outside, as people waited to gain entry to the fair and purchase books. It was utterly exhilarating to see people walking from every corner of the island to get into the book fair.

Cuba boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world. I was impressed by the way it solved its literacy problem years ago, teaching young people and teens to teach elders; how they honored books and learning and the tradition of reading; the sacredness of their institutions; and how they passed knowledge from generation to generation, old and young learning from each other, student and pupil, pupil and teacher. What a model for the world. On local television, I watched programs on everything you would want to know about the book fair, as well as the ins and outs of the English and Spanish languages.

I felt as if I belonged there. Even now, I can feel the energy from my visit springing from the depths of my being, awakened by the African roots of my cultural heritage and Cuba’s, informed by my North American consciousness and the Black woman that I am. Visiting Cuba was like going to a place I had never seen yet knew intimately; like being with a lover or a good book. I couldn’t get enough of the experience.  It was the publishing professional in me attending a magnificent book fair, learning about important literary works and authors, and the girl from the projects in Queens, New York, connecting with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of a culture so like my own that I could not have been more at home. The music, the people, the everyday energy were all a part of me that I rediscovered and relished.

The music was the language of the street — a universal language that needed no translator, just a swing and a sway and a tapping of my feet.  It was the books with sound. The beat was in my head and in my body — a smooth flow, a gentle touch, a wild fling: Afro-Cuban jazz, mambo and salsa, a bit of this and that rolled into one glorious sound.  The rhythm was the rhythm of energy and history and culture, of victory and defeat, wrapped in a beat much like the beat of my heart. My Cuban experience was all of this and more. It reminded me of Cuba’s connection to Africa and Nelson Mandela, and of the numerous doctors Cuba sends to other countries to provide quality medical care.

My spirit was refreshed and renewed by my trip to this far away country that was right around the corner. My soul was lifted to newer heights of understanding myself. The energy I drew in was like a charge for the battery of my inner being. I felt a special peace there in that magical weeklong moment, amid the books that I love and the music that I dance to and the people who welcomed me like a daughter returning. I regretted leaving. I want to go back.  And I will. Soon!       

    Linda A. Duggins is the director of multicultural publicity at Hachette Book Group, New York City, co-founder of The Harlem Book Fair and a board member of the Antigua & Barbuda International Literary Festival and the Queensbridge Scholarship Fund.