May 19, 2015

One Hundred and Twenty Years of José Martí

One hundred and twenty years ago today, José Martí died in battle for Cuban Independence from the Spanish Empire.
Today, has an author page for Martí, and I was able to find good deals on used versions of books by and about him. I was lucky that they were generally in great condition, though most couldn’t really pass for new.
Some of the books that I’d traditionally counted on the SF Public Library for have recently disappeared, so I picked up a few of these for myself, such as some of the titles by Philip S. Foner; “On Art and Literature, Critical Writings by José Martí” and “Political Parties and Elections in the United States,” and by Lillian Guerra; “The Myth of José Martí.” I also got the one by Jorge Mañach; “Martí, Apostle of Freedom,” which has a “withdrawn” stamp in all caps on the very first page and a “University of Lancaster Library” sticker on the inside cover, and several others. Most were under $10 each, and probably as old or older than most who will read this. A more recently published title by Alfred J. Lopez “José Martí, A Revolutionary Life” explores every excruciating detail of Martí’s life, and this could be a good place to start.
 Over the years Cubans have elevated the memory of Martí to near God-like status (myself included) and there are plenty of reasons… but it’s not just us Cubans…
A few years ago I met a little boy from Costa Rica named Martí. That was his first name. When I asked his parents about the name (they didn’t know who I was) the mother explained that he was named after the “great Cuban Poet.”
“Marti is the liberator of always and forever” wrote Eduardo Abril Amores in the Cuban newspaper El Diario de Cuba of May 19, 1942. “The warrior of every epoch and the eternal thought of Cuba. Nobody has said, since Martí’s death, anything that he had not said. He was the pinnacle of Cuban liberty, of the Cuban ideal, and of Cuba’s political genius. Martí was Cuba’s Infinite. Martí reached a point beyond which there is nothing.”
Opening the door on 2015 finds Martí’s humanism a decaying element of modern culture, and maybe his writings can help us find it, though clearly not everyone will welcome it.
Martí may not solve the puzzle of our diminishing humanity being replaced by the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, but many will find it rewarding to learn more about the poet, the teacher, and the revolutionist and the man who walks on clouds.

May 10, 2015

Looking Forward to Peace With Cuba

A recent article by Matt Novak (13 Horrifying Ideas America Had for Invading Cuba)  touches on the sad recent history between the two countries that I love. As we finally move towards peace, it’s important to recognize what we leave behind.
Novak’s article doesn’t provide a comprehensive overview of U.S. aggression towards Cuba, but many  may still find it distressing… and rightly so.
I remember how disturbing all this seemed when I was first learning about it… some of it was so utterly mean and ridiculous that it seemed farfetched… but as declassified documents rolled out, the truth of the war on Castro could no longer be kept under wraps, or simply blamed on the few nut-cases steering the various activities.
When I was a kid, most of the anti-Castro activities that took place at the time were never discussed at home. We just assumed that everything that “went wrong” in Cuba was the fault of Castro and his brand of communism.  Our actions, the embargo, the anti-Castro efforts, the terrorism and vandalism and harassment and everything else we did to trip-up the regime was... well, beyond criticism.
Today, as we move towards peace, it’s obvious that the leaders of the anti-movement will never be held accountable for the suffering they’ve caused or the way they’ve made us look to the world.
Thinking about the 50-plus year war on Castro… I wonder how much money it cost us... How many resources did we squander? How many human lives were lost? How many families were kept apart for most of their lifetimes? And how many communists did the war on Castro convert to Democracy?  
Still, one of my favorite Gandhi quotes is about forgiveness; “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” There’s a related quote from Nelson Mandela; “Courageous people do not fear forgiving. For the sake of peace.”
As our streets fill with racial violence, perhaps due to a history barely discussed in public or in schools, making peace with… somebody, anybody, is a good idea.
In order to be strong and courageous for the two countries that I love, I will try to forgive the anti-Castro movement (they were few but powerful) and forgive the many Cubans who disagreed with them in silence and fear (I was one of them) for year after year... and forgive the misguided souls who trained, funded and pardoned these terrorists into our general population... and forgive the millions who simply chose the comfort of not knowing. (We should still turn Posada Carrilles over to Venezuela to face the legal system we’ve helped him avoid. There’s no better way to show our opposition to terrorism than making those who practice it accountable.)
The next step is to return Guantanamo Bay, and to start replacing these old-world-thinkers with more humanist political candidates.
The age of the ORC is over and the age of humanity begins! (I’ve always wanted to say that.) 
I can’t wait for a Cuban-American politician that all American Latinos can embrace, someone who stands for a peaceful future and for telling the truth on Cuba and our sordid history of attempted conquest… one who will truly embrace the concept of truth and justice… most likely he or she will be a Democrat.
The immediate challenge will be in restricting those who’ve acted without impunity for decades, and making sure they don’t poison the well. They’ve done it before.
A more recent article by Jonas Gamso claims a rosier future for Cuba given the changes of healthcare and education. We should be support these positive changes in Cuban society, not just reclaim past conquests.

December 29, 2014

Martí describes an Act of Racial Violence

It still feels distressing to read Marti’s article from 1882; “A Town Sets a Black Manon Fire,” published in Mexico’s “El Partido Liberal.” Reading it today could reveal how much or little has changed, or not, in spite of 125 years of cultural progress and social evolution.
The victim in Martí’s article, identified as Coy, cried for his life; “I offered Mrs. Jewell no offense! You’re going to kill me, but I offered her no offense!” It seems that only Martí was listening.
The men who poured petroleum over his body, and the woman who lit the match, were in no danger of being charged with a crime by the legal system.
Why does José Martí seem so relevant again? Is it the appearance in the news of names like Michael Brown, Eric Greene and Tamir Rice? Or is it the persistent lack of change these names represent?
A different article by Martí depicts an act of mob violence in New Orleans in 1891.  
After chief of police John David Hennessy was shot in front of his home, 11 Italians were arrested and charged with murder, but some were acquitted and others released due to mistrial.
The 11 Italians on the receiving end of the mob violence were broken out of jail and murdered.  The lawyers who instigated and lead the event were carried on the crowd’s shoulders like sports heroes.
A grand jury refused to issue any indictments (surprised?) claiming that there were “too many participants” to know exactly where the guilt should lie.
“The grey-eyed politicians hated the dark-eyed politicians,” wrote Martí, abstracting the nature of racism and, perhaps showing how violence itself merely needs an excuse… a way to ignite… and sometimes any reason or excuse will do.
The lynching brought the word “Mafia” into popular culture, infusing the anti-Italian sentiments that already existed. It also led to a stir with the Italian government, who recalled staff from the embassy in Washington. The after-effects of the lynching are not covered in Martí’s article.
I’ve still not seen the TV movie on the subject (“Vendetta” with Christopher Walken) though I plan to.
“Everything that divides men from each other, everything that separates or limits them, is a sin against humanity,” wrote Martí in 1893. “Racist,” he wrote in My Race, “is a confusing word, and it must be clarified.”

December 03, 2014

Cuba: My Revolution

Recently I reread this wonderful graphic novel “Cuba: My Revolution” by Inverna Lockpez and Dean Haspiel, published by Vertigo in 2010, and was almost brought to tears by the experience.
The story details the horrors of post-revolutionary Cuba from the author’s point of view, with little room for the pre-revolution horrors of the time. Our heroine is a young idealistic woman (about 15 years older than I was at the time) who sides with The Revolution and is shocked to see her lovely island declared socialist after the Invasion at Bay of Pigs. I’ve no doubt that lots of Cubans can relate to this.

While this isn’t the best place to get the details of what actually happened in Cuba and why… you can clearly see the toll that the Cuban Revolution and its opposition placed on Cuban families, and the difficulty Cubans have had with “Castro” as a of pro or con issue… There’s little blame on anything you do to oppose “him,” and nothing bad can happen that you can’t blame on “him.”
“This narrative has been the backdrop of my life,” said Inverna in an interview with Graphic Novel Reporter, “and has resonated throughout my art career.” I can relate to this as well, though this “backdrop” has resonated throughout my life… I’m a gusano before I’m anything else.
Wisely, the book doesn’t embrace the terroristic politics of Posada Carriles and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, or how these impact current American culture, but the personal cost to families and friends and lovers is clearly visible and well articulated.  
I couldn’t help thinking of my mom (now in her late 70s) and her sister as I read it.  They came from a close family, most of which stayed behind, and they’ve spent their whole lives missing the hell out of each other and settling for the few phone calls and fewer visits.
The separation of our families was easier on my father’s side, which is where the rabid anti-Castro fanaticism remains to this day. Everything they went through is Castro’s fault. If only they would have killed him early on, none of this would have happened…
Or, what would have happened? Would Che be as influential if he’d been allowed to get old and foolish? I see a lot of Che t-shirts, but few, if any, Castro t-shirts… was the CIA’s (and Posada’s) failure to murder Castro a win for American culture?
Considering these thoughts during a rainy lunch break, I wonder how hating Castro can be more important than loving your own brothers and sisters, but I realize this is not something that I will probably be able to answer in my lifetime.
It may just be that in spite of our similarities (I came to the U.S. in the late sixties) we would disagree on whether to end the embargo… but I still love this book, if only for the awareness that it brings, and for the fact that it makes it easy to read between the lines.
The book ends with Sonya’s future ahead of her, and her ability to express the truth now a real possibility. It would have been nice if an afterword had provided a clue about the fate of the two lovers.

October 29, 2013

GUS and The Cubby Embargo – A Parable

A short time ago, in a place not far from here, two neighbors lived in a quiet cul de sac called The New World.
GUS had a big house with a large yard and beautiful white-picket fence.
Cubby lived right next door in a tiny (by comparison) house with the most beautiful small gardens you ever saw.
GUS was big, good looking guy, muscle bound and sporty.  He wore athletic shoes, a football helmet and a white t-shirt with a large number “1” in red and black. 
Cubby was a small guy with a big smile and a beard.   He wore a white Guayabera with four big pockets on the front side in case he ever needed to carry fruit for his family.
GUS didn’t like Cubby, but he loved the little house.  “A perfect getaway spot,” he wrote in his diary, “a different world a mere step away!”  GUS tried, several times, to buy Cubby’s house, but Cubby wouldn’t sell.  “My parents built this house,” he explained.
GUS didn’t care who built it, it was his destino manifesto that the house one day be his.
Cubby didn’t trust GUS, but there was nothing he could do; you don’t always get the neighbors you deserve.
One day GUS decided to store some military materials in Cubby’s yard, and there was no way to change his mind. The small corner of Cubby’s property known as Guantanamo became GUS’ new impromptu storage space.
Cubby complained. “You have more than enough space in your own house for this junk,” he said.
But GUS just changed the subject, thinking that since the place was to be his eventually (remember his destino manifesto) he might as well start bringing his junk right now, and some of this military stuff was just too dangerous to keep near his own children.
 “Because we’re neighbors,” said GUS with a king’s confidence, “what happens in your house has very direct consequences on my property.  I’ve noticed that you haven’t kept up with all the latest gadgets of the digital revolution, and that’s a crime.  Your family is entitled to digital cable, a T1 internet connection for each computer in the house… and at least one high definition screen in each room.”
“What I do in my house is my own business…” said Cubby. “You have no right to make demands.”
But GUS was convinced that anything within his immediate reach was his business, since he was the biggest guy and owned the largest property and his ideas were so obviously clear and logical.
GUS insisted, but Cubby resisted.
One day GUS began to take a more aggressive role in Cubby’s household.  GUS announced to everyone on the block that from now on, until Cubby learned to change his ancient ideas, nobody in the block would be allowed to visit Cubby on weekends.
Most of the other neighbors didn’t like GUS’ aggressive and judgmental attitude.  After all, most of them didn’t have digital cable or T1 internet connections themselves.  Some even pointed out that many rooms in GUS’ house had no digital access at all. But what could they do?  GUS was bigger and stronger than all of them… and not a good listener.
Reluctantly, the neighbors stayed away from Cubby’s place on weekends.
Years went by. And nothing changed.
GUS kept insisting and Cubby kept resisting.
Eventually GUS decided to turn up the heat.  He told everyone that as of today, and until he could verify that everyone in Cubby’s house had access to a T1 line and a subscription to Netflix, no food delivery of any kind would be allowed to his neighbor’s home.  He alerted the local markets and restaurants that if they sold to Cubby, they would lose his business.  And he added expensive look-out-posts at strategic places around Cubby’s property.
After so much effort and expense, GUS expanded the list of banned items, adding random articles such as medicine, school books, DVDs from HBO and Vertigo comics.
Some of the neighbors were clearly upset to hear this selfish proclamation by the big guy on the block, and they couldn’t understand the logic of hurting children in order to control their adults.  They told Cubby to hang in there… that GUS would come to his senses sooner or later, perhaps someone in his own family would point out the error of his ways. 
Of course, that didn’t happen.  What actually happened was that GUS kept insisting and Cubby kept resisting.
Most of GUS’ family was too involved in their individual pursuits to have a clear understanding of what he was doing.  The ones that spoke to GUS about his behavior towards the small neighbor were rudely called “communists,” and “anti-GUS-ites,” and some were even threatened with physical violence. Given GUS’ proclivity for violence, they backed off.
Two decades went by.
In time GUS discovered that most of the neighbors, and many in his own house, were secretly helping Cubby by sneaking in food, medicine and the whole line of Vertigo comics.  There was, in fact, a whole industry based on travel and communications designed to work behind his back.
GUS was outraged and decided to raise the stakes. He established laws (by unanimous Head of the House/With Me or Against Me vote) stating that anyone in the neighborhood who helped Cubby was, by definition an enemy of GUS, and would be dealt with harshly. 
The neighbors were outraged, but fearful that this extraterritoriality was an excuse to bring out the many new state-of-the-art weapons GUS had been collecting over the years and which he’d shown a willingness to use.  Some of them thought it best to protect their own families by complying with GUS.  Others decided that this illegal law had crossed a line, that it would be worse for everyone, in the long run, to follow such a cruel agenda.
Two more decades went by.   
Cubby’s growing family was annoyed by the continuing embargo.  Some moved away, creating rifts in the family.  Others stayed but argued that it would be easier to do whatever GUS wanted.  And yet others claimed that standing up against bullies was everyone’s responsibility. 
For 22 straight years, official delegations from the neighborhood tried to speak with GUS, but he would not listen. 
Churches declared that GUS’ tactics were cruel and unusual, but he would not listen. 
Business professionals argued that the embargo was bad for business.
Children in the GUS household spoke about how much fun it would be to play with Cubby’s children. And still GUS would not listen.
“It’s the law of the land,” he said, obviously not caring about anyone else’s opinion.
The neighborhood was quiet and somber for another decade, but things were happening beneath the surface.  Awareness was spread, ideas were traded and plans were made.  It would take a great war, or a major sacrifice, to knock sense into GUS, if that was even possible.
The one thing nobody expected, least of all GUS, was the initiative undertaken by his proud son, Allamer.  One morning, before the sun had opened its eyes, Allamer snuck into GUS’ bedroom and chained him to a post on the floor. And that’s all it took.
Later that morning Allamer lifted the embargo. In a great speech he claimed that his family was not one to starve other families or play sullied cold-war tricks in order to obtain property… that it was now his responsibility to find a way to re-channel GUS’ outdated aggressions and think about the future.
Within minutes everyone had seen the speech on CNN or heard about it via email and there was a giant block party that lasted for days.  Everyone came to Cubby’s house.  It had been years since many of them had been there and they were surprised by how much it had changed. Some had not heard of the medical breakthroughs and the evolved ideas for faming co-ops and local clinics.
Cubby’s kitchen couldn’t put out chicharrones and tostones fast enough… and the music could be heard all the way to Argentina.
A good time and a new day were had by all, and they lived happily ever after.

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