Gustavo PÉrez Firmat


In summer evenings, when I’m sitting on the porch of my home in Chapel Hill, looking at the fireflies flickering in the dark, two of the most famous verses in Cuban literature always pop into my head:

Dos patrias tengo yo: Cuba y la noche.
¿O son una las dos?

The Cuba inherent in cubanía is like Martí’s night -- a personal possession, an intimate passion, “algo que nos atrae y nos enamora,” to quote Fernando Ortiz one last time. I realize that when we think of patriotism we often visualize someone up on a podium making a speech -- just as I am doing now. But for me patriotism is what happens when nobody is looking. It is the speeches we give to an audience of one, the oye tú that we address to ourselves alone.

When I was a teenager growing up in Miami, I believed that there was only one way of being Cuban -- that of unrepentant batistianos like me and my family. Years later, I convinced myself that it was possible and desirable to transcend exile by construing Cubanness as an ethnicity rather than a nationality. I still believe that lo cubano can be an ethnicity, and I think this is being amply demonstrated by the younger generation of Cuban Americans, the self-described “Generation Ñ,” a lively group of twenty- and thirty-somethings who, as their magazine’s blurb phrases it, grew up with Santa Bárbara and Captain Kirk, with Álvarez Guedes and K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Although I marvel at the ease and elegance with which these young people shuttle back and forth between Planet Cuba and Team USA, I’m not sure that those of us who are older can do the same thing. At least I know I can’t. For me life on the hyphen remains less a synthesis than a see-saw. I don’t know how to keep my accent but lose the stress. Captain Kirk I’m familiar with, but who’s K.C. and the Sunshine Band?

Although I live for the day when Cuba will emerge from its long historical nightmare, I fear that it will have happened too late. I know that when our day finally does come, I will rejoice for myself and for my parents and for the Cuban people, but I also anticipate that my celebration will be tinged with sadness, perhaps even with bitterness, because there are countless Cubans, on both sides of the Florida Straits, and also within them, for whom that day will not change anything. I need to repeat here something I have said before: Miami is a Cuban city not because of the Cubans who live here but because of the Cubans who have died here. The living can always move away; it is the dead who are a city’s truly permanent residents, for once they stop living here, they never stop living here. That’s the reason why, even in the middle of the day, Cuba remains for me a nocturnal homeland, “Cuba y la noche.”As the years go by, and as unrelenting, unregenerate gusanos like myself begin to look more and more like bichos raros, even in Miami, and as the enigma of being Cuban feels more and more like the stigma of being Cuban, especially in certain academic circles, I continue to take solace and sanctuary in the Cuba of cubanía, a homeland one cannot leave or lose. There’s another line of poetry that I like to whisper to myself in the dark. It comes from Poema mío (1946), a book by Eugenio Florit. The poem is entitled “Ultimo verso” and it says simply:

Descansaré a la sombra de mi estrella.

Mi estrella: the single, solitary star on the flag of my own private Cuba.