Querido Yayo, my grandfather, you started attending Communist Party rallies when you arrived in Sydney, no? Mama remembers watching you on May Day on the sidelines of the march—a little girl seeing her father hold up a flag. From what I know of your politics, you weren’t precisely a communist. I think you joined because finally you could. Australia let you do that. Here, from Franco’s Spain, here were the ideas speaking to you. I remember seeing a photo of you marching. In my mind there is a cigar in your mouth, but then that’s how I always remember you.
It was the 1960s, the early 1970s. You worked in a factory as a forklift driver for Pepsi, six days a week. The days spent propping up the products of an American company, the nights and the weekends were for family and politics. And there you went, building up your library with books about the Spanish Civil War (a failure) and the revolution in Cuba (a success). Mama remembers you speaking of Cuba in key words: Fidel, Che, la Revolución; for your big eyes bright with wonder, for the books ordered, the discussions around dominos, and your cigars.
Yayo, when you died I felt such loss. And, forgive me, it was a selfish, guilty loss. Beneath your pain, and ours, us watching through the nights helpless to change anything, I thought of how I had failed. A seeker of stories, I did not get yours. You escaped me, me with this useless tongue of flattened vowels, without the Spanish to collect the stories I needed from you. I had gone to España and Latina America, Yayo, to chase our language down, but our time for speaking Spanish deep and true barely overlapped. Me with my proud new tongue, you with a respirator and those broken lungs.
Mama always wanted to go to Cuba. You never went to Cuba, but the country was one of our talismans for you, a place through which we thought of you and more—of what you had believed in. Fidel, Che, la Revolución. Freedom for all. In your library, still preserved, I find books of red feminism dating back to the 1960s. The shelves overflow with tomes about what the Cuban fighters did for the people.
Mama didn’t travel overseas for more than 20 years, busy with us, but always she spoke of one day, maybe, going to Cuba. And now mama is 60 and I am 32, and we have decided to go to Cuba. We arrive, predictably, in Habana Vieja, Old Havana. We stay in a truly old place, an aside to tourism. We sleep fitfully that night. The aircon is broken and by morning mama has broken out in angry red blisters, and her legs and feet are ballooning from the heat.
‘I think the sheets are polyester,’ she whispers, so our hosts don’t hear. They are ordinary Cubans, their home a menagerie of flags from other places. They lay out a lovely breakfast of cheese and eggs and toast. Our host tells us simply, without malice, that it takes hours of waiting in lines to get these products.
We go to the Museum of the Revolution and it’s all laid out as it is in your books, Yayo: the bourgeois fascists are overthrown by the guerrillas, and the Americans try to subvert the will of the people again and again but they cannot, there’s the Bay of Pigs and so on. There’s free healthcare and schooling for all. Exactly as you’d hoped.
As we leave the museum, an old woman asks us for money. ‘Please. This country is hell.’ We nod and smile gently, thinking her mentally ill. We take shelter from the heat in yet another museum. There’s a painting of Che as a deity with his crown of thorns, another with his face downcast.
We pass shops on our way home. Reebok and Adidas have finally made it here, and they shout out to me in a way they never do at home. The displays show athletes with determination in their faces, running towards the pursuit of something purchasable. Cubans tell me sex is everywhere, in conversations, in the undercurrent of bodies reacting to one another, but it’s these ads that feel lewd, almost graphic. Or perhaps I’m projecting.
Habana Vieja rises out from the water, a sprawl of alleys and pokey shops and margaritas; and houses, sunburned, flattened. Here it is easy for tourists to think of Cubans as waiters learning English.
Even the music seems to be provided for tourist pleasure. A main meal costs CUC$19. Expensive, even for home. Later, we’ll discover that it equates to a monthly Cuban salary. Now, we choose to eat here because we’re overwhelmed. And we can. Because we are middle-class Australians. Therefore, we are filthy rich.
‘I can’t believe how poor it is,’ Mama says.
‘What did you expect, Mum?’
‘I don’t know.’
Maybe this story doesn’t reflect well on us, Yayo. It’s not that we didn’t know about the poverty really, but we thought of the embargoes—for a long time, we both figured others were entirely to blame for the worst in Cuba. But a Cuban journalist friend had spoken to me of wanting to get out, and did. She said some things that shocked me then.
And now both Mama and I are distressed by just how many young people are telling us the same thing about the Cuban government. White, black, poor, less poor, they all say the same. We don’t want to hear it.
‘It’s the inferno that we cannot escape.’ ‘This island is a jail.’ ‘They’re thieves.’
‘It’s Alcatraz,’ a 40-year old man tells me as he twirls me, a reggaeton beat heaving at a party. People my age say they are suffocated. They are not allowed to leave. They are not allowed to build the lives they want for themselves, they tell me. It’s too difficult to start a business. It’s risky to say what they really think. They can’t earn enough to live on, so they stay with four generations of extended relatives in a kind of delayed adolescence that lasts for decades.
Perhaps anyone who believes Cuban dissidents would think us naive, Yayo. But we arrived with the old stories of a man who had never visited. We drank up your Cuba memories, forged in dreams.
The heat is oppressive. Neither of us can cope. ‘I feel sick. Let’s get a cab,’ Mama says. Later that night, she has an announcement. ‘I’m a bit disappointed. I don’t want to go to any more political museums.’
‘Okay. Good,’ I say.
‘It’s just not what I expected.’
‘No more political tourism.’
And it’s fine with me. Because salsa is consuming me. I mourn every day that passes on our holiday. It’s one less day to dance. I decide there are not enough places to dance salsa in Cuba. Not for the first time I feel a little let down that a country dares to consist of things other than the cultural objects it has been mythologised for. It feels diluted somehow.
There’s a slight hitch in that I don’t know how to dance salsa. There are women I’d like to dance like—or with—but I haven’t seen any women dancing with women. And women do not seem to ask men to dance. I make very clear eye contact with men who are dancing well. Eventually the proper formalities are carried out and a Cuban guy will offer his hand.
A few years ago another Latino friend tried to lock in with me on the dance floor. I did what I later thought of as an Australian thing: self-mocking, hamming up my arse wiggles as I laughed. ‘But aren’t you a Spanish woman?’ he asked in Spanish, and I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. My hips didn’t get low and deep enough with him. I didn’t have swagger, but that usually didn’t matter in Australia. My surname is enough of an exotic marker to pass without doing any work. Without prompting, Australian men will sometimes pronounce Lopez with a stress on the O, like they’re trying to say Olé at an orgy. It’s a code word for something sexy and foreign. It made up for my body. ‘You don’t look very Spanish,’ men who had never been to Spain and whose one cultural reference was Penelope Cruz told me, casting an eye over my long, lanky limbs, my breasts that failed to spill over. I believed them, until I went to Spain as an adult. I marvelled, multiple times, at the number of normal-looking women there. Not everyone had a six-inch waist and a D cup.
But the last name was enough. I traded on symbols, Yayo, and I’m doing it again—telling Cuban men my family is Spanish.
‘Ah, you have the rhythm, it’s in your blood.’ Again, a fallacy. My childhood was spent resisting dancing. I was kicked out of ballet class at age three for lack of potential. My family used to laugh when I put on dance performances for them at home. As a teenager, I quietly mocked the jazz-hands types attempting hip-hop with magnified moves and constipation faces. But here in Cuba I feel like I need to live up to something. After I speak Spanish for long enough, there’s a flicker of confusion—you are Spanish, but? They hear a strange grammatical reworking of the language, a twang on a word that should be wrapped in a guttural husk.
Mama is not helping. I notice she’s identifying herself as Australian, not Spanish, to the Cubans we meet. This annoys me. Worse, she’s speaking the polluted Spanglish we speak at home—a mix of English and Spanish that swings from bogan to bolero.
‘Mum, why are you speaking English?’
‘I don’t know. It’s easier.’
‘But they’re going to think we’re American. This is your language. Why are you saying you’re Australian?’
‘Because I am.’
‘You were born in Spain. Can you say we’re Spanish and Australian?’
‘I just feel more Australian here.’
It’s too hot for me to investigate why I’m having a go at her. By this stage Mama and I have reached an arrangement, in the way that even travellers fall into their daily routines. This one suits the heat we seek and avoid. Tourist activities in the morning. A four-hour siesta in the afternoon. Dinner and music. She returns home, I stay out dancing till the sun rises. Repeat. After a few cycles of this, I’m foggy and elated. The mornings are spent tracing over the steps of the night before. I’ve developed a large bulge in the top of my left foot, where muscle and bone have convulsed into a ball of stress from overuse.
This morning’s agreement is to do a tour. The Cuban tour guide is smart—his English is unusually good and he tells us he teaches himself languages in his spare time.
We’re visiting former plantation sites, where the Spanish forcibly transported Africans and kept them as slaves. The guide tells us the Spanish thought economically about this. Rather than feed the working men, women and children food, he tells us, the slave owners often pumped the workers with the sugarcane juice they were squeezing out of the plants. If you didn’t die from hard labour, diabetes would kill you.
The rumbas, the dance steps that were some of the precursors to salsa, are said to have been forged in these places. One of rumba’s origin stories goes that after a long day of hard labour, men and women had their ankles chained at night. Dancing to a drum beat, they shifted their feet as much as the metal between their ankles would allow.1
The tour guide takes us through each part of the plantation, and spares no details. And it is clear. I walk on bloody land, blood spilled by Spanish hands. A land traced with the steps of slaves. And here I am, of Spanish blood, taking steps, revelling. After the tour, the guide asks me if I want to go out dancing that night with him. What a question! Of course.
We go to a club, and I make straight for the dance floor. I turn around, grin at him, and hold out my hands enthusiastically.
‘You’ve ended up with the only man in Cuba who can’t dance,’ he tells me.
Dammit. I cast a stringy smile and immediately look around, searching out other options. There are men here who move as though they’ve been injected with this music, shot straight from the speaker to the source of what makes them. I want to bottle it, wrap it around me. I wish it was contagious. Meanwhile Clumpy-clump shuffles in front of me, off beat. This, truly, is the dancer I deserve.
After a while I can’t bear it, the silos of our clumping and their flow, like a before and after picture of the salsa diet. I am starting to loathe him for being exactly like me—he is unable to be Cuban the way he’s supposed to be. Him with his nerdy little jokes, his smiley awkwardness, his passion for English grammar. If I could reduce his three-dimensional humanness to a cardboard cut-out of a Cuban—that also happened to be able to move well—I would prefer to dance with that.
Sientate. We sit. I have won this language war so far. There is a certain selfishness in refusing to speak English in poorer places, with people who wish to practise it. I don’t care.
‘So, what do you think about Cuba?’ he asks, smiling.
I sigh dramatically. I’m not sure I should have this conversation in public. ‘I didn’t expect this.’
‘Expect so many young people to hate the government.’
He breathes heavily, tensing up his body, an automatic armouring. ‘What do you mean?’ he asks me in English.
‘Everyone tells me its Alcatraz,’ I respond in Spanish. ‘That they feel trapped.’
‘Listen to me,’ he says. Again, in English.
‘No, in English. Listen.’
And it’s in English because he is one of the few in the club who can speak it.
‘You think they know what they’re dreaming of?’ he says. ‘Walking around with their American-flag T-shirts. Ha. They want to be American—they think they’re American because they start walking like in a hip-hop video. That’s what they think America is. They think the American government is going to save them. Like Donald Trump is going to walk in and make their lives better when the capitalist revolution comes. People are dying outside the front of hospitals in America. Is that what a rich country does? Leaves people to die in the streets? They think hip-hop is going to save them. I hear them sing the lyrics to English songs. They sing them wrong.’
And I imagine you, Yayo, as a young Spanish man with your Cuban cigars and your literature shouting freedom, headed to Australia, your big eyes starry with possibility.
• • •
As soon as I’m out of Cuba, I watch Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom for the first time since I was a kid. I download the movie as though on autopilot almost as soon as I land. I adored it when I was a child for its pastiche, but in a serious, earnest way. I wasn’t in on the joke. I was fascinated that flamenco was appearing in an Australian film. It seemed hardly believable that these things my family talked about were relevant to Australia too.
I realise now the acting is mostly terrible. I don’t even know if irony will cover their sins. Fran is a Spanish migrant kid who cannot dance. She is doomed to the horror of dancing with a girl because her skills do not merit a man. Only once she discovers herself in her father’s and grandmother’s taps and handclaps is she truly worthy to dance with an open-level amateur professional. Olé.
Most of the characters are too self-involved to notice her development, but the subtext is that it was hidden in her blood until she found it. The costume design on the film screams this subtext at us: Fran starts in pyjama-type T-shirts and huge glasses and graduates to deep shades of red and skirts fitted at the waist. Tara Morice, the actress who played Fran, isn’t Spanish as far as I can tell, but it doesn’t matter either way. She speaks Spanish with a thick Australian accent that is surprisingly accurate for the Spanish kids who grew up in Australia. This is what the second-gen immigrant child is doomed to—mucking up grammar, flattening out the sounds of our ancestors. In the 1980s, good Australians did not speak to their infant children in their mother tongue. And my parents were good Australians. A doctor told my mother that bilingualism would be bad for my development.
I’m reminded of a T-shirt I bought for a friend a few years ago. It had a picture of Che’s face on it, that black stencil one of him looking up in search of something. The one that people wear on T-shirts and hats, a shorthand for something—anti-capitalism? Freedom? Fucking with authority? I had a Che T-shirt in my late teens, a cheap polyester mix that I wore often. I would have struggled to articulate in a sentence what I wanted people to know about me when I wore it. But I wore it because I wanted them to know. I wonder if I have worn my surname in Australia the way I used to wear that T-shirt. What a curious thing, to be conscious of your surname, to feel it worn like ill-fitted clothing. Anyway, that T-shirt I bought for a friend once. It was Che, except underneath the black outline of his face there’s printed text: Cliché.
I find myself wondering why I’m so intent on watching Strictly Ballroom, until I realise it’s because there’s something comfortingly familiar in watching someone aspiring to an authenticity they never quite reach. It shames and titillates me that I am exactly this: pastiche, a mockumentary of identity. And in the same breath I can recognise that as complete bullshit. To exist is to be authentic. Why would I doubt that in myself, Yayo? I think it’s because in this country we put ourselves in identity boxes that can never quite contain us. The Anglos were guilty of doing it to us. Now we do it to ourselves.
People questioned the authenticity of your Australianness, Yayo. They questioned it of Mama. But no-one ever questioned it of me. This is the deal we made. This is the trade-off. I assimilated perfectly. Just fair enough to pass for somewhat Anglo-Saxon. People would tell me I looked like ‘a halfie. Like you got something half not from here.’ I was other but I also belonged, hedging my bets both ways. Growing up, it was a very comfortable space to exist. In the stories our family told about coming to Australia, the Anglos were the bigots. It was on them. Now in public debate we no longer talk about the racism of the Aussies or the Skips, something I never was, entirely.
Now Australia talks about whiteness. And Yayo, I am white. We never used to question the authenticity of whiteness. We didn’t talk about ourselves as white. I am faced with the fact that I am more oppressor than oppressed. I am the granddaughter of a working-class migrant labourer who left a dictatorship, yes. But I have grown up in relative wealth, the citizen of two nations with much to answer for. The danger of heaping the blame of hegemony entirely on another group is that if you honestly follow your own intellectual reasoning, you’ll eventually have to reckon with yourself.
In museums spotted across Cuba, there are occasional references to the indigenous cultures of the country. There’s not much information available. It was generally accepted that the Spanish wiped them out completely as enslaved Africans were brought over. A myth, it turns out, as younger generations of Taíno Cubans now claim their culture anew. It is a sordid achievement of our people, Yayo, to aim to end a civilisation, and have the establishment confirm this to be the case. What did Che say about that? I’ll have to check your books. Because at least I can read them now.
Yayo, just before you died, just as I began speaking our language, was the first time I understood something important. I realised I could never truly know the pain-love of people my age, from the many tribes of the lands we now call Australia. For this pain-love I feel for Spanish, a language that is the third-most spoken in the world, documented extensively, all I could do was take this knot gathered in the pit of my stomach and cast it out into an unknown universe, the galaxies of what would be felt for the words that were stolen, for the words saved.
On your old mobile phone, the one Yaya still uses, the voicemail greeting is still your voice, eight years after you left us. No-one in the family talks about it, but no-one is going to record a new one for her either.
There’s the voicemail beep. It’s loud in the background, maybe at an Australian shopping centre. After 50 years here it doesn’t occur to you to leave a greeting in English. There go those migrants, eh, failing to assimilate.
‘Hola, como estais? Yo estoy bien por aqui, paseando, hace un tiempo estupendo!’ How you all going? I’m good, taking a walk. The weather is fantastic!
And then Mama, speaking Spanish in the background: ‘Tell them to leave a message!’
‘Esto es mi mensaje.’ This is my message, you say. ‘Y ya esta.’ That’s it.
That’s it. I wish I could take a walk with you, Yayo. Just to ask you a few questions about Australia. I always see it so much better from afar. I wish we could speak of it, together, in our own language. •
Belinda Lopez is a writer and audio documentary maker. Her work has been nominated for several human rights and documentary awards in Australia and internationally.