My generation grew up listening to the litany. It wasn’t the only one. It was barely a new one. But I can attest to that: along with a motto I never understood “Pioneers for Communism, we shall be like Ché!”, my legs and my conscious grew up hearing that the country my grandparents had, without a Revolution, was far worse.
The country from the past they assembled in my childish brain never had color. Or better yet, it did: the color of blood. It was a barbarian country, with murderers as rulers and children bruised by pain.
It also had a lot of gray. The images from the past are always gray. Especially, if they were previously passed by an editing cubicle.
On the Island prior to 1959 Cubans did not know happiness. They did not heal illnesses; they did not know orgasms, or sunsets, or chocolate ice cream. They never danced deliriously, nor did they raise world trophies or academic titles.
If Cuban culture is a heritage of the revolution; if sports were never a people’s right; if doctors didn’t heal; if nightlife was nothing but crimes and punishments; if the only Cuban History that exists is the one that tells its wars and its hardships, my country owes its essence and reason for being to a process initiated on January, 1959.
That’s how I was taught. I, the diligent pioneer of Communism aspiring to be like Ché, learned it that way.
But somehow I also learned, by intuition or negligence, to suspect that imperfect past. A handful of books started to do its subversive work inside of me. The flyby information I retained as an antidote against a history that, just like the old saying goes, seemed very badly told.
Just like that, by chance or by destiny, I discovered that the past of my Island had a lot of blood and corruption. But it also had an undeniable splendor.
For example, I learned, that:
- The first Latin American nation and third in the world, after England and U.S.A, that had the miracle of the railroads was Cuba, in 1837.
- Furthermore, the first trolley that toured the streets of Latin America was in Havana, in 1900.
- In 1958, Cuba was the Latin American country with the highest automobile ownership rate. 160 thousand cars circled our streets, one for every 38 people.
- The first Latin American doctor to use ether as an anesthetic was the surgeon Vicente Antonio de Castro, on March 11, 1847. With that method he started the era of modern anesthesia for all of Latin America, right from this Caribbean Island.
- In the XIX century, the genius Carlos J. Finlay discovered the transmitting agent of yellow fever which decimated populations and instructed prevention and treatment. Had the Nobel Prize existed, this Cuban would’ve won it by far.
- In 1955, Cuba was the second country in Latin America where the fewest children died at birth. The rate was 33.4 for every one thousand newborns. For the resources at that period in time, it was a real feat.
- The U.N. recognized Cuba as the best country of Latin America in regards to the number of doctors per capita in 1957. We had one for every 957 people, a figure applauded by many developed nations at the time.
- In 1942, a Cuban became the first Latin American musical director to receive a nomination for an Oscar. His name: Ernesto Lecuona. Along with Kim Gannon, he was nominated for the statuette for his song “Always in my heart”, before any other Spanish-speaking musician.
- The first Latin American woman who sang at the exquisite Scala in Milan, was the Cuban singer Zoila Gálvez in 1946. Her Creole voice still resonates on the walls of that magnificent hall.
- And in 1950 another Cuban musician marked a world record not even matched by Elvis Presley or The Beatles. Dámaso Pérez Prado, with the piece called “Patricia” was on the American Hit Parade for 15 consecutive weeks.
- The first Cuban peso was stamped in 1915, and its value was identical to the dollar. On many occasions, up until 1959, it rose to surpass the value of an American dollar by a penny.
- Despite its small size, and that it only had a population of 6 million people, my country occupied the 29th position among the strongest economies in the world in 1958. I haven’t been able to find comparable data for today. I think only a sick keeper of statistics would dare to specify what position we are in now.
- In 1940, Cuba approved the most advanced of all Constitutions in the world at the time. It was the first in Latin America to recognize women’s vote, equal rights between sexes and races, and the right of women to work.
- In 1956 the U.N. recognized Cuba again, this time as the second country in Latin America with the lowest illiteracy rate (only 23.6%). At the time, countries like Spain, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala, and Dominican Republic had a 50% rate.
- In 1954, Cuba had one cow per person. It occupied the third place in Latin America (only outnumbered by Argentina and Uruguay) in the consumption of red meat per capita.
- In 1922 Cuba inaugurated the radio station PWX. It became the second nation in the world to do so, and the first nation in the world to broadcast a music concert and present radio news.
- Also, the first woman broadcaster in the world was a Cuban: Esther Perea de la Torre.
- And if we talk about television, we were the second country in the world to formally broadcast television. The biggest stars in all of America, who didn’t enjoy such progress in their countries, came to Havana to act before the Cuban cameras.
- The first Olympic Champion that Latin America had was a Cuban: the fencer Ramón Fonst, in 1900.
- The first Latin America who won a world chess championship was the Cuban Jose Raúl Capablanca, who, at the same time, was the first world chess champion born in an under-developed nation. This genius won every world tournament between 1921 and 1927.
So, to recontextualize a poem by León Felipe, I say I don’t know a lot of things, it’s true. I only tell what I have seen.
But when I learned how to read, how to listen to the elderly; when I learned to look behind the blank pages, to doubt the smiles of the powerful, and to think about my Homeland without that gray color many have hung on its past, I also think I started to doubt the colors of the present.
Translator: Angelica Betancourt
September 9, 2010