No Reservations is, without question, my favorite TV show. It's the only show I will make sure I don't miss at first-run. Bourdain is cool, he's smart, and he loves pork. You can't beat that. And any self-proclaimed leftist secure enough in his ideology to hang out with Ted Nugent is okay by me.
This is not a political post. True that in this photo I'm standing in front of El Capitolio, the former Capitol building of Cuba. But remember, this building is now occupied by pigeons and bats and is not used as a governmental facility, so no this is not a political post.
I'm really looking forward to seeing this episode of No Reservations. But like every Cuban-American who cares about this stuff, I'm wondering what we will see. What will Bourdain say? What position, if any, will he take?
I will be watching it and filtering it through my own perspective. That of a Cuban-American son, raised in the exile community of Miami, who has visited Cuba himself.
I plan on posting again once I have seen the episode. So as you read this and forthcoming, here are some things you need to know.
I was born in the USA of Cuban parents who left the island in the early 60's.
No, my parents weren't rich land-owners.
Yes, both my parents went to private school but it was affordable and both my grandfathers worked hard to make it happen.
No, my parents did not live in an expansive villa. Both grew up in the equivalent of row-house apartments on the main drag of a colonial town just outside of Havana.
One grandfather was a rough-carpenter. The other was a military man. My dad worked for H.Upman Cigars in Havana. He loved his job.
My mom became a Christian at a retreat put on by a Baptist church. Both my parents met in their small Methodist private school.
My dad lifted weights with his cousin in the kitchen of his house. It was a small kitchen, but the house was small too, so there wasn't room anywhere else to put a bench and lift weights, so they used the kitchen. As they drank a soft-drink called Malta mixed with condensed milk to bulk up, my grandmother put up with their workout regimen. They were regular kids.
My sister was born in a small row-house as well. My dad had one goal in mind; make enough money to put my sister in the same Methodist school he went to. A Christian education was important for my parents.
My family was not wealthy, they weren't very educated, and they were happy. Think Irish-American family in a Boston suburb with a Chevy Nova, a dog and Catholic Mass twice a year. That was my family, except Episcopalian/Methodist with a dog named "Negrita".
Hopefully, you get the picture. I come from a long line of blue-collar workers trying to make a living. They weren't rich, but if you asked them, they had it all.
Why write all this? Well, there's a myth that's been going around for years that all those folks who left Cuba in the early days of the revolution were rich and greedy. A good-riddance type of attitude surrounds that myth. This is simply not true. I mean, it's true that a lot of wealthy people did leave Cuba. After all, there was a lot of wealth in Cuba before the revolution. Some of it was ill-gotten of course. But there were a lot of good families who made their own way, and made a way for other people; people like my family. And I just don't have the right to lump everyone together as "greedy" and corrupt. I've known some of these families here in the States. They are good hard-working people, and have proven this by recreating a good life for their families here.
And my father and mother found themselves leaving Cuba along with them. I asked my dad once, "So, why did you leave Cuba?" He answered, "My cousin asked me the same question, before I left. I asked him 'Nelson, if I stay here, can I keep working at my job, put my daughter in the school of my choosing, can I go to church on Sundays, and can I come home at the end of the day and not have other people interfere in my life?' His answer was no. So I said, 'Then I can't stay here.'"
Cuba always raises interesting opinions for those who really do care about Cuba, or pseudo-intellectuals. On one side are many who marvel at how great the revolution was. Most of these people live in freedom, ironically enough, and their idea of oppression is not being able to get a doppio espresso from a cafe that isn't Starbucks. On the other side you have those who lived to run from the revolution, or were burned by it. Everyone who cares has an opinion one way or the other, and it seems every opinion has a shred of truth to it.
When it comes to Cubans in exile though, truth is in the experience. Perception is reality. They lived it, and in Miami, you can still feel the tension in the air when certain names are mentioned; when memories are brought up. Memories of pain, of separation, of shame. It's a lot to take in, especially when a Cuban stops talking (a feat in and of itself) and you get a glimpse of the eyes. Take a long hard look into those eyes. If you do, all your opinions, all your pontificating stops. There is a sadness there that tells you something horrible happened, and you need to just shut up. Something went wrong in 1959. Things changed and not everyone was happy about it. Things changed and many good people just trying to make a living and provide for their families suffered. Some were imprisoned. Many were tortured or executed. Things changed and many people, like my parents, who never imagined they would live anywhere other than Cuba, had no choice but to leave.
The Che T-Shirts lose their appeal when you look into the eyes of someone who was there.
I saw the same eyes in an episode of No Reservations last season, when Bourdain went to Cambodia. A few noble women shared their stories of the horrors experienced by the Cambodian people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The stories sounded similar to those suffered historically by so many great nations and cultures. It was painful to watch. In the end though, I was glad Bourdain took that approach and let their story be told. You need to hear the whole story, and I think he did an incredible job with that episode.
For Cuba, the story is just as complex. What I mean is, you can't go to Cuba and think you are getting the whole story. I don't think you can come to Miami and get the whole story either.
What do I hope I'll see in this episode? I hope I see a portrayal of Cuba as it is today; that's it. I don't need to see how bad it is, or how good it is. Just show me what's there.
I hope we don't see Bourdain drooling at stories of how great the revolution was for Cuba.
I hope Bourdain is smart enough to see through the propaganda.
I'm hoping I'll see real people, not just the Cuban elite and wealthy... all 10 of them.
I'm hoping I'll see some interviews with dissidents.
If he eats at someones home, I'm hoping I'll hear how long it took that family to come up with the food to prepare that meal and how many resources they had to pull together. I'm also hoping I won't hear a reference to "the embargo" being the reason why that family struggles. If I hear that, I think my head will explode. That argument is so old, not a single Cuban I spoke with in Cuba would agree with it.
I can always hope. In all this stuff I mean... not that my head will explode. I hope that Bourdain will treat the Cuba story with the same respect he gave the Cambodia story.