Monday, July 11, 2011

No Reservations - Cuba, Reflections from a Cuban American

What it's all about... Family. Here cousins meeting for the first time in Santiago de las Vegas
Okay. So right off the bat, kudos to Bourdain for being one of the first shows EVER about Cuba where the embargo wasn't mentioned even once.
I watched the episode tonight with a group of friends. In the room, 2 other guys who went with me on our 2009 trip. I liked the episode. I liked it, because I love this show and I love Cuba. I thought Bourdain handled it with a lot of class. I believed him when he said those wonderful things about the Cuban people, and once again as always, he has proven himself to be a pretty honest guy. My hats off to Anthony from this Cuban-American for a job well done.
I met with my buddies on the back porch for some cigars following the show. Among the group were 3 Cuban-Americans including myself, and 3 Gringos. As we puffed on our Nicaraguan and Dominican cigars, drank Chilean beer and Australian Port (yes... Australian), we thought about what we had just seen. The baseball. The restaurants. The cars. The baseball. The buildings. The baseball.
And we all concluded the same thing. The show didn't tell us much about Cuba. It was like "the baseball episode" or something. Something was missing, or better said, some things were allowed to be shown while others weren't. But that's the way Cuba is, and it's definitely not a reflection on the guys bringing us No Reservations. Even when you go, when you are right there on the island smelling the air and walking around Havana, there is a cloud that obfuscates everything. That's the way it is. You only see what you are allowed to see. You only do what you are allowed to do. And (I believe) if you are filming for international television, you only speak with those you are allowed to speak with.
This is the point where some naysayers would scoff and say "It's not like that. Cuba has changed and it never really was that bad anyway."
Well, they are wrong. I was there. I was there in 2009 from the outside looking in. I can tell you with no reservations (yeah I said it) that it is indeed that way. If it was like that for a ragtag church group trying to do missions work, I can't imagine how it would be for a high profile TV show. There is only so much you can do in Cuba. I'm sure there is only so much you can film in Cuba.
Understanding this, I look back on the No Reservations Cuba episode and I'm satisfied knowing that it's the best one can do considering the circumstances there. I'm also thankful that this kind of exposure was given, and that Anthony handled it with as much compassion as one can when writing a show from an oppressed country. The exposure he gave was this... the current regime isn't fooling anyone anymore. And he asked questions that frankly, I think took some cojones to ask. Could he have asked harder questions? Maybe. But you ask those when the Khmer Rouge has vacated the premises, not when they're still there or may still be lingering about. It's not safe.
Best line in the episode for me was while at the baseball game... the one about "the brutal dicatorship" not allowing beer to be served at the games... that was classic.
But I digress. There's also the other side; the ones who believe Bourdain should not have gone to Cuba, should not have eaten in restaurants, should not have done this episode. I respect their opinions. I respect it, because as Bourdain noted there are a lot of feelings surrounding Cuba. It's hard for people like my parents to look at something like this and feel okay with it. It's not okay, because again, something happened in 1959 that resulted in them having to leave the country they loved. For many, there is nothing Anthony Bourdain could have done that would have made this episode right, except not to do it. I agree with this group, and I respect that view as I respect and love my parents.
At the same time, I respect Bourdain for being respectful of these sentiments. You will never do it "right", you can only do it as best you can, and I believe he did. I understand Bourdain's desire to go to Cuba even more than he does, because my parents have lived and continue to live Cuba for me since childhood. Some choose not to go. I had to go. Not for the buildings and the cars of course, but for roots. To fill the void of a place that existed only in my head. Thankfully, I went to Cuba and found that the Cuba I loved had already been given to me by my parents. I'm eternally grateful to them for that.
I could say a lot more but I won't.
So again, this Cuban-American will not be black-listing No Reservations, and I will continue to record each episode on my DVR in an expression of solidarity with Mr. Bourdain. Actually, let me not make THAT big a deal out of it... IT'S JUST A TV SHOW. I'll keep recording it because I like it a lot.
And yes, that 7 year rum is that good.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Cuba - In Anticipation

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.