JT Torres: Forbidden Worlds

Our host family gathered around the TV to watch Raul Castro announce the return of the Cuban spies, which would improve relations with the U.S.

As my departure from Cuba approached, I experienced a sort
of barotrauma, much like decompression sickness experienced by divers who
resurface too fast. I needed to slowly ascend, slowly return to the world I’d
left behind in America.
is a country cocooned in layers, and this is mostly because of its status as a
country forbidden from the world in which I live. The embargo has encouraged
Americans to imagine Cuba
in vastly different ways. The “Miami Cubans” envision the island in its
oligarchic state under Batista. They dream about the haciendas Castro seized.
They believe they will one day reclaim their property, some so that they can
capitalize on it and others so that they can return to their aristocratic tropical
lifestyles. For the “Miami Cubans,” it doesn’t matter that Cubans have suffered
their share of loss as well. The only thing that matters is vociferating the
evil of Castro’s rule to enforce an embargo that has done nothing but help
isolate the island. “The people there have it bad, so we should keep the
embargo in place,” they say, even though the embargo contributes to the people
having “it bad.”
My brother-in-law, whom Cubans would call a “Miami Cuban,”
describes Cuba
in a way that is far worse than in reality. According to him, a family in Cuba
has to apply to the government to have a cake for someone’s birthday; and a
single family is only allowed one cake.
The “Utopians” believe Castro’s Cuba is paradise. The idea
of free healthcare, strong education, and a life free of the poison of material
greed stand as absolute ideals that should be upheld everywhere. My brother by
blood is one such “utopian.” Before I left America, he envied my journey, said
he couldn’t wait to hear how impressed I was by a country that “valued its
Because of the way layers work—skin folding over skin, shell
extending to rind—the facets of Cuba’s identity change depending on how far one
peels back its casing. The island is a contradiction, a paradox in which both
the “Utopians” and the “Miami Cubans” are right.
I stayed with a loving family while in Colón. Andrea, who
owned the house, cooked breakfast and dinner for us (a team of four
researchers) each night. During our stay, Andrea’s granddaughter turned nine. There
were three cakes made; one was just for us visitors, two of whom (me and Jill) were
foreigners. There were also meringues, pastries, and a counter crowded with
But it’s not all rich yellow cake with guava cream filling.
The healthcare system, I learned, is essentially reserved for tourists. This is
controlled via Cuba’s dual currencies, the Cuban Peso and the Cuban Convertible.
The latter of which is an artificially inflated currency that remains equal to
the U.S. dollar to provide tourists with exceptional buying power. Most Cubans
are paid in Cuban Pesos, which is so weak compared to the Cuban Convertible
they can hardly afford to buy oranges from the market.
I heard stories of Cubans breaking down in tears at the
sight of a flat screen TV.
I walked down nameless streets in poor neighborhoods at 2
a.m. Doors to houses were open. Strangers waved. I felt safer than I do walking
around Anchorage at 10 p.m.
I met people waiting twenty-two years for a chance to leave.
There are other layers, those which act as boundaries.
The music of Arará suffered a long history of banishment
from Cuban airwaves. Social organizations, cabildos, were formed in secrecy so
that slaves could continue their religious beliefs without persecution. For
most of Castro’s rule, the music was also prohibited by law. My grandmother,
raised a Roman Catholic, became interested in Santería when one of her parents’
servants, a Santera, protected her from the incessant loneliness that haunted
my grandmother her entire life. She had to hide her interest from her strict
father, who threatened beating her if he found her with anything besides a
cross. And then here I was, in Cuba, claiming roots to the island, but knowing
very little of the language. My parents never taught me Spanish, thinking it
would interfere with my learning English. My grandmother spoke to me in
Spanish, but not enough for me to become fluent.
The genius of syncretism is the blur of forbidding
boundaries. Perhaps this is Cuba’s gift to history.
The cabildos quickly allowed for inclusive membership.
Tribes and clans from different African traditions interacted and shared
elements. Yoruba, Kongo, Pataki, Vodun, Arará, and Catholicism contributed to
new forms of religious tradition that, by the 20th century, became
difficult to identify as separate beliefs for European powers seeking to
silence the rhythm of the batá. This is the deepest layer I found in Cuba: in
Agromonte, almost the direct center of the island, beneath several layers
pressurizing me in a world I still don’t quite understand, I was accepted into
the community, encouraged to dance, sing, eat food offered to sacred altars. It
didn’t matter that I was white, that I spoke a very rough Spanish, or that I was
North American. When you go there, when you climb beneath both the imagined and
real layers of the place, you find the boundaries vanish.

JT Torres is a PhD
candidate at Washington
State University
His upcoming novella will be included in
Weathered Edge, alongside Don Rearden and Sarah Birdsall, by VP&D House. He had
an essay in
Best Food Writing 2014. And,
yes, he recently returned from Cuba
with Dr. Jill Flanders Crosby. The resulting
research will inform a cultural memoir about Arará, Santería, and his own
connections with Cuba.

1 thought on “JT Torres: Forbidden Worlds”

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top