I wrote this 9 years ago, following the death of Cuban composer Israel “Cachao” Lopez. I had lit a Padron 1964 Anniversary Maduro. A flood of emotion came over me that night. Heritage, loss and memories not mine came together in a storm, and this is what emerged. “El Alcalde” is a song from Cachao’s Master Sessions Volume 1. It’s a fascinating piece; a tearfully rhythmic homage reminiscent of a New Orleans funeral march as he plays on Garcia Lorca… “En un coche de aguas negras, ire a Bejucal”. Death and hope intermingled. Andy Garcia passionately cries out “I have always said, I would return to Bejucal!” the town of his birth, where his father had been mayor. It’s also the town where my grandmother was born, and where much of my family resided and were later torn apart by a fanatical ideology. When I wrote this 9 years ago, I confess I did so with tears in my eyes. Since then, I actually did have the opportunity to see the towns of my family’s youth. And 11 years later it is still a place of memory and loss. Sometimes you just have to accept the loss, light a cigar and enjoy the music.
I’m 37 years old and only began appreciating the music of this maestro with the release of his Master Sessions in the 90’s. The effect those recording have on me is hard to describe. You must be the son of Cuban parents — mystified by the memory of a Cuba known to you only through the eyes of your parents — to understand.
As I write this, I’m sitting on my back porch, smoking a Padron 1964. I’m reflecting on what it means to be Cuban, without having ever set foot on the island. I’m reflecting on the word legacy. I am again, mystified by life and the many twists in the road; what it means to live 89 years and have accomplished so much.
I’m reflecting on my father and his 67 years and the many twists and turns in his road; on my mother and the legacy of love she has left for me.
I am prompted suddenly to think of my life; where I’ve been, where I am and where I am going.
The slow, melodic rhythm of a Danzon Cubano is playing in my head. The strings are hypnotizing. Cachao and his orchestra sound amazing.
Earlier this week amidst the busyness of moving to a new home and trying to catch up with my work; of making sure my wife and our soon to be born son are comfortable; of making sure my daughter knows she is loved deeply by her father, I thought of what it means to be Cuban. Am I Cuban-American, or just plain American? Do I want to associate myself with the madness of a nation whose leader has raped and destroyed his people, or do I embrace the nation that is my home and I have loved for its rich history of freedom?
Is being Cuban a title given exclusively to those born on the rich soil of that island whose soul has been ripped in two?
Sometimes, I know I am American. Sometimes, I just don’t know.
When you live the memories of your parents, when you see the streets of Santiago de las Vegas in your mind even though you’ve never been there, when you see the waves crashing on the walls of El Malecon, or drive through the tunnel to Havana sitting on the bus bench next to your father, you just don’t know.
When you walk into the house your mother and father lived in when they first married and see how small the bedroom was that they had to jump right into bed in order to step into the room, or watch your great grandmother prepare cafe con leche for your father every morning before going to school, you just don’t know.
When you see your father flying paper kites with his cousins under the sun and palm trees of a colonial Spanish town, you just don’t know.
When you see your father courting your mother in a beautiful park lined with ancient trees, always under the watchful eye of your grandmother looking beautiful with her bright blue eyes, you just don’t know.
So tonight, I am Cuban, and there isn’t a damn thing anyone can say to me otherwise.
Tonight, I can say que fui a Santiago de las Vegas; I went to the town of my parents. The place they called home.
I can always count on Cachao and his music to take me to that place where I can be Cuban. For that I am ever grateful.
-Marcos Ruiz, 2008