Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What the Wind Took Away

I realized this morning that today is Cuban Independence Day, May 20th.

Feliz 20 de Mayo!

It's a weird thing to think of, because really, the independent Cuba went from U.S. occupation, to the Magoon governorship, to the Machado dictatorship, to the Batista dictatorship, and finally, to the most durable dictatorship of the 20th century: Castro Bros., Inc.

But I don't want to write about Cuban politics today. It seems futile even at the best of times, and I'm not in a good mood today. Instead, I've decided to type here excerpts from one of the entries of the journal that I wrote when I first visited Havana, in May of 1998.

When I made that first trip to Cuba, I was 29. I wrote a journal that consisted of 350 hand-written pages. For the sake of brevity, I'll only include two of those pages below.

Let me give some background on what I was writing about.

My maternal grandmother's brother, Nestor, was the family's historian. Before I left for Cuba, he gave me a list of addresses of houses that the Sabi family had owned (Sabi is my grandmother's maiden name).

The most important address however, was that of the Sabi bakery. He told me that my great-great grandfather, Salvador Sabi, was born in 1848 in Barcelona, and immigrated to Cuba from Spain as a young man. He opened up a bakery at Calle Brasil 63 in the Old Havana section of the city. It made him a fortune, and he founded other businesses from there. He died a rich man, in Havana, in 1921. His immigrant success was quite evident to me by the huge Sabi houses that I had been looking for and photographing while I was in Havana.

So one day, I set out looking for my great-great grandfather's bakery. I highly doubted it would still be there, but I went looking for it just in case. This what I wrote in my journal at the end of that day...

Friday, May 15, 1998--

"...I walked until I got to the beginning of Calle Brasil, where it meets the Capitol Building. I remember that Tio Nestor told me that it would be there, and I checked on my address list. Yes, Calle Brasil, where my great-great grandfather started his first business in Cuba, no sooner than he had gotten off the boat from Spain.... I doubted very much when I talked to Nestor that the bakery would still be there, and now, after a few days in crumbling Havana, I doubted that the BUILDING would still be there...

"I walked and walked along Calle Brasil. I could tell that it would be at the very end of the street almost. The address is #63. By the time I reached the 60s, I had arrived at La Plaza Vieja. I suddenly got distracted from finding the address, because I was agape at this massive plaza, in TOTAL RUINS, which is in the process of being rebuilt.

"It must have been such a lovely square when my great-great grandfather had arrived from the old country. It's weird: today people emigrate TO Spain FROM Cuba. Back then, people came TO Cuba FROM Spain, for a better life. You can still see some faint traces of THAT Cuba on the remaining buildings of La Plaza Vieja, especially this magnificent Art Nouveau hotel, El Hotel Palacio, which is in one of the corners of the square.

"Man, the noise of the sawing and hammering...this is RECONSTRUCTION (as in post-American Civil War reconstruction). It reminds me of the scene in Gone with the Wind, where Scarlett and Mammy are walking through the streets of Atlanta (during reconstruction), Scarlett wearing that green velvet dress made of her mother's curtains, the 'portieres'...RECONSTRUCTION... the Havana after Castro will be like the Old South after the Civil War, and you can bet that there will be a lot of carpetbaggers invading Cuba, too.

"It's funny, because one of my cab drivers called Havana, or what WAS Havana, 'Lo que el viento se llevo' '--which is the Spanish title for Gone with the Wind. And Cuba itself is the Tara plantation for for most exiles... Scarlett coming back to Tara in the dead of night, dragging that dying horse, and Melanie, the baby, and Prissy with her. It's dark at night. She peers through the moonlight upon returning... 'Is it there? Is Tara still standing??' The full moon comes out from behind the clouds. She sees. 'It's still there! The Yankees haven't burned it down! Tara's still there! '...Oh, it's still there all right, but it's in rotten shape.

"Pedro Almodovar says that Scarlett O'Hara is the quintessential Manchega (a woman from the La Mancha region of Spain). But I disagree with him. Scarlett is the quintessential CUBANA. What's more, she's the quintessential HABANERA... her spitfire ways of coming out ahead and surviving, regardless of the disasters that are thrown her way.

"Anyhow, the building where #63 used to be has been knocked down, and a new building has been built. The Sabi bakery is definitely out of business."

And a page later, I wrote:

"...I thought about the telephone conversation with Mom Wednesday night, when she asked me about her lovely childhood house on Calzada 608. I didn't know how to break it to her, how ugly I thought that block was now, and how the interior of her house has been turned into a showcase for Che Guevara paintings on one side, and a low-budget apartment complex on the other. She had painted for me a very vivid picture of that charming street and house from her girlhood. She couldn't accept that it could be THAT ugly now. Even with the revolution, how could it disappear, the beauty, so quickly?

"I thought of La Plaza Vieja... I thought of the cab driver's comment... I thought of what I would tell my mother. 'I have the answer, Mom. Here it is in plain Spanish: ES LO QUE EL VIENTO SE LLEVO'. It's gone. All gone. Gone with the wind that swept through Cuba'.

"In Spanish, 'lo que el viento se llevo' ' does not literally mean 'gone with the wind'. Rather, it means, 'what the wind took away'. And that is why, I am sorry to say, that I don't like Havana. In a strange way, I hate it. Why...?

"Because everything that I would have loved about Havana, is what the wind took away."

Happy Cuban Independence Day.

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