Could it be that what we Cuba aficionados admire most about our beloved Cubans is what ultimately keeps them stuck?
anthony depalma

I didn’t want to like Anthony DePalma’s new book on Cuba. Not only because I don’t care for the title, The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times, but also because I am always wary about books on Cuba. I’m tired of reading about the Cubans who sail across the ocean on seven pairs of Nike sneakers and two chicken bones, and even more exhausted of the former Revolutionaries who testify that they are now sour and complacent. Although DePalma’s new book has some of this melatonin inside, I found myself quite captivated by his fast-paced storytelling, complex cast of characters and seasoned reporter’s view on Cuba. 

Anthony DePalma has covered Cuba for decades. He’s the author of The Man Who Invented Fidel, and he worked as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times for 22 years. Among other pieces, he authored Fidel Castro’s obituary for the Times. He chose to root his Cuban story in Guanabacoa because his wife was born there. Using an old photograph of young Miriam, he perhaps set out to unearth the life she would have lived, had she stayed. 

It is difficult to add a novel perspective to the Cuban narrative — to avoid the politics and the tiresome tales of how hard it is for an American to find broccoli on the island…but I discovered one quarter of the way through this new work that he does offer a fresh idea. 

Guanabacoa is a municipality nestled in the hills three miles west of Havana. DePalma describes Guanabacoa as, “not quite city, not quite countryside” and seemingly avoids playing on Guanabacoa’s reputation as the Cuban mecca for Santería. He brings Guanabacoa to life through his extraordinary Cubans, who trudge through hurricanes and humidity in this historic Cuban town. 

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The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times (Penguin Random House, 2020) begins moments before Hurricane Irma hits Guanabacoa in September 2017. In this urgent prologue, DePalma introduces us to Cary and her family who, like all Cubans, are not strangers to hurricanes. Over the course of the next 327 pages, DePalma oscillates between Cary and a few other Cuban voices to ground the narrative in this overarching theme of how Cubans handle storms — tropical and otherwise. Although DePalma briefly narrates his characters’ personal histories, he does not offer much in the way of Cuban history. In his Author’s Note he confesses that he wanted to stay away from Fidel, Che and Hemingway, who he feels dominate the Cuban stage. 

One of our main and most memorable guides through ordinary Guanabacoa is Cary, an Afro-Cuban of Jamaican descent, who studied in Kiev as a young woman and returned to Cuba determined to serve her country with an outside-of-the-island education. She is schooled in the Revolution and quickly rises in the Communist Party to become a leader at work and in her neighborhood. It is through Cary that DePalma unearths the Cuban grind as more than just luchando and inventando (verbs that Cubans use to define their struggle to live within limited means) but as a complex mentality that holds multiple truths. 

Over the course of the next 327 pages, DePalma oscillates between Cary and a few other Cuban voices to ground the narrative in this overarching theme of how Cubans handle storms — tropical and otherwise.

Cary believes in the promises of the Revolution, recognizes that the government does not deliver on these promises and yet continues to believe in the revolutionary values. She does not resent her fellow Cubans for stealing and reselling in order to survive nor does she dwell too long in her frustrations about the government. Cary is a person of action and her story is chillingly inspirational not only because she is a Cuban, but also because she is a black woman. 

DePalma accepts the opportunity to confront injustices in Cuba even if ever so briefly. In a country where the Revolution was intended to cast out inequality, Cary’s climb to leadership in a state-owned aluminum company is met with stubborn animosity from her male counterparts. Not only were the men not used to taking orders from a woman, DePalma writes, they also were not accustomed to taking orders from a black woman. Despite the initial pushback, Cary applies what she learned in Kiev to rebrand the aluminum company and attributes her somewhat lavish lifestyle to her hard work. She later reflects that her lifestyle was not a result of her work ethic but of her position in the Communist Party. 

Listen to a sample from The Cubans:

Although DePalma successfully avoids the politically charged Cuban narrative almost everywhere in this book, I was disappointed that he included the tragic sinking of tugboat 13 de Marzo. This violent event is well documented across various arenas, and while I was impressed by DePalma’s channeling of his inner Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous tugboat controversy felt out of place in DePalma’s ordinary and humble Cuba. The tugboat sinking deserves its own spotlight and I felt as though it hijacked the quotidien colors that fill the rest of the book. 

It is difficult to add a novel perspective to the Cuban narrative — to avoid the politics and the tiresome tales of how hard it is for an American to find broccoli on the island. This is one of the reasons I dreaded reading DePalma but I discovered one quarter of the way through this new work that he does offer a fresh idea. 

Could it be that what we Cuba aficionados admire most about our beloved Cubans is what ultimately keeps them stuck? I had to know more, so I called DePalma in his home office in Montclair, New Jersey.

DePalma boldly states that the Cubans’ “resourcefulness is also their most paralyzing weakness. Instead of marching to the Plaza de la Revolución demanding change, or locking arms with dissidents to fix Cuba’s grim reality, most simply accept and then adapt to the latest privation.” 

Could it be that what we Cuba aficionados admire most about our beloved Cubans is what ultimately keeps them stuck? I had to know more, so I called DePalma in his home office in Montclair, New Jersey.

anthony depalma
Author Anthony DePalma

He told me that he plucked this perspective from a conference he attended about Cuban happiness — and that what he discovered was that Cubans have so little that they are not going to risk it for a system that has never listened to them. So, they outsmart the system, they work around and through their 60-year deprivation because they don’t believe they have any other choice.

I had to wonder if this will always be the case.

The writing shines in several places but DePalma is at his best when he allows the small details to drive the story. He feeds us the inside scoop on the difference between pan and el pan (el pan is the daily Cuban bread while pan is the more expensive bread available only when the bakeries have enough flour), and he notes that Cubans call the elusive steak normally available only to tourists, “moo.” 

For those of us obsessed with Cuba, who travel back and forth to Havana hoping that just once we’ll leave the island with more answers than questions, Anthony DePalma’s generous Cubans curb that hunger just a little. 

We meet several other ordinary extraordinary Cubans. DePalma details the nylon stockings, skirts, and blouses that Mari wears — even in the oppressive summer heat. She says that maintaining her appearance is the way that she fights against a declining civilization.

And then of course we have Jorge, who loves his Dobermans. He loves to feed them, he loves to train them, and he respects the breed because he says that Dobermans are like Cubans: strong and cunning. 

DePalma begins and ends the book with an ironic sign of hope: Cary’s house is cooled by a plastic fan made in China by a brand called Hopeful, and when she spells out what Cuba means to her on a sheet of yellow paper — hope is the overpowering emotion in her relationship to her country. 

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Where Cubans find this hope is the ultimate mystery, for the physical Cuba that DePalma represents is not a Cuba that generously hands out hope among its inhabitants. The buildings are crumbling, the streets are broken, and there is an overflow of trash on every corner. And yet DePalma’s Cubans are hopeful for their country’s future and the respect they show for their nation is quite remarkable. 

For those of us obsessed with Cuba, who travel back and forth to Havana hoping that just once we’ll leave the island with more answers than questions, Anthony DePalma’s generous Cubans curb that hunger just a little. 

(Cover photo credit: Alejandro Rojas)

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