Falling for Cuba
By Maria Finn Dominguez MFA ‘95
Photography by Karine Laval
Following the March, 2003, United States invasion of Iraq, Cuba ordered the imprisonment of 75 dissidents in April. In response, and to fulfill campaign promises to Cuban exiles in Florida, President Bush tightened the Cuban embargo. Congress voted to lift the travel embargo on Cuba, but on January 1, 2004, almost all cultural licenses for travel and education programs in Cuba were canceled and the new Department of Homeland Security hunted down U.S. citizens illegally traveling there.My Havana wedding date? January 4, 2004.
My love affair with Cuba began in Brooklyn four years ago, at Mambo Unico, where I first started taking salsa-dancing lessons. I stood behind the other dancers, avoiding the mirror while concentrating on the instructor’s feet and counting the beat to myself. I endured the early awkwardness and burning embarrassment because I believed that, somehow, learning to dance would be worth it.
Those lessons led to my first trip to Cuba in spring 2001, where I could dance salsa at the source and my sister could scuba dive. Cuba was off limits, so we traveled through a third country. I fell in love with the place—not just the dancing, but the warmth and humor of the people, the tropical beauty, the way music is a part of every aspect of life. The entire island seems to move to a sensual, languorous rhythm.
I returned in 2002 to teach a writing course in Cuba. Before my departure, while writing an article on the use of plants in Santería (the most popular religion in Cuba), I was visiting a botanica and received a warning from the santero there. “On this visit to Cuba,” he said, “you’re going to be swept off your feet by a son of Changó. Be careful.”
Santería has a lengthy history in Cuba. Originally, slaves from Africa hid their Yoruban deities behind Catholic saints. Now, it’s a hybrid of the two, and, some say, synchronized into one religion. But the drumming, dancing and magic of Santería are far more popular in Cuba than traditional Catholicism, and Changó is one of the favorite saints. He’s the passionate god of thunder and lightning, a skirt chaser, absolutely irresistible to women—and his domain is dancing.
Cuba is a nation of sons of Changó. The men in Cuba know a thousand ways to tell a woman she’s beautiful. Rica, guapisima, lindisima, sabrosa—delicious, the prettiest, the most beautiful, the tastiest woman in the world. Cubans have a broad definition of beauty; a woman in Cuba is an object of veneration and desire. But while open to having fun and going out dancing with men there, I was determined not to fall in love. The last thing I needed was a relationship with a Cuban and to have Fidel Castro and a Republican government between us. And then I met Rafael.
He drove a taxi particulare, a black-market car that helped supplement his industrial mechanic’s meager pay. When I first met him, he ushered me to his light blue Russian Lada. The address I had for a concert that night led only to a dark, empty street, so I had Rafael drive me home. We chatted all the way back, and when we got to my neighborhood, he asked me to go out dancing. I figured, “Why not?” He was cute, probably would make a good dance partner and would know the places to go.
One night later we went dancing at a bar just below an old Spanish fort, El Morro, that sits across the bay from Old Havana. The beam from a lighthouse reflected off the ocean, and waves hit the stone wall, splashing the old cannons still standing guard over the city. Inside the small bar, Rafael bought a few rum and colas, and I watched the dancers gyrate, mesmerized by their grace and sensuality.
Rafael asked me to dance, at first keeping us tucked into a corner; gringos dancing in Cuba usually aren’t a pretty sight. But my salsa classes in New York twice a week for three years—including a ladies’ styling class on Saturdays to practice hip rolls and head tosses— paid off.
“You can dance,” Rafael said, moving us to the center of the dance floor.
We danced for hours, having our own private conversation, humorous and amorous, bold and timid, expressed with our hips, shoulders and feet. As the bar closed, the bartenders herded us out onto the old stone patio, where the spray from the sea cooled us and the lights of Old Havana sparkled in the distance. Leaning against the damp rock wall, we kissed; it seemed like the only thing to do under rustling palm trees and starry skies.
I started seeing Rafael every day. I usually rode a bike to school, but when I didn’t, Rafael spotted me walking down the hill to the cabs, and he’d motion me to his car. Then, at some point, my heart began to pound and I’d suck in my breath when I saw him. I started having fantasies about our future.
Rafael had a Spanish passport and convinced me to send him a letter of invitation so he could visit me in the United States via Mexico. My three-week Cuban romance turned into months of paper work in both of our countries. Finally, the day came, and I waited at Newark for the plane to unload passengers from Mexico City. I peered through the waiting room windows hoping to see Rafael, but the men were too tall, too short, dragged their feet when they walked, moved too brusquely or hauled lots of new suitcases. I knew without seeing their faces they weren’t Rafael. Eventually I stood absolutely alone in the terminal waiting room. I approached the security guard and asked to see a passenger list.
“Who you looking for?” he asked.
“Rafael Dominguez,” I answered. A few other security guards overheard us and one said, “Oh yeah, the Cuban guy. You his girlfriend?”
“Yes,” I said. “And he’s not Cuban, he’s Spanish.”
“So he’s never lived in Cuba?” a guard asked.
I didn’t know if my lying was going to get Rafael into trouble—if he wasn’t already in trouble—so I tried to skirt doing it outright.
“Maybe,” I said. “But he’s Spanish.”
“They’re talking to him in Immigration now.”
After a few moments, the door opened, and Rafael came down the aisle looking very Cuban; with his dark brown eyes, latte skin, tall and handsome, he walked with a slow melodic gait, like he might break into dance at any moment.
Later, he told me how he passed through customs in both countries while holding Santería beads from Zoila, a santera in Havana. He unwrapped a statue of Saint Barbara, the Spanish front for Changó.
“Changó?” I asked. “Yes,” Rafael answered. “He’s my saint. I’m a son of Changó.”
Toward the end of that summer, Rafael started bringing up marriage. He had a good argument for it. “I don’t want to spend three months here, then do paperwork for three months, then three months in Cuba. I want to get on with life.”
I agreed; the politics between the countries were too volatile for a longdistance relationship. But I needed a little more romance.
“Okay,” Rafael said. He stood up and slapped a hand down on the table. “In the sky, there’s a star sweet and beautiful. It reminds me of you, and it glows in the sky, like you do in my heart.” He sat down. “There. Did you like it?”
“Okay,” I said. “I liked it.”
In this manner, I agreed to do the one thing you’re never supposed to do: Marry a son of Changó.
We set the date for January 4, 2004, and we decided to have our wedding in Cuba. Prices for New York weddings were outpacing Manhattan real estate, and if we did have a ceremony in the U.S., none of Rafael’s family or friends could attend. I felt the ritual would help them accept his leaving. I also wanted dancing at my wedding, and nobody dances like Cubans. And to me, Havana is the most romantic city in the world.
On my first morning back in Cuba, I awoke early to roosters crowing and a neighbor kid yelling. I got up and went to a window that looked over a courtyard— a few scrappy palm trees breaking through the cracked dirt, growing up above the corrugated tin. Laundry fluttered in the occasional breeze: White sheets, men’s t-shirts, baby diapers and a sundress told vague tales of the lives of the neighbors. Beyond the red tiled roofs I could see the ocean. The morning light created a soft glow of greens and blues emanating from around the buildings of Havana. I smelled coffee brewing at a neighbor’s house and heard reggae spilling out of a nearby apartment.
Outside a different window, the underwear I had worn down here—my hot pink seamless thong— had already been washed by Rafael’s mother and hung out to dry, cotton crotch front and center, on a line strung between the apartments, like the wedding night sheets after a Medieval marriage. My first full day as part of a Cuban family had begun.
I spent three months in Havana with Rafael and his mother. Planning a wedding where we relied on the black market and under-the-table arrangements made for a challenging, at times startling, experience. We bought rum from the back door of the Vietnamese embassy, bribed workers at the El Rapido restaurant for plates and asked few questions about where our rings came from. My parents, sister and about a dozen American and European friends would be at the wedding; as the time grew near, I worried that they might be arrested and fined by the U.S. government for visiting Cuba.
My Havana wedding was both picture perfect—we drove from Hotel Nacional to a gorgeous neo-classical mansion in a 1959 red Ford convertible— and a disaster. Soldiers nearly arrested us as we took photos in the Plaza de la Revolucion. The priest didn’t show up, and at the last minute, Zoila, the santera, said the ceremony, which she began before I made it to the altar. The ring bearer threw a tantrum, Zoila didn’t know to pause for the translator—the entire ceremony passed with the precision of a rudderless boat. I had asked for boleros to be played after the ceremony, but during the champagne toast, “Welcome to the Hotel California” blared over the speakers. A married woman caught the bouquet; the waiters got drunk; like the wedding, the tiered cake looked perfect, but sugared roses were stuck into it with electrical wires, bits of copper poking through frosting.
But when the salsa band started playing, and Rafael and I started dancing, it all seemed right. I forgot the worry that my friends and family might be hunted down by the Department of Homeland Security, or that the Cuban government might not allow Rafael to leave, or the U.S. airports not allow him to enter. The music spoke of seduction and betrayal, of yearning, love and disappointment— and, most of all, of joy. We danced, the Cubans grabbing Americans and joining in, until by nightfall, couples from the two embattled countries gyrated, spun and whirled into the warm tropical night.
Maria Finn Dominguez designed and taught a writing course for Hunter College in Havana, Cuba. She covered the 2003 Havana Biennial for The New York Times, and reported on Sandhill Cranes in Cuba for Audubon Magazine. She compiled and edited the literary anthology Cuba in Mind for Vintage Books, published June 2004, and is currently working on another anthology for Vintage, Mexico in Mind, and a nonfiction book titled Falling for Cuba.