Friday, 8 February 2013

The not-so-secret lives of Cubans

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For some reason, when it comes to Cuba, journalists are obsessed with discovering the “secrets” of Cuba. Maybe it's an instinct for self-promotion, or maybe items about Cuba sell better with promises of secrets revealed.

A Swiss filmmaker went to the island to discover "Cuba’s Secret Side." Her stories will be broadcast beginning tomorrow on a South Florida TV station. She went "undercover" she explains, although the clips we saw were filmed outdoors. Last Monday, a preview was posted on the Internet, an entertaining instalment called "How To Order A Pizza In Havana."

One enterprising man who lives on a third floor receives orders for pizza slices yelled up to him from the street level in front of the building. Cubans are generally no slouches when it comes to yelling. He delivers the pizza, but only down to the sidewalk, where the pizzas arrive by means of a basket that rides a pulley system up and down.

How secret is that? It’s open and notorious. Perhaps few people outside that particular neighbourhood in Havana have seen it, but it's not because the process is secret. The man may offer the only pizza delivery service by basket in Cuba.

Two days before the pizza story was posted, another groundbreaking journalist, this time writing for the UK's Independent, wrote "Cuba Reveals the Secrets of the Saints." The first part merits citation: 
In many Cuban houses, eerie, unblinking dolls form a mini altar laced with fruit and tobacco offerings, icons of saints, crosses and seemingly random objects. You might think this is a deep devotion to Catholicism. But these are in fact marks of Santería, still one of the best-kept secrets here.

You can spend weeks in Cuba, learn about the revolution, cigars, the proportion of Cadillacs to Chevrolets, and how to live on ration books – and yet learn nothing about Afro-Cuban culture. This is due not to the lotus-eating indolence of tourists, but the secrecy in which Santería is cloaked.
"Eerie, unblinking dolls" and "best-kept secrets." Really? The fact is that Santeria is noticeable everywhere, although not everyone takes part in it in the same way. Some hold bembés where they are "mounted" by the orishas, while others simply know the major saints and have an idea of what it's about. (We can reveal, for example, that the Virgin of Charity is also Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of love. That will be a secret between us and about 9 million Cubans, not counting small children and the totally clueless.) But the references are constant and public, as in popular music, movies, and conversations anywhere.

Our intrepid reporter receives a reading from a Santeria priest and awakens to what is going on: "Ever since meeting Tomas, I can't help noticing motifs of Santería everywhere I go." So much so, that one day while crossing a bridge she looks down and sees what she takes to be another instance:

On a boulder at the river edge is a smiling woman about to chop a chicken' s head off into the swirling emerald waters. Santería is everywhere, if you choose to see it.

Maybe that was an offering, or maybe the woman was just getting dinner ready, but, if it was an offering, it was hardly secret. In fact, as the author herself points out, Santeria is everywhere, if you choose to see it. Our reporter most likely will not ever take part in an abakuá ceremony, and if she saw an nganga in Cuba she did recognize it as such, but at least she has experienced Santeria, or a part of it.

So the secrets unravel.

Cubans on the island are not familiar with aspects of life in some other exotic countries, like the US and the UK. Maybe the reporters will return and share with them How to Order Delivery Pizza In Washington, and Secrets of the Church of England. The latter has some dark chapters to reveal about its origins. The necks that were chopped in that story were not of chickens.

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