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The Seeing Eye is the Organ of Tradition

By Paul Ryer, Consumption & material culture, Cultural production, daily life, Globalization, greater Cuba, Miami, urban life, youth cultures No Comments »

Since the 1990s, U.S. flag-themed hats, shirts, pants, and especially bodysuits have seemingly been popular fashion among ordinary Cubans. More precisely, given that the Cuban flag has a white star on a red background, with blue stripes, it is at minimum clear that this fashion does not signify Cubans’ own national banner, and while conceivably referencing Puerto Rico’s bandera, it is fair to say that both foreign visitors and Cuban residents interpretNYT-image-12-14 CROPPED the symbolic referent to be Old Glory. And this, I think, is where things get interesting, since images of U.S. flag-wearing Cubans are a recurrent feature of stories of post-Soviet Cuba in the U.S. media and press, as if to visually confirm pro-U.S. popular sentiments among the population, Q.E.D., obviously political, no further exegesis necessary. One can find this pattern from the cover of Christopher Hunt’s superficial travelogue Waiting For Fidel in 1997, right to the present day. Consider, for instance, the framing of “If Not David to the U.S. Goliath, Cuba Asks What Its Role Is Now,” by Damien Cave and Victoria Burnett, published in the New York Times on December 20, 2014 as part of the barrage of that month’s NYT-led diplomacy. As seen here in cropped form, the lede image of the accompanying slide show, “Cuba Braces for the Winds of Change,” I submit, was carefully chosen to evoke exactly this sort of reading in the U.S.-based readership of the Times.

A century ago, the founder of American anthropology, Franz Boas, taught his students that we see what we are prepared to see: the seeing eye is the organ of tradition. When I first encountered U.S. flag-themed sartorial choices throughout Cuba as a novice ethnographer living in Havana in the mid-1990s, I also initially read them this way, as startlingly clear and overt statements of personal political preference.  What else could they possibly mean, in a context in which images of both Cuban and U.S. flags had for decades saturated state media in clearly politicized ways? And yet… and yet, the more I learned about the people and contexts in which these styles appeared, the more inadequate that initially obvious reading seemed. Not necessarily (or always) wrong, but certainly partial, superficial, and misleading. Many pro-revolutionary grandparents, Party members, and apolitical youth were equally crazy for this stuff!  Over time, I became both more interested in and puzzled by the possible meanings of this style, until one day in 2002 in a small town in central Cuba, I ran into two eight or nine year old girls, holding hands; one was wearing a new-to-me variant of the U.S. flag-themed shirt (see Ryer 2006). I stopped them to ask where the shirt was from, and the girl wearing it beamed and said: “Oh, I am from here, and this is my cousin visiting from Florida, and she brought it for me as a gift, isn’t it great?” (my translation). This simple exchange highlighted an overlooked if obvious point: all of this U.S. themed clothing is imported not in official state-controlled shops, of course, but is hand-delivered by close family or friends abroad. In other words, wearing it also marks one as having familia en exterior, family abroad. As I have argued elsewhere, beyond symbolizing the United States, since the 1990s wearing Stars and Stripes apparel in Cuba is a marker par excellence of one’s privileged access to increasingly important transnational remittance circuits.

Even long before the work of Victor Turner, anthropologists have understood that there are multiple meanings to any symbol, and that is certainly true in the case of enduringly popular U.S. flag-themed apparel in post-Soviet Cuba. But to only see the political, pro-American image as intended by the U.S. popular press, generates, I believe, a dangerously simplistic and even misdirected reading of the sort which once led American planners to anticipate massive Cuban popular support for their epically misjudged Bay of Pigs invasion. Even in 2014, not all meanings are global, nor are they necessarily obvious to the casual observer or photographer.

 

UPDATE:

The re-opening of the embassies and ongoing limited rapprochement between the two governments has kept up the drumbeat of these sorts of images, including more from the New York Times, but also from the international press.  Consider, for instance, this story & images from the Guardian, and this recent cover from the Mexican edition of Revista Letras Liportadamexico_1000_1bres.

Sowing Change: The Making of Havana’s Urban Agriculture, by Adriana Premat

By Paul Ryer, daily life, new book, urban life No Comments »

Recently released is Sowing Change: The Making of Havana’s Urban Agriculture, by Adriana Premat, published as part of the new Cuba series at Vanderbilt University Press.  The book will be a welcome addition to the growing body of research on contemporary Cuban food and food production, and is due to be released November 26th.  Congratulations, Adriana!

 Here is the description from the publisher’s press release:

Following the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, Cuba found itself struggling to find its place in a new geopolitical context, while dealing with an unprecedented agricultural and food crisis that experts feel foreshadows the future of many countries across the globe. Sowing Change traces the evolution of the officially endorsed urban agriculture movement in the capital city of Havana, considering its political significance for the Cuban government and its import for transnational actors in the field of sustainable development. But the analysis does not stop at official understandings and representations of this movement. Rather, it brings into focus the perspectives of small-scale urban farmers–real men and women who live at the conceptual margins of the Cuban economy and struggle to balance personal needs and dreams with political ideals and government expectations, in a context where those very ideals and expectations continually shift. Sowing Change is a timely reflection on the changing agricultural, urban, and power landscapes of post-Soviet Cuba that, finally, queries common presumptions about this socialist nation and its now famous urban agriculture experience.

 

UPDATE (November 2013):  I have just taught this book in a graduate seminar topic focused on Cuban food production, and in the process of a close reading and discussion of the text, have concluded that the real contribution of this very accessible book to anthropological thought, as well as the the ethnographic literature of Cuba, is not simply on the topic of “urban agriculture,” but rather, in its close examination of the shifting relationship of state and citizen, from the relative openness and improvisation of the scarce years of the 1990s, to the recentralizations of the 2000s and beyond.  Here, I found the text dovetailed with Katherine Verdery’s (1996) oft-cited model of fluctuating socialist state relations to parallel markets, and wished I had also assigned the first part of Verdery’s book in counterpoint, as well as wishing that Premat had engaged more closely with that model.  In any case, my students were very taken with the book, particularly with the personal stories of urban gardeners.  Again, though, this is not simply a story of a few urban garderners in Havana in the wake of the Special Period; it is, truly, a story of the relationship of Cuban citizens and their state over the past two decades, and in that sense, would be worth considering for a wide variety of upper-level undergraduate courses, as well as of more interest to colleagues than perhaps the specificity of the title and topic would suggest.

Ernesto Bazán: Portraits of the Special Period

art, By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, daily life, new book, urban life 1 Comment »

Differently from other photographers that went to Cuba in the Special Period and immortalized its ruins and its blackness in beautiful coffee table books, Ernesto Bazán, an Italian, actually lived in Cuba for fourteen years. He lived there between 1992 and 2006, when he was forced to leave the country, along with his Cuban wife and child. His book, Bazan Cuba, was just published and is reviewed in El Pais, today thursday. You can see a selection of photographs, all in black and white, on his website.

La Esquina de 23 y G

By Matthew J. Reilly, Tales from the field, urban life, youth cultures 1 Comment »

© Jorge Luis Baños

By 11pm on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights this park is full of hundreds, and at times thousands, of young people. These are boys and girls, and men and women, whose ages range from 14 to 35 years.  They are students at university or local secondary schools, some are unemployed, some work for the state, and others work informally or illegally.  Overwhelmingly they are white or light skinned.  This is a very fluid space with all sorts of people coming and going.  It is a rendezvous point, a place where people get together before or after they go off to one of the many clubs, restaurants, or cafés that populate the area.  This is the place to meet, the place to see and be seen- it is a nocturnal youthscape.

© Jorge Luis Baños© Jorge Luis Baños

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