“¿Tú profesión?” Right, easy question. I know what I do for a living. I direct a team that assists high school students by providing access to college and supporting them in earning a degree. I don’t know how to say that in Spanish. “Soy una profesora.” “¿Que clase? ¿Español?” Okay, first of all, if I’m in charge of teaching children Spanish, we’re all doomed. I am having trouble communicating to the immigration officer in Havana exactly what it is that I do in the United States. Do I explain the educational gaps for Latinos and African-Americans? Honestly, no one needs to be put to sleep with this information. Let’s just go with “un clase que assistir estudiantes en universidad”. I’ve only been in Havana for 30 minutes and I’m already humbled by my terrible Spanish.
Havana is beautiful, make no mistake. The stereotypical associations are here. Vintage cars exist, some restored to beautiful conditions and others that are slightly less appealing to the eye. Old family homes from the Spanish period are painted in bright colors, both renovated and dilapidated. Buildings contain anything ranging from casa particulares (apartments that Americans can rent) in some of the more modernized buildings, or restructured tenement housing that hosts multiple families and desperately need repairs. It’s all here. Later that night, I go to meet Susana, my first host for experiences while staying in Havana. Susana is a journalist that previously worked with the Cuban National Center for Sex Education. We stop at a local bar in Vedado, a neighborhood that Susana describes as “the heart of the city,” to talk about the LGBT+ community and take some time to frame what I’m about to experience. It’s during this chat that I am lovingly corrected when I say that Havana’s buildings and cars are part of the reason I traveled here. “Americans come here because they think this is ‘cute’, but it’s not cute.” Shit. I have embarrassed myself for the second time today.
To give more context, I don’t think I’ve ever been much of a tourist. I have placed a lot of time and care into my travels. I always try to study, watch movies, or at the very least, travel with someone who is native to the country. I am very sensitive to the fact that many tourists are not interested in what experiences are most authentic and I try very hard not to be that person. Even so, I needed a reminder that it doesn’t matter how much I study culture, it does not exempt me from harmful mentalities that are very much embedded within myself, mentalities that I am trying to reframe with each growing moment. I realized that I had already created a narrative for Cuba, and that’s not fair. As much as I want to highlight these stereotypes of Cuba, I won’t. That’s not the story I was asked to share. So let’s all look at one photo of a vintage car in Cuba, and then we’ll move on with our lives.
Susana takes me to a club called Swing Habana that is frequented by the LGBT+ community. It’s there that I get to meet Angela Nefer, a drag queen that performs at several gay clubs in Havana. After some time, I’m taken backstage and am able to ask questions about the challenges drag queens in Cuba commonly face. Angela is already wearing a fierce face of traditional drag makeup with ice blue contact lenses, but hasn’t yet changed into her costume or wig. It’s then that I am told the story of how she’d been promised a bicycle by her boyfriend if she maintained strong grades at university. Angela had been studying languages and developed a love for Egyptian culture. After studying hard, Angela decided she no longer wanted a bike. What she really wanted was to be a drag queen. And thus, Angela Nefer came into existence.
Being a drag queen in Cuba isn’t easy. Legal restrictions make it almost impossible to get the products needed for performances at a reasonable price. Simple things like makeup, clothing, or wigs are very expensive, as are other imported goods. For this reason, the compliment that Angela gives me about the eyelashes I’m currently wearing hits me a little more deeply than usual. I am aware that this also implies that other individuals in Cuba have difficulties getting things like soap, shampoo, feminine products, or other goods that are far more accessible in the US. There is an obvious financial barrier that is not easy to witness. It’s written all over the city of Havana. However, what particularly speaks to me about Angela’s access to goods are the impact it has on her ability to be her authentic self.
Drag queens have long been an icon for the gay community internationally, yet they serve as very specific landmark for identifying LGBT+ spaces in Cuba. In addition to the socioeconomic barriers faced by the vast majority of Cuba, the LGBT+ community faces additional layers of impact on their identity, specifically regarding sexual orientation and gender, and it surfaces in subtleties. After a few more questions, Susana and I meet our friends back outside to wait to watch Angela’s performance.
When she finally surfaces in the spotlight, her costume is gorgeous. It’s a glittery ensemble that is detailed with Egyptian iconography. I try to follow Angela in Spanish, noting that I get a special shout-out during her introduction as a guest visiting from “los Estados Unidos en Houston”. Her performance includes a series of songs from various Latin countries in Spanish and it’s amazing. Before I know it, the show is over. At this point I’m several screwdrivers deep and I can’t tell you much more about the night. Just know that Susana ordered me a taxi and I woke up safe in my casa particular.
Cuba does not need saviors, it needs allies. Much like the gay community in America, what is needed is individuals to invest time in hearing the stories of the individuals that are in the LGBT+ community. In addition, what is needed is an investment of your money. The tourism industry is incredibly necessary in order for Cuba to continue to grow and create more opportunities and access to financial stability. If you’re interested in visiting Cuba and learning more about the LGBT+ community, I highly recommend you book Into Queer Havana. Your interactions and investment of time are a small step to contributing toward more LGBT+ awareness in Cuba, and to being the American ally that Cuba deserves.