You are watching a group of dancers perform at an outdoor salsa club when someone standing beside you asks in Spanish, “Where are you from?” You answer, “Los Estados Unidos,” and the young man’s face lights up. He exclaims in rapid, clipped Spanish that you can’t quite understand, and jokingly introduces himself as “Robin Hood.” You laugh. After you explain that you are studying at the local university and writing for an internet publication in the United States, he asks, “And your friends, your family—what did they think when you told them you were coming to live here?” You tell him that most of your friends were excited for you, but admit that at first your parents were scared. You regret it immediately. His face falls and he folds his arms. “They don’t understand,” he says. “It’s not dangerous here. So many North Americans don’t get that.”
You have been living in Havana for five days, and you are quickly learning the differences between the Cuban culture and the North American view of it.
Why did “Robin Hood” say “North American” rather than “American”? For anyone unfamiliar with the uses of these terms in varying Latin American countries, the word “americano”—“American”—doesn’t always refer to people from the United States. “Americano” can mean anyone from the Americas—North, South or Central. Instead of “Americanos,” those of us from the United States are “estadounidense,” or, more popular in Cuba, “norteamericano”—North American.
As a norteamericana who lived in Havana for four months, I also, of course, heard a range of less technical terms that Cubans use to refer to people from the United States. These include the slang “gringo,” a label for people from the United States that is used widely throughout Latin America, and the more technical “imperialista,” which translates directly to “imperialists.” Cubans may use the world “imperialista” as a joke (for example, one of my professors started out class by saying, “I want to say, welcome to my fellow habaneros—and welcome to the imperialistas!”). But usually, even in jest, it’s meant to highlight the differences in culture, privilege, and history between the Cubans and us.
During my time in Havana I experienced a spectrum of reactions to my norteamericanismo. The spectrum is top-heavy at the positive end—a skew that must be explained, at least in part, by the habitual warmth and courtesy of the Cuban people, as well as by the sociable nature of the environments in which I usually met Cubans: clubs, bars, classrooms. What fraction of the Cuban people truly regard the United States with this warm curiosity, and what portion retains the negative feelings that were institutionalized in both countries more than half a century ago? It’s impossible for me as a blue-eyed, blond-haired 20-year-old woman from the United States to know for sure. Cubans knew just by looking at me that I was not one of them, and it’s difficult for any foreigner to obtain a truly unbiased understanding of a culture. From my brief experience, however, it seems that Cuban sentiment towards the United States is far more positive than American sentiment towards Cuba. Again, I think this is partially due to the friendliness and openness inherent in Cuban culture, which manifests itself in any and every social setting.
One conversation I had with a man at an Afrocubano art festival was particularly surprising to me. A band was performing African-influenced music, and an American friend of mine and I were speaking with a middle-aged Cuban man. Like most other Cubans I met, he was friendly, open, and curious about the United States. At one point my friend pointed out an obnoxious tourist—an older European-looking woman who was taking photos of Cubans with an iPad six inches away from their faces—and said, “How rude!” The Cuban man laughed and shook his head. “She’s not being rude. She just wants to take a photo for a memory.” I asked if it was irritating or strange for locals when tourists acted like that. He repeated, “No, she just wants to have memories, to take home to show her friends.”
In Cuba there was very little of the disdain for tourists or outsiders that you often find in places like Europe or even the United States. Rather, Cubans often went out of their way to communicate with me. Since Cuban Spanish is filled with slang and dropped consonants, it can be pretty difficult to understand locals. But if you speak a little Spanish, Cubans slow down and enunciate carefully—even to the point of tossing in whatever English they might know, in an effort to help you understand or to practice their own skills. In addition, friends I made in Cuba were unreservedly affectionate, to the point of making me, a daughter of U.S. frigidity, uncomfortable. Physical closeness is much more casual than in the United States—touching is more frequent, hugs are longer and tighter, kisses on the cheek are appropriate for just about any social encounter—and what we call a “personal bubble” does not exist in Cuba. Cubans also reach emotional closeness with friends much faster than in the United States. I found myself having very personal conversations with friends, in my broken Spanish and their broken English, after knowing them for two or three weeks. Acquaintances often told me “¡Te quiero!”—a friendly version of “I love you!”—within hours of meeting me.
Cubans’ loving nature doesn’t only extend to friends, but to strangers as well—in fact, to humankind in general. While gathering political and social opinions from Cubans for Panoramas projects, I approached a professor of mine and requested to interview him. He asked what questions I had in mind. I handed him a sheet of ideas. He glanced through them and pointed at one, reading off in Spanish, “What do you want to tell the people of the United States?” then exclaimed in thickly accented English, “I love you!”
“Send money,” added his colleague who was standing nearby, smirking a little.
“Look, in reality there was never a separation between the American people and the Cuban people,” continued my professor, the conversation returning to Spanish. “There never was. The separation was in the high spheres of power of the governments.” Many Cubans share this sentiment: that our governments may still be in a decades-old spat, but we, the people of the two countries, should have love and respect for each other. In contrast, the people of the United States seem far more suspicious, even distrustful, to me culturally. I can’t tell you the number of norteamericanos who said to me, “Are you sure you shouldn’t study somewhere else? Cuba’s a dangerous place for Americans,” when I told them my plans for this spring. The truth is that even though Cuba definitely has its flaws, it is generally safer for Americans—for anyone—than most other Latin American countries. Crime is very low, even in comparison to many cities in the United States. Moreover, the Cuban culture is a welcoming one. Especially with Cuba-U.S. relations improving and tourism increasing significantly within the last six months, the Cuban people are anxious to find out more about the world outside of their small island which for so long has been stuck in time. If the United States were as open-minded about Cuba as most Cubans are about the U.S., the two cultures would be much closer to understanding each other, and could work together to finally bring progress to Cuba.