Jaime Hamre | Cuba Central, Center for Democracy in the Americas
I met Anabel while studying in Havana for two semesters in 2012. Her shaved head immediately set her apart from all of the other Cubans I had come across. As I got to know her, I found that not only is she the only Cuban vegetarian I met, she is also part of Cuba’s small community of self-proclaiming Afro-Cuban lesbians.
I was able to catch up with Anabel through Skype this week. It was the first time I’d seen her face in a year and a half. A couple of weeks ago, I got a message from her announcing that she was traveling to Mexico. “I’m so happy,” she wrote. “I didn’t have to marry anyone [to get a visa] and I’m going by my own means, my own work. And it’s a lesbian festival. Can you believe it???”
Making friends in Cuba was bittersweet for me. I was grateful to be welcomed into the homes and lives of so many, but I regularly felt a pang of sadness when I considered that it wasn’t likely I’d be able to return the hospitality and share my culture with my Cuban friends any time in the near future. I knew enough about the situation in Cuba — and the U.S. — to understand the political and economic barriers that a young, Afro-Cuban lesbian would face trying to travel abroad.
This changed in the middle of my second semester on the island. I remember the morning, in October 2012, when I sat down to breakfast and read the headline in Granma announcing immigration reforms. My friends, fellow students, and people on the street were abuzz with the opportunities this new freedom presented. Starting that January, Cubans would no longer be required to ask their government’s permission for an exit visa, to leave Cuba and return. I left the island wondering what this reform would mean for my Cuban friends and their families.
Today thousands of Cubans are traveling abroad every month, many leaving the island for the first time. Anabel now finds herself on a two-week trip to Mexico City. She is staying at a friend’s house with women from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Germany, and Mexico. “It’s like a crew of lesbian feminists. It’s amazing. I’m so happy. It’s like a dream come true,” she told me between bites.
“What are you eating?” I asked.
“Capitalist things!” she laughed, joyously. “I’m trying so many new fruits that I’ve never seen in my life. And there are markets here — kilometers full of people selling stuff — muy fuerte mimi.”
Anabel’s opportunity to travel to Mexico arose after her longtime friends, the members of the Cuban feminist rap group Las Krudas (who relocated to Austin, Texas) put her in touch with two Mexican friends who went to Cuba to do research on the LGBT scene. Anabel stayed in touch with them, which eventually led to a formal invitation to attend an art festival organized by Producciones y Milagros Feminist Association. Anabel got her passport, paid 25 Cuban pesos for her visa, and was on her way. She was incredulous at how easy the process was:
“For me, leaving the country was something to which very few people had access. It’s like saying you want to be the next President of the United States. It was an impossible dream, but I always wanted to, because one wants to travel, explore, and improve one’s quality of life. But it was something very, very difficult…. Before, this dream of leaving was my main objective in life, but also my main frustration.”
Before Cuba’s immigration reform, Anabel assumed that if she was able to find a way to leave the island, she would likely not return. “I’m the first person in my family to leave the country for work, and the first person to leave and come back, too,” she told me. Her aunt left to live in the U.S. in 2006. She ended up in Las Vegas, and “is having a really hard time,” Anabel told me. “No medical insurance and four kids, it’s very complicated.”
“When did you decide that if you traveled, you were going to go back?” I asked.
“It was with this trip,” she responded:
“What I was thinking before was that the first chance I had to leave the country, I was going to stay. But honestly, right now I’m not that interested in that. I don’t think that for me, staying illegally in another country is a good option. I’m a professor [in Cuba]. I have my Master’s. Now I also know that I can leave the country in a better way. I don’t want to start from zero. So that was why when I came [to Mexico], I decided I wasn’t going to stay. I want to get a PhD… and keep studying and improving my life.”
“What are you going to do when you go back to Cuba?” I asked.
“Cry!” she responded immediately. I laughed in surprise and asked why.
“Because it’s awesome here!” she exclaimed, clearly still blown away by what she’d seen so far in Mexico. “But yes, when I go back to Cuba, I have a lot of plans,” she continued. She told me about a documentary on transgender individuals that she and two LGBT activist friends from Los Angeles are going to screen in Havana in June. She is also helping to organize a queer conference during Cuba’s annual festivities surrounding the International Day Against Homophobia.
Having longed to travel for most of her life, Anabel has spent a lot of time weighing the two worlds that are Cuba and abroad. Now that she is in Mexico, she remains convinced that Cuban society has many limits, especially in terms of its LGBT movement. But she is also adverse to characteristics she has seen in Mexico and associates with the greater capitalist system: “One of the things I love most about Cuba is that the people are very extroverted and happy, and in solidarity with each other… and human. Here the people walk right by you if you’re dying in the street. Complicado.” Now she is hopeful that she can have the best of both worlds:
“Now that I’ve left Cuba, what I’m going to do when I get back is put my energy toward traveling again. If I’m able to come and go, I think I would like it more than living completely abroad. It makes me really sad to think about having to abandon my homeland, the air, my friendships, my family. I hadn’t thought about it before. I was in Cuba, but now I’m abroad. … And things are going well for me in Havana, too. Before, it was a lot of work, but now, we are seeing more spaces for queer people and Afro-Cubans. We are creating a new discourse. I like what I’m doing. You have to leave one reality to start another. The world is really big, and I’d like to see it.”
Anabel has that opportunity now. So for us, the next big mystery is: in which country will we be seeing each other next?