In the decades since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, there has been wide gulf – literally and figuratively – between those who stayed in Cuba and those who left.
Ruth Behar was one of the latter. She is a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. As an academic and a researcher, she was able to go back and forth to Cuba when so many others could not.
Twenty years ago, Behar edited Bridges to Cuba/Puentes a Cuba. It’s seen as a landmark anthology of Cuban voices, including the works of artists, writers and scholars on the island and in the diaspora.
The United States and Cuba have restored their broken ties, and a 20th anniversary edition of the book will be released this month.
Behar tells us the book was an effort to get the word out that “Cubans were out there wanting to talk to Cubans outside of the island and vice versa,” during a time of crisis in Cuba.
The Soviet Union had just fallen apart, its financial support for Cuba disappearing with it. Suddenly, Behar says, Cuba was left to fend for themselves in the global economy.
“It was in that moment of crisis, of things falling apart, that Cuba opened up to the West, that Cuba opened up to the U.S.” she says. “And at the same time it was a moment of great creativity. So these writers, these artists, these scholars were trying to make sense of this time of crisis.”
Behar tells us she ran into a lot of friction while she was putting the anthology together. These days, she explains, we tend to take it for granted that relations between the U.S. and Cuba are going to normalize, but 20 years ago the idea was almost taboo. Her parents didn’t understand why she would want to return to a place they had been forced to flee decades earlier.
“There was a lot of emotional baggage that had to be unpacked and addressed,” she says.
Behar discovered while editing the book that there were many other Cuban Americans like her, children of those who had been exiled, who were going back to the island and doing so “very quietly.”
“All of them were trying to figure out their relationship with Cuba. Was it still home? What was it, what was this place that we’d heard so much about?” she says. “We were that … one-and-a-half generation, a little bit of Cuba, a little bit of the U.S., we had both sides and it was kind of our responsibility to figure things out.”
“We had that sense that we were the bridge. Each Cuban American that had gone back had tried to create a bridge to Cuba,” she says.
Behar hopes that the 20th anniversary edition of the book will remind readers that even though so much time has passed, “these stories are very relevant … and they were addressing issues that are back on the table now.” Many people in the States and Cuba are only now starting to reconnect, and she hopes that the book will help them learn how to do so.
Ruth Behar is a professor of anthology at the University of Michigan and the editor of "Bridges to Cuba/Puentes a Cuba." She tells us more about assembling the anthology and how relations between Cuba and America have changed in the last two decades in our conversation above.