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Papa Hemingway!

Papa Hemingway!

by Victoria Alcalá

A dear friend who once in a while likes to throw me difficult challenges, recently asked me who was the most famous American who had visited Cuba. Because of the proximity of events, I was tempted to say President Barack Obama, the first US president of African descent who resumed relations with Cuba after more than half a century of rupture, which is enough to go down in history. But I remembered a joke I heard on a visit I made to Moscow in 1987. The joke goes like this: In 2017, one Russian asks another who Leonid Brezhnev was, and after a great effort of memory, the guy answered that he was a politician in singer Alla Pugachova’s time. Considering the factor of posterity, and the risk that before a similar question made 20150 someone might answer that Obama was a politician in Beyonce’s time, I rejected the idea of naming the 44th President as the most famous American who has ever visited Cuba. And because historians still haven’t made up their minds on whether George Washington visited Havana or not, I relinquished the thorny sphere of politics.

Immediately came to mind the name of Brooklyn native Henry Reeve, nicknamed “The Little Englishman,” who reached the rank of Brigadier General in Cuba’s Liberation Army fighting Spanish colonialism. Although Reeve is an example of the best virtues of his countrymen, unfortunately he is not known outside the Island. I also recalled Irene Aloha Wright, author of three essential titles to decipher a period that has not been studied and documented enough: the first three centuries after the Spanish conquest, and especially the history of Havana: The Early History of Cuba, 1492-1854, Documented History of San Cristobal de La Habana in the 16th Century Based on Existing Original Documents in the General Archive of the Indies in Seville and Documented History of San Cristobal de La Habana in the First Half of the 17th Century, published in 1916, 1927 and 1930, respectively. These books are constantly consulted by historians and other specialists, which circumscribes Wright’s “fame” to an exclusive and reduced sector.

Given that sports glory is usually fairly brief, I performed a cursory exploration of the arts: only one great American painter seems to have set foot on Cuban soil: Robert Rauschenberg, who presented a much discussed and controversial exhibition of his work; some musicians of popular genres; great actors (ah, Brando!) and great directors. Perhaps the name that I needed was in that group, but I was still uneasy about the fact that the bonds of such creators with Cuba had been circumstantial, and, therefore, ephemeral. I do not believe that they had left a profound mark on national culture or in the popular imaginary.

Therefore, even if a common place, I simply had to go to the Ambos Mundos Hotel, have a daiquiri at the Floridita and a mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio, and travel all the way down to Finca Vigía in the outskirts of Havana to pay tribute to the Bronze God of American Literature, Ernest Hemingway, Papa, like many of his Cuban friends called him. Hemingway, who is not among my specially favorite authors (although I have reread some of his stories, Islands in the Gulf and Moveable Feast), he has been revered by some of the best Cuban writers, and one of them, Norberto Fuentes, published an excellent book about his presence on the island. Hemingway wrote a significant portion of his work in Havana, between the Ambos Mundos Hotel and his home Finca Vigía, including The Old Man and the Sea; he established a close relationship with many common Cubans, his fishing and drinking buddies. And 55 years after he took his life, he remains a rare presence in the city, as if refusing to abandon it altogether. He is, for me, the most famous American who has ever been in Cuba, and Cuba contributed to that reputation.

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