While celebrities, journalists, and fashion show-goers sit front row clutching their boy bags and fedoras, don’t think about the fact that fashion has picked Cuba as the latest culture to appropriate, the latest “picturesque” setting to serve as a backdrop for painfully romantic images and for a fantasized source of inspiration. Don’t think about the fact that Chanel coming to Cuba may be the first of an invasion of multinational companies to disrupt the “untouched charm” of the lonely island. Don’t think about the fact that outside observers think they have the right to scramble onto the island and experience the crippled country “as is” before those multinational companies get in.
Don’t think about the fact that down the street from Chanel’s stage are 11 million Cubans who haven’t known so many of the pleasures and freedoms we all take for granted in our capitalist and “globalized” 21st century. Don’t think about those 11 million Cubans that can’t afford to lay on the white sand of Varadero’s beaches, where they once watched the water illuminate with nightfall. Definitely don’t think about the other three million Cubans who are political exiles, scattered around the world, watching from afar as the home they had no choice but to leave half a century ago, the home they will not return to for fear of pain, is suddenly the stage of a fashion show. Don’t think about the first generation Cubans, or the second generation Cubans, who never experienced the pain first hand, but have grown up hearing the stories and occasional allusion to the days where families were torn apart. Don’t think about the fact that the pain felt by Cuban exiles is so powerful that it surpasses generations and time, as embedded in Cuban culture as Celia Cruz and cigars.
Cuba’s been getting more attention than usual lately—something or other about America extending a friendly handshake after 50 years of a cold shoulder. People had feelings. Cubans and Cuban-Americans had feelings. Then, Carnival announced it would be sailing to Cuba (barring people of Cuban descent from riding, of course). People had more feelings. Last week, Chanel’s Cruise fashion show took place on El Paseo del Prado, an iconic walkway in the middle of Havana. People have more feelings. I am one of those people.
Like many hyphenated Americans, I feel both completely at home in my cultural duality and completely alien. I know for a fact if I were to set foot in Cuba, I’d be una gringa¸ but at college in the Northeast I was “spicy” to my new friends. Similarly, I’ve often expressed feeling torn about this whole Cuba ordeal. At the root of this unrest is some small comfort at the thought of Cubans soon having access to resources, information, and other crucial commodities we in America take for granted (and I tread carefully when I say lack—as one of my friends who recently immigrated from the island put it, he didn’t realize what he was missing until he came here). On the other hand, I see the histories of my family and many I know woven tightly into this decision, every new development tugging them directly this way or that.
Courtesy of Google Images
These narratives have followed me my entire life. Now that the floodgates have been opened, we are in danger of letting these narratives wash away. There was a reason America so staunchly blockaded Cuba for decades, and we would be remiss to forget it. I’m not suggesting we keep Cuba in the dark for the sake of an anticommunist grudge. Change is necessary, even if the benefits aren’t completely clear at the outset—and there lies my main hesitation in freely accepting this opening of Cuba. The benefits to the Cuban people have yet to be delineated concretely. What are the true interests in mind? How will this actually serve the Cuban people? Are the dictators who are still in charge after half a century of countless human rights violations getting off too easily?
We can voice our doubts as we like, but the change has been set in motion. It is ours only to wait and see where this will go, hoping that Cuban leaders realize they are now, more than ever, being scrutinized under a global microscope.
Which brings me to the Chanel Cruise Show. I understand that Havana is today’s hot topic—Cuba has always been the “Pearl of the Caribbean,” and it says something about its resilience that even after half a century of detriment, Vogue is still finding ways to put Cuba on the cover. And this is where my mood sours.
The renewed exoticization of Cuba is, among other things, embarrassing. It is a fetishizing of poverty that the West does so well. The scramble to lay claim to Cuba reads desperate, and the choice to parade dresses that cost more than the average Cuban salary is tasteless. It does not feel glamorous or groundbreaking; it feels cheap and exploitative.
What’s worse, it already sets an unsettling tone for what this unveiling of Cuba will bring. Rather than focusing on the Cuban people themselves, Cuba has already become little more than a backdrop and a fashion editor’s wet dream. Meanwhile, we lose the stories of Cuba’s own fashion industry, a movement that has thrived on close to nothing.
The same can be said for most aspects of Cuba. But nowhere is this more apparent than in every foreigner’s photo op: Havana’s vintage cars.
Scrolling through my Instagram feed, I saw one of my favorite French models smiling over her shoulder in the backseat of a robin egg blue Cadillac, its candy shell paint like ice cream. Though I’ve seen countless of these pictures in recent months (and since I was a little girl in old photos at my grandparents’ house), something about that picture irked me. The driver, with his short-sleeved guayabera and cap, stood out to me. I wondered if he was a psychologist before the revolution, choosing the more lucrative life of a taxi driver to take advantage of tips in US dollars. I imagined the mechanic somewhere, skillfully replacing part after part with makeshift materials to keep that car running after a half-century. Leave it to the Cuban people to make something out of nothing, year after thrifty year.
These cars are not novelties to garner likes on social media. They are a symbol of a society stuck in time, the ultimate byproduct of having to make ends meet. People should be ashamed to pose next to these cars that Cubans have used for so long because they have no choice. To me, these cars with their shiny gloss are a reminder that the Cuban people remain charming and in good spirits despite the interminable hardships they face daily. Se resuelve. There may be no milk this week, but se resuelve. They resolve, and I couldn’t think of a better word to describe the Cuban people than “resolute.” And yet, tourists marvel at these cars alongside a crumbling wall, and describe that as charming.
I am irate that this irony seems lost on many of the visitors to the island. I don’t know what I’m asking for, but it most closely resembles respect. It is respect for the people on the island, and the natives who, for fear of death, haven’t been able to call it home for years. Do not barge into Cuba with your presumptions. Do not gawk at these funny cars that have puttered along for 50 years. Do not exploit an island that has been suffocated for so long. Let it breathe. Now that the grip has finally been loosened, let Cuba breathe.