Wednesday, September 28, 2005

ROMERIAS DE MAYO FESTIVAL IN CUBA (A World Festival of Young Artists)

Part One of a two part report from Aotearoa-based African American poet and world traveller L.E. Scott on his impressions and experiences of Cuba and his participation in Romerias de Mayo Festival in Holguin, Cuba 2005.

In October 1962 I was a fifteen year old high school student in the United States of America and even at that young age I had an interest in the world and in politics. We were in the throes of what would become known to the world as “The Cuban Crisis” and that October, our teacher showed us how to hide under our desks should the firestorm come. If someone had told that 15 year old that in 1974 he would leave the United States and go and explore the rest of the world, I’m not sure he would have believed it possible, and especially if he had been told that one of the places he would go would be Cuba.

In October 1994, after living in Aotearoa New Zealand for many years, I celebrated becoming a New Zealand citizen. As a curious child of 15 I hadn’t even been aware that there was such a thing as dual citizenship that would open doors to other countries. But here I am.

In October 2004, the annual Gwendolyn Brooks Writers’ Conference at Chicago State University celebrated the artistry and contribution of the African American poet Amiri Baraka. I had recently written a profile on Baraka for the magazine JAAM and at the conference I had an opportunity to give him a copy of this magazine. During our conversation we spoke, among other things, about his time in Cuba in the late 1960s and he urged me to go there if I got the chance. I recalled an article he had written about that time, in which he related how some of the Cuban writers had told him to stop referring to the United States as “America”, given that it was just one of the countries in North America.


Word of mouth is a powerful vehicle. By the time I returned to New Zealand from that conference, the word was out among the writing community and waiting for me at home was a contact name for Cuba.

Ms Tatiana Zuniga, vice-president of the Romerias de Mayo Festival in Holguin, Cuba was the name. After a number of emails back and forth, I received one from Tatiana which read: “I would like to invite you to attend the Romerias de Mayo Festival – you will read your poetry at the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba”. I would learn later that the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) was created by the poet Nicolas Guillen shortly after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The aim of UNEAC was, and is, “to preserve social justice and national independence and to promote the ongoing cultural, political and social ideas of the Cuban artists”.
On April 30th I flew from Aotearoa/New Zealand direct to Cuba. When I say direct, I mean from Auckland, New Zealand to Los Angeles, USA, to Vancouver, Canada, and then to Havana, Cuba. There are no flights from the United States to Cuba because of the US embargo.

On arrival in Havana I was met by a festival committee member. The next day I joined a group of other festival participants and flew from Havana to Holguin in an old propeller-driven Soviet aircraft. The one-and-a-half hour flight in this chartered aircraft, on which no safety briefing was given, left one believing that the idea of a God was not a bad one.

Holguin is the fourth largest city in Cuba and many thousands of people had gathered there from all over Cuba and the rest of the world for the festival. The opening address was given by the President of the Festival, Mr Alexis Triana, standing on a balcony high above the crowd and speaking in a Castro-style manner. He welcomed artists and visitors to the city of Holguin and then declared the city open for the festivities.

This annual festival was created twelve years ago and its focus has always been on young artists, with an underlying aim to bring them into contact with older artists to assist their development. Though this festival is open to the world, most of the artists are from the Americas. The festival is always held in Holguin and each year young artists from a particular country are highlighted. This year it was the poets, writers, painters, dancers and people of the theatre from Mexico. In 2006 it will be the artists from Venezuela. The Romerias de Mayo Festival is fully funded by the Cuban government.


Cuba is one of the last remaining socialist states and Fidel Castro has been in power since 1959 when the former US-backed dictator Batista was overthrown. Everything in Cuba is controlled by the state and people are aware that loose tongues can be a danger to well-being. The daily lives and movements of Cubans are closely watched. In each neighbourhood, every four or five blocks, there is an “appointed person” whose job it is to make sure his area runs without problems. Cubans cynically refer to this person as “the watcher”.

As a result of the US embargo on Cuba since the 1960s and the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980s (the Soviets having supported Cuba in many ways including trade and aid), the country is in dire need. There is a shortage of everything and everything is rationed. Long queues are a daily reality. The Cuban people say, very quietly, that they face not only the embargo from the US but also an embargo within Cuba.

It is perhaps the older Cubans who worry most about what will come “after he is gone”. The young, they point out, will have a better chance to deal with whatever fire comes next. Throughout Cuba the government has posted photographs of the five Cubans imprisoned in the United States on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage. The Cuban government holds that these “Cuban heroes” went to infiltrate the large Cuban community in Florida to prevent acts of terrorism on Cuba from that community, which is widely anti-Castro. And so the historical dance of antagonism between the US and Castro just keeps swinging to the same tune.


From May 2nd Holguin was jumping. There were thousands of people in the streets and music, street theatre, dancing and poetry readings were taking place all over the city. On my arrival, Tatiana Zuniga (who I would come to know over the next week as a warm and beautiful human being) had arranged a personal guide for me for the course of the festival.

Ms Marlene Banbury, school teacher and aide to the festival committee, was my guide and what a gift she was. Marlene was born in Holguin of Jamaican parents (as she says, “some fifty years ago”). It was Marlene’s job to get me to my readings and discussions. And when she discovered that I could not dance, she made it her mission to get me to learn the Salsa before I left Cuba. After the day’s events she had my nights set up for listening to Cuban bands at Casa de la Troua (a club named after one of Cuba’s greatest musicians) and a space on the dance-floor reserved! Marlene says that when she met her husband, some 12 years ago, the first thing she wanted to know was whether he could dance. She told him, “I don’t care if your mother and father think I’m the best woman you will ever meet; if you can’t dance, I’m moving on!”

In Marlene’s company I learned a lot about daily life in Cuba. In spite of all the hardships that Cubans face, we walked the streets and alley-ways of Holguin enjoying a city full of festivity and life. And my guide, a woman who hadn’t much, had a beautiful spirit that was priceless. We became friends.

To be continued...

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