It’s a fact that sometimes surprises people. I grew up in South Florida in a community of Cuban-American expatriates and refugees—my father and all four of my grandparents among them. When I was a kid, basically everyone I knew either had family who had fled Cuba, or at the very least had been immersed in our culture long enough to understand that the topic of ever going there was too sensitive to broach.
Cuba is 90 miles from Key West, but that short jaunt across the Florida Straits might as well have been light years away for most of my life. When you spend your entire childhood hearing about a place described as equal parts magical and irretrievably lost, it can’t help but take on a mythic quality. For me, Cuba might as well have been Atlantis—a paradise lost to the sea and el comunismo. The generational trauma of my family’s exodus wasn’t something I ever had to learn. It was something I inherited.
Where I come from, the island is discussed with a reverence that’s both nostalgic and painful. I grew up at my abuela’s knee, hearing both my mother’s and father’s families recount memories of the home they left behind decades before I was born. Some of them are beautiful, like my paternal grandparents’ swift and passionate courtship through screened windows, just out of view of an elderly chaperone. Others are painful, like my maternal grandparents’ harrowing escape from the island and the threats and harassment they faced until the moment their plane took off.
But regardless of their tenor, everything I’ve ever been told about Cuba by my family always had two things in common—a longing for a paradise lost, and a silent, unspoken understanding that we could never go back.
I’ve never been to Cuba, but the closest I might ever come is watching Buena Vista Social Club.
For an island in the Caribbean roughly the same land area and population as Ohio, Cuba has somehow always loomed much larger in the American cultural consciousness than its modest size would suggest. In the 1950s, Desi Arnaz charmed the nation’s television audiences on I Love Lucy and Frank Loesser turned a Havana getaway into a staple of American musical theater in Guys and Dolls; more recently, stars like Andy García, Rosario Dawson, Oscar Isaac, and Ana de Armas have demonstrated a broad range of Cuban and Cuban-American acting talent on our movie screens.
But music has always been the primary forum for Cuban cultural expression in the United States. From Latin jazz clubs in 1940s New York to contemporary pop acts, Cuban-American émigrés and their descendants have been an essential part of this country’s musical heritage for generations. However, Cuban music in the United States hasn’t enjoyed the same kind of cross-pollination as other Latin American musical traditions; as a result of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the ensuing diplomatic freeze with the United States, there are no Cuban Shakiras or Luis Fonsis—international superstars who achieved crossover success after making a name for themselves in their homelands. When Celia Cruz, Willy Chirino, Gloria Estefan, Pitbull (yes), and Camila Cabello achieved recording success, they did so as members of a diaspora, forcibly isolated from the island where they (or their ancestors) were born. Since the Revolution, Cuban music has existed in two separate worlds, bifurcated between the expatriate musicians in the States who achieved recognition in exile, and their counterparts who remained in Cuba languishing in relative obscurity.
Unless you’re already familiar with the Grammy-winning album of the same name, you probably haven’t heard of the individual members of the ensemble in Buena Vista Social Club: names like Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo, or Ibrahim Ferrer. They’re world-class musicians, but they may as well have been locked in a soundproof box until German filmmaker and documentarian Wim Wenders and American record producer Ry Cooder broadcast them to the world. Unlike with a standard concert documentary about a band you already know, Wenders has to take time to introduce you to all of his players. As the film runs through highlights from two 1998 concerts in Amsterdam and Carnegie Hall, Wenders punctuates the performances with interludes back in Cuba; each of these remarkable musicians presents themselves to the global public for the first time, describing their parents, their hometowns, and when and how they first picked up a guitar or played a piano. As the ensemble plays through a setlist of pre-Revolution boleros and danzones and each soloist takes the spotlight, a history of Cuban folk music that they witnessed—or in many cases, helped develop—emerges. The film is a two-hour condensed lesson in the musicological history of the island, and it barely scratches the surface.
But it gets at the key elements. The Cuban lute, an evolution of the Spanish guitar, imported by the island’s first colonizers, itself an adaptation of Arabic instruments brought to Spain by Moorish invaders centuries ago. The African-infused rhythms of the clave, the son, the timbal. The syncretic fusion of European and African music traditions with North American jazz, resulting in sounds unique to the island. It’s one thing to read about these musical elements in a book or hear them recreated in a recording studio. But to see them—really see them—explained and performed by the musicians who’ve lived and breathed these traditions for decades has a different kind of power.
In December 2020, Buena Vista Social Club was inducted into the National Film Registry. The significance of that recognition is remarkable. It’s proof that the Cuban people and our music are an inextricable part of the cultural fabric of this nation, precisely because of our connections to that one and the traditions that we brought with us.
After spending the first 22 years of my life in South Florida, I moved to Massachusetts in 2013 for law school. It was the first time I had ever lived away from my family, and the furthest I had ever been from home. Law school was hard; I was often lonely, homesick, and very, very cold. So in 2015, when the Obama Administration restored diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than a half century and the prospect of travel between the two nations became even theoretically possible, I watched the announcement alone in my apartment and wept.
As news analysts and law professors discussed the geopolitical ramifications of the decision, I could only think of the pain that my family would feel when seeing an American President recognize the autocratic regime that took everything from them. As my classmates excitedly discussed potential Spring Break trips, I resented them for viewing the island as just another Caribbean destination, blissfully ignorant of the 60+ years of heartache and pain that my grandparents had endured being unable to return to the land of their birth. But what I was fully unprepared for were the questions that I would get repeatedly for the next five years.
“Isn’t your family from Cuba? Have you ever been? Are you going to go now?”
“You haven’t?! Why not?!”
“Oh my God, I went last year, it’s amazing.”
“You have to go.”
It’s rarely worth the emotional energy required to explain why I can’t.
It’s hard for a movie to get off on a worse foot with me than by opening with a man pridefully and nostalgically showing off an album of cherished photos of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, two men who have caused my family and my people more pain and heartbreak than I can put into words.
But beyond that admittedly rough opening, Wenders doesn’t engage directly, really, with the politics of Cuba or the confluence of historical events that landed his documentary subjects in the relative obscurity he finds them in. Instead, he gives us an almost singular focus on these individuals and on the music that courses through them like blood, with nary a mention of U.S.-Cuba relations. But for me, the context of the communist regime and U.S. embargo is inescapable. It lurks outside the edges of the screen, bleeding into every frame.
Wenders follows several of these musicians as they walk through city streets singing, a remarkable presentation of pure musical talent, stunning in its simplicity. Ibrahim Ferrer strolls through his neighborhoods singing a capella, accompanied only by passersby who join in from the sidewalks. It’s a beautiful aural experience, and for a brief moment, it transports me to an ancestral homeland that I’ve only been able to imagine. But my heart aches from that severed connection to Cuba and its people, and I can’t ignore the squalor in those streets and the poverty apparent in these images. As the camera meanders through crumbling Havana streets across chipped-paint walls, crumbling concrete curbsides, unwashed residents in dirty and torn clothes that have been made to last decades, and rusted refrigerators being carried out of narrow doorways—all I see is the economic devastation that the regime (and the embargo) have wrought amidst the creaking bones of a once great city.
Despite the painful presence of modern Cuba in every frame, Wenders doesn’t romanticize the “time capsule” aesthetic of Havana. It’s not a kitschy, Instagram-ready mid-century theme park for foreigners. It’s an unadorned depiction of the real Cuba, outside the tourist districts and meticulously manicured presentation of success and stability that the regime attempts to broadcast to the rest of the world (you can see that contrast in the handful of rehearsal scenes shot outside of people’s homes, in larger spaces maintained by government authorities). The poverty is inescapable, but so is the resilience of the Cuban people, who find joy in their communities, in the rhythms of daily life and the melodies that permeate their everyday existence. Watching Omara Portuondo walk through the streets singing to her neighbors as they wave and sometimes join in, it reminds me of walking through heavily Cuban-American neighborhoods in Miami as a child. There’s no difference between the people on-screen and the ones I grew up around apart from the means and opportunity to flee to the States. Wenders’ straightforward, matter-of-fact depiction of this slice of Cuban society is presented without commentary, but it nevertheless imbues these impromptu street performances with a wistfulness and a nostalgia for what might have been.
Without this film and the concerts and albums that came with it, these artists may have been lost to time entirely, and the absence of their cultural impact and the musical history they represent would have been immeasurable. But it’s reflective of the greater loss of human cultural capital brought on by autocratic regimes and political conflict not just in Cuba but around the world. These songs and these artists were saved by Buena Vista Social Club, inscribed into the global historical record. But how many others across the world weren’t? How much more could these musicians have given us if they’d been free to share their gifts with the world for their entire lives? If they’d had the chance to tour and perform in New York not in the twilight of their careers, but during their primes? It’s a tragedy almost too difficult to fathom.
Five years out from the normalization of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and I still haven’t been. I’m not sure that I ever will.
Of course, there is a part of me that is dying to be there. To see the beaches and mountains and countryside that I’ve spent my entire life hearing about. To walk the same streets that my father walked more than 50 years ago.
But there is another part of me that—even a generation and a half removed—still feels the lasting fear imparted by my family’s exodus, and the pain of knowing how many of them have died still dreaming of a free Cuba.
In 2000, my maternal grandmother moved into our house to take care of me and my siblings while my parents were at work. As she cut fresh mangos from a backyard tree in the afternoons, she would tell us about Cuba—how beautiful it was, yes, but also how painful it was to leave. Her anxiety from being stopped at the airport by regime soldiers who demanded repeatedly to see their exit visas. Her terror that my grandfather—an outspoken critic of the regime—would lose his temper and give them an excuse to block their escape, or worse. The guilt she felt when she sent her eldest daughter, my aunt, ahead to America alone on a Pedro Pan refugee flight for children, the fear that she might not be able to follow, and the relief when she ultimately did. My grandmother left Havana in 1961 and built an entire life in the States, but Cuba was always her home. For her entire life, she held out hope that the Communist regime would someday fall, and she dreamed of the chance to return, free from the fear of violence, to show it to my mom, my siblings, and me. When she died in 2005, after more than 40 years of waiting, she was no closer to that dream.
Now, more than 15 years later, not much has changed. Even if I were to go back today, I wouldn’t get to see the same Cuba that my grandmother so fondly remembered. The regime that she fled still violently represses criticism by jailing dissidents and journalists, keeps tight control over media and information, and denies basic political and human rights to its populace. And beyond that, the trauma and sacrifice that my family endured to escape isn’t something I can cavalierly set aside. I can’t go back to Cuba while the autocratic system that extracted that cost is still in place. It would be too painful.
So until then, Buena Vista Social Club is the next best thing. Watching it is the only thing that feels the same way as hearing my grandparents reminisce about Cuba. It captures my secondhand homesickness for this alluring place I’ve never been but to which I’m nevertheless deeply connected. And if I close my eyes and hear the crashing of the waves and the tapping of the clave, it doesn’t just transport me to Cuba.
In 2020, I spent Christmas and New Year’s away from South Florida and my family for the first time in my life. It wasn’t a particularly hard decision—the ongoing global pandemic made traveling from Maryland to Florida too dangerous, especially with elderly grandparents at home and my own not-great lungs—but it raised the prospect of a depressing end to the year. So on December 23, my wife (also a daughter of Cuban immigrants) and I filled our apartment with the aroma of freshly made mojo (equal parts garlic, naranja agria, and oregano) and set out to recreate our families’ holiday meals and traditions. While we roasted pork shoulder and fried plantains, we played Buena Vista Social Club on repeat. And this time, it wasn’t just a passport to Cuba, it was a ticket home. Without my own memories of the island to draw from, my Cuban-American identity is instead rooted in the new homeland my grandparents forged in Miami for themselves and for me. And this music—these instruments, this pain, these voices—helps erase the line between that as-yet unattainable destination and the home I already know.