April 1, 2013 - Washington, DC
Noemi stands maybe 5 foot 2. Her hair is henna rinse red, but her eyes, shocking green still in what seems likely to be her mid 50s, are entirely her own, missing nothing, gentle and warm but completely direct. “I’m next in line,” she says gently, but as firmly in that gentility as one would expect of a Mother talking to a truant son (that would be me in the moment). They’re her first words to me, but come with a familiarity, and courtesy, that suggest an intimate comfort.
Around us both, standing, sitting, crouching, holding toddlers and propping up elders, people mill about in an oddly calm quiet. It seems that there is absolutely no order in the room, but the only person exhibiting even a hint of unease is me. I, clearly, am the only person with no idea of what is going on.
“I’m sorry,” I say to Noemi, whose name I won’t learn for another 10 minutes. “I have no idea how this works.”
She smiles. “You may go in front of me.” The thickness of her accent is like honey, sweet and slow flowing. While the Spanish inflection is easy, it's the distinct musicality of it that says its Cuban. That would follow given where we’re standing.
Over my shoulder, in this tiny, crowded room, a voice in distinct mid-western English comes. “You need to ask who was before you.”
“You need to say ‘¿Quién era antes?’ – who was before. That’s how it works. The Cubans are very polite people. They have wonderful manners impeccable manners. So when you come into a room like this you ask ¿Quién era antes? That’s how you know the order of who is next.” He smiles. “Incredible people.”
For a moment, I think somehow I’m already in Cuba. The traditions, it seems, have followed them from their country to this one, and they’re playing out in this room where the Gringo is the only person who has no manners. All during these moments the room is watching, listening. If I needed a primer for what’s to come in a week, I couldn’t have come to a better place.
That place would be part of the only Cuban soil in the US – the Cuban Interest Section of Castro’s Cuba – the proxy Embassy of a government we haven’t recognized for over 60 years.
All this takes place a five-minute walk from my Mount Pleasant home in the heights of DC. I’m used to hearing Spanish in my neighborhood. There’s hardly a native English-speaking owned store on Mt Pleasant street. That Spanish, though, is Central American – Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Guatemalan.
Here, in a building that is every bit as small and bunker-like as your imagination of a Cuban Interests Section would suggest, with a three-foot poster of Fidel dominant behind the plexiglass that separates the Cuban Government from its Expat people, all of whom, having left, are waiting for visas to go back to visit, its still Cuba. The plexiglass divider, like that of an 80s bank, makes it impossible to hear the person on the other side. There are no microphones or anything to amplify voices, and so you lean down as close as you can to the cut opening through which you pass your documents and listen to the bald, utterly polite, civil servant on the other side.
Over his shoulder, in the working room behind him, through a 30 inch hollow-core door, a photo of Ché dominates. Fidel is good for visitors. Ché is the guy they keep close.
“Are you going to Cuba?” Noemi asks.
“Yes. Next week. Assuming we get our visas.”
“You will love it,” she says.
“I left 23 years ago.”
I think of 1980.
“Yes. In the Mariel Boat lift.”
Between mid April and the end of October 1980, in the middle of a presidential election in the States that would end with Ronald Reagan in power, as many as 125,000 Cubans fled their country for Florida by boat. As many as half of them settled in Miami.
“Where do you live now?”
Noemi still has a Cuban passport. “I live in America, but I am Cuban.” She had flown to Washington the night before, not to get a visa for herself, but because her friend, who sat quietly nearby, needed a visa to Spain, and needed her passport updated. She came all the way from Miami just to help a friend get a visa to Spain. They were getting on a plane back to Miami at seven that night.
The consular officer behind the plexiglass, in front of the poster of Ché, took my documents. Looking through them he glanced up at me a couple of times. ‘A visa to Cuba” I thought. “This will be interesting.” I thought of all the questions that could come – its Cuba and the US after all.
“It will be a minute,” he said through the portal.
20 minutes later, walking out of the Cuban Interests Section with my visa in hand, I saw Noemi and her friend outside the 10 foot-high wrought iron gate. It had taken a week at minimum to get a visa to Kazakhstan. To Cuba, 15 minutes. Go figure.
Noemi was waiting for me, it turned out.
“So? You go to Cuba?”
“It seems that way.”
“We’re going to the White House now. We want to send a picture to my parents in Havana. They won’t believe it.”
I know how they feel.