who habits whom? – review of: the havana habit by gustavo peréz firmat

The Havana HabitThe Havana Habit by Gustavo Perez Firmat
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Havana Habit comes at an apropos time. Castro helped us to kick the slinky Havana habit back in the 60’s but it looks like it’s back: Cuba out of the closet.

Columbia professor and poet Gustavo Pérez Firmat marshals an impressive compendium of Cuba’s outsized cultural impact on the Neighbor to the North, especially in music, dance, film, and boozing. The watershed event was Prohibition, when flowing liquor and the first flights facilitated hangovers there. Cuba’s unofficial tourist slogan was “Have one in Havana!”, creating a boom in “alcoholidays” and a taste for Cuban run.

Although not a fan of the opening to Cuba – I personally avoid pleasure trips whose dollars directly line dictator’s pockets, not to mention the current thaw was not brought on by any opening of Cuba – I was asked to moderate the book at my book club at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach. The museum’s then-exhibition “Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction” was the motive for the book choice, and, as usual for the Wolf, delineates a cultural relation through delightful graphical trends. Propagandistic art is a Wolf specialty; seeing so many first half of the 20th century posters and magazine covers elucidate that seduction is a revelation.

Pérez Firmat’s work includes a number of pictural examples as well – for me, the most interesting of the cultural hangovers – but goes heavily into Hollywood Reporter-like summaries of movies and television programs (“I Love Lucy,” among them) that almost made me reach for a drink.

Instead, I brought several questions to the discussion which – the moderator’s doit de seigneur – were of most interest to me. The first was:

-Expand on how Cuba came to represent all of Latin America in the US popular imagination?

For Pérez Firmat relates in convincing detail that for pre-WWII Americans, Cuba occupied such a large place in the collective imagination that it represented all of Spanish America. Indeed, in terms of music/dance fads, Cuba’s Rumba, Mambo, and Cha Cha Cha movements were the only Latin trends to go continental – until the Brazilian Bossa Nova washed ashore in the 1960’s (when Cuba went into a cultural coma).

Pérez Firmat also convincingly details how many of the Cuban cultural landfalls in America were about an earlier Cuba, frozen in a bygone tropical time. This led me to mischievously add the question:

-How has nostalgia for an “old Cuba” frozen the country’s image, even for the current re-opening?

My book club, alas, was uniformly unhappy with the book, finding it academic, bereft of a compelling thesis, and – strangely for a Cuban-American author – devoid of any political discussion that could further explain US-Cuban ties (or lack of them). I hastened to point out that Pérez Firmat writes well, if breezily (there is little substance to the book), and is often funny, with droll anecdotes.

This lead me to guess that the book was compiled after teaching the subject to college students long enough to have come up with pithy and amusing asides. A new member to our group, a well-known Cuban exile painter who spent most of his career in Paris, knows the author and, to the best of his knowledge, confirmed my thesis.

I ended my modest discussion leadership with my favorite quote from the book, which mirrors my own feeling of betwixt and between brought on by having lived decades outside the US in Brazil. Desi Arnold sings these verses in an “I Love Lucy” show:

I have two places to hang my hat
two verandas in which to snooze,
and in two languages a welcome mat:
say hello to my shoes.

So will the US develop another, less innocent Havana Habit or the reverse? It depends which shoe falls.

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About ben

Ben Batchelder has traveled some of the world's most remote roads. Nothing in his background, from a degree in Visual & Environmental Studies at Harvard to an MBA from Wharton, adequately prepared him for the experiences. Yet he persists, for through such journeys life unfolds. Having published four books that map the inner and exterior geographies of meaningful travel, he is a mountain man in Minas Gerais, Brazil who comes down to the sea at Miami Beach, Florida. His second travel yarn, To Belém & Back, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. For more, visit www.benbatchelder.com.

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