Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Less than a month to go and I’m working through restructuring my play! After looking over the transcripts of all the interviews I had, the original outline just seemed to be ineffective. I had a little crisis about it yesterday before several people convinced me that I should stick with the original ideas and thoughts I had, since our presentations are coming up, but that I can work on it during the summer and early fall before the show goes up next semester. I think that’s definitely a good point, so I’m feeling calmer about it. Still, so much to do! I still have a few more things I want to shoot in Havana Vieja, at least one or two projection sequences to pull together (they’re getting weirder I think), and of course, the script to put together.

I’ve been coding interviews, and here are a few key things that I want to make sure make it into the final play:

Tourism as the pillar of Cuba’s economy

Tourism showing up in a big way in the 90s

The Special Period

Stories of what life was like in the Special Period

Differing opinions on the “loss of values”

Tourism creating divisions in society

Police stopping Cubans for walking with/talking to tourists

Getting charged with “tourist harassment”

Hotels being off-limits to Cubans till 2010

homes collapsing regularly while hotels and historic sites get repaired

Tourists coming to consume Cubans (sexually or as an image)

Define jineterismo, la lucha (the struggle), el invento (invention)

How a basic Cuban salary is not enough to live on

The need for el invento

How profitable/ desirable it is to work with tourists

Foreigners as aliens

Critiques of the image of the virile Cuban man as jinetero

Do all this and make it a theatrical piece worth watching? Oh boy! I really need to find an assistant and a choreographer asap.

Friday, March 23, 2012


I sat down this morning to work on my outline and then met with the chair of my committee about my project (she just happens to be visiting this week) for an hour. Afterwards I said to myself, jeez, I’m such an ambitious little kid. I have about two more interviews to go and then I think I’ll be done with my fieldwork. Now I’m working on transcribing my interviews, updating my outline, and picking and choosing what I’m going to use for dialogue. These are all the things I have to do before we present our projects at UNEAC (Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba) on April 25th (I got the other date wrong). But this isn’t why I think this project is overly ambitious. Over the summer, I have to work on translating the script into English and then edit the projections and sound pieces that are going to accompany the play. And then in the fall, I have to assemble a whole cast and crew to put this play up, including a choreographer (I just decided this past week that I want to include movement in the piece) and bilingual actors. Oofa! I have my work cut out for me for the next 9 months.

My comfortable little outline that I’d assembled is kind of being put to the test by the interviews I’ve conducted with jineter@s. I’m trying to figure out ways to include their experiences alongside those of tobacco sellers and informal tour guides so that all stories are presented justly. While juxtaposing different ways people make a living in the informal tourist economy I want to avoid victimizing sex workers while at the same time not diminish the gravity of what it means to sell one’s body, rather than (just) an image or a product, to foreigners in order to survive. You know what I mean? If any Spanish speakers want to take a look at my outline and give me feedback on whether I’m presenting my participants fairly (or give me feedback overall) I’d be happy to send it along.

I’m particularly hung up on how to present (and process) this one interview I conducted with a young sex worker on Monday. She’s the first jinetera (female sex worker) I’ve spoken to—all the rest have been men—and it was very jarring to hear how she conceptualizes her work and her self-image. She does not like what she does, and until she sees herself out of that life, thinks of herself as “one of many nobodies, a nothing that won’t amount to anything.” It was painful enough hearing these words coming from any kind of capable, worthwhile human being, but her words reminded me how friends of mine have talked about themselves while they’ve been in abusive relationships, so it was doubly sad to listen to. Also, all of the lady sex workers I’ve talked to in the States before in detail about their work have been very unashamed and comfortable with what they do. So I guess my experiences with sex workers have been the complete opposite of the dominant image of the victimized young lady of the night who’s fallen into amorality out of desperation. But the thing is, plenty of women who do sex work do fall into that category—poor and desperate and completely unhappy about their situation. So I’m trying to reconcile this woman’s story with the many ways I’ve had stories like hers presented to me. On the one hand, she hates what she does and it makes her feel bad about herself, but on the other, she’s happy that she’s able to support her mom and her baby sister with less work than it would take if she was working at a paladar like her friends. This is in contrast to the jineteros (male sex workers) I’ve talked to, who are proud and happy with their work, even if they have to sleep with women they’re not attracted to, and they’re able to support their families. The difference here is real gendered- like my friend Anabel says, “It’s different being penetrated than being the one who does the penetrating.” We, lefties and radicals, have this issue of idealizing the subaltern and making la lucha out to be a lot cooler and counterhegemonic than it necessarily is. But the thing is, I feel like these experiences both totally play into existing patriarchal models; men can boast about their prowess while women have to feel ashamed about their promiscuity, even if they’re both engaging in the exact same work. It’s great that in the limited-resource situation most Cubans find themselves in, these folks have found ways to support themselves and their loved ones. But it’s not always cute. I’m certainly not thinking about it from a liberal humanist perspective as something pitiable or wretched, but I certainly can’t romanticize la lucha as being made up of nobly counterhegemonic acts.


I feel like I want to write more about the racial politics of jineterismo since it is overwhelmingly done by Afro-Cubans who cater to white tourists, but perhaps that’s its own blog post. I think I have to think that one through a little longer.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Con título

My play has a possible title and a fleshed out* outline! As it stands right now, it’s going to be called Aqui, Luchando. So far there are twelve or thirteen characters who I’m thinking are going to be played by four or five actors, maybe six. It’s been a challenge putting the monologues in a sequence that makes conceptual sense and whose juxtaposition tells an interesting story, but I think I’ve been doing well on that front. Luchando feels like it’s shaping up to have an engaging story arc, which is a nice place to be, as I am around halfway into my time in Havana. What I think will be even more of a challenge is keeping the thing interesting visually. You know, working on transitions and motion and such, not to mention the accompanying projections that I’m going to be editing over the summer. I still have hours and hours of transcribing to get through before I present a draft of my script on April 21st. I’m also hoping to get a few more good interviews in to include in Luchando before the end of the month. So far, I’ve interviewed performance artists, informal tour guides, illegal cigar sellers, a jinetero, an ex-jinetero turned mentor, and an important ex-ministry of tourism employee. I’m hoping to talk to at least a few more informal vendors, jineteras, and for sure a few more women before I leave.

On Tuesday I spent the day with Magda while she taught her screen directing classes at ISA, the Institute for Advanced Arts. I’m really very impressed by the way they go about teaching cinema here. First years produce a one-minute short film, second years produce a three-minute short film, and so on, and they all work on these projects the whole year. At Hampshire, we usually start a semester off with a one-minute short and end it with a ten-minute short. The only thing that gets critiqued usually is the finished product. These kids on the other hand spend the whole year working on their piece from all angles and getting constant feedback from their peers and professors. They use their directing class to talk about how they’re going to get their actors to make it work, they use their production class to talk about the technical details of the shoot and so on. The students were all very engaged and creative, too. I sat in at the point of the year where they’re finalizing their scripts and workshopping them as a class. There are some really powerful and fascinating work being produced; thematically, lots of things about childhood, social issues, Cuban and international politics, relationships, and gender relations. I’m kind of jealous, actually. It’s a little hard working on my senior project without having a group of peers to constantly get feedback from and talk to. Everyone here in the program is working on completely different things, so I guess I have to wait till next semester when I’m back at school to get that kind of academic and creative community back.

*Isn’t that such a grotesquely evocative way of saying that something has substance? Where did that expression come from?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Positionality and reflections on my work so far

I revised my main objective and added some stuff onto my methods section:

Quiero que esta obra sirva como manera de autorreflexión para el público norteamericano sobre como la presencia de sus cuerpos privilegiados puede afectar la textura de una cultura. Está será una representación humanizadora de las masas típicamente anodinas de “nativos” del cual se les advierte a los turistas visitando a las tierras exóticas del tercer mundo. Quiero crear empatía para l@s jineter@s, manicer@s, etc. dejándolos hablar sus propias verdades y presentarle al público la lucha interna que se juega cuando la supervivencia depende de vender una imagen (o un cuerpo) al mundo exterior.

Utilizando transcripciones de entrevistas con varios personajes relacionados con el turismo como la base del guión, la obra se estructurará como una serie de monólogos que dialogan entre sí. En vez de un escenario tradicional, en el escenario habrán dos pantallas donde se proyectarán una serie de imágenes que funcionarán a veces como background, a veces como subtítulos, y a veces hasta como personajes. El diálogo estará mayoritariamente traducido al inglés, con momentos en español durante los cuales las pantallas servirán para traducir el diálogo. Los actores permanecerán en el escenario durante toda la obra. Cuando no estén en una escena habrá una fila de sillas a los dos lados del escenario para que se sienten. Los props que se utilizarán son: las sillas, varias cajas de madera, un sartén, etc.

I will translate this into English sometime soon, I’m sure.

I’m having all sorts of positionality drama in terms of where I am, who I am, and who I’m interacting with. This really excellent Afro-Cuban feminist rapper invited me into her home, and her mom fed me tons of tostadas and guava pastries and juice and I was so thankful but also very apenada since I have so many more resources than their family. I offered to shoot her music video that’s been on hold for a year ‘cause she hasn’t been able to access a camera in that time. Every time I run into The Manicera she gives me a cone full of peanuts for free, even though she only sells them for a peso moneda nacional and that’s pretty much the only way she makes her money. I offered to film her daughter performing a monologue and put it on YouTube.
I feel good in a sense because these are small steps I’m taking towards building a social environment based on mutual aid no matter where I go, but at the same time, how is it that these interactions start? “Hi, I’m a light-skinned foreigner, I find you/your situation/your character fascinating, let me insert myself into your life and study it and then maybe I can offer you something in return?” Isn’t that a little odd?

The weather is getting hotter and I’m starting to interview jineteros this week- fancy ones, and not-so-fancy ones. Annabelle, one of the young tutors, is coming with me to all of them because as she says, I’m a “muchachita joven, extranjera” and I’m exactly the kind of person jineteros try to charm. I’m more worried about getting good interviews than I am about them, honestly, but the phrase Annabelle used to describe me struck a chord. What the hell am I as a young foreign girl doing interviewing these folks? Like, where does this interest come from? And what the hell can I possibly give back to them for talking to me besides a marriage proposal (a facetious question)?
I certainly did not think at all that this would be my final year project when I first started school. Not even like six months ago. That’s kind of the beauty of having switched concentrations (from video to theater with ethnography somewhere in between) right before my final year of college: I didn’t really get trained properly in either, so everything I’m coming up with, I’m making up as I go along. Heck, I don’t know any better! As I was explaining to someone last night, what comes out of this is either going to be an epic success or a very admirable fail. I mean really, how many undergrads interview Cuban hustlers and write a play about it for their senior project (thanks, Michelle Hardesty)?

Monday, February 20, 2012

It's been almost a month

*Please note, I’ve been having internet troubles, so this post was meant to go up on Monday 2/20.

I’d been doing fairly well at hitting the ground running until this past week, when I kinda got off my game in terms of fieldwork. I was feeling pretty tired and sidetracked, the International Book Fair was going on, and I had two really wonderful and really distracting visitors in town this week that kept me away from doing my usual walks around Habana Vieja. Regardless, I think conceptually my project is going well, which is where Magda wants me to be anyway. My homework has been to write down both the main objective for this play and thoughts on how I am going to structure it, which came after a few discussions about whether or not my play should be based around the Cuban family that went a little like this:

Magda: You should base your play around the Cuban family. It’s so unique and multigenerational and each family is its own cast of characters. You can have an intellectual and a manicera and a guy who sells tobacco all under the same roof! It’s the building block of our society.

Me: But everyone bases their plays around the Cuban family! You’ve given me five plays to read this past week that all center themselves around a Cuban family!

Magda: Exactly. It’s a crucial theme in our national body of literature.

Me: (quietly to herself) And it’s worked to death and I am not Cuban. (louder, to Magda) I think it’s really good for me to become familiar with such a foundational social structure as it appears in Cuban theater, but my fieldwork doesn’t take me into people’s houses.

Magda: So then how are you going to structure your play?!

Nico: Around a neighborhood!

Magda: Oh, well I mean that’s pretty much the same thing. Neighbors are more or less extensions of the Cuban family.

Nico: …

So glad that discussion seems to be tabled for now. For the record, though, I do want to stress that Magda is totally right about family being a big important part of Cuban culture and therefore of Cuban theater, and that learning about how it’s depicted really is an important thing for me to be doing. I’m just a lot more interested in the interactions that take place on the street outside the home. If anything, I am kind of looking at chosen families/ close networks that get created in informal tourist economies, which is sort of a way of thinking about how family roles get transposed into other social realms.

Anyway, this seems to be my big objective for the play:

I want this play to serve as a vehicle for self-reflection among North American audiences about how as potential travelers their privileged bodies can shape the fabric of a culture. I want this to be a humanizing depiction of the typically nameless, faceless locals that tourists are warned about when visiting Third World “playgrounds.” I want to foster empathy for jineter@s, manicer@s, etc. by letting them speak their own truths and show that a fringe economy is oftentimes the only alternative these folks have to make a living in a country that’s moving away from socialism and towards the free market.

So far I’m thinking that the play is going to be set in an imaginary neighborhood in Centro Habana/ Habana Vieja. I’m thinking about it as a series of monologues that bounce off of each other and imply that individual characters are aware of the others, but they don’t necessarily interact. This is tricky ground. I’m still very much trying to keep this a piece of documentary theater, and I will most likely be interviewing all of my participants individually. I’m not sure how I feel about recreating dialogue/interactions from field notes in order to create dialogue between characters, since that necessitates fictionalization, which I’m trying not to do. Not that documentary theater doesn’t alter reality, but using verbatim interview transcripts as the basis for the script is one of the things I like most about this medium. The words you hear onstage were spoken by real people, and there is so much power and beauty in that.

In theory I have a few exciting interviews lined up for next week: a manicera (toasted peanut seller) who also sells moneda nacional and tobacco to tourists (both totally illegal), a tobacco seller/ informal tour guide and also card-carrying member of the CP, and a man who worked for the ministry of tourism for 30 years. I’m waiting for Javier to pass me the interviews he’s conducting with his neighbors who won’t talk to me but have known him since he was a child. For this next week, I’m proposing to myself to stake out Habana Vieja at night, the Malecón also at night, and the spot next to the crafts market where the tour buses unload. One of the people in town this week was my cousin, and I managed to sneak into her tour group and get guided around and bused around the city. It was fascinating to see what it is that Canadian tourists get shown and what they don’t. For instance, the U.S. interests section but not the Anti-Imperialist Stage where Raul gives his speeches, which is directly next to it. It was also really interesting to see how much more aggressively folks on the street approach tour groups than they approach me as an individual. They stake out the stops on the tour group routes and then rush people getting off the bus asking them for money. It’s a much more desperate crowd than people just trying to sell things to you as you walk by. I would be really interested in talking to a few of them about their lives.

Friday, February 10, 2012

First day of fieldwork

I met with Magda on Tuesday and we both spent awhile poring over the list of 130+ jobs that have been authorized by the state as forms of self-employment within the past 3 years. It’s very extensive, often comically bureaucratic, and ranges from “Purveyor of miniature animal (i.e., ponies and goats) rides to children” to “Electrician” to “Cleaner and repairer of wells” to “Seller of traditional herbs for medicinal and/or spiritual purposes (Only if these materials have been obtained licitly and if they fall outside of the goods regulated by resolution No 33 made in February 2001 by the Office of the Ministry of Culture).” On the list are also people like the habaneras and the dandys, who dress up in “traditional” clothing and ask for tips from tourists in exchange for dancing with them or having their picture taken. These folks are supervised by the Historian’s Office and have to pay a monthly tax to keep their cultural worker’s license. Looking over and talking about this list was mainly to give me an idea of just how new this relatively governmental hands-off approach to the economy is. Before, all of these were tasks handled by state-run agencies or departments, or were more often than not being performed illegally. Self-employment as a “legitimate” way to make a living is such an astoundingly new idea here.

Before I left for the afternoon, Magda gave me homework: to sit in Old Havana and see who comes up to talk to me and what we talk about, and also to walk around like I don’t know where I’m going and take note of the same. She said bring a tape recorder if you want, but treat this mostly as a preliminary investigation. I almost did this on Thursday but ended up doing something a little different and probably more productive instead. I met up with my friend Javier, the artist I wrote about last time, to talk about his analysis of tourism in Havana and to have him show me around Old Havana. I asked him because he said he’d be willing to help me in my project as much as he could, and because his performance piece is a critique of jineterismo as a commodification of the exotic Cuban male body, so I figured he’d have a lot to say. Turns out Javier was born and still lives on the same block that José Martí was born on, right in the middle of Old Havana and a tourist draw if I ever saw one. Because of this, Javier did have a lot to say, probably more than I had anticipated. I spent an hour interviewing him about his thoughts on tourism and the Cuban response to the presence of tourists in the country. He talked about being raised to not ask anything from foreigners while watching more and more of his neighbors and peers turn to different ways to make money from tourists. Something to keep in mind is that tourism didn’t become a cornerstone of Cuba’s economy till the 90s, right after the Soviet bloc, and therefore Cuba’s economy, collapsed. It was a time of great hunger and need in the country- Magda talks about having to bike 2 miles to work at the TV station everyday because there was no petrol, and only having a bread roll with butter and sugar to eat all day because there was no food and then having to sit in the dark for hours because the power was only turned on for four hours a day.

Javier remembers that around this time he started seeing some of his female neighbors leave the house in tight clothes and high boots at 10 at night and come back at 3 in the morning with just gallon jugs of juice and maybe a sandwich. Nowadays, he says, women can work for two hours a night and come back with $200 dollars easy. Keep in mind that the average income for Cubans is about $10 a month, so these ladies are making bank. We talked about other ways that he’s seen people make money off of tourists, everything from elaborate scams to basic rip-offs. He says some of his neighbors are still in that life, some are not, but that he would try to get interviews worked out with them if he could. He stressed that if I introduced myself as a Salvadoran student I’d have a better chance at talking to people. Duh, I thought, why the hell would they want to talk candidly to a North American lady about how they make money off of tourists? Then he asked if I wanted to take a walk and I said, sure! Javier seemed to think that walking up to his friends and neighbors hanging out on street corners and waiting by their bike taxis and introducing my project as “My friend here is doing a project about how Cubans make their money off of tourists in an informal economy” right off the bat would be met well, but it certainly was not. He tried maybe three or four people and got roughly the same response each time, “You’re my brother, I love you, but how we make our money is a game everyone knows about but no one talks about. Give me a thousand euros and maybe, but otherwise, we don’t talk about it.”

I mean, I don’t blame them. If it was just Javier alone perhaps the response would have been different, but being so direct in my presence just seemed to throw all these men off. It was good moment of self-reflection for me. I have so many off-putting things going for me when talking to Cuban men about how they make their living off of foreigners: I read as white, I read as North American, and I am a woman. There are so many things about those identities that they have no reason to trust or open up to. Even if I do explain that I’m Salvadoran and that I’m a student interested in their answer for academic and artistic reasons, what is in it for them to open up to me? This is still a question I need to ponder. I feel like offering everyone money for their time and honesty can lead to all sorts of sticky situations, so the answer I think needs to be more complex and probably situation-specific. Anyway, I think maybe Javier was asking the wrong question. Yes, I am interested in how people make their money, but mostly I am interested in how people think about how they make their money. Here is an untranslated list of guiding questions that I wrote up before getting here that I’d want to pose to people I interview:

¿Cuanto tiempo lleva trabajando en _______?

¿Cómo llegó a realizar este tipo de trabajo?

¿Qué es lo que le gusta de esta clase de trabajo? ¿Qué no le gusta?

¿Cómo son los turistas con los que usted interactúa (i.e., edades, de donde vienen, clase social, amables, bruscos, etc)? ¿Cuáles son las diferencias entre turistas dependiendo de donde vienen?

¿Cuales son las primeras cosas que quieren saber los turistas al llegar?

*¿Qué cosas no les dice?

*¿Por qué cree usted que la gente busca sus servicios?

¿Por qué cree usted que vienen los extranjeros a Cuba?

*¿Cómo ve usted la relación entre los cubanos y los turistas en la isla?

*¿Cómo ve usted la relación entre el país y el turismo? ¿Cómo describiría esa relación?

¿Qué le gustaría decir a las personas que visitan a la Habana del exterior?

I’m also feeling like maybe part of the problem is that we were talking to men. There are many things Cuban men won’t say in front of women, regardless of their nationality.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Old Havana scoping out different places for me to sit and observe and talk to people. Javier introduced me to his friend, who is a street performer who performs along with his troupe in Plaza Colón for tourists on the weekends, and he seemed pretty interested in being interviewed next week, which is really exciting. Mainly, though, I was just trying getting my bearings, so overall the day was a total success. Javier is such a godsend. Before we parted ways he said he’d talk to his jinetero neighbors and see if he could set up any interviews for me. He even offered to interview people for me and then pass along the footage if that seemed to be the more feasible option. I’m very grateful and awed at how promising this connection seems to be.

Today’s goal: sit in Old Havana for a few hours looking like a fool tourist, observe my surroundings, and also see who comes up and talks to me.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Highlights, week one

Because this is in theory a way for the Internet (okay, mostly my professors, my parents, and GEO) to know what I’m up to work-wise, I will mostly only be writing about the progress of my Div III. However, please don’t think I haven’t been having (mis)adventures, because I certainly have. Quite a few, actually. I feel like I have more cuentos que contar than I will remember. Okay, so a few highlights:

  • Acted as interpreter when a group of us got stopped by a cop for an hour, at first for being potential spies, and then for being a potential security risk because no one spoke conversational Spanish and no one had their IDs on them.
  • Had our own private Krudas show and interview, and later a few of us hung out with them at the after party.
  • Became the impromptu DP for an artist’s photo shoot for a performance piece about jineterismo he’s staging in Chicago.
  • Found the punx, all of whom are very young and one of whom is the star of Eye of the Canary and now goes by Formol and has lots of piercings and fetus tattoos.
  • Swam in the Caribbean on a rainy day.
  • Went to a Beatles-themed club called el Submarino Amarillo and was regaled by a Beatles cover band whose lead singer sounds like Mad Marge if she didn’t speak English.

There are also the mundane things to share as well, like getting used to it taking two days for clothes to dry because of the humidity, using bathrooms with no toilet paper and no soap, waking up everyday with sore legs from the incredible of amounts of walking that happens here, the constant mental conversions between the two currencies, CUCs (worth slightly more than a dollar) and moneda nacional (about 5% of a dollar), deciding between walking through puddles or risking getting hit by cars to avoid them, ignoring the barrage of piropos in Spanish, English, and French thrown at me wherever I go, trying not to giggle when saying coger instead of agarrar. I’m actually kind of surprised, though, at how easy it’s been for me to understand Cuban Spanish. Apparently this is because I am not Cuban, therefore people don’t talk to me like I am Cuban so they don’t use as much slang when speaking to me as they do to each other. My new friends Hendrix and Mario explained this to me by speaking in Cuban slang to each other and then watching me blink at them like a slow toad when they asked if I had understood what they were saying. It’s also really interesting to see how my Spanish gets read here- I’m either Mexican, Spanish, Argentinean or something vaguely Central American. My accent is all over the place because the Spanish I’ve spoken since I was ten has been mostly with non-Salvadorans, but I feel like the harsher the accent I’m surrounded by, the more Salvadoran I sound. At least I think so. I can’t imagine leaving Havana cogiendo everything and calling everyone chico and punctuating my sentences with ya tu sabes.