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“They have their bloggers, we have our bloggers…

Let’s see who’s stronger…”

Those are the alleged words of a Cuban official in a report circulated by the Global Post and re-published in Repeating Islands. The official was talking about the possibility of opening Internet access to the people of Cuba, and the consequences of that possible opening.  The discussion was recorded in the context of the case of Alan Gross, a U.S. national imprisoned in Cuba for posing as a tourist and trying to set up portable satellites to deliver public Internet access in Cuba.

I think Che Guevara must have heard me take his name in vain (see previous post) and is sending a Tweet from Revolution Heaven. There’s no denying that Internet access and mobile technology are the postmodern revolution tools of choice. Even in places dominated by old regimes like Cuba,  people in power are noticing what’s happening from Cairo to Iran. The Cuban official reportedly likened Alan Gross’ reputed actions to the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, noting that “this guy [Gross] came with different arms.”

The Cuban Battle of Ideas might have just entered a decisive round in a 40+year match. Read the whole story: http://repeatingislands.com/2011/02/15/a-simmering-cyberwar-with-cuba/

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Back to the beginning

…That was the year the Reyes Magos (Three Wise Men who bring gifts on the eve of Epiphany), left a book under her bed. It was big and colorful and it had a sturdy cover. The title was Héroes en Zapatillas (a 1974 Spanish translation of Varona and Olivar’s Eroi In Pantofole, Edizione Paoline, Roma, 1971). Every European hero from Aníbal to Ulises, and with the generous inclusion of Gengis Khan, was there in caricature form. No mention of women.  Still, the book provided hours of entertainment and later she would beg her mother to keep it for her when she went to college. (The book is still around for the granddaughter. It’s yellow, not as colorful, and the pages are coming off the unstitched spine. It will be a supplement to the heroine stories they’ll read.) 

By the time she was in eleventh grade, our girl barely recalled the details of the medical kit from Christmas Past. But she remembered the feeling. Everything started to come back to her as if in a tunnel when her guidance counselor refused to give her an SAT application.

“Una niña como tú debería quedarse aquí (en la isla) con su mamá y su papá.” (“A girl like you should stay here (on the island) with her mom and dad.”) He wanted me (you already knew it was me) to concentrate on taking the College Board exam and forget about the SAT. I guess La Academia (my parochial private school) was more interested in raising overall scores than in placing their students where they wanted to be. I switched high schools my senior year and chose not to graduate with my friends over this. I did great on the College Board, got into UPR Rio Piedras, and Sagrado Corazón just in case, then turned around and left for FSU. It wasn’t easy. No one wanted me to leave. Many said I wouldn’t make it past the first semester. Too young, too sheltered, too attached to family. I went around all objections. Found a friend who went to school at Fort Buchanan to get me an SAT application, took the test at her school without any help. Then I took things one step at a time. My parents saw how determined I was and rallied behind me. My whole family sacrificed a lot to send me to college. Every semester was a small miracle. Twenty-something years later, my life is a miracle. The doors that seem to close just lead me to better things than the ones I imagined for myself. And really, I have a lot of say on which doors close.

So, listen to your children. Pay special attention to the girls and take their dreams seriously. Don’t tell anyone, boy or girl, how to play –let them teach you how to play. And for the record, I don’t want to be a boy anymore. Life’s more interesting as a girl.

All this writing about cross-dressing female doctors from the 19th century got me thinking about another story. Habia una vez una niña que queria ser niño. She did not dislike herself, she just wanted to be more than what people told her she could be.

It started one Christmas morning when she was three. She tore open the last present to find a strange red box inside. It was plastic and it looked like a lunch box, only bigger and with a curved top. Inside the strange red box she found small white instruments. There was a long cord with a plastic cone at one end and two plugs on the other which her mother said went in her ears.  “To listen to your heart beating.” There was a thin plastic cylinder with some lines on it, to take your temperature.

Her grandfather offered himself as a patient and she eagerly went about the task of becoming a doctor. But after she had examined her patient and decided which small bottle contained the right medicine for him, grandfather said “you will be a good nurse someday.” The game suddenly stopped. She wanted to cry, but she didn’t know why. The lump in her throat turned into a yell as she threw the medical bag on the floor and said she didn’t want to play anymore. At three years of age she knew that if she couldn’t play doctor, the role she chose, there was no sense in playing the game at all.

Later, she played Zorro with her neighbor Jorge and with her younger sister. The long pods from the flamboyant tree (a royal poinciana) made good swords and sabres. She didn’t listen when she was told to take the old blankie off her neck. That made a good cape. Zorro made a good role model, for lack of any female ones. There was much jumping off tree stumps and swinging from torn clotheslines, unsheathed sword (pod) cutting a Z in the air. 

On January 6, 1978 she would have been nine…

(Second part.)

Tuve la oportunidad de dar una charla a un grupo de académicos en New Orleans sobre el personaje histórico de Enriqueta Faber (1791-?). Ella fue la mujer francesa que se vistió de hombre para estudiar medicina en París y eventualmente sirvió como cirujana en el ejército de Napoleón y fue a parar a Cuba donde fue enjuiciada por hacerse pasar por hombre. Sus habilidades como médico nunca estuvieron en cuestión. Los detalles de su vida se pierden en las calles de New Orleans, a donde fue desterrada en 1823. Nadie sabe qué le sucedió ni si volvió a ejercer la medicina, pero el economista y escritor cubano Antonio Benítez Rojo (1931-2005) le dió vida y alma en su novela Mujer en Traje de Batalla (Woman in Battle Dress).  Fue un honor muy grande para mí discutir una obra tan importante frente a un grupo de gente que conoce bien cómo la economía de las plantaciones en el sur de Estados Unidos  y el Caribe (sin olvidar el resto de las Américas) explotaba a esclavos(as), mujeres y niños para alimentar trapiches de azúcar, molinos de café y fábricas de tabaco. (Todavía nos explotan, pero para otros productos.)

La historia de cómo Enriqueta pudo burlar ese sistema por un tiempo y lograr una carrera en espacios masculinos es más impresionante al toparnos con el hecho de que ella no fue la única. Mi audiencia estadounidense en la charla estaba informada sobre la vida de Loreta Janeta Velázquez, una cubana educada en New Orleans que se hizo pasar por hombre para participar como soldado y espía en la Guerra Civil de Estados Unidos. Sus memorias fueron publicadas en 1876. Su disfraz no fue descubierto hasta que ella misma se lo quitó. Loreta da una larga introducción en su libro sobre otras mujeres que, desde Juana de Arco, se atrevieron a luchar a la par de los hombres. Casi todas pagaron muy caro – no tanto sus causas sino su travestismo. Y el cambiarse el vestuario era la única forma de luchar por sus causas. Enriqueta no tenía otra opción para lograr su sueño de curar enfermos. O se vestía de hombre y se iba a estudiar o se quedaba buscando marido en los bailes, como ella misma (o Benítez Rojo con voz de mujer) narra en la novela.

Entre la gente que asistió a mi charla estaba la novelista Cristina Garcia (Dreaming in Cuban, The Agüero Sisters). Ella era la Keynote Speaker en la conferencia esa noche y vino a la charla a escuchar a mis compañeros panelistas discutir las obras de ella sobre cubanas en el exilio. (Yo me hubiera puesto nerviosa si mi autor pudiera haber estado allí, aunque me gustaría pensar que estaba allí en espíritu.) Después de la charla tuve la oportunidad de hablar con ella y me preguntó más sobre la vida de Enriqueta. También me habló de su personaje Chen Fang  en Monkey Hunting, quien se educó en China a principios del siglo XX vestida de hombre. Chen Fang resulta ser otro ejemplo de mujeres sin fronteras, ni de género ni de nacionalidad. El mundo las miró como aberraciones, cuando en realidad fueron personas  muy productivas y ahora admiradas.  En el caso de Enriqueta, ella tuvo que traspasar frontera tras frontera: era francesa haciéndose pasar por cubano para estudiar en París. En Cuba era conocida como Enrique Faber, doctor cubano con acento francés. Y pensar que yo puedo ir, vestida de puertorriqueña y con acento boricua, a hablarle a un montón de profesores norteamericanos con acento sureño acerca de un escritor cubano que escribe como una francesa que pasaba por cubano para ser doctor(a). Alguien pagó el precio por mí, para que mi vida sea lo que es. No todo ha cambiado, pero mi generación entiende que muchas cosas son como la cuchara que se dobla en la película The Matrix:  “There is no spoon.” Las limitaciones de géneros y fronteras son para doblegarse ante el poder de nuestra voluntad  –  porque no son nada.