Wanting to Be More than an Anthropologist in Cuba

From the Series: Cuba as Dreamworld and Catastrophe

Photo by Михаил Ковенский, licensed under CC BY SA.

In 1991, I decided that Cuba had to be a part of my life again. I had returned once in 1979 as a student, and in the 1990s I began to go to Cuba two or three times a year. As someone born in Cuba and as a child of Cuban exiles, the decision to return required fortitude. In choosing to visit the island that my parents had left to give me what they called “a better life” in the United States, I was turning my back on my family. What had been the purpose of their immigrant sacrifices if I was going to throw it all away and return to the place we had fled?

Carrying the weight of that guilt, I found it difficult to enjoy Cuba. Initially, I was terrified while I was there. I had anxiety attacks. I had heart palpitations. I was dizzy. I cried. I had nightmares. Ghosts seemed to be following me as I walked the streets of Havana, trying to trace the footsteps of my parents and my grandparents. I feared that I would disappear in Cuba and never be heard from again. Every now and then there were brief moments when I felt strangely safe, as if an angel were watching over me, and I would say to myself, “Nothing bad could ever happen to me here. This is where I was born. This is my home.”

Twenty years ago, it was commonplace to run into other Cuban-Americans who also felt vexed about their desire to return to an island they were not supposed to return to. All of us were looking for something too deep to name. We were tiptoeing to Cuba, not to shame our immigrant families or to be ridiculed in the Miami Herald, but to write our testimonies in our diaries, trying to give voice both to the sorrow of loss and to the joy of discovering how much we loved our language and our culture.

Some fellow Cuban-American travelers, after numerous trips to Cuba, returned to the United States and, at a conference or in an interview, let their tongues go loose. They expressed disappointment. They said their parents had been right after all. This was before the Internet—things were said aloud back then. Someone was listening. Someone gossiped. And afterward, some of the most outspoken critics were not allowed back into Cuba. If they got as far as the airport in Havana, they were sent away on the next plane. The door to the island closed shut.

That seemed the worst fate: to reclaim the island, after all those years away—years wondering who you would have been in Cuba—and then lose the island all over again. Every Cuban-American who went back and forth worried that it could happen to them. We walked a tightrope. Any day, the gift of being back in the place where your life began could be snatched from you.

Years before CNN and the Associated Press set up shop in Cuba and it became a fad to travel there and report back to the rest of the world, those of us who traveled to our country felt blessed. The changes I saw were small at first—almost imperceptible—but eventually it was impossible not to notice how going to Cuba had ceased to be the obsession of those needing to reclaim the lost island. Americans without ties to Cuba, who were not bogged down by emotional baggage (though often entangled in love affairs with Cubans), arrived in growing numbers. It wasn’t long before they claimed the authority to speak about the island as if it was theirs. The Columbus syndrome continues unabated.

Around the turn of the century, I remember being struck by the range of people suddenly finding their way to Cuba: well-meaning people; smart people; connected people; humanitarian travelers seeking someone on whom to bestow their charity; tourists seeking a good cigar; documentary filmmakers, journalists, photographers, and novelists seeking worthwhile stories; producers seeking musical talent; museum and gallery curators seeking edgy art; undergraduates seeking respite from their iPhones; celebrities seeking another way to be cool; models posing before ruins; investors seeking ways to make their money grow.

Of course, the anthropologists arrived too, jumping into the deep end of Cuban realities and getting to know life from inside as anthropologists are wont to do. Two of my graduate students from Michigan were among the first to do immersive research in Cuba under my mentorship, studying gay sex tourism and the rise of timba as a musical form and a social style. I too had been going to Cuba, ostensibly as an anthropologist. Even the most intransigent members of my family accepted the official story I offered for my back-and-forth trips: “You see, as an anthropologist I have to go to the places I write about, I can’t just read about them in a book. I can’t study them at a distance, I have to actually go there.”

Yet I wanted to be more than an anthropologist in Cuba. I wished to surrender to the ineffable—not to have to explain anything about Cuba, but simply to take it in, in the way I would have as a child, just by being. I couldn’t bring myself to do formal research. I hung out with the Jewish community without filming them or writing about them. I met writers and artists who became my friends and created an anthology called Bridges to Cuba (Behar 1995) to share their work, but I didn’t study them as research subjects. After giving up poetry to go into anthropology, I found myself writing poems about my experiences in Cuba, writing first in English and then in Spanish. Somehow, through this lengthy, inexact process of just being in Cuba, being an orphan wandering around the island fearing ghosts, I came back to anthropology with a sense of humility and gratitude. Blurring genres, creating a bridge between autobiography and ethnography, I was able to make a documentary, Adio Kerida (2002), and then write a book, An Island Called Home (Behar 2007), focusing on the Jewish community in Cuba that took form after the revolution and exploring what it means to call a place “home.”

I know it was not the most efficient way to do things. I certainly can’t recommend this slow, meandering, zigzagging, inconclusive form of travel as an ethnographic field method for everyone to use in Cuba. But it was the only way for me.


Behar, Ruth. 2007. An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

_____, ed. 1995. Bridges to Cuba/Puentas a Cuba. Ann Arbor, Mich: University of Michigan Press.