Off to Cuba - Brooklyn - 1/9/11
Contributor
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
January 2011
Contributor
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
January 2011
A large black duffel bag stuffed with canned meats, soap, toothpaste, and over the counter medicines sits in the middle of my bedroom on the eve of my trip to Cuba. I have packed it and repacked it to accomodate much needed items that I will distribute to my friends and colleagues in Havana. The Cubans call these unwieldy bags "gusanos" or worms, which is also the name that was used to describe Cubans who left the island after the revolution. Now I think there is a more nuanced and tolerant attitude about these difficult choices. I have not traveled to Cuba for ten years and I wonder what changes this decade has brought to the island. Will the streets still be full of 1940's era Chevys and Fords still miraculously running? Has increased tourism brought a new commercialism to this island that sometimes seems frozen in time? How will the planned layoffs of up to 500,000 state workers and the opening up of new opportunities for private enterprise play out? And how are my friends from the AIDS Prevention Group doing? A big part of this trip is the work I will be doing on my non-fiction narrative (working title: Unfolding: A Memoir of Forbidden Travel, AIDs and Healing in Cuba). This book chronicles a love affair with Cuba that began in 1971 when I joined hundreds of other young Americans in the Venceremos Brigade, building houses in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution. Twenty years later, after the death of my husband from AIDS and a decade of work as a pediatric nurse on the frontlines of the AIDS epidemic, I traveled to Cuba again as part of a public health delegation to understand for myself Cuba’s controversial policy of isolating HIV positive people in sanitariums. This trip was the beginning of my journey out of mourning and into a new life. It provided a way for me to re-connect with my younger self--the idealistic young woman who had set off on an adventure to a small, tropical island. In a visit to the AIDS Sanitarium in Havana in 1991, I met members of the AIDS Prevention Group, Cuba’s first peer organization for people with HIV/AIDS, and learned what it was like to live with the virus in this very different social and political context. In 1996, I returned to work at the AIDS Sanitarium, training this group to conduct HIV prevention sessions in their communities. In a photo of the AIDS Quilt panel I had made for my husband, my Cuban trainees discovered a way to remember and honor their loved ones who had died of AIDS. In the process, my own grief was transformed and I found in Cuba, once again, the strength to change. Unfolding explores the lives of HIV positive Cubans from different backgrounds: Marta, the widow of a war hero who wrote a letter to Fidel demanding dignity for AIDS patients; Cesar, a young gay man who shares the master bedroom in his mother’s Havana apartment with his partner; Jorge, who refused to enter the Sanitarium; and Roberto, one of Cuba’s inyectados, a small group who injected themselves with the HIV virus in order to take advantage of the better standard of living in the Sanitarium. Vignettes from my life and work as an AIDS caregiver in the U.S. are woven throughout the narrative, connecting what I observe in Cuba to my own struggle with stigma and loss. As I work with my Cuban friends to overcome cultural and bureaucratic obstacles and bring the AIDS Quilt to life, our shared experience in the midst of an epidemic transcends the blockade of fear and misunderstanding that has separated our two countries. This trip will give me a chance to reconnect with my Cuban friends and bring the book up to the present moment. But first I have to shlep my "gusano" to Cancun and then to Havana! Stay tuned for my impressions of daily life in Havana in 2011.

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