Follow along for the Busboys and Poets Travel Tribe’s Cultural Exchange trip to Cuba (July 6-13, 2022)
By Andy Shallal (@andyshallal CEO/Founder, Busboys and Poets)
The Union of Writers and Artists is one of the oldest institutions formed after the Cuban revolution. The year was 1961. Its first president was Nicolas Guillen. Cuba’s national poet. Named so after returning back to Cuba following years of forced exile by Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista.
We are warned that there will be press today. Lots of it. This is an historic occasion where we commemorate Langston Hughes’ visit to the island. And his close connection to Guillen.
The bus pulls up to the sidewalk. Behind large ficus trees. Banana trees. Mango trees. Behind all this lushness. The 3 story mansion looks grand. Tall. With columns and arches. A tiled porch surrounds the half circular entrance. At the top of the marble staircase stands a choir. Several microphone are set up. There are a dozen or so cameras on tripods. Photographers. Government officials. Writers. Poets. The president of the Writer’s Union is among them. So is the Vice President. The Deputy Minister of Culture and the Minister himself are also present. The Minister reminds me of my uncle. Mafia-ish. Chubby. 50ish.
The building is much like most of the homes on Calle 17. They belonged to rich Cubans who left the island in 1959. Sugar plantation owners. Rum barons. Mafia. Most never returned. The government took over those buildings. Today they house schools. Trade unions. NGO’s. Some belong to corporations doing business in Cuba.
I take my spot at the top of the stairs next to the Vice President of the Union. Pedro de la Hoz. I had met Pedro on my last trip to Cuba along with Nancy Morejon, the great Cuban poet. Behind us stood a 20 person choir. They opened the program. A poem, set to music, by Nicolas Guillen. Then Pedro took the microphone. He shared the story of Nicolas Guillen and Langston Hughes’ relationship. He spoke of Hughes’ impact on Cuban culture. Of the works that Guillen produced once the two met. Of their contribution to their respective countries. I followed. Expressing my love for poetry. My admiration of Guillen and Hughes. Their importance to Cuban American relations. Culture is the connective tissue that binds us as humans. I added. Not black or white. Not Cuban or American. Not rich or poor. But human.
The Minister of Culture shook his head approvingly. Behind him the president of the Union. Luis Morlote Rivas. There were several poets and artists in the group. Mostly young. They all seemed satisfied with the message.
Pedro then turned to me. His eyes glowing with excitement. I have a surprise for you. Follow me. He said. We went up a curved marble staircase made golden by the sunlight shining through the stain glass window. At the end of the curve. A group was gathering at a doorway. Something special awaited inside.