Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cuba and Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz: Imagination over Suffering

Back in 2010, I had the pleasure of using Chicago’s public transit system, taking the train from O’Hare Airport into the city of Chicago.  As I was getting my ticket, the fellow next to me who was doing the same caught my eye.  It was that moment when you recognize someone and try to remember their name so that you can say hello but suddenly you realize that you don’t know them; rather, they are famous and that is why you recognize them.

It was Tony Plana, the wonderful actor of Ugly Betty, Three Amigos and JFK fame.

We walked together to the train and stepped in, taking seats across from each other.  He began to chat and I joined him as we discussed the simple pleasure of riding community style, meeting people and reducing our carbon footprints a wee bit.  We each asked the other why we were in town: I for a trade show and he for a play that he was “working” in.  The play, The Sins of Sor Juana, was running at the Goodman Theater and Mr. Plana was playing the lead male role. 

The play offers a dramatization of the heroic life of the historical figure Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz during the 17th century of New Spain (Mexico).  De la Cruz became an important poet of Latin America’s early Golden Age of writing.  Octavia Paz has written that he believes Sor Juana to be the most important poet of the Americas in the period before the emergence of Whitman and Dickenson. 

Sor Juana was an autodidact, a fiercely independent artist and intellectual living in a time when a woman’s role in society was found in the shadows of patriarchy and subjugation.  Before her endeavors of self-study, she had attempted to enter university disguised as a man so that she could undertake formal learning.  Through her lyric poetry and other writings, she pressed for a woman’s equal right to education, the arts and intellectual pursuits.  She died in a convent, as a nun, having written less about religion and more about the possibilities of human imagination and freedom.  Mr. Plana was full of enthusiasm for her story and being able to play a part in the retelling of it.

Here is what I learned about Tony Plana: he is a hell of a nice guy.  Missing from our encounter was any sense that he was a show business person, save the extremely white and perfectly aligned teeth that featured prominently in his big smile.  I gather that this is a requirement for folks who make their living in front of a camera or a live audience, day after day.  He seemed a humble, working guy.  He expressed his gratitude for being able work at what he loves while getting paid for it.  He was frank about making a “good living, not great” and that being good enough.  And here we were, taking public transportation.

He shared with me that he was born in Havana, Cuba, and that his family was one of those who left for Miami in 1960, the year following the revolution and the overthrow of the dictator Fulgencio Batista when Tony was eight years old.  He still had extended family in Cuba.

 I asked him what he thought of the 50-year-old US embargo.  He flatly stated that he believed it was wrong, that it brought suffering to the people of Cuba and that ending it could only improve things and allow the Cuban people to have better lives and normal relations with Americans.  I offered my agreement and also pointed out that many of his fellow Cuban-Americans in Miami held very strong views in opposition to his own.

“I know. I understand, but they’re just wrong; we can’t go on this way.  People have suffered long enough and the two countries, the people, have a lot in common.  Emotions run deep.  We could do so much….”

His voice took on a tinge of melancholy.  He went on to tell me that he believes the central facts of the embargo are about people, but that politics had eclipsed it all.

I had another question.

“So, you think it will happen in our lifetimes?”

 “Yes, it has to happen.  This makes no sense and people are needlessly suffering.”

Near the end of our ride, we talked about the play. Tony offered me tickets.  I was honest and direct, expressing my gratitude and telling him I wouldn’t be able to make it due to my work schedule, but that I would love to see it.  And I’d read up on Sor Juana, too.  I told him that some of his characters, like one he played in JFK actually scared me.  We had a good laugh.

When all of the corporate media talking heads and axe-grinders finish with the rabble, demonization, accusations and recriminations, we will stand at a moment in history when, perhaps, the imagination that Sor Juana wrote of eclipses an entrenched way of thinking that has caused unnecessary suffering. At this moment, the embargo has not been lifted and it is not clear when it will be.

We can hope that this is a moment, when common people, not politicians, will be able to reach out to each other and share their diverse human experience.