Disclaimer: I am a Swarthmore student studying abroad in Havana, Cuba for the semester. My experience is not representative of the experience of actual Cubans or anyone else living on the island right now, nor any/all people who identify as women or who have experiences or claims to “womanhood” (besides myself), especially since that term is so variant and precarious anyway.
Last week in my Cuban film class, we watched a film called Amor Vertical (Vertical Love). To crudely summarize the plot: the protagonist, a young woman named Estela, attempts to find a quiet, private space in Havana to have sex with her new boyfriend. What the movie – and Havana – does time and time again, is fail her, spectacularly, in her search for privacy.
Perhaps it isn’t the “point” of the film to draw our attention to the private and public spaces of intimacy, and more specifically, womanhood in Havana. But watching this woman flounder in her escape from everyone – from her family to the environment to the state – invites reflection on bodies, identity and space in the city.
I thought about my own experience here, and specifically the ways in which I, a person who identifies as a woman, visiting and studying in Havana, understand the space I am so lucky to take up here this semester, and who I am in it. What constitutes my womanhood here? And how do two things fairly particular to Cuba, socialism and the decrease in what I consider “private space,” alter my womanhood?
The fact is there’s a lot less private space in Cuba than there is at Swarthmore College, my other impermanent home. It’s hard to compare these two places, Havana and Swarthmore, because they are so vastly different. But I’ll try.
I’m not sure that I have an entirely private space here in Cuba. I live with a roommate and housemates; the closest I get to alone is sitting by myself on the Malecón, the seawall that stretches alongside the city, and conveniently lies a five-minute walk from my apartment. My already uncertain sense of safety and solitude is interrupted in my moments of attempted privacy. I feel myself turning hostile toward that which is outside of me, but also inside of me, including my identity as a woman.
My study abroad group was warned before our arrival about the culture of “machismo” in Cuba, the kind that would seep from private interactions into public ones, on sidewalks and in bars, and bleed into all of the territory in between. We were told about the piropos (catcallers) and the emotional burden they could impose, how it might be grating to hear as much catcalling as is normal on the streets of Havana. And a lot of times machismo is an invasion of my space, whether public or private, and, by extension, my sense of self, especially as a woman.
But machismo and the unfortunately frequent moments of discomfort that, for me, shape what it means to be a woman, don’t disappear when I’m in the U.S. or at Swarthmore. In both places I find challenge and joy in womanhood, and often find womanhood defined by the specific challenge of trying to find joy in being a woman. In both places, that which acts against women creates situations of discomfort, vulnerability and violence in all sorts of space, both public and private.
There is a very special place, however, created by the tension between public and private in Cuba– the physical space of disrupted privacy that Estela in Amor Vertical can’t flee. Unlike Estela, though, I have found a different sort of relationship in distorted privacy that has allowed me to celebrate the part of myself that I define as “woman.”
The unique publicity of so many parts of life here opens up a third space within the context of womanhood that doesn’t feel like a challenge or an invasion. During my time here, the space of female friendship has been able to bridge the gap between public and private life, and has created space for me to be a woman, and be happy about it.
At our program’s group meeting last week, over sweet cake and hot coffee, my friend raised her hand and said something to our program directors that we’d all been humming about for six weeks, but had not yet addressed together: it is very hard to make platonic friendships with Cuban women. The rarity of these friendships has been frustrating and disappointing. But suffice it to say, for reasons that are too complex to summarize here and that are certainly no one’s fault, we were struggling to find, amongst a sea of other extranjeros and men, something a few of us had experienced and found invaluable: girl friends.
Myself and others have been fortunate to have found female friendships, though, and the result has been rewarding. The promise of common ground and understanding, the novelty and implicated trust within these female friendships, and within the constant exposure of Cuban life, engenders a different sort of exposure that I can most closely define as “private.”
Inhabiting a place defined and created by women (friendship) in the physical, hyper-public environments in which we so often find ourselves – the University of Havana, where we take classes all together, Coppelia, the state-run ice cream parlor, bars, the Malecón – help us feel excited about taking on both our interiority and the outside, private and public worlds, together. For me, this has been one of the happiest and most comfortable iterations of womanhood I’ve experienced.
I’m thankful to be learning from my discomfort and am glad to have found this liminal public-private space, where I can finally delight in womanhood – in safety and autonomy but also in, fundamentally, something shared. I haven’t been in Swarthmore in a while, but I wonder if this third space exists there, too.