-Chapter 30 from “The Spirits of Jade,” Skye Stephenson – The Cuban Connection
Barbara did manage to convince Jade to go to the art exhibit on 23rd Street. What had done the trick was when Jade learned that the exhibit was at the Center for Cuban Studies. According to Barbara, several of the top painters in the Americas were Cuban, but because they came from a Communist country their paintings sold for less than their contemporaries of other nationalities. She was hoping to find a bargain. All Jade wanted to do was see if she could pick up some more CDs of Silvio Rodríguez or some of her other favorite Cuban musicians.
They didn’t have to walk far before Barbara spotted the address – a non-descript brick building wedged between equally non-descript buildings on either side. If the two women hadn’t known that “The Center for Cuban Studies” was located here there would have been nothing posted at the entry doorway to tip them off.
Once inside, Barbara made a bee line for the paintings that were hanging in the Center’s main room. From a distance, Jade could see several other people also looking at the works of art. Barbara approached an enormous canvas that had bright and bold geographic shapes and looked at it from different angles. Jade couldn’t tell from the expression on her face if she liked it or not.
Jade found herself drawn to a much less conspicuous display of framed photographs that lined the entranceway. They seemed to be a pictorial history of the Center. She began at one end, with a photograph of about eight or nine people. From the style of their clothes, Jade guessed it was taken in the 1960s some time. She recognized a young Harry Belafonte in the group. Next to the photograph was a brief description. It said: “Some of the original founders of the Center of Cuban Studies. 1968.”
The next photograph was quite different: a building with a gaping hole in the front, rubble scattered haphazardly all around. The caption read: “The first Center for Cuban Studies was opened May 18th, 1972. It was bombed on March 28, 1973. As a result of the bombing, the Center had to relocate from 186 West 4th Street to its current location at 124 West 23rd St.”
She thought she was going to faint and momentarily put her hands to the wall for support.
A pale-skinned woman with graying frizzy hair and thick horn rimmed glasses asked Jade kindly if she was okay. Jade was surprised that a total stranger noticed. “I’m not sure. I think I need to sit down for a minute,” she managed to answer.
“There’s a seat in my office. You’re welcome to come in and rest for a few minutes if you’d like.” The woman spoke with an air of authority. Jade followed her down the hallway and into a small office. On the door it said “Director.” The office looked well used; the desk was piled high with books and papers and the single book shelf bulged with all sorts of written materials that had been crammed into whatever vacant space could be found. The computer was on; the screen saver was a map of Cuba. Across it in bright red letters were the words, “Viva la Revolución.”
“Why don’t you sit down there.” The woman indicated a rather rickety wooden chair with her right hand. There were several clunky rings on her fingers; they all looked like costume jewelry. “You’ll probably feel better after you have a break from all of the people looking to buy the best Cuban painting at the cheapest price. It can get vicious out there.”
Jade couldn’t help smiling. After staid New England, the woman’s New York sarcasm was a pleasant change. “Actually, I’m not interested in the paintings at all. I’m more interested in finding out about this Center. I was looking at the photographs and, well, I found something I’d been searching for. It’s really strange….”
“Now, that sounds intriguing. By the way, my name’s Jackie, Jackie Cohen. I’m the Director of the Center. Would you like some coffee? I guarantee you that we have the best in the City because we get it direct from Havana.”
“That sounds great. And my name’s Jade.”
Jackie picked up the phone and dialed a number. She spoke briefly in Spanish and then hung up. Her accent was impeccable. “While we’re waiting, why don’t you tell me all about the strange thing you found here.”
“It’s a long story.”
“That’s okay, Jade, I’m not in a rush. In fact, I’d love to hear it. It’ll help take my mind off some of my own problems.”
And so Jade explained all about her mother’s death and the mysterious letter she’d discovered that had a return address of 186 West 4th Street. She even told her about how she’d found out yesterday that the address was a video store and that this morning she’d just about given up hope of ever finding out more about the letter.
“It just goes to show you that even when you’ve given up hope, if something is supposed to happen, it will. It’s like this Center. There’ve been so many times over the years that I’ve almost given up hope that we’ll be able to keep our doors open, but we always do. I’m an atheist, but if I did believe in spiritual things, I’d almost call this Center a miracle.”
“Well, in a manner of speaking. We’ve been fighting against the odds for so long. We’ve even been bombed, as you just learned. In fact, I was in the building when it happened and I tell you it was about the scariest thing that I’ve ever lived through. And I’ve lived through quite a few scary things.”
“I had no idea anyone was bombing buildings in New York before the World Trade Center.”
“I’ve never thought about it that way before but the truth is the bombing was no surprise for us. We knew as soon as we decided to open a Center that would tell the real story of what Cuba is like under Castro that there’d be a lot of opposition to it. In fact, we got several death threats even before we opened. And it wasn’t only from anti-Castro groups, which was to be expected. There were also a lot of people in the U.S. government who were against it. But we were lucky, real lucky, that no one got hurt. Some other people doing pro-Cuba work at the time had it a lot worse. In fact, more than one was killed by anti-Castro bombers.”
“That’s terrible. Did they ever catch the people who did it?”
“Are you kidding? Nobody’s ever been caught, let alone charged, for any of these awful crimes and murders. I guarantee you that if it had been the other way around and some left-wing Cubans had bombed right-wing activists, it would’ve been a whole different story.”
“I didn’t know any of this.”
“Well, it’s what I like to call the ‘unofficial history’ of U.S.-Cuban relations. This isn’t the kind of thing that you read about in the history books or learn from the mainstream media.”
“So Jackie, if you were at the first office, did you know anyone who was named B.J. or Luz Clara?”
“Can’t say that those names ring a bell,” Jackie said. Then she added, “But you have to realize that back then we were using the Center as a clearing house for all sorts of correspondence between Cuba and the U.S. Since there wasn’t any official mail service between the two countries, we acted sort of like couriers. Whenever someone connected with the Center went down to Cuba, they’d bring back lots of letters written by Cubans for their family and friends in the U.S. So it’s likely, in fact I’d say it’s probable, that the letter was written by somebody in Cuba who gave it to someone connected with the Center to mail. Did your mother have any Cuban friends?”
The idea of her mother having some sort of Cuban connection seemed far-fetched. As if reading her thoughts, Jackie said, “Well, you might be surprised, Jade. There are lots of people in the U.S. who have Cuban connections and don’t talk about it because it’s illegal. There are thousands, no, I’d say tens of thousands of people from the U.S. who’ve broken the travel ban over the years because they wanted to see Cuba and its Revolution with their own eyes. And I can guarantee you, Jade, it’s not at all like what you read about in the papers here.”