There are two degrees of separation between Cuba and me. As a second-generation Cuban American, I have been caught in my grandparents’ tumble between the land and sea, stuck in an obnoxious wave, unable to deliver myself to solid ground. My grandparents are among the first wave of Cuban exiles who made a lifelong vow not to return until the Castro regime fell. For some, like my maternal grandfather, a former political prisoner, a threat was attached to any promise of return. For others, the vow was made on a principle: Remain exiled until Cuba is free. I have honored and admired their fidelity to this principle, even if my itch to see Cuba is fed by the mystique the separation has created.
Growing up at the feet of Cuban exiles, I felt as familiar with my grandparents’ childhoods as I did with my own. Their memories of pre-Castro Cuba were like phantom limbs, and I felt as if my arms and legs had been sundered, too. They wondered what kinds of lives their children would have had if Fidel Castro hadn’t seized power. Eventually, I started wondering this myself. With little firsthand knowledge of life on the island, my imagination of contemporary life in Cuba was just as far removed from reality as it was from my vision of Havana in the 1950s.
Last Sunday, my Miami-centric Instagram feed was filled with reposted videos of crowds snaking through Cuban cities, waving smartphones above their heads like stakes. Cubans are protesting widespread food and medicine shortages, and blackouts and government-mandated Internet outages. But while these are the issues that may be pushing Cubans into the streets today, their chants for “Libertad” leave little room for interpretation as to what else they want. Many are demanding the end of a 62-year-old communist regime and calling for President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s immediate resignation, a bold message in a place where violent backlash is all but guaranteed.
Protesters in Cuba are also heard chanting “Patria y Vida,” a rallying cry for Cubans who oppose the communist government’s corruption and grip of citizens’ self-determination and expression. The phrase comes from a protest song released in mid-February by a group of Black Cuban pop stars and rappers-turned-activists demanding that the world bear witness to Cuba’s rot from within. This counterrevolutionary rewrite of Castro's motto "Patria o Muerte” in the form of the hashtag #PatriayVida has been a mainstay on the San Isidro Movement’s Instagram, which has been a source of information when artists have been brutalized and detained by Cuban police. Such artists include Maykel Castillo, Eliexer “El Funky” Márquez, and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the only artists who perform on "Patria y Vida" and still reside on the island.
I have never visited my patria, and have mostly connected to Cuba through music — and most of all through the music of Celia Cruz. I inherited my Celia fandom from my great-grandmothers, grandmothers, and mother — women who spoke of Celia as if they knew her personally, on a first-name basis. Along with the death of my great-great-uncle Santos when I was five, Celia’s death in 2003 was my first experience with loss. I didn’t attend Santos’ wake, but I attended hers, standing in line for hours with my mother and great-grandmothers in the July heat for her public viewing at the Freedom Tower in Downtown Miami. But among tens of thousands of other mourners, we never made it inside.
One of Celia’s songs I associate most with my childhood is “Por Si Acaso No Regreso.” Released three years before her death in the album Siempre Viviré (I Will Always Live On), the song is Celia’s final testament to her relationship with a country from which she had been officially banned by Castro. Written by Emilio Estefan and Angie Chirino, the Miami-born daughter of Cuban musician Willy Chirino, the song embodies a tradition of apolitical exile music that mourns and memorializes Cuba before the Revolution.
I listened to “Por Si Acaso No Regreso” for the first time in nearly a decade while preparing a playlist for my uncle’s birthday party. Just a month later, I came upon the music video for “Patria y Vida.” It begins by tuteando Cuba: “Y eres tú mi canto de sirena” (You are my siren song). Like Celia’s exile hymn that opens with parallel language — “Por si acaso no regreso” (In case I don’t return) — both of these songs contribute to Cuba’s postrevolutionary history where artists perform their grief for the comfort of other exiles and, whenever possible, Cubans on the island. But the two could not be more different.
Celia’s “Por Si Acaso No Regreso” is a lamentation, not a call to action. It dismisses the plausibility of Cuba’s liberation in the near future: “Por si acaso no regreso / yo me llevo tu bandera / lamentado que mis ojos / liberada no te vieran” (In case I don’t return / I’ll take my flag / regretting that my eyes / will not see you free). The only thing powerful enough to change this circumstance could come from God — “Pero yo sigo esperando y al cielo rezando” (But I keep waiting and praying to the heavens).
“Patria y Vida,” on the other hand, deviates from this elegiac tradition of exile music, initiating a new stage of collective grief: anger. This generation of artists publicly accepts the threat of artistic expression to declare the forthcoming fall of the regime, newly powered by a generation of Cubans with access to the internet. “Se acabó” (It’s over), repeats the song’s chorus. For those who worked on the song, including artists Yotuel, Descemer Bueno, and Gente de Zona — who still have family on the island — their activism may mean that they will not be allowed to return to Cuba. Celia paid that price, too. When her mother died in 1962, two years after Celia fled, the Cuban embassy denied her a visa. If she couldn’t return to bury her mother under Castro, she said she never would.
Despite being vocally anti-Castro offstage, Celia’s music remained apolitical, representing a stage in the exile community’s grief that sought comfort in preserving their chapter of Cuban history. She once said, “Emotionally, I want to go back. But never under Castro’s dictatorship. I will take the Cuba I have in my heart with me.” Songs like “Por Si Acaso No Regreso” provide aerial views of the island, illustrating that due to decades of distance, exile songs aim to connect immigrants to lost land through music and metaphor, not the people left behind. For my grandparents, leaving the country of their birth was their ultimate form of protest.
In Cuba, rap is el pueblo’s chosen sound for protest. Rappers like Los Aldeanos, Márquez, and Castillo expose the regime’s oppression and corruption, borrowing from American hip-hop to spit in the faces of their America-hating government. The organization of the song also captures the genre and generational gaps between Cuban exiles and younger residents, beginning with elements of bolero and flamenco, and setting up the song’s rap with the hook. Audibly, the chants of Cubans and Cuban Americans on the streets today imitate the cadence of the final repetition of “Patria y Vida.” In “Por Si Acaso No Regreso’s” coro-pregón (call-and-response), Celia repeats “The pain [of not returning] will kill me.” Cubans on the island are ready to accept this fate too — but they’ll die trying.
In a guest spot on “Patria y Vida,” Castillo imagines the signing of a musical constitution where a new revolution belonging to his generation is initiated with his “firma,” his signature. The song’s chorus declares, with unfailing authority, the beginning of the regime’s end. Months after its initial release, we can see how music, and specifically “Patria y Vida,” has physically and emotionally moved the Cuban people. Its prospective vision of a liberated Cuba has helped Cubans manage their fear to assert a new future for themselves. Not to live free or die, but to live free. Punto y aparte.