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Raul y Pipo: A Conversation Across the United States and Cuba

Two Cubans, one in Havana and one in California, talk immigration, daily life, and the future of the relationship between the United States and Cuba.

It's no secret that the United States’ relationship with Cuba is a complicated one. However, after President Obama’s historic visit to the island last March—and the easing of travel restrictions into the island country—the once-icy relations seem to be warming up. Today, as direct flights to Cuba from the United States are becoming the norm and tourism to the country is increasing, we found ourselves asking, “What now?” And more specifically, “What is daily life like for the people of Cuba, and what do they see happening in these changing times?”

Enter Raul Parra Orizondo and his grandfather, Alberto Orizondo Iguzquiza—affectionately referred to from now on as Pipo. Raul (age 32) moved to the United States three years ago, and Pipo (age 91) still lives in Havana. Over numerous telephone calls (poor phone connections are a standard in calls between the two countries), Raul and Pipo talked about their daily lives, the U.S. embargos on Cuba, American interest in travel to Cuba, the island’s economy, and that famous flirtatious character that Cubans are often associated with.  

Raul and his Pipo.
Raul: ¿Qué bolá? How are you, Pipo? What did you do this weekend?

Pipo: I just finished writing the history of the United States. Now I have to sit down on that machine to copy it and save it on a memory, so I can send it to you.


Raul:
Do you have a laptop?

Pipo: No, a computer is very difficult to obtain here. It’s very expensive—printers too, because of the ink. Is it expensive there?

Raul: But a laptop—it’s one of those computers that open and close like a little suitcase. That way you don’t have to use so much paper.

Pipo: And how do I save it?

Raul: You know, my mom can send it to me through email. If you want to live to 120 years old and walk with the robots, you need to stay updated! Pipo, will you tell me how you feel having part of the family in the U.S.A. and the rest in Cuba?

Pipo: Una jodienda! (Pain in the neck). At first I got angry, but it seems to me that it’s a part of the moment that we are living in now. Look, you all went to find a better life there—that’s true, I have no doubt about that—and I am not going to get angry about that. Now I have the whole family in photos on one wall in my room. Everyone! In Havana, the only people I have are my two daughters, two grandchildren, and one great grandchild—the rest, they all got out of here. ¡Se fueron pal carajo!

Raul: Will you talk to me a little about your experience visiting the U.S.A.?

Pipo: Viejo, I had a good time. I liked it! Miami is very bright, but in Florida it seems like the people are always inside their houses—it’s not like Cuba, chico. In Miami, people don’t go out a lot. My daughter works, my son-in-law works, my grandson works, and I was just there alone.

Raul: Will you give me an example?

Pipo: One day I went out to walk, and there was a bench in front of a house that I would sit on. In that house there lived a little old woman. She was Cuban, and her neighbors were also Cuban—I would walk by the neighbors but they never greeted me. Then, one day, the old lady started talking to me and asked me, “Do you like coffee?” I said, “Yes, of course, everyone likes coffee.” So I started going there every day for coffee, and the neighbors started greeting me, and one of them said to me, “Why don’t you come here one day and stay, and we can keep you company?” Now, these women were 60 and 70 years old, and I jokingly said, “No, no! I prefer two women who are 30 over one who is 60.” Ay, mi hermano, they didn’t talk to me ever again, and there was no more coffee.

Raul: Pipo, what makes you such a flirt?

Pipo: You know more than I do!

Raul: Was there ever a time when your jokes or your flirting wasn’t well received in Cuba?

Pipo: ¡Metí la pata! (I messed it up). There was a very pretty, very well-cultured woman who was teaching my sociology class at the adult university. She seemed to like me, and there was an old man in class who said, “Hey, she’s into you,” and I said, “Carajo, relax.” So one day I stayed after class and she said to me, “Hey, Orizondo, do you practice tai chi?” I said, “Yes, I practice tai chi, of course—it’s very good.” And she said, “Yeah, yeah I can tell. You are very strong, so healthy—you look like a muchacho.” (Young man). So I said, “Señora, if only I had the same strength from the waist down!” ¡Ay, mi madre! She made a face like . . .

Raul: ¡Ay carajo! 

Pipo: She sighed, and then she left! And the old man who sat next to me was laughing, and I said, “You better be quiet, cabrón!” In the end, mi hermano, the woman never came back to class.

Raul: Pipo, do you think that flirting is something of your generation, or is it something that happens all the time in Cuba?

Pipo: Oh no, that’s normal.

Raul: Are any of your family members like that? Are any of your grandchildren or daughters like that?

Pipo: Your mom!

Operator:

“¡Usted tiene viente minutos!”

(You have twenty minutes!)

Raul: I’m driving my car here for Uber,  and a lot of people are curious about going to Cuba, because they want to go before it changes. They are all asking me about when it is going to change—because many people have experienced that when U.S. relations with a country change, especially an island, it becomes a party destination for vacationers. You know? Although the economy of the island may get better, a majority of the people who live on the island will no longer be able to pay the standard of living.

Pipo: Raul, my brother, the revolution is made by the people—and precisely for this reason, to end hunger and misery. The world is walking towards a world of peace. Of tranquility—without war—and the solution is to be friends, to be brothers. You hear? To do this, all humans have to be in solidarity. And we are doing that. As Martí said, “Brothers of the whole world—the good for the good of all!”

Raul: In Cuba, because we have the same system of education, because everyone studies the same thing, our concept about the world is very different than in the United States. In the U.S., schools can have different programs, their own curriculums. Often people just join in their own circles—if you have money, you gather with those who also have money.

Pipo: We don’t have that. What we have is the jodienda of having to always go forward, forward. ¡Echa palante! ¡Palante! ¡Palante! Onward. The majority of us have only one path. Do you see the difference? Over there not everyone can go to the universities. And over here, anyone can go. Every province has a university! At 87 years old, for example, I enrolled in the adult school where I graduated, chico. At 87 years!

Raul: I know, I have your thesis.

Pipo: I just did what every old man here could do, you see.

“No Es Fácil . . .”

Raul: Can I share my opinion on something?

Pipo: What’s your opinion?

Raul: I think that when someone travels not only to migrate, but also to go out and learn—to see other cultures, other ways of living—I think that when you do that, you learn to value more the culture that you come from.

Pipo: Of course.

Raul: Because when I lived in Cuba I thought that in the U.S.A. or any other country, everything was perfect, that things were better—and that there were more opportunities. But I’ve also learned that I had thousands of good things, and that I didn’t value or understand because I didn’t have the opportunity to compare them with other things.

Pipo: Raul, that’s how it is. Asi es la vída.

Pipo's bedroom in Havana.
Raul: After living in the U.S, the only thing that I would change in Cuba is giving people—individuals—the possibility of having their own businesses. A majority of the people who left Cuba left because they wanted to start a business. The only people who left for a political reason left years ago—people now aren’t as interested in politics. They leave because they want work. But imagine if they could do that in Cuba! There are so many limitations. 


Pipo:
Yeah of course! That’s what we work for, that’s what we are fighting for. 

Raul: But in Cuba there are people who have gotten their master’s degree, and then get their doctorate, and they reach a point where they are super experts in some material. But the money they make isn’t enough to feed them in Cuba, no es fácil.

Pipo: No, it’s not easy. No es fácil. 

Raul: You know, Pipo, most Cubans here in the U.S. are really not interested in politics, because many feel deceived with the political history of Cuba. But they are concerned that the relations between Cuba and the U.S.A. could become unfavorable for Cubans living here. In the sense that they think that many businesspeople from the U.S.A. going to Cuba are entrepreneurs who are going to open businesses, while the Cubans who are there don’t have the same opportunity or possibility to make their own businesses on the island. You understand? 

Pipo: Of course. Everything should be equal. You understand? No hay problema.  

Raul: So you think that Americans have the same possibilities as Cubans?

Pipo: Equal, equal, of course. We are and they are. It’s in the best interest of the Americans to have not only good businesses, but good relations with us. And we are interested in good relations with them. We need to agree, chico. And we will.

“It’s Not Easy . . .” 

Raul: I heard they are going to start the blackouts again in Cuba.

Pipo: Well, in a more rational way. The blockade continues, and now not only for us, but also in Venezuela. Basically Venezuela is stranded, and because we received a lot of petroleum from them, we have to make wind or solar power.

[Editor’s note: These blackouts Raul is referring to are organized power outages because there isn’t enough oil in Cuba. When Venezuela was oil-rich, it was supplying it to Cuba in exchange for medical help, but now Venezuela is in crisis and Cuba is left with few other sources for energy. This used to happen in the 1990s during the “special period” after the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba had no ally. Although tourism is booming, it seems that the quality of life for Cubans might be worse than even five years ago.]

Raul: I think it’s important that the government in Cuba promote alternative energy, such as solar, so they don’t have to rely on other countries.

Pipo: We are doing it, viejo. Estamos guapeando, don’t think that we are going to stand still—we are walking forward.

 Operator:
“¡Usted tienes sesenta seguntos!”

Raul: Pipo, we have 60 seconds for our besos! I love you!

 Pipo: I love you too. Big hug for you and a kiss for your lady.

 Raul: Hasta la victoria siempre. (Until victory, always).

 Pipo: Venceremos (We will overcome). You’ll see.

 

The conversations were translated by Raul Orizondo and AFAR’s associate photo editor, Alex Palomino. Edited by Kyana Moghadam.