Every day before class, I used to shout with my elementary schoolmates: "Pioneers for communism, we'll be like Che!" I could have sworn on God (well, on Marx) that I meant it. After all, who would not want to be like Che Guevara? He was a revolution leader. All of the classrooms had his picture on the wall. Yet I often dreamed of being an astronaut or an Olympic champion.
In middle school, we no longer had to promise to be a replica of Che. Instead, like the grown-ups and Fidel Castro, we must warn the Yankees not to mess with us. "Homeland or death, we shall triumph!" My new routine confused me. For example, if someone had two pieces of paper ("homeland" written on one; "death" on the other) and hid one in each hand, you would first have to guess in which hand your choice was hidden in order to triumph.
I almost asked my Spanish teacher if "homeland or death" was a question and "we shall triumph" was its answer, but I didn't want to be the most stupid student in my class. Besides, nobody had asked my opinion.
Several years later, I would be thinking about slogans again. The collapse of the Soviet Union, our sugar daddy, had led to an economic crisis in Cuba. Twelve or more hours of daily power outages harassed neighborhoods without mercy. Hoarding water became a nightmare for those who did not have enough reservoirs. At some kitchen tables, steaks changed into grapefruit steaks; soap sometimes substituted for toothpaste.
However, Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, was kept in circulation. Such detail did not seem to bother some people because those pages also replaced toilet paper.
But, according to Castro, we should resist as revolutionaries and blame our economic shortages on the three decades of the American embargo. Therefore, "Socialism or death, we shall triumph!"
How many times should it take to repeat "socialism or death" before concluding man cannot live on slogans alone? How many times should it take to repeat "socialism or death" before understanding there are more alternatives in life? How many times should it take to repeat "socialism or death" before realizing man is not a crowd but an individual?
Something had to change. In fact, some Cubans chose to build rafts and risk their lives in the Florida Straits to reach American land. Others chose to stay and proclaim that the homeland was for everybody regardless of their political affiliation and that no person should be deprived of his human rights. Of course, the state media portrayed them as weak-minded or maggots driven astray by counterrevolutionary propaganda from the Cuban Mafia in Miami and the American government.
I chose to seek refuge in an imaginary world, the library. Obviously, such books as "Animal Farm," "1984" and "The Power of the Powerless" did not exist there. My intuition, though, told me that a few subversive books might have escaped censorship. I looked forward to their enlightenment. I wanted to find out who I was and what my place should be in society. Then I found "The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind" by Gustave Le Bon. This book was not only a sort of dictator's manual, but also a picture of me, a sheep.
But I was not a sheep. The day I raised a sign in the street claiming my human rights, I was put in jail. I felt like a beast, and it felt so great because I knew from that day on I would be a free man.
Alexander Hernandez, a refugee from Cuba now living in Buffalo, cherishes his freedom.