Cuba has long been an “imagined” placed for me. I grew up with stories of a fair revolution that toppled Batista, U.S.A.-supported corrupt and repressive dictator. Stories of a society built on education and healthcare. A culture steeped in literary traditions, where the importance of words and speeches and literature are central to the expression of what it means to be human. At a very early age, before I could even understand Spanish, my Argentine father taught me to recite the poem, Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca, by José Martí.

Cultivo una rosa blanca                                I cultivate a white rose
en junio como enero                                      
in June as in January
para el amigo sincere                                    
for the sincere friend
que me da su mano franca.                         
who gives me his honest hand.
Y para el cruel que me arranca                  And, for the cruel one who rips
el corazón con que vivo,                               
out the heart with which I live,
cardo ni ortiga cultivo;                                  neither stinging nettles nor
cultivo la rosa blanca.                                   thistle do I cultivate;
                                                                         I cultivate the white rose.

(Torti translation)

Later, in my twenties, after my mother’s covert trip to the island, we learned that the country was not the utopia we’d hoped for. There was widespread repression of people who didn’t conform (e.g., gays), political detentions, and extensive control of the media. People were poor. And hungry. This was the “Special Period” of the 1990s after the island had lost critical economic support from the Soviet Union.

For two decades, Cuba fell off my radar. I was absorbed with tropical ecological research as well as the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico, which was the subject of my first novel The Scorpion’s Tail. In more recent years, I’ve been captivated by the desert and a birdsong laboratory, the scene of a new novel Cages.

Last month, the day after formal mourning for Fidel Castro ended, I had the great fortune to be part of a group of U.S. and Cuban writers whose work connects with environmental issues. We were guests of Armando Fernandez, of the Antonio Jimenez Foundation, and Norberto Codina, editor of the literary journal, La Gaceta de Cuba.

(From left to right, Carlos, a Cuban social worker and professor, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Wendy Harding, Scott Slovic, Sylvia Torti, Susie Bender and Blas Falconer in front of the tank driven to the University of Havana just after the revolution.)
(From left to right, Carlos, a Cuban social worker and professor, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Wendy Harding, Scott Slovic, Sylvia Torti, Susie Bender and Blas Falconer in front of the tank driven to the University of Havana just after the revolution.)

The trip was organized by David Taylor (Stonybrook), and my traveling companions were Scott Slovic and his wife, Susie Bender, (University of Idaho), Alison Hawthorne Deming (University of Arizona), Blas Falconer (San Diego), Wendy Harding (Toulouse, France), and Robert Michael Pyle (Washington).

We met at the Antonio Jimenez Foundation for Humans and Nature. Antonio Jimenez (1923-1998), who participated in the Revolution with Fidel, was a geographer, naturalist, and explorer. He served as the Cuban ambassador to Peru from 1972-1977, and was an avid advocate of cultural and biological diversity. In 1987-1988, he organized and directed an epic, traditional canoe expedition down the Amazon traveling 10,000 miles and passing through 20 countries with participants from each nation and culture.

blas falconer
Blas Falconer reading, Armando Fernandez taking notes

The vision of the Antonio Jimenez Foundation is of a Cuban society with a well-developed environmental conscience that recognizes nature as part of its identity. The house, museum and libraries are filled with cabinets of curiosities, papers and books written by Jimenez, and an extensive collection of original portraits of prominent Latin American writers and activists. Our readings and discussions took place in the Jimenez library, which during those days, exhibited an extensive photographic tribute to Fidel.

In just four days, I learned that Cuba is indeed a literate country, a country that has produced writers of great imagination and quality. I discovered that people in Havana are relaxed, open, warm, generous and easy-going. Indeed, those we met—either through the Jimenez Foundation or on the streets—demonstrated what you would hope and expect for any educated society: an understanding of history and culture, national pride and an ability to level a critical eye at themselves as well as the cultures and governments of other countries. Our guide at the University of Havana stopped mid-street, and said, “We want the internet. We don’t want McDonalds.”

The mantra: Reuse, Repair, and Recycle is very much apparent in Havana from the 1950s cars, the practical bike taxis, and the natural made pots at the botanical garden that grows native plants for revegetation.
The mantra: Reuse, Repair, and Recycle is very much apparent in Havana from the 1950s cars, the practical bike taxis, and the natural made pots at the botanical garden that grows native plants for revegetation.

Since coming home, I have returned again and again to one of Armando’s many perceptive comments. He said, and I paraphrase, We thank the United States for the embargo because it saved us from the perversity of consumerism that has plagued the rest of the world. I am thinking about the word perversity in this context, wondering at what point we might reject—if ever—the unchecked extraction of resources. At what point do we have enough? What might it feel like to live in a society in which nature is integral to our identity? Much of my work as an educator revolves around these complex questions.

Making Cuban friends helped change my impressions of an “imagined” Cuba to those of a real, dynamic, and vibrant nation. People who are intellectually curious, generous, and decidedly not insular. A society and economy in flux. A government that has succeeded in some ways and failed miserably in others. An environmental consciousness that struggles against the realities of too many people demanding too much from a small island. I have made plans to return, to learn more, and continue to challenge my “imagined Cuba” with real Cuba.

As we left the city, I glanced from the bus over to the right and caught a glimpse of the enormous José Martí statue. I thought of my father’s poetic verses, of our newly elected U.S. President, and the uncertainty, and in fact, the unreality of what would wait for me back home. I forced myself to focus hard on cultivating that white rose.

Walking on the Malecón along the ocean.
Walking on the Malecón along the ocean.

Syvlia Torti‘s upcoming release Cages” won the Nicholas Schaffner Award for Music in Literature and will be published by Schaffner Press this May.


CAGES is a haunting and revealing novel that concerns the ethics and motives of scientific inquiry in which two neurologists are engaged in divergent quests: one to locate the source of memory and the other to study speech patterns in humans by analyzing and manipulating bird vocalization. Both men use experiments on live songbirds in a laboratory on a university campus, and both become romantically intertwined with a woman lab assistant who takes issue with their methods, and argues for the “agency” of all living things. Overshadowing this trio are significant figures from their individual pasts-a distant mother, a former girlfriend, a best friend and ornithological expert who dies tragically while conducting field research in the Amazon, and a mentor turned lover and nemesis, and the memories that haunt these characters’ lives. This is a subtly layered novel rich in natural description and sense of place that grapples with serious philosophical and moral themes as it in turn delves into the minds of the characters, who, while driven by their passion for discovery, at the same time must confront the emotional truths in their own lives in order to be released from their own, individual cages.

cages by sylvia torti