[Editor’s note: This article is part of a series entitled Songs of My Mother, which works to chronicle stories about the Cuban exilic experience from political refugees living in South Florida. Read Part 1 here.]
My mother got her film education through the movies: “The Big Sleep,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Casablanca.” She got her film education through the Spanish subtitles running across the bottom of the screen of the one movie theater in town. The 1950s Hollywood glamour — the furs, the jewels, the Lauren Bacall tears — the beauty of those shadows on a black and white film reel, pushing its big self into a small, hot theater during a matinee showing on a Cuban Sunday afternoon. She still remembers folding paper fans to try to stave off the heat, fans like the ones she saw the veiled women in church use, fans to swat away the flies as well as to create some movement in the dead, dull, summer air.
After the Revolution, American films (and American products in general) were prohibited in Cuba. Soviet films, though, propaganda films — those were OK. And so they were shown in the one-screen theater, and watched by my mother with as much enthusiasm as she read the Russian children’s books prescribed by the government. That is, they were not watched at all.
I’ve never known my mother to not finish a book; length doesn’t matter to her or to me. But in those instances where a book has forced me to quit, when it’s become too boring, too depressing for me, my mother will push through. That woman has read some dull and some sad books. And even if she too finds a story irredeemably sad (think: “All Quiet on the Western Front”), she will finish it. But she didn’t finish those Soviet children’s books. No, she couldn’t finish the propagandistic, moralizing stories of first-grader Seryozha doing all of his homework with acumen — Seryozha, doing his share for the cause. From her point of view, the movies were just as bad.
But it probably wasn’t just her own point of view, because when French films were shown, people would line the streets. The lines would wrap around corners; they would form hours before a showing; they would be comprised of people from the farthest parts of town. These people, who couldn’t stand to watch the Soviet films, came out in full force for the films of the French.
What began as lines wrapping around corners, my mother tells me, turned into mobs of people desperate to get a taste of the outside world, to connect with something beyond government propaganda, to enjoy art again. For young girls like my mother, these French films were a chance to see the clothing women were wearing in the free world. And as they sat in that two-storied theater with the wooden, cushion-less seats, she and her friends would take notes on what they saw to later request similar styles of the seamstress for their own dresses.
Not every Russia-themed movie bored my mother. She once told me, as I played on the piano my mistake-ridden version of “Lara’s Theme” from “Dr. Zhivago,” that she had seen the movie soon after her arrival from Cuba. She and her friends read the Spanish subtitles and cried bitterly during the length of that three-hour movie, cried because they understood the heartbreak that political upheaval brings, cried because in that story of love and loss, they had been reminded of wounds that can never be healed or made right this side of the grave.
Laura Creel (@Little_Utopia) is the managing editor of Little Utopia.
Previously from Laura Creel:
♦ Real Housewives Echo Some Real Values
♦ U.S. Government Gives Advice on How to Invest Money — Because They’re Really Good At It
♦ On Being a Miami Heat Fan
♦ Taco Bell’s Questionable Cantina Menu Campaign
♦ Minnesota Representatives Show Us They’re Serious About America’s Problems