Israel Rojas: An artist is a social nerve


This article is part of the series La cultura en defensa de la nación [Culture and the defense of the nation]

The name of the series Culture in defense of the nation includes at least a couple of distinguishable terms: defense of the nation and culture. In this respect, what’s your view about culture? How wide-ranging or narrow do you think it is? How is it related to the defense of the nation?

Israel Rojas: You can be Cuban from either a narrow or a broad perspective. Cuban-ness encompasses from how you walk and behave to what you eat. It’s a very singular worldview even within the Caribbean context—as mestizo and mixed as it is insular, where it’s not always recognized but from which it definitely can’t escape—without necessarily being committed to the nation. Ideally, it would always be like that, but it’s not. Culture in itself has a life of its own. Contradictory as it may seem, cultural expressions don’t always assume of necessity the defense of nationality.

As I see it, the nation is something much more comprehensive, as it encompasses culture—no doubt— but it also goes beyond that. I’m not exactly a specialist in ethnology or sociology, but let’s say that given my limited view of what each field covers, perhaps I can’t describe it in technical words, but I do know how to distinguish it inwardly. I think there’s a way of going deeper into our own Cuban-ness as human beings as we get to know our country better and become more aware of all the different feelings coming from the various social strata that make up our Cuban self… People in [the town of] Baracoa are as different from those in [the province of] Pinar del Río as a black Cuban is from a white one, or a taíno descendant like me from someone who doesn’t recognize themselves as such. And of course, a Cuban who lives in Cuba today is different from another one who doesn’t, and even—why not?—from those who feel culturally Cuban even if they were born elsewhere to Cuban parents. I believe that as you go deeper into and get to know better the polychromy that we call «Cuban-ness» you become a little more Cuban, even when it comes to the flavors of the Cuban traditional cuisine.

On the other hand, I strongly believe that, after such a long time under siege and trying to exist, a nation like ours becomes more resistant, which in itself challenges and affects, sooner rather than later, our way of being as Cubans.

I also believe in the country that we make and dream of, conceived by every one of those who were once part of a vanguard that imagined, dreamed of, and fought to make that ideal country possible. A country with a political, economic and social system which leaves no one unprotected or out of the equation; the country «with all and for the good of all» that [Cuban national hero José] Martí described—he was not a socialist but had a vocation to cast his lot with the most disadvantaged. Such a way of preconceiving a supportive world and our overall perspective as Cubans also defines and makes us the way we are.

I definitely believe that Fidel was right when he said that culture was the nation’s shield and sword. Culture is part of the framework that shapes the defense of the nation. Such is my humble opinion.

It’s very interesting that you stress diversity when you speak of the nation as a wide-ranging and unifying concept. How to link the diversity of approaches to Cuban-ness from different perspectives with a much more comprehensive project like the national one?

Israel Rojas: I think that those patriotic concepts, found throughout Cuban history, are fairly strong considerations when it comes to shaping and articulating that diversity. I find it quite revealing, however casual it may seem to be, that history has woven with threads of glory the fact that Martí fell in Oriente and [independence war general Antonio] Maceo in Havana. Or that the popular imaginary of regions with high black population density like Songo La Maya or Guantánamo claims José Antonio Aponte as their own, when he was actually a native of Havana, a westerner, and you can make him part of your own history. There is a very strong base of national unity there.

The formation of the Cuban nationality has been closely related to these aspirations for freedom, to the reality of always having an antagonist who confronts and hinders you and an external element that challenges you. All of this gradually defined our Cuban-ness: the peculiar habit of thinking “what we would be like if…” I don’t know a better word than “aspirational”. We have always had a way of looking at ourselves: what we would be like had it not been for this or that obstacle. I don’t know whether it’s the same in every nation, but in Cuba the main heroes and the most important literary and musical works—produced by that cultural, political and even philosophical vanguard of thinkers—not only recreated their time but also thought about the Cuba of the future… Look at a man like José Antonio Saco, who was pro-Spain and yet endeavored to improve his own milieu and thought and created so much for the future. That’s why he is such an essential figure in Cuban history.

These aspirational elements are part of our own history and foundations as a nation. Maybe that explains everything, and it’s really very interesting. We are even geolectically different: people in Pinar del Río have a typical tumba’o [swagger]; we from eastern Cuba have another; people from the Habana-Matanzas Plains and up to Villa Clara have their own, which differs from those who live in Havana. People in the provinces of Las Tunas, Granma and Holguín speak differently than those in the cities of Santiago, Guantánamo or Baracoa. We have a few distinctive features. Nonetheless, despite those expressions of fruitless regionalism and provincialism, which divided and debilitated us to the point of frustrating our first wars of liberation, national unity became all the more necessary. We can’t ever overlook that fact. We shed a lot of blood to achieve territorial or cultural unity as a social construction, but whatever we can construct can just as easily be deconstructed.

I think we have been more separated by class stratification than by regionalism. In the long run, the economic issues have always played a more decisive role vis-à-vis the achievement of national unity than, say, your birthplace, so much so that you can recognize a Cuban—or someone said to be Cuban even if they are foreigners or born elsewhere—as long as they mingle with and behave as expected from a Cuban. Would you just look at such a big and beautiful detail! We can even accept, embrace and welcome perfectly well a Cuban wannabe as one of us simply because they wish to be so. I believe that’s a big thing.

You wondered to what extent our status as a besieged and resistant nation has been a unifying and influential factor to us. I think that it also has to do with resistance from the cultural viewpoint to the attempts at imposing a hegemonic culture worldwide. Are we now more or less vulnerable to those attempts? Why?

Israel Rojas: I couldn’t say whether we are more or less vulnerable. What I do know is based on the strengths and weaknesses that I see.

Our strengths spring first of all from education and instruction. I usually say that our own Egyptian pyramids and our Empire State are not tangible, but spiritual works. That on September 1 to 5, depending on the year and the day of the week, the Cuban school year beings for all children from San Antonio to Maisí regardless of their creed, race, or region, and that it’s only natural that Cuban seven-year-olds can read and write, that is a strength. I only thought of writing Pi 3.14 when I was totally convinced that any Cuban 15- or 16-year-old knows what Pi 3.14 is; even those who don’t have a head for mathematics know it, they had to learn it. A country with such strengths is a bit better prepared to be conscientious.

We even boast a philosophical culture. Cuba is no bed of roses for the terraplanists. Some major strata of our society are still very politicized and fond of political reflections, philosophy and arguments about the meaning of life. I think we still have a big critical mass here that supports, for instance, theater. I find it incredible and wonderfully positive that a work like Hierro is a box-office hit. It’s great to see that the jazz festivals enjoy good health; that in spite of all the hardships we still hold the Book Fair; that in spite of all the wheeling and dealing the Havana Biennial Art Exhibition remains a feast of fine arts; and that the Caribbean Festival in Santiago is a popular celebration. The resurgence of a regional event such as the Romerías de Mayo [May Pilgrimages]; that each territory has new or traditional cultural events in common; this speaks well for our strengths. So do the commendations we have received in Olympiads of exact or computer sciences at international level. Those are also strengths.

It’s not the case, I believe, in matters like our current lame policy of advancement to leadership positions. I wouldn’t describe it as terrible, but it’s definitely out of tune with our needs insofar as it fails to prioritize our best people for the best positions. A country like ours cannot afford that luxury, since the war against us is too fierce and harsh for us to keep believing that our people are recyclable: «don’t worry, dismiss him; stick your hand in the raffle box and take out another name». That’s not how it works.

Not long ago I heard one of the few things I consider very objective in this regard. It came from Alejandro Gil, our Minister of Economy, who said that the Cuban businesspersons should work with a margin of risk, which is equivalent to a margin of error. So, if we acknowledge that it’s impossible for the economy to work without a margin of error, why think that in politics a risk-taking politician or official who tries to change something will not make a mistake at some point? We often think that we have a factory of leaders at our disposal, but life is proving us wrong. We don’t. The most suitable people we have are not there where they are most useful. Or we keep them there for too long, and then we say, «We didn’t have anyone else».

We have paid the price. Of course, the historical generation has made a huge effort, but that has its negative side. Some comrades have held a position for too long, perhaps preventing the emergence of new cadres and people capable of doing the same job with great skill.

I think many people still fail to realize that [Cuban president] Díaz-Canel’s mandate has its days numbered, according to the dates and duration of the periods of office established in the new Constitution. He will be in office for only so much time. We should be thinking about and assessing the best names for the job. We should realize that it was [Fidel Castro’s brother] Raúl who nominated Díaz-Canel, and with great fanfare to boot, calling him the one who had survived. But that sperm policy will not work forever. Besides, in my opinion, it’s suicide, because we might have just discarded very good people in the process. We cannot just place the winning “sperm” at the helm of every stratum of our society. That’s not how things work. We have to qualify and train people, but keeping in mind our responsibilities, because things may change any minute and it could be you, if you’re ready, who will take over a given task by popular vote, perhaps out of a historical obligation or an ethical commitment to your fellow citizens. Even if it’s a form of recognition and a source of pride, it’s not a reward, and it will never be a privilege.

It’s one of the shortcomings that we usually disregard in relation to the huge challenges facing our nation, because a nation will be saved or killed by its best or its worst people.

There are plenty of examples in our country’s history as well as in the world.

This is very important to me, as it is to every lieutenant and captain, to every Intendant and Governor, to whomever holds a responsible position, including in the cultural, radio and TV sectors. Today our best people are excelling in the private sector rather than in the State system from which our cadre policy draws sustenance. What we have in the end is a short circuit.

It’s utopian to think that man has no aspirations. It has a nice ring to it, but it’s totally out of keeping with social psychology. The question is what you aspire to. Provide a better service? Bring down the wall. Be an example of transparency in regard to our personal and family wealth? Bring down the wall. Be remembered by our people as an example of dedication? Bring down the wall.

How to get organized so that our best people can take charge? Some of our first-rate people are already leaving us. Does that mean that we will have to build our country with third-rate people?

Are those of us who stayed here on that third-rate level? No, many first-rate people stayed here. What can’t happen is that those first-raters who stayed are not holding positions in which they can really help this country make much more progress. Everybody here knows that’s what makes the difference. It’s one of the problems we have and, I think, a major weakness.

Another extremely important variable that we have to deal with is the technological revolution and its impact on both global culture and ourselves. We can’t escape that.

Just as the Industrial Revolution changed the world, so too is the technological one. Things will have changed by the end of the century, what with the arrival of the Internet, the 5G network and whatever will follow, because it won’t stop there.

Are we ready to understand that process? To what extent were those cultural barriers actually cultural resistance? The information arrived slowly and you had time to prepare. Now it comes very quickly, often scientifically treated and—as we just saw in Illescas’s book[1]—almost surgically structured, with enough pounds of science to get us soaked through with the question of world hegemony… Either we learn to use the same techniques to save our nation, or we will be swallowed up. The circumstances have changed. We will be swallowed up much like the muskets and steel swords destroyed the arrows and spears of the indigenous peoples. You can’t defend a community with bows and arrows in the rifle age.

I honestly couldn’t say how ready we are for this. I have faith in the right things that we have done to reach this stage of our history, but I’m also very worried. We still have many subjective problems to solve together. Our people are known to come together in times of foreign aggression; that’s not a concern. What worries me is our inability to organize ourselves better. Because of our poor organization, we have fared worse much more often than during those times that our external enemy has overtaken us.

The ongoing technological revolution is too big and marked by hegemonic interests. We must understand that if we fail to be prepared we will wind up being a nice historic anecdote: «A nation that faced up to the Empire until, well, the Great Empire won in the end», or «They lasted a hundred years! But, alas, they screwed up in the long run». I hope I will not have to see that. On the contrary, I hope that the essence of all those wonderful ideas that Cuba nurtures and defends—about solidarity, love for one’s neighbor, respect for people and any other living being, care for nature, social conscience, how to put ourselves in other people’s place—and which define our true fortitude, will not only make us immune to all this mess but also become, perhaps, the spark that ignites everything around the hegemony of capital and creates another hegemony based on solidarity.

You mentioned different artistic manifestations such as the box-office hit Hierro and other events. What is the role of the artists and intellectuals in this struggle?

Israel Rojas: The artists and intellectuals have a key role to play. To begin with, it’s not in vain that the UNEAC[2] congresses—fortunately—become national events. There we talk about anything, from public transport to birthrates, ethics or politics. In those UNEAC congresses we talk about education as much and almost with the same conviction as they do in the congresses of Education. Through that project we help ourselves imagine a better country, and as I said—maybe because I’m an artist—I think that capacity is a distinctive quality of our country.

Every time a visual artist, a movie actor or even a culinary artist combines our flavors or creates a critical work, regardless of its topic but in essence profoundly Cuban, humanistic and glorifying—of those that when you look at yourself in them you see the individual and the country that you are, and your children and grandchildren will probably see the same—we are dreaming of, defending and making that country. We are complementing an ideology and doing politics, no doubt about it. It’s why I hold that you can’t separate one from the other, it’s simply impossible, even if by saying so I’m giving my adversaries the tools to harass me. I could not be so hypocritical as to say that art and politics have nothing in common; of course they do, they go together like hand and glove. One is part of and provides feedback to the other. The role of Cuban artists and intellectuals goes beyond reflecting, denouncing and dreaming: it’s all that plus the chance to leave their mark on the next generation, like passing an improved baton.

That’s how I see it. Besides, no one can claim to have come out of nowhere. No one has. We’re all heirs to a very rich body of work, to everything created before us. Of course, in the field of music, I obviously consider myself an heir to the Nueva Trova [New Song] Movement, to [singer-songwriters] Silvio, Pablo, Noel, Sara, Vicente, Amaury; to the generation of Santiago Feliú, Carlos Varela, Frank Delgado, Gerardo Alfonso, Donato Poveda, the «Generation of Moles», and to [bands such as] Mezcla, Síntesis, Moncada, Manguaré, Liuba María... each with their own experimentation.

Also extremely important is that Cuba, as a Caribbean island, has the capacity to process whatever comes from outside that is not inherent to our culture and make it our own. The best of what comes from outside, but then again, sometimes also the worst, but in the end the best remains. A mimetic work can be successful and functional at a given time, but it’s short-lived. Even the artists who at some point have defended more radically a certain genre end up realizing that choosing only functional and money-making works is suicidal. More often than not they undertake quests and experiments and merge their work with the entire existing artistic and cultural patrimony that is knocking at your door and asking, «Did you enjoy your moment of fame? Well now is the time to remix and relearn».

Making your hits last longer than the usual six or twelve months—you can only try, for it’s never a sure thing—calls for a great deal of serious work. I’m not talking about excelling in the market or in the big cultural industries, but about the influence of your art, so that in the course of time people revisit your work and rejoice in it again… That’s why NG La Banda is a classic whose place of honor other very popular bands never reached. I’m talking about works, not ideological positions. Like Adalberto Alvarez’s Y qué tú quieres que te den, which Rojitas sang in 1993… You play those songs and it seems that they sound better and better with each passing day. Many songs from those days were merely superficial in content and never stand the test of time. Good art is everlasting, whereas a simply eloquent work will only live until someone else makes something even more eloquent, and then what seemed to be a work of genius expires, dies, expires… Time has ferocious appetites.

I would like to have your opinion about an interesting thing. You placed particular emphasis on people’s common sense and on their subjectivity and also talked about the artists and intellectuals regarding our cultural patrimony. There is a cultural patrimony, but the contexts and circumstances have changed. How do you use that patrimony to reach people’s common senses and subjectivity, which in the end you somehow seek as well?

Israel Rojas: Of course. The equations don’t always give the expected results in social dynamics. The way people behave and relate or fall in love is always changing, as are the concepts of family, sexuality, fidelity, morality… If you don’t study, feel, and experience all of that every day you won’t be able to sing about it from the heart and will find it very hard to link the country that you’re describing with the one where you’re living. It’s very important that culture can project itself and be imaginative, but on the specific basis of our current circumstances. It’s like a tree, whose roots must go deep enough to really grow, blossom and bear fruit. As a creator, you should never stop.

You don’t live in the past. The past is there for you to revisit and learn from. [Cuban radio station] Radio Rebelde had a spot that I loved which said, «Cars have broad windshields to see what’s coming and small rear-view mirrors to see what’s gone». Contemporary Cuban society, which is not isolated from the world, is now under the influence of a prolonged economic attack as well as affected by the big cultural industries that keep delivering their products and by the new technologies. We have our share of botched jobs—both new and old—in fact quite a few of them. Today’s Cubans are like those of the eighties, but not the same as them.

For example, look at our tremendous effort and work for women’s liberation. Without proper guidance, a liberated teenager who has no prejudice toward virginity and has the right to abortion, education and work, but is submitted to the objectification and super sexualization of the world of music videos and the mainstream media, she might get confused and end up with exactly the opposite of liberation and fulfillment. It seems contradictory, but it’s what we’re seeing. All of this is already happening.

I once heard [former founder and president of the Cuban Film Institute] Alfredo Guevara say that he could not conceive of an artist, say, a filmmaker, who doesn’t have a new project. As a creator, I don’t always have a new immediate project. What is unacceptable is that if I don’t have any I will not study and do research until I come up with one.

I may not be creating anything, but I’m studying, which is not only about having your nose in a book: it’s watching the new Cuban and international cinema, trying to understand what goes on throughout our country and in this convulsed world, not just in Havana or in your neighborhood. That takes work, time, investment, searching for information, reading all kinds of media, making friends in other places who can tell you about reality from their standpoint… In other words, you have to concern yourself with learning. If you don’t, your art will start losing contact with life and reality and run the risk of getting stuck with old topics. I think that’s the worst that could happen to a creator.

I do everything I can so that each album becomes a new trip with new stories and views, trying to be different as I continue to be the same. It’s because I’m older and I have undergone some logical transformations. I’m a father and I have new concerns. That is, I face up to life from another window of my existence.

Now I understand perfectly that your artistic condition is not everlasting. You can keep on giving concerts, but as a creator you may be asleep. You have to go out in search of and fight for your status as a creator; you have to conceive things, like a researcher or anyone involved in synthesizing, interpreting, reflecting and projecting ideas and emotions. It’s an exercise in perception, meditation, synthesis, communication and, above all else, emotions. Of course, all of it must run through emotions. An artist is a social nerve.

Finally, do you know that Temas’s blog is called Catalejo? As I reviewed my questions, I remembered Catalejo, not only for the blog but also for your song. We talked about the defense of the nation, but this last question is, how we can prevent that defense coming from the field of culture from becoming entrenchment.

Israel Rojas: The defense of the nation is a historical, legal and moral obligation of the Cubans. The war they have waged on us is unjust, brutal and unjustifiable, but we must properly identify who are the direct and indirect victims and who are the victimizers.

As long as we don’t forget that dialectics is a tool for thinking and also for social construction and that defending anything necessarily involves putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes, we will avoid entrenchment. It’s easy to say, but quite difficult to accomplish.

To me, one of the cures for any unhealthy entrenchment is the ethics that [Cuban poet and essayist] Cintio Vitier defended so hard and [Cuban intellectual Fernando] Martínez Heredia spoke so much about. They referred to ethics as key to the process of personal construction, based on fundamental values of the most sublime humanism to construct an inclusive, democratic and socialist society. That’s essential to me.

A while ago, I saw a scene in the TV show «L.C.B. La otra guerra 2» [Struggle Against the Bandits: The other war] that kept me thinking through the night. After dismantling the gangs of bandits, Mongo—the character that Osvaldo Doimeadiós plays so brilliantly—chastises a young militiaman who was rejoicing about the victory, reminding him of the mothers and families on both sides that would receive bad news. Then he turns to El Gallo—no less superbly performed by Fernando Hechevarría—and says, “That’s why, heartbreaking as it may be, we have to keep ‘cutting the orange in half’.” This confrontation that we are living through is precisely about that. Sometimes you have to keep “cutting the orange in half”. The question is that the heartache should never go away, even if you’re exercising your inexorable right of self-defense. We must always put ourselves in somebody else’s place and try to cause as little or irreversible damage as possible. No damage at all, if possible. Finally, insofar as we are more active than reactive, as well as more daring, brave, advocate and participatory, in, as well from, the sphere of culture, we will have by our side not only our respective audiences, but also the people as a whole.


[1] In reference to Jon Illescas’s book La Dictadura del Videoclip - Industria Musical y Sueños Prefabricados [The Music Video Dictatorship - Musical Industry and Manufactured Dreams], published by Ciencias Sociales in 2019 and presented by the author at the Havana International Book Fair in February this year.

[2] UNEAC – National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba

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