Wednesday, October 7, 2009


As an introduction, let me explain that Will and I returned August 25 from Cuba. We spent two weeks there with a Berkley based group, Tsukimi Kai, Japanese Americans doing a cultural exchange and oral history research project with Japanese Cubans. We first learned about Tsukimi Kai when director Steve Wake, also trip coordinator, showed his film "Under the Same Moon" at DisOrient Asian American Film Festival 3. Will and I had the privilege of hosting Steve in our home.

We became so excited learning that there were Nikkei in Cuba from Steve. Why that is a surprise anymore to me is a sad comment on how easily one becomes brainwashed. Of course, the USA is not the only country where Japanese immigrated during the chaotic time following the forced opening to the West in the 1850's. Japanese went to Latin America including Cuba, as well as Canada and the US and I'm sure many other places in the world. Anywhere they were recruited to do hard labor.

"Under the Same Moon" made Cuba accessible to Will and me. And when Steve emailed us about Tsukimi Kai 3, TK3 became the door to a longheld fantasy. We had planned for the summer a small kitchen remodel, maybe work on the "bathroom from hell" our name for the back bathroom, but it was no contest. Cuba won. (Side note. I don't call these rooms insulting or apologetic names anymore. I think of them as my Cuban kitchen and bathroom because they haven't been upgraded since the early 60's, the same time of the beginning of the blockade.)

It's expensive to go to Cuba, and two weeks is a long time at this time in our lives. It meant leaving my mother and putting a hold on Winnemem work. Beyond the two week trip, TK3 is a very serious kind of group. Every other week on a Saturday, we attended meetings on Skype, and in between times had homework. There was the readings, of course. Also there was the play -- in Spanish, the Soran Bushi dance (done the hard way) and sub committee meetings between the larger meetings. The subcommittees were working subcommittees. Will was on the social documentation committee. I was too but I realized in Cuba I was useless without language. And I was on the gifting committee (omiyage) for 250 Nikkei we would meet on the Isle of Youth, and other Nikkei families in Cienfuegos, Batabano, Havana as well as a museum, elder center, youth community center, a Committee in Defense of the Revolution (i.e., City government), and a community murals and art project, our bus drivers, guides, and other people helping us. The workload for every committee was quite heavy. Other committees included logistics (very inportant but daunting) and fundraising as well as the Home Team. Preparation was key.

So we went to Cuba and returned. Now it's a month later from our departure to Mexico City to Habana. We are having our first Skype meeting since our return on Thursday. The meetings are not over. And we are to address any one of three prompts: a) share a highlight of our trip; b) what was learned about Nikkei and Okinawans; or c) Cuba's significance -- effect on our life, how we see the world and how we see Cuba. We each have five minutes which means prepare. I am sharing with you my response to the TK3 team and will write about Cuba many times on my blog. How did I like Cuba? I will say that from the moment we returned, I felt something which could only be described as homesickness. Cuba is in my heart.

For the moment, my trip highlight story also addresses how the trip affected me, how I see Cuba and how I see the world.

At Murealeando, a group of us, Will and I, three of the mural artists and the school principal were talking. I remember joking, the work’s not easy living in the bowels of the Monster. “Aha!” said the principal pointing with one finger toward the ceiling. “I have lived in the Monster, and I have seen its belly! That’s what Jose Marti said!”

Will and I involuntarily shouted and applauded. That quote was such a revelation.

Over the two weeks, what we saw in Cuba no matter what neighborhood we may have visited, was an application of Jose Marti's quote. Just 100 miles from a huge empire who had plans of their own for Cuba since the 1800's and in the years since the revolution which purged their country of US thugs, the mafia, and which nationalized US sugar companies, Cuba has remained true to themselves despite acts of terror, a long US blockade affecting its economy. Despite the huge challenges, Cuba has realized in a very short time all their important revolutionary goals beyond anyone's expectation -- agrarian reform, health care and education. The rest of the world knows Cuba by the cadre of Cuban doctors who are often the first to arrive at every disaster site in the world. The rest of the world knows Cuba by its educational system which graduates doctors from all over the world, third world countries and even a few from the USA. The rest of the world's citizens travel there freely as tourists. What they see is that being Cuban is a hard life but treasured, that Cubans work together to stay Cubans. Cuba may have little materially, but what I witnessed is a wealth of pride living their revolutionary vision, something that so many countries aren’t able to do yet. I am inspired by the democratic values expressed in their Constitution, the power of grassroots organizing, their optimistic view, resourcefulness and hard work despite a lack of materials and their tenacious defense of their identity, lifestyle and revolution. I feel at home with the “tribal-like” hospitality I witnessed everywhere. I feel uplifted and cleansed by the land and the climate.

I am forever changed by Cuba. We’ve all experienced becoming well and not realizing until then how sick we really were. Cuba lit Hope in me that apparently I had been living without for quite awhile. Even if I had some hope, Cuba certainly made the fire flare higher. Within a few days there, I felt my stress go. I hadn’t realized I carry it all the time. The faces of the youth without an edge, the unexplainable feeling one gets in a country where no one is being crushed, the tenor of the laughter, the breadth of the hospitality, the quickness of the embrace, the landscapes without ads and and airwaves without jingles, surrounded with that, I was more lighthearted than I have ever felt.

Will and my gleeful response in Murealeando to the Jose Marti quote erupted because it so resonated in our own lives, our most significant choice being that we accepted tribal membership when it was offered along with the heavy responsibilities which come with it from a small unrecognized historical tribe in California who will always be Winnemem no matter what. From the beginning of time, they have demonstrated their sovereignty. The tribe has taken a stand against every attack upon our way of life, a stand which we refer to as War Dance, or H’up Ch’onas as the Winnemem ancestors did before us. The tribe, like Cuba, does not have material wealth, and as a result, human life and the land become our treasure. Our position -- on the outside of the Monster's belly -- gives the tribe strength and direction. Our chief may joke about Winnemem Wage -- working hard for no pay -- but to belong to mountains and springs, and inherit the privilege and ancient responsibility to speak for sacred lands, the salmon and clean water is a rare privilege in this "Land of Opportunity." I was anxious to share Marti's quote and other things I witnessed in Cuba with my Winnemem family. And when I did the Headman encouraged me, if I could, to set up something which would help build a relationship between the Winnemem and the Cuban people.

My own perspective on world struggle, after returning home, has shifted. Even for those who are not tribal and do not have an historical pre-colonial relationship with the land, there’s a living example for survival just beyond this crumbling empire’s borders, a country running on people’s power, guided by human rights. No matter what happens, communities of people can rise to any challenge, even without material wealth and live happily if their eyes are fixed on valuing human life and the earth and if they work together to accomplish any task. Even in its imperfection, the Cuban people see themselves "in process" of meeting democratic ideals. That is how they view struggle. As the young violinist said whom we met at the community center, a center which was brought to life by disenchanted youth and the adults and elders of the community, “I have hope.” And that’s the gift I brought home with me.

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"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

from Outside the Monster's Belly

from Outside the Monster's Belly
. . . following Earth instead (Rakaia River, site of Salmon Ceremony, photo credit Ruth Koenig)


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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.