Cuba, then and now
Teofilo Ruiz finally made it back to Havana in 2012, more than 50 years after he fled the country.
Teofilo Ruiz was filled with trepidation as he prepared to visit Cuba last year. It had been a lifetime – half a century – since he set foot in his homeland.
“I was afraid of the places that live in one’s mind. I could close my eyes and walk the streets of Havana – the city where I came into adulthood,” he told the Index-Tribune. “I was always afraid of my memories being battered.”
He didn’t know what he’d find when he got back to the country he fought to liberate as a teenager, before fleeing from imprisonment and interrogation. Ruiz, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2012, will share his varied views of Cuba during a lecture at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art on Saturday, March 23, at 2 p.m., in conjunction with the current exhibition, “Revolutionary Island: Tales of Cuban History and Culture – the Sarah and Darius Anderson Collection.” From growing up under the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista to his activity in the Cuban Revolution to his voyage back home 50 years later, Ruiz will explore his unique perspective on the forbidden island.
As a child, Ruiz lived in the shadow of Ernest Hemingway’s Finca la Vigía home, in San Francisco de Paula, just outside Havana. Education was of the utmost importance in his household – all seven of his aunts were teachers – and he was reared with plenty of literature, learning and lively discourse.
“My family was completely against Batista from the front,” he said.
Ruiz was about 10 years old when Batista staged the military coup that allowed him to gain control of the government. As he grew, he saw the far-reaching implications of living under a dictatorship; so when talk of a revolution began to boil across the country, he was quick to join the ranks. He passed out leaflets, painted propaganda graffiti around the city and did whatever was asked of him to support the uprising.
“I felt that this was a moment to transform the world. This was a humanist revolution, we were going to change society,” he said. “It was a dawn that was the birth of something new.”
Mostly, he connected with the revolution’s focus on equality. Seeing the extensive disparity between the rich and poor across the country fueled his interest in the ideals of the communist viewpoint. “Equality is a goal one should aim for,” he said.
It took personal tragedy to learn that, while Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries preached equality, they didn’t always practice it. Ruiz had a good friend who was killed in a bar fight with one of Castro’s army officials.
“He has never gone to trial,” Ruiz said.
Things only grew worse from there. In April of 1961, a large department store, El Encanto, was bombed in an arson attack perpetrated by those who opposed the country’s new leadership. One woman was killed, while the entire five-story store burned to the ground. In the coming days, Ruiz was imprisoned, along with more than 100,000 other Cubans the government rounded up in the wake of the attack.
“I had no part in this (attack), but I knew about it, and I had some involvement with the people who did it,” he said.
He remembers the rampant overcrowding in jail, which ultimately led to his contracting hepatitis while behind bars. “That was my saving, I was lost in the crowd,” he said. “They couldn’t keep track of everyone, it was beyond their logistical abilities.”
In the same month, the paramilitary group, Brigade 2506, backed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, launched its unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion. Castro released thousands of detainees to make room for a new batch of political prisoners, but it wouldn’t be long before Ruiz found himself back in police custody for an interrogation.
“I was just a suspect in my town,” he said. “It was then I knew there was no life for me left in Cuba.”
With help from his family, he made plans to leave his homeland at the age of 18, and flew to Miami carrying only three changes of clothing, $45, a box of Cuban cigars and a Spanish translation of Jacob Burckhardt’s “A History of Greek Civilization.” He settled in New York, where he found comfort in the world of academia. He earned his degree from City University of New York before receiving his master’s degree at NYU and his Ph.D. from Princeton University. For decades, returning home was not an option, “I was persona non grata,” he said.
These days, the noted author and historian of medieval studies is a popular professor at UCLA, the same institution that ultimately brought him back to Cuba for an Alumni Association tour.
“At the beginning, it was devastating. I fell in tears the first days, I told my wife we needed to get out of here,” he said, explaining that he was overwhelmed by the decrepit state of his hometown. But soon, he found himself fixating on the things he loved most growing up – like the staccato rhythm of Cuban jazz that flows through Old Havana. “And the constant banter in the streets, it was like being home,” he said.
He has plans to return, although he’s hesitant to predict a future for his native land. He’s quick to point out the irony of the American embargo, which was designed to force Castro out of power, but has ultimately helped his regime by choking off access to most economic industries, ultimately making the Cuban people more reliant on their government to fund basic needs. He’s equally aware of the lingering irony of the revolution.
“The great social idea of leveling the playing field has been totally obscured,” Ruiz said, pointing out the economic chasm between Cubans continues today. “Those who work in tourism live much differently than those who don’t.”
Tickets to Ruiz’ talk are $20 general ($15 for museum members) and available at svma.org/calendar. The lecture will close out the “Revolutionary Island” show, which museum executive director Kate Eilertsen said has been the most successful exhibition in the museum’s history.
“It’s broken every attendance record we have,” she beamed.
The exhibit can be seen through Sunday, March 24. The Sonoma Valley Museum of Art is located at 551 Broadway, and is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.