I’m off getting married and honeymooning and all that so, in my absence, some good friends are filling in. Today’s look at the Havana Libre Hotel, the former Havana Hilton, modernism’s stake in the Cuban capital, comes from Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, who resides on the island. The piece is dedicated to the 10th anniversary of his dad’s passing.
On the 13th of August, the first 10 years without my dad.
As a child, I lived on the outskirts of Havana, in a neighborhood called Lawton. I was the classic older parents’ only son, which meant that we hardly ever went downtown to the city. The 70s were going by in Cuba under the Communist Party’s First Congress (it was already clear that Fidel Castro would be an eternal entity) and, in spite of what history now tells us about that “decadent” and “institutionalizing” decade, the truth is that I lived in the domestic paradise of two workers who were as poor as they were in love: María del Carmen and Dionisio Manuel, the best parents in the world. I never thanked them for that dream childhood.
One day in 1978, they decided to take me to see the rest of reality. Wearing our Sunday best, we took various interminable buses and got off in the very heart of El Vedado. It’s the beginning, or the culmination, of “La Rampa”: 23rd Avenue and L Street (perhaps L for Luxury). And then it was my father who said it, while my mother held my shoulders, as over-protective then as she continues to be now at 74: “Look up, Landy…”
And, in fact, there it was. A huge mass of concrete. A needle tickling the sky’s proletarian belly. A geometric design (distorted because of my excitement) that, even when I was seven years old, was still the perfect metaphor for modernity: a new world, a new way, a future unknown to us in our little wooden houses in faraway Lawton. It was the building with the bluest aura on the planet, and whose only difference from the Hilton-franchised hotel from the 50s was the signage I read for myself on its snowy peak: Habana Libre.
We went in. The doors opened by themselves. A carpeted pasture (I had to ask what a carpet was called) caressed our orthopedic-style shoes. The lobby’s ceiling rose into a dome kilometers above our heads. The light was kind, and thus not even vaguely “national.” The voices of the Cubans there were also kind (no exaggerated hand gestures, no ghetto shouting). We breathed the tidy peace of that always necessary atmospheric phenomenon called air conditioning. The bathrooms were bigger than my house. My father bought a newspaper in English, also called Granma, and promised me to teach me that exotic First World argot.
In 1978, I was happy all of a sudden in a hotel inherited by socialist realism. From 1978 on, I became less happy, displaced in my own country as it chased an unreal capitalism that that first contact had left in my memory. Architecture is, first and foremost, ideology.
When my father, on that tedious Sunday on August 13, 2000, I wanted to leave him alone for a bit at that ugly funeral home in Luyanó (an old Popular Socialist Party headquarter) and visit our hotel one last time. I wanted to cremate him (although that was still impossible in Cuba then) and hurl his ashes down from the Habana Libre’s roof and over the empty sight of an imprisoned Havana. I wanted to leap over the city after my first 29 years of improbable life (Fidel Castro was then my mother’s age now). I was left without ever having said “I’m sorry” to Dionisio Manuel for many things but, beyond my indolence and my hurt, I had failed to give him a grateful embrace for the revelation of that blue on that Cuban corner at 23rd Avenue and L Street (perhaps L for Liberty).
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo lives in Havana, Cuba. He’s editor of the irregular zine, The Revolution Evening Post, and the blog, Lunes de Post-Revolución (orlandoluispardolazo.blogspot.com). His books include Collage Karaoke (Letras Cubanas, 2001), Empezar de Cero (Extramuros, 2001), Ipatrías (Unicornio, 2005), Mi nombre es William Saroyan (Abril, 2006) and Boring Home (digitally domestic, 2009). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.