‘Mi Balsa’ – Porno Para Ricardo: Representations of the Special Period

Porno Para Ricardo make similarly insistent remembrances of aspects of the Special Period in their work. However, these remembrances are not designed to reclaim some forgotten aspect of Cuban history; the trauma of the Special Period is still a livid memory in the construction of Cuban identity, scarcely forgettable. In their approach to remembering the Special Period – actually discussing some of the traumatic events – perhaps there is an aim to negotiate a way through the cultural traumas of the Special Period; to address the ways in which this trauma has impinged upon the national identity, how it has shaped post-millennial Cuba. As one tool perhaps to negotiate a way through this trauma, the band seem to be attempting to connect together again these schismatic epochs of ‘before and after’ in the Cuban narrative; fragmented and separated by these evental traumas demanding a “new way of being” (Badiou: 2001:42). In reconnecting these fragments, they begin to reshape the contemporary political, economic and social landscape in Cuba; begin to make sense of some of the more incomprehensible frustrations that inhabit the island. Perhaps even they begin to look beyond the traditional binary options of apathetic acquiescence or migration, to suggest an understanding, built on the renegotiation of the past, and an ability to imagine change in the future.

One song which addresses of the trauma of the Special Period is ‘Mi Balsa’ (‘My Raft’). Although the song does not overtly locate the song as taking place within the Special Period, the imagery of a lone ‘balsero’ (rafter) drifing in the Straits of Florida evokes memories of that particular time; the balsero has come to stand as perhaps the most potent symbol of the desperation and loss of the Special Period, and thus its invocation in this song is inescapable, though perhaps its deliberate ‘timelessness’, it’s positioning outside of a defined epoch (perhaps, as will be discussed, the location of the song outside of any geographical or temporal frameworks; precisely in that aquatic hinterland) is a telling point, already cementing the connections between this traumatic past, its own progenitors (previous mass migrations), and, crucially, the less dramatic, though constant rivulet of migration via this most desperate of modes of transport that have come to define part of the Cuban reality and shape the nation’s identity.

The song ‘Mi Balsa’ presents itself as something of a faux-power ballad; a parody, perhaps, of that other aquatic tragedy, the (Celine) Dionysian[1] hysteria of ‘My Heart Will Go On[2]’. Though rather than the plight of doomed lovers, this song provides us with a solo aria; the last thoughts of a hapless ‘balsero’, not lamenting lost love, but cursing the carpenter who built his raft, swimming aimlessly, not knowing whether he is facing towards Miami or Havana:

El pinche carpintero me timó con esta balsa
me dijo que era buena que flotaba que flotaba,
y ahora que me he roto y mi balsa va pa´l fondo
no se si estoy nadando pa´ Miami o para el morro.

That bloody carpenter cheated me with this raft                                                                                        he said it would be good for floating                                                                                                     and now it has broken and my raft is sinking to the bottom,                                                                    and I don’t know if I am swimming towards Miami or ‘El Morro[3]

Though this narrative is fictional, the subject matter is all too real. As discussed in the introduction, the trauma of the Special Period’s “vintage” (Pedraza Bailey, 1985, after Kunz, 1973) of migrants to Miami not only exacerbated the economic and social traumas apparent on the island through the 1990s, but left an indelible imprint upon younger generations of Cubans still living on the island, for whom a sizable proportion of their cohort had left, and thus their ‘generational perception’ of national identity – indeed the very geographical location of such a collective identity, or worse, the veracity of such collectivity – was called into question. Such a traumatic exodus, significantly based on generational lines, rather than exclusively political ones (as Pedraza-Bailey (1985) asserts earlier mass-migrations from Cuba to the US were based upon), could be described using Cathy Caruth’s term “impossible history”; a “history which they [the traumatised] cannot entirely possess” (1995:5). There is a sense in which, though the effects of the Special Period maintain their cultural, social and economic pertinence even today for almost all Cubans living within Cuba, it remains something of an ‘impossible history’; impossible to quantify, and thus impossible to fully integrate into a continued national identity. Thus it is parsed off, self-contained and left mute. The multifarious traumas of the Special Period – significantly demarcated as a ‘period’, with a definite beginning and, albeit hazy, ending – are something of a spectre in post-millennial Cuba; not least among these is the topic of mass generational exodus. They are always present, yet often left unspoken; unable to be spoken, perhaps, as those who left are excluded from the identity space of Cubanness. Dori Laub addresses the lingering effect of “not telling” the story of trauma:

The “not telling” of the story serves as perpetuation of its tyranny. The events becomes more and more distorted in their silent retention and pervasively invade and contaminate the survivor’s daily life. The longer the story remains untold, the more distorted it becomes in the survivor’s conception of it, so much so that the survivor doubts the reality of the actual events. (1995:64)

It is precisely the act of telling the untold (or untellable) story that ‘Mi Balsa’ engaging in. The protagonist is a balsero; one who finds himself adrift and without hope, significantly located in a space ‘between’ the two geographical places of Miami and Havana; a place in which distinguishing between these two poles is made impossible. The balsero seems also to be in between life and death here (the sharks, as the balsero himself is all too aware, are circling as the raft sinks and nightfall, however beautiful, is enveloping). As he reflects upon those left behind – the treacherous carpenter who built the raft – as he dreams of his impossible destination – setting foot upon Cayo Hueso – we the listener are afforded the opportunity to hear the remembrances of an untellable story; one that could not be heard otherwise. This comedic lament is the story not told. It addresses loss, death, the perilous schism between Miami and Havana and, most importantly, it remembers the Special Period. It remembers the story:

It is essential for this narrative that could not be articulated  to be told, to be transmitted , to be heard,  and hence the importance of endeavours… designed to enable the survivors to bear witness, to enable, that is, the act of bearing witness… to take place (ibid.:69)

This fictional narrative not only stages the remembrance of a trauma, but it allows for the untold story to be heard; it insists upon its telling, and crucially, it makes it a part of the ongoing narrative of Cubanness.

But in these final moments of life, perhaps the balsero reveals some striking clarity. His confusion between Miami and Cuba is not the only melding of anathematic or non-emulsifiable positions that is taking place here. Cuban identity is located, along with the balsero, in distinctly choppy waters; and crucially in waters between Havana and Miami. As noted in the introduction, the Special Period perhaps served to expand out the geographical map of Cuban identity to incorporate Miami, and the space between, into narratives of Cubanness. But Porno Para Ricardo’s blurring of the distinctions between them – the inability to tell the difference in the moment of the present – speaks of a radical reappraisal of the uses of memory and the place of the past.

In the balsero’s aimless swimming – circling between his past in Cuba and a dreamed future in Miami – perhaps there is something to be speculated about an allegorical blurring of the boundaries between temporal epochs, as well as geographical spaces. The liminality of the protagonists precarious position is perhaps the ‘outside’ of conventional (social) space that Porno Para Ricardo themselves find themselves. And perhaps it is a position that allows (demands) that longed-for vista “where the schism between antes and después is softened and the frontier between dentro and fuera becomes blurred.[4]” Perhaps the consternation here is a with the narratives surrounding the Special Period that speak not of the trauma of ‘passing through’, but the completion of ‘surviving it’. Again, Caruth’s notion of the “impossible history” proves apposite in describing an epoch – and crucially an epoch – that, though remembered, is projected as ‘finished’, on the ‘other side’ of which a “new way of being” (Badiou 2001:42) must be created. Porno Para Ricardo’s deliberate positioning outside of a social space attempts to blur the boundaries between these crystalline schisms; these evental moments which demand new definitions and new narratives. This hazy vista, this aimless swimming, helplessly and happily ‘outside the Revolution’ demonstrates the fiction in the metaphor of the historical ‘clean break’ – and in doing so speaks as much to the fallacy of the Revolution outlined by Puebla as it does to the ‘new Cuba’ post-Special Period. The effects (the affect) of ‘what came before’ lingers on into the ‘new’ present; it necessarily permeates any attempted “new way of being”, impinges upon it, defines it. As Connerton notes, past and present have a dialogic relationship, imparting significance upon, and shaping, one another inextricably (1989:2). Porno Para Ricardo’s remembrances of the Special Period serve to bridge this evental schism, to show the lingering presence of this past – the ‘on-goingness’, as it were – in the narrative of Cuban identity.

Such a blurring of boundaries serves not only to problematise conceptions of both past and present; to meld both into one gigantic and unseparatable mass of entire history (Carl Sagan’s classic maxim that to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe springs to mind in discussing this attempt to bridge together parcels of history into a single narrative!). Rather, I think Porno Para Ricardo are attempting to make sense of what can often seem like an incomprehensible present – frustratingly reticent to change, recalcitrant, and simultaneously desperate to remember, yet equally determined to forget, moments and memories from its own past, irrespective of the cockeyed and partisan projection of the present that this selective remembrance provides. Porno’s remembrances of the Special Period – their blurring of the beginnings of new narratives – demonstrate the need to remember these moments as part of the construction of the present and, in that capacity, as relevant players in determining a path for the future.

Finally, and amidst all this seriousness of blurred vistas, death, trauma, remembrance and loss, it is perhaps important to remember the humour in Porno Para Ricardo’s remembrances. There is a distinct comedic strand in their remembrance of the Special Period, equally present in their memories of the Soviet presence. The place specifically of laughter (and not necessarily ‘comedy’) will be addressed in greater detail in chapter five of this work, but it is important to at least note the humour that accompanies the band’s remembrances often of traumatic moments. In ‘Mi Balsa’, even as the sharks close in, the protagonist finds time to worry that the first thing they’ll eat are his cojones! Of course, and if such a thing is not oxymoronic (or just moronic), this is something of a ‘serious comedy’, aimed not to belittle or make light of the subject matter, but to somehow reclaim it from the realm of the inhuman; the domain of the ‘great tragedy’ and the solemn pages of the history books and to wrestle it back into the realm of the quotidian, the personal vignette, the human. Once more, the demand is to remove the discourse of clunking shifts of epoch so familiar to the ‘grand narrative’ of the Revolution, and relocated national identity in the everyday; to replant the unwaved flags of a popular memory as the markers of Cubanness.

The necessity to laugh at the traumatic is not a device exclusive to the Cuban condition, but as a pre-shadow to chapter five, I cite Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez’s words on the importance of laughter in Cuba:

Laughter, banter, kidding around have been group therapy on this island where the frustration and dissatisfaction is exorcised by humor. We laugh at ourselves, and that’s healthy… In short, what makes us roar with laughter would make us cry, if we couldn’t find a way to joke about it. (Sanchez, 2010)

In Porno Para Ricardo’s comedic representation of such a singular story – one voice among the thousands who made that treacherous crossing in the Special Period (and before, and after) – in their ability to joke about that which would otherwise make us cry, we are given a reading of a past that is inseperable from the present; and one that exists in the realm of the popular. In the swimming-sinking tragicomic lament of this balsero, perhaps we are afforded an epitaph, as Tara Brabazon eloquently puts it “for the groups who… leave… only the residue of laughter, pain and pleasure captured through and by popular culture”, and an alternative to, and remedy for, “the hardened faces of the past [who] stare down the alternative sotries and images that are lost to us” (2005:71)


[1] Al Niven coined this apt term.

[2] The balsero protagonist does indeed liken his predicament to the sinking of the Titanic in the second verse.

[3] El Morro is the Havana sea front; interestingly a favoured hang out for young couples (and tourists).

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