There are many things Cubans who fled the island prefer to forget, but not all memories have a bitter taste.
For those who grew up during the 1970s and ’80s, childhood memories sometimes trigger cravings for carne rusa — Russian beef packed into a can — a dab of eau de toilette from Moscow or entertainment in the form of Russian cartoons.
All of these items were common before the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, when Cuba was heavily subsidized by the giant communist nation formally known as the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (U.S.S.R). Miami Cubans who grew up on the island during this era, and have a hankering for a little taste of yesteryear, are turning to Russian and European stores in South Florida to find the products.
Some remember food such as carne rusa with disdain because it was offered ad nauseam at school camps, harvest events and other public activities.
“There was a time, however, when it became a luxury. In the ’90s, there was no more beef, and no more Russians,” recalls Pedro Valdes, a 53-year-old Cuban who emigrated in 2001.
One day, Valdes made an online search for photos of the cans of Russian beef he used to eat in Cuba and discovered he could buy similar cans at Marky’s, a Russian and European market at 687 NE 79th St. in Miami. Valdes then sent a can to his brother in Cuba, who paraded the product as if it were a trophy in his Jaimanitas neighborhood in Havana.
Aracelis Marcos came to the United States 13 years ago. After finding Marky’s, she now returns monthly to buy the cans of carne rusa.
“Maybe it’s because I ate it so much in Cuba, I like it and it makes me feel nostalgic,” she said during a recent shopping trip. “I discovered this place about seven years ago and I come here to buy beef as well as Moscu Rojo perfume and Shostakovsky balm.”
The balm has anti-inflammatory properties and was often used in Cuba to treat sores.
Cubans who worked and studied in the former Soviet Union are also frequent clients at the store. Armando Portela traveled to Moscow in the ’80s. He was a geographer and initially worked on a project with a Soviet satellite company. He later worked on crafting the Atlas of Cuba, which remains one of his deepest sources of pride. While in Moscow, Portela married a Russian woman and finished his doctorate degree.
“In 1991, I went to Russia again and after that I never returned,” said Portela. “I wanted to return but I was there the day that [Mikhail] Gorbachev announced the end of the U.S.S.R. I ran out to the street to talk to people about it but nobody seemed to care about what was happening. A newspaper saleswoman told me what she cared about was finding food.”
However, the eating habits that Portela acquired while living in Moscow are what keep him going back to several Russian stores in South Florida.
In Miami, Cuba nostalgia is dominated by the memories and culture of prerevolutionary Cuba. Those who shop for products such as carne rusa say they are often misunderstood, if not openly criticized.
“The thing is that this is how we were raised,” said Marcos as she browsed the aisles at Marky’s. “All the products were Soviet; culinary culture has nothing to do with politics.”
Said Valdes, another frequent customer: “It goes beyond politics. All we’re doing is remembering our youth and having a good time doing so. What do politics have to do with eating a can of Russian beef and drinking vodka?”
“Emigration to Miami didn’t stop at the beginning of the ’60s,” said Jacqueline Loss, a Spanish professor at the University of Connecticut and author of Dreaming in Russian: The Cuban Soviet Imaginary. “Cubans from different generations make transnational connections in their lives in a range of ways.”
“We shouldn’t judge the ones who do so through a can of Russian beef, even if other Cubans think it’s vulgar or low class,” added Loss, who is editor of Caviar with Rum, Cuba-USSR and the Post-Soviet Experience. “Those who left before the ‘sovietization’ of the country don’t know what it was like to grow up under the prism of Soviet culture.”
On blogs and Internet forums where this topic is discussed, some commenters criticize the craving for Russian products as the ‘sovietization’ of the United States. But those who make the purchases say it has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with deep cultural experiences.
CARTOONS OF A GENERATION
In Cuba, cartoons are known as “muñequitos.” During the decades in which there were only two television channels, Cuban children religiously tuned into “la tanda infantil” or “The Children’s Hour” in the afternoon. The majority of the cartoons came from socialist nations. Some of them were lackluster, while others had personalities and stories that engrained themselves in the memory of an entire generation.
Aurora Jacome, who emigrated to Spain when she was 15 and later became an architect, explained that in 2005, “in an attempt to regain memories” from her childhood, she created a blog titled Muñequitos Rusos.
On Jacome’s blog a commenter identified as Angel congratulated her on her site, posting: “It [the blog] can become something very big and tie together a generation of people that due to reasons outside our control are now dispersed around the world.”
This, Jacome says, is where her merit lies: “The blog’s greatest accomplishment was to create a meeting place — which at times can be strenuous to moderate, there’s no talk of politics whatsoever — where people can regain, share and enjoy an imaginary common ground where they can discuss the childhood of the Cuban people of my generation.”
Maria Antonia Cabrera Arus, author of a blog called Cuba Material, said that ostalgia (the longing for Soviet culture) in Cuba also has to do with the deterioration of the standard of living after the demise of the U.S.S.R, when Cuba lost 80 percent of its commerce and its gross domestic product fell 35 percent.
“What came after, in terms of materials, was much worse, more precarious and characterized by scarcity,” said Cabrera Arus. “Childhood nostalgia was matched by nostalgia for those items that stopped existing all together.”
Loss said that many of those “members of the los muñequitos rusos generation,” which she interviewed for her books, remembered the ’80s as an era in which “although they didn’t have luxurious products, they did have products they could consume”.
The era that followed, known by Cubans as Período Especial or the “Special Period,” was one in which basic staples disappeared and most people could only window shop at stores frequented by tourists.
Another important element about ostalgia is the desire for identity reaffirmation.
“Ostalgia started in Oriental Germany as a psychological solution to hurt pride,” said Cabrera Arus. “After the reunification, Germans who lived in the Oriental area were marginalized, they were the poor brothers who didn’t know how to dress … that’s where the feeling was born as defense mechanism to all of this.”
Cabrera Arus added that ostalgia was the answer to low self-esteem problems and needs for personal reaffirmation.
“This same thing could be happening now between Cubans living on the island and those in the Cuban exile community,” she said.
Some experts warn about the danger of giving into ostalgia so much so that history is negated.
But even those who grew up during the Soviet period don’t refer to it as a “romantic” era. During that time, many on the island resisted Russia’s material culture and tagged its objects as “ugly” and as having a low quality design. For some, the ties between Moscow and Havana marked a colonial relationship.
MARKETING THE PAST
But even as generations of Cubans have moved on to a new life on and off the island, ostalgia has sparked commercial enterprise.
In Cuba, young designer Darwin Fornes came up with a clothing line called “Chamakovish.” The word can be broken down into “youngster” (chama) and “of Russian patrimony” (kovish).
The clothing, which made its debut at an art fair in 2013, consists of printed t-shirts and linen handbags featuring Russian cartoons and cartoons of countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic — The Wolf and The Hare, Bolek y Lolek and Cheburashka — cartoons that were popular on Cuban television in the 1970s and ’80s. And in old Havana’s Plaza de Armas next to a set of antique books hang Soviet medals, coins and a group of other objects from the time of the U.S.S.R.
These items are in high demand by collectors, and their appeal is only increasing.
“These objects being collected were, in the past, politically charged,” said Cabrera Arus. “We lived in a politicized material culture. Items were examples of Cuban-Soviet friendship and of the luminous future awaiting us, a future in which consumerism was an important component.”
Social and political changes brought forth by communism’s collapse in Europe sent these items into a vortex of disregard.
“Many of these objects were forgotten and stopped being produced because they no longer had a commercial value,” said Jacome. “These objects are now hard to find and have inevitably become desirable.”
This report was done in collaboration with Univisión 23 reporter Mario Vallejo.
Follow Nora Gamez Torres on Twitter @ngameztorres