In many Afro-Caribbean families, it is elderly women who manage precious knowledge. What happens to the stories when their memory fades? In this updated text, originally published in German on ZeitOnline, Marny Garcia Mommertz recounts both the transmission (and lack thereof) of embodied memories that her Cuban grandmother has gifted her.
For as long as I can remember, my grandmother has kept newspaper articles and family photographs in a dark green carry-on suitcase. Every time I visit her in Havana and lift the suitcase from her closet, I learn new things about our family. A few years ago, a photo I couldn’t remember caught my eye. It shows my grandmother standing in her apartment dressed in a washed-out gray, white, and black striped jumpsuit, her long arms hanging loosely down the sides of her body. The color of her white sandals stands out against the faded floor tiles and her dark brown, almost black feet. She wears her afro in pressed curls.
Her gaze passes the camera lens and beams at the person taking the picture. When I show her the picture, she laughs. My mother and I brought the jumpsuit with us in 1998, when I was three years old. It was the first time my mother and I had ever traveled to Cuba. My father had given us money and clothes for her and the rest of the family. He himself could not travel with us having fled the island for political reasons in the late 1980s.
I watch my grandmother as she pries open her large dark brown wardrobe. She reaches in and proudly pulls out her overalls. I ask if she still wears it and get a snorting laugh: “Of course!”
As she begins to tidy up the closet and I lie on her bed, I ask her questions about my first visit to Cuba—about her life, her childhood. What had her relationship with her mother been like? What had happened to her siblings, whom I had never met? Had she met her grandparents? What had her mother been by profession? Did she look like me or more like my younger sisters?
I ask and ask, and without warning she suddenly tells me about her grandfather, whom she hardly knew. About how, as a child, she had only been told that he had been enslaved. She only knew his birthplace, did not know if he was born into enslavement, how he escaped it, what had become of him or where his parents came from. The idea that perhaps her grandfather had held her hand as a child and that she was touching me today with that same hand stirred something in me.
I myself grew up with the abstract knowledge that my Cuban family members were descendants of Africans who were enslaved and brought to Cuba—as were most of the people living in my grandmother’s neighborhood, a Black working-class neighborhood in Havana. Still, I was caught off guard that there was now a fleeting, yet very concrete, memory of this traumatic part of our history. The knowledge of enslavement seemed to be an open secret in my Cuban environment. In the same way, everyone knew about the direct connection to Afro-Cuban religions that arose as a result of this history. There were altars all over the neighborhood, loaded with more or less food depending on the island’s general economic situation, and on many evenings sounds of chanting, drums, and bells drifted into our home from the backyards. However, if I merely uttered the names of Afrocuban religions in the street, one look from my grandmother was enough to silence me. “Not here,” she would say, looking around worriedly. I never asked her why. But I suspect that her wariness when it comes to the visibility of certain aspects of her religion and culture also has to do with the fact that they have long been hidden in plain sight—including the syncretic religions that have been a thorn in the side of many on the island, throughout different eras.
She always worked, never married, gave birth to six children, buried two and raised several grandchildren. With a quiet and present authority, she has conveyed to me that she manages our family’s memories and thus precious knowledge. She is where the threads of a wide variety of family relationships come together. She can settle the most bitter disputes with simple words and pull people out of moments of despair with good coaxing. For a long time, neighbors sought advice and spiritual support from her.
My father told me only bits and pieces about his life in Cuba, about our family and the events that led to his flight to Europe. The scant information he threw at me over the years, or that I picked up, partly contradicts what my mother or his siblings tell me. Together, they add up to a story that often seems frustratingly incoherent and full of contradictions to me.
When I started visiting my grandmother on my own at 19, she and other women in the family in particular filled in some gaps in my knowledge. They told me about the childhood and youth of my father and his siblings. With lively voices and gestures, my grandmother acted out scenes from her own life or showed me the house where she had grown up. It was all the more difficult for me to accept that she could hardly answer the questions about her grandfather’s origins and our family. Convinced that I had to find answers, I worked her over and over on the subject, hoping that she would remember more details and activate her memory.
On one of these visits, I decide to visit an archive to find out more about our family and my great-grandfather through birth certificates. My grandmother insists on accompanying me. All day, we walk back and forth between authorities, archives, and a cultural center. No one seems to know where birth certificates are kept in Havana. Only in the late afternoon and after hours of walking in the heat do we find a promising place. But the guard in the foyer won’t let us through. “My granddaughter needs to get in here,” my grandmother says urgently. She leans on the walking stick that has been supporting her on long walks for some time now. “She’s looking for something.” The guard looks at us without understanding.
We had agreed that she would do the talking: it should increase our chances that I would be let in without a Cuban ID. But as I search her eyes, I don’t find her gaze. And I realize that she cannot answer the question of what we are looking for. A few days earlier, we had argued. She had forgotten about the fire on the gas stove and denied it as harmless. I had noticed that her memory had changed since my last visit. Words were escaping her and she was having difficulty describing or naming specific things. Suddenly, I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time she had called me by my name. When I later asked if she knew what my name was, she first remained intently silent. Then she smiled and said with a glint in her eye, “Your name is what your mother called you.”
When the guard looks at her expectantly, she looks back even more insistently and repeats emphatically and slowly, “My granddaughter needs to enter, she’s looking for something.” Again, that silence occurred, with the guard looking at us questioningly. Exasperated, she sighs at the hole in her memory. Then I feel the fist that encircled the cane give me a little jab in the hip, and I start to explain our request. When I am finally let through, I see her breathe a sigh of relief and sit down. She waits in the foyer until I return with the news that we have to go to another archive.
When I reflect on these moments today, aspects of Diego Araúja’s interdisciplinary performance QUASEILHAS (Almost Islands) come to mind. The work is a tribute to the memories of different generations of Araúja’s and the performers’ Black Brazilian families. Through sound, images and in the form of oríkìs (Yoruba eulogies), memories are evoked of how their families were also affected by transatlantic human trafficking. The staging also formally reflects the incompleteness of their stories: the work is spatially divided and performed simultaneously in three different locations. The viewer can thus not see the entire piece in one visit.
What Araúja and his team address in their play reminds me of the reality of many Black families who came to Cuba through enslavement. Many aspects of our biographies are unknown and will remain so. For a long time, I mourned the fading of my grandmother’s memories, a fading that now joins the collective memory loss. But ultimately, her age-related oblivion has made it easier for me to accept our patchy family history. It was an entry point into my struggles with documenting and archiving, and an aid in realizing that gaps are part of our life stories. That at their best, they can be filled with self-determined narratives and fiction.
A while ago, I noticed how my grandmother’s forgetting made my own memories of conversations and moments with her sharper. I remember more clearly than ever standing in the sparkling green, blue, and turquoise sea of east Havana as a five-year-old and her wordlessly praying in front of me. As she gives her offerings to the sea, she sings in a language that is not Spanish and whose name I do not know. I can watch the food in her hands dissolve at the touch of the salt water and silver flecks of light dance on my feet. It was my mother who later told me it was a prayer. Whether my memory happened exactly like that or I’ve added aspects to it over the years doesn’t matter. The essential thing is: the wordless transfer of knowledge has taken place.
Today, when my younger sisters visit our family in Cuba, they too lift the dark green suitcase down from the closet at least once. I assume that, like me, they feel the restlessness that comes with not knowing one’s own history; the unease that arises internally when it is unclear what concrete biographical reference points are, beyond commonly known historical events. Since my grandmother can no longer provide answers we can understand, my sisters ask questions to the rest of the family—and me. Over the past several years, we have together, but independently from each other, created an archive of countless photographs, hours of video, and sound recordings. I myself have begun to record conversations as well as moments of my grandmother’s silence and breathing. In this way, her forgetting has become a reflection on what we remember and want to pass on. This archive continuously grows and changes, as beyond recording the transmitted memories we keep on adding to it by linking them to our own experiences. ■