In 1988, Ruth Behar became the first Latina to receive the MacArthur “Genius” Grant for her work as a cultural anthropologist. Born in Havana, Cuba, Behar grew up in New York and currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and teaches at the University of Michigan. Her new children’s book, Letters from Cuba, is about a Polish Jewish girl who escapes to Cuba on the eve of World War II and is based on her own family history.
Be’chol Lashon’s Julian Voloj recently spoke with Behar about her book, her relationship with Cuba, and the Cuban Jewish community. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What is a cultural anthropologist?
That’s the question that I always worry about most. How do I explain what a cultural anthropologist is? I think cultural anthropology is about understanding the diversity of humanity, understanding all the different cultures and languages and religions, all the different ways in which we explore our own humanity.
I think of the anthropologist as a person who builds bridges and creates connections across these differences and tries to understand people, people different from herself or himself. And you do that by immersing yourself in the lives of other people. In my case, I spent years living in Spain and in Mexico, and now I’ve been going back and forth to Cuba. So I think it’s a search for home. It’s a beautiful gift to be able to do cultural anthropology.
You were born in Cuba, correct?
Yes. My four grandparents all migrated to Cuba in the late twenties and started a new life there, all of them escaping different things—poverty discrimination, antisemitism, the Turkish army in the case of my paternal grandfather. So all four grandparents made the decision to migrate to Cuba. My Ashkenazi heritage is from my mother’s side of the family from Poland and Russia, and my Sephardic heritage is from my father’s side from Turkey.
I was born in Cuba to Cuban parents, immigrant grandparents, but I didn’t really get to grow up there. My childhood was interrupted by the Cuban revolution. My family decided to leave, and we came to live in the United States. And so I have this history where my family migrated twice. I’m part of a double diaspora, a diaspora from Europe to Cuba and then from Cuba to the United States. And all of that has really shaped me as a person and as a thinker and as a writer.
When did you go back to Cuba for the first time, and what was it like?
I don’t often tell this story because it just complicates things, but I actually went to Cuba for the very first time in 1979, and I was also very young and a student, and there was an opportunity to go. It was a moment when relations between the U.S. and Cuba opened up very briefly under Jimmy Carter. And there were these one-week trips that you could take to Cuba, and I went with a group of students and professors to Havana. That trip was like a hallucination. I was so young and I didn’t know what to expect or even what to look for. It was a really weird time I would say, and things were very controlled in Cuba at that time. You couldn’t leave Havana without permission. You couldn’t go to another city or another town without permission from the government. Things were very, very controlled, and they took us around to very specific places, but I would escape and wander around Havana by myself.
I also saw the woman who had been my nanny when I was a child. My mother had corresponded with her, they had continued to write letters to each other, so she had an address from one of the letters and I just went and found her and, and I wasn’t supposed to do that because I was supposed to stay with the group. But I was a little rebellious. After that, I didn’t go back to Cuba again until 1991. And then that was really the point where I decided that I wanted to create a relationship with Cuba, that despite all the complications of going there and my family not being very happy that I wanted to go there, I decided I had to form a relationship with the place where I was born and understand it and be part of it. And so since ‘91 I’ve been going on a regular basis to Cuba.
How would you describe the Jewish community in Cuba?
It’s a very interesting Jewish community because you have a mix of people in the community. Several people are Jewish on one side of the family. Only a handful are Jewish on both sides of the family. So the community has brought in a lot of people who’ve married into the community and have chosen to convert, so it’s much more racially diverse.
It’s a very small community now, with about a thousand people. There were about 15,000 before the revolution, before 1959. So it’s very small, but relative to their size, it’s very vibrant. There are a few people who participated in the revolution. There are other people who just stayed in Cuba because they didn’t want to immigrate anywhere. They felt that they were Cuban and they didn’t want to go anywhere else. The biggest part of the community is in Havana, but there are also small pockets of Jewish communities all over the Island. And for me, it’s been really exciting to be able to travel and sometimes meet the only Jewish person that lives in a small town.
Letters from Cuba is inspired by your grandmother’s immigration story. Tell us a little bit about the book.
My maternal grandmother, Esther, had a pretty amazing story that I always heard growing up that she was the first of seven children to migrate to Cuba. The father, my great grandfather, was already in Cuba. He was struggling to make enough money to bring the whole family over from Poland. And so finally, after working for a few years, he writes and he says he has enough money to bring one of the children, but he wants to bring the oldest son and my grandmother gets very upset by that and says, well, I’m the eldest of all the children and I should be the one to go first, and that even though I’m a girl, I’m going to help you bring everybody. I always thought that was an amazing story.
I started writing it down because I was very concerned about the immigrant crisis in the U.S., and I felt that immigrants were being criminalized, and I was very concerned about the children being separated from their parents and put in cages. I was following that news and I thought to myself, well, my family went through something similar. My family was separated. My great grandfather went first, my grandmother next, and she was separated from her siblings and her mother for quite some time. Even though it’s a story from close to a hundred years ago, it still felt very timely. It seemed like this was the right moment to tell it.