A Noche Cubano in D.C.


When you walk into the new Busboys and Poets in Takoma Park, District of Columbia, you see a simple coffee bar. Behind the bar, next to a sign that says “Compass Coffee,” is a framed picture of Ernest Hemingway talking to Fidel Castro.

Past the shelves of Politics and Prose books and into the second dining hall and performance space is a mural of Cuban images. In this massive collage, painted by owner Andy Shallal, is a poem written by Afro-Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén called “Tengo.”

The room was perfect for a night of celebration of Cuba culture. The new space was holding a weekend of talks, classes, film screenings, and events focused on Cuban culture called Cuba Week, and the Cuban Fiesta on the last Saturday night was its last hurrah.

I, having been to Cuba in January and becoming subsequently obsessed with Cuban culture, was desperate to consume anything Cuban again, to find something that could remind me of the country I grew to love in a span of two weeks.  Despite the pricey ticket (which included one free mojito and a meal), I took a friend, who knew nothing of Cuban culture, for a noche cubano.

The event page of Busboys and Poets’ website boasts “sweet drinks mixed by the Cuban Embassy’s bar tender” which is a stretch because there is no Cuban Embassy in D.C. There is only an interests section, just like the American version in Havana. The free mojito was delicious but a second mojito was around $10, which is outrageous (a mojito at Havana’s legendary Bodeguito del Medio, frequented by Hemingway, would go for no more than about $7). To accompany the drinks, we ate from a buffet of finger foods, including pizza and vegetable skewers. This was the only disappointing aspect of the night; the food was not Cuban. I would have enjoyed having ropa vieja or arroz blanco.  There was also a raffle of Cuban cigars.

A highlight of the evening was when the Rueda All Stars dance troupe performed. Hailing from Santiago de Cuba, the troupe specializes in Casino style and contemporary Cuban dance and made their first U.S. appearance, with help from the American troupe D.C. Casineros (of which many members were Cuban-American). At the end, they encouraged everyone to dance with them, as Cubans do.

The setting for this Cuban Fiesta was perfect; it was airy, open, and had a mural dedicated to the celebrated country. There was a sense of excitement among the guests. Just as the President is eager to mend political relations with our neighbor, the people were eager to learn about and revel in such a unique culture. As a fellow I met on the streets of Havana told me after I told him I was American: “leave the politics for them, it’s about the people.”

CUBAN FIESTA: Busboys and Poets
Takoma | Main Dining Room | March 7, 2015 | 8:00 pm – 11:00 pm

Featured image source: http://www.busboysandpoets.com/about/takoma

Elizabeth Sherwood is a Baltimore-based writer and exuberant pursuer of adventure and travel.


2 thoughts on “A Noche Cubano in D.C.

  1. Fidel Castro’s picture at Takoma Park’s Busboys & Poets

    By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

    Dear Mr. Shallal,

    The pained surprise of encountering a picture of Fidel Castro at a beloved place like Busboys and Poets is hard to describe. I have been a regular at Busboys for a very long while. When I was the Director of Communications at the HHS Office of Minority Health Resource Center, we had a National Minority Health Month event at the restaurant in 14 street, with Tonya Lewis Lee (Spike Lee’s wife) and a couple of experts, focused on fatherhood in the black community. Rare is the friend who comes to town that I don’t drag to one of your restaurants.
    Since I live in Silver Spring, when the new one opened in Takoma Park I almost cried. Then, I heard a room was called Nicolás Guillén, and I was fine with that (actually happy since he was a friend of my father and a black poet in that racist enclave that is my island.) He was a real poet in his own right and I am not one to condemn people for thinking differently than I do, and certainly not one to question people’s intellectual or artistic rights. Fidel Castro is not the same thing at all.
    I am Cuban-born, and came to the U.S. in 1997, as a political refugee. But, hold on, before you think I am some arch right winger like some of my compatriots down South, as I told the manager, I am so to the left that I’m always looking around to make sure I don’t bump into Glenn Beck as he comes from the right.
    I am taking the liberty of linking to you a couple of my writings in order to give you context. I am an unapologetic and self-confessed radical progressive who believes firmly in almost everything Fidel Castro says, and in almost nothing he does or has done. And therein lays the problem. Obviously, I am using Castro here as an example because his picture is the origin of this communication. But my point is the left cannot be the realm of dictatorships just as the right has been in order to supposedly provide opportunity, because you know it doesn’t work. This is a much longer discussion. I could give you many examples. But I know you don’t want me to bore you to tears with the inside baseball.
    However, I will point to you a couple of things, please, take them as the words of an admirer – because that is what I am – and of someone who has tremendous confidence in the ability of people like you, who are putting money and energy into the mission of real community change. I truly respect you and what you have done, and I will provide a few examples to compare them with your own experience – not that I presume to know you, of course:
    – When the left around the world embraces Cuba and a regime that has been there for almost 60 years, it seems hypocritical or superficial, shallow. How could someone from the left support a regime that is suppressing every right of people? I am, I guess, with the Mexican leader Zapata, who was thinking precisely of the apparent conundrum that was presented to him and the cause of the poorest in Mexico: We don’t want bread without liberty nor liberty without bread. We want bread and liberty.
    – In Cuba, people like you, for instance, would have their opportunities rather limited and would have to keep their speech in sync with what’s allowed. Any misstep would cost you not just your business but your freedom. Do you know, for instance that people who were opening restaurants – once the government allowed that – were limited to 12 chairs? Because, as José Martí would say economic freedom is political freedom. So, they want to keep the possibility of people becoming independent to a bare minimum. By the way, if you are looking for a good portrait of someone who is a recognizable Cuban leader, a fierce critic of the U.S. politics throughout Our America and an intellectual, poet and writer of unparalleled stature, I would suggest José Martí.
    – Then, one of the great things of the Cuban revolution was to open opportunities for black Cubans – of whom I’m one – but, have you checked how the numbers are turning out for blacks in Cuba now? Have you seen the numbers of those in prison and living in the most abject poverty? Ironically, many of the people who now oppose the system are blacks because the promise has fallen very short.
    – I am sure you are as scandalized and outraged as I am by the situation of mass incarceration in this country and, for instance, by the events in Baltimore. Do you know what happened with the Tugboat massacre? I was there. This is not something I learned from the news: they killed 41 Cubans, including 10 children for the incredible crime of trying to leave the island. Nobody has paid for that…well, I guess, except the survivors who were jailed.
    – I know blacks in America have a soft spot for Cuba because Castro was on their side and even gave refuge to some, including Black Panthers, etc. But I think it is wrong and immoral to believe that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. And you won’t criticize your friend even if he is beating his wife.
    – Also, take a look at the way the 1% lives in Cuba and compare that with the way most others live.
    – I could go down the line and discuss gay rights, freedom of speech and a very long etcetera.
    – What drives me crazy the most is that what we are looking at is China and/or Russia going forward. People who have enriched themselves by having full control of the economy and by limiting everyone’s freedom, in the name of a socialist or communist paradise, would then receive all the benefits of capitalism. While everyone else would have minimal access to that. We are not looking at a social democracy or anything of the sort.
    – I am in favor of ending the embargo, because it just doesn’t work. But let’s not be under the illusion that it is the cause of Cuba’s problems.
    – Lastly, and this is the most honest and brutal comment I’ll make here. I apologize for the harshness but I know that blunt comparisons help bring home a point. I understand you believe there is some peace in everyone and that’s why you considered putting the picture of Castro. I wonder if you would have considered putting pictures of other dictators shaking hands with Hemingway or any other great American writer or intellectual. Francisco Franco, perhaps? Would you put even a picture of Ronald Reagan, for instance? What about one of the Salvadoran generals who so beastly ran that country?
    – I guess, when you place that picture you are saying something, and for the people who have suffered and are suffering under that regime you are saying: your pain doesn’t matter. Only some deaths matter, only some political prisoners matter. I KNOW you do not mean that, and that’s why I am writing to you, otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered. Do keep in mind that I by no means think that we got all our rights figure out in the U.S., by a very long shot, but we have the right to fight on and push forward: you do not have that right in Cuba.
    I will close with a joke that may illustrate the difference: An American visiting Cuba tells his Cuban friend: “In the U.S. I can stand in front of the White House and yell anything I want against Obama and nothing will happen to me.” The Cuban friend responds: “That’s exactly the same here. I can stand in the Revolution Square and yell anything I want against Obama…and nothing will happen to me.”
    I am writing to you in the name of kindness and understanding. I will quote a poem of Martí, who was fighting Spain’s colonial power. He was going to see a performance of a great Spanish dancer. He clearly could admire the art, without regards to the nationality of the dancer. But, he could not enter the theater if the Spanish flag was hoisted upfront – as it shouldn’t be, since this was his nation, my nation and not Spain:

    The lonely, trembling soul
    Suffers the evening:
    There is dancing; let’s go see
    The Spanish dancer

    They have done well to remove
    The flag from the sidewalk;
    Because if the flag is there,
    I don’t know, I just cannot enter.

    In Spanish:

    El alma trémula y sola
    Padece al anochecer:
    Hay baile; vamos a ver
    La bailarina española

    Han hecho bien en quitar
    El banderón de la acera;
    Porque si está la bandera,
    No sé, yo no puedo entrar.

    I guess we Cubans take symbols a bit too seriously.
    Much love and respect, Isabel.

    A couple of things to consider

    Cuba: U.S. left acquiesces with repression, believes in neo-Con’s economics

    The neo-liberal media coverage of Cuba’s opening


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