Graduation

Twenty-five years ago I graduated from the University of Havana with a degree in journalism. I don’t remember the exact day, it must have been the 23rd or the 24th, before the holidays, but it is possible that it was later, the 28th or the 29th. It makes no difference, surely my classmates remember the date, and if none of them do, it doesn’t matter, none of us is still in Wikipedia, and if there is any need in the future to be more accurate, someone will check the archives. I do remember that for the occasion my mother bought me a pair of Chinese moccasins from one of the crooks on our block. They cost her 900 pesos, almost seven times her salary. At the time, I had another pair of shoes to go out in which I liked better. They were the ones I wore to the Grand Theater or to the Mella theater or to any other place where I could not go with mended tennis shoes, but by then, in the summer of 1995, they were in their last legs. They were becoming unstuck on one side, and I felt ashamed that someone might notice. I would go into the theater and sit down right away.

My classmates had chosen me as the “Integral Graduate”. It was a great injustice, Javier should have been the “Integral Graduate”, but I think neither of us cares about that anymore. As someone noticed in the meeting to organize the ranking and to elect the “Integral Graduate”, I did not practice sports, and Javier did. But my grades were a little higher, and my group had decided to organize the ranking using strictly academic criteria, without attention to other merits such as attendance to political-ideological activities or participation in the Caribbean Games. Javier’s speech in the Aula Magna would have been better than mine, sincerer. I plagiarized mine from Martí. I wrote it thinking that one day it would be published, but, of course, it has never been. I’ve been looking for it these days, but I can’t find it. I wrote it in WordPerfect 5.1 on one of the computers at the Faculty, and saved it on a 3.5 floppy disk, which no longer exists, and if I were to find it in some drawer, it would be useless: where am I going to find a computer from that time? It’s going to be like what happened to my degree thesis, which I thought was lost, and which turn up a few days ago in a drawer at Guanche’s house. Later I learned that the Rector had not liked my speech, which he had demanded to read in advance, but in the end he had given his consent for me to read it at the ceremony. The year before, the “Integral Graduate” of Journalism, Isabel Estrada, had been prevented from reading her speech with the excuse that there should not be two student speeches in the same graduation, and that year it was the turn of the graduate of Library and Information Sciences, the other discipline at the Faculty, to speak on behalf of all the graduates. According to legend, the graduates of Journalism escaped from the Aula Magna and crowded on the ground floor of the Villena Library, where Isabel read her speech amid shouts of “Down with Stalinism”. The latter must be a lie, those boys of ‘94 must not have said “Stalinism”. It was July 1994, a few days before a mob of people passed in front of my house shouting “Bread, justice, work and freedom”. They had come from raiding La Filosofía and were marching towards Yumurí.

The ’95 graduation was much more peaceful. No one had kidnap again the ferry boat to Regla. None of my fellow students had the intention of turning that trivial act into a protest against Stalin. It was very hot. Enma Fernández, the dean, was presiding, bored. She looked at us from her chair, perhaps trying to guess which one of us would be the first to leave Cuba. I was the only one wearing a tie, because it occurred to me that I had to, for posterity. You don’t want to look badly dressed in the photos that will later appear in your own biography and those of your contemporaries. It is comforting to know that no one will ever write my biography. There are too many photos from that time that I would rather not see published. The photos of the day Lester left. The photos of the day Osmani left. The photos of the day Iris left. Maybe there is a photo of the day Ricardo came to say goodbye to me. It’s pathetic, I’m a spaghetti noodle, the only thing I envy the weird-looking guy that appears in these photos is his age and his hair. On graduation day we took a picture next to the Alma Mater, which is corny, but doesn’t hurt anyone. I don’t have that picture, but I think some of my classmates still have it, maybe Alvaro or Ileana, and they have posted it on Facebook, which is where everyone now writes, post by post, their autobiography. It’s a touching picture, like all graduation pictures, and none of the people who appear in it knew what was in store for them. Except Odette, who two months later had already left, we didn’t have time to say goodbye to her. Surely Enma, always so smart, guessed it, that Odette was going to be the first, she was the only one of the group that had traveled before. But she was wrong if she thought I was going to rot in a newspaper in Havana. Eloísa Gil had invited me to stay at the Faculty teaching, which wasn’t my heart’s desire, but it was better than being sent to work at Granma, which was probably what I would have got as “Integral Graduate”. As part of my “training,” I had also begun to write for Tribuna de La Habana, a newspaper so modest that, according to Amado del Pino, it was born with a misprint on its front page: “Tribuna de La Habana surge como una necedad del Comité Provincial del Partido en Ciudad de La Habana (Tribuna de La Habana emerges as a piece of folly from the Provincial Party Committee in Havana City)”. That must be apocryphal also, Amado invented it, it was not the Provincial Party Committee, it was the Central Committee. In December 1996 the Provincial Party Committee in Havana City would fire me from Tribuna, accusing me of having written an article that had “insulted the people”, something that, of course, I would not know how to do even if I wanted to, I can’t think of any suitable insult for Cubans. My journalistic career was over before reaching its second year.

Several years later I wrote my doctoral thesis in London on “the professional ideologies of young Cuban journalists”, inspired by Isabel Estrada’s 1994 thesis on the same subject. Isabel’s thesis had won a award and had been included in the Pinos Nuevos collection, but State Security hijacked the entire print run of the book before it could be distributed and caged it in a warehouse, from where it must have only come out to be destroyed. My thesis was not intended to replace Isabel’s, much less accompany her in her martyrdom, I just wanted to graduate and stay in London. A Chinese publisher was once interested in it, but after he read it, he was terrified. It’s a shame, I would have been the first Cuban author of my generation translated into Mandarin, I would have been ahead of Ena Lucía Portela. For that thesis, I interviewed nearly fifty graduates of the Faculty of Journalism between 1990 and 1998 who were still working as journalists, in Cuba or abroad. They were not many, most of the graduates from those years had stopped practicing journalism, if they had ever started. Don’t judge us, at that time there was no El Estornudo, no OnCuba, not even the Internet had come to Cuba. There was no option, you wrote for the Cuban press, or for IPS, if Dalia Acosta invited you, or for Vida Cristiana. Or for any pamphlet published by Marta Beatriz Roque or Vladimiro Roca, or perhaps Oswaldo Payá, something extremely dangerous, as one could end up in the same dungeon as Isabel’s thesis, which was precisely what happened to Marta Beatriz and Vladimiro in July of 1997. I spoke for the thesis with very well-known journalists from the Cuban media, including some of my fellow graduates, such as Arzuaga, the Best, who gave me, in fact, the best interview by far, I quoted his<< more times than any other in my thesis, and I still quote in my classes something he told me about journalistic ethics. I asked them about their work, their ideas about journalism, their principles, their bosses, the things they wanted to do, the things they hadn’t been allowed to do, if they were satisfied. The answers were devastating, even the ones coming from those who had advanced the furthest in Cuban media, like Paquito, who was not yet “the one from Cuba,” but only Paquito, from Iris’ group. Before leaving Cuba for good, I presented the results of my research at the Faculty in a very watered down version. One professor was alarmed: “We must prevent this thesis from falling into the hands of the enemy,” she warned me. I assured her that so far the enemy had not shown any interest in the thesis or in me. I got Machado Ventura’s authorization to defend the thesis abroad, at that time the permission came directly from his office. Since then, I have taken all the necessary precautions not to fall into Machado Ventura’s hands again.

I have in my office, in Roehampton, a photo of my group in an farming camp. It is not the one at El Paraíso, which was taken with Fidel in July of 1991. I imagine that photo with Fidel cannot be displayed publicly at the Faculty, the number of deserters there is very high. Olga is in the photo in my office so it must have been taken during our second year, in 92. My British students do not believe that that boy with so much hair is me. My finger moves from one face to the next, Yuri, Dianelys, Carpio, Richard, Leyanis: “Miami, Miami, Havana, Tenerife, Boston, Guantánamo, Miami, Canada…” My finger gets to Jorge, and I don’t know what to say, it still makes me want to cry. Jorge disappeared one day. That was the moment when I started to grow old, not when I was thrown out of Tribuna, not when I decided to stay in London. A few months ago Ismael died, unexpectedly. Ismael was not my friend, but the last time we saw each other, in Havana, we hugged as if we were. Ismael managed to film some movies before he died, he is not on Wikipedia but he is on IMDb. Most of us have not yet turned 50, it is still possible that one of us will become famous, and get to appear not on Wikipedia, where everyone already is, but in the obituaries of the New York Times, which is the greatest achievement that can crown a human life. It is less and less probable, I am not even going to appear in Tribuna, and if there was still a chance, I am throwing it away with this article. Our time is running out, I think more and more about my pension, and that I have to go to the doctor as soon as the virus is over to have a checkup, just in case. I don’t know when the School of Communication will have its graduation this year, or if it has already happened. I wish those poor kids who finished their degree a lot of luck, although I have no idea how they are going to practice journalism in Cuba. They will have to find out how not to lose their skin, their head or their heart, and they were not taught that at the Faculty, quite the contrary. I advise them to hurry, to do already what they want to do, in the blink of an eye they will find themselves where I am, and I don’t mean London, I mean this age. Although who knows, maybe in London too. Check the scholarships available.

JUAN ORLANDO PÉREZ
JUAN ORLANDO PÉREZ
Juan Orlando Perez (Havana, 1972). Journalist and university professor. Columnist in El Estornudo magazine. He holds a PhD from the University of Westminster. Lectures in the Department of Media, Culture and Language at the University of Roehampton, United Kingdom.

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