The Cuba I knew was always alive in color. Interview with Margaret Randall

Margaret Randall (New York City, 1936) is a poet, activist, and former university professor. In the early-1960s she moved to Mexico, where she founded and coedited the bilingual literary magazine El Corno Emplumado and got involved in the student movement that led to the 1968 protests. Persecuted for her political activities and having lost her U.S. citizenship, she settled in Cuba, invited by the country’s government.

Randall’s stay in Cuba extended for 11 years, during which she raised her four children, met revolutionaries from all over the world, and worked as an editor and writer for the Cuban Book Institute until 1975. She was also on the jury of a beauty pageant. During the last five years of her stay in the Island, she was a freelance journalist. In her memoir I Never Left Home, published in 2020, Randall says that in her late years in Cuba she lost the authorities’ favor, being condemned to social ostracism. In 1980, following the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution, she moved to Nicaragua.

With more than 160 titles of poetry and literature published, Randall has won, among other prizes, the Lifetime Achievement award for Literature and Human Rights Activism from the listener-funded radio station KPFA, from Berkeley, California, as well as the Medal of Literary Merit granted by the government of the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, both in 2017. In 2019, she was given the Poet of Two Hemispheres prize from the poetry festival Poesía en Paralelo Cero, celebrated in Quito, Ecuador; the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’s George Garrett award; and the Haydée Santamaria medal from Casa de las Américas, Cuba.

I asked Randall about the fashion produced and consumed in Cuba during the years she lived in the country. I sent her my questions through email, which she quickly responded. Several months later, I returned to our interview, adding a couple more things, and asked her authorization to publish the interview in No Country Magazine. I am glad she agreed to that.

When you arrived in Cuba, what impression did you get of the way in which Cuban women (and Cubans in general) dressed? In other words, did their style strike you as particularly salient?

At that time, and during the decade I lived on the Island (1969-1980) there was much that I noticed with regard to Cuban fashion and how people dressed. We need to make a distinction between the two: fashion per se and how people dressed. There was an effort to stimulate Cuban fashion, designing clothes that would be comfortable in a hot tropical climate. However, I never felt these fashions were very original.

One big thing was designing uniforms for the different levels of students: these were fashioned of gabardine, and I always felt they were rather hot for the climate. They were nice to look at, though, and I think Cuban school children continue to wear the uniforms designed during those years. But as for how people dressed, it was a hodgepodge, depending on what people were able to get friends from abroad to leave them. Rationing limited what was available in the country, and people often asked visitors to leave what they didn’t need.

Did you ever sense that you, your husband, or children stood out among Cubans for the clothes you wore?

Not really. I am sure people knew that we had clothes from outside the country. It was obvious. But people didn’t make us feel self-conscious about this. And gradually, as the years went on, we wore more and more the same clothing that Cubans wore.

Several observers describe Cubans in the 1960s clad in fatigue uniforms. Can the same be said of the 1970s? How do you define the way in which Cubans dressed during the 1970s, and how different was it from other parts of the world you were familiar with?

In Cuba in the 1970s people wore fatigues only if they were in the military. Otherwise, they dressed individually, and most Cubans favored bright colors, very short skirts, colorful head scarves and such. The idea that people in a socialist country dressed monotonously or in drab colors was absurd. The Cuba I knew was always alive in color and in as much style as the person could manage.

What impact do you think Cuban revolutionary fashion had on feminine identity, autonomy, and power?

Cuban women generally valued a sense of femininity and dressed accordingly. They wore pants to work in the fields and when doing guard duty, but otherwise favored dresses. Sometimes it seemed that their sense of style was frozen in the 1950s. But they did not associate their sense of identity or autonomy with how they dressed. I knew many Cuban women for whom it was important to dress in what they considered a feminine way, but who were strong women and proud of their autonomy. I remember one female cane-cutter who was proud of her long-painted fingernails even as she took prizes in the amount of cane she could cut.

Do you think this emphasis on feminine attributes responded to not only socially constructed gender roles, but also political ideologies that may have led women to understand prettiness as a revolutionary duty, perhaps to portray socialist Cuba as a modern nation, or to stimulate men to participate and become dutiful citizens?

Not really. If anything, Cuban women’s sense of beauty and fashion at the time was a continuation of long-held values. It was the Revolution that introduced women wearing pants when doing guard duty or working in the fields. Had the revolutionary leadership had a gender-analysis, it might have worked harder to defeat some of Cuban women’s desire to be “feminine” in ways that we can now acknowledge as sexist. At the same time, we have to remember that we are talking about the 1970s. All over the world those sexist values flourished. And the Cuban revolution was making real change for Cuban women: in education, work, healthcare, and other areas.

You were a judge in a 1970 beauty contest. What can you tell of the role fashion played in the selection of contestants, their presentation on stage, and other aspects of the pageant?

As I have described on several occasions, I was horrified to have been asked to judge that contest, which was to choose that year’s carnival queen and her two attendants. I would not have accepted the invitation had it not come from Haydée Santamaría, who I admired tremendously. The contest tried to pretend that physical beauty was not the main criteria, but rather the women’s political ideas, social participation, etc.

However, the women still paraded in bathing suits and then in formal dress, and it was clear to me that many of the old criteria were still in place. The judges asked the contestants what they thought of the war in Vietnam and similar questions. But all the judges beside me were men, and they seemed to be viewing the woman as women have always been viewed in that sort of event.

I wrote a short piece that was published in the next day’s newspaper, urging the elimination of such contests. I later found out from Haydée that she had picked me as a judge because she hoped I would respond in that way and that my response had helped eliminate such contests.

When you and the other judges met to deliberate, which criteria did you consider to select the winner, and which one(s) prevailed?

I considered the way the contestants had answered questions about world affairs, values and such. These prevailed to some extent, perhaps more than they did in such competitions in other countries at the time. But traditional criteria around the issues of the women’s beauty and their bodies certainly also entered into the final decisions.

Why do you think Haydée Santamaría, a woman with more revolutionary credentials than you within the context of the Cuban Revolution, who held more power than you, and who had been and continued to be a close friend with Fidel Castro and other leaders, thought your opinion would be more influential than hers?

I don’t think she believed my opinion would be more influential than hers. She frequently spoke out for women and on issues of justice in general. I simply think that she enlisted my help as someone she thought would support an issue she cared about. Additionally, she wouldn’t have volunteered to be a judge at that contest; it wouldn’t have been appropriate.

During the time you lived in Cuba, you bought the same food Cubans consumed, through the same ration book, renouncing the material privileges to which foreigner residents were entitled, such as buying in dollar stores —the so-called Diplotiendas— in which Cubans were not allowed to enter. Did you also buy your and your children’s clothes through the ration card the government distributed to each individual to buy industrial products?

Yes, we had the usual Cuban ration books for both food and clothing. But as foreigners we also had many friends visiting from the United States and elsewhere, who would occasionally leave us pieces of clothing. So, we did have certain privileges in that respect.

As a foreign-passport holder, you had access to Diplotiendas, where the government sold merchandise imported from capitalist countries (e.g., blue jeans, domestic appliances) in hard currency. Some foreign residents in Cuba profited from this privilege, making some money by taking orders from dollar-owning Cubans, banned from those stores. Did you ever buy things for your Cuban friends at the Diplotiendas?

For most of the years I lived in Cuba I did not have a passport of any kind. I had lost mine during the repression in Mexico. So, I never frequented those dollar stores. Nor would I have done so, if I had had a passport. When I was able to get my Mexican passport back, it was just before leaving Cuba at the end of 1980.

In a 1977 interview for The Washington Post, Sally Quinn says of you: “Too much middle-class background for her to ever be anything else. And so she is tormented. Tormented because what she thought she wanted to reject is now no longer available to her. What she valued so little is now the most important thing in her life. And because she can’t have it, it makes her want it more: an American expatriate, a prisoner of ideology.” Which things were those you did not care much before going to Cuba, but your experience in the country taught you to value? Was clothing one of them?

Sally Quin’s 1977 interview for The Washington Post was filled with misquotes and was mean-spirited in the extreme. I was naive to even allow her to interview me and learned an important lesson from the experience. It is true that I come from a middle-class family. But “things” have never been important to me.

Long before moving to Cuba, I always dressed very simply, was never excited by the latest fashion, often wore hand-me-down attire. And once I got to Cuba, I never felt unhappy that I didn’t have access to more things, including clothing. Sally Quinn had her own agenda and lied throughout the piece she wrote about me.

In To Change the World, you say that some of your Cuban friends asked you when you were about to leave the country if you could donate them some of your clothes —you refer in particular to a poet who wanted your pantyhose for his wife. What impact do you think this request had in the way he assessed the government and the Revolution?

I believe these friends felt quite matter-of-fact about asking for those items. They knew that we were going to a place where more was available and would be happy to leave them what we could. I don’t believe this indicated any particularly negative attitude toward the Cuban government or Revolution. People on the outside tend to see these attitudes as “all or nothing,” and this was rarely the case. A person might want nice clothes and still support the Revolution. Or not support the Revolution and not care about clothes. Or any other combination of attitudes.

But still, in the case of socialist Cuba —and the socialist countries of the Soviet Bloc in general— the regime’s legitimacy rested on the promise, which the leaders made explicit too many times, of improving the living standards for all, and even surpassing those of the United States. After more than a decade of revolutionary transformations, it seems reasonable that some people, especially among the intelligentsia, began to resent not being able to envision the future of plenty communism was supposed to bring them. Was this never discussed or considered among your friends?

Not only among my friends, but these issues were discussed everywhere in Cuba: in the press, in the arts, in films and so forth. But I think much of the intelligentsia —as you put it— who resented the fact that the standards for all could not be raised as quickly as they would have liked ended up leaving the country. They valued their individual acquisition power and comfort more than the slow rise in living standards for everyone.

This is a complex question, because it was not simply the revolution itself that failed to move faster. Cuba was and is held back by the US blockade and the continuing difficulties that the United States has put in the way of equality in Cuba for more than 60 years now. We have no way of knowing how successful the revolution might have been in this regard, if the US had left it alone.

 In your book Cuban Women Now you say that the Cuban Revolution “has meant both immense change and no small amount of frustration” for women. Was fashion a factor that contributed to any of them?

I believe most women are frustrated when they cannot access power or personal agency, not simply because they can’t dress the way they wish to. I was speaking in that book about women having achieved the same education as men and many of the same jobs but remaining limited in terms of how far they could go —just like in so many other countries, including the United States. In Cuba, women as well as men enjoy free health care, good education and more, but there are still many more men than women in positions of real power. And the Cuban Communist Party has never made a real gender analysis of Cuba, nor permitted one to be made. That, I think, is a mistake.

You have publicly questioned, both in Cuba and after you left the country, the government approach to gender and sexual identities during the 1960s and 1970s. How did that translate into fashion, if you can say so?

As you must know, the Cuban Revolution went through periods of extreme repression against gay people. Fortunately, things have gotten much better. I lived in Cuba when the country’s educational system introduced a textbook (Man and Woman in Intimacy) in which homosexuality was viewed as a normal identity. Of course, one thing is to teach tolerance and it is much more difficult to change people’s attitudes, especially in cultures which have traditionally been conservative when it comes to sexual identity.

Today, however, gay Cubans no longer face the restrictions they once faced. And transgender operations, for example, are performed without cost in Cuba under the universal health plan. I was disappointed that when the new Constitution was approved in 2018, it did not include marriage equality. I hope that will come soon.

Jody Skolower has described you in Monthly Review as “too much of a feminist for the socialists and too much of a socialist for the feminists.” Fashion has been in many ways a contentious issue for both feminists and socialists, partly because of its role giving shape and public visibility to individual and collective identities. What can you say about the approach to fashion of both the leadership of the Cuban communist party and the FMC’s, during the years you lived in the country?

I should say that fashion has never been particularly important to me. In fact, I have always been antagonistic to a fashion industry that introduces new “looks” each year in order to make more profit, often at the expense of women who cannot afford to always be buying new clothes.

On the other hand, I have always been interested in, and inspired by, the indigenous and other styles that women have worn in different countries. I, myself, for many years wore indigenous huipiles from Mexico or Guatemala because I think they are beautiful. I still wear them when I dress up.

In general, during the years I lived in Cuba, I was not attracted to the styles favored by the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party or other leaders. They always looked presentable and clean, but nothing more. On the other hand, I admired the fact that most of them, while able to buy clothing abroad, did not do so in order not to be presumptuous.

For a person not interested in fashion, in your book My Life in 100 Objects you dedicate nine chapters to pieces of clothing, which you selected among the most meaningful things in your life. While some of them were made in Latin America, including a Guatemalan huipil, there is none from Cuba. If you had to choose a meaningful piece of garment you bought or used when you lived in Cuba, which one would you pick?

I did not choose a garment from my time in Cuba, nor did I choose one from my time in Nicaragua or my time in Vietnam, although all those countries were very important in my life experience. In My Life in 100 Objects I do include several objects from Cuba; they are just not pieces of clothing. I should also say that the nine pieces of clothing that I included in that book (I’ve never counted them as you did) were meaningful to me not because they represented what was fashionable, but simply items that are comfortable or beautiful to me.

The same year you left Cuba, 125,000 nationals also left the country to set residency in the United States, in what is perhaps the biggest exodus in Cuban postrevolutionary history. Because of the ideological differences you and most of these émigrés had, one may be tempted to think the only thing you have in common is the fact that you all left Cuba the same year. Four decades after the Mariel Boatlift, can you think of any other thing the marielitos and you had in common?

I remember the Mariel boatlift well. It gripped all of Cuba at the time. And there have been other major departures since, for example in 1994. I believe everyone has the right to live where they wish. I did not approve of the “repudiation” scenes that many Cubans made as their neighbors were leaving their homes. I am delighted that many of the strict immigration regulations the Revolution had in those years have been loosened subsequently.

On the other hand, my leaving Cuba for Nicaragua at the end of 1980 had nothing to do with the reasons the marielitos left. I continued to defend the Cuban Revolution at the time, and continue to defend it today. I have criticisms, which I feel is only natural. But I believe that the Cuban Revolution was one of the great political events of the 20th century, and the fact that it exists today in the face of so many obstacles and problems is extraordinary.

Last year you published the book I Never Left Home, where you claim that “the greatest challenge to the success of the Cuban Revolution has been the issue of power,” that is, the reluctance of the Cuban leaders to share it. What do you think of the grassroot movement that has emerged in recent times based on alliances between emerging and consolidated artists and members of the popular classes, to demand participation in political decision making, including protesting policies such as the Decree no. 349, which gives the state the prerogative to determine who is an artist and what constitutes legitimate artistic expression? As a revolutionary, what would you tell them?

As a revolutionary I would not presume to tell them anything. I would rather listen to them. They are on the ground, after all, and I have been outside the country for many years. I am against censorship wherever and however it raises its head, and I am always disappointed when I see a government concerned with justice exercise censorship in any form. So, I hope the grassroots movement of artists and intellectuals and the Cuban Communist Party will be able to arrive at positive compromises through genuine dialogue.

At the same time, I am also disappointed when I read exaggerated accounts of events by one side or the other. The fact that a number of participants in this movement are supported by organizations in the US, a country that has tried for so long to destroy the revolution, doesn’t help their cause.

María A. Cabrera Arús (Havana, 1973). Sociologist. Studies and writes about the political meanings of fashion and material culture, and teaches at New York University. Author of the archive and collection Cuba Material.


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