The Havana Habit


An acclaimed poet and critic presents an affectionate examination of Cuba in America's cultural imagination.

"This short, breezy, and often amusing examination of American perceptions of Cuba is both timely and informative. . . . Pérez Firmat has handled this topic with a light, humorous touch without diminishing its more serious aspects."-Jay Freeman, Booklist

"Mr. Pérez Firmat catalogs the ways in which Cuba has influenced American tastes and infiltrated American culture . . . to suggest the pride of place ...

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An acclaimed poet and critic presents an affectionate examination of Cuba in America's cultural imagination.

"This short, breezy, and often amusing examination of American perceptions of Cuba is both timely and informative. . . . Pérez Firmat has handled this topic with a light, humorous touch without diminishing its more serious aspects."-Jay Freeman, Booklist

"Mr. Pérez Firmat catalogs the ways in which Cuba has influenced American tastes and infiltrated American culture . . . to suggest the pride of place Havana once had in the American imagination."-Eric Felten, Wall Street Journal

"A tale of two closely tied cultures, The Havana Habit is told with both élan and humor."-Oscar Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

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Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal

"Mr. Pérez Firmat catalogs the ways in which Cuba has influenced American tastes and infiltrated American culture . . . to suggest the pride of place Havana once had in the American imagination."--Eric Felten, Wall Street Journal

— Eric Felten


"A worthy resource in a variety of disciplines."—A. M. Stock, CHOICE

— A. M. Stock

Oscar Hijuelos

“A tale of two closely tied cultures, The Havana Habit is told with both élan and humor: the author's take on the latin lover iconography attached to both Fidel and Che is priceless, and like all of this book, both informative and entertaining.”—Oscar Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
Virgil Suarez

“A must-read, must-teach text filled with revelations about the dysfunctional love affair that has preoccupied the United States and Cuba over the last century. There's no other book like it on the Cuban-American condition. Pérez Firmat delivers all you ever wanted to know about Cuba but were too American and polite to ask.”—Virgil Suarez, author of 90 Miles: New and Selected Poems
Diana Sorensen

"With elegance and dynamism, Pérez Firmat traces the power of stereotypes in America¹s construction of things Cuban. If Havana stands for Cuba, Cuba stands for Latin America, and there is no other Latin American nation that has left a deeper imprint in the American imagination."—Diana Sorensen, Harvard University
Roberto Ignacio D�az
"A brilliant and engagingly written study whose theoretical sharpness and original and meticulous research show Havana to be a veritable, if unlikely, American icon."—Roberto Ignacio Díaz, University of Southern California
CHOICE - A. M. Stock

"A worthy resource in a variety of disciplines."—A. M. Stock, CHOICE
Roberto Ignacio Díaz

"A brilliant and engagingly written study whose theoretical sharpness and original and meticulous research show Havana to be a veritable, if unlikely, American icon."—Roberto Ignacio Díaz, University of Southern California
Library Journal
Introducing Havana—no, not that Havana, the land of Fidel, Che, and revolutionary fervor, but Havana as imagined in American arts and culture. Cuban-born scholar Pérez Firmat (humanities, Columbia Univ.) explores the city's significance to film, music, fiction, dance, television, and that staple of American culture, the Cuban cigar. The lively text, supplemented with various illustrations, makes for a distinctive reading experience on America's fascination with what Frederic Remington termed the "Havana Habit" as far back as the middle of the 19th century. Most of Pérez Firmat's material and examples are from the pre-Castro Havana of the 1930s and 1940s, the image of Cuba in the American consciousness that never fully disappeared, even after the arrival of communism. The final chapter brings readers full circle with its coverage of Castro and his lasting influences. VERDICT Highly recommended both for specialists and for those newly exploring the subject.—Boyd Childress, Auburn Univ. Lib., AL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300177893
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 1/31/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,475,402
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

A poet, fiction writer, memoirist, and scholar, Gustavo Pérez Firmat is the David Feinson Professor of Humanities at Columbia University.
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Read an Excerpt

The Havana Habit

By Gustavo Prez Firmat


Copyright © 2010 Gustavo Prez Firmat
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-14132-0



America's Smartest City

Sooner or later, almost no one can escape going to Havana. —The New Yorker, 1940

Although it may not be so any longer, for most of the last two centuries the Morro Castle was the most recognizable item of Latinamericana in the United States. Never mind that it was sometimes mistakenly called the Morrow Castle, perhaps because of the island's reputation for dolce far niente, or the Moro Castle, probably because of the Moorish influence on Havana's architecture. Cuba was Havana and Havana was El Morro. Its visage on countless postcards, the castle's beacon, towering above the narrow entrance to the harbor, instantly identified the location as Havana, the gayest city in the world. That the symbol of gaiety should have been a fortress built at the end of the sixteenth century to defend the city from British buccaneers exemplifies the transformation of Havana from "Key to the New World and Bulwark of the West Indies," the inscription on the city's coat of arms, to Paris of the New World, Monte Carlo of the Caribbean, Las Vegas of Latin America, and Pleasure Capital of the Western Hemisphere—as well as "America's Favorite Foreign City" and "the Smartest City in America" (the last epithet another creation of the Cuban Tourist Commission, which evidently did not mind annexing Havana to the United States).

The proliferation of nicknames highlights the city's appeal to Americans, for whom the Cuban capital was so familiar that at times it did seem like an American city, not "La Habana" but "Havana." In the course of a hundred years—roughly between the 1850s and 1950s—Americans developed what Frederic Remington, a correspondent in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, called the "Havana habit," a custom that drew increasingly large numbers of Americans of all stripes—adventurers, tourists, businesspeople, movie stars, mobsters—to Cuba's capital. Some of them wintered there, while others came for a weekend or for only the day. As the habit spread, La Habana became two cities: the real-world settlement founded by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and a fantasy city, a pleasure dome with a life of its own that shared its location with the city of brick and stone. This was the Havana of travel books and tourist guides, of Tin Pan Alley songs and Hollywood musicals. Because this Havana was timeless, it had only an intermittent connection to the often truculent events that took place in the Cuban city. In the 1920s, one visitor called it "the first station this side of Utopia." Utopia, literally, is no place.

But let's begin with the city of brick and stone. Originally founded on the southern coast of the island, La Habana was moved to its present location in 1519. Its full name is San Cristóbal de La Habana: the first part an homage to Cuba's discoverer, Cristóbal Colón; the second inspired by the name of the daughter of an Indian chief. At first, and for several decades, La Habana was a modest village with only a few hundred inhabitants. Essentially defenseless, it was the target of frequent raids by pirates who, however, did not find much of anything to seize. As the sixteenth century wore on, Spain recognized Havana's strategic position as the "key" to its New World possessions. Its spacious, narrow-necked harbor on the edge of the Gulf Stream made it an ideal meeting point for the gold-laden galleons returning from Mexico and South America. Twice a year, the Spanish fleet would gather in Havana to pick up supplies and prepare for the risky transatlantic journey. To make the city safe from the likes of Francis Drake (whose ferocity was signified by his Spanish nickname, El Draque, The Dragon), large, sturdy fortresses were built, the Morro Castle most prominent among them.

Although the Spanish crown believed Havana to be impregnable, a century later the British demonstrated otherwise. At war with Spain and France, England dispatched a force of several thousand, which included hundreds of American colonists, led by the earl of Albemarle. After a three-month siege, Havana fell into British hands. (Bloody as the siege was, Albemarle recalled looking at Havana through his spyglass and seeing the natives dancing in the streets.) The British stayed for less than a year, until Spain agreed to cede Florida to England in exchange for Havana.

Though short-lived, the British occupation was instrumental in shaping the city's future. Before the British took over, Havana, like other Spanish ports in the New World, had been permitted to trade only with Spain, a restrictive policy that benefited Spain but did little for its colonies. With the redcoats came free trade (and also, unfortunately, unfree trade: a bump in the importation of slaves). As an English possession, Havana gained access to North American markets and North American imports. Once the genie was out of the bottle, it could not be put back in. After Spain regained possession of the island, it had no choice but to slacken the prohibitions on foreign trade. In 1776 Spain opened trade from Cuban ports with the new American republic; in 1818 restrictions on foreign trade were lifted altogether. Yearly port entries went from a handful to several hundred. The expansion of trade brought to Havana, for the first time, immigrants and merchants from the United States and Europe, an influx of people and goods that made Havana the cosmopolitan city it has remained to this day.

After trade restrictions were eased, the United States quickly became Cuba's principal trading partner. Cuba offered sugar, coffee, and tobacco (a sweetener, a tonic, and a narcotic), as well as less common imports such as lottery tickets and cocuyos, Cuban fireflies, renowned for the brightness and duration of their beam. The fledgling American republic offered manufactured goods, foodstuffs, and technology—from gas lights for the streets to machinery for the ingenios or sugar plantations. Traveling through the Cuban countryside in the 1840s, William Cullen Bryant rode in a rail car made in Newark drawn by an engine made in New York worked by an American engineer. By the middle of the nineteenth century, fully two-thirds of the hundreds of ships anchored in the Havana harbor at any one time flew the Stars and Stripes. As visitors liked to mention, all those masts made the harbor look like an American forest.

With trade and accessibility came the first stirrings of the Havana habit. In the 1840s and 1850s, several thousand Americans visited Havana every year, including such notables as future presidents Grover Cleveland and Ulysses S. Grant. In 1853 William Rufus King, Franklin Pierce's running mate, became the first vice president of the United States sworn in on foreign soil (tubercular, he had gone to Cuba for his health). Two years later, a hospital for Americans opened in Havana. Dozens of these visitors to Cuba recorded their impressions of the island. In addition to countless magazine and newspaper articles, between 1850 and 1899 more than seventy travel books about Cuba were published in the United States. These accounts reflect the full spectrum of opinions. Many travelers, charmed by the quaint, colonial city and the easygoing ways of its inhabitants, resorted to the paradisal metaphor, as did William Henry Hurlbert in Gan-Eden: Pictures of Cuba (1854), whose title is Hebrew for Garden of Delights. To a "New Yorker in Havana," the city seemed "some fairy land, most jealously guarded by the mighty genii of the place from invasion by mortals of the outer world." The mighty genii are the Morro Castle, La Cabaña fortress, and other embattlements. Strolling through the city, with the scent of oranges and limes wafting in the air, this New Yorker thought that he was strolling through the groves of paradise. Another traveler, a Philadelphian, approached the city in a small boat: "And now, beneath the awning, sheltered from the sun's scorching rays, we enjoy the luscious sun-ripened orange, while our eyes feast upon the strangely beautiful scene before us: a scene more lovely than ever our imagination had pictured; a reality exceeding our brightest dream."

Of course, ever since Columbus remarked that Cuba was the most beautiful land that human eyes had ever seen, the paradisal trope has shaped external (and to a large extent, internal) perceptions of the island. Furthermore, this comparison has been used apropos of all of the Americas, North as well as South. Columbus himself famously claimed, during his third voyage, to have reached the biblical Garden of Eden, which he placed near the mouth of the Orinoco River and described as having the shape of a woman's breast. In Cuba's case, however, the paradisal trope survived as metaphor long past the time when anyone took it literally, and throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Cuba was insistently likened to the biblical Eden, sometimes seriously and sometimes in jest.

But not everyone who sailed or steamed past El Morro was impressed by Cuba's beauty. Because all of the city's refuse drained into the bay, its waters were usually filthy. As one traveler put it, Havana harbor was "a foul and seething cauldron" that was "smelt before it was seen." The city itself did not fare much better: "Havana is a great sewer, from which pestilential exhalations constantly arise. As soon as you enter this city, an insufferable smell assails you, and never quits as long as you remain in it" (what happened to the aroma of orange and lime?). The belief among Americans was that the stench emanated from the mixture of cigar smoke, garlic, and offal—a deadly combination. After some of the streets were paved in the 1830s, sanitary conditions improved somewhat, but the increasing population and poor drainage continued to make it an unsalutary place, the breeding ground of yellow fever, dengue, and other tropical diseases. In addition, insects were everywhere, especially the fearsome Cuban ants, "so large that they kill chickens by biting them in the throat." This plague produced one more nickname for Havana: "Queen of the Ant-hilles."

For the Havana naysayers, the city's inhabitants were "deteriorated Spaniards," "strange-looking people" with an inflated sense of their own importance. As a rule, the men were noisy, insolent, and, most of all, lazy: "The Habaneros do nothing that they can do without doing." Their love for gambling, as well as the scarcity of good beef and the custom of having white rice (most of it imported from the United States) with every meal, also came in for frequent criticism. Even Cuban women, who had a reputation for beauty, did not escape unscathed. The same New Yorker who was enchanted by Havana observed that Cuban women not only dressed badly but were dull-witted, with "not one half that vivacity and esprit so characteristic of the French grisette." A fellow traveler was no more impressed by their appearance than by their wit: "The ugliness of the women amounts to a vice, and is unredeemed by any quality as sometimes palliates plainness of features. I have cried aloud for the beautiful Cuba, but in vain." A row of Cuban women sitting together, he added, is "an awful array of hideousness." Richard Henry Dana, the author of To Cuba and Back (1859), the most popular nineteenth-century book about Cuba, explained that mature Cuban women fell into "two classes, distinctly marked and with few intermediates: the obese and the shrivelled."

For American travelers, the island was a contradiction, at once alluring and repulsive, pestilential as well as paradisal. In this respect, they reproduced the general conviction held by Europeans and Americans alike about the tropics: a place of bounteous beauty yet unfit for human habitation—or at least, for habitation by those hailing from northern climes. (According to James Steele, who wrote what may be the most vitriolic book ever published about Cuba, "Where the banana grows, men do not grow, unless they are black.") Americans admired the island's scenery—its shimmering seas, its majestic palms, its luxuriant vegetation—yet cringed at the islanders and their customs (bullfights! serenades!). They were drawn to the capital, yet complained about the deplorable conditions they found there. Especially after slavery was abolished in the United States, its perpetuation in Cuba stained the island. Cuba was paradise, and Cuba was hell.

We should not forget that these appraisals of Cuba, whether glowing or damning, were refracted through the lens of prospective possession. Like John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson before him, throughout the nineteenth century many Americans believed that the acquisition of Cuba was the natural consequence of the manifest destiny of the United States. As the New York Sun put it, "Give us Cuba and our possessions are complete." During the heyday of expansionist fever in the 1840s, even freedom-loving Walt Whitman endorsed Cuba's "speedy annexation," stressing the economic benefits it would bring to the Union. These sentiments eventuated in several offers of purchase. In 1848, the year that Mexico lost a large chunk of its territory to the United States, James Polk offered Spain a hundred million dollars for Cuba. He was turned down. In 1854, Franklin Pierce upped the offer to one hundred and thirty million, an initiative endorsed by his successor, James Buchanan, but they too were turned down. Although the Civil War ended the talk of annexation for a while, Ulysses Grant renewed efforts to buy the island, and once again Spain wasn't interested, partly out of national pride and partly because the price wasn't high enough. Finally, in the months leading up to the Spanish-American War, William McKinley tried to stave off the conflict by offering three hundred million dollars for Cuba. Not long after he was turned down, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were charging up San Juan Hill.

In addition to American efforts to acquire the island, Cuban annexationists, among them slave-owning planters who envisioned Cuba as part of the Confederacy, attempted to topple the colonial regime. The most serious plots were hatched by Narciso López (1797–1851), a Venezuelan-born general who had fought for the Spanish crown against the forces of Simón Bolívar. When he arrived in Cuba, López quickly fell out with Spanish authorities and began conspiring against them. After a botched attempt at internal revolt, López went into exile in the United States, where he joined ranks with the filibusteros, the name given by Spaniards to those who sought to overthrow the colonial regime by mounting raids on the island. In 1859, with soldiers recruited from Louisiana and other southern states, López organized a filibustering expedition, which was soon defeated. Again he escaped to the United States and assembled another expedition of five hundred men, a majority of them Americans (including the son of the U.S. attorney general), which landed a few miles west of Havana, but once again the filibusters were routed by the Spanish. This time López was captured and executed in Havana before a large crowd. One of the ironies of Cuban history is that the man who died fighting for the annexation of the island helped to design the Cuban flag. Known as la bandera de la estrella solitaria, the lone star flag, it bears a not accidental resemblance to the flag of Texas, the lone star state.

Because of the debate about annexation, the American travelers went to the island not just to enjoy themselves or convalesce in the warm climate but to inspect a potential addition to the Union. For this reason, praise of the majestic beauty of El Morro is often accompanied by an assessment of the fortress's defenses (the consensus: they would crumble before a cannonade from American battleships); and descriptions of Cuba's rich soil mention how much more these lands would yield if tended by American hands. So it is, for example, that the novelist Maturin Ballou, the author of another widely read travel book, Due South (1885), after extolling the "Eden of the Gulf," concludes: "Cuba is indeed a land of enchantment, where nature is beautiful and bountiful, and where mere existence is a luxury, but it requires the infusion of a sterner, a more self-reliant, self-denying and enterprising race to test its capabilities and to astonish the world with its productiveness." In contrast, William Henry Hurlbert, who shared Ballou's view of Cuba as an Eden, nevertheless worried that a barefooted, barefaced Cuban peasant "might perhaps, at no distant day, be inflicted upon our own unfortunate Congress, as a representative from the sovereign State of Cuba!"

Whatever their outlook, the travelers who recorded their impressions made Havana familiar, a back-of-the-mind presence that no longer needed to be described in detail. As someone pointed out, "The city of Havana has been so often described that its streets, its shops, its customs, its houses, its family and social life, are as familiar to most American readers as those of one of our own cities." Or consider this conversation between two friends:

"Let us get away from this inhospitable climate, and take refuge in some suburb."

"In what suburb can we find a more decent temperature?"

"In Havana."

"What Havana?"

"Havana in Cuba."

"Do you call that a suburb of New York?"

"Well, it's nothing else. It is right at our doors—only four days distant, and that's nearer than Albany was to New York a hundred years ago."

This was in 1883. In fifteen years, Americans would not only be visiting this suburb of New York, they would be living there.

* * *

Although Havana was blockaded by the American navy during the Spanish-American War (in truth the Spanish-Cuban-American War), no battles were fought in it or for it. Still, the war and its aftermath diminished the number of visitors to the city, which was still beset by poor drainage, inadequate communications and transportation, and an insufficient supply of fresh water. During the American occupation between 1898 and 1902, these problems began to be remedied, and one of the city's landmarks, the seaside avenue called El Malecón, was constructed. Nonetheless, for years after the war, when Americans thought of Cuba, they did not visualize "gay and splendid" Havana but scenes from the conflict: the sinking of the Maine (remember?); the daring rescue of Evangelina Cisneros, the most beautiful girl in Cuba; the annihilation of the Spanish fleet in Santiago de Cuba; the charge up San Juan Hill; the famous "message to García" delivered by an intrepid American soldier. After the war, Parker Brothers released several board games commemorating the victory over Spain, among them "War in Cuba" and "The Siege of Havana," while John Philip Sousa toured the country with a musical extravaganza, "The Trooping of the Colors," that exalted American patriotism.

Excerpted from The Havana Habit by Gustavo PÃ?rez Firmat. Copyright © 2010 by Gustavo PÃ?rez Firmat. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments....................     ix     

INTRODUCTION So Near and Yet So Foreign....................     1     

ONE America's Smartest City....................     23     

TWO A Little Rumba Numba....................     53     

THREE Music for the Eyes....................     73     

FOUR Mad for Mambo....................     102     

FIVE Cuba in Apt. 3–B....................     120     

SIX Dirges in Bolero Time....................     139     

SEVEN Comic Comandantes, Exotic Exiles....................     158     

EIGHT A Taste of Cuba....................     182     

EPILOGUE Adams's Apple....................     203     

Notes....................     215     

Index....................     227     

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