While Southern Oregon University Professor Bobby Arellano’s genes are 100 percent Cuban, his upbringing is entirely American. But new access to Cuba has given birth to a love of his “patria” (homeland), along with many novels, based in the lore and mores of this island nation he has visited a dozen times.
“Havana Libre,” his latest book that's just out, describes a doctor, Manolo Rodriguez, who is recruited into Havana’s National Revolutionary Police as a spy with a mission to infiltrate the anti-Castro community in Miami. His mission is to help stop bombings designed to cripple the budding tourist trade in Havana.
The Cuban Secret Service fears he will defect, but they need intel on the next bombings. In Miami, “the most dangerous city in Latin America,” the Cuban exiles will suspect him of being pro-Castro.
The book is a vehicle for Arellano to express his newfound understanding of and love for the Cuban people and their charm, curiosity and welcoming warmth for strangers — which is what Arellano found on his first trip there, starting in 1992. As an estranged Cuban, he says, he is known as a “Cubanito.”
“Going to Cuba back in those days was very tricky, but it was wonderful to encounter my true people,” says Arellano. “My homeland was very sympatico in the first 15 minutes. Their message about the ‘blockade’ as they call it is that ‘it’s a government thing’ and has nothing to do with the Cuban people.
"They say, ‘We love your people, your music, your food — and when the blockade is over, we will have a big patchanga (party) with great food and we will drink all night.'”
The United States has placed an embargo on trade with Cuba and limited travel between the two countries since 1959. President Barack Obama began normalizing relations with Cuba in 2014, but President Donald Trump has announced he will reinstate some of the travel and commercial restrictions.
Arellano says Cubans see the embargo as "a few old guard Cubans who emigrated to Florida and who have a few old congressmen in their pockets.”
His book launch, reading and signing will be at Bloomsbury Books at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30. The spy-thriller novel, published by Akashic Books in New York, is his second in a series called “Cuba Noir.” Akashic publishes other noir books representing many cities, including “Portland Noir.”
Arellano is a guitarist, a fan of metal music and plans to sing and play at a rock festival in Santa Clara, the capital of the central Cuban province of Villa Clara.
He has taken groups of up to a dozen people to Cuba.
“You’ll get so much out of it and come back richer for it," he says of the trip. "The more Americans see it, the more they are our friends.”
Arellano says it's not expensive: A round trip ticket from Los Angeles to Havana can be purchased for less than $300.
His books reflect a reality about Cuba, he says, “where they say you have to struggle every day."
"They beg me to bring aspirin. They have none. They talk about ‘crossing the line,’ which is in the Florida Strait. They call it ‘the last obstruction in the Cold War.’”
Arellano, a New Jersey native, has a master's degree in fine arts from Brown University. He came to SOU in 2010 and teaches emerging media and digital arts in the school's newly renamed Oregon Center for the Arts. He teaches podcasting, novel writing and other courses.
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.