Dulce and family

Years ago, I met a woman named Silvia at a film screening in central Havana. The screening (I forgot which film was playing) was part of the widely popular International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema that takes place in Havana every December. The festival is so popular among Cubans that it is not unusual for people to stand in block-long, swirling lines waiting to get a ticket for the next screening.

In this atmosphere of tropical cinematic celebration, Silvia and I went for dinner in the nearby Chinatown. After chatting about our favorite films, the difficulties of life in Cuba and how unusually chilly the night had become, the unavoidable moment arrived, as it had many times before and as it would many times afterwards. Silvia asked me where am I from. And I answered that I am from Portugal, born in Angola. "Angola?" she asked in disbelief. Her father, her brother and her sister had been in the war in Angola. The men as soldiers; Isa, the sister, as a singer in a military cultural brigade.

So there it was again, the story of the Cubans in Angola, magical tales from a forgotten past, surfacing once more when I least expected. As I learned more, I realized it was not so surprising that I kept hearing these stories – thousands and thousands of Cubans had been to the war in Angola, part of a vast military campaign that lasted fifteen years and affected an entire generation. Mentioning Angola, anywhere in Cuba, is sure to unleash a string of stories from the past.

And this is how Letters from Angola, the documentary film, began. First, just timidly, as an investigation into these stories, revealed in unforeseen moments and settings: a fisherman on a remote beach in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra who had spent time in Uíge; a theater, named after an Angolan province, in the main square of Guantanamo; a plastic bag filled with fading black and white photographs of Angola handed to me in a dimly-lit house in the outskirts of Havana.

Then the film became a way to learn about the land where I was born, to understand my love and yearning for a place I have no memories of. Unable to return to Angola, I looked for signs of that first geography in that island across the sea: in the cartography of people's faces, in the drum beats of the Cuban rhythms, in the way the Malecón (the curved road that separates Havana from the ocean in a gentle embrace) looks just like the Marginal in Luanda.

And later, the film became a journey to understand my own story, what happened to me and my family, by way of the Cubans, themselves equally fragile and tiny pieces in the midst of the global cycles of history. Just as I found myself in the middle of a tectonic convulsion I could not really grasp – the crumbling of a centuries-old colonial empire, a mass exodus of thousands of people, a new country being born and fought over – the Cubans were equally caught up in the whirlpool of an incomprehensible historical process that would forever change their lives.

As we finished dinner and left the Barrio Chino, Silvia, herself a singer as her sister, began to hum Valodia, an Angolan revolutionary song from the 1970's. In the cool Havana night, Silvia sang in almost-perfect Portuguese, remembering each word of a song she had not heard in more than two decades. Povo Angolano, todos bem vigilantes....

Dulce Fernandes
Brooklyn, September 8th, 2011