Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, Cosas que dejé en La Habana (1997)
By Mónica Fernández Jiménez
Things I left in Havana is Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón’s 1997 account of Cuban migration to Spain. The film introduces a series of stereotypes about Cuban people well-known to the Spanish viewer to later deconstruct them and analyse their role in the host society. Emotions and desire play a central role in this film, becoming something to be exchanged or lost in the search for economic stability or legal status in the receiving country. The recurrent phrase “beautiful life,” meaning the life one might choose to live in terms of romantic and professional relationships, pervades the film as something impossible to attain for a whole array of identities: migrants, homosexuals, and aging women. The stereotype of the Cuban – sexualised and cheerful – becomes thus the main concept of which characters make use in order to survive in a way which proves precarious for the necessities of the soul no matter how much it solves more practical affairs.
The film by Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón opens with a series of dynamic images showing Havana’s crowded streets to the nostalgic rhythm of José Mª Vitier’s La Habana sin ti. This scene emphasises life on the streets, community, and outdoor spaces, depicting a perhaps idealised atmosphere. After that, the camera zooms out and these Havana settings become photographs a woman is nostalgically looking at – she is Tía Marta, one of the main characters who we find out is living in Madrid.
Three Cuban sisters – Rosa, Ludmilla, and Nena – meet Tía Marta at the airport. There the first cultural clash of the film takes place, dealing with Cuban communal values as opposed to a more individualistic approach to life characteristic of Spain or Europe. The airport officer demands that the sisters show their passport “una a una” (“one at a time”). One of the young women answers that they came together, that they are sisters, to which he answers, obviously annoyed, “una a una” again. More clashes like this will characterise the film, together with opposing images or concepts such as legal vs. illegal work; passion vs. pragmatism; and the real vs. the idealised image of Cuba.
Juxtaposed to the plot of the three sisters, a Cuban family meets their friend Ígor at the same airport. Their plan is to acquire false passports in order to travel to Miami for starting a business with the prospect of a capitalist lifestyle. However, this will become complicated by the fact that their brother in law will not send the necessary money for the purchase of these documents. Ígor will host the family at his place for some time and both plots will entangle when he meets Nena at a club one night.
Meanwhile, the three sisters become illegally employed by their aunt in her fur coats shop. Tía Marta continually reminds them of their condition as “sin papeles” (immigrants without legal status in the host land), which prevents them from following their dreams, especially Nena’s, which is to become an actress.
Ígor and Nena fall in love but Ígor seduces their Spanish neighbour, Azucena, in order to find a place to sleep while his friends (the Cuban family he meets at the airport) stay at his house. Tía Marta’s plan, on the other hand, was to marry one of the sisters to the heir of an affluent family who owns a fur farm. The initial candidate was Rosa, who was willing to accept the deal, but the homosexual heir insists that, “aesthetically,” he prefers Nena, who is less pragmatic and refuses to do so.
A series of dichotomies between love and idealism as opposed to pragmatism, all dealing with the liminality of being sin papeles, will take place. Nena sneaks out of Tía Marta’s house every night in order to rehearse a play with a Cuban theatre director she already knew in Havana. This leads to another dichotomy, for the director turns the play into a sweetened account of immigration including lots of salsa and stereotyped images of Havana under the excuse of pleasing the Spanish public.
The whole arrangement between Ígor and Azucena is discovered by Nena. Despite also finding out about their affair, Azucena decides to keep the arrangement with Ígor, maintaining this net of pragmatic relationships in which everyone does “what they can” (a recurrent phrase in the film) for surviving according to their needs.
When the play debuts, Nena improvises the original version at the end and a TV producer casts her for a show, for which she will have to adopt the name of a deceased person because of her sin papeles condition. At the same time, in the backstage, Ígor receives a brutal beating because he had provided his friend with false passports he had stolen from the Spanish hustler to whom he used to introduce fellow sin papeles Cubans in exchange for money. He had done so in order to be able to live with Nena in his apartment, but there is never peace and tranquillity for illegal dwellers. She is too busy working for the TV show and still torn about Ígor’s relationship with Azucena, who still protects him.
The film closes with Ludmilla’s wedding, who, attracted by wealth, commodity, and a Capitalist lifestyle, marries the peletera’s (fur trader) son, Javier. The camera zooms out and shows everyone dancing at the wedding, seeming to suggest that the only way to survive within the organisation of nation-states, the heir of Colonialism, is through the bittersweet network which this community has created in order to keep their emotionally precarious existence. As Ígor’s friend says when he is bidding farewell at the airport after having achieved the false passports, “uno tiene que arreglárselas como pueda para poder vivir” (“one has to do whatever one can in order to be able to live”). This last indoor image parallels and at the same time contrasts with the opening of the film. The network keeps working, this time clandestinely, this time leaving a bitter aftertaste, for, although we are not shown extreme poverty or extremely abject lifestyles, the soul’s necessities will never be fulfilled.
Hosts Feeding on Parasites
Sarah Barrows suggests that the airport’s officer annoyance at the sisters trying to stick together when showing their passports at the beginning of the film translates into the threat perceived when immigrants unite in communities within the host countries: together they are inconvenient (121). This scene takes place early on but is already graphically setting a key idea: it will be through unofficial communities that the characters in the film will protect themselves against bureaucracy and deportation. The film, however, states that this network is not only a need for sin papeles immigrants: Spaniards or legal migrants also feed on it. It is the result of a sort of hunger of the soul, a yearning, using bell hooks’ words: “sentiments shared by folks across race, class, gender, and sexual practice… [a deep] longing” (12). The soul is hungry and in the case of Azucena, a Spanish woman, or Tía Marta, an established Cuban migrant, the reason seems to be loneliness or alienation.
In this sense it is the Cuban parasite (or guest) with his or her – sometimes stereotyped – communal values, as hinted at the beginning of the film with the airport scene, who will provide the host with something essential. Thus, the film defies traditional representations of immigrants as uninvited parasites feeding on a host, which Jesús Benito describes as “guests uninvited into the nation state, ready to sponge off the resources of regular working class people, as the racialized nativist discourse propounds” (57). Marta’s, Azucena’s, or Javier’s mother’s needs make the parasite image disappear.
The most striking example is Javier’s and his mother’s storyline. The mother wants her homosexual son to marry in order to have an heir for their business and he is completely passive. The only way to achieve this marriage is through mutual benefit and therefore Javier’s mother seeks that the prospective wife should need legal status in Spain. This family is crucial to convey one of the film’s meanings and provides with an example of a host feeding on a parasite, even though this host is specially privileged. The model of the rich family, successful and therefore never needing anything from others, much less from illegal Cuban immigrants, is paradigmatic of the workings of the state apparatus as demonstrated when Javier’s mother emphasises that she is only doing a work of solidarity with this marriage. The reference to the value of solidarity reminds of Benito’s approach to hospitality. He claims that the model of hospitality has often been at use when defining a country’s relationship with its immigrants but, as Mireille Rosello explains in Postcolonial Hospitality (2001), it only “obscures the economics of immigration and also the disciplining of its aliens by the state apparatus” (Benito 55). Arrangements like the one wished by Javier’s mother bring Benito’s question back: “The question, then, is who is the host and who is the parasite, or who is more of a parasite than the other” (59).
The Encounter with the Other as a Transformative Experience
There is another aspect worth analysing in the film together with the previous implications of hosts having their needs fulfilled by the guests. The encounter with an Other causes the host to look at him or herself more deeply (51). As a Jungian shadow, the Other makes the host discover feelings he or she did not know existed or had previously repressed. This is the case of Tía Marta, who throughout the film continually rejects folk aspects of Cuban culture, imitates Madrid’s accent, and criticises her homeland. The narrative unveils her hidden grief after a scene in which Rosa modifies the typical cocido madrileño (traditional meat and chickpeas stew) including in it some spices characteristic of the Cuban ajiaco (Cuban mixed roots stew). Disgusted, Tía Marta refuses the variation, claiming that that is not the way things are done in Spain: “A mí me gustan los sabores netos, el cocido en Madrid y el ajiaco en Cuba” (“I like neat flavours, cocido in Madrid, and ajiaco in Cuba”). She had previously claimed that, when arriving in a new country, one should first “educate one’s taste. We do not eat everything mixed as in Cuba.” However, in a later scene, Marta sneaks into the kitchen at night, and – hardly recognizable because she is not wearing her elegant bun and clothes – anxiously devours the ajiaco leftovers, straight from the pot. The presence of the three sisters have brought to light Marta’s nostalgia for her homeland, which is hinted at the beginning of the film as she looks at the old photographs.
In terms of cultural identity, Rosa’s combination of cocido madrileño and ajiaco hints at the creation of a hybrid character. Rosa’s identity is far from the essentialised approaches or stereotypes shown in the film; she combines the two cultures, the Cuban and the Spanish ones, which also causes them to transform. Caribbean critic Édouard Glissant approaches errant identity in similar terms, emphasising the importance of cross-cultural relationships through Deleuze and Guattari’s model of the rhizome. Rosa takes up rhizomatic or relational thought by cooking this meal: “the image of the rhizome, promoting the knowledge that identity is no longer completely within the root but also in Relation” (18).
Towards the middle of the film, Tía Marta reluctantly attends a dinner which Azucena had organised in order to introduce her Spanish friends to Nena, hinting that marriage would solve her sin papeles problems. Despite the tragic moment of the plot in which it takes place (Nena had discovered Ígor’s and Azucena’s cohabitation), the dinner atmosphere transmits feelings of joy through cheerfulness, music, and laughter. In this scene Ludmilla appears with Javier, the rich heir. This is perhaps one of the most ambivalent storylines of the film, since his partly hidden homosexuality is never given the necessary consideration. Ludmilla and Javier are presented as a happy couple which generates somehow mixed feelings. Is it suggesting that this is the only way to subsist? Is it portrayed as positive because their success is based on cheating on a system which has established its own norms? Will they protect and encourage each other to pursue their dreams? The treatment of Javier’s homosexuality leaves the viewer with contradictory feelings as it can be homophobic to suggest that this arrangement will bring Javier happiness. However, the film does not intend to be morally correct: each personality has its own needs and ways of functioning; maybe this works for Javier, who does not want to face his mother’s values. Such closed values are presented as the source of unhappiness in some Spanish communities portrayed in the film, meaning that not only wealth and legal status will end one’s problems. Again, the film suggests a transnational hunger of the soul at many levels.
Who has the right to a fulfilling amorous relationship? Neither undocumented migrants, nor homosexuals in the film. Nor does Azucena, an aging childless single woman. Judith Butler defines precarious lives as “specific lives [that] cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living. If certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then these lives are never lived nor lost in the full sense” (Frames of War, 1). This has a great deal to do with political motivations associated with the rhetoric on the host and the parasite, or even with the discourse of hospitality, but also with patriarchal discourses in which aging women who are not wives or mothers do not have any significance. Papeles in this film determine whose life is worth living. Whereas Butler refers to death, violence, and incarceration in Precarious Life (2004) and Frames of War (2009), this could be well applied to the right to choose how to live one’s amorous life. Rosa assumed from the moment she decided to migrate that such sort of sacrifices – like marrying someone she does not love – will need to be made. In the name of such sacrifices, one loses their status as a person whose individual fulfilment matters. Nena, as well as the character she embodies in the play she rehearses, gives importance to the opposite, accentuated with her rhetoric on life (“Yo quiero vivir una vida bonita” – “I want to live a beautiful life”). The fact that the situations of the Cuban characters in the film do not show extreme poverty, unlike Iñarritu’s Biutiful, for example, seems to convey that the sacrifices they need to make are not so compelling, but indeed depersonalise them. In fact, the film shows a scene in which Rosa gives some money to a homeless woman, whose voice is never heard in the film, nor is her situation portrayed. Thanks to the stereotype of Cubans as extremely sexual (Gordillo 213), homelessness (Ígor) and poverty (Ludmilla) are avoided.
Stereotypes and yearning
Stereotypes blurr reality, something emphasised by Ígor (“estoy aburrido de mi papel de cubano. Alegre siempre aunque me esté muriendo, bailando salsa…” – “I’m bored with my Cuban role – Always joyful even if I’m dying, dancing salsa”) or by the play, making lonely Spaniards feel that the Cuban personality or approach to life will save them from dullness. These yearning characters rely on David Hume’s notion that emotions are contagious, “and that cheerfulness is the most communicative of emotions” (Ahmed 36). Ígor’s claim that he is playing a role proves that such stereotypes are false, that his cheerfulness is a role such as the ones the theatre director created according to the Spanish public’s demands. Azucena sticks with Ígor even after finding out he loves someone else. She seems an individual who is obsessed with finding love and, non-coincidentally, all of her lovers are immigrants (“en dos noches me ha hecho más feliz que el serbio-bosnio [y] que el marroquí” – “in only two nights he has made me happier than the Serbian-Bosnian [and] the Moroccan…”). Even though she does not acknowledge it, she uses the immigrant’s precarious life to fulfil her own needs. Azucena’s claim that Ígor “makes her happy” relates to Sara Ahmed’s reflections on affect theory. She explains that happiness “starts from somewhere other than the subject who may use the word to describe a situation” (29), and that loving does not have to do with delight or satisfaction – meaning loving delight – but with loving an object which has been associated with the experience of delight or joy (32), in this case, the Cuban. Ahmed gives the example of the normative family as a happy object and “those who do not reproduce its line as the cause of unhappiness,” those being “feminist kill-joys, unhappy queers, and melancholic migrants” (30). “Happiness can thus be described as intentional in the phenomenological sense (directed towards objects)” (32), in this case, subjects. Thus, Azucena reproduces the picture of the happy couple over and over again, always with undocumented migrants, always tracking people who might develop similar attachments with the happiness associated with a secure life and a stable situation, each one loving the subject-object which provides with it. Stereotypes, as the film’s first scene conveys, are rooted into real values which become distorted and essentialised and somehow disappear as values once they prove useful for some interests.
Gutiérrez Aragón’s film, according to Miguel Ángel Villena’s review on El País, dignifies Cuban people, pointing at the place where stereotypes begin and proving them wrong. It is true that community and family may be important for Cuban people, but in this film they also serve as exoticised stereotypes which are used as a way of survival by subjects with precarious lives, both those who enact and long for them. Stereotyped or not, there is an emphasis on the existence of a particularly Cuban migrant epistemology which is presented in an oppositional manner. Despite being a somehow positive scene, the dinner party is claustrophobic compared to the first outdoors scene of the film. It suggests that communal lifestyle and fulfilling relationships among migrants are censored in Spain and underground is continually suggested as the only way to exist. This happens from the very beginning of the film when Ígor hurries his friend into a cab so as not to be caught by immigration officers. Further on we see Ígor’s friends living in an overcrowded building and the three adult sisters sharing the same room. What does the final scene suggest? The camera zooms out showing a wedding celebration in which couples are dancing. They do not seem to fit, as if they were going to overflow the room. Is this a positive hint that the values which Spanish society could learn from Cubans are going to spread out of the room for lack of space or are they going to continue working clandestinely? The film is left open-ended but the latter seems to be the answer. Nena leaves behind her idealistic values and takes the deceased person’s name to work too many hours for little money on TV. Ígor never becomes a likeable character since in all these final scenes he remains with Azucena, never wanting to refuse her conditioned hospitality, and her not wanting to live alone ever again. The ending of the film suggests that such conditioned hospitality is only an emotionally precarious solutio, taken up by the victims of an organisation of the world framed by postcolonialism: the legal tightness of nation-states who deny citizenship to those who remind throughout the film that this host country was their madre matria (the mother country), the former metropolis of postcolonial errants. Nena proposes Ígor to go back to Cuba together to which he responds that only after she fulfils all the dreams she had gone to Spain to fulfil. Is that a synonym for never? For, if she becomes famous, the name Nena will never appear in the credits, only the false identity assumed under the false passports Ígor provides with, in Nena’s words, “papeles no muy legales pero muy bonitos” (“not very legal but very beautiful documents”), ironically juxtaposed with the failed dreams of a vida bonita.
Ahmed, Sara. “Happy Objects.” In The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth. Duke UP, pp. 29-51.
Barrow, Sarah. “Exilio y Encuentro Cultural en Cosas que dejé en La Habana.” Iberoamericana, vol. IX, no. 34, 2009, pp. 117-126.
Benito Sánchez, Jesús. “Hosts, Guests and Parasites in Helena Maria Viramontes’ ‘The Cariboo Café.’” Miscelánea: a Journal of English and American Studies, no. 58, 2018, pp. 49-65,
Butler, Judith. Frames of War. Verso, 2009.
Cosas que Dejé en La Habana. Directed by Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, performances by Jorge Perugorría, Violeta Rodríguez, and Kiti Mánver, Sogetel / Tornasol Films S.A., 1997.
Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. The U of Michigan P, 1997.
Gordillo, Inmaculada. “El Diálogo Intercultural en el Cine Español Contemporáneo: entre el Estereotipo y el Etnocentrismo.” Comunicación, no. 4, 2006, pp. 207-222.
hooks, bell. Yearning. South End Press, 1990.
Villena, Miguel Ángel. “Gutiérrez Aragón defiende en Cosas que dejé en La Habana la dignidad de los Emigrantes: el director narra la vida de los cubanos en España ‘con nostalgia y sin tópicos’”. El País, Madrid, 14 de enero de 1998, film review. https://elpais.com/diario/1998/01/14/cultura/884732401_850215.html