September 2003


"Billie Jean, Ella No Est Mi Novia, Ella Solo Es Una Nina... Pero El Bambino No Es Mio"


by Henry William Brownejohns

BARACOA, Cuba - Baracoa is on the easternmost shore of Cuba - where Columbus arrived at the island – and thus a visitor to it is likely to spend much of his time perched along the seawall, musing historically. It has been my good fortune to spend three intermittently rainy days here, at a house only three streets in from the waterfront promenade, or malecon (the town is only so large that the furthest a house can get from the water is six or seven streets), and so when the rain has let up for an hour here and there, I have gone to see the sea. There I spend a few minutes jerking my head round toward the water and back toward the lush inland mountains, straining to sympathize with the circumstances of that first shipload of Spanish explorers.

     And, as is the way throughout Cuba whenever a curious figure stands still too long, a local inevitably sidles up and strikes up conversation. This particular time I am approached by a schoolboy of fifteen or sixteen, his occupation given away by the ochre pants he wears, like every other secondary-scholar on the island (grade-schoolers are in navy blue, and intermediate-graders sport maroon). It is the middle of a week-day, but I have long since ceased the concerns of the truant officer – Cuban schoolchildren spend only a minority of their school-day actually in such a place. Between a session in the morning and another in the evening, the students, still in uniform, learn their lessons swimming and strolling and chasing each other through the streets. Take considerable salt with the claims of the Revolution on their progress in education – it is said by Cubans that everybody can read, but nobody bothers to.

     The student who now accosts me is named Richard, and he is more enterprising in his spare time; he carries around a pocketful of red coral necklaces, hoping to sell them to a defenseless foreigner for a few dollars. Young Richard shows me his wares, and insists on their quality; I show no interest, and explain first how I have heard from concerned citizens that the local coral is not to be taken out of the seabed, lest the ecology go haywire, and second how I am not the sort of gentleman inclined to wear jewelry, particularly of such a clashing shade.

     Somehow Richard sees through my flawless accent and demands to know my country of origin. I tell him I am an American. There is an oft-repeated legend in the travel literature that Americans ought not refer to themselves as ‘Americans’ when in Cuba, because the Cubans have long argued that they too are Americans, and so everyone from Mr. Hemingway on down has made a big show of calling themselves ‘norteamericanos.’  (This has always struck me as both falsely humble, and a cop-out from the responsibility of every union Yankee abroad, to take the abuse coming to him, and answer it.)  Well, I am here to report that the Cubans are over it; for two weeks I conscientiously identified myself as ‘norteamericano,’ and every time, my interlocutor replied with an enthusiastic “Canada?  America?  Que parte?”  Now I reply ‘Estados Unidos,’ as I am ever pursuing the happiness of everyone at once, and I despise vagaries.

     Upon discovering an American in his midst, Richard has the same response as scores of other Cubans have – he smiles with deep approval, and pounds his fists together as if he were testing out an invisible baseball-bat, and says “ah, America. Very good.”  In the circumstances, I am uninterested in trying to modify this opinion; in fact, I am every day more persuaded of its general appropriateness, the more I see of the failures of the alternative. If this seems a harsh statement about the Cuban system, I would be tragically impolitic to insist on the admirable traits of it, after I have heard nothing but the most heartfelt condemnations, from those people who have spent their entire lives waiting for it to begin working. The open-minded American traveller - or the jaded one – will likely be disappointed to see that the glorious new society of Castro and Che is really a pale comparison to the troublesome but nevertheless vital civilization at work in the United States.

The Cubans feel a profound camaraderie with their Northern neighbors. Even through the thickest of the political antagonisms, there has been a belief that we two share a national character, that we are somehow the same people, realizing different fates. Indeed, Cuba does not feel like a foreign country at all; but it feels exactly like the United States in an alternate future, a sort of looking-glass America. (The old Cuban Capitol building, in Havana, is indeed a miniature replica of the Washington Capitol, but with eerie and sinister black and gold highlights.) 

     Richard’s sales pitch doesn’t have much force to it, and as soon as I am American, he wants to talk of other things – primarily, of his fondness for Michael Jackson, our national chanteuse of the ambiguous psychology. Richard’s perception of Mr. Jackson is hardly so cynical; he knows of the singer only through a single source, a videotape left behind by an ancient and forgotten tourist, which included a concert performance of “Billy Jean,” among a compilation of obviously inferior Cuban pop videos. Thus, Richard’s dedication to Mr. Jackson is based on a repertoire of only one song. He has memorized every word of it - at least the sounds of them - and he sings them flawlessly for me, without so much as my asking. But as he doesn’t speak any English, he does not know what the sounds mean. Perhaps I can tell him what this song, the finest song since Mozart wowed the Archduke, what, oh what, this song means. I am only fourteen days into my informal education in Spanish. This conversation would prove to be a turning point for me.

     I begin by making sure the title is understood – ‘Billie Jean est el nombre de mujer.’  Billie Jean is the name of a woman. Richard knew this much. (I shall transcribe my utterances in the true horrendousness of their actuality, and not pretend to have been articulate. The magic of the incident was that we two were able to communicate anything at all, and I want my readers to appreciate the obstacles we faced. Those readers fluent in Latin-American Spanish, and especially its Cuban mutation, are requested to leave the copy-editors of this newspaper alone, as they have been instructed to leave this section untainted by correctness.)

     Now I plunged into my memory for the lyrics of that tune, and found them surprisingly close to the surface. I fumbled around in my limited Latin vocabulary.

     “Billie Jean, ella no est mi novia. Ella solo es una nina, y ella dice yo es el uno, ella dice el bambino es mio. Pero el bambino no es mio.”  ‘Billie Jean is not my girlfriend. She is only a girl, and she says I am the one. But the baby isn’t mine.’  I am proud to consider this the moment of enlightenment in my bilingual education – where my tired mind suddenly found a new gear in which to operate, and, rightly or wrongly, words which meant nothing to me poured forth from my lips.

     After a few minutes of clarification, Richard seemed to understand the gist of my explanation, and he approved of the roguish machismo Mr. Jackson was expressing in his lyrics. At no point could I muster the courage or the diction to begin to describe the course of Mr. Jackson’s subsequent career. But I did offer an opinion on “Thriller,” that record album upon which “Billie Jean” was featured. Richard had no idea about this; here is the strange shape American popular culture has found itself in the minds of the awakening Cuban youth, like shreds of information from a civilization on the Moon.

     I described an entire disk, full with songs of equal appeal to “Billie Jean,” and Richard’s excitement grew. Then I described other, similar records, many of which are also well-fitted out with efforts of Mr. Jackson’s, comparable to his best. Richard approved, and affirmed Mr. Jackson’s worldwide designation as the “keen of pof,” el Rey de Pop. The lines of communication were tenuous between myself and the Cuban school-lad, but I ventured an irresistible question, and one I thought not too much of a stretch from the subject: “Sabes usted Prince, tambien?”


     First, I thought I must define the word. “Una ‘prince’ es el niño del rey.”

     ‘Prince is the son of Michael Jackson, the King of Pop?’  This turns out to be obliquely true, but readers well-enough versed in the popular music of the penultimate decade will know it is not my desired point. I deny this, to keep things as simple as possible. I offer a few verses, off key, of “Little Red Corvette.”  There is no response. Ten frustrating minutes later, Richard only knows that there is, or was, a singing prince somewhere in Michael Jackson’s castle, and that he is quite possibly Mr. Jackson’s own child, though the identity of the mother is a mystery. In retrospect, I am content to have conveyed across lines linguistic, cultural, and political, at least a little of the confusion necessary to really appreciate Mr. Jackson’s oeuvre. I collected Richard’s mailing address, and am obliged to mail him a videotape with a better selection of Mr. Jackson’s work, when I am returned home. Its likelihood of ever getting to him, unfortunately, is extraordinarily slim, due to the doubled vigilance of American officials who don’t want the Cubans to enjoy what we enjoy until they play by our economic rules, and by Cuban bureaucrats, who are unashamed about taking for themselves anything in the mail that looks like it might fetch a couple of dollars on the black market.

     With the rain threatening again over the jungle-green slopes, I take my leave of Richard and the sea, but not before he shows me what he has been practicing. He begins to glide backwards on his feet, bending the arches alternately, until he stops, spins, and shrieks. Outside every reasonable context, I realize what a morass of nonsense we live in at home, thinking ourselves perfectly sane. I tell him what he has just done: “El camino de la luna.”  He bids me good afternoon, and we part. The discovery of the New World, which occurred on this very shore, is the furthest thing from my thoughts.

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