There, But for the Mambo, Go I

The Mambo craze had reached an apogee in Los Angeles in the 1940s, when my Mexican parents first met and found love. My parents, now 96, always danced well and passed their passion down to me. I am an avid Latin music fan.

Mambo, meaning "conversation with the gods" in Kikongo, a Bantú language spoken by vast numbers of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, became a popular Cuban music form that kept nightclubs, house parties, and other dance scenes jumping for several decades. Cuba's music and dance heritage is among the richest in the world and I, among the throng, am eternally grateful. As intimated, I might not be walking the face of the earth had the music of Pérez Prado not reached LA.

Importantly, Latin Jazz, a well-established branch of that most American of music genres, owes much to Afro-Cuban pioneers. If Dizzy Gillespie and Chick Webb were alive today, they might wax poetic on Chano Pozo and Mario Bauzá, respectively. Ubiquitous Salsa enjoyed by countless millions emerges from New York, but its roots are deeply embedded in traditional Cuban Son Montuno, Guajira, Cha-Cha, Guaguancó, Danzón and Bolero. Younger dance crowds go nuts with Cuban Timba and Changüí. And, then there are the many Rueda de Casino groups that have sprung up across the country. Essentially, Rueda is Cuban square dance, except it's danced in the round. Cuban food, rum, cigars and baseball players have aficionados out the wazoo in this country. It's hard to imagine popular U.S. Latino culture without a firm and lasting Cuban imprint.

Notwithstanding this historic Cuba-U.S. connection, I was a bit surprised by President Obama's recent executive action opening up diplomatic channels and facilitating family and economic ties. The U.S. severs diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961, two years after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, and, two months after that, sponsors the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. In 1962, the U.S. imposes a stifling economic blockade that serves to shoehorn Cuba into the Soviet constellation. This trio of strategies, designed to destabilize and eventually topple the revolutionary government, did neither. I think there is consensus among diverse political observers that what we have here is 53 years of failed U.S. policy and paramilitary maneuver.

I have visited post-revolutionary Cuba on several occasions, mostly to participate in its annual International Latin American Film Festival, a must-attend for the Latino film festival director I used to be. Some may recall a previous thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations in the late 1970s when President Jimmy Carter authorized some exploratory exchanges, including commercial ones. In 1978, I traveled to Cuba to coordinate filming of a short documentary segment on the African influence in Cuban art and culture. On my charter flight were two U.S. business delegations, one representing the pharmaceutical industry, the other composed of sports equipment entrepreneurs. Both were licking their chops at what they viewed as a new market rife with opportunity. Unfortunately, they were unable to have a real taste because Ronald Reagan quickly shut the door upon entering office in 1981. I remember feeling very sorry for the Cuban people who, to this day, suffer from shortages of medicines and carry on with their national pastime, béisbol, without Wilson gloves or Louisville Slugger bats.

Which brings me to a key point, one that I think should be front and center in what will probably be a prolonged and contentious debate over Obama's new policy -- we should recognize the fundamental difference between the Cuban people and the Cuban government, and proceed accordingly. Regardless of how you feel about the Hermanos Castro, I do think that this new aperture has the real potential to engender foundational change on the island in years to come. With relations frozen for over a half-century, the thawing process will take some time to yield the desired results.

In October 2012, I saw La Orquesta Aragón, Cuba's best known charanga orchestra, perform at Washington's Howard Theatre. Charanga has its roots in la charanga francesa, owing to historic French and Haitian influence, and is distinctive for its delicious swing, embodied in the interplay between the violin section and a wooden flute soloist, under the ever-present bed of traditional Cuban percussion. The theater was electric that night with many in the crowd eagerly taking to the dance floor. I was absolutely thrilled to be there and revel in the glory of music that I consider also mine.

As Latino cultural workers and consumers, fully appreciative of how Cuban culture has helped shape our world, I wonder if there's a way we can stand with the pueblo cubano. It is, after all, from the Cuban people -- not the Cuban government -- that these rich and impactful cultural expressions derive. I hope that we can all find our way to the dance floor soon and embrace the rhythm and promise of a "New Mambo."