Memories of Cuba – Emma Otero

[On July 20, 2015, the United States and Cuba re-established formal diplomatic relations after a rupture and embargo in 1961.  Lillian Pollak, oldest active Granny Peace Brigade member (100) reflects on it.  Ed.]

The histories of the United States and Cuba have been linked for years in countless ways. From the time I was 15, I was attracted to the island’s peoples and cultures and later, as a student, to its politics.  I write these short memories that go way back in the hope that some of my experiences will interest you.

Emma Otero was a plump dark beautiful 19-year-old Cuban coloratura soprano who lived with her family across from me on 156th Street in Washington Heights. During early mornings the entire neighborhood was held captive by the sweetness of her voice drifting through the open windows. I was often invited to the Otero’s living room where Emma who was delightful and gracious would sit and play us songs like the “Peanut Vendor”, the languorous melodies of “Syboney” and the tango rhythms of “Green Eyes” (Aquellos Ojos Verdes), Cuban songs that were very popular in the late 20’s and 30’s.

Emma never succeeded in satisfying the hopes of the wealthy and politically ambitious Gerardo Machado who funded her family.  President from 1925 until 1933, Machado aspired to make Cuba “The Switzerland of the Americas” by employing architects to recreate neoclassical designs similar to those in the United States capital buildings.

With time my family and I moved away. I lost track of Emma although I looked for a music career that never appeared. But I never forgot the sweet hot chocolate that I drank in her living room and the warmth and hospitality of my neighboring Cuban family.

– Lillian Pollak
for the Granny Peace Brigade

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