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001 . ¡oigo! - transcript

teikirisi intro music

Fryda: Hey folks. I'm Fryda.

Carmen: and I'm Carmen.

Fryda: and welcome to take it easy.

Carmen: a podcast that explores and celebrates all things Cuban-American

Fryda: Carmen, I'm just really excited that we are starting this podcast and we have been talking about it for such a long time.

Carmen: I know. I know I'm really excited too.

Fryda: So this is our very first episode. We thought we'd start with a little bit of context

Carmen: So we're both born in Cuba and we immigrated around the same time to Miami.

Fryda: We met in middle school. So we're now in our late twenties. We're best friends. And we grew up in Miami. So that means that we both had similar experiences growing up, we went to the same high school and middle school. Um, we left behind a lot of family in Cuba, too when we immigrated.

Carmen: So this takes us straight into the topic of this episode, which is communication between the U S and Cuba.

Fryda: so we'll be talking about just literally what it's like to talk to people that we know on the island, specifically, our family.

Carmen: this came up a few weeks ago when I was eating breakfast on a regular weekday. I was on my phone and suddenly I get a message from my cousin in Cuba via Facebook messenger.

Fryda: And I just want to add that, Carmen's breakfast... Can you describe your breakfast for a moment, please?

Carmen: So, Fryda and I used to live together and I would make her breakfast every morning, which consisted of eggs, always eggs, with cheese of some sort, spinach and if I'm feeling fancy, I make a waffle from scratch.

Fryda: So just so you all know when Carmen says breakfast, she wasn't just munching on cereal and milk. Okay. All right, so you got a message from your cousin in Cuba, right?

Carmen: This is a big deal. So this cousin of mine is from Mata and that's a really small town. My mom and her family, that's where they're from and my mom has told me that when she was growing up in the seventies, it was not so small town feeling, it was pretty poppin. There were two movie theaters. There were stores, lots of bars, restaurants. It held its own as far as towns go.

But it was definitely on a decline because the revolution occurred in 1959, and thereafter, everything just closed. The state started coming in and redistributing everything. And there was a big transformation that she saw happen and nowadays, it's not so poppin.

The fact that there's internet available in this small town to the point that my cousin has a device that he can connect to and then messaged me on Facebook. That to me is huge.

Fryda: so, there's a long story to tell around this. just mentioned the Cuban revolution and that's back in 1959 and there's a lot that happened along the way, but, one thing that we really want to get into is that growing up for us, getting in touch with our family was a huge ordeal.

If we go back in time before this experience that Carmen had while eating breakfast. So we didn't have internet. So back then when Carmen and I immigrated to the U S it was the nineties and the way that we would communicate with our family was a phone call.

But we had to write snail mail for months in order to coordinate a date and time when we could talk on the phone. So on our end in the U S you feel like, why can't you just pick up the phone and call? But we had to figure things out, because in Cuba a lot of the times there was like a phone in the entire neighborhood.

There were also times when there were massive apagones, which means blackouts. And that could mean weeks without any connection. So this person in Cuba, first of all, had to have access to a phone and arrange for this call.

And so what we would have to do in the U S is we would go and buy a calling card.

Carmen: I remember these cards, they were cards that you could buy at the grocery store or travel agencies that dealt specifically with travel to Cuba. I remember being a little kid and observing my mom buying these lottery card or calling cards that looked like lottery tickets. Yeah. They looked like lottery tickets. Cause on the back there were these little scratch off sections that revealed a phone number that you would then use to call directly to Cuba. It was a highlight of my day when my mom handed me a penny and said, you get to scratch it off.

Fryda: Oh, God. Yeah, that is so satisfying. So these calling cards, they're not specific to the Cuban American experience. Any of our listeners that are coming from an immigrant family, might be familiar with using a calling card.

But the thing about calling Cuba at all, is that they were pretty expensive. And I remember when I was little seeing calling cards to Cuba next to calling cards to Mexico and Ecuador and seeing a huge difference in the price. So they were at least 99 cents a minute then. And they felt very expensive in the nineties.

Carmen: Yes, 99 cents a minute is definitely not nothing in the nineties when you're an immigrant and you don't make a lot of money. You're taking whatever job you can get. And you're budgeting really carefully. I was asking my mom and she said that she would feed our family of four for around $60 every week.

So 10 minutes for $10. That meant that we couldn't have these phone calls very often, most of the time they would be monthly or even quarterly. And they would be very much planned for ahead of time. Not only because we would need to coordinate via snail mail with our families that we were trying to speak to, but also because we needed to save up for them.

Fryda: the day of the call, everyone in the family packs into a room... so a phone call sounds a little bit like this

ring ring

low quality phone line, there is activity and clanking in the background, participants of phone call are speaking loudly, and over each other

Mami: Oye,

Papi: Oigo,

Mami: ¿Oye me Oyes?

Papi: Oigo oigo, si dime dime, oigo

Mami: ¿Oye, como están por allá?

Abuela: Oye, habla duro que casi no te oigo

Mami: ¿Y pipo? Mira Mami Mami Mami dale habla con Carmencita, mira!

Abuela: Oye ¿estas bien?

Fryda: what you spent a whole five minutes just being like, do you hear me? Do you hear me? Do you hear me? Everyone had to be talking really loud, to be able to hear each other.

And part of it is cultural, Cubans are known to talk really loud. But another part of it is the communication was poor. Sometimes a call would drop suddenly.

So there was a ticker on the card. Let's say you had 10 minutes on the card. The ticker would keep counting even if your call dropped.

Carmen: you could turn around and call back and hopefully you still have time on the card, but if you didn't, well, that was it. I also want to talk a little bit about Oigo because that is the name of this episode. And Oigo, we're not just screaming Ogio to each other on the phone because we want to check that we're hearing. This is how people in Cuba greet when they speak on the phone.

Fryda: so we had to get straight to basics, like who was sick, who was born, who got married, any major life changes. Is everyone. All right, do you need money? Do you need me to send you medicine? I was told ahead of time to not talk about the food that I ate. Or, like, anything I had, any material possessions.

Carmen: You didn't want to talk about any subjects that would cause any sort of tension, you made it to la Yuma and it was already assumed that you're doing better.

Fryda: Yeah and um, I don't know if this is happened with your family too, but my family told me to never ask how my family members feel about policy changes in Cuba because, my parents knew that the calls could be monitored and that our family could, experience consequences from complaining about the system or saying some things that they shouldn't be saying.

Carmen: I wasn't told that because my parents assumed that, whatever, I'm a child, I'm not going to know anything about policy to bring it up, but this speaks to a bigger topic we'll get into it in a different episode, perhaps, but how our parents treat, information and what you're allowed to say, what you're not allowed to say. Even now, I'm in media and my parents are constantly trying to censor me and I'm like, listen, I'm in the U S and it's not Cuba, we can say whatever we want, but that is something that they're constantly thinking about. And we've been in the US now over 20 years, and it's still, it’s still such a big part of the psyche.

Coming back to our current topic, which is communication and where we started and where we're at now. Technology progressed in the U S and I remember we got our very first family computer in the early 2000s. We had dial up internet,

dial up internet sound effect

Remember the whole experience of that? That was not very uncommon. I feel like that's around the time that most people in the US started to get personal computers. And it was a huge investment for my family, but that did not happen in Cuba for a much longer time, probably for another 10 years or more.

Fryda: there was a huge difference between what was happening in the U S and what was happening in Cuba. But circumstances were totally different. Cuba had just come out of the fall of the Soviet union so there was a lack of funds in the Cuban economy, people were starving. There was a lot more to worry about. There has been a U S embargo, which limited access to resources like building any sort of connection between the U S and Cuba.

Last but not least, the Cuban government intended, and intends, to censor and limit access to information. Because if you limit access to information for Cubans, you can stop dissenters. You can stop people from knowing how much better life might be somewhere else or just accessing information outside of what the state wants to put out. Around the time when in the United States Carmen and I had this access to internet in our homes, in Cuba, you were lucky if you had access to dial up if you worked in a government office.

Carmen: It was very exclusive, not everyone has access to government offices and fancy hotels and tourist facilities that come equipped with a computer and much less internet access. And if you didn't have family that had access to that, then you couldn't email them or contact them that way. But even then I remember roundabout ways. Like my mom knew somebody whose cousin worked in the ministry of education and they had a computer, so she would email them and say, please tell my cousin, so and so, that we're fine. And we're good. And this and that.

Fryda: And that brings us to the larger question of what was the internet in Cuba?

drums with trumpet start

What kind of internet actually managed to develop? so let's get into the street network.

Carmen: the street network or S-NET for short, is an intranet system, not internet system, but intranet and it's illegal, always was, but it was tolerated by the state when it was first started so long as it didn't involve any pornography or politics. The system was community run and it's a physical network of cables connecting homes and routers.

drums with trumpet end

Fryda: Yeah. And, on the S-NET, there are clones of modern websites. they had a version of Facebook called the social network. Something like Reddit.

Carmen: Cubans have this fame for being really inventive and resourceful because necessity is the mother of invention. So I've heard crazy stories of people sourcing from people who bring cables back from Miami to Cuba, say from Radio Shack and they're like a hundred meters long.

So imagine some dude in the hot, humid climate of Cuba in his hand-me-down shorts and flip flops, running cable for like a hundred meters to another dude, and another backyard with a scrappy computer, probably put together with random pieces, to connect their computer to this admin in order to connect the S-NET.

Fryda: I guess a beautiful thing about that is the internet can connect people to each other. But, in this particular visual, you can see the physical cables running through different houses and connecting them to each other.

So, I do recommend that anyone out there go on the internet and try and find a photo. There's some that show cables running through all these households. And when you look at it from afar, it looks pretty intense. Other than the S-NET, there is also a Cuban state run internet.

It's called ETECSA. It's E T E C S A. And ETECSA is a Cuban telecom company. It manages telephone, internet, and wireless. And, around 2013, they expanded to intranet. Cubans could sign up for access to this public network. But they would have to pay one CUC, which is one dollar equivalent to the American dollar, for an hour of internet.

Can you imagine, Carmen, paying that much? The internet offered by the state and sanctioned by the state is really not affordable at all to people in Cuba.

Carmen: It’s definitely not. I don't think I mentioned it earlier, but S net came about, in early 2010 and this ETECSA network came a little later in 2013 and it's super expensive. Like it's kinda crazy. I complained about paying like what, $60 a month for wifi? I can't imagine paying a dollar an hour. That’s crazy.

Fryda: Yeah. And also your salary is way different from the salary of anyone who lives in Cuba.

Carmen: Absolutely. And we haven't even gotten into the paquete semanal or the weekly package. So there's all these people in and out of Cuba that collect music, photos, video, text files, all of this information -- and they load it up into a one terabyte hard drive, and then they're distributed among the public. And this is anything you'd want to catch up on if you're a Cuban and for the most part lacking access to the outside world, popular shows, movies, music, news. This is how my cousins know things like Game of Thrones and stuff when I talk to them.

Fryda: As far as accessibility, this is another big distribution network, lots of coordination and it's far cheaper. So the paquete semanal, when I last looked at it, was something like two CUC a week. The paquete semanal is a lot closer to having internet rather than intranet versus the S net and ETECSA are completely intranets.

So if we zoom out a bit there's a lot of international politics or international events that influence the state of the Cuban internet. And one of them we've already mentioned -- the embargo, which is a 50 year standoff between us and Cuba. And it has kept Cuba cutoff from the U S but has also created an incredible amount of tension. So one thing that I heard about when I was younger and that my family was talking about. In 2009, a US government contractor, Alan Gross was jailed, for trying to set up a satellite web access without Cuban government control.

So that's pretty scary and that's not just a slap in the wrist.

Carmen: I think I was reading that he was jailed for two years. And that's not so far fetched for Cuba, from all of the stuff I've heard from my parents.

That's not something that doesn't track. So I've also read during this time that there are rumors that the Cuban government got scared when they saw what happened with the Arab spring. I know Cuba is pretty restrictive about Twitter usage.

And it wasn't until 2015, that authorities set up 35 wireless hotspots around the Island. And I don't know if you know this, but Cuba is not a small Island and 35 wireless hotspots sounds wildly underserved.

Fryda: Yeah, Imagine 35 wireless hotspots sprinkled throughout the entire state of Florida. And that is the only legal way to access any form of internet. And the reason I say, that's the only legal way, it's because in 2019, late 2019, the government declared that the S-NET is illegal and that really shook things up for folks in Cuba, especially a lot of the youth that use the S-NET to learn about engineering, talk to their friends, communicate with each other.

I actually watched a lot of videos that were produced by youth in Cuba, in late 2019 to say we love S net. We use it, please keep it going. Given that there hasn't been another policy change, it's still illegal. I think we can imagine that now in 2020 that there is either no S NET or the S NET that we described is severely hamstrung.

Carmen: To follow up with that, I was reading that the Cuban government issued a statement saying that the admins of the S-NET had two months to merge their servers onto the state-run ETECSA. Also in 2019, the government finally allowed Cubans to begin importing routers, registering their equipment and creating private wifi connections to ETECSA. This meant that Cubans no longer had to go to public sites to connect to the internet. And that's pretty huge. Later in 2019 3G came to some mobile phones in Cuba. This explains when I started seeing my cousins and family members pop up out of the woodwork on Facebook friend requesting me.

Fryda: Yeah, that is also when a ton of cousins that I didn't know existed started reaching out to me. what's it like for your family, Carmen? How does your family access the internet now?

Carmen: My mom was telling me that my aunt contacts us from a neighbor's internet connection. And the way this works is that the neighbor pays about $10 a month for internet. And they get a certain amount of hours. I'm assuming since it's $1 an hour, it would be 10 hours.

My aunt is able to go and book time with her. Then she has her own device that she uses to connect to the wifi signal of this neighbor's house. And from there, she's able to message me on Facebook. And I think my cousins are even now on Instagram, which is fun. I'm not sure if this neighbor allows people to use her computer, but it's common that computers are also rented out that way.

Fryda: We know that a typical Cuban salary is about $50 a month. I'm sure that some people make a lot less. Some people slightly more, imagine putting one fifth of your salary towards your internet when there's so many necessities, food and other things to cover.

Making access to internet so difficult for people, so unaffordable allows the Cuban government to keep its iron fist over communications. So I think this is a theme that's going to pop up a lot in that, even things that outwardly seem like progress or steps in the right direction, or seem like great announcements coming from the Cuban government they're often followed by a caveat. In practice, it's often still pretty difficult for Cubans to gain access to things. I would love to hear what your cousins said to you when they contacted you, haha, back to the story, right?

Carmen: Let's bring it back to my idle weekday morning with my fancy breakfast. And my cousin is messaging me. Yes. so what did my cousin say to me? He opened up with “hello.” And then he said, “wow, you are so beautiful.” And I have to say my first thought, when I'm reading, this is. I was a little alarmed and I was a little put off because I grew up here in the U S and so to me, any man who opens up with, wow, you are so beautiful immediately. I'm like, what do you want?

Fryda: He slid into your DMS. That's the thing.

Carmen: Yeah. He slid into my DMs, exactly, But, I sat with it for a second and I thought about it a little more, and I realized that this is my own bias. And that's definitely not how he meant it. He meant it in a very genuine sense. And I don't have to think about it that way.

Fryda: This reminds me of my uncle. Like 15 years ago he came to the U S he was trying to apply for something in the social security office. I've just never forgotten this story because he comes back super dejected and he's like, “ they wouldn't give me what I wanted,” which was probably some sort of benefit or just something really basic.

And we were like, what, why, what happened? He's just like “I was calling the woman mi amor and belleza, to soften her up,” which means like, my love and my beauty and he kept getting rejected and we were like, “that's not gonna work.”

He's like, “should I have been more effusive? was that not sweet enough?”It was just a cultural difference. Like, People are not going to like it if you call them that here!

Carmen: Definitely. And we ended up having this lovely conversation over Facebook messenger and he tells me he's learning English. He tells me about his life. Then he writes in English, “I am a farmer” and he sent me a selfie. This selfie is him wearing a black hoodie in the blazing sunlight, the sun is in his eyes and on the front of the hoodie, there's some sort of Mickey mouse, Disney logo, and he's wearing the hood over his head. He's squinting and draped over his shoulder, ever so casually is his machete, because obviously, that's just how you do in Cuba with a bunch of trees and plants behind him I'm assuming is some kind of sugar cane field where he was standing, because why else would you be outside with your hoodie on and your machete just chilling on your shoulder?

But without the context of Cuba, receiving that photo, it's just scary, because it's just a picture of a guy in the middle of a field, holding a machete and wearing a hoodie, which I know there's a lot to unpack there. This is his life. He is a farmer. He just told me that in English, right? he's going out of his way to share his life and to connect with me. And he's sending me this picture.

Fryda: Yeah. The fact that he's able to reach you and tell you how he lives his life . And. That's. If you've been listening, that's not something that was fairly common for us to experience.

Carmen: Yeah, and I haven't, this is the first time that I have received a photo of him from him, in the moment, like real time. Over the years, our parents have been sending each other photos back and forth of, us growing up and stuff. So it's not the first time I've ever seen him, but it's the first time that he has been able to control that part of his narrative.

Fryda: I know that at least in the case of my family, we would print out all the photos that we wanted to share for the holidays. And we'd give it to someone who was going to Cuba. And I think a little later we would give an SD card or a memory card.

So it's, yeah, this is wildly different. It was common for us when we were reaching out to Cuba for us to initiate contact. But there was never an occasion that I remember where someone from Cuba would call me up or would reach out to us or be able to penetrate our world. It feels like the start of a new relationship where our family members that might have known us when we were babies or never even met us, are proactive and can reach us and can friend request us and send us photos. And that is so different from the black box Cuba felt like for us before.

Carmen: That's super powerful, for people in Cuba to have agency? We have a little more access to them, too. it's a channel that's open and it's new.

Fryda: Maybe for you and me and for others like us, it means we can have a little more one-on-one and in depth relationships with some of our family that we would have never, never have imagined before.

Carmen: Yup. Yup. So... should we move to the Cubanismo?

Fryda: We want to wrap up every episode and share what's called a Cubanismo. So what's a Cubanismo?

Carmen: A Cubanismo is un dicho or a saying, and actually it can even just be a phrase too or word, that are very Cuban. And they're just really funny, oftentimes a little ridiculous things that, you would only really know if you were Cuban

Fryda: yeah, so here it is. So the last time I talked to my uncle over the phone in Cuba, I told him that I moved to Atlanta to be, you know, closer to my family. because I'm, I was in New York city before -- my family's in Miami. But I also didn't want to move to Miami because I did want to be just far away enough.

And he said, “que bien, juntos pero no revueltos,” which means “that's great! together, but not scrambled.” I love it so much. It's so good.

Carmen: It's because we're eggs!

Fryda: I know!

Carmen: Make sure to check us out on instagram & twitter, we’re are at teikirisipod. If you have a story you’d like to share, some feedback, or questions, please drop us an email at And if you want to see some really cool supporting materials, like those videos that Fryda said she was watching produced by cuban youth about the SNET, then please check us out on our website at Special thanks to our family who helped us produce this episode and extra special thanks to our graphic designer, Jesse Pales. Thank you so much, and take it easy!

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