By Lylah M. Alphonse | Globe Staff
‘‘Dirty Blonde and Half-Cuban” is an expanded version of the ‘‘Havana Honey” series published earlier this year online at Salon.com, where author Lisa Wixon wrote using the name of her main character, Alysia Vilar.
A diplomat’s daughter born in Cuba, 25-year-old Alysia returns there on a yearlong student visa to look for her real father, a Cuban translator with whom her mother had an affair. With the US embargo in place, she is cut off from her life in the United States as she struggles to find Jose Antonio, using her late mother’s diaries as a guide. During her search she discovers how deeply she identifies with a country that she’s only just learned is her own.
Wixon spent nearly a year living in Cuba, and this book—her first—is part fiction, part expose, and part memoir. She steers the reader away from stereotypes and politics by avoiding several key words—‘‘Castro,” ‘‘Guantanamo,” and ‘‘Elian” among them—and in doing so focuses the reader’s attention on the complexities that are part of real life in communist Cuba, a place more European than Caribbean, a place where employers pay in pesos but life’s necessities can be purchased only with US dollars, a place where professors and practicing doctors must work as ‘‘jineteras,” sleeping with wealthy foreigners and hustling sex tourists to make ends meet.
The word ‘‘jinetera” is Spanish for a female jockey, and these women (and men, the ‘‘jineteros”) are skilled at manipulating their beasts. They have to be; their families rely on the money. Jineteras are not prostitutes but courtesans, crafting long-term relationships with the people who support them—a distinction that Wixon is careful to emphasize. She compares jineteras to the Greek hetairai, educated women who serviced, entertained, and ‘‘gallivanted with powerful men while their wives toiled in domesticity, bearing children and keeping house.”
‘‘Prostitutes accept pay for one night,” Camila, a cardiac surgeon and a jinetera, tells Alysia. ‘‘Jineteras use their education and skills to weave fantasies of love.”
Destitute after the family she’s boarding with steals her money and kicks her out of their home, Alysia learns about Cuba’s ‘‘pride-for-dollars economy” firsthand. Morality falls by the wayside quickly; Alysia needs the money to survive, to find her father. ‘‘In actual time with Terence, I’ve earned about $2.85 an hour. Or, conversely, if you add up my sexual tricks . . . it comes to about $22.85 per act. A biochemist makes $13 per month. Roach poison is $6 a bottle. Band-Aids are not sold.”
The picture that Wixon paints of life in Havana is both seedy and seductive, and she makes the case that pride and family are more important to many Cubans than the myriad luxuries that the US embargo makes impossible.
‘‘Don’t ever feel sorry for a Cuban,” Alysia’s friend Rafael tells her as he shows her photos of ‘‘extranjeros,” foreigners he’s romanced and swindled. ‘‘We’re smarter than the extranjeros. We let them believe they have the upper hand and are in control.”