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Enrique del Risco: Humor as a Great Questioner of the Sense of Power

Translated by Alexandra Goldman, Founder and Editor, ARTIFACTOID

NEW YORK: Between walls filled with books, wrapped up in a paper world in which the world of yesterday crosses paths with that of today, Enrique del Risco spends his time submerged in writing, historical research, and academia.

His markedly Cuban accent reveals his origin. In Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Enrique del Risco spent important years of his life. There, he studied and wrote his first books, there he went on to discover the many layers of lies within which his truths were buried, and from there his hunger for knowledge was unleashed, from there his dreams were born of unknown worlds that, without much information, remained at the mercy of his creativity.

There, on his native island, del Risco also devised the corrosive power of satire, a genre that he loved since his student years paying those consequences that always come along with forbidden loves.

“From a very young age, I dedicated my life to writing satire,” commented Enrique Del Risco, “I was collaborating with the well-known humorist newspaper, DDT, with Bohemia, a very old magazine, and also with the university magazine Alma Mater, one of the oldest in the country. To be a humorist in Cuba meant to search for problems, and at that, I was a master.

The space was becoming more and more narrow, and, little by little, the ideals that were considered accepted and learned up until those years went crumbling away. 

“I believed in communism, and in Castro-ism, as all of the kids that grew up under that regime did. As the years went on and as my possibilities for expression narrowed, I began to feel the suffocation that results from not having even the smallest amount of space for freedom. It was a long and hard lesson, until I decided to emigrate in 1995. “

Equally long and hard is the path to emigration. From the day in which one decides to exit Cuba until the moment in which one achieves boarding the plane, one has to avoid all types of bureaucratic obstacles, interviews, and delays.

He travels to Spain full of dreams. His vocation as writer was in desperate need of a country whose language allowed for self-expression. But, in little time, those dreams crashed against the wall of a society much less friendly than he had supposed; much less conscious of Cuban reality, which was all too easy to idealize from the warmth of European wellbeing. They reject his immigrant visa, but, after a series of fortunate coincidences, he achieves enrolling in a North American program and his life plans changed once again. Again, he boards a plane, but this time, his destination is New York. His Spanish experience is recorded and reflected upon in his book, “Siempre nos quedará, Madrid.”

In the ´90s, Cubans started to immigrate to Europe. Before that, they were travelling mainly to the United States, and some were going to Venezuela and Mexico, but suddenly the situation became unsustainable, not only in political terms, but also in economic terms, and they started to go wherever they could, in whatever there was, and however they could.

Del Risco arrived in the United States in 1997, and there he began his second life. He received his doctorate in literature at NYU, and continued to write and publish.

The majority of his books are narrative and all of them are marked by a corrosive, brilliant, and subtle humor. Writing is his biggest ally, and that spills across the pages of his books, diverse publications, a blog, and in a not too far off past, also in movie guides, radio, and television. Some of his titles include: “El comandante ya quien le escriba,” “Enrisco para Presidente,” “Obras encogidas,” “Elogio de la leveldad,” Leve historia de Cuba” and “¿Qué pensarán de nosotros en Japón?” His activity as a writer runs parallel to his academic career.

Enrique del Risco will open the seminar, “Risa Amarga. Sátira Política y Libertad de Prensa en América Latina y el Caribe,” which ViceVersa Magazine is organizing in collaboration with the Department of Continued Education and Public Programs of the prestigious house of study Cooper Union at 2:00PM on October 15th.


enrique del risco


¿To what extent did your transit between Cuba, Europe, and Latin America shape your writing and life perspective?

The Cuban system prepares one to be incapable of moving oneself outside of its context. In the years during which I lived there, and above all during my childhood, an era in which one forms a part of his or her own life perspective, people were used to having limitations. Things as normal as travel, moving to another country, or having some type of experience abroad, were viewed as treason. No one really knew what reality was outside of our confines. Even the teaching of English was excluded from our education programs during those days.

A wealth of memories inundates del Risco who goes on narrating anecdotes of a past spent in Cuba, inside a system whose seams are becoming more and more exposed as the years go on and whose physical distance allows for emotional distance.

The greatest gain that I’ve taken from this this trek around the world has been the power to narrowly escape the siege in which I lived. The lived experience and greater maturity have allowed me to take life less seriously. Things that at one point seemed very important all of a sudden became insignificant. Outside I had tried to transform certain deficiencies into virtue. I’ve discovered the positive that came as result of living under a regime that limited a lot of information and access to certain books. That awoke, in me, a great anxiety about knowledge. The young people who live in countries without so many restrictions, don’t appreciate art and culture as much as we did. That being said, when you move from one place to another, there are, inevitably, losses. My family is all out of Cuba, and here I have many friends, so in my case, more than affective loss, I would speak of loss of context. You’re no longer surrounded by your natural audience, so you have to search for alternatives, and that brings you into living in a much more personal world.


enrique del riscoAnd are your texts read in Cuba?

Yes, and it is something that surprises me as well as comforts me. Some of my friends who come from Cuba tell me that there is always someone who hopes to get on the Internet, download certain texts of mine, and then print them out and pass them around.

Returning to memories of the years in which he lived in Cuba, del Risco highlights, with a dash of humor, his provinciality and naiveté at that time.

It is true. I was very provincial. Cuban propaganda functioned on many levels. You believed to have discovered something, but there are fifteen other layers of propaganda that distort your reality. I remember one time in which, speaking with a Mexican guy, I told him – thinking that we were in some sort of unique situation – that in Cuba, education was free. When he told me that it was also free in Mexico, I was very surprised. To get out of that context opens you up to the world and allows you to get to know yourself better. Sometimes small changes are enough. I first perceived this when, upon finishing my studies, I voluntarily went to work in a cemetery. There was a time in which the cemetery and the crocodile hunt were the only possibilities that those rejected from other things still had. And, with the economic debacle the year of my graduation, they were also some of the only possibilities for the historians who didn’t have many alternatives other than working in a cemetery. I was a cemetery historian, and that work ended up being much more relaxed and productive that what one might think. One time, I went to a cemetery situated two provinces away from the capital. It wasn’t very far, and regardless, the study of the characteristics and diversities of those tombs helped me to better understand my own cemetery. When you move, even if it’s only a few kilometers, you see how things change, even down to the most elemental things, and that permits you to understand more, with more depth, of yourself and your world. Regardless of the fact that that I like to travel and have traveled, I continue being very Cuban, and over the course of those years in exile, that identity of mine has become richer and knows itself better.


You have never stopped writing. Is it something that helps you to exorcize memories? Do you draw inspiration from the world that you left, or from that which you have come to live in in exile?

I write because I have to. It is an essential necessity for me. In terms of the themes, I confess that I suspect a lot of all writers, starting with myself. I believe that in the end we are all very selfish and we don’t do more than speak about ourselves, including when it seems that we are speaking about others. At the start, while I was in Cuba, the subject of power interested me, how you are manipulated by it and how it directs your life. I was speaking of the sensation of impotence that you feel in the face of power, and of how you try to manage your life in spite of that. Then, when I left, I went on changing little by little. The book ¿Qué pensarán de nosotros en Japón?, comes from the roots of the many writings by North American authors, and of the intent of writing like them: in first person, and speaking of one’s own lived experiences.  In Cuba, you would always speak in the name of a society squashed by the system, so it was difficult for me to think in terms of an individualist book. I tried to imagine myself as if I were another person, not necessarily Cuban. I searched to place myself in various skins; that of the Salvadorian science fiction writer in Madrid, that of an Argentinian or Uruguayan con artist who is fleeing to Brazil, that of a warrior poet. There are also a few stories of experiences that are close to me. Now, I feel that that book marked the transition needed for me to arrive at the point I’m at now. 


And what are you writing now?

I’m trying to write a trilogy of novels. The three take place in areas of New York and New Jersey, during three different points in time, without chronological order. They are four stories that interlace, and that are helping me to understand how we function, and what our condition is as displaced people.


Do you think that being a displaced Cuban is different from being a displaced person from another country?

I would say that an exiled person from Cuba lives in a markedly specific situation. Exile, in other countries, tends to last for a period of time, possibly a long one, but in the end, you arrive at a moment in which the government changes and the exiled people can come back.  For Cubans it’s different. I left Cuba twenty years ago and I’m still considered a newbie; there are people who have been exiled for fifty years. As an historian, I’ve dug around in the past and have found interesting records that reach back to the 19th century. We can say that Cuba, to a certain extent, was invented in New York. The symbol of the palm tree, our national tree, was recorded there – in the United States – by José María Heredia, in his ode to Niagara.  The great Cuban novel from the 19th century, “Cecilia Valdés,” was written there, the Cuban Revolutionary Party that organized the last War of Independence was founded there. All of that distorts our national condition, and at the same time diminishes the experience that is at the base of this novel. I believe to be a part of a very unique and particular history but, upon looking back, I discover that 100 years ago, the exact same things were happening.


enrique del riscoWhy are governments afraid of humor, all around Latin America and the Caribbean?

Latin American societies have an unstable nature, and because of that, notions of country, and political power, feel easily threatened. Many times the Latin American tyrants, who are the leaders of their countries, don’t only fear losing power, but losing their life, and for that reason they have paranoid reactions. The position of the weak is very weak, and that makes the work of the humorist so easy. The humorist doesn’t wear a halo like the poets do; he is seen as a clown and is almost never permitted to develop himself as professional who receives compensation for his work. In spite of that, history shows that the humorists haven’t stopped producing, that there’s an almost heroic attitude toward many humorists, and, the condition of exile among them is very common. They often have to exercise their work far away from their country.


How is it possible to find the humorous side of the tragedy of daily life in countries overwhelmed with endless amounts of problems?

Humor obligates you to take distance, to not react in the face of the events the moment they come to your mind, which is the fruit of passion and violence. Humor wants respect. It is an intelligent reply, and intelligence doesn’t come from an initial reaction. To see things from a more distanced perspective permits you to show those ridiculous aspects that reside in power. That which tries to subjugate us is simply ridiculous. Humor is a great questioner of a sense of power, to show the weaknesses of the pseudo-democratic regimes or directly tyrannical ones whose only strength resides in intimidation. Humor is always recording the world “in which the emperor is naked,” as the old fable says. At times, people need to feel that their lives are important. Especially in certain moments in history, characters like Chávez and Fidel achieved being filled with that sensation. The humorist is the guy that makes reality naked and interrupts the flow of adoration.

Upon speaking of future projects Enrique del Risco comments about another book that he would develop about a country transformed into a museum.

I don’t lose hope of one day traveling to Cuba, and not because I feel nostalgia for a country that, when I left, was so destroyed and that I felt that had been taken right from under my feet. There is a novel that I want to develop. It speaks of a return, but to a made up country, converted into a museum. Havana is a very special place on an architectonic level. Different from other Latin American cities, Havana, over the course of four centuries, hasn’t constructed and reconstructed in the same space, rather, has added successive neighborhoods ordered in a chronological sense. Along the coast, from east to west, one can take a chronological walk through Cuban history through architecture, its spaces and environments, from the colonial era through the middle of the last century – like a museum. My novel about the return would be a visit to this museum.


What do you think about the process of easing the tension between Cuba and the United States?

Everyone thinks that during the last 50 years, Cuba was in a sort of cold war with the United States. The truth is that in Cuba the war is in between the government and its people. Now, a peace is arriving with the false enemy, but the real enemy, made up by the Cubans, is losing. Just think that last year 42,000 people left, almost 10,000 more than those who left during the great exile of ´94. The Cuban knows that he lost the war, that he has no hope left, and for those reasons, he is escaping. Friends of mine who didn’t leave in the ‘90s are leaving now to avoid having their children grow up living the way they did. I know all of the great Cuban dissidents. They are the only ones who speak of Cuba with optimism. In all of the other Cubans the despair is very deep, almost anthropological. Systems like the one in Cuba don’t conform with political power, they want to change people and they know that in order to do that, they need to exercise absolute power over education, the media and the economy. The reality of the new man is one reality, but it is that of a resigned, anxious, and aggressive man.  The thing that surprises me is to see that despite all this, decent, curious, and aspirational people continue to pop up. The human being is really amazing.

It is with much bitterness that the words flow out of del Risco. We understand that in humor resides his hope for salvation. That humor which obliges him to take distance while writing brings him to foreign lands, from the hand of creativity that doesn´t permit impositions, and that no power can subjugate.

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