By June Carolyn Erlick
My boyfriend Jim and I were watching television in a smoky working-class bar in Cuernavaca, Mexico, that July 20, 1969. I can’t remember if Neil Armstrong’s words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” were dubbed into Spanish.
What I do remember vividly is that as Neil Armstrong took man’s first step on the moon, the Mexicans in the bar rushed toward us, hugging us, embracing us, tears in their eyes with genuine emotion and excitement, congratulating us just because we were Americans.
We hated being American. We were ashamed of the war in Vietnam. Our neighbors in New York were Dominicans with fresh wounds from the 1965 U.S. invasion of Santo Domingo. Besides, the money spent sending a man to the moon could have better been spent on better schools and affordable housing. And yet, for that one split second, there in that bar, barely a year after the Mexicans had suffered their own tragedy at the Massacre of Tlatelolco, we were almost letting ourselves be proud of U.S. progress in science. Almost.
Mexico was my first experience in a mainland Spanish-speaking country (I’d been to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico). The bar celebration was my first lesson that the 60s didn’t quite seem the same from Latin America as they did in the States. Our 60s—our New York 60s—of course, had their Latin-tinged icons: César Chávez and the grapeworkers’ movement, the Cuban revolution, Che, even those sacred Mexican mushrooms.
Up north, both of us studying at Columbia University, we found ourselves in the midst of the chaotic 60s: the student uprisings, the advent of the media age, women’s liberation, black power, gay rights, birth control (first tested in Puerto Rico), the Bay of Pigs, the Missile crisis, the Prague Spring, liberation theology, the killing of the students at Kent State, sex, drugs and rock’n roll. It felt like being on a constant roller coaster.
Four months after our Mexican summer, I would head down to Cuba to cut sugar cane and to write my journalism school master’s thesis on the Venceremos Brigade. Liberation looked different the world on that Caribbean island. Brigade men cut cane, while the women piled, until we staged our own little rebellion. Sexual liberation, gay rights and even the music of Woodstock weren’t necesarily connected to the Island’s revolutionary politics.
As I set out to envision this issue of ReVista, I asked myself how the magazine could possibly include all these themes and also encompass what was happening in every one of the Latin American countries from the incipient dictatorship in Brazil, the National Front in Colombia to Che’s incursion into Bolivia. How could I possibly include all the joy and chaos and tragedy that made up the 60s?
Then I read Harvard Professor Diana Sorensen’s excellent book A Turbulent Decade Remembered: Scenes from the Latin American Sixties. I’d forgotten the importance of the Latin American literary boom. I’d forgotten the importance of exile and the renewed sense of Latin Americanism. My wish list for ReVista just kept getting longer.
Then I reread her introduction. “The dialogue between the Latin American and the metropolitan worlds is particularly fertile at that time, both in its points in common and in its specificities,” Sorensen writes. “...I would submit that the Latin American difference is one of intensity, and that it is framed by the twin rhythms of euphoria and despair.”
I decided to focus on Cuba, seen mainly from the perspective of Cubans on the Island, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, and on the experiences of Harvard faculty and alumni transformed by the Peace Corps, another idealistic 60s legacy. I was despairing how to organize the remaining essays when my friend from Tufts, Jennifer Burtner, walked into my office. “Exploding paradigms,” she said. “That’s what the 60s were about.” Her comment evolved into the glimpses of the 60s that make up the “perspectives” section.
As we in the United States move into a new era that is bound to have ripples in Latin America, just as the 60s did, I glance at the message of a Christmas card hanging on my wall: “Not only is another world possible; she is on her way.” After all, I am a child of the 60s.