To get to the Four Corners region of the American Southwest, you get off the plane at Albuquerque and take US 550 toward the northwest. But you best be sure to stock up on refreshments, gas and restroom breaks before you leave the northern suburb of Bernalillo, because that’s just about the last chance you’ll get to stop until you reach the small village of Cuba, NM (pop. 590). There, you’ll have a few places to stop and eat: McDonalds, a Subway, El Bruno’s for Mexican food, and the venerable Cuban Cafe, among a few other choices. Last time through there a few months ago, I stopped for a restroom break at the combination McDonalds/Chevron station and found this scrawled in large letters on the stall door:
Cuba’s pretty small. I suppose that Cuba could probably use more of a lot of things. But for such a small town, it struck me as being relatively self-sufficient. I guess that’s out of necessity — the nearest other town of any size at all is a ninety minute drive away.
My immediate needs resolved (the restroom break, not hookers), I decided to head over to the Cuban Cafe for lunch (split pea soup, a grilled cheese sandwich and a Coke). As I ate, I read a copy of The Cuba News (published monthly) to get a lay of the land. There was a great article about the very early days of the town’s founding as a mission outpost, another “news” article that appeared to be compiled by someone scratching down disjointed notes while watching Glenn Beck on Fox News, a rant against the local police department for their vigorous enforcement of traffic laws (Cuba is a notorious speed trap), and the usual assortment of announcements for pot luck dinners, revivals, and other community events.
But as I was reading the paper and thought that I had gotten an idea of what the local landscape was like, I came across another listing that reminded me that no place could be nailed down to just a few simple images, not even a place as small as Cuba. There in the Religion announcements, amidst the Catholics, the Baptists, the Presbyterians and Assemblies of God, there were two — two! — separate announcements for Bahá’i meetings taking place around Cuba.
The Bahá’i faith, if you don’t know, was founded in nineteenth century Persia and emphasizes three principles: the unity of God, the unity of religion, and the spiritual humanity of all people around the world. Their main focus is in peace around the world, and they believe that all religions in some form or another embody the wonderment of the one God that unites us all. Those are some pretty high-minded (one might say liberal) concepts. (Update: They may be “liberal” but not so much where homosexuality is concerned. But they are decidedly unconventional nonetheless.) There are an estimated six million Bahá’is around the world, and out of the 590 people living in Cuba, there are enough Bahá’is to support not just one, but two different meetings of the faithful for worship and meditation.Well that reminded me of a very important lesson, one that I should have known well from my own background, but that we all have a tendency to forget no matter where we come from. Wherever you go, you hold the responsibility to see exactly what is in front of you and not your preconceived expectations of what you expect to find. Any place — even an isolated town of six hundred souls — is more complex than any snapshot or isolated image can muster.
My great-grandmother used to defend her rural Kentucky background by saying that hicks are just people who don’t know anything about the rest of the world, and that you can find hicks in some mighty fancy places. With her definition, I’ve run across a lot of hicks in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Dallas, Boston, London — just about everywhere you can imagine, I’ve met people who thought they knew everything there was to know about middle America. I expected to find hicks in Cuba according to the more conventional meaning of the word, but it turned out that I was the one my great-grandmother would brand the hick. I can’t say whether Cuba really needs more hookers or not, but the world could probably stand a few more trips to Cuba.