Yunel Escobar’s slur didn’t come from left field

Two or three min­utes after I saw the photo of Escobar’s cheeks and read the news sto­ries, I con­sid­ered writ­ing this. But I decided to wait until things returned to nor­mal so peo­ple would read me with cooler heads.

It’s impor­tant to say I’ve never met the Toronto Blue Jays short-stop and don’t think I ever will.

Cana­di­ans may know Mr. Esco­bar is 29 years old. But he was born and lived in Cuba until he was 20. That makes him, in what con­cerns North Amer­i­can cul­tural val­ues and norms of social behav­iour, 9.

I am a 72-year-old Cuban-Canadian author and I lived in Cuba until ten years ago, so per­haps I can offer some insight into why Mr. Esco­bar wrote “tu ere mari­con” on his eye-black stick­ers dur­ing a game last month and his per­plex­ity at the ruckus he caused.

Cuban males from my gen­er­a­tion learned from boy­hood that being homo­sex­ual was the worst thing you could be, worse than being a mob­ster, an alco­holic, a drug addict, or a wife abuser. Homo­sex­u­als were strongly dis­crim­i­nated against in the job mar­ket and at gov­ern­men­tal, reli­gious and judi­cial institutions.

How­ever, “mar­icón” was also used to label some­one a cow­ard, a fool, a despi­ca­ble or deceit­ful per­son, a cheap­skate – even if the detrac­tor knew that the guy was het­ero­sex­ual. Besides, if you wanted to prompt a male friend or rel­a­tive into doing some­thing, from jump­ing off a cliff into a river to ask­ing a girl out, you’d say: “Go ahead, do it, don’t be mar­icón.”

Under the Com­mu­nists, things got worse for gays and les­bians. None were denied a job, but openly gay or les­bian indi­vid­u­als weren’t appointed to posi­tions of lead­er­ship any­where, even if they were more qual­i­fied for the job. If a floor man­ager at a plant or an offi­cer in the Armed Forces or a depart­ment head in a min­istry were caught hav­ing inter­course with a per­son of the same sex, he or she was imme­di­ately demoted and/or fired. Party mem­bers were expelled.

Even in roles where gay men had tra­di­tion­ally made a liv­ing, like danc­ing, hair­dress­ing and makeup, the party con­ducted purges. In 1967 the police rounded up thou­sands of gay men and sent them to re-education camps. Between 1980 and 1985 –what Cuban intel­lec­tu­als call “the five grey years–” artists and writ­ers who were gay and crit­i­cal of com­mu­nism were pro­hib­ited from trav­el­ling abroad, pub­lish­ing books, and exhibit­ing their paint­ings or sculp­tures (although some gay and les­bian intel­lec­tu­als who sup­ported the Party line weren’t sidelined.)

Ten years ago, a per­son with sub­stan­tial lever­age – Mariela Cas­tro Espín, daugh­ter of the cur­rent supreme leader and niece of the pre­vi­ous supreme leader, a het­ero­sex­ual mar­ried woman and mother – started a vig­or­ous cam­paign against dis­crim­i­na­tion of gays and les­bians, save for anti-Communists. Notwith­stand­ing the polit­i­cal exclu­sion, she has been cor­rectly praised for becom­ing the stan­dard bearer of a long over­due cam­paign about the rights of gays and les­bians. Kudos to her.

Although I am two gen­er­a­tions apart from Mr. Esco­bar, I have a son who is five years older than him. My son grew up and became a man in Cuba; I knew his friends and I heard them talk of many things, so I have an idea about how young het­ero­sex­ual Cubans of Mr. Escobar’s age were raised and edu­cated. I know that most are unpre­pared to live in democ­ra­cies, to adapt to dif­fer­ent cul­tures and to respect the human and civic rights of others.

Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, like many things, is a two-way street. Canada wel­comes highly-qualified peo­ple from very dif­fer­ent coun­tries and cul­tural back­grounds who are flee­ing from war, poverty, repres­sion or dis­crim­i­na­tion. Those immi­grants should learn an offi­cial lan­guage and respect and adapt to Cana­dian val­ues and customs.

But Cana­di­ans, and the media, should under­stand that immi­grants need time to learn and adjust. The reac­tion to Mr. Escobar’s deplorable mis­take failed to take into con­sid­er­a­tion where he comes from and his igno­rance, if you will, of how peo­ple would be offended. For that rea­son, the reac­tion turned exces­sive and unjust to a cer­tain degree. He learned his les­son. But I’m not so sure that he’s the only one who has to learn some­thing from this sad episode.

This arti­cle was pub­lished in The Globe and Mail on Octo­ber 3, 2012.


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