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Martha's Story: the Dream of Korean-Cubans
When filmmaker Dai Sil Kim-Gibson met the Korean-Cuban community, her latest project was born
Dai Sil Kim-Gibson (internews)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2004-08-05 14:20 (KST)   
A first-generation Korean-Cuban harvesting hemp.
©2004 OhmyNews
In January of this year, I went to Cuba with a group of Koreans from New York, South Korea and Canada.

It was supposed to be an educational trip to learn about Cuba. But I met Koreans in Cuba and among them a fascinating woman, Martha Lim Kim, one of the nine children of Ernesto Lim and Gudelia Kim Pack.(1)

Martha now takes care of her Cuban husband who is totally incapacitated by a rare brain disease. She devoted her life to teaching from elementary school to university, retiring as professor of Marxist philosophy. Martha is a supporter of the Revolution.

So impressed by Martha and moved by Koreans on that island who spoke Spanish, throwing in broken Korean once in a while, I abandoned my group, hired a Cuban film crew, just a camera and sound man, and shot 15 hours of interviews with Martha and some other Koreans introduced to me by her.

During my interview with Martha, I learned that she had an older brother and sister who lived in Miami and deadly opposed to the Revolution. Without having met her siblings, I was already contrasting the two points of view of the Revolution in the same family. I was excited.

I came to the United States in 1962 to pursue graduate studies in religion. I received a Ph.D in Religion from Boston University and taught at Mount Holyoke College, which was followed by my career as a federal and state government employee: senior program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities and director of the media program of the New York State Council on the Arts. All of this means that filmmaking is my third career which started when I was over 50 years old.

The descendents of a Korean migrant
©2004 W. Jang
While making my seventh film, Wet Sand: Voices from LA Ten Years Later, I swore that I would not make another film. Begging for dollars, hustling to save every penny, playing so many roles -- producing, writing, directing, cooking, running errands, keeping books -- then always on the road away from one good man who has consistently helped my filmmaking not only in spirit but also with all the money he saved but no longer has pay checks coming his way but small government pension which came from his retirement, my Iowa farm boy husband, all this got to me.

That's not all, though. Once a film is made, the begging cycle starts again. Most of mainstream programmers have to be persuaded that even the films made by a woman with yellow skin on topics they would like to forget about can be good. So I have to blow my horn, at times scream at the top of lungs with fury, and most of the times practice humility, putting the fate of the newborn baby, my film, in their hands.

I managed to broadcast several films nationally on Public Broadcasting Service. Each time, though, part of my soul feels it is at the brink of dying. Then some people, including Korean-Americans, finish up the job. They kill my dying soul and bury it by first asking how much money I make producing films on comfort women, forced laborers and Los Angeles riots, then expressing puzzlement to disdain that I might be crazy that I do all that work getting ourselves into debt, let alone making money.

©2004
Each time I go through the process of death and rebirth of my soul, I feel as if part of my flesh were cut off. So no more filmmaking at my age was my determination until I went to Cuba. How can I not make a film about Cuba with 15 hours of interview already in my hand!

I plan to make a film about Cuba exploring the experiment in social justice on a small island. As a person born in northern Korea in 1938, and who crossed the 38th parallel on foot in the winter of 1945 with my family in search of democracy, I have a deep interest in this experiment, especially now with its future threatened by none other than its superpower neighbor, the United States of America.

Cuba Quick Facts

  • Capital: Havana
  • Government type: Communist state

  • Location: Caribbean, island between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, 150 km south of Key West, Florida

  • Area: total: 110,860 sq km

  • Population: 11,308,764 (July 2004 est.)
  • Median age: 34.8 years
  • Life expectancy at birth: total population: 77.04 years

  • Ethnic groups: mulatto 51%, white 37%, black 11%, Chinese 1%

  • Languages: Spanish / CIA Factbook 2004
  • We have heard many stories about Cuba and about its flourishing or dying socialism. Why do we need another story? Who has not heard about Fidel Castro and the Miami Cubans? About the Bay of Pigs? And about Guantanamo Bay? However, what excited me was learning about Cuba, its revolution, its current confusion of dollar and peso economies and its future from one of its minority groups, Korean-Cubans, who were at the bottom of the economic scale at the time of the Revolution.

    Cuba is often called a "stew" of multiple ethnicities. Aside from the European settlers who settled in Cuba in the early 1500's, the mid-1800s saw many workers brought over to work in its sugar cane fields from Japan, India, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Mexico, as well as other Caribbean nations. Koreans were the last to arrive in 1921.

    The ancestors of Koreans in Cuba came from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula in search of a better life. 1,033 Koreans set sail from Incheon, and arrived in Yucatan in 1905. Upon arrival, instead of the riches they had dreamed of, all they found was the most menial type of labor. They became sugarcane and hemp (henequen) cutters, toiling from sun-up till sundown in the dry and harsh tropical sun. Most of them settled there as field hands. Three hundred of them set sail for Cuba in search for a better life. They arrived at Cuba on May 25, 1921.

    The Koreans' arrival coincided with a generally favorable economy in Cuba mostly due to sugar but soon sugar prices dropped drastically and there was no work. Land that had formerly grown sugar was now converted to growing henequen, and employed Koreans as cutters. Factory work was reserved for Cubans.

    The Koreans, bringing their henequen-cutting skills from Mexico soon showed their good skills and productivity which allowed some to rise to specialized fieldwork and even become trainers and supervisors. But the henequen plant was a dangerous enemy, with cruel sharp thorns like harpoons. Around these fields the Koreans lived in barracks, forming their first close community called El Bolo, and certain individuals began to assume leadership positions.

    Martha's family background in her own words:
    My father was Korean, and although my mother was born in Mexico, both of them always felt very Korean. My father was one of the leaders of the Korean community.

    My mother was very sweet, quiet, and sacrificed her own wishes in favor of my father's, even more than her children's. She worked very, very hard, because she had a harder childhood than many others. She came here from Mexico at the age of 8 without her parents or family. She came to work as a maid for another Korean family, not as a member of that family, but as a worker, and they treated her as such. They treated her very badly so she married very young to get away from it. Then she was 14, and had her first child almost immediately. She went on to have 9 children, and also always helped my father with the family's finances by sewing and washing for others.

    I was the 6th child. We were a large but close-knit family. We had many financial difficulties. People who worked in the henequen farms earned very little, and besides, they could work only 2 or 3 months a year; there was no work for the rest of the year. So my father had to be very creative to support the family. I remember this well. He was always trying to do something else during those other times. But he wasn't the only one in this situation; all the laborers suffered the same way.

    I remember getting 2 dresses a year, one during the Korean New Year and the other was my school uniform. Those were the only 2 times that we received new clothes. And special shoes for school. But we were happy; we didn't know there could be anything better. We didn't know that other people had more. But we had a lot of love at home and all of us got along very well.
    However, the Revolution changed the insulated community of Koreans. Again, Martha:
    Until this time Koreans had been able to live in our own little village groups. We had imposed a type of self-discrimination, separating ourselves from the rest of the community, especially the older generation which preferred an insular community.. But when the Revolution began to blur these boundaries by giving all children a free education, and because everyone became fully involved in the work of the Revolution, it was inevitable that many of the new generation of Koreans felt distanced from their traditional ties.

    Among the Koreans in Cuba, there are three levels of identity: Those Koreans who came to Cuba as adults, and those like my father who came to Cuba as children born in Mexico of Korean parents. The third generation like myself who were born in Cuba of Korean parents, still forms the vast majority of the Koreans in Cuba today. Beginning with my generation, when the Revolution started, many of us became more involved in Cuban society overall, and in pursuit of education and careers began to interact more with people outside of our own community.
    Asked about her identity, Martha said:
    I am Cuban by birth, educated here and have learned to love the history and the leaders of this country, but my father's teachings always made me feel that I belonged to, or that my roots were in, the Korean peninsula. So I can say that I am a Cuban with Korean roots. I always say this: our roots sustain us. I think this is important because the roots hold up the plant, and what holds up a person or a culture, is in the roots.
    However, Martha could not imagine her life without the Revolution:
    Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been if our society hadn't changed. I was able to accomplish what I did because of the Revolution. In spite of many problems and difficulties, I am who I am today because there was a Revolution. Otherwise, I would never have been able to attend university, and even become a university professor. Never, ever.
    Martha is exceptionally articulate, her comments well thought out and well grounded. Simultaneously, they don't provide groundbreaking information or theories about Marxism or the Cuban Revolution. However, put in the context of her family background and who she has become, they are inspiring and make one to think about the future of socialism in different light.

    Imagine her gentle Asian face in contrast with that of Fidel Castro, revolutionary soldiers, her ancestors coming from Mexico, her father in henequen fields, with her disabled and bed-bound Cuban historian husband and hear her say,

    Cuba is now the sole surviving Marxist society, staying its course even after other Marxist societies have fallen and support from the Soviet Union ended. Marx dealt largely with the challenge of exploitation of the common people, not with the challenge of imperialism. But Fidel had to deal with the fierce political and economic imperialism of the U.S. What amazes me is that Cuba is still going strong, despite the fact that it is facing up to the U.S., one of the most powerful nations in the world.

    It will be a challenge to make her long talks visual but her voice almost sings with intellect, her passion controlled but vibrant with power, and enables the listeners to create their own images to see the world in which she has traveled and wants to create till the day she dies.

    If I manage to stay out of the way and let the viewers meet her directly, I believe the film will become like a human prayer with Martha's plea to give socialism a chance to redeem humanity from the greed of capitalism and join hands with people everywhere as equals, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless.

    Havana's harbor
    ©2004
    All this praise might cause you think that I am going to make a celebratory piece for Martha and blind adherence of socialism, oblivious of Castro's crackdown of dissidents, tyrannical restriction on freedom of speech, etc.

    To be sure, I am going to maintain my critical eyes and also contrast her views with those of her siblings living in Miami as well as poorer and less educated Koreans in Cuba. I know that you can detect my own bias toward socialism and I am biased, especially due to my disgust and pessimism about the current capitalism sweeping the U.S. and the world. Our family never did find the democracy for which we had abandoned everything we had in northern Korea, not in South Korea and not in the U.S., my adopted country.

    At the same time, I know I could not have survived Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il. Even for current Cuba, I have lots of mixed feelings. When I was in Cuba, I felt extremely uneasy and conflicted, caught in contradiction between my supportive feelings for the Cuban Revolution and my unwillingness to live under its conditions.

    I am, however, very impressed by the calm and realistic peace Martha made with the socialism exhibited in the Cuban Revolution. She makes me think that perhaps the problem of capitalism or socialism is greed disguised in a variety of fancy expressions such as aspirations, hopes, ambitions and social justice.

    There's so much more to explore. Even some who were sympathetic toward the revolution find the Cuban Revolution less and less revolutionary and more and more conservative. Then, there is the question of understanding the anti-Castro movement in Miami and their conservative politics. In the end, can we reconcile capitalism, which is good at creating wealth, with socialism concerned about the equitable distribution of wealth?

    In the face of the increasing strength of capitalism that makes the discrepancy between the rich and poor wider and wider in the United States, some of these fundamental questions in relation to the experiment of the social justice explained by Martha might have a thing or two to teach us. More than anything else, I was deeply touched by her humaneness, her pride as a lifetime teacher, and her craving for spirituality.

    She speaks of her professional career with pride and affection. "My professional life was in education, teaching at all grade levels, and in both the rural and urban educational systems. I had wonderful experiences in teaching, and the great privilege to have had the opportunity to make a contribution, though a very modest one, to the Cuban society," she said with joy floating in her eyes.

    I will present Martha in the context of the incredible natural beauty of Cuba, its people who went through the Revolution that tore the land apart and sent some into exile to the United States and other countries, and in the context of 300 Koreans who sailed to Cuba in 1921 from Mexico in search of a better life only to find themselves cutting henequen plant with cruel sharp thorns like harpoons to make a living and in the context of her own siblings living in Miami.

    I had the pleasure of talking with Martha's brother, Cecilio Lim Kim and her sister, Camela Lee. They both live in Miami. Her brother, now retired, takes care of his wife who suffers from Alzheimer's and her sister, widowed 25 years ago, still works and has a son and a daughter.

    They were pleasant and eager to talk with me. They are already looking for old pictures. Needless to say, they are anti-Revolution and they promise to be as exciting and inspiring as Martha was. They will not be given short shrift.

    My cycle of begging for funds began. I wrote some proposals and still trying to write more proposals while I wait to hear mostly "No's" from where I sent in grant applications.

    In addition to fund raising, there's much to be done to complete this project.

    Dai Sil Kim-Gibson
    ©2004 D. Kim
    I need to conduct research about Koreans who went to Mexico in 1905, about a small band of 300 Koreans who sailed to Cuba in 1921, the relationship between Cuba and Korea, especially the People's Democratic Republic of Korea, Miami Cubans in general and Korean-Cubans in Miami, archival footage and photos, and written material about the Revolution and Castro and finally but not the least important about the history of immigration in Cuba.

    If possible and if considered desirable as a result of research, I propose to look into comparing Cuba with North Korea as two small countries still surviving as communist/socialist countries.

    As soon as I get some money, I will travel to Miami. Most probably, I will have to go back to Cuba for additional shooting. If funds were available, the end of May 2005 is a realistic date for completion of this film.
    (1) My good friend and my associate producer, Aiyoung Choi, translated the Spanish for me.

    Dai Sil Kim-Gibson is an independent film director, producer and writer. She wrote and directed "Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women" (1999). Her Web site is called Two Tigers.

    If you wish to make contributions to this film project, please write a check to Silence Broken Foundation, which is a non-profit, tax deductable organization, and send it to:

    Silence Broken Foundation
    c/o Donald D. Gibson, President
    200 Cabrini Blvd., #61
    New York, New York 10033
    ©2004 OhmyNews

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