April 10, 2023
A Cuban expat tells Chris about her incredible journey from Cuba to New Zealand to work on cancer immunotherapies. She opens up about why she left her home country and how the George Floyd protests made her question her own place in the world as a black, Cuban woman. She also discusses the importance of not getting emotionally tied to her cancer research and describes how shaving her head and embracing her natural hair made her feel reborn.
366 — Curing Cancer in New Zealand
Chris [00:00:04] Hello to everybody who knows that you can’t be a sociopath if you dance the salsa. It’s Beautiful Anonymous. One hour. One phone call. No names. No holds barred. Hi, everybody. Chris Gethard here. Coming to you from the studio. I actually was in the studio in New York City for this call. Happened to be in the city today as it was. I said, let’s do a call like the old days in the studio. So here we are. And guess what? It’s a very good, very interesting call with a very interesting person who doesn’t live in America and lives in a country that they weren’t born in and grew up in a country that is one of the most fascinating and not always in positive ways countries in the world you can grow up, Cuba. She has a lot of opinions on that. And then on top of it, the things she’s doing in New Zealand are so smart and giving and are going to help the world. And we talk about that and we talk about hair and we talk about everything. We talked about so many things in an hour. And partway through the call, I say, You’re one of the most interesting people in the world. And I tell what I tell you what, I think it’s true. I stand by it. I think you’re going to- if you like this show, you will love this call. That is my prediction. Enjoy it.
Voicemail Robot [00:01:36] Thank you for calling Beautiful Anonymous. A beeping noise will indicate when you are on the show with the host.
Caller [00:01:43] Hello?
Chris [00:01:44] Hi.
Caller [00:01:46] Oh, my god. Is it you, Chris? I can’t believe it!
Chris [00:01:51] Hi. How’s it going?
Caller [00:01:54] I’m really good, thank you. How are you?
Chris [00:01:57] I’m pretty good. I’m pretty good. It’s beautiful weather here on the East Coast today. And I’ll tell you, this is- I’m in the studio recording this. I think this is the second or third call we’ve done since the pandemic started where I’m actually in the studio.
Caller [00:02:11] Really? Oh, it’s a privilege.
Chris [00:02:14] It’s like the good old days. Yeah, I’m good. I’m good. My voice is a little blown out because I recorded my special this past weekend, so I’ve been talking a lot. So my voice is a little blown out, but I’m in good spirits.
Caller [00:02:25] Oh, that’s good. It’s 7 a.m. here, so I just woke up.
Chris [00:02:31] 7 a.m.?
Caller [00:02:32] Yeah.
Chris [00:02:32] Where are you? Because it’s 3 p.m. here.
Caller [00:02:34] I live in New Zealand.
Chris [00:02:36] New Zealand?
Caller [00:02:36] I live in New Zealand.
Chris [00:02:38] Wow.
Caller [00:02:39] So, yeah, we are ahead of everyone else in the world pretty much. But I am originally from Cuba, so. I’m so nervous.
Chris [00:02:50] Oh don’t. No need to be nervous. No need. No need. I promise. That’s pretty cool.
Caller [00:02:57] Yeah, it’s really cool. Like, yeah, I’m privileged to, to live in a country as beautiful as New Zealand, and especially being from Cuba where things are not great. But I moved here nine years ago, so I feel like I’m from here, basically. Yeah.
Chris [00:03:23] How did you make that move?
Caller [00:03:25] Ah, well, that was that was it was a hard move to make. I, um I studied biochemistry and molecular biology in Havana, and I went to conference. So um in Cuba it’s a bit different to areas of the world. Well, a lot of things are quite different. So when you finish uni, you have to do three years where you have to work for the government. Everything belongs to the government, so you have to work for two years. But, um, if you, um, you have to do- no, sorry. So three years for a woman. Two years for a man, because you do military service if you’re a man. So it’s in total three years that you have to work like whatever they send you. So I went to this place where I thought it was going to be lots of cool projects and things because it belonged to one of the sons of Fidel Castro. So they have the money. Okay. They might have like a lot of equipment and a lot of stuff to do science with. But there was nothing. They had no project. So you have people there wasting time and they only wanted the best (UNCLEAR) It was for nothing, just for the headlines in the newspaper because we had nothing to do. And then they sent me to a conference in Havana and it was bio nanotechnology and that was like more than ten years ago. And I went to this talk. There was a researcher who was using polyester, like, you know, plastic. Are you still there, Chris?
Chris [00:05:11] I am. I’m just listening.
Caller [00:05:13] Okay, cool. Polyester beads. But it was plastic made in bacteria, so like, quite cool. He was using that as the vaccine delivery system. So, um, and I was working- so my bachelor’s thesis was in a colossus vaccine. I was like, that’s what I want to do. So after the conference and the I email him. My cousin had to write that email because my English was really, really poor, so I couldn’t write a proper email. Well, I must have said the right words because he emailed me back. He was like, Oh, I’m going back to Cuba. And it was like, in February of the next year we can meet. And we met. And he offered me Ph.D. in New Zealand. And then was the whole process of leaving Cuba because up to the year before I left, Cubans couldn’t leave the country, but that changed in 2013. If you have a visa and a passport, then you can live like anywhere and no one else in the world. We just couldn’t leave because we needed an extra document that was like permission from the government to leave the country. In Cuba so you’re going to study in a different university somewhere else in the world, and it happens everywhere. You have to provide like your certificate or a copy of the certificate. But that- that document in Cuba costs $200. And the salaries like in Cuba are a joke. So my salary was $14 per month.
Chris [00:06:56] Per month. Per month? $14 a month?
Caller [00:06:59] Yeah, I know it sounds stupid, but yeah. Yeah, yeah, it’s a joke. But I think now it might be higher but that was ten years ago. And this is, this is only my truth. You know, other people may have had a different experience, but this is what I experienced there. So each document that you needed to send to the university was $200. So even if it was legal, it was really, really high because no one has that kind of money. Someone else has to lend it to you or yeah, you have to find it some some way because no one is able to pay for those services. And also like you get paid in pesos, but then all those things are in dollars. So it’s just it’s a mess.
Chris [00:07:50] And those were all things that they lifted in 2013 that allowed you to go to New Zealand?
Caller [00:07:56] No, no. Those were in place in 2013. Before 2013, you had to also have permission from the government to leave, and that’s what they lifted.
Chris [00:08:07] Oh, so that was lifted. So you did still have to find hundreds of dollars for all these documents, even though that money was impossible to find?
Caller [00:08:14] Yeah.
Chris [00:08:15] Wow.
Caller [00:08:16] Yeah. So that’s that’s why most people they couldn’t leave because how could they have that money? Like my dad, he’s an engineer. He’s been working his whole life and he makes maybe the equivalent to, I don’t know, $75 per month? So everyone has a side gig that is illegal, but that makes them enough money to buy food.
Chris [00:08:41] That’s no joke.
Caller [00:08:42] (UNCLEAR) It’s a joke.
Chris [00:08:43] So when you eventually leave, are you on a visa or do you eventually defect? Because I know that’s a thing, right? Sometimes people leave and they defect.
Caller [00:08:53] Yeah, that’s a thing.
Chris [00:08:59] There’s a good question, right? There’s one that’s on a lot of our minds. We’ve all heard stories of people who leave Cuba under intense circumstances. We will hear the circumstances our caller left under when we get back. Thanks to all of our advertisers. Now, let’s get back to the phone call. Do you eventually defect? Because I know that’s a thing, right? Sometimes people leave and they defect.
Caller [00:09:29] Yeah, that’s a thing. That’s a thing. So most people who do that, they leave because they are sent by like where they work and then they leave so they don’t want to work there anymore and they do their own thing. And that’s when they get punished with eight years that you can’t go back to Cuba if you do that. Or at least it was my time. But because I left on my own terms, which made me hard because I had to like, leave work to do all that things that I had do. All the beaurocracy. And then I could come back. But they didn’t send me to study in New Zealand. I left because I wanted to leave. It was hard because I was doing it in secret, but it wasn’t, yeah, I wasn’t punished when I stayed here.
Chris [00:10:19] Wow. Do you ever make it back? Are you able to travel back to Cuba, or would that be a whole mess?
Caller [00:10:24] Yeah, I am. I am. I’m not able to work there, but I don’t want to work there anyway. But, um, I am able to go back and visit my family. It’s been hard since the pandemic because there is only one airline that travels there. So I ideally, I would travel through the U.S. first, but I still have a Cuban passport. I still don’t have a New Zealand passport yet. So with my Cuban passport, it’s quite hard to move around the world. So I travel through South America and there’s only one airline that travels from New Zealand to South America since the pandemic. So they have a monopoly and they the prices can be quite crazy. But I’ve been back I went back last year. Due to the pandemic it was the first time and it was the longest I had been without being able to. But yeah, I can go. If I if I have the means, I can go every year. Yeah, that’s good. At least that I can go back.
Chris [00:11:22] And just so I’m clear, because I mean, that was very thorough. I said, how did how did you make it from Cuba to New Zealand? That was an extraordinarily thorough answer and I thank you for it. But it sounds like at the end of the day, you went out there to continue your study to get your Ph.D.?
Caller [00:11:36] But I did that. So that was like nine years ago. So I completed my Ph.D in 2017 and then I got a job with a small startup company in the same city where I was living, and that was two and a half years. And then I worked for them. It was an absolute nightmare. The first year I was okay then, yeah. And then the pandemic hit in 2020. So my Ph.D. was in microbiology and genetics, but I wanted to do more immunology, so I applied for the job I have now and I got rejected. But I messaged back and I was I wanted to get some feedback on why I didn’t get the job. They were like, Oh, you don’t have enough experience in this type of sales. And this job is like very heavy on these sales. And I was like, well, fair enough. And then there was another position advertised in the same lab, but it was a less skilled position I guess. But I applied anyways and (UNCLEAR) I was like, Oh, I know that I’m overqualified for this position, but I want to have an experience in these type of sales because I actually want that other job. And then they didn’t reply to that application, but months later they messaged me back to see if I was still interested in the initial position that I had applied for because the person who was accepted for it didn’t come because of the pandemic. And I ended up getting the job like within a few days of going for the interview. And then I moved to the capital of New Zealand, and that’s where I am now. I’ve been working for like five years now.
Chris [00:13:25] This is I feel like, you know, you don’t need to like you don’t just like, go out for coffee and just meet too many people with a story like yours.
Caller [00:13:35] Ah, yeah, there are Cubans in New Zealand.
Chris [00:13:40] But how many of them have how many of them have Ph.D.’s in macrobiology?
Caller [00:13:44] Um, well, there was another Cuban doing her Ph.D. in the same lab, and she left. She moved to Europe. It was actually quite good to have her there.
Chris [00:13:54] I bet.
Caller [00:13:54] When I started. But yeah, not many. Not many. That’s true. Like, that’s why I know. I mean, this is anonymous for most people, but if anyone who knows me listens to this, it’s me. Because, I’m the only one.
Chris [00:14:11] Yes, some of our callers people, people might go, I wonder if that’s the person I’m thinking of. If anyone is like, oh, how many how many people fit this specific story? I think you are walking that path by yourself. It’s wild.
Caller [00:14:28] Yeah. Yeah, but it’s it’s really cool. What I’m doing now is it’s really, really exciting work. I work in cancer immunotherapy.
Chris [00:14:43] And what kind of therapy?
Caller [00:14:44] Immunotherapy. So instead of chemotherapy, it’s immunotherapy. So using your own immune system to fight cancer.
Chris [00:14:54] Wow.
Caller [00:14:54] So it’s really cool. It’s really amazing. And it’s really cool to wake up every day and be like, This is what I’m going to do and I might save a life in the future. I haven’t saved any lives yet.
Caller [00:15:11] That’s incredible.
Caller [00:15:12] Maybe my work saves lives in the future. It’s really, really cool. I’m really pleased with how things are going.
Chris [00:15:20] You’re one of the most interesting people in the world. I feel qualified to say that.
Caller [00:15:25] Oh!
Chris [00:15:27] As someone who talks to people professionally and hears their story, I will say you’re one of the most interesting people out of the, what is it? What do we got, 6 billion? 8 billion? How many people on earth now? You know. I don’t know.
Caller [00:15:39] Lots of billions.
Chris [00:15:40] Billions of people. You’re one of the most interesting ones, I’ll tell you that.
Caller [00:15:44] Thank you. Thank you, Chris. That coming from you, so many people.
Chris [00:15:50] Let me- I have kind of not totally together thought, but let me ramble a little bit because I notice a few things about who you are and where you wound up and where you come from. I’ve always read that the medical industry in Cuba is actually very advanced. And even that- I’ve read, and you’ll know more about this than I do, that there are treatments, medicines, things that have been developed in Cuba that are really high level, that a lot of people have said part of part of where the American stand off with Cuba is screwing Americans, is Cubans actually have a lot of medical advances, and we should have access to those technologies and medicines because it’s advanced stuff. I’ve always read that. I’ve read that New Zealand, you know, I think they were sort of the belle of the ball during the pandemic to a lot of the English speaking world, at least, of people saying that the lockdown really worked there and that the leadership was good. And then I know there was some backlash to the leadership, but the the big headline that went around the world was like, why can’t we all just be like New Zealand? They’re crushing it. So for you to come from a place where you studied, you even mentioned that you were studying, you know, initially, you know, had encounters with people developing new vaccine delivery systems. And you come from a place known for medical technology. You’re working in a field that relates to it. You’re studying a Ph.D. that certainly relates to it. You’re living in a place where there’s all this attention. Pandemic was weird for all of us. I have to imagine it, it was super weird for you with all those factors.
Caller [00:17:28] It was. It was. So those things what you were saying, so Cuba, it is true that we have developed techniques and vaccines that are very advanced that no one else has in the world. And we have our own, well I guess they have- I don’t know anymore, they have our own COVID vaccines and they are working. But have no money. And I don’t think the government has any interest in keeping people there because everyone is leaving, Like, all of my friends live overseas. I don’t have any friends left in Cuba. My brothers left. My cousin left. Like there is no one there to do anything because they pay people, as I was telling you, like very, very little. So for example, we had COVID vaccines, but we didn’t have syringes. We have like surgical techniques, but we don’t have cotton or like gauze. Or like if you have a surgery there, you’re like quite likely to catch an infection because maybe their aircon is broken or the doctors don’t have gloves. So it’s we have like two sides. We are pretty advanced on some things and really, really primitive on other things. And then in New Zealand we have money and we had I do think we had the best leadership in the pandemic. And yes, there was backlash. And Jacinda resigned in January. And I was quite sad because I think most of people of the backlash was because she was a woman. There were a lot of misogynistic comments and people were just really nasty to her. And I don’t think those things would happen to a man. So I’m also black. So the pandemic and what happened with George Floyd, like from the professional point of view, having to- I was privileged enough that I could explain people about the vaccine, but I almost felt quite passionate. I think for people who were anti-vaxxers, I just couldn’t engage much because I was (UNCLEAR). But also with what happened with George Floyd in the US I ended up, I shaved my head, basically. Yeah, the pandemic has been.
Chris [00:19:58] Wait. Did you say you shaved your head?
Caller [00:20:00] Yeah. Yeah.
Chris [00:20:01] Oh, I wasn’t.
Caller [00:20:03] I did a Britney, basically.
Chris [00:20:03] I wasn’t expecting that. I wasn’t expecting that as part of the answer to that question about the pandemic.
Caller [00:20:08] I was also not expecting that. I was reborn through the pandemic. Yeah, it’s been crazy. In the personal area it’s been crazy, and professionally and mixing both of them because usually when people ask you because they really want to know how the vaccine works or how the virus infects people and how it went through, like from animals to humans. And it’s really cool when people really want to know and they reach out and they know that you can explain them those things. So that’s been really good to be in that space. But also a lot of people say lots of stupid things and it’s really hard to not react and to stay calm because.
Chris [00:20:59] I can imagine. Because I know even for me looking at it- and I am largely just a dope. I’m a dummy who talks to people on the phones. You’re a genius with a Ph.D..
Caller [00:21:07] Don’t say that.
Chris [00:21:08] No, it’s true. Okay, then I’m okay. I’m I’m, I’m good at what I do, but it’s I’m not booksmart. I never have been. But I have to imagine for people who have studied the things you have, with interest in the things you have, I sit here and I’m like, there are people who don’t like the vaccines. And you know, as the parent of a child, there’s definitely- I heard chatter amongst other parents when it was okayed for kids in the States of people going, I’m not going to be first with my kid. Like I was first in line for me, my kid I’m going to wait and see. And you start to see people. I go, That’s a valid nervousness. Then you see people going, Oh, well, here there’s videos on TikTok of people with these tremors, and you’re like, Oh, that’s fake. They’re faking that. You can- that’s fake. That didn’t really happen. That’s a person just shaking around for a tip for clicks on TikTok. And and when it gets really crazy, I sit here I go, there are people who have demonized these vaccines whereas I feel like history will look back at the scientists who gave us these vaccines and go, that was one of the great miracles of our time that we all lived through, that these researchers managed to come up with this new delivery system and get it nailed down and implemented and in people’s arms in less than a year. That’s going to go down in history as something as big as like D-Day in World War Two or, you know, like one of these things that’s just like a mass mobilization of logistics and humanity that outraced what anyone thought was possible timewise and saved millions of lives.
Caller [00:22:40] Yeah, so the thing is that MRNA vaccines have been around for more than 20 years, but I don’t know if it’s because of the side effects or exactly why there hasn’t been any vaccine approved using that platform. So it wasn’t something like, oh, there’s the pandemic, we need a vaccine. Like, I mean, yes, it was like that. But the technology had already been developed and had been used in many clinical trials. So that wasn’t new. But there wasn’t any vaccine approved with that technology. And I understand that people were hesitant because, I don’t know. Yeah, they didn’t know. They didn’t know and thought, Oh, it modified their genome, which doesn’t make any sense. But for someone who doesn’t know, it’s scary. But I also think they don’t know how any vaccine they got in the past works. And I know that scared a lot of them. And that’s what I can’t I can’t understand.
Chris [00:23:39] Right.
Caller [00:23:39] But it’s quite cool that they made it so quickly because it was needed. I don’t think those are the best vaccines we have in the world, but it worked for what needed to work. And it slowed down the pandemic, so. Yeah.
Chris [00:23:57] All right.
Caller [00:23:58] Yeah, it was. It was quite frustrating to explain when people wanted to know about. Yeah. It was strange.
Chris [00:24:06] Now, are you. Are we. What’s up with cancer? Are we going to cure it? We going to get- we going to get- is cancer going to be fixed? Do you think so? If you had to bet money. In our lifetime, are we, are we curing cancer?
Caller [00:24:17] Well, Chris, cancer is not one disease. That’s the problem. Cancer is many diseases.
Chris [00:24:20] School me on this. School my dumb Jersey ass on this! That could just be the name of this podcast; School My Jersey Ass On This. That kind of is just what this all Beautiful Anonymous is a much classier name for. This show would not be as popular if it was called School My Jersey Ass On This. Anyway, we’ve got some ads. We’ll be right back. Thanks again to all of our advertisers. Now, let’s finish off the phone call.
Caller [00:24:55] Well, Chris cancer is not one disease. That’s the problem. Cancer is many diseases.
Chris [00:24:59] School me on this. School my dumb Jersey ass on this.
Caller [00:25:02] So because you can have cancer anywhere in your body, right? Liver cancer is different from breast cancer and different from lung cancer and different from blood cancer. So it’s not you can’t attack one thing because those cells are originating in one specific organ. So cancer is many, many different diseases. Right. So you can’t have a universal solution for it because it’s not one thing. So I work with blood cancers and there is this therapy called the CAR T Cell Therapy. So CAR stands for chimeric antigen receptor. So you modify the receptor of the cell of one of your white blood cells. You know, like you have the red blood cells and the white blood cells?
Chris [00:25:57] Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
Caller [00:25:58] So the white ones are the ones that defend you against pathogens. So, like, to use other words, viruses and bacterias and things like that. But they don’t recognize the cancer cells because they are cells of your own body. Right?
Chris [00:26:16] Okay. Okay.
Caller [00:26:17] So with the. So we genetically modify those cells so that they can recognize the cancer cells and they can kill the cancer cells. So that’s therapies approved in Europe and the US like for, for refractors or like blood cancers that come back and keep coming back and relapse. Blood cancers, so there is a cure for those. Yeah. For that specific one. But yeah, there are lots of people in the world trying to use this therapy for other types of cancer, but it’s very hard. But if you imagine, imagine a blood, blood cancer it’s like imagine a liquid cancer. You have some cells going around, and maybe you have the mass, but it’s not the same as if you have a solid tumor where the cells have to, like get to the tumor and like penetrate the tumor and like basically, like, dissolve it. So I can imagine that that’s a lot harder for your immune system.
Chris [00:27:22] So is it is it fair to say that on a very basic level, you’re basically figuring out ways to hack white blood cells, to train them?
Caller [00:27:31] Oh, that’s figured out. So it’s not like- I didn’t invent this.
Chris [00:27:36] No, I’m not saying you personally, but I’m saying the field you work in is basically hacking white blood cells in the human system and kind of updating their programing. Like if you if it was computer programing, it would be updating the code to say focus on this.
Caller [00:27:49] Yeah, yeah.
Chris [00:27:51] So you can rewrite white blood cells and give them more functionality.
Caller [00:27:55] Yeah. Yes, exactly. Exactly. Yeah. We modify them with a virus that is derived from HIV because that’s what HIV does, it infects T-cells. We just took the same mechanism and do that, but we put what we want just change the receptor of the cell. It’s amazing.
Chris [00:28:18] Wait, I have to make sure I heard that right. So you’re saying basically HIV was a virus, an awful, brutal thing, but that scientists were able to look at the way it functioned and said maybe we can take that functionality and rewrite the purpose and use what we’ve learned HIV does to attack cancer instead?
Caller [00:28:38] Yeah, yeah. That’s exactly it.
Chris [00:28:41] That is the ultimate. Has there ever been more lemons and lemonade than that situation you just explained? That’s wild. That’s wild.
Caller [00:28:51] It’s wild, yeah. I thought it was science fiction when I read about it and I was like, And that’s exactly what I want to make.
Chris [00:29:00] That’s crazy. That’s crazy to know that, though. You think back to, you know, obviously, studies now show that HIV existed for decades before we’d identified it. And, you know, there’s a lot of work that’s done to track further back than we know. But you think of it as seventies into the eighties, certainly when I grew up and there was this this worldwide panic about it. To know that there were people who were even back then taking a deep breath and going, Yeah, this is awful, but can we find some benefit? Can we see can we, can we find a positive out of this? And people must have looked at those scientists like they were crazy or I don’t know. I think science you’re able to turn off emotion to a degree, right? When you work in science. There’s a part of me that feels like people must have been going, What are you talking about? There’s no good to this. We’ve got to eradicate it. And then there’s other people it sounds like who are going, Yeah, but we also maybe can use it. And those people must have- that must be such a- what a what an intense time in history and an intense conversations to have.
Caller [00:30:03] Well, most of the things we do, actually, we take like the ideas from nature. Nature is already doing it and we just use it for our own benefit, I guess. And in this case, it’s a good benefit, you know, to save lives. And most of the things just nature already invented them. We just take them and use them. But yeah, I mean it’s quite intense. But we I don’t I try to not feel tough emotion because you can’t work… You have to see, you know, when you read the paper and like reports of our therapies and you see all those like graphs where you, you know, when the patient dies or if the patients survives the therapy, you can’t see that as a person because then you just don’t go to work. Yeah, it’s just you have to see it as a number and you just want those numbers to like that graph to not stop there and to continue so the therapy works and you have to keep going. But you have to see it as a graph and not as a person, because it’s really hard while these things are getting developed, people are dying. So yeah, it’s yeah.
Chris [00:31:22] Right. And you have to be a scientist who thinks of things objectively and as cause and effect and as trial and error and sample sizes. And if you sat and thought of enormity of all the human suffering that those sample sizes represent and the trials and, you know, failed trials and errors, how could anyone do the work? It would be impossible. You’d have to be- all scientists would just have to be sociopaths at that point.
Caller [00:31:47] Yeah.
Chris [00:31:50] Who knows? I bet there’s some.
Caller [00:31:51] I don’t think I’m a sociopath. I think I’m- someone told me- I forget exactly what this person told me but it was something like, You are particularly- it wasn’t normal, but that I acted like very average to like like an average person for a scientist. But there are definitely lots of scientists who- I don’t think we are sociopaths, but who have like some particular things to their like, personality because, yeah, it’s work that you have to really like what you do but like a lot. Yeah, it can get really hard. And some people really love like numbers and statistics and they’re more than passionate, they’re like obsessed with things like that. But yeah, I don’t think I’m a sociopath. I’m quite social, actually. I’ve dance salsa….
Chris [00:32:49] I don’t think I’m a sociopath. I dance salsa. As we all know, if you can dance salsa, it’s actually impossible. That’s science. No sociopath has ever danced to salsa music. Ever.
Caller [00:33:04] I mean, I’m Cuban, so I dance salsa. No, I’m definitely not a sociopath. I want to save lives, not to kill people.
Chris [00:33:17] Of course. Of course. I’m just kidding. Well, you know what?
Caller [00:33:21] I know. I know.
Chris [00:33:22] It does dovetail into something that I’m very struck by, because you and I are here and we’re laughing and you’re telling me that you go out dancing and all this. But here’s something I’m struck by, and it might be true or it might be very much not true. Might be a reach on my end. But one thing that’s really standing out to me is, you know, you grew up on an island that is cut off from a lot of the rest of the world because of political reasons and economic reasons. And then you leave that island. And you go to another island that’s regarded as very remote by the standards of a lot of the rest of the world. Right? New Zealand’s not- most people don’t go, New Zealand, what do you think of? Most people go, Oh, that’s where they shot Lord of the Rings. They don’t go, Easy to get to, right? Like, that’s not the first thing people say. On top of it you are- you mentioned that you’re black. I could be totally wrong on this, but the representation of New Zealand is that it’s a rather white place at this point in history. I could be wrong. Don’t know much about it. Talking in the most broad cultural strokes I know. And then on top of it, you work in a field where, as you’ve said, you sort of need to be able to consider numbers and turn off the part of your brain that knows that each number represents a human and kind of step away from the actual humanity of it to be able to do the job. One thing I’m struck by is that all of those things separately from each other, let alone added together, feels like they could be very lonely things. They feel like things that could be really prone to feeling alone in the world. And I’m wondering if you feel that. Again, it might be a real reach. But I’m wondering.
Caller [00:35:15] Well, I guess that’s why I shaved my head.
Chris [00:35:18] Talk to me about that. This shaving that has come up twice now. Talk to me about this. So this was this was a moment in your life.
Caller [00:35:24] It was a big moment.
Chris [00:35:25] This wasn’t just I want to try it fashion wise.
Caller [00:35:28] No, it wasn’t for fashion. I definitely didn’t feel very fashionable afterwards. So. Yeah. I’m from an island and I live on an island that is quite remote. But you know, I feel a lot more free here because in Cuba, you can’t even, like, talk about what you think. Like, there’s only one political party. It’s just, yeah, it’s it’s very restrictive. But we are lots of Cubans, so I never felt alone in Cuba. Then yeah, definitely coming to New Zealand. There are many Cubans in New Zealand. Most of the Cubans in New Zealand are musicians or yeah more like to see your stereotypical Cuban, I guess. Um, but I have a small community of people that I like that I can like, have Cuban time with. Ah, and I never felt black until I came to New Zealand, actually. I must say the, the native people of New Zealand, the Maori people, I don’t know what percentage of the population they are, but they are a big percentage of the population. Um, well maybe not big, but it’s quite good that in New Zealand we are trying to have a better relationship between the colonizers down there and the indigenous people in this country. However, I’m not indigenous to this country. So people think I’m from Fiji because I guess people are some people are black from this side of the world. But yeah, it might feel alone sometimes. I when- even in the pandemic when George Floyd was murdered in front of everyone, I started questioning where I belonged in the world, and who I was from a, I guess, racial point of view. I was going through a really bad time at work because I didn’t think there were good scientists. And also, I don’t know, because I’m a woman and I’m black and I’m Latin American, and all the other people I worked with were white men from Europe or New Zealand, I didn’t know if the things that were happening had something to do with that, or I was being the bad scientist. I just didn’t know. And I was questioning my reality. Even I was like, I don’t know what’s happening. So I my whole life, I relaxed my hair. So my mom started doing it when I was five. But my mom. So my dad is black and my mom is I’m not sure. She’s mixed with everything. So but then she married my dad and my brother and I, we have also hair like that’s coily. So in Cuba and Latin America, when people have this hair, they relax it. So this hair is called bad hair in Latin America. So your hair is bad. Your hair has a moral framework. (UNCLEAR) It’s bad. Your hair is bad.
Chris [00:39:11] Wow.
Caller [00:39:11] So it’s crazy that that’s the way it’s seen, but it affects- well, it affected me. I’m just talking me because maybe it won’t affect other people. But the whole, my whole life, I thought, you know, my hair is bad. So it has to be changed, because my mom started relaxing it, like chemically relaxing it, when I was very young. And then I kept doing it. I moved to New Zealand and I kept doing it. And then everything that was happening, and what happened with George Floyd, I just started questioning who I was and where I belonged in this world and in this country where most people don’t look like me. Like I. I don’t look like anyone else other than some Colombians. But yeah, some Colombians. So I was like, fuck it- sorry, Sally- I’m black. This is who I am. And the only way to get rid of all that relaxed hair was to shave it off, because if I wash it, it wasn’t going to, like, go back to- it was chemically straightened so I had to shave it. So that’s what happened. And then I had no hair and I felt so ugly for like two years. I was really- this is really quite superficial, but I always felt pretty, like physically pretty. And, um, and then I was ugly. Like, suddenly. I was like, Oh, my God, I can’t fix this. I’m so ugly. I have no hair. And for a woman, you know, it’s different for women and men. If you see a man with no hair, that’s fine in society. But a woman with no hair is different. And then, like three years after I shaved my head, they called me for the job interview in this job, and I was like, No, I have no hair now. My friends were like, But they have never met you. You know? If this is just your style. And I was like, Oh, that’s true. That’s true. They won’t be shocked. But having no hair, it might be just my style. But yeah, so now I have hair again because it’s been like three years almost. And I went through a process. It taught me so many things, like shaving my head. Like, all of the bad things that were happening in my life left with that hair. That left. Like, that stayed there on the floor. And I was reborn. Okay? And I guess I found my place in the world. I don’t know. I’m not even spiritual, but there was something spiritual about like getting rid of that hair that wasn’t mine because it was it was straight. And my hair’s definitely not straight. And I’m loving my curly hair and loving learning how to style it and how to look beautiful with it and how to exist in the world with my hair. Yeah, so this is a very long answer to your question.
Chris [00:42:26] No. That was incredible. To hear that culturally you grew up with, quote, bad hair. And then to know that you’re in New Zealand… And a man gets killed in Minneapolis, and it makes you question everything. And then you, you shave your head because you’re not going to apologize for who you are anymore. You’re not going to buy into cultural traditions that try to correct the natural state of of how your hair wants to grow. That’s mind blowing. It’s beautiful. And I’m so sorry that it created feelings of panic or you felt ugly, because it’s a beautiful story. It’s absolutely beautiful. And it’s amazing how this world works and how small it can be. It’s amazing.
Caller [00:43:18] Yeah. Yeah. It was a learning experience. I learned a lot about myself. Yeah.
Chris [00:43:24] I bet. I bet. And I also understand. I mean, I have to imagine, yeah, there’s going to be some emotional fallout if, you know, you spend your whole life hearing- also, I have to imagine getting chemicals to relax one’s hair in a country where you have a tiny budget as far as how much money your family’s making, it’s a high priority. To spend money on anything. So you spend your whole life straightening your hair, feeling like it’s this huge priority so that your hair is not bad anymore. But then you think about that when you tell, especially from when someone’s a child, you start telling a child that we have to correct this thing because it’s bad. Your hair is bad. It starts, I would imagine, that anything else that relates to the identity that that hair is reflective of, you start to at least subconsciously, maybe assume it’s bad. It’s wild.
Caller [00:44:23] Yeah. Yeah. And you don’t want to have bad anything, right?
Chris [00:44:28] Yeah.
Caller [00:44:30] Yeah. I resented my mom for a long time for that. But I’ve done therapy. Which was amazing. One of the best experiences of my life. And I understand that she did what she could with the tools she had, and she just wanted me to fit in the world as she knew it. But yes, it was also like I was allergic to the products and I had blisters. It was just a whole traumatizing thing. It was really bad. But not anymore. I don’t do that anymore to myself.
Chris [00:45:11] That’s pretty great. And are you feeling- you feeling confident again?
Caller [00:45:14] Yes. Yes, I am. It’s really hard to find the products that I need in New Zealand. But I went to visit my brother in June and again in December. He lives in Switzerland. And in Europe there’s more access to those products. So I bought lots for New Zealand. So I’m feeling good. .
Chris [00:45:37] That, I will say it’s so frustrating. But there is something darkly funny about this idea of like, I’m going to shave my head to embrace my my hair the way it actually wants to grow. I’m not going to apologize for it anymore. We’re growing it out. It’s natural. It will go back to my roots of many generations past and I won’t apologize for them any more. And why the fuck do I live in New Zealand where you cannot get products for- there’s nobody else. There’s no one else who needs these products and therefore- goddamn. This is why my capitalism is all supply and demand. Maybe this is why. Maybe this is why Cuba just didn’t want ca- I’ll stop before I put my foot in my mouth.
Caller [00:46:21] No, no. I did go through those. I was like, What? What do I do? I can’t go back to straightening my hair or to relax it. So how where do I find the products? But yeah.
Chris [00:46:36] I bet not, not too often in New Zealand.
Caller [00:46:39] Not often in New Zealand. No. But yeah, I’m alright now.
Chris [00:46:46] Do you think you’re going to stay in New Zealand?
Caller [00:46:48] Well, I, I’m not a New Zealander yet. I’m not a Kiwi yet. So you can apply for citizenship five years after your residency and you can’t apply for residency while you’re a student. So those first four years were- I mean, they weren’t useless, obviously, because I got my Ph.D., but they didn’t count towards my citizenship time. So I’m applying for citizen- like officially I can apply next year. I want to live closer to my family. I don’t know if where- I might come back if I leave because I really love New Zealand. It’s the most beautiful place in the world. I don’t know if it’s because it’s remote and no one comes here. We have a lot of tourists from France, especially like Germany. But it’s so beautiful. It’s the most amazing place. Nature is- like human made stuff are quite average, but what nature made in New Zealand is amazing, and it’s great to live here. But I want to, at least for a few years, live closer to my family. And because my brother lives in Switzerland, after I’m free to travel- because with a Cuban passport it’s impossible to go anywhere, I want to live for a few years in the same country as my brother and one flight away from my parents. Yeah, that’s the plan.
Chris [00:48:26] Are your parents still in Cuba?
Caller [00:48:28] Yeah, they are unfortunately. So I want my dad to come for Christmas this year to New Zealand. But it’s quite hard with getting a passport. You have to pay with stamps and you have to queue. So complicated. Now they have a stamp and they have an appointment for their passports. My mom wouldn’t come because my grandmother, so my mom’s mom, she’s 100. It is quite amazing.
Chris [00:48:55] Oh, wow.
Caller [00:48:56] Yeah. So she takes care of my grandma. My grandma is quite independent, but obviously she wouldn’t leave her for a month. And if, you know, if I invite them to come to New Zealand, it’s not going to be for three days because that’s what- the how long- that’s how long it takes to get here. So it has to be a few months to make it worth the trip. So they are my whole family, like my aunts, my grandmother, one cousin, they are all in Cuba but my brother.
Chris [00:49:33] You mentioned like your brother winds up in Switzerland. Your cousins leave. You said that- I believe you said before, for people of your generation, a lot of people are just looking to leave. I do wonder- you can only speak for yourself… And maybe some sense of the people you know… Would you- if if things changed in Cuba, do you think you could ever go back? And what would those things have to be?
Caller [00:49:59] No, I’m never going back. So. Well, we only have one party, so lots of things we have to will have to change for things to be normal, because it’s a dictatorship. That’s the definition of dictatorship is a place where there’s only one party. That’s all we have. So it has to change so much politically for it to the democratic system. And people who are in power have so much power. And it has been the same people for so long, so that has to change. And I don’t think it’s going to change in my lifetime, or at least while I’m young and I’m not starting from zero anywhere. Like I’m I can start from zero, but not in Cuba. It’s too messy and science over there has no resources. Yeah, so it has to change politically and then it’s going to be a long process to change all the other systems and everything else and the embargo doesn’t help. Yeah, there’s too much that has to change.
Chris [00:51:12] That was very sobering to hear you just so quickly go, Oh, no, I’m never going back. Just so quickly.
Caller [00:51:18] Yeah, I knew when I left that that was it. I, when I got my visa back in 2013 to come to New Zealand, the excitement that I had, I was like, I think I like I had like high blood pressure. I was just so excited and like, I go home and my brother was home and I was like, I got my visa. And he hugged me and that was the strongest hug he’s ever, like, it was so strong, but it meant like I’m so happy that this is happening for you. But this is it. We are never going to live together, you know, like, yeah. It was- I knew that I wasn’t going back. It’s nine years ago. And when my boyfriend left, he left in 2020. He’s a musician. And he got a position in a university to study music, to continue his studies. And he also knew that was it. We leave knowing that we are not going back because the situation hasn’t changed in the last 60 years. So it’s not going to change for us. Yeah.
Chris [00:52:43] It almost reminds me, I remember hearing stories about, you know, because my grandparents moved from Ireland, another island where a lot of people felt like they had to leave because of the political situation. And certainly not to in any way compare my story to yours, but I do know there were stories I always heard of the Irish funeral where you’d have a- it would be a funeral for someone who was leaving because you never- you knew you weren’t going to see them again. They weren’t dying, but you’d have a little ceremony or get together to say goodbye because you knew once you left, that was it. You weren’t going to see these people again.
Caller [00:53:21] Yeah. I mean, in my goodbye party, there weren’t many people because I was doing it kind of in secret. So it was only my very close friends. But at least now, you know, with planes, it’s a lot easier to travel. So you can visit your family and your friends. But yeah, it felt kind of like that. And with my grandma being so old when I left, I thought, this is- every time I say goodbye to her, I think I’m never going to see her again. But we just celebrated last year her 100th birthday. So. Yeah. Which is quite amazing that she’s so healthy.
Chris [00:54:04] It’s also amazing too. Like your lifetime is one where Cuba was a certain thing, but she, for a lot of her lifetime, lived in a Cuba that was wildly different than the one you grew up in.
Caller [00:54:16] Yeah, she’s lived all of it. When we were a colony of the U.S., then the revolution, then the Russians. And now this thing that I don’t what it is. Yeah. One century in Cuba.
Chris [00:54:32] Wow.
Caller [00:54:32] Yeah.
Chris [00:54:33] We’ve got one minute left. I got to tell you, I feel so lucky. I could talk to you for hours. I mean, we barely talked about how you’re trying to cure blood cancer. We barely spent, like, 5 minutes on that. So that’s how interesting you are. That that’s, like, not even the top of the list. So much to talk about.
Caller [00:54:52] Your podcast is the only part that I keep listening to. Like I started in 2018 and I haven’t stopped listening to it. I love it. I get bored of other podcasts, but like yours is the one that I keep listening to. Every tuesday I come back from work and I listen to it and I love it. I love the way you talk to people and all the stories of many different people in the world. It’s the best podcast ever.
Chris [00:55:19] Thank you. I feel so lucky to do it. I hope I get to keep doing it. I hope I get to keep talking to people like you. Makes me feel good knowing that you’re you’re on the opposite side of the globe, but you’re working hard to help other people and feeling good with your new hair. It’s super cool. Thank you so much for talking to me today.
Caller [00:55:39] Thank you for talking to me. Bye! Have a good rest of the day.
Chris [00:55:45] Caller, thank you so much. Thanks for opening up about so many things that were personal and political and thoughtful and philosophical. It was a joy. I feel lucky I got to have that call. Thank you so much for calling in. This show is produced by Anita Flores. It’s engineered by Jared O’Connell. The theme song is by Shellshag. Go to ChrisGeth.com if you want to know more about me, including my live tour dates. And wherever you’re listening, there’s a button that says subscribe, favorite, follow, something like that. It helps so much when you hit that button. Find our latest merch at podswag.com. We got mugs and shirts and stuff like that over there. And if you want your episodes of Beautiful Anonymous without any ads, you’re going to want to check out Stitcher.com/premium. Use the promo code “stories” for a one month free trial. And hey, if you like this podcast, tell friends about it. If you liked this episode, send them a link. Word of mouth is the greatest form of advertising. Thanks in advance if you share the show.