You come out of this filth of the starving …
Joan Manuel Serrat, from his song “Princess”
She was raised to succeed. As a little girl, her mother took the fried egg of her own plate, if need be, to give it to her, because she was a promise which the whole family was hanging from. They didn’t even let her scrub, so that her hands would not crack and harden from the scouring pad and the soot. When she combed her hair into ringlets her elder sister predicted she would one day marry a Frenchman or a Spaniard or a Belgian, someone from the “nobility” of monarchy or business. “Everyone will love you!” cried her grandmother, whose fingers were twisted with arthritis from half a century of washing and ironing for the whole street. They wouldn’t even let her have a boyfriend in the neighborhood, because she had to be preserved for the future that awaited her, for the potentate who would come and take her from that crowded tenement in Zanja Street, from that crowded country in the Caribbean.
One day, when she was barely out of adolescence, she found him. He was much older and didn’t belong to any wealthy family, but he had an Italian passport. Nor did she like him physically, but simply imagining him in Milan made his bulging beer belly look not so big. The aroma of the new clothes he brought every time he came to Havana also covered the smell of nicotine and alcohol that always came from his mouth. At home, her family was delighted. “The child is leaving us to live in Europe,” they told the neighbors, and her own mother cut her off when she tried to explain that her fiancé that occasionally became violent and beat her. And so they pushed her to complete the legal paperwork and make the marriage official. In the wedding photos she looked like a sad princess, but a princess.
When the plane landed in the Italian winter, he no longer seemed like the kind man who, 24 hours earlier, had promised her mother that he would take care of her. He took her to a club that same night where she had to work serving clients liquor, and even her own body. For months she wrote her grandmother about the perfumes and food she had tried in her new life. She recreated, in her letters and phone calls, a reality very different from what she was living. Not a word of extortion, nor of the husband who had evaporated leaving her in the hands of a “boss” whom she had to obey. In the Havana tenement they had all spoiled her and made her happy and she didn’t want to disappoint them. When the Italian police dismantled the prostitution ring in which she was trapped, she sent a brief text message to her relatives on the other side of the Atlantic, so they wouldn’t worry, “I won’t be able to call you for several weeks. I’m going on vacation to Venice to celebrate my wedding anniversary. I love you all, your Princess.”