Image taken from: www.penultimosdias.com
Today I was going to publish a text about Mother’s Day, a brief vignette where I would tell of my mother, her hands smelling of onions, garlic and cumin… from all the time she spends in the kitchen. I had the idea of telling you of the pleasure it gave me to see her come to the door of my high school in the countryside, bringing the food that had cost her an entire week–and great effort–to get. But just as I put the finishing touched on my little material chronicle, Juan Wilfredo Soto died in Santa Clara and it all became senseless.
The police batons are thirsty for backs in these parts. The growing violence of those in uniform is something that is whispered about and many describe it detail without daring to publicly denounce it. Those of us who have ever been in dungeon know well that the sweetened propaganda of “Police, police, you are my friend,” repeated on TV, is one thing, and the impunity enjoyed by these individuals with a badge is another thing entirely. If, on top of that, those arrested have ideas that differ from the prevailing ideology, then their treatment will be even harsher. Fists want to convince them where meager arguments can’t succeed.
I don’t know how the authorities of my country are going to explain it, but I doubt, this time, they will manage to persuade us it wasn’t the fault of the police. There is no way to understand how an unarmed man sitting in a downtown park could represent a major threat. What happens is that when intolerance is given free rein it feeds public disrespect and gives a green light to the police, and these tragedies occur. As of today, a mother in Santa Clara is not sitting at the table prepared by her children, but in a dark room at a funeral home, keeping vigil over the body of her son.
The furrow extends to infinity before our eyes. We would not, that day either, complete our quota, but who cared? At that school in the countryside we engaged in an exercise widely practiced throughout the country: pretending to work. When the teachers were watching we bent our backs and feigned pulling up the weeds that surrounded the spindly tobacco plants. If they left, we returned to the horizontal position to talk about our principal adolescent obsession which–surprise!–was not sex, but food.
That morning, the irrigation machine was standing in the middle of the field and looked like a wide-winged albatross stuck under the sun. My friends and I climbed into the empty cab and touched the lever, the buttons, the steering mechanism. We jumped on the patched seat and fantasized that we could “take a walk” with this piece of screeching metal and soak all the students with its hose. We laughed in anticipation but not a single drop came from the long hoses extending on either side. However, while snooping here and there we came across a can with some rare fruits. They were shaped like a pepper, but the color ranged from yellow to a deep orange and a seed hung from each one. Urban youth, trapped between the scarcities of rationing and the collapse of agriculture, there was no way we knew that this was a “cashew.”
We sunk our teeth into them immediately. Sweet and soft but later, when our mouths started to dry up, we thought we’d been poisoned. Horrified, we ran screaming. The teacher’s laughter lasted long minutes. When the astringent sensation passed, we were left with the desire to again bite that texture already captured in peasants’ songs, mentioned by our grandparents and painted by brushes of the previous century. I was impressed with that fruit prohibited by our socialist paradise. Almost twenty years would pass before I would encounter it again.
She has a five-bedroom house that is falling to pieces. She got it in the seventies when the family for whom she worked as a maid went into exile. At first she went through all the rooms each day, the interior patio, caressed the marble banister of the stairs to the second floor, played at filling the basins of the three bathrooms just to be reminded that this neoclassical mansion was now hers. The joy lasted for a while, until the first bulbs burned out, the paint started to peel, and weeds grew in the garden. She got a job cleaning a school, but not even six salaries for such a job would have been enough to maintain the ancient splendor of this house that seemed increasingly larger and more inhospitable.
Thousands of times, the woman in this story thought of selling the house inherited from her former employers, but she would not do anything outside the law. For decades in Cuba a market in housing was prohibited and it was only possible to exchange properties through a concept popularly known as a “swap.” Dozens of decrees, restrictions and limitations also arose, to regulate and control this activity, making moving an ordeal. An all-powerful Housing Institute oversaw the completion of a string of absurd conditions. With so many requirements, the procedures were strung out over more than a year, such that before families could go live in their new homes they were exhausted from filling out forms, hiring lawyers and bribing inspectors.
Such anxieties raised hopes that the Sixth Communist Party Congress would raise the flag for real estate. When, in the final report, it said that the purchase and sale of homes would be accepted and all that remained was to legally implement it, hundreds of thousands of Cubans breathed a sigh of relief. The lady with the mansion, at the moment it was announced, was sitting in front of her television avoiding a drip falling from the ceiling right in the middle of the living room. She looked around at the columns with decorated capitals, the huge mahogany doors, and the marble staircase from which the banister had been torn out and sold. Finally she could hang a sign on the fence, “For Sale: Five-bedroom house in urgent need of repairs. Wish to buy a one-bedroom apartment in some other neighborhood.”
They travel in groups around Havana neighborhoods. Hundreds of Chinese students who learn Spanish in Cuba and add color to a reality where other foreigners barely stay a couple weeks as tourists. Thanks to them, the city once again has those Asian eyes that were so common in the first half of the twentieth century, that Asian gait which gives the impression of feet barely touching the ground, has returned, for a time. They crowd around Chinatown, giggling in front of some restaurants with paper lanterns and red curtains where the menu offers more local and Italian food than plates of spinach and noodles.
One morning, I met several of them lost near the Central Rail Station. They had empty bags, tired faces, and walked slowly. One of the girls asked me, after consulting a small dictionary, where they could buy lettuce. It was one of those hot months where the only green on the market pallets is cucumbers. But there they were, waiting for the agricultural miracle that would put some soft leaves on their plates. I explained that the sun was very strong and the vegetables were harvested just in roofed areas, that the lack of packaging hampered their arrival in the cities, and when they appeared it was at very high prices.
After a few minutes, those almond-shaped eyes rounded in consequence of my strange explanation. “Lettuce! Lettuce!” they insisted, and one of them translated it into every language he knew, “lettuce, laitue, Kopfsalat, alphas ….” I smiled, it’s not about not understanding the word, I said, it’s that I don’t know where, right now, where they could find vegetables to eat. It was clear, they didn’t believe me. “Go to Four Roads Plaza and see if you can find them there,” was the final thing I thought to tell them, so as not to kill hope. And off they went in that direction, their steps already exhausted, empty bags blowing in the wind, with their oriental elegance faded somewhat, lacking vegetables to revive them.
“To the warm shelter of 214…” began a song by Silvio Rodriguez which — in my adolescent naivete — I listened to as if it were a riddle. So it was until a friend, who’d lived a little more than I had, unblushingly clarified the phrase. It was simply the address of a well-known Havana motel, where couples could find a place for quick love in a country already gripped by housing limitations. Waiting outside those places were women who covered their faces with scarves and sunglasses, while the men paid the desk clerk and got the key to the room. An insistent knock on the door would warn them that their time was over and others were waiting to enter.
Havana’s inns, scenes of so many infidelities, sudden passions, and even innumerable passions that led to formal matrimony with several children. These places, once flourishing, faced a long period of stigma and then a precipitous decline. They passed from sites of ardor to become cramped housing for victims of building collapses. Put like that, it sounds fair: substituting necessity for pleasure, the rapture of the flesh for the pressing needs of a family. One after the other, the city’s motels were closed to the public and their small rooms were taken up by people who lost their homes to the winds of a hurricane or the ravages of a fire. Informal love began to move to the bushes, dark corners, or, quietly, to the same room where Grandma was sleeping. Those with hard currency could, in turn, seek out private homes that rented rooms for 5 convertible pesos for several hours.
Now, passing through Fraternity Park late at night, it’s not uncommon to hear to a groan in the shadows, the muffled sound of clothes rubbing against each other. The majority of people my age and younger have never had their own roof under which to caress their partner, or a private bed where they can lie wrapped in each other’s arms. People who haven’t known what it is to live in a city where there are motels with neon signs and tiny rooms where you can make love for at least an hour. Nor do they understand the song — outdated now — of that singer-songwriter, and names such as Hotel Venus, 11th and 24th, The Countryside, or Ayestaran Cottages do not awaken any pleasant memories.
The capitol, rum, salsa music played on street corners, cars that look like collector’s pieces although under the hood they are falling to pieces. This and more in the chapter, “Spaniards in the World,” filmed here in Havana. Fifty minutes with stories of immigrants from Asturias, Galicia, Andalusia, which have transported their dreams from the other side of the Atlantic. Everything is nice and blue, sprinkled with salt; but something doesn’t fit.
While I watch the serial I have the impression that what they’re showing me is another country, a distant dimension in sepia tints. The life stories of the seven main characters happen, for me, in a space far from the daily life I know. And though I repeat — to calm myself down — that the serial is about Spaniards spread across the globe and not about Cubans lost in their own geography, as the credits run I can’t escape the feeling of having been conned.
The writers cleverly hide the detail that those interviewed possess prerogatives unattainable for natives. They fail to say that spending a night at the Bodeguita del Medio, or at the Tropicana cabaret, renting an office in the Bacardi building, managing cosmetic or tobacco companies, dining on lobster and wine, are privileges accessible — almost exclusively — to the wallets of foreigners. Not to mention the beautiful sail on the yacht in one of the final scenes, prohibited by law to the nation’s 11 million people. It lacks, this modern and diverting program, the explanation of the imbalance, the story about the gap that separates the world of these Spanish who come here from the world of the Cubans who were born here.
The video Españoles en el mundo – La Habana