Monthly Archives: October 2010

Like Rabbits


Photo: Yoandri Jiménez

A JOURNALIST FRIEND FROM Bayamo told me that in 1990, when he was six, he was walking to school and his mother told him about the Special Period. Somehow, she was trying to prepare for the challenge to come. Later she confessed she had no idea how far it would go and how severe it would become. She never imagined she’d see and do what later faced Cuban society.

My journalist friend remembers his father and older brother, a graduate in engineering and computers, when they biked 25 miles just to pick up some yucca roots for the rabbits they had gotten in exchange for a television. His dad told him the soap opera wasn’t as important as nutrition. His mother closed her eyes and bit her tongue. My friend, from his childish point of view,  protested and demanded his cartoons. His old man answered him that their food supply was more important. At that time, he thought his progenitor was unfair, because his hour of TV adventures was more important to him than food. After picking up the roots, they rode back another 25 miles, this time both carrying the weight of the bags on the bike rack.

Fortunately he doesn’t remember the canvas shoes his mother sewed, but he can’t forget the smell of the rice and tomato the family ate in order to save, for him, the last egg from the ration.

He also remembers the discussion between his father and brother, who got all worked up demanding the right to hide, in the sack with the roots, some pieces of yucca abandoned in the fields after the harvest. His dad angrily refused him: in my house we do not steal, dammit. His brother said that then he had no other choice but to leave and kissed them all, though his father did not return the gesture.

They thought that at most he would leave the house for a few days and then return. And the first days passed. Every time someone knocked on the door the old man signaled to open it, but he preferred to remain in his place and let another do it, he would stammer.

Then came the telephone call to the house of the neighbor. “Hurry up, it’s long distance,” they shouted.

“What’s that boy doing in Havana,” he grumbled. And he rejected the urge to run over and ask him when he was coming home.

My friend remembers that his mother came back crying. His dad protested, “We only cry for the dead,” he said.

“Almost,” said his mother.

His father tensed, something had happened in his family.

“Our son is in Miami,” she said.

My friend remembers that his father started to cry like a baby, and nothing could calm him. They started to slaughter the rabbits because the old man lost the will, the strength to go the distance.

Now my friend is a journalist, he went to the University in Santiago de Cuba, and thanks to the economic help of his brother he could support himself in this unknown city without any family to support him. He has a computer. Clothes and money in his pocket.

“Thanks to my brother,” he told me. “What I can’t understand, or forgive, is that if we are both professionals, why do I have to live on his money?”

The Treasure

Photo AP

I WAS IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD cruising the streets on my scooter like a Caribbean Quixote in the year 1992. One afternoon, I turn the corner of my house and notice a neighbor stopped on his bike, one foot on the curb of the sidewalk, the other in the street, an arm on the handlebars, with his head resting on his forearm which served as his pillow, looking like a rag doll. Something I’d rarely seen in that man who, from the time I was a child, I’d watched go into his house near mine; I turned the wheel of my scooter to go back. As I came up to him I saw that, despite the noise of the scooter’s engine, he didn’t raise his head.

I asked him if I could help. He said something I couldn’t understand, I lowered the throttle on the bike and got closer, he cocked his head and I could see his pale face, “Hold me,” he said. I quickly turned off the scooter and took his arm, “I’m dizzy,” he said again, and I felt his body trembling like the page of a book. I suggested he breathe deeply. He could barely manage it. At times his legs buckled. I discovered that despite his weakness he was protecting something in his other hand, his fist closed against his chest. I offered to hold it and he shook his head. He made an effort to lift his head and look at me. I kept holding him up. He said he knew he shouldn’t have done it but he didn’t have any other choice. For lunch he had just had a little rice, and he went to his sister-in-law’s house to look for something, for his wife, at least, to have to go with it. He no, he’d gone for a week with only rice and he wasn’t complaining; but he knew that she, even though he did everything in his power, wouldn’t be able to eat; then his sister-in-law gave him the last one left, and he looked at his closed fist. With great care he opened his hand, and before my eyes appeared a hen’s egg.

The Color of Life

Camilo Cienfuegos, by Alexis Esquivel

THAT MORNING MY mother didn’t threaten me with if I left my breakfast I wouldn’t go to Salvador’s study to see him paint. Those words were enough to accept any of her commandments.

Salvador had become used to my presence. I understood not to bother him. From a corner, I watched his ritual of preparing the oils with the care of a great alchemist. I was trying to learn his every move because I aspired to be his amanuensis. For me, happiness was being able, one day, to prepare his palette, squeeze the tubes, and even, with time, help with a precise stroke. I delighted in seeing how canvas ceded space to other colors. Unintentionally he was introducing me to a world of lines, dots, a kaleidoscope of images that never repeated themselves. In the end, tired, he covered it with a pure white cloth to protect both it and the eyes of his daughter and wife.

But that morning my mother didn’t mention my friend Salvador. And as a symbol of disobedience, I left the completely full glass of milk. I looked in her eyes but she avoided me. She said I could no longer watch him paint: he had died at dawn. I didn’t know this word and shrugged my shoulders. Then she explained that death was like the uncle who left on a raft whom we would never see again. I ran to drink my milk, I didn’t want this punishment, but she stopped me and held me to her breast. That morning I fell asleep on the sofa and had a fever. The neighbors approached, watching me with pity. Mysteriously they whispered in each other’s ears. Salvador’s study would never again open in my presence. I lost my appetite and the hole in my life seemed like it would never be filled.

I even looked through the window of Salvador’s house and I saw him hiding in the green of his last painting, he put his finger to his lips so he wouldn’t be discovered, then he laughed. I kept quiet about the last secret he shared with me. He taught me not to reveal the themes he painted when the curious asked. Sometimes I caught myself talking to him. It was enough to know that he was still there, putting the final touches on an unfinished painting. So from that day I knew that death is inconclusive; to the rest of the world, I’m crazy. A started taking the pills the psychologist recommended.

Since that experience I fight against what seems definitive. I know that behind every breath, image, word, is the bravery of someone who patiently waits to be heard, seen, named. The opportunity is also a cry of hope.

Mothers of the Plaza of August (2)

Photo: Karel Poort

THE FAMILIES, after several days of walking along the beach, assured the mothers there was nothing more they could do to find their children, the sea would not give them back, and they managed to convince them to leave the coast and return home, but not before carrying out the final ritual: with their swollen feet and their hair disheveled by their restless hands because they had no other way to vent their anger, they knelt to watch the sea with resentment for having stolen their children.

While they prayed, the flowers thrown by the families were carried away by the waves. The godparents, for the protection of their godchildren, were gathering snails and throwing them in the sand, sprinkling them with tobacco smoke, honey and brandy; then they deciphered the writing and in full communication with the gods, broke a coconut hoping that this act would melt away the curses and frighten the bad spirits that might surround them. Then they cast into the sea the white mass that, contrasting with the blue of the water, attracted the fish who rushed to probe it. All to the desperate prayers and promises of the mourners.

The padrino said that in return for his care the saints asked for food to take with the blood of rooster and goat. Finally, they ended the ceremony, offering Yemayá a live duck which, frightened, rose over the waves, beating its wings in a desperate attempt to escape or to celebrate its freedom. The children, meanwhile, crouched in the water until the families were out of sight, to trap it and hide it in a sack along with the others, with the intention of re-selling it or taking it home for the family meal.

In the sand, meanwhile, the footprints of the children before they climbed aboard the rafts, still remained.

Mothers of the Plaza of August (1)

WHEN, IN AUGUST OF 1994, the generation of the children whom no one wants was preparing their rafts along the Cuban coast, you could hear the cries of the mothers who searched for their children over several nights, and the sea, cloudy, let out a long roar, breaking against the reefs.

Dawn broke and still they searched with the headlights on in the full light of day. The sea only returned the empty boats to them and they wanted the bodies so that they could bury them. I wonder what the use is of burying someone after death and what the difference is between being under the earth or under the water.

The truth is that some mothers had given up hope and looked nervously at their grandchildren they held by the hand, without knowing what to do. I refused to look at them so as not to fix in my mind the harrowing images that destroy optimism in even the most optimistic: to see the beach with these haggard women, dragging those barefoot and hungry children here and there without rest, their clothes wet from the fog and mist, watching the water as if they expected a miraculous moment when their children’s bodies would appear, floating; and at the same time seeing reflected in their eyes the fear of what was really happening, when they were confused by some log, or a piece of a sail, thrown back by the tide. Every time the sea threw back some object, they approached, desperate, fearing that the bad omen has come true, and their frightened cries of horror reached us.

Their eyes moved quickly, searching for a recognized detail and they passed the object from hand to hand, trembling, and digging their nails in, trying to disinter a moan or a breath. They tried to question an oar, a candle, a jar, sometimes a nylon, to discover what had happened to their children. “The mothers are still looking in the shade of a smile for their children,” José Martí had written on the first anniversary of the execution of the medical students in Havana, “even reaching out their arms to press them to their breasts, from their eyes torrents of bitter tears still falling.”

And these mothers, on the shores of the beaches, also cried for their innocent children.

Stories of My Neighbors (IV)

Photo: Rómulo Sánz

HE WILL BE LOOKING FOR “residence” in the Czech Republic to achieve the dreams of a better life. She will travel, for “family reunification” to Miami. They have been a couple for four years. And in love. Their eyes shine just looking at each other. They have seen reflected in others so many who have left and know the dirty tricks that fate plays. But now they intend to cheat it. She needs, she pleads, that when she arrives at the airport he will no longer be on the island: she doesn’t have the strength to go first and leave him behind. He wants — he needs — to please her, so he took passage a day before her trip.

When they have managed to get out, then they will re-unite.

She will join her mother and sister waiting for her in Florida. He has two sons in Italy. Who denies that a man with money can not but love! His ex-wife broke off their marriage and dragged the children along on her adventure. Now he looks at photos while they play on the playground in Milan. He says he will not continue to collect photos as if his chest was an album. His sister is in Slovenia. His niece in Madrid. Friends everywhere.

Now he’s tired, and those who are abroad have joined together to pay for a marriage with an ancient Czech woman who has no money to pay for heating. The old woman has a son in Argentina and a grandson in Turkey. She wonders where her great-grandson will live.

The old woman is unaware that her great-grandson is already growing in the womb of a Kazakh raised in Russia, where she doesn’t want to return, where her parents would continue to mistreat her. Nor does she have the money to go anywhere. She doesn’t remember whom she slept with the night she got pregnant, but she suspects she will have a child who will never know. An old Icelandic has offered the Kazakh and her son a peaceful life on his island of ice.

This child who carries Kazakh and Czech blood will meet, in Sydney, the granddaughter of the man who lives in the Czech Republic. The dream of these two young people will be to go to live on an island in the Caribbean, called Cuba. To elope with his fiancée, the old woman’s great-grandson will need to steal a car to get to the port from where a boat will sail to Europe, and later another one to the Caribbean.

The two young people, a little stoned behind the wheel of the fleeing car, will not see the man from the Czech republic, now living in Sydney, crossing the street to get to the store. When the old woman’s great-grandson notices his silhouette it will be too late, the crash will throw him to the asphalt, his last thoughts will be of that girl with the sparkle in her eyes whom he lost touch with, shortly after arriving in Europe.

Meanwhile, those young people try to reach a port to get to the island of their dreams.

Stories of My Neighbors (III)

THE GIRL WHO LIVES above my apartment is named Pilar and comes from an ancient Catholic family. She’s had a relationship with her boyfriend for three years. In these thirty-six months they’ve been excited many times. Alberto lives with his parents and grandparents. And for her, it’s the same. It has been very difficult to satisfy their erotic instincts.

In the one thousand nine-hundred and five days of their courtship, they have only shared kisses on the stairs of our building. They part all worked up, tense, red in the face.

As the hotels were being converted into housing, with the same speed as “barracks into schools,” Alberto was looking into some place to rent, but when he learned that the price was five CUC for three hours, with no rights to eat or drink, his spirits sagged. At the exchange rate that would be one hundred and twenty Cuban pesos, half his monthly salary, which is far beyond his means. By a ton.

His anticipation grew every time he imagined their honeymoon. Without wanting to, he’d managed to meet the Catholic precepts, respecting the decent family of his fiancee, and he took advantage of the agreement established when they accepted his courtship of the girl. Piously, they laid down the law: they could only marry after he graduated. Now it’s just a few months away. He would have continued to be happy if the newspaper he held in his hands didn’t exist, with the news that starting in the new year the grant of time in a hotel, to newlyweds, will be canceled.

Then he remembered having recently read, in the same paper, that the national birthrate was the lowest in fifty years. He thought that the Revolution would be left without soldiers — the men of the future who would come… later? — and the socialist project would run the risk of having no followers. So, as a Revolutionary task, just like a guerrilla based in an unknown country, or leaving with the army to fight in a distant and alien war, he went to find his girlfriend and, with no explanation, took her by the hand, boarded a bus to the beaches of the east, and there, on the fine sands, they made love.