Category Archives: Generation Y

The bread recipe


Every day I see for myself that they’ve robbed us of the recipe and the art of making bread, our bread… and I’m not saying this in the metaphorical sense of “making love,” as we say in Cuba, but rather in the plain and straightforward meaning of preparing the universal food, our daily bread… this thousand-year-old combination of flour, water, leavening and fire.

With each bend in the road during those years, the bread from my childhood stayed the same; from its mass I could shape small dolls and make marbles. Nobody can convince me that this new product – weightless, whitish, gum destroying, producer of grainy and dry crumbs that cover your clothes – is bread. Where is the solid bread, the type that would fill you up after eating a slice, which you could dip in black beans and smear with butter without worrying that it would break into pieces, like what happens with this “crumbling stone” that I just bought.

Evidently, this thing that I have on my table isn’t intended to please the palate because in a society like this one we must fight against pleasure, a petite-bourgeoisie weakness. A revolutionary that is a revolutionary eats bread like this without so much complaining.

This bread – that you can admire in the photo – seems to cry out what we already know: shutting down private bakeries – those in each neighborhood that we all knew with their “house specialties” and “secret touches” – led us to this dysfunctional, insipid and ineffective nationalization, and little by little has made us forget what real bread is.

The gift of invisibility


For years I boasted that I could become “invisible,” because at any moment I chose I could immediately go undetected and escape from complicated situations. Wrapped in this “Harry Potter” cloak, I eluded membership in the Union of Communists Youth, because — an incredible thing considering Cuba’s ideological extremism of the 1980s — no one asked me if I’d like to join.

I was also invisible for any position of responsibility that might be left vacant near me, and that required an unblemished applicant. I thus avoided, without hardly anyone noticing (until today), the almost obligatory enrollment in the FMC [Federation of Cuban Women] — by playing the old trick of having an identity card that matches one address but living in another; I also got around membership in a union, and I even managed to not let myself be stopped by “The University is for revolutionaries,” when I had the luck of studying in the School of Letters during a period of bureaucratic relaxation brought about by the severe conditions of the Special Period.*

However, the hiding trick no longer works. So I have “pointed myself out” in an act of extreme exhibitionism: writing this blog. My friend offered me the Golden Rule when he told me about a conversation he had with “the boys of the apparatus.”* He said: “I sign my own name to everything that I think and write, but you aren’t allowed to publish any of the things that you do or say, much less sign them.”

So, inspired by my friend’s advice, I got a little carried away and put my picture up on this blog. Although I appreciate the advice of all of those who have written, asking me to use a pseudonym and to take my face down from the Internet, I should tell you that this is part of an “anti-invisibility” personal therapy.

Translator’s notes:

Special Period = The 1990s in Cuba, a very difficult time after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its support.

“Boys of the apparatus” = State security services, called variously “security,” “the Apparatus,” “the machinery,” “Armageddon,” “the chipper,” “the boys” or simply, “Them.” See Blog entry for 24 December 2007.

I’m back

I left cyberspace for a few days because a virus, named after the villain of a current Brazilian soap opera, has left me nothing to do but take hydration salts, eat mashed taro root and worry about whether or not there’s a tropical version of Ebola… fortunately it’s over and I’m back.

Pedaling

You know what it feels like when you try to pedal a bicycle with a rusted chain, a bent sprocket and stuck bearings? Well that’s the feeling that crushes me these days. All my energies, efforts and desires to do something are wasted on a mechanism that doesn’t move forward. At times, I have the impression that the design of life that makes me endure these problems, difficulties and daily inefficiencies is intended to not let me lift off into “flight,” to not let me get off the rusted bicycle until I am exhausted.

On this bicycle I’m talking about, I don’t control the handlebars, rather the stones in the road determine the direction and the only thing that works with any efficiency are the brakes. The street where I try to move forward is full of restrictive signs and no corner on my route has the right-of-way.

I know that it would be easier to toss the bike, to move to a neighborhood with broad roads well away from here, or to keep still, to have projects that exhaust and overwhelm me like a worn out flat tire. But it happens that there is a certain stubbornness and vague dreams of a future brand new bike that keep me on the saddle.

Morning orientations return

For the last six months, morning orientations have been reinstated, like an obligation, in all workplaces. This is not a new direction, simply a return to an old one that in recent years had been put out to pasture along with the other things “almost no one believes in.” So, alongside the militia uniform, the helmet of the microbrigadista* and the diploma highlighting “socialist emulation,” this ancient specimen of ideological indoctrination has also returned.

Normally it is carried out on Friday before the start of the workday, with the same dullness and lack of interest that has, for some time, affected the morning schools. Most of the participants do as they’re told, applaud with feigned enthusiasm at the end of some phrase said with an intonation of officiousness, and sigh with relief when everything ends. For the administrator who fails at the task of organizing it, they have already written up the sanctions that will result.

Some day when we prepare a place of honor for the absurd things of this period, we will need to save a space for the morning orientation. There we will gather up the stifled yawn, the subdued tone for singing a hymn – almost a whisper – the patriotic poems full of rubble and common places, the yellow files with the speeches that seemed to never end, and the knocked-about, tattered ephemera. Meanwhile, we have to assist in its forced rebirth.

* Translator’s note

Microbrigadista = “In 1971 a novel form of sweat equity, the microbrigades, accompanied government investments. Under this system groups of employees from given workplaces would form brigades to build housing while other employees agreed to maintain production at current levels. Housing units were then allocated among the employees from that workplace…. Microbrigades experienced a revival in 1986 due to several social forces.”

Source: Kapur and Smith, Housing Policy in Castro’s Cuba, 2002

Mañach and the new

I want to share a paragraph taken from the book Prints of San Cristobal by Jorge Mañach.* In a text devoted to some sculptures in the shape of frogs, once located in Maceo Park (curiously, because although this was one of the parks of my childhood, I do not remember such frogs… if anyone ever saw them, please help me overcome my amnesia…), Mañach puts in the mouth of his guide Luján the following dissertation:

“No, no it does not surprise me, son, that they censure them (the frogs). They are new. Novelty here is always – paradoxically, given that we are a young country – a source of antagonism and suspicion… Don’t tell me that young people are more attached to the conventional! Rhetorical in the forms, orthodox in the concepts, until the lime has their bones. When something unusual arises, they only pay attention to that it differs, but not to how it differs, nor if it has the right to differ, provided it exercises its difference beautifully.”

*Translator’s note: A Cuban writer and attorney, 1898-1961.

Reflections…

In these times, when it’s fashionable to reflect on the problems of others and to ignore the immediate and the near by, I propose to touch on issues beyond the narrow framework of my home and my city. I thought then of the Australian Aborigines, discriminated against in their own country, of the problems in rebuilding New Orleans, and the demands of the landless in Brazil. In the end I realized that I cannot write about any of them, the reason is simple: a tooth hurts.

I know it seems that there is no relationship between one and the other, but there is. When the throbbing pain rises through my cheek and reaches my ear, I can’t concentrate or think about something else when I have my own problems. The land of kangaroos blurs, the Superdome is fading into the background and agrarian reform slogans are off in the distance somewhere. The tooth calls me to this reality.

The throbbing pain becomes more pronounced when I think of the days lost in consulting the dentist. One day for lack of water, another day because of a broken compressor, and a third day because they didn’t have the paper to wrap the instrument in the sterilizer. Finally, the cry from the receptionist ended my hopes, “We are not going to schedule more appointments until next month.” All of this happens in the Plaza polyclinic “19th of April” which is displayed as an example to foreign delegations when they visit Cuba. Who knows if some of them come from the Australian outback or from the hot southern plains of the Brazilian countryside. So I had thought seriously about sitting with my pain by the door and waiting for one of those visitors. Perhaps they could visit that “other polyclinic” in exactly the same place as mine, but where things work and the patients smile with satisfaction.

It may not be the case that everything the authorities need to fix our reality, to strive to make better, is a simple protracted toothache. One without painkillers, without a dentist ready to intervene and fill it with an amalgam imported just yesterday, without bulbs in the lamp over the dentist chair, without anesthetic creams that leave the taste of caramel or mint; in short, one like the one I have now.

Text on sign in photo: Room of the final wait.

In the shadow of an “almendrón”

 

“Going to Havana?” the driver shouts as me, as if the corner of Boyeros and Tulipán where I am standing is not part of the city where I was born and live.  I respond with a gesture of the finger to the left and confirm: “Yes, going to the Fraternity*,” because I like to make my daily homage at the park of the Ceiba* — under which, we are told, is a “pledge” buried by Machado which has condemned us to an eternal national unhappiness.

I get into the almendrón* and make myself comfortable between the other passengers who look back at the bus stop we left behind and appear relieved to be “here” and not “there.”  The ten pesos throb in my pocket, but the thought of the new articulated bus with small windows convinces me I’ve done the right thing.  The car has been licensed and has room for eight passengers, two next to the driver, three in the middle and the other three back where the trunk used to be. The seat that must be folded back touches me every time someone reaches their destination.  It doesn’t matter, nothing is worse than the “groping” in the camel.*

We turn in front of a police checkpoint, where they make their packet from the private carriers alone.  We are lucky, they don’t stop us. The driver then has his last encounter with the cops which costs him ten chavitos.* The passengers opine, tell horror stories, and little by little we get to the subject about which everyone has something to say, that is an encounter with “anonymous neurotics” explaining the causes of their unbalanced minds.

The complicity has been created.  The magical space in this 40-year-old Chevrolet has succeeded in making us speak of our discontent.  The topics follow one another, passing through potholes, the stifling of private production, the excessive repetition of certain themes on national television, and ending with a phrase a fellow rider throws in my face, “Yes! But nobody does a thing!”

We arrive at the side of the Capitol and our shared ride ends.  The car returns to the taxi stand and I hear the driver shouting, “Twenty, to Santiago de las Vegas!”  The lady beside me completely ignores me and takes off in another direction.  I look out at the Ceiba tree, encircled by railings, that once was sown in earth from all the republics on this continent and murmur between my teeth, “And for all the good you did us.”

Translator’s notes: 

Almendrón = Pre-Revolution American cars in use as private, shared, semi-fixed route taxis.

Parque de la Fraternidad = A park alongside the old capitol building (which now houses a museum). 

Ceiba = In the center of the park is a Ceiba tree, planted in 1928.  Delegates to the sixth Pan-American conference, representing every country in the Americas, each brought dirt from home.  The tree was planted in the combined earth as a symbol of pan-American friendship. 

Camel = A type of Cuban bus that is a long double-humped ‘container’ with a capacity of 300 people, pulled by a truck tractor. Googling for images using the words “camello” and “cuba” will yield many photos. 

Chavitos = A slang term for Cuban Convertible Pesos; the word is a diminutive of “Chavez,” the name of the Venezuelan president.

In the shadow of an “almendrón”

“Going to Havana?” the driver shouts as me, as if the corner of Boyeros and Tulipán where I am standing is not part of the city where I was born and live. I respond with a gesture of the finger to the left and confirm: “Yes, going to the Fraternity*,” because I like to make my daily homage at the park of the Ceiba* — under which, we are told, is a “pledge” buried by Machado which has condemned us to an eternal national unhappiness.

I get into the almendrón* and make myself comfortable between the other passengers who look back at the bus stop we left behind and appear relieved to be “here” and not “there.” The ten pesos throb in my pocket, but the thought of the new articulated bus with small windows convinces me I’ve done the right thing. The car has been licensed and has room for eight passengers, two next to the driver, three in the middle and the other three back where the trunk used to be. The seat that must be folded back touches me every time someone reaches their destination. It doesn’t matter, nothing is worse than the “groping” in the camel.*

We turn in front of a police checkpoint, where they make their packet from the private carriers alone. We are lucky, they don’t stop us. The driver then has his last encounter with the cops which costs him ten chavitos.* The passengers opine, tell horror stories, and little by little we get to the subject about which everyone has something to say, that is an encounter with “anonymous neurotics” explaining the causes of their unbalanced minds.

The complicity has been created. The magical space in this 40-year-old Chevrolet has succeeded in making us speak of our discontent. The topics follow one another, passing through potholes, the stifling of private production, the excessive repetition of certain themes on national television, and ending with a phrase a fellow rider throws in my face, “Yes! But nobody does a thing!”

We arrive at the side of the Capitol and our shared ride ends. The car returns to the taxi stand and I hear the driver shouting, “Twenty, to Santiago de las Vegas!” The lady beside me completely ignores me and takes off in another direction. I look out at the Ceiba tree, encircled by railings, that once was sown in earth from all the republics on this continent and murmur between my teeth, “And for all the good you did us.”

Translator’s notes:

Almendrón = Pre-Revolution American cars in use as private, shared, semi-fixed route taxis.

Parque de la Fraternidad = A park alongside the old capitol building (which now houses a museum).

Ceiba = In the center of the park is a Ceiba tree, planted in 1928. Delegates to the sixth Pan-American conference, representing every country in the Americas, each brought dirt from home. The tree was planted in the combined earth as a symbol of pan-American friendship.

Camel = A type of Cuban bus that is a long double-humped ‘container’ with a capacity of 300 people, pulled by a truck tractor. Googling for images using the words “camello” and “cuba” will yield many photos.

Chavitos = A slang term for Cuban Convertible Pesos; the word is a diminutive of “Chavez,” the name of the Venezuelan president.

When I watch TV…

This week we have anti-television therapy in our house. We started gradually and are now at the stage of turning on the “smug little fatty” but not turning up the volume. What this accomplishes is extremely interesting. Before our eyes pass images, so predictable that one’s own imagination adds the voice and sound. If there is a seeded field, I hear inside me a well known commentator announcing overachievement in the production of potatoes. If, in its place, we see images of people dressed in white coats, then my mind immediately hears the speech about Cuban doctors who offer their services in Bolivia or Venezuela.

What never happens is that when watching one of those interviews on mute, I hear within me anything resembling the realistic conversations I hear daily on the street. Our small screen shows us “what should have been” or, even worse, “what we must think that we are.” So the commentator in all of us never says, “prices are sky high,” or “in my polyclinic we only have 17 doctors because all the rest have gone on a mission,” or “if you don’t steal from your work place you can’t live,” or “where are the damned potatoes that don’t come?”

The TV seems so small in my life that I have come to think that it is my existence that is not real; that the long faces I see on the street are actors who deserve an Oscar (or a Coral*); that the hundreds of problems I navigate to feed myself, to get transportation, and simply to exist, are only lines in a dramatic script and that the truth, so adamant are they about it, must be what they tell me in Granma, the National News on television, and The Round Table.

Translator’s notes:

A Coral award is a Latin American Oscar.

Granma is Cuba’s daily morning paper. It is named after the yacht that brought the revolutionaries to Cuba in 1956, which was bought in Mexico from an American who had named it for his grandmother.

The Round Table (La Mesa Redonda) is a news show on Cuban television.