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.

The children of waiting

I read a few days ago, in the newspaper Granma, that the Cuban population is decreasing and that there were 4,300 fewer inhabitants in 2006 compared to the previous year. The news does not surprise me because I had already noted that twenty students per class in primary schools was due more to the demographic reality than to the implementation of a new teaching method.

However, among the male and female friends of my generation there is a real boom in pregnancies and births. These are the children who were postponed for reasons related to living space, emigration or the economic situation, but that their parents, already in their thirties, feel compelled to have now.

My friends imagined the arrival of their babies differently. They dreamed of solving their housing problems before bringing children into their lives. Some saw themselves as the parents of children who would ride on toboggans and speak two languages; while others imagined living in their own country with salaries that would allow them to afford disposable diapers, baby bottles, and gifts from the Three Kings.

Life usually makes a mockery of our expectations, so here are my women friends, on the verge of giving birth or already rocking their children, while the fathers are suffocating trying to divide the little space where they live in the home of the grandparents, making calculations about what they can’t afford on their meager wages, and still dreaming that there will be space on the toboggan, now that there is one more to take.

New status symbol

I live equidistant from two agricultural markets, in one of which the sellers are farmers, members of a cooperative or their respective intermediaries, and the other of which is run by the Youth Labor Army (EJT). In the first there is nearly every fruit, vegetable, other food and even pork. The State (EJT) market rarely has more than sweet potatoes, peppers, onions and green papayas, and when there is some kind of meat the lines are longer. But the fundamental difference between these two markets is not variety but price, so much so that my neighbors call the market run by farmers “the market of the rich” and the market run by the EJT the market of the “poor.”

The truth is that to serve a fairly balanced meal you have to go to both. First you must inspect the stands full of the products that abound in the large EJT market, and then consult the whims and capricious quality of the polished tomatoes in the market of the “peasant farmers.”

Sometimes, overcome by desire and nostalgia, I buy a pineapple in the “market of the rich.” But I take care to bring a cloth bag to hide this queen of the fruits, this obscene symbol of status, from the jealous glances of others.

Posters yes, but only about baseball

In these days the country is in the midst of baseball fever sparked by the final games of the national playoff series. The Industriales wear blue while red is the color of the team from Santiago de Cuba. On many balconies, doors or walls one can read posters with “Industriales Champions” or “Santiago, Go Santiago!” The Party militants have been advised that during the games in the huge Latinoamericano stadium they must avoid contemptuously shouting the word “Palestinians” to refer to the players from the eastern team. Meanwhile, the police deployment around the stadium is comparable only to that during the Summit of Non-aligned Nations last September.

Even for me, who doesn’t share the passion for baseball, I watch the games on TV and jump when the industrial lions score. However, I don’t fail to note that during these days of baseball that plunge us into an unreal torpor, even the appearance of the tolerated posters is a parenthesis, a temporary permission, that we may not use for other themes. I can imagine what would happen if, after the final, I hung from my balcony a small paper that said: “Yes to ethanol,” or “Internet for all.”