The Revolution Has Made us Humble

The Revolution Has Made us Humble (This portion was cut from the end of Chapter 8—The Real Cuba.)

My classes at the University of Havana were a nice break from the political nature of my relationship with Alfredo. Unlike Lisset’s classes at the José Martí Language Institute, at the University we talked more about grammar and literature than about politics. I improved my vocabulary, and I also learned more about the culture of Cuban Spanish. I discovered that Cubans considered certain words “prettier” than others.

“If you don’t understand what someone says, don’t ask, ‘Qué?’” our teacher told us. “They’ll understand, but it’s just so much prettier to use its synonym, como.”

Unlike my peers at the José Martí Language Institute, there were no other Americans in my class at the University. I noticed that even though Alfredo was always more reserved with foreigners, he seemed to feel more comfortable hanging out with the largely Eastern European population of my class than he had with the Americans in my program.

Eastern Europe, so close geographically and politically to the former Soviet Union, had historically been a Cuban ally. With this common ideological background and familiarity with the economics and daily workings of a communist country, none of my classmates bombarded Alfredo with questions about Cuba and its government. No one asked him for an explanation of the health care system, and there were none of those hypothetical questions that I knew he so hated about what he would do if he were Fidel.

As I walked down the middle of the street to the University every morning, I often found myself thinking about Fidel and the ways in which he’d transformed Havana. In Centro Habana, where there were more people than cars, everyone walked in the middle of the street. They moved lackadaisically onto the sidewalk only at the last minute when a car’s front bumper got dangerously close to their butt, like an urban translation of a traditional herding scene.

In some ways, Havana looked just like the pre-Revolution, 1950s photographs I’d seen of it. There were the same old cars and the same dated architecture. On cloudy days, I could almost see the city as an old photo with its sepia skyline and graying streets. But then there was so much missing—the casinos and shopping centers, the American gas stations and chain stores. And what did remain from the 1950s had been transformed by time. At least in the 1950s, the cars were new and functioning.

In my travels, I had visited many cities that people liked to describe as being forgotten by time, but there was something different about Havana. Unlike other similar passed-over cities, which had never managed, not for lack of trying, to catch up with the material development of more “modernized” places in the world, Havana had been on par with the rest of the material world in the 1950s. But in the 1960s, Fidel and his followers had made a conscious decision to stop time, to kick out the foreign companies and the mobsters’ casinos. When the Revolution triumphed, Cubans were so anxious to be rid of the casinos that had plagued their city that they burnt them down. They were so tired of being under the rule of U.S.-backed dictators that they cheered when American oil companies were kicked out and their billboards ripped down.

Across the bay from Havana was another city that seemed to exist in a time zone of its own, perhaps even farther back than Havana. Regla was named after La Virgin de Regla, a black patron saint, and it was the capital of the Afro-Cuban religion.

Amy’s Spanish teacher from the José Martí Language Institute lived here and she’d invited us over so I could talk to her for my ever-growing article on post-Revolution women in Cuba.

One day after class we caught the Regla ferry, which could best be described as a floating camello with no seats where everyone packed in next to each other. But here, at least, there was the bay breeze to refresh us during the 40-minute ride.

Regla was a dusty town with single-story shingled wood houses. We started walking straight as Elisa had directed us to do, but soon the street names no longer matched her directions.

As we walked further into the heart of Regla, it seemed like we were the only foreigners there. A pack of boys on bikes sped by and the lead rider waved at us, quickly turning to see his friends’ reactions, as if he’d been dared to greet the foreigners. We passed Parque Lenin, a rather unappealing, immense slab of asphalt, which dead-ended into a rocky hillside where ten dancing disciples reached up towards Lenin’s face as the cold, white effigy looked sternly into the distance.

We continued on past the empty stalls of an abandoned farmers’ market. An older man in a creased dress shirt and frayed navy slacks called out from behind a chicken coop to ask if we were lost.

“Do you know where Calle Arangura is?” I asked him.

“Yes, of course,” he said. “I’ve lived here all my life. I know every corner of this town. But before I tell you and you leave me here, may I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” Amy said.

“Where are you from?” the man asked.

“The U.S.,” I said.

“Well, what do you think about the elections next fall?” he asked. “I heard that Nader guy from the Green Party might really have a chance this year.”

“How do you know who he is?” I asked, surprised. Elections were a good nine months away, hardly a hot topic in the U.S. now and, I would’ve imagined, even less of one in Cuba. Probably about half the people I knew in the U.S. didn’t know who Ralph Nader was and I doubted they would when next November rolled around.

“Oh, I read about him in Granma,” the man said matter-of-factly. “And I also talk to foreigners whenever I get the chance. My daughter studied international relations at the University of Havana, and when I was young, I had to work in the fields. I never had the opportunity to go to school, so my daughter gave me classes at night when she was studying.”

“Does your daughter live here?” Amy asked.

“Yes, of course,” the old man said. “What good is a degree in international relations when you live in a country that won’t let you travel? The Revolution was very good because it educated people, gave the poor and women a chance to study, but for what? It’s like a tease—let the people smell all that’s out there but never let them taste it.”

I told the man, as he swatted at a fly that kept landing on his sun-browned nose, about my interview with Elisa and the story I wanted to write about the Revolution and Cuban women.

“Well, if you want to hear more about my daughter or my story, you can come by any time,” the man said. He fished around in his pocket and pulled out a ripped scrap of paper. He looked up at me with an embarrassed expression on his face.

“And a pen, if you have a pen, I can write my address. It’s not too easy to get pens in Cuba these days.” With a shaky hand, he wrote his address and handed it to me.

“No telephone,” he said. “But just come by.”

I told him to keep the pen and stuck his address in my pocket.

“Don’t let them elect Bush,” he called out in farewell as we walked away.

Soon I realized that the man had forgotten to give us directions to Elisa’s.

“Maybe we can ask someone over there,” Amy said, pointing to a green plank wooden house with several people gathered outside around the window.

As we approached I could hear the steady thump of a drum, and I smelled a thick, unidentifiable scent of incense. We walked over to the window and peered in. A woman was dancing in the middle of the room, surrounded by a crowd that circled around her in chairs and on the floor. A man leaning against the inside of the window motioned for us to come in. Inside, the atmosphere, so hot and crowded, was dizzying and the drum beat almost deafening. The man handed Amy and I shot glasses filled with a clear liquid that smelled more like rubbing alcohol than rum. I looked hesitantly at Amy and then back at the man who was smiling and waving his arms encouragingly.

I closed my eyes and swallowed and the alcohol burnt through my throat.

“I think it’s aguardiente,” Amy whispered to me, her eyes tearing from the force of the shot. Aguardiente is the strongest rum in Cuba, an alcoholic equivalent to the habañero pepper.

The man motioned for us to move closer. “She’s receiving her saint,” he said, pointing to the woman in the center of the room who was now dancing as if possessed. The woman danced and drank as each saint’s name was called out. When the name of Yemaya, goddess of the sea, was called out, the yabo fell backwards, caught by the very man who’d given us our shots. It reminded me of those trust exercises I never quite mastered that took place at slumber parties and college orientations when you were supposed to let yourself fall with the confidence that someone would catch you. I used to stiffen up so much at the thought of the fall that I could hardly put one foot in front of the other to walk away from the game.

We thanked the man for our shots, asked him how to get to Elisa’s street, and headed out for some air. Elisa was only five blocks away and when we arrived, she was sitting on the porch, wearing black jeans and a black, white, and red flowered blouse. She was tall and thin with blond hair and dark brown eyes, and she looked calmer today than I’d ever seen her at school where she, like Lisset, was always frazzled from her transportation hassles.

Elisa took us into her living room where she sat on a sofa behind a small glass table and beneath a wall with a Sierra Club style poster of autumn trees over a lake. Amy and I sat in two rocking chairs next to her. A puppy yipped in the back yard.

“I’ve lived in this house my entire life,” Elisa said. “My father built it and it’s like this whole neighborhood is our family tree. My uncles live to the left, one aunt lives in front of me and one behind. My two older brothers live down the street.”

I wanted to interview Elisa for two main reasons. Like Lisset, Elisa was born in the year of the Revolution. But, more than this seemingly significant coincidence, Elisa had piqued my interest with something she told me one day during class break at the José Martí Language Institute. Elisa had said that she noticed a choque de generaciones or a collision of generations between her two young children, one who was born before the Special Period and the other who was born when it started. Even from my brief conversation with Alfredo’s grandmother, I could see the schism between those who were born before the Revolution and those born after it. Alfredo’s grandmother, who had seen much worse days before the Revolution, accepted, with little criticism, the shortages that came with the Special Period and lingered on after it was officially declared over. Alfredo, who had lived his life in reverse, growing up with all the goods he needed under the munificent hand of the mighty Soviet Union and then seeing them all disappear with the onset of the Special Period, regularly complained about the shortages.

Elisa’s seven-year-old son belonged to Cuba’s youngest generation, which knew only shortages and sacrifice and the inequalities created by Cuba’s dollar economy. While it was obvious that the country’s older generation would stick with Fidel until his death, I wondered which of the two younger generations, Alfredo’s or the pre-teens, would be the ones to wage the next Revolution. At first I felt certain that it would be the youngest generation, which, like Fidel and his followers back in the day, knew only the bad times. Without any memories of the good times to sustain them, their outrage at the present situation would surely cause them to rebel first, I thought.

Elisa’s response surprised me.

“My daughter is 16, and she was born in 1984 when Cuba was in a good economic position,” she said. “There were so many countries helping us then and, until my daughter was a teenager, she grew up without any worries. Her childhood was like the name I gave her, Kyuttzza, Russian for ‘beautiful sunrise.’

Elisa turned to show us two framed photos of her children behind her. They were both light skinned with dirty blond hair and the sort of hesitant smile I had grown familiar with from looking at photos in Cuba, a country where few people had cameras and fewer still were schooled in the very American practice of smiling on demand.

“It’s a shame you can’t meet my children,” Elisa said. “But my daughter is visiting her father and my son is in school now. Sometimes it’s better if they’re home at different times because they argue a lot. They see life very differently. My son is very sensitive to the economic problems. We have only one light bulb in the living room.” I looked up and saw, like in Liudmila’s house, a four-bulb chandelier minus three of its bulbs.

“Because my daughter grew up in an easier time, she turns on the light whenever she feels like it,” Elisa continued. “But my son only uses it if he really needs it, and he notices if the light’s on and no one’s in the room. He is so used to having little food that if I have some money to buy something special, like a piece of ham, which my daughter used to have every day for breakfast when she was young, well my son doesn’t like it. He’s not accustomed to it, and because he’s so acutely aware of the shortages, sometimes I think this is his way of protecting himself. By not having the ham enough to get used to it and maybe like it, he’ll never miss it if things get so bad I can’t buy it anymore. But my daughter, she grew up eating this and it’s a memory, a taste that doesn’t die easily.” Elisa paused for a moment as if maybe this was all she needed to say, as if every failure of the Revolution could be summed up by the haunting flavor of a slice of ham.

“My son is like many of those in his generation,” Elisa said. “He’s grown up with stories of two different pasts—one that was better than his present and one that was worse. But for him, these are only stories. So he conforms with his present, to what life offers him in the moment. My daughter wants things the way they used to be. She grew up with all the options I had in my youth except that they were all handed to her. She wasn’t involved in the fight.”

“What options did you have?” I asked.

“I was in the UJC,” Elisa said. The Union of Communist Youth was like a Cuban version of the Girl or Boy Scouts. “And I was very Revolutionary. It was an exciting time to grow up in. So much was happening, and there were so many possibilities. No one in my family had gone to the university, but I had that opportunity. I studied to teach Spanish to foreigners, and I was able to travel. I got to live and teach on the Isla de la Juventud for my two years of social service. It’s how we pay back our free education, and it was a wonderful experience.”

Isla de la Juventud or Island of Youth is located off Cuba’s south coast and was so named because right after the Revolution, plane loads of international scholarship students came here from all over the developing world to bask in this idyllic, educational oasis.

“Then I got to go to Jamaica to teach for ten months, and I was very excited, but there was so much racism and poverty and crime there,” Elisa said, frowning. “The Jamaicans really suffered under the British, and I was actually happy to come back to Cuba. Although I missed the variety and quantity of food in Jamaica, being there really made me appreciate the Revolution.”

I thought about a joke I’d heard several times in Cuba. What are three successes of the Revolution? Education, health care, and sports. And the three failures? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

“There are many good things about the Revolution,” Elisa said. “And, of course, with them come some bad and some that are just inexplicable, like what’s going on with the economy right now. But despite all the problems we have here, I like the sense of solidarity, the way of living. I respect our culture.”

“Has the economic situation changed any of your feelings about Cuba?” I asked.

Elisa paused. “Well,” she said. “Not so much because the good period of my life has been so long. The past ten years have been difficult, but I’ve lived thirty really fine years here. I was born during a charmed time. I grew up surrounded by this sense of hope, which, for many, many years, held true.”

“And now?” I asked.

“And now I accept that this is what life is like for the moment, knowing that it will change in the future,” Elisa said. “In Cuba, we have this saying. It probably doesn’t make much sense to foreigners, but we say that nothing changes and then everything is always changing.” Elisa laughed at herself.

“But I do firmly believe that the Revolution was a good thing,” she continued. “If we hadn’t had the Revolution, we’d be more egoistic. Because of the Revolution, we’ve learned to give things to people without expecting anything in return.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, for example, when I was in Jamaica, I worked with some Americans and I’d brought down Cuban books to give out so people could know about our writers,” Elisa said. “The Americans felt so bad because they hadn’t brought any books to give to anyone. And then they’d offer to pay me for the book, and it just seemed so crazy to me.”

I thought about the book of essays that Alfredo gave me on our first, official date. I remembered how uncomfortable I had felt when I saw the price, which was nearly a day’s salary for Alfredo, and how this had made me think about all the inequalities in our relationship, how it had turned the book into something bigger than just a book.

But, in truth, I had never given Alfredo a gift back, and he had never seemed to expect one. I recalled also the night that I gave him the breakup letter and he told me that loving me was enough for him, that he hadn’t expected that I’d return the compliment in that moment. I had difficulty accepting this at the time, and now I wondered if this too might have been cultural. I wondered if the difficulties that followed hard the heels of the Revolution had not imbued Cubans with some quality of calm, of a more day-to-day existence where they appreciated what they got when and if they got it.

“Is there anything else about who you are as a person that you think is a result of the Revolution?” I asked Elisa.

“I think I’m good at living simply, and I’m a really creative cook,” Elisa said, emitting a small laugh. “But, seriously, there is something more,” she said, looking around her sparsely decorated house and then out the window at the children playing street baseball with improvised bats and balls and imaginary bases.

“The Revolution,” she said, “has made us humble.”