The Socialist Job Search

The Socialist Job Search (This chapter was originally incorporated in chapter 28, The Real Real Cuba)

After my Prensa Latina fiasco, I took a more professional approach to job searching, hoping this would improve my chances of finding work or, at the very least, prevent potential employers from asking me to find them work in the U.S.

I printed a resume with my tiny portable printer, and I gave the Cuba articles I had published in the U.S. to Alfredo who had offered to make copies at his work.

“This way you can get as many as you want for free,” he said proudly. “And tomorrow the woman who runs the copy machine comes in.”

“The woman who runs the copy machine?” I repeated. “You mean you can’t just do it for me today?”

“Mariyolis is the only one authorized to make copies,” Alfredo said, surprised by my suggestion. “Not just anyone can use those machines.”

I wondered exactly what operating the symphony Xerox involved, but since I’d never seen a copy machine anywhere in Cuba, I took Alfredo’s word about the complexity of this one, and I handed over my articles.

Alfredo returned them the next day, the accompanying photos so dark they were barely visible. My writing, too, was difficult to make out, and the articles themselves seemed slanted, as if Mariyolis had systematically sneezed, sliding each page several degrees clockwise before closing the cover of the copy machine.

I tried calling to arrange interviews ahead of time, but the dentists’ phone, which was a joint line like Dinora’s, didn’t always work. When it did, and it wasn’t occupied by the chatty neighbors next door, and the phone wherever I was calling also worked, I still often wasn’t able to communicate my question about whether there were any jobs available. I was never sure whether this was due to my accented Spanish, always more difficult to understand over the phone, or the strangeness of my calling to inquire about a job in a country where prospective employees were generally presented to their new bosses by a mutual acquaintance.

When, at Granma International, I finally found someone who understood me, I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. Not only did the American editor I spoke with agree to an interview, but she also told me that my timing couldn’t have been better. One of the paper’s English translators had just left a few days before.

While I eagerly awaited our meeting, which we scheduled for the coming week, I decided to pursue another job lead and, in the process, discovered that I was missing not just a Cuban accent and a socialist job searching savvy. I was also lacking an understanding of a significant, albeit basic, concept of Spanish grammar.

The Instituto Superior de Arte or ISA, where a friend who studied there had suggested I might find work writing subtitles for Cuban films, was located in the outskirts of Havana. Following my friend’s instructions, I caught the number four bus from Neptuno nearly an hour out of town to the end of the line and then asked for a transfer to get to La ISA.

“You should have told me that when you got on,” the driver said, shaking his head. “La ISA’s in the opposite direction. Now you’re going to have to go all the way back and catch the 12.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, confused. “A student there told me to catch the four.”

“A student? A student where?” the driver asked.

“La ISA,” I repeated.

The driver shook his head. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

“I’ll show her how to get to La ISA,” a large, busty woman behind me announced, grabbing my hand and pulling me off the bus with her.

“Sometimes those drivers don’t know their routes,” she told me once we got onto the street. “My brother lives near La ISA, and he always catches the 27 from here.”

I walked with the woman for five blocks until she left me at a new bus stop, saying, “Tell the 27 driver that you want to transfer to the 40.”

This time, I asked the driver beforehand if transferring to the 40 would take me to the Instituto Superior de Arte.

“It’ll take you to La ISA,” he said, emphasizing the final three syllables as though trying to teach me how to use the Institute’s acronym.

“Yes, La ISA,” I repeated as I sat down.

It was a ten-block walk from where the 27 dropped me off to the stop from which the 40 left, and then another half-hour ride until the driver alerted me that we had arrived at La ISA. As I stepped off the bus, I glanced around at my surroundings, which were nothing more than a late afternoon but still severe sun beating down on a residential neighborhood of yellow and peach cement houses, no school in sight.

“So,.where do I go from here?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t know,” the driver said laughing. “Depends where you want to go.”

“I want to go to La ISA,” I said, frustrated. “The Instituto Superior de Arte.”

¡Ay, muchacha!” the driver exclaimed. “This is the neighborhood of La Lisa. El Instituto Superior de Arte is El ISA.” He paused to laugh before announcing, “You’ve been asking for a place that doesn’t exist in Spanish.”


The week after my El ISA debacle, I walked to the Granma International offices near the Plaza de la Revolución, relieved that this time I knew just where I was going– and buoyed by the knowledge that I had someone waiting there to interview me.

Even the drab décor of the windowless newsroom, decorated with only a 1986 wall calendar and two yellowing photos– one of Che and one of Fidel– didn’t dampen my spirits. I waited patiently for the editor in a seat behind a British translator named Patrick who had escorted me to the newsroom when, after half an hour, the lobby receptionist still hadn’t been able to locate the editor for our scheduled interview.

“This is very odd. Robin knew you were coming,” Patrick said apologetically as I flipped through old issues of Granma International. “She was actually very excited because, as you know, we just had one of our English translators leave.”

After another fifteen minutes of waiting, Patrick pulled out a photocopy of a Granma article and a blank sheet of paper. He took a Spanish-English dictionary from his bookshelf and handed everything to me.

“Maybe I should just get you started on your translation test,” he said. “Robin told me you have a writing background, and that’ll come in handy here since we’re more interested in literary than word-for-word translations. So have fun with it.”

I translated the article, about the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s efforts to eradicate the black sigatoka fungus in bananas. Although it was not a topic that I would have been inspired to read on my own, I discovered that I enjoyed the challenge of searching for the best, most interesting words with which to illustrate it. I had never considered a career in translation before, but now I could see how it could be satisfying and a good complement to working on my own writing.

“Well, I guess while we wait for Robin, I can fill you in on the details of your job,” Patrick said when I handed him my translation. He said this as though the position were already mine, the translation test just a formality. I held on tightly to my swivel chair to keep myself from spinning around with nervous excitement.

“The hours are standard,” Patrick began. “Nine to five, Monday to Friday, but of course when something big happens, we end up staying late. The salary is $120 dollars a month, and as you probably know, that’s very good by Cuban standards. Like the Cubans, you’ll have free healthcare and one month of vacation. And each year, you’ll also get a free airline ticket home. For you, since the U.S. won’t allow Cubana planes land there, this means a free roundtrip ticket anywhere Cubana goes. We also pay for your housing, an apartment in the Focsa building in Vedado.”

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Low as the salary was, it was ten times the national average and would certainly be enough to cover my minimal living expenses, and the other benefits were better than any I’d ever had at a U.S. job.

“So,” Patrick said, glancing at the clock. “I was sure Robin would be here by the time I finished. But since she’s not, what do you think? Does it sound like it’s been worth the wait?”

“Definitely,” I said, nodding my head several times to convey the depth of my enthusiasm. “And I’m fine waiting more for Robin to arrive.”

“Oh, no, I don’t mean this wait,” Patrick said laughing. “I mean all the time you’ve been waiting in the U.S.”

“Huh?” I asked. “I’m not sure I understand.” But before Patrick could respond, a middle-aged woman, followed by one in her mid-20s, walked into the office.

“Oh, here’s Robin,” Patrick announced. “We’ve been wondering where you were,” he said to the older woman.

“I’m so sorry,” Robin said. “My daughter’s sick, and I had to run out to pick her up from school.”

Robin offered me her hand. “You must be Lea.”

“Lea? I thought she was Veronica,” Patrick said as I remembered that the receptionist had only introduced me as, “The American.”

“I’m Veronica,” the younger woman said.

“Oh, no,” Robin said. “I’m sorry. I think this is my fault. Lea, I tried calling you today, but your phone wasn’t working.”

“It broke this morning,” I said, piecing things together as I realized that my interview probably had not been the only one that Robin had cancelled. Obviously, there was an overlap now. “Were you calling to reschedule?” I asked.

“Well, yes, to let you know I’d be late,” Robin said. “But also to let you know that I planned to meet with you before Veronica, but I was just calling to explain the situation to you.”

Veronica cast a guilty glance my way before averting her eyes.

“Veronica’s been e-mailing me from the U.S. for some time now about working here,” Robin continued. “She’s a writer, like you, but also a native Spanish-speaker. But it didn’t look like this opening was going to work out for her, so I was very excited when you called. But then Veronica called me the other day to say she coming to Havana for an international solidarity conference and she was going to take the job after all.”

“Oh,” I said, at a loss for words. “Well, okay, I didn’t realize.”

“I’m so sorry about all this confusion,” Robin said. “But maybe since you’re here, you might as well take a translating test so we can keep it on file.”

“We already did that,” Patrick said, adding, once more, “I thought she was Veronica.”

“Oh my. What a mess,” said Robin, a look somewhere between concern and pity forming on her face as she looked at me. “I hope you didn’t get your hopes up too much.”

“No,” I lied. “It’s okay. I understand.”