Cuban Voices from the Street: Behind Doors
In the summer of 2017 I was a participant in the Sozopol Literary Seminars in Bulgaria, sponsored by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. The weeklong seminars were a bracing engagement between Bulgarian and American writers and literary traditions, and while there I discovered another cultural encounter, an unusual book titled Behind Doors: Cuban Stories. In this book, ordinary Cubans speak of the streets and neighborhoods where they were born, and where they live (including, in one case, a prison cell), offering a view of their country to which few outsiders have access.
But why should this book, a bilingual edition in Spanish and English, have been published in Bulgaria? From the early 1960s to the late 1980s, the then Soviet block-aligned country of Bulgaria sent numerous professionals of all types to help out a fellow socialist country. And so a cultural bond was created that remains to this day.
The individual stories presented here—by ordinary people from the Cuban cities of Havana, Guantanamo, and Trinidad—have been collected by Anisley Miraz Lladosa, Alexis Alvares, Oscar Yoendris Hernández Olave and Idalmis Esther Valiente López. The entire collection was edited by Diana Ivanova, who writes,“This book contains stories written about public spaces – the streets where Cubans live…It is a subjective view on Cuba and its streets—a view that all of us who visit the country as guests can never have, a view that goes behind the doors of our perceptions and notions, a view that makes visible what we can never see very easily in Cuba—the inner streets of Cuban thinking and sensitivity. These are the inner streets that connect us as humans.”
In these times when the budding cultural and political rapprochement between the United States and Cuba has become endangered, and when recent serious damage brought about by dangerous hurricanes has affected both our countries, Ninth Letter is proud to be able to introduce to a U.S. audience, through the following excerpts from Behind Doors: Cuban Stories, the secret voices of our hemispheric neighbors.
One of the hottest
Yoanka Maria Abreu Concepción
30 years old, housewife
My street is one of the hottest in Colon’s neighborhood, here you can see everything, from a group of boys playing domino in a corner, up to the head of the police sector running after someone who stole a chain; there are all kind of conflicts, and neighbors range from doctors, housewives, former convicts, self-employed, people with a low cultural level and low economic situation up to university graduates with good jobs and salaries.
In one of the corners there is a place where rum is being sold and the drunkards from the entire neighborhood visit it. There are fights there at the blink of an eye. We also have two mentally handicapped persons who go from door to door asking for something to eat and money to drink. The woman takes off her blouse or her shorts when she gets drunk or lies down in the middle of the street making quite a scandal. And he is always trying to make her stand up and take her away, they are quite a show.
There is so much dust in my street because there is no garbage or rubble that does not end up in the garbage bins in our block. Neighbors complain, but nothing is ever done. There is a blue American car which has been at the same place for as long as I can remember, nobody knows if it runs, if it is a wreck, or if it is a family relic, we only know it has never moved from there and now even foreigners take pictures of it.
This is how my street is, full of surprises, some nice, some not so nice, and some terrible; always something new, much gossiping, much of everything, but everyone lives it in their own way as life itself is. A little piece of land each neighbor considers its own, because they were born here, raised here and will die here, with all the good and all the bad, but our street.
Yosnay Arencibia Prieto
28 years old, chess teacher
I live in Genio street n° 103, a few meters from the Havana Malecon, at the border between Old Havana and Central Havana. I have been here all my life and perhaps will be here until the day that I die, since it is very difficult that I untie myself from it, and not only from a sentimental point of view.
The building I live in, is the only one surviving the ravages of time in my block, from the others only the sad facade remains of what they once were and will never again be, mine observes them full of nostalgia. Grandparents eight or more decades old, brave titans who have protected entire families from storms, hurricanes, sea floods and the sun – which, as we say in Cuba, can “crack stones.” I still remember the collapse of various buildings that could not resist anymore, the support “poles” were not enough
When I was a child there was an empty lot next to us where there was a small wooden house, there lived an old man whom people called “Tamakun”, and from whom I never learned his real name. He was very poor and suffered some kind of mental disability, at least that is what I believe. He attracted the attention of all the children in the neighborhood because he always carried a sack and was surrounded by stray dogs, many more than those following Saint Lazarus. When they shouted at him “Tamakun!” he got angry and the dogs defended him and made us run until we were dead tired. Without a doubt our parents used his name to intimidate us children.
I remember the cobbler who lived in the ground floor of my house, he always said: “It’s going to rain” when the sky became cloudy, which I found very funny. One day he left for the Isle of Youth* and then another street became his own. I do not dare talk about the final days of Alejo, the old man who replaced Tamakun after he died.
As a teenager I used to visit an unfinished construction in the spare lot, unfinished because construction work stopped in 1990 and was never completed as planned. There I had sex for the first time with a girl who was the granddaughter of the late Mrs. Nena, who lived next to my house.
One day a dog came to my street and stayed in it, we named it Tamakun as a tribute to that man because of how fierce he was, defending his block from any other dog or person. Contrary to his predecessor, he did have a happy end, after having spent a long period of time living in the street, a lady took him to her home and there he died peacefully
The colors of my street are lost now, but I still have the beautiful view from my room of the Church of the Angel which comforts me very much. Perhaps I may write a book some day.
*Isle of Youth: name given to an island in the south of Cuba, part of the Cuban archipelago, whose name before the Revolution was Isle of Pines.
24 years old, lawyer and social worker
My street, Industria, in Colon neighborhood covers a straight path a few meters before San Lazaro Street to its intersection with Monte Street next to the Parque de la Fraternidad. In it we find beautiful buildings such as the Capitol of Havana (its back side) and the Partagas Royal Cigar Factory, the only industry which could have given the name to the street; and other buildings not as favored because the only thing that has touched its walls has been the deterioration of approximately a century of existence.
At Industria Street we can appreciate the Havana houses from the early twentieth century with its eclectic airs and decorated balconies, although already old and damaged; we also find shops, stores, groceries, one or two buildings and architecture fighting against gravity, houses claiming for some rest. And those already collapsed, show the most recurrent forms of Cuban civil engineering today: parks or parking lots.
Just as Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince: “What is essential is invisible to the eye,” there in that which is essential, resides the beauty and wonder of our street, in which we enjoy seeing people go by, their nature, their smiles, problems, jubilation; all that for us Cubans is every day life and we stop seeing and appreciating it. But our values are what give us this special identity, uniquely Cuban and to everything Cuban, but especially to those living in Colon Neighborhood, which has won such an extended fame.
The old guys from “Águila”
Bulgarian chemist technician1
It is said that Águila is the longest street in Havana. It goes more or less from east to south, starting at the capital´s harbor and ending at the Malecón. And one knows what kind of a bird is an eagle2. It is known that in different epochs and geographies it has been used as a symbol of power. The eagle is strong, flies very high, the most accurate kind of vision takes its name from it and can survive a couple of human generations; not in vain it is preferred as a symbol of power…it is just that in my street there is nothing eagle-like or aquiline, unless we count the telecommunication center Etecsa, with which we fly over the world…I think its name is a misunderstanding, because Águila is mainly, and humbly, working class, an overpopulated and lively artery part of this huge and complicated organism that is the Cuban capital.
There is nothing heroic in our street. But there is something fabulously moving, the house of Brindis de Salas—the black Paganini—the virtuouso Cuban violinist who debuted at eleven years old in the prestigious Liceo de La Habana. The most famous and successful violinist of all Europe and the Americas, defeating centuries of racial prejudice. Claudio José Domingo Brindis de Salas y Garrido was born in 1852 in Havana. Buenos Aires saw him die in 1911, but his ashes rest in a beautiful bronze urn in the Paula church in front of the capital´s harbor, hosting a magnificent concert hall.
It has been already sixteen years that I have the privilege and the discomfort of living in number 368 at Águila street, an Art Deco jewel but actually a calamity of a house. In this area, my street has not changed since the 50s of the last century, it has only withered, like the main characters of my story, the old guys of Águila. Matured and gray-haired as coming out from a classic old photo, all have been born in the 50s and are the living portrait of their street where most of their lives have gone by.
At the corner of Neptuno street lives Demetrio Domínguez, the peanut vendor. Every morning he welcomes those leaving for work with the most delicious peanuts from Havana. He is the first one to read the newspaper Granma3 to know about the latest world disaster and the worst gossip of the neighborhood. He is generous, he gives cones to children passing by, especially if their mothers are beautiful. Plump, with a smile from ear to ear and stingy hair, secretly I have named him the hedgehog. I go by everyday to get my peanuts, and above all, to inform myself about the ups and downs of the day seasoned with his wit…I miss him very much, when for some mysterious reason, he is not at his post, but thanks to God, that happens rarely.
Right in front lives and offers his products the herbalist Florencio Chávez. The sidewalk by his shop is always clean, the shop in semi-darkness, perfumed and full of small fresh herb bunches that are sparklingly effective, like their names indicate (Abrecaminos- Road-opener, Espantamuertos – Dead-frightener, Quitamaldición – Curse-remover, Vencebatallas – Battle-winner, Paraiso – Paradise, Vencedor – Winner, Yo puedo más que tú – I-can-more-than-you, Rompecamisa – Shirt-tearer)….I have never known how he manages to keep his shop with fresh products because we do not have any fields, rivers or mountains nearby and he does not have any transportation means…not even a bicycle.
I always see him watering his little plants and talking to them. He is short, very agile and dried looking, like a prune. That is how I name him for myself. He is very serious, offers health advice to his neighbors and even diagnoses them. They listen to him attentively because he is famous for repairing unsent love stories, scaring evil spirits and taking away all kind of curses. He has won his male customers with his magic wine for potency, a sweet and thick wine, prepared from exactly thirty-five herbs, which recipe he swore never to reveal and which he will take to his grave. He has offered me a sip of this dark, sweet and aromatic wine. I do not know about others, but to me the effect is purely sybaritic—a delicious wine!
The “Prune”often gives me camomile bunches and other aromatic or stinky herbs, which names I can not remember. He always asks me about my—according to him—secret of eternal youth. It is not that it is true, or that he is really impressed, he is just an experienced old gallant, skilled in flattery, who patiently waits to see if, when least expected, he can cash any of it.
Another one from Águila street is Guillermo, the watchman in the wood workshop at the left of my building. Tall and skinny as a fishing stick. Always sitting in front of the workshop where he lives and works. He guards it day and night, although there is nothing to steal…not even wood, or anything interesting for a thief. What really matters is the act of guarding a state property. Guillermo remains indefatigably in his post, cradled by a sweet light sleep, thanks to its persistent semi-drunkenness. His most devoted and closest friend is Fernando, the glassmaker4 who lives right in front of the workshop and is an inestimable help for the watchman in the performance of his duties….
It is remarkable that I have never seen them fighting or getting sick, not even during the most fierce flu epidemic. I do not know how they nourish themselves, or anything about their mysterious private lives. They try to convince me that their iron health is due to their daily “vaccine” of alcohol. I doubt it, but it is certain that those two never take vacations, not even on holidays, they are always there and I would undoubtedly hang on them the sign of “incredible but true”.
The name of the neighborhood´s grocer is Franco, smiling, neat and polite. And above all, dictatorial. Since fifteen years the “Francoism” forgives no one, people or friends. We are all under the heel, in a most tyrannical way, of his weight cheating, and if anyone dares to protest, then he is finished. Revenge is much more cruel. He always finds the way to make you wait unnecessarily, or stops selling from the black market arsenal, which we all so much need. But he is always in a good mood and flirts with the female inspectors. What do you think? The living portrait of the old Bulgarian socialism…
The small house of Arenas is at the corner of San Miguel. Here everybody knows him, although nobody knows his first name and all call him respectfully by his last name . Arenas is neat, gray-haired, with big eyeglasses on faded blue eyes that look distractedly. A chatterbox oldie. He does not drink, is very popular and possesses great authority. He is the safe box breaker of the neighborhood…Yes! He decodes and opens any kind of safe. That is his job, I do not know who or what is kept in them, but my neighbor is called often urgently to dismantle the faces of armored dinosaurs of all kinds. Arenas is the only specimen with such a profession in all Havana. He does not have children or pupils, he says that young people do not show any interest in learning. A peculiar detail—the door and windows of his house are protected by an artistic metal fence, therefore no less solid, made by him.
That is how the old guys of my street are, all over the age of retirement, heroes of a forgotten film who do not give a cent for the Final Judgment and simply live their everyday life now. I am sure that they are the happiest people in the world watching each morning the sun rise at Águila, cross Águila with them, jump into the Malecón and dip into the sea….
1In 1986 Daria Semerdzieva traveled to Cuba to work as a chemist technician. In socialist times until 1989 there was a common treaty between Cuba and Bulgaria and Bulgarian professionals were sent as aid to the Cuban economy.
2Águila means eagle in Spanish.
3Granma: the most read communist daily in Cuba.
4Glassmaker: someone who repairs window panes.
Juanita It Will Rain
Keiler Ramirez Rodriguez
21 years old
I live in a street that bears the name of our national saint: Jose Marti. It is a street with much movement. There are many modern constructions and others with a colonial architecture. There’s much traffic, this street is in the center of Guantanamo.
Many peddlers walk down my block. Next to it, in the back, is the railroad station. Its architecture is eclectic, a mixture of modern and colonial, which make a very interesting combination.
The neighbors in my block show great solidarity to every problem. We help each other. Two blocks from me lives an old lady everybody knows as “Juanita It Will Rain.” The older people in my block say they call her that because a long time ago, in a very rainy day, she was in her house with her daughter and, without expecting it, a lightning bolt fell in the house right in the place where her daughter was and killed her. The impact was great, because it was her only child and, since then, her nerves were so affected that when it is thundering she runs out of the house and down the street shouting and hides in the first door she finds open. That is why they call her “Juaniquita It Will Rain”. You can see it is a rather sad story, but she is one of the characters of the many living in my street.
My naked soul
Yanaisi Weekes Leon
22 years old
I will tell you about my neighborhood and my street, which is my life. The geography of my street is not different from most of the Cuban streets. Its appearance is very humble, full of bumps and rocks coming out from it.
My neighbors are never tired of gossiping, gossip is their breakfast, lunch and dinner. For them, gossiping is like a high impact sport. There is a group of them, whom people call “The Stick of the Turkey Buzzard” because they are all over 60 and with their tongues they tear you to shreds.
In my childhood I used to play hide and seek, and between corridors and porches, I had my first sexual games taking advantage of the darkness. If I was fighting someone physically stronger than me, the stones in my street were my weapon, in a way my street was not only a shelter, but also my protection.
My street is simply my naked soul.
Marlon Dariel Duménigo Pau
24 years old, Student of engineering computer sciences
A procession of potholes. In the last years my street has lost pieces due to multiple excavations worthy of the Valley of the Dead in Egypt. Here the motifs are very different: people looked for their own methods so that water could reach their homes, without thinking too deeply on the consequences. About the houses there is not much to mention, except their colors, since all of them are painted blue, yellow or green, with one exception, mine. They range from modern constructions to old structures of the 1800s that the Spaniards built with the blood of oxen, land and slaves. As a child we had fun playing hide and seek in the plot of Mercedes, a seventy something Haitian descendant who had lost the habit of worrying about the disasters we could cause; and so, among the stones and tall grasses, friendships which last until now were born. We went on trips to the roofs and terraces, we always discovered new secrets, like the end wall in the patio of Atocha was built with black bricks, and at the foot of Anicetos´ house there was a treasure.
It is not exactly known how the name of the street came up, it must have been during times in which the vegetation grew as lavishly as the blessings, and so “Cruz Verde” (green cross) passed on from generation to generation. The city grew and slowly my street became lonely among slums. Some have left, others try to revive its energy in spite of the exhaustion that the the difficult years have left on us. It is true that it is not my large childhood house anymore, where falling down on its granite floors was taken with laughs. Now the doors remain closed most of the day and are barely opened at night when the heat is unbearable; but when it is New Year and those living in other places come back, we cut the grass, decorate the entrances with paper chains and we sit on the old stairway that leads to my house, then we still feel part of it and miss the heavy rains, the avocado and mango trees in Alipio´s patio, even the windows of Dolores’s house, always interrupting our games when the ball fell inside her house, and we know that Cruz Verde is in us.
Andres Cruz Rodriguez
55 years old, Sweets vendor
I live currently at Mercedes, that street with a song´s name…the one who comforted my soul. At my house, my son and I work together making cakes and other sweets and now and then I still write poems. About my street there is not much to tell, except that it has a radio station and a Municipal Educational facility.
One has what one wants and I want my street to be Desengaño, which starts nearby where the soul becomes peace: The church of the…Trinidad, and it ends where the body stays forever rested, at one of the city´s cemeteries. Near the church everything seems like a portrait from the past, all is preserved the way the Spaniards built it during the colonial period. Its houses (even its people) have a precious look of antiquity. Those are two or three blocks only, because we have two or three more that look like any Cuban town, and afterward comes the busy activity that I like in the street. That is between Carmen and the railway. There all the neighbors are alert to what is going on around them. On the sidewalks the vendors are clustered selling vegetables, food, screws and lace, paint, fish, chicken, peanut marzipan, suspenders…apparently all in small quantities, but it never runs out; and suddenly a neighbor shouts: Hey! Take a place for me at the queue for milk! That could be the password to say that the inspectors are coming and everyone disappears with their goods until the danger is over. The other day a lady asked a man the time at seven o´clock in the morning and he seriously answered “9:59”. I looked at my watch and we were all silent. My partner took me inside. “When you see unknown guys like this, they are asked the number which came out in the bolita.* If water floods, one shouts to one another, although it is obvious it came…that so-and-so looks weird, that the other one is a bugger, that she is so ugly and what airs she gives herself…all you want to know and buy has an answer in this part of the street, where now and then a Trinitarian passes by in his last journey home.
*Bolita: illegal lottery in Cuba. The lottery takes place in Venezuela and people hear the numbers in short wave radios
Worried about our heritage
I am not going to talk exactly about my street. I am an old person and would like to make emphasis on a social problem affecting many families in Trinidad. In the past youngsters and teenagers came to dance to the music played in the Plaza Cultural, next to the Parque Cespedes, right in the center of town. Parque Cespedes, also known as Parque Carrillo, was founded by the Veteran Center and in its beautiful arbor the Municipal Band offered famous open-air concerts that made afternoons in Trinidad really nice. Hurricanes attacked the arbor persistently. Some time ago another arbor was built, beautiful too; but now the Municipal Band musicians do not play at Parque Cespedes anymore. The older people in Trinidad we miss those musical afternoons under the pergola. This is not my only concern. The thing is that the music enjoyed by young and older people around the park was taken away. They now play it in the Plaza Revolucionaria, a space in an isolated part of town, at the entry of Polvo Rojo, a place where on weekends people must take the risk of walking down dark and lonely streets. In that area acts of pillage and even rapes have taken place because its remoteness lends itself to every type of crime. The reason for moving away the music and the drink selling stalls is that it bothers the tourists staying at the Iberostar Hotel, right across the street from the park. To build the hotel, the Siboney—a very nice cafeteria—two houses and the seat of Trinidad Radio Station were demolished. The truth is that nowadays the families of the young people in town are worried because they have to go so far away to listen freely to a bit of music. Many mothers and grandmothers complained to the People’s Power,* but nobody has done anything on the matter. It is alarming that we ourselves are acting against our heritage. Trinidad, a city that has attained its condition as Monument City, Humanity World Heritage. We must fight to bring the music to a more central place where youngsters may go with no setbacks, and to have our open-air concerts once more under the pergola in Parque Cespedes.
*The People’s Power: in Cuba, the City Council.
Boca without you
Anisley Miraz Lladosa
30 years old, Writer and visual artist
Rain is a balm in these afternoons in Trinidad of perpetual Summer as if the sun never sets. Rain makes music when it charges, at times nervously, others rather joyfully; at times proud or rather disproportionately sad; but, without you, the only meaning of rain is to draw abstract vacuums on the pavement of Parque San Francisco or to get inaccessibly lost among the stones of this piece of street that misses you. It has no more purpose than to fall endlessly, bathe the earth that drinks it with the same bravery of those tourists sitting on benches—naked calves, either very white or very red—absorbing their juice and sodas while looking at a child who is also thirsty, suffers the burden of the heat and poses with a different naivety…
Without you the street is not the same. Perhaps it is more restrained, maybe more inhospitable and summer is raw as if I were dressed with canvas. And rain is definitely more nostalgic.
We live (at night) in a part of Boca (Mouth) between Amargura (Sadness) and Cristo (Christ), two enigmatic names undoubtedly, a metaphor for those near the Calvary, the life we carry on our shoulders, like a cross. The house where we live, which we have made our shelter – full of tools and ornaments belonging to its original owner, with all that energy of other tenants—already understands our language, shapes our shadows and melts them in intimate shadow plays, breathes the same air of our wills…It is small and yellow. No windows. Blue door. You have to bend to go in. It has a thousand cracks: one horizontal and enormous through which people that knock may see if there is life inside; some vertical and the largest of them all: between the tile floor and the lower edge of the door, through which street iguanas, scared by the children in the neighborhood, slip in. By the way, children love our door; they prefer this one much more than any other wider and with steps. The little house has so many leaks that it seems it also rains inside. And the dampness…everything smells damp…the walls, the sheets, the paintings, the basket with false acorns, the virgin of the blessed water… Everything smells like recently found mold. It must be because of one of the following reasons:
a) the ceiling is made of palm wood and termites have ravaged it,
b) the orchids of the writer who owns the house that are still hanging in the small wall of the little yard,
c) next door there is a lot planted with plantains in which the soil is very high,
d) under the bed where we sleep, the owner of the house and the orchids built the cistern which provides all the necessary water
e) a famous painter lives next door and when he makes his paintings—wonderful scenes of Trinidad at night, wet, surrealist and fragrant of memories – he gets nostalgic,
f) the writer left an invisible poetic legacy that floods everything belonging to him,
g) or, at the end, I know you end up leaving to a distant place
Is it because of all these reasons that dampness also invades the street, this very old part of town, this Boca (Mouth) without you?
This is a quiet place, very close to the Parque San Francisco and the Convent, that distinctive city mass crammed with memories, legends and hopes, seen in postcards and guides of the island, that patrimonial island which bestows on the street a breath of grace and mystery, frequently imposing; but which we have enjoyed together in the day and at night when the intermittent light in the corner goes out.
If you are not here, nothing seems so certain. I do not stop to look at the park or the convent. I seem to hear you: “It always frightens me, it is as if someone were looking from the bell tower,” you say. I only look up:
a) when I am holding hands with you -and I am even captivated looking at the red carpet on the sidewalk, created by the constant fall of the flamboyant flowers.
b) when I know you will come home soon
Full of never imagined colors
Liuver Ramirez Ramirez
24 years old, Maxillofacial Surgery Resident
The name of my street is Pepito Tey and it is in La Popa, one of the marginal areas in Trinidad. I live in 9A, a house that is one of the smallest in the neighborhood: it starts in the kitchen, which also works as living room and the place where visitors are received. My bedroom is also very small and it is full of medical books and some books written by a poet friend of mine. I may consider myself lucky for being the only one in the neighborhood who graduated from the university with a Gold Title.
The street is peculiar. It is rather a hidden alley. There is a little of everything, as in a miscellaneous landscape: people who work at night and sleep during the day, people who don’t sleep and spend their life meddling in the lives of others, people whose favorite dish is cat fricassee, people who eat rice with coffee, people who don’t work… There are two old siblings, confirmed bachelors, who live together; a family in which all the members are alcoholic; there are also people who make and sell sweets, as my brother does; there are some neighbors who throw the winkles the moment they wake up to see what the future will bring; others burn fish, to open their paths or to harm people or whatever… There is always a rotten smell, a smell of decomposition throughout the entire street. Walking down the street we find first a teacher that, to survive, sells some spicy soup and popsicles. She lives in a room with her two children whom she has to support. Next to her house there is a lonely old man with the deepest look I have ever seen: his eyes are as blue as the sea in the summer. Then there is the best house in the neighborhood, which I call “the mansion,” it belongs to a family obsessed with expanding it and they are always building, they even fight with their own relatives for a little more space. Next to them lives a woman who has not been able to have children and who has suffered very much: whenever she is pregnant, she loses the child in the last months. She is expecting again, so the entire neighborhood helps her. A little further down there is a very dressed up woman who is the president of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) and has an affair with my grandfather, they both look very funny, they meet secretly… as if nobody knew! Our neighborhood also has a “heroine”. Her name is Yeni and it is not that she has done anything really extraordinary, she has not saved the world; but she fixed the street: she is the only one who has married a tourist and was able to extend the road to our block, something all the neighbors are thankful for. Next to her house lives the most mysterious man in the neighborhood, he does not let anyone enter his home. He has not married, but we see him with a different woman every week. Besides, he frequently changes his look: he dyes his hair yellow, red, blue, whatever, and he drinks in nice glasses… something entirely atypical in La Popa. This man is the one who opens the aqueduct valves which bring the water to town. Next to his house the oddest family lives: they do not want to lose their last name or have their blood intermingle with that of others, so they marry among themselves. Next to them, the poorest people “live”: they still have an earthen home and have been unable to improve their lives. We also have, as is the case in almost every neighborhood, a “peeping Tom” who comes out at night to fulfill his “duty.” The most numerous and backward are the Zuñigas: A very large number of them live in just one house.
As you can see, a good script for a novel with a hundred DVDs—or perhaps a horror movie – could be made with my neighborhood. In it, human passions go from the sublime to the ridiculous, but just the same, I would not enjoy living anywhere else.
I love this landscape, full of never imagined colors.
Daniel Valdés González
23 years old
The street where I was born is not where I find myself now, but I still remember the times when I stood in front of the immense sea to look at the waves and the little boats arriving from a night of fishing, and even if it was not too good they were happy because they love the sea and all it withholds. I also do not forget the smell of Havana Club rum, the factory was by the northern coast, where there are now several camping sites receiving people from all over the island. People who live in Santa Cruz del Norte love the sea just like I do because it always accompanies us.
Where I live now, being 23 years old, is in prison, in all my years I have lived in several places and lived different stories, like this camp where I am now, it is a place in which nobody would like to be. I was five months at the prison in Melena, later on, and just like that I was moved to Quivican which belongs to the new Mayabeque province, it was not so bad there considering I was deprived of freedom, I went to work in the street. Afterward I was sent to an open camp to work in the fields. I was there for five months, then I was moved to Rio Seco and I worked a lot in the fields planting and cutting sugar cane. I longed for my former work: before being in prison, I was a house inspector looking for mosquito clusters, but then a row, injuries, and jail.
The sun heats my head which I cover with my cap.
I walk down the furrow behind the road, I bend down and stand up.
I sow illusions, sweet illusions, they are not bitter.
It is guarapo, the cane sugar juice that will grow between my hands.
Now I am at another camp, in front of the other, I work at the pantry of the direction council, it has been a year and three months since I am in this situation in which I have seen many things, wickedness and good people who do not deserve to be here; but well, I do not see this as my house or my street, but as a wrong place from which I should learn for my future life. I wish to be in my street with my family and loved ones, but it is here where I am and only every forty-five days, if I behave well and work in all I am commanded to, I go to my real street for a weekend and then I come back to my fake house, my fake street where my front neighbors are the sugar canes and my invented little room with five other people who are in my same situation, with different stories along their life time.
I hope to be out to be able to be where I feel well, the problem is that I like very much to go around the world, free from all chains.
The stories of Behind Doors: Cuban Stories (Janet 45 Publishing, Plovdiv, Bulgaria, 2012) have been compiled by:
Anisley Miraz Lladosa, a poet and visual artist and organizer of the famous tertulias tristá (Cuban storytelling gatherings), lives in Trinidad.
Alexis Alvares, a visual artist from San Jose de las Lajas, currently works as a food designer in a private restaurant in Trinidad.
Oscar Yoendris Hernández Olave is studying law at Havana University, and lives between Sofia and Havana.
Idalmis Ester López is from Guantanamo, has studied communications at Havana University, and now lives in Havana.
Valia Carvalho is a cultural manager and visual artist from Bolivia who lives and works in Berlin, Germany.
Maria Teresa Ortega Sastriques is a translator who lives and works in Havana.
Behind Doors: Cuban Stories was edited by:
Diana Ivanova, a writer, journalist, documentary filmmaker and the recipient of numerous journalism awards and scholarships. She holds an MA in journalism and mass communications from Sofia University. A selection of her works has been included in Which Road to Europe (Weiser Verlag, Austria, 2008), an edition collecting the best of European journalism.
The photos of Havana used for this Ninth Letter feature were taken by Hannah Gottlieb-Graham.