My aunt is one of the many thousands of Cubans who never tires of thanking that nation that welcomed her and permitted her to safeguard the security of her adolescent son, giving her the opportunity to work and forge a better and more secure future.

Even so, since her prolonged exile, which began in 1961, she does not let a single day go by without thinking of that marvelous land where she was born, studied and had a beautiful family and which she never intended to abandon until she found herself forced to do it.

Within days she will turn 99 years old and still she keeps dreaming of returning to a free Cuba, although she is now aware that those who will enjoy that forthcoming moment are going to be her grandchildren.

Happy July 4th to the nation and people of the United States of America.

Translated by mlk.

4 July 2014

Map of the Ringling Complex.

I still remember with much fondness the circuses of my childhood, but above all the marvelous and spectacular Ringling Brothers, that would arrive in our country in December — in the early days encamping in the old Sports Palace on Paseo and Primera streets, facing the sea — and later, towards the end of the 1950s, in the then-resplendent Sports City.

Carmen, punctual as is her wont, came to get me at 5am so that we could go together to the meeting place from which the bus would depart that would take us from Miami to Sarasota. We were the first to arrive, even before the bus, because we are both like that, super-careful in meeting our commitments. Little by little the other tourists began arriving until the full group was assembled.

The tour guide was a “cubanaza*”- very amusing and active, with a great love of the arts – who specializes in putting together these types of excursions, all with a cultural purpose. And so, between storytelling, laughs and songs – including interesting raffles of books and small paintings created by some of the tour participants, among whom were writers, a poet and even a painter – we made this long trip which turned out to be most pleasant.

Arriving in Sarasota, the tour personnel provided us with ID wristbands and maps of this lovely place, so that each person could choose their companions and where to begin their journey through this grand cultural complex, a major attraction and pride of this city, which has been converted from the mansion, art gallery, theater and other property that belonged to the family of John and Mable Ringling, which they bequeathed as a heritage legacy, and which since 2000 has been under the guardianship of Florida State University.

Everything, absolutely everything, impressed me because of its grandeur and splendor, but what most amazed me, owing to its magnitude and level of detail, was the impressive scale model of the great circus industry that gave life to this family empire, whose spectacles I enjoyed every winter in my beloved Havana, up until 1959.

The family mansion, called “Cad ´Zan” by its owners — which in the Venetian dialect means “John’s house” — was built by the architect Dwight James Baum in 1924, in the Venetian baroque style, impressive for its luxury and excellent state of preservation.

Another great attraction is the Museum of Art which displays collections of the most famous European painters: El Greco, Rubens, Velázquez, Veronese, Gainsborough, and other great masters. The building is surrounded by splendid gardens, where the sculptures look to be enjoying the marvelous surroundings. We also visited the Asolo Theater, built in 1798, dismantled and transported from Italy to be added to the Ringling complex in 1948, becoming the only 18th century theater in the United States of America.

We returned well into the evening, satisfied and exhausted from so much walking and enjoyment of this well-organized and enjoyable excursion to one of the most interesting corners of this beautiful State of Florida.

*Translator’s note: “Cubanaza(o)” can be said to be a sort of “super Cuban” – someone who is almost a caricature of the Cuban style of speech, mannerisms, attitudes, etc. The term as used by a fellow Cuban to refer to another is often – as in this case – one of endearment.

 Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

16 May 2014

The heat was death, the Route 27 bus stop overflowing with people, from which we could conclude that not a single bus had passed for a long time. Asking one of those present, I was told they had been waiting for more than an hour.

I hadn’t been at the stop five minutes when I saw in the distance the yearned for “ghost bus.” We all ran towards it, having divined the intentions of the driver to not  stop where he was supposed to, which is a common occurrence. Between pushing, protests and rude phrases, I managed to climb the step, and at just this moment I was confused because the difficulty of getting inside was greater than I already knew it would be.

I’m sure I haven’t gained weight, I told myself, clinging to my bag, which I was wearing, as usual, hanging from my shoulder, and I put it in front of me. At that moment I realized that the narrowness of the access was because on both sides of the entrance steps where you access “the belly of the beast” they had placed some iron bars, like those used in corrals to guide the cattle into the pens.

Addressing the driver, who in these moments had left the wheel and was standing next to the fare box trying to collect, I protested loudly so that he could hear me, but those behind me were rudely pushing me, making me afraid to stay there. Whomever had designed this device, I said, thought that we passengers were cattle being led to the slaughter, without realizing that there were no cattle here, only sheep.

Nobody responded, everyone continued pushing and elbowing each other until finally, squeezing by, we managed to get aboard. Then the driver closed the doors and took off at full speed, and then two blocks later scared us all by braking suddenly at the red light at Paseo Street. We were all shaken up and when he started up again we fell all over the inside of the bus like dominoes.

The “brain” that designs these horrendous orthopedic gadgets, which are nothing more than technological bars, didn’t consider the safety of the passengers at all, because if there were an accident or a fire they would make evacuation extremely difficult.

Nor did they consider the discomfort of disabled people who have to use crutches, or the obese people who can barely squeeze into the bus without hurting themselves, or those who travel with children in their arms.

If the objective is to assure that citizens pay their fares, the solution would be selling the tickets ahead of time, which would also avoid the driver “appropriating” the corresponding change. This is another unresolved problem, because when you pay with a peso (often scarce) the driver always keeps the change from a forty centavo trip.

Every day that passes we receive the worst treatment on public services, but as the majority of us accept it calmly and quietly, the authorities have come to believe that we really are animals and they treat us like ones.

27 June 2014

On my planet the abnormal is normal. For example, when we go shopping — whether it be in those dark, poorly ventilated stores, whose scant merchandise is priced in CUP (Cuban pesos), or the well-illuminated, air-conditioned hard currency stores, whose somewhat greater selection is priced in CUC — we are met at every step with surprises.

A few weeks ago a friend who was visiting brought us some wonderful bread sticks, which had been purchased at one of the Silvain stores. They came wrapped in an enormous plastic envelope much larger than the product it contained. When I looked more closely at the package, I noticed it carried the Caribbean Queen label, an indication the packaging would normally be used for shellfish.

Last week there was a knock on my door from a “dark bag” vendor I know, who was selling lobster tails. They came wrapped in a plastic package identical to the one containing the bread sticks.

None of this is surprising. They are simply examples of the “details” we have been experiencing for many years now. We have become so accustomed to them that they seem perfectly normal.

In the 1980s some doctors wrote prescriptions on the backs of paper labels from cans of Soviet condensed milk. It was also quite common for Fiesta shampoo (the only kind available in those days) to come in the same amber-colored bottles used to package household cleaning solution. It was also the era of conjoined products (the kind that were not easy to move). In other words if you needed deodorant, you had to also buy a machete and a can of shoe polish because the three were sold together, or “conjoined.” Fortunately, that phase had passed by the mid-1990s when dollar possession was decriminalized and hard-currency stores were opened.

But we are still subject to inappropriate packaging of some products sold in both currencies. What is one to do? We already know that socialism is not perfect! In spite of comrade Murillo’s insistence to the contrary, what is quite clear is that this is not really the option we Cubans would prefer. To dispel any doubts, he should just drive his brand-new car past the embassies of any number of countries, slow down, lower the tinted windows and take note of the long lines of citizens crowded outside the consulates, applying for visas in an attempt to “escape.” Many of them are the same people who fill the plazas, answering “the call of the Revolution.” As one might conclude, not everything is as it seems.

24 June 2014

According to the Larousse dictionary, the Spanish verb extrañar means the following: to be surprised, to find something odd because it is new, to miss someone or something, to be delighted…

Cubans in Cuba miss air-conditioned movie theaters and their weekly premieres that came to us “just released” from all over the world, including those from “across the street.*” We miss the cafes with their popular café con leche — so typical of Havana — accompanied by toast slathered in butter.

We miss the bars and bodegas where for a modest price you could get a nice sandwich or a delicious bisuit. Or a coffee for three centavos, which you could buy at almost at every bus stop. Or the equally cheap and delicious frita cubana, made with beef and ground pork, served on soft, round bread and accompanied by onion rings and julienned potatoes. Or the freshly-made hot little tamales (spicy or mild). Or the fruit smoothies called batidos from Chinese-owned stalls such as Navidad along the Malecon, where you would go to cool off on summer nights or to “chase the waves” as they entered from the north. Or walking up and down the Rampa chatting with friends.

But what we miss most of all is Sunday’s delicious arroz con pollo — chicken with rice — garnished with pimentos and olives, and shared with family. And the crushed ice covered in fruit juice sold at kiosks throughout the city. And the stalls selling oysters with lemon, which you would eat right there. And the buñuelos (or donuts) with “cane syrup” you would have at your grandmother’s house. And those neighborhood clubs which gave parties for children and adults. Or those places along the beach, where you could dance every evening starting at six, almost always accompanied by an orchestra or live band. In other words all the many, many options that began disappearing after the abrupt political changes of 1959.

But what does a Cuban who was forced to emigrate sometime in the last five decades miss? As far as I have been able to ascertain, he misses the Malecon, the Rampa, family meals, the taste of guava and mango (they say it is not the same as here), the neighborhood, the whistles used to call friends without having to ring their doorbells and other things that, although replaceable outside Cuba, do not have the same “flavor,” no matter how good they might be.

I would like to point out that feelings of nostalgia and longing are not limited to the Cuban diaspora. A frustrated yearning for the “good old days” affects us all of us who, for one reason or another, have decided to remain on this captive island.

With our national heart spit in two, Cubans constantly shuttle back and forth, looking for the “crazy glue” that will once and for all allow us to put back together the pieces of — as Alejandro Sanz calls it — our “shattered heart.” Today it is up to all of us to join forces to continue the struggle until we achieve it.

*Translator’s note: A reference to the United States.

19 June 2014

It is painful and embarrassing to travel along the Avenue of the Presidents, more commonly known as G Street and, on reaching the huge monument erected to  President José Miguel Gómez, which fortunately is solid and erect, to glance to the right and observe with amazement this enormous skeletal ghost of what was the Pedro Borras Hospital, the largest example of the Art Deco style in America, dedicated to health, a work of the architects Govantes and Cobarroca, whose work was similar in style and use, but not as big, as that found in Chicago, USA, in perfect condition and providing medical services, while ours is a victim of abandonment and government neglect, which has left it in its current sad state.

The official media blames its deterioration on structural deficiencies that never existed, but they don’t speak of the detonations carried out on the sidewalk in front of it at the foot of Calixto Garcia Hospital, when the fever of explosions to build tunnels, ordered by the official Nomenklatura, infected the whole city, which very possibly caused the damage to its structure. Nor was it ever adequately maintained, nor was the damage that was caused repaired, despite the fact that more than thirty years ago a group of architects, concerned about the conservation of this patrimony, submitted projects (which were shelved) to restore and save the building.

This healthcare colossus remains closed and totally abandoned, a victim of bureaucratic apathy, squatters, depredations and robberies in its facilities. Now it levitates, remaining upright, a static miracle, ready at any moment to collapse and finally fall down, to become a ghost whose death could have been prevented. One more valued heritage lost, like the emblematic Alaska building in the same neighborhood, the responsibility for which will fall historically on the same authorities who have been ruling us during these fifty-five years.

If urgent measures aren’t taken to restore these grande exponents of our architecture, we will also have to painfully witness the death of the Lopez Serrano apartment building, as well as the America Arias Maternity Hospital, both also examples of the most refined art deco style, now in precarious conditions.

By this means I am making an urgent appeal to the sensibilities of those in whose hands  is the power to address and solve this situation, affecting all Cubans in general and our architectural and historical heritage in particular.

15 June 2014

She is a beautiful woman, petite, friendly, very intelligent, with a great sense of humor and even a certain naivete that makes her appear still younger than she is.  Also, bachelors and masters in science, with many accumulated scientific achievements in her long career.

She lives in the heart of El Vedado, in a building from which in another epoch was observed a beautiful view of what was once one of the most architecturally important and lovely sports parks of our city, with a blue, almost always calm sea as a backdrop.

This park, like all the city, including, it is clear, the building where she resides, has been deteriorating with the passage of time and government apathy, to the point of becoming ghosts from a shining era now passed.  In any case, the same was remodeled and completed in 1960 to form five zones:  park, stadium, gymnasium, pool, children’s playground and volleyball and basketball court, with stands for 1,020 spectators, where the architect Octavio Buigas was showcased with the solution of the spectacular tiers that seated 3,150 people, covered by a light structure of concrete “domed shells” 125 meters long “kindred” to the famous Zarzuela Hippodrome in Madrid.

Her balcony is just across from this pitiful panorama today.  She lives alone and works in a hospital, so that for more than eight hours a day she is required to abandon her home, fearing the delinquents who take refuge in said tiers.  She, when she is home, usually peeks out to the balcony costumed on different occasions, sometimes as a firefighter, others with cap and sport suit and with hat and glasses, thinking in this way to mislead that element she so fears, with the objective that they believe that several people live in her apartment and so that it will not occur to them to plan anything twisted against her.

As she explains to me, there, under the tiers that are falling to pieces, live “homeless,” drug addicts, and all kinds of “characters” who even carry out clandestine dog fights, without the police trying to impede these criminal activities, given that, from what she and the neighbors have been able to observe, they are not only complicit, but also participants.  While in our country the Media “extols” discipline, order and socialist integrity, this only shows the other side of the coin.

Translated by mlk.

4 June 2014

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