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

University students of the ’30’s.

Much is said and published through the media in our country about the “achievements” obtained for the Cuban woman after the Revolution. But never is a word said about the social, political, and economic advantages achieved by our feminine population before the year 1959 in the last century.

For that we are going to refer to some very revealing information from the “1953 Population and Electoral Census,” the last one carried out during the Republic, published and edited by P. Fernández y Cía.  These censuses were carried out approximately every ten years.

Total population of the country: 5,829,029 (2,985,156 males and 2,843,874 females).

School attendance between ages 5 and 24:  (428,334 males and 411,861 females).

Last grade passed: Baccalaureate (High School) 88,562 (54,121 males and 34,441 females). University 53,464 (35,967 males and 17,497 females). There was an average of 3.8 universities per 1,000 residents.  Cuba occupied first place in Latin America along with Argentina, Mexico and Uruguay.

As interesting information we can say that in the year 1940 everyone who involved in the teaching profession was certified, a unique condition among all the countries of Latin America.

Our country then had one of the lowest levels of illiteracy in our continent:  23.6% (41.7% rural and 11.8% urban).

In addition, we can point out that Cuba in 1918 became the first country in Latin America to recognize the right of couples in conflict to divorce.  We must also add that in the Constitution of 1940 is recognized, for the first time in Latin America, a woman’s right to vote, equality of the sexes, the right of a woman to work, the right to open a bank account, and to get a passport, besides granting her authority over her children.

Of the economically active population in 1953, 22% were female, in addition to a work force in professional fields where 16% were women and 3% men.

As can clearly be seen in these statistics, women’s participation was increasingly present.

For this it is good to note that in the same way that the participation of the “weaker sex” was becoming more active in the life of the country, they were implementing home courier services such as the delivery of milk, bread, mineral water, food, pharmaceutical products, dry cleaning, laundry, etc., which relieved the woman extraordinarily in her domestic work, enabling her to dedicate more time to the attention of the home and the education of her children.

I believe, without fear of equivocation, that we can assure that already the Cuban woman had become liberated in the Republican era, and her equality of civil, social, political and employment rights was on the rise.

Translated by mlk.

27 May 2014

A friend told me the following story about having to serve as a witness in the respective marriages of two of her friends, a Cuban brother and sister, to two unknown foreigners “recommended” to them by others who have already gone down this tortuous path:

The first wedding was between the sister and a foreigner; the second between her brother and an even older foreigner. Out of a sense of solidarity my friend, who was a witness and participant in both instances, also became involved in “set design” for both events. This included arranging for more than fifty photos portraying the wedding festivities, which meant having to assemble a tremendous array of “scenery and props.”

Since the bride and groom belong to a religion that does not allow alcohol (though apparently it does not prohibit lying), they had to find empty beer cans and fill them with water. They also had to buy two sponge cakes, cover them with some homemade meringue, put the toy “bride and groom” on top and decorate the wedding table before taking the photographs that would be presented as evidence.

She also tells me that the siblings did not have two houses in which to take family photos so, when they staged the second wedding, they were forced to borrow some of the neighbors’ furniture to decorate the living room. The also had to change pictures and accessories in the bedroom to make it appear as though it was two different houses.

In addition to all these theatrics (May is Theater Month), she told me about the fortune the sister and brother had to pay to the international notary office, which is well aware of the tricks people play and even offers “suggestions” to their clients.

Besides the “tidy sum” (all in CUC and dollars) they have to keep paying to the two respective foreigners who lent their services, there is the risk that the foreign embassy in question will not “swallow” this gimmick and might deny them their much sought-after visas.

This is but one of the many schemes employed by most of the Cubans who aspire to “escape” through a third country. They risk an enormous amount of money — almost always the proceeds from the sale of their homes — and in the worst cases their lives, to achieve the ultimate goal of setting foot at any cost on “enemy territory.” They will continue doing this until the Cuban Adjustment Act is rescinded, the prospect of which has now become an ongoing national rumor.

21 May 2014

Meeting someone through the social networks can bring us very agreeable surprise or, on occasions, the complete opposite. I’ve had the good fortune of establishing very good relationships and contracts through my blog, Twitter and Facebook, despite my restricted Internet access.

One of the most faithful followers during these almost five years since I opened “Through the eye of the needle” is a marvelous Cuban woman who has lived in Puerto Rico since the early seventies, who not only brings me support, but who has also also confided in me, and on sending me an invitation to meet in person, hosted me in her house.

During the years of contact through the social networks, we have identified — greatly coinciding in our opinions — an issue that brings us strongly together.

My brief stay on the beautiful “Enchanted Island” — in addition to my stay with her and her lovely family in Palmas del Mar, where they live — put me in touch with many personalities in the areas of arts and literature, in this paradise, and I participated as a guest artist in a bit “Meet the Chefs” Forest Fundraising Auction, haled every year to promote and finance the care of the native forest of this blessed place. At this event I was honored to donate one of my patchworks, coincidentally titled “Forest.”

Time, the “cruel enemy,” went too fast, as usually happens when we are enjoying something so much. I had to leave my new friends of this marvelous island and head home full of lovely images, much love, appreciation and great desires to return, still hearing in my ears the lovely song of their “coquís.”

18 May 2014

In spite of its title, the subject of this post is not historical but rather “hysterical.”

They once tried unsuccessfully to change the name of Carlos III Avenue to Salvador Allende Avenue, going so far as to remove the statue of the Spanish king who lent his name to this important Havana artery, which begins at Belascoaín Street and ends at Independence Avenue (also known as Rancho Boyeros Avenue). An important market named after the famous avenue is located here. Built in the 1950s, it later became a shopping mall made up of a collection of small stores.

Upon returning to “my planet,” I went looking for some items that are becoming difficult to find in the hard currency stores, figuring I could probably find them here. While going about my task, I suddenly noticed a married couple talking loudly with the obvious intention of being overheard. They were debating the subject of food shortages. A group of people quickly began forming around them, made up of those who happened to be there at the time. The wife, a woman of advanced years, began directing her comments to the youngest of those present.

“Do you have a dentures?” she asked them, to which those being queried answered affirmatively. Then, turning once again to the larger group, she said, “Well, considering how old you all seem to be, I imagine they stopped giving you milk when you were six and quite possibly none of you has ever chomped down on a good steak.”

13 May 2014

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