MICHAEL ALEXANDER AFTERWORD Letter from Havana BY ROSALIND SOLIZ Havana, Cuba IN MEXICO, I have been surrounded by children trying to sell me gum. In Cuba, children surrounded me begging for it. I felt like the Pied Piper dispensing gum to a growing crowd of children. And when the gum ran out, as it always did, they wanted pens or pencils. Or make-up for their mothers or anything their fathers could use. Teenagers and young adults handled their desperation with more sophistication. Someone named Manuel, Fernando or Vladimir would, from out of nowhere, fall in step beside me. “How long have you been in Cuba? What have you seen? What would you like to see? What kind of restaurants do you like? Do you like to dance?” The lines were the same, as though from a shared handbook. This is the pitch of the “jineteros” or jockeys, for the way they “ride” tourists. Male tourists were magnets for young women. I attracted young men. The jineteros offered me company and conversation. One volunteered to wait in line early the next morning to fetch a scarce copy of the Communist Party newspaper, Granma. He dropped hints about his lack of clothes, shoes, and money. Unlike other jineteros, he didn’t ask for an invitation to restaurants and clubs normally off limits to dollarless Cubans. I pressed a tightly folded dollar into his palm as we shook good-bye. It’s illegal for Cubans to have dollars. Mine would end up on the black market. When I assumed the role of journalist, the jineteros offered a steady stream of willing interviews. But, when I wanted to be a tourist, their constant intrusions upset what I had hoped would be reflective walks through the city. I thought that as a Latina I would be inconspicuous. Yet, from across wide avenues stalking jineteros shouted to me “Viva Mexico.” The nationality was wrong but they knew I didn’t belong. When Cubans found out I was from the United States, those who supported Castro raised their brows. Those against him, or, more accurately, his austerity program, let loose a tide of criticism. My greatest insight about life in Cuba came from Tony and Milagros. Milagros is a dancer. Her brother, Tony, is a mechanic who played baseball in the United States for a Cuban exhibition team. I told him I was from Texas. He rattled off a list of Texas cities. He is a Dallas Dallas-based TV journalist Rosalind Soliz is on a fellowship in Mexico City. Cowboys fan. Tony’s treasured keepsake of his two U.S. visits is a snapshot of a Christmas party Santa Claus holding a little girl in his lap. I assumed the child was Tony’s and that’s why the photo was important to him. But the little girl was a stranger. Having the picture was the point. It proved Tony had been to America. I spoke with Tony in his sister’s one room apartment in La Habana Vieja, or Old Havana. This historic, colonial neighborhood reminded me of New Orleans. But, instead of faded charm, Old Havana has decaying elegance. Narrow, chipped marble steps opened into a maze of bigger hallways. One led to Milagros’ cubicle, once part of a bigger room. From her wrought iron balcony, I saw that neighbors’ buildings were carved up the same way. Milagros’ room had a false ceiling; space is so precious that buildings are divided by height to create rooms overhead. Milagros greeted me and two companions with hugs and black market rum. She cooked dinner for us. I ate black-market beef and hot fritters made with a turnip-like vegetable and black-market garlic and onions. It was the tastiest meal of my eight-day stay in Cuba. Better than the $20-for-tourists-only leg-of-pork dinner I had at one of Hemingway’s old haunts, La Bodeguita. Milagros wanted to know more about America. She asked whether I ate bacon and eggs every morning for breakfast. I felt uncomfortable explaining that Americans have health problems because they eat too much. In Cuba, milk is a luxury reserved for babies, the aged and people with ulcers. But though Milagros’enthusiasm lit up the drab cinderblock room, I felt sad as I saw a bright, energetic woman with no future. Tony said they were victims of a capricious government. He meant his, though I thought of mine and an embargo that no longer makes sense. Twenty years ago, Tony supported Castro and reforms that made education and medical care free. But no more, Tony said, though he hesitated to predict the end of Castro. Milagros joked that Castro is so well protected he doesn’t even fall out of bed. Tony pulled out a ration book which guarantees him a minimum amount of food. Blanks in the book reveal food has been late in coming and choices fewer. I asked about clothes. Milagros is entitled to one bra or a pair of panties a year. This triggered a downbeat fashion show with displays of clothes and shoes, courtesy of generous tourists. A disassembled dress will become a blouse for Milagros and a dress for her 5-year-old daughter. A remnant fits over a cup. It is a coffee filter. Milagros performs Afro-Cuban dances at a tourist hotel. Her stage make-up is homemade. The black to paint her eyebrows and eyelids 22 AUGUST 7, 1992
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