Deciphering Cuba: Of streets, gardens, churches and kitchen tables

A rooftop mosaic near the studio of artist Jose Rodriguez Fuster spells out "Long live Cuba." (Hayley Prokos/MEDILL)

This is the continuation of a multi-part series on Cuba. Read the previous collection of vignettes: “Of democracy, dogs, and WiFi: Scenes from Cuba”

Cuba through a cereal box periscope

HAVANA – Cuba’s capital is defined by its veneer.

American tourists experience Havana from the vantage point of a cereal box periscope. Freshly waxed Chevrolets from the 1950s, fine cigars and restored Spanish colonial buildings weave the veil draped over the true face of Havana.

The reality of Havana is rusted disparity.

Opening the hood of one of the well-polished classic cars will reveal the oil-burnt “Frankenstein” engine, a mashed mechanical spectacle of salvaged parts. The toilets flush in Havana but the bathrooms lack toilet paper. “Special forces” soldiers will casually walk the streets with barrel-chested bravado despite having only the training of a basic infantryman.

The veneer is kept polished and clean by Cubans themselves.

Generations of homes carved into apartments too small for their many inhabitants have created a positive product: Warmth and community. One Cuban student said, “We do not have personal space here in Havana. Everyone knows each other here.”

People in Havana pride themselves on the image they exude.

They create the sweet crème atop the government-subsidized disarray.

They keep the city alive.

–Neil Fotre

Best business strategy? Go with the flow

HAVANA – Jorge Ibrahin says Cuban business laws must change if commercial enterprises are to prosper. As a human resources officer at El Biky, a restaurant, bar and bakery cooperative in central Havana, he wants rules that better protect and support businesses like his.

But at no point has he ever thought about contacting the one-party government to advocate for changes in laws. He scoffs when I ask. “When you get home, call your representative,” Ibrahin tells me. “See if he picks up. If he does, try to get him to change his mind on something.”

Laws about cooperatives are currently up for discussion in the Cuban national assembly. While Ibrahin has heard that the Cuban government will be adding more protections for cooperatives soon, he says he does not “waste time planning for things that haven’t happened yet.”

The past two decades of on-again, off-again reforms make him wary about predicting the future. During the “special period,” of economic calamity in the 1990s, he would never have guessed that he would one day be a partner at a successful business.

“You’ve been alive for 21 years. Do you know how much has changed for us in Cuba since you’ve been born?” he asks me. “We can’t think like that. We just have to try to survive the changes when they happen.”

–Robin Opsahl

Call it like it is

HAVANA – At a pre-trip orientation in Chicago, instructors reviewed some basics of Cuban culture, including cat-calling. We were told to take it in stride, to put any reflexive American reactions on hold. Cubans “call it like it is,” one said.

I wondered, how does she think Americans call it, exactly?

Staffers repeated the sentiment when we arrived in Cuba. Cat-calling is meant as a compliment, we heard. Just walk on by. They’ll never touch you.

A few days later, two female friends and I walked home in Havana around 10 p.m., passing couples and groups of young people enjoying a temperate evening. Beats of reggaeton music and the rumble of old car engines accompanied our stroll.

And then, a gasp. A man, maybe even a teenager, had reached out and groped one of us as he passed. We stared at each other, stunned, then looked back over our shoulders at the man, who had also stopped a ways down the street and stood smirking.

I wanted to yell horrible things at him, but my Spanish wasn’t good enough, so I gave him the finger. We turned and kept walking, faster now. I was a little scared, but mostly sad. I couldn’t believe we hadn’t been able to protect each other. That we had needed to.

The #MeToo movement felt like a distant memory.

–Ilana Marcus

Long memories

HAVANA – I sit across the table at Leslie’s as the dinner plates are cleared around us. Her long hair is now dyed green, after being blue. It is my fourth night staying in her family’s home.

The apartment is spacious and beautiful. The ceilings are tall, the walls dotted with abstract paintings and family pictures.

Old-world style in a Cuban home. (Holly Honderich/MEDILL)

Two large photographs of Fidel Castro, the leader of the 1959 Cuban revolution, hang in the living room. You can almost follow his eyes to the patio and beyond to their neighborhood, Vedado.

Sitting to my left is Elena, an American exchange student spending a semester at the University of Havana. I have asked her help in translating, hoping to advance my conversations with Leslie beyond hand gestures, emphatic nods, and the occasional “Si.”

I ask Leslie, who lives here with her parents and husband, about change in Cuba.

“But what about when Raul steps down?” I ask, referring to Fidel’s brother, Raul Castro, the country’s 85-year-old president, who has vowed to retire this year.

Leslie shakes her head.

“We expect nothing,” she says. No change at all.

I wonder about the source of Leslie’s apparent resignation. Is it her age? She is too young, her father Kiki says, to appreciate the island’s measured progress. Her memory lacks the length and span of her parents.

Born in 1992, in the depths of the so-called “special period” of economic crisis, Leslie has been spared the memories of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Cuba’s grave desperation. Raised in Matanzas, she was an athlete, a competitive sailor.

If Leslie sees no progress, why doesn’t she demand the change she seeks?

I look at her as I ask my questions in English. She looks back at me as if she understands.

I try – and fail – to keep my questions clear, to limit any misunderstandings as the words pass from me, to Elena, to Leslie and back again.

Why doesn’t she protest? Why doesn’t she push her government for more?

To these last questions, Leslie’s answer is short. Elena’s translation comes fast.

“We don’t want another revolution.”

Perhaps her memory is longer than I thought.

— Holly Honderich

Organic changes in Cuba

HAVANA – On a visit to the little heat-soaked village of Cojímar, perhaps best known as one of Ernest Hemingway’s haunts and the place that inspired him to write The Old Man and the Sea, I was instantly enchanted by luscious green beds of herbs, bushes and tropical fruit trees.

The quaint farm is owned by two brothers, Jesus and Julio Cesar Cruz. The simple innovations—such as water bottles in place of stones to organize the garden and deter bugs—make it both charming and highly productive.

In true Cuban form of making the most of what’s available, they plant the herbs and harvest the seeds for future use, so they don’t have to go to vendors. Everything on the farm is organic.

An organic herb garden in Cojimar delivers savory spices to restaurants and a nearby medical clinic. (Hayley Prokos/MEDILL)

During the tour of the garden, Jesus provided us with samples of a panoply of herbs—from basil to mint to parsley and eryngium foetidum, or culantro, a relative of cilantro.

The brothers mainly sell their produce to the neighboring restaurant, which prides itself on providing a farm to table experience, and to the polyclinico (local clinic) across the street.

Jesus smiled widely and gesticulated as he told me how he decided to make the career change from electrician to proprietor of the small produce business. His satisfaction came from simple things: a fragrant basil leaf, inventions to keep his garden free of pesticides and bugs, and an ability to nourish the community, figuratively and literally.

He isn’t unique — there are plenty of people in Cuba who love their work less for the thin wages than for the satisfaction. But the stories of these people who live in corners of the earth that I barely knew existed do not cease to amaze me.

–Hayley Prokos

The Simple Pleasures

HAVANA – “Life is short, enjoy every single moment because when God comes to earth and asks what have you done with your life, what will you tell Him?” Santiago says with a smile at the kitchen table during breakfast. Santiago, a vibrant 78-year-old, sits happily with the four American graduate students he has welcomed into his home for a week.

Each morning, he wakes up at the crack of dawn to cook an abundant breakfast for all –  tortillas con jamon, bread rolls with butter, assorted fruit, guayaba juice and orange juice. Before the Americans wake up, he turns on the heater, so they will be able to enjoy a hot shower.

The girls eat heartily and get ready for the remainder of the day, explaining to Santiago the activities ahead and asking his plans. He usually spends his days cooking, taking care of household chores and caring for his wife, whose knees bother her frequently, so she rests most of the day.

The highlight of his day is preparing meals for his guests and sitting with them at meals to hear about how their day went.

Que hiciste hoy? Era divertido?” – “What did you do today? Was it enjoyable?” asks Santiago at every meal as he sits on the couch. He never eats. He simply observes with a smile and listens.

Occasionally, he brings out his favorite book- a note ledger with handwritten notes from previous student guests. He reads the messages of well-being and laughs as he reminisces. One student drew a detailed illustration of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro laughing while smoking cigars and wrote a short message to Santiago below: “Thanks for everything! Can’t wait to return to Cuba!”

Santiago smiles as he reads each message and shares his favorite ones with new guests.

The simple pleasures bring the most joy.

–Kiara Brantley-Jones

Cuban Christianity, one version

HAVANA – When I returned to a church for a Thursday evening service, I bring a translator with me. David, a student at the University of Havana, comes running up 16th street in Vedado to the bright turquoise-painted sanctuary just as the service is about to start.

When it begins, we don’t know that he is about to get a crash-course in evangelical Christianity, an uncommon faith here in the 60th year of the revolution. Until 1992, Cuba was officially an atheist country, with even the longstanding Catholic Church struggling to maintain its community ties. Today, many old churches are used as concert venues and younger generations likely have raised with no religious education.

David’s grandfather goes to a protestant church, but it becomes clear to me this is his first serious encounter with Christianity

“I’m not sure what he’s talking about, so I don’t know that I’m comfortable translating this,” David says into my ear as the pastor begins his sermon. I ask him to try anyway and he tells me the pastor is describing those who will gain entrance into the kingdom of Heaven: Believers who fear God and trust in Him.

“He is saying you are supposed to ‘fear’ God, but I don’t think that’s what he means. Why would you need to fear God?” David asks. I explain that, unless you believe the Bible is a literal, God-breathed document, “awe” or “respect” can be more accurately used in place of “fear.”

“Then why not just say that?” he asks, incredulous..

I shrug and decide to explain later how the Bible has been translated many, many times from ancient languages into modern ones. I need to pay attention, because now pastor has moved on to his next topic: Saving non-believers.

–Emily Clemons

Spearfishing in Miramar

HAVANA – Where the water of the Florida Straits laps against coral-shaped rocks in Havana’s Miramar district, three fishermen arrange their day’s catch on a Friday afternoon. Gabriel is  lean and bare-chested in red swimming shorts. Dani is a little older and a wears wetsuit, the top part down around his hefty waist. Malu looks the youngest, soft-spoken with short-cropped curly hair.

They say they enter the water a little farther west, then swim along the shore and get out at this spot. They use spearfishing guns to catch fish as they go. Gabriel models a scuba weight belt fashioned with a string, on which he has roped together an octopus and several fish. He holds up a wire strung with about ten more foot-long fish, scales glinting in the sun.

Today’s yield was all right, says Dani. But when the current is flowing east, towards Matanzas, that’s when they have their best days. They sell the fish to residents of the neighborhood. He says that octopus sells at around $3.50 a pound to local restaurants, decent money when they catch three or four of them.

They do this from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. On Sundays, they meet up in this same spot and eat fish together.

Now, Malu leans on the rocks, peering out at the ocean, and Dani has waded a few inches into the water. Gabriel turns the corner with a stone-hilted knife and cuts chunks of raw fish for some neighborhood cats.

–Ilana Marcus 

Read the next collection of vignettes from this series: “Memory and invention mix in Cuba”

Photo at top: A rooftop mosaic near the studio of artist Jose Rodriguez Fuster spells out “Long live Cuba.” (Hayley Prokos/MEDILL)