Yesterday’s afternoon, Yusaimi spent four hours in the studio of a professional photographer. Surrounded by lamps, umbrellas, a mirror in the background, she spent all the time changing clothes and posing like an international model.
She ended up exhausted. After getting home, she quickly ate a light snack and went back to pose again. This time it was for a video with her parents, her boyfriend and friends. Around 12 o’clock at night, before crashing in bed, she went over the details of the preparation of the party with her parents. The next day was worse.
Starting at 9:00 in the morning, her home began to be invaded by relatives, friends, a makeup artist, and a popular hairdresser. She felt like an outsider, but happy. Some of her relatives from Miami had traveled to Havana to celebrate Yusaimi’s 15th.
It cost a lot of money. Since the girl was 5 years old, her parents started saving. So, the day of her 15th, the money-box had about 1,100 CUC (convertible pesos). It was only enough money (just under a thousand dollars) to start organizing the party.
If you asked them about the cost of the party, including the photo shoots, the clothes, and the well-staged choreography for the opening of the party, they would respond with a smile: “we’d rather not talk about that. She is our only child, and money would be never enough. She deserves it for all the effort she puts into school. And because you only turn 15 once in life, what the heck”, says the father excited, holding a glass of Santiago rum.
The Yusaimi’s quinceañera party was an event in the neighborhood. It cost an arm and a leg. They rented a room in a five-star hotel, and hired a well-known television announcer. They took dozens of pictures and videos. Makeup and hairdressing was carried out by experts. The buffet and the cake were a luxury. And such was the amount of alcohol, that almost all the guests left the party reeling.
And even, the relatives from Miami paid for an all-inclusive hotel in Varadero for the young woman, her boyfriend and parents, 5 days and 4 nights. When the years go by, Yusaimi will go through the pictures and videos of that memorable day, sitting on a vinyl sofa, with her husband and children.
Yet, this quinceañera is still distant from the time she will have to deal with the daily hardships from this unfinished and extravagant socialism designed by the Castros. It is possible that by then many things will have changed.
What seems certain, that despite living ruled by autocrats or their descendants, under the feet of military corporations, in a State-run corporate capitalism, or in a free society with elections every 6 years and as many political parties the number of cards in a card game, is that the Quinceañera parties will still exist in Cuba.
Although it may seem corny, crazy, and a waste of money, this custom will remain within Cuban society.
Traditions are traditions. In the Spanish city of Pamplona, on July 13th, Day of San Fermin, people go out in the street to run in front of bulls; it is almost authorized suicide. In other countries, when young people turn fifteen, their relatives release from the top of a steeple a goat in a sack.
In the United States, the President releases a turkey on Thanksgiving Day. And on Halloween, children dress up in costumes and knock on their neighbors doors asking for sweets and candies.
In some of Australia’s remote places, once a year, the feast is dwarf tossing, the farther the better. And in Africa and Middle East regions, a man can have up to 6 wives.
Traditions are identity stamps. And quinceañera parties have become a Cuban ritual, whether we like them or not.
Photo: Painting by Arsenio Cícero, published on the web Myths of Latin America.
June 17 2012
Dressed like a gypsy. Wide skirt, brightly colored scarf. As she casts the cards for her customers, she smokes a mop of cheap tobacco. Her name is Luisa, and although she claims to be 52, her sad eyes, wrinkled face, and decayed teeth give her the appearance of an old woman who has already reached one hundred.
She is one of the many fortune tellers who make their living in Havana by foretelling the future through Spanish cards or by peering at the lines in the hands of their customers.
In five minutes, in a calm voice she tells you what will happen with your life in the next decade. She foretells misfortune, foreign travel, money, or marital infidelity.
At times, when the deck of cards sends a message, she sheds a tear. Luisa is an artist in her work. If “death” is whispered in the ear of the one whose future she is currently consulting, she changes her voice like a ventriloquist.
This genuine Havanan was born one rainy night in 1959 in the poor neighborhood of Carraguao, in the municipality of Cerro. Before discovering her ability to diagnose cancer or a stroke of luck by simply looking at a person’s eyes, she worked in a textile factory on the outskirts of Havana.
Her life would make a bitter and realistic novel. Like those of Pedro Juan Gutierrez. She was a laborer and a militia member. And also a prostitute. She always searched out the money that would allow her to feed her children.
In the special period — that economic, material, and values crisis that has now lasted 22 years — her eldest daughter, knowing her mother’s abilities to “see things,” proposed that she seriously take up palmistry and fortune telling.
She read ten or twelve old books on those subjects. By means of the illegal cable antenna, she observed the modus operandi of Walter Mercado, the king of astral horoscopes and predictions in the southern United States.
A friend who practiced Santeria taught her to throw santera snail shells and various tricks for extracting information from people. When she was ready, she began to prophesy the fate of bystanders in various city streets. In Cuba, where the future is tomorrow and the most immediate plans are those made for the weekend, people like her, able to foresee the future, will always have success guaranteed.
Some days she works ten hours. After listening to the predictions, some end up laughing, others crying. But Luisa always returns to her room in a dilapidated tenement, with the pockets of her wide skirt full of five-peso notes, the price charged for each streetside consultation.
“Every day I look for between 100 and 200 pesos (5 to 10 dollars). I return home very tired. I fall into bed like a stone. People to whom I have predicted a trip abroad, and it happens, locate me and then give me money or clothes, telling me, “Madam, you were right, I am now living in that country. I am grateful to you,” says Luisa.
Since February 2011, she has had a license as a self-employed worker. She pays 65 pesos a month. She claims her forte is predicting death.
“Out of ten cases that I prophesy it, nine die. Sometimes out of pity I don’t tell them.” Two months ago, she told a neighbor that he would die in two weeks. “A few days later, he came to me: ’Luisa, you were wrong, I’m still alive.’ I looked into his eyes and knew he had but a few hours left, I preferred to keep quiet. The next morning he died of a heart attack. The trouble is that a fortuneteller cannot predict her own future.”
Photo: One of the fortune tellers who casts cards for tourists in Old Havana, although she is shown here with one of the many girls who dress as folklore characters for their 15th-birthday photos.
June 6 2012