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Social Garbageman

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Lithograph on paper, 1999, by Bezier, Cuban artist

 

Yamil, 22 years old, earns his living by rummaging through dumpsters. For him, a good day means filling three sacks to the brim with empty, flattened-out beer and soda cans, which he earns by walking 30 kilometers (about 18 miles) daily.

He gathers the sacks in a corner of his shack made of wood planks and cardboard. When he has 15 or 20 bundles, he puts them on a rustic wheelbarrow and takes them to a local junkyard where he exchanges them for packs of cookies, candy, chocolates, and plastic soda bottles.

The transaction ends once he manages to sell all the knickknacks. His earnings come to about 1,000 pesos (45 dollars). Half of this money doesn’t reach his poor home. On the way, he stops at a market to buy pork, vegetables, beans, and rice. At the black market he gets oil and soap, which his family uses for bathing as well as washing their hair and doing laundry.

Now I present to you his family. The mom sleeps ten hours a day on a dirty cot surrounded by cockroaches and mosquitoes. She spends the rest of her time drunk, drinking a rum so rough it’s scary. Once drunk she falls unconscious on her cot.

Because of this, Yamil is in charge of the house. He has four siblings: three girls, 7, 9, and 12 years old, and an older brother of 25, professional pickpocket serving 15 years in jail for forced robbery of an occupied home. “Thank God he’s in jail. When my brother Oscar was home, the fights were endless. He would hit my sisters and eat all the food.”

Yamil dreams of making money to be able to build a brick house. “For that I need to get together six or seven thousand pesos (250 or 300 dollars) and besides collecting junk material, start buying it wholesale. Then, I would gain 200 dollars in the exchange for candy. If I saved up half of that, in two years I would have 200 dollars. With that money I could start putting in the foundation for the new house.”

His 12-year old sister wants to help out; leave school and start turning tricks on the National Highway. But Yamil would rather wait until she’s older. “When she’s 15 she could start hustling. She’s not ugly and has a nice figure. That’s why I try to keep her and my other two sisters eating well, so their bodies will develop well. They are essential for building this house and having a better life in the future.”

Yamil barely managed to finish sixth grade. Life has made him tough. His latest struggle is against the government, which wants to have junk collectors pay taxes. “It’s abuse. If I pay taxes, I’ll barely have money to maintain my family.”

In his shack of cardboard and wet rotted wood, surrounded by thick shrubbery, with a single light bulb, without a radio, fridge, or TV, the mother wakes up and looks around. Without a word she takes a large gulp of homemade rum; “As you can see, she can’t be counted on to change our luck.”

February 26 2011

The Building That Resembles a Galician Apothecary

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment

If you want to know the soul of the Cuban people, you must live in a solar or tenement building. That’s where you’ll find diversity. Stories of prostitutes, pimps, gays, hustlers, thieves and dissidents.

I invite you to visit a building in the Havana neighborhood of Lawton. It consists of a ground floor and an upper floor with a total of with apartments, some larger than others. Four interior and four exterior terraces on the street.

It was ordered built in 1957 by Rosara, a pharmacist originally from Galicia. After saving coins and crumpled bills under his mattress for years, the Galician decided to take a leap in his life and become a landlord.

The idea was good, but times were bad. It was inaugurated in 1958. A year later, Fidel Castro and his bearded ones took over and did not take long to nationalize factories, sugar mills, refineries and buildings. Rosara could never recover the money he invested.

It’s been 53 years. The facade of the building has not been fully repainted. The letters R and O have fallen off and it reads now only SARA. But compared with the 19-century filthy tenements in the old part of Havana, which collapse under a passing shower or medium-intensity winds, Rosara is a five-star hotel.

I present to you its tenants. Along a narrow hallway four families live. A mother with three children, unemployed and mentally imbalanced, eating whatever comes along and living like a gypsy.

In another apartment, a neighbor devoted to Santeria. Above, a couple of old people loyal to Castro. In their old age they survive  on their retirement checks and remittances sent from the United States.

Next, a family maintained by their daughter. From Europe, she sends euros, so they can eat two meals a day and sleep with air conditioning.

In one of the apartments on the ground floor with a terrace, lives a couple with good manners and a son in college. Next, the classic generous type, who constantly disturbs the neighbors to offer his various trades. On the top floor, a specialist in sports statistics, serious and quiet.

It is a building where people usually say good morning, something rare in the island. And they do not ask for money, or to borrow sugar or rice, as is customary in most rooming houses and buildings of the capital.

Nor do they often have violent family quarrels over trivial matters like who ate the bread the brother got on the ration book, or who sold the parents’ egg ration, which have occasioned more than one bloody encounter in the country.

The building Rosara is a piece of Cuba today. Neighbors who have gone into exile, people who disagree publicly and good workers who answer summonses from the government.

The final tenant lives in one of the apartments above. He is a freelance journalist and has two blogs. For two years he’s trying to repair his floor. One day he wants to live with his daughter and his wife.

February 26 2011