Velazquez and the Stations of the Cross for a Cuban Family
“Old Woman Cooking Eggs” is the title of this painting by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), oil on canvas painted in Seville in 1618. This scene reminded me, 394 years later and thousands of miles away from the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, United Kingdom, where it is hung, of the precarious and colorless life of a Cuban family, the interior of a narrow kitchen illuminated with strong contrasts of light and shadow.
They make only one meal a day, breakfast is coffee without milk and a tasteless 80 gram biscuit without butter. And not always that. “Sometimes we eat the rationed bread at night, because we are often still hungry after eating. When this happens, the next morning, before going to work or school, we have a sip of coffee, nothing more,” says Zenaida Pena, 72 and the head of her family.
In an old house in the Havana neighborhood of Lawton, screaming for a coat of paint and a complete restoration, the Peña family lives. It consists of 7 people and they are part of that 40% of Cubans who receive neither dollars nor euros.
Three different generations under one roof. Four now, clarifies Zenaida, because a month ago the grandson of Yosbel, her youngest son, was born.
Leiden, the eldest daughter, twelve years ago divorced the father of her two children. Yara, 15, attends the ninth grade and you thinks that her future is to marry a foreigner and leave the country. Leinier, 19, is on track to be the guest of some prison for the repeated warnings of dangerousness piling up in his pre-criminal record.
Leida, the mother of Leinier, believes that the chief of police sector ’is fucking with her son.’ “Yes it is true that he rum almost every night and no work attracts him. Imagine it, with the salaries they pay, he wants to dress in the latest fashion and go nightclubbing. With my office work I can not satisfy his tastes. Even though I want him to change, I understand the reasons my son and other boys in the neighborhood take refuge in drink.”
The problem is that Leinier not only drinks rum. Like a high percentage of young people from Havana, for whom the future feels like a bad word, they will also try stronger emotions. And on the weekends they take up a collection from friends and acquire marijuana, pills of Parkisonil, or any other hallucinogen to put them ’in the clouds’.
Leinier has two passions, baseball and computers. Following baseball ball is easy. As his afternoons are idle, he takes the P-6 bus and goes to the old Cerro Stadium to enjoy a game of Industriales. But ’tinkering’ with a computer is not so easy. Nobody in his family has one. “Sometimes I play or learn things on the computer of a friend,” he says.
Zenaida, the grandmother, is retired and earns a pension of 197 pesos (8 dollars) which is spent to buy rice and vegetables. She is also in charge of cooking the only hot meal of the day.
Yosbel, the youngest son, sells slushies on 10 de October Avenue. On average earns 60 pesos a day. “All I do is look for food. My concern is that now I have a newborn kid. Thanks to neighbors down the street he sleeps in a crib. I would like to raise money to buy new clothes and a stroller. I try not to worry about tomorrow. But I am seriously concerned about the future of my son, my wife and family. I do not see how we can improve our situation,” he says.
Zenaida has her own theory about the shortcomings and difficulties. “The poor shall never cease to be fucked. But I want the Cuban leaders to know that there are families who never received a penny. What little they earn evaporates buying rice and we can barely feed ourselves as God intended. So, because I have no solution to our problems, from 11 in the morning I put on the radio and listen to the soap operas and do cábalas to see if I can come up with a number and I put it on the lottery and earn money help me overcome some hardships,” she says.
For her it’s a real pain on a daily basis what happens to put six plates of food on the table, soon to be seven when the grandson starts eating. Zenaida sits in a faded armchair in the room on paper with a stubby pencil, makes notes.
“Look my boy, this is not easy. The rice they give us on the ration lasts us two weeks. When that’s finished, every day I have to buy two pounds, it’s sold for 5 pesos a pound so 10 pesos in total. Throw in 18 pesos for three pounds of tomatoes, 6 pesos a pound. Two bunches of lettuce, 5 pesos each bunch, and 9 pesos for 6 eggs, at 1.50 each. All this makes a total of 47 pesos. But I don’t always that much. And I don’t have to tell you that you can’t cook without oil and tomato paste, which must be purchased in the ’shopping’ or hard currency stores. Beans and pork we eat once or twice a month when we can. I swear that I have wanted to kill myself,” she confesses.
Zenaida believes that a solution for poor families like yours, would be for the church or state to open dining rooms to offer free lunch to the homeless, the place to eat in or take away. “In Havana the lines that would form would be miles long,” she says.
The Pena family is no exception on the island. Some 40% of Cubans do not receive remittances from abroad. Or not earn and convertible pesos as a perk on their salary.
General Raul Castro often repeats that in Cuba beans are more important than cannons. But in his five-year term, he has failed to ensure that basic food prices are affordable for everyone. Nor has he stopped being a thief, who with a slash devours almost 90% of family income. Just to eat more or less well.
Nor has Castro II fulfilled his promise to put a glass of milk on the breakfast table of every Cuban. And his promises to improve the nutrition of the citizenry has not met expectations. If he has forgotten, the Peña family remembers.
February 26 2012