The Bard of Memorial Park

Cuban immigrant Eduardo Campa writes darkly astonishing accounts of life in Little Havana

Around 11:00 a.m. a crew of construction workers files into La Nica Tortilla restaurant, where a sign reads, "Comida para llevar $3.50." Next door at La Fritanga, a Honduran place, tables with checkered cloths and rustic wooden chairs await a sparse lunch-hour clientele. On the corner, in front of OTI Coin Laundry, a motley crew of old men and young toughs is gathered, holding plastic thimbles of sweet café or swigging beverages from containers covered with small paper bags. A teenage boy with dreadlocks rides by on a bicycle, carrying his laughing girlfriend on the handlebars. A truck carting a load of stained mattresses rumbles down the street.

"This neighborhood has seen two eras," Campa says, as he watches the busy street from his bench, "one that started in the Sixties, the other in the Eighties. The Cubans from the first immigration to Miami lived here. Then more Cubans and Central Americans arrived. But the Cubans from the second immigration in 1980 were Cubans educated under the Castro regime, and Little Havana started to take on a more cosmopolitan character. The Cubans from the first era started to leave because they were educated; they had money. Now there are more Central Americans here than Cubans. Culturally that enriches the neighborhood, but economically it stagnates it.

"In Little Havana," he adds, "the squalor is due to two factors: You have one group marked by a regime that destroyed their hopes and dreams, and others who, for other reasons, reasons having to do with bad government, had to immigrate here. The ones who came for economic reasons aren't rich; they're not doctors or engineers or lawyers. If they were they wouldn't have ended up here in this neighborhood. These aren't people who lost it. They just never had it. It's not the story of those who haven't triumphed. It's the story of those who can't triumph."

Frequently Campa appears as one of the down-and-out characters in his own poetry, and he is not surprised that, as an educated man who speaks fluent English, he would end up living on the streets of Little Havana. "Remember, the only people who are masters of their destiny are those with the means to forge their own destiny," he says matter-of-factly. "The only thing I've aspired to is to be a little less unfortunate."

Campa grew up in a solar, a tenement in Havana's poor Centro Habana neighborhood. "One bathroom for 100 families," he recalls. "Thieves and degenerates lived there, and hard-working family men." His father, who was Chinese, was an English teacher who became a housepainter to support his family. His mother was black, and for that reason was not accepted by his father's relatives. So his parents struggled on their own.

He recalls two milestones of his childhood. The first was an operation when he was a toddler. Pointing to two knobby scars next to his thumbs, he explains that he was born with twelve fingers. He can still remember the horrifying scraping noise of a doctor cutting them off with a saw. The second momentous event came when he was fourteen: His mother died. "Things went downhill after that," says Campa, a handsome man with almond eyes and freckled mahogany skin. "I was fifteen when I was arrested."

The year was 1968. An honor student at school, Campa spent his free time hanging out with a group of teenagers who congregated around the fountain in front of Havana's seaside Hotel Nacional. "There were 2000 or 3000 young people in Cuba with long hair and stovepipe pants listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones," he recalls. "We were influenced by what was happening in the United States with the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers. We were young freethinkers.

"One day Castro heard about the young people going against the model of the revolution," Campa continues. "He didn't want the youth sitting around and talking and thinking for themselves. He wanted them to work for the system. So one day the police came and rounded them up and took them to a work camp. I was among them."

Campa was removed from high school and sent to a camp where he worked in the fields "from sunup to sundown." After fourteen months he was sent home. But rather than return to school, he began studying on his own. When he was nineteen years old, he passed an exam and entered the University of Havana. "I started living a double life," he explains. "I said what they wanted me to say and thought something else. It's a kind of conscious schizophrenia. What is [Castro's] 'new man'? The same old man in different clothes."

Campa studied philosophy and literature at the university and simultaneously held a job teaching socioeconomics at a technical school. He says he was fired when a Santería amulet fell out of his pocket in the school director's office. (Like Catholicism and Judaism, the practice of Afro-Cuban religions was forbidden in Cuba at the time.)

He began selling books on the street, and worked in a factory. Since childhood Campa had written poetry, usually inspired by his immediate surroundings. In 1979 he wrote a book of poems about his poor Central Havana neighborhood. He says officials at the state publishing house found his descriptions of tenement life to be "too close to reality." Campa says he was arrested, charged with being anti-revolutionary, and sentenced to eight years in prison, but released after only 40 days when he signed a retraction admitting that his writing was subversive and apologizing for offending the state.

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