By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Michael E. Miller
The afternoon sky was dimming. While some of us washed ourselves in the outhouse (a plastic curtain divided the latrine from a cement-floored stall, where one dips a cup into a bucket to bathe), others rinsed off in the river.
A half-hour later Benjamin and Jairo arrived, along with Jairo's wife, Beti, and three little girls (their daughter and two of Beti's from her former marriage). Jairo, who is 47 years old, wore fatigues, boots, and a machete on his belt. He and all the other men in his family have wide, bony shoulders tapering to a narrow waist and hips. His eyes are greenish like his mother's and seem always narrowed, set behind prominent cheekbones. He has the sad, thoughtful look of a man who has labored very hard all his life and knows he's going to have to work like that until he dies. Still his sadness is nothing like the desperate fear of falling so often seen in American wage earners. After cleaning up and before repairing to the back yard to begin the slaughter, dressing, and roasting of a young pig, he sat in a rocking chair on the porch, fidgeting while Angelica, who works as a beautician in Havana, gave him a badly needed haircut. As puffs of gray-black hair collected on the cement, he watched his father grooming a horse tied to a tree a few feet away. The chosen pig was straining at a rope.
Jairo was a bit wild as a youth; he was into boxing and idling with his friends. He's had many women and has been in love with most of them. In his early twenties, he moved to Nicaro, a port on Cuba's Atlantic coast, about 140 kilometers due north of Santiago. There he learned several trades: bricklayer, cabinetmaker, electrician. He joined the Communist Party, which he believed lent order and unity to his community. He participated in party activities and still does today.
About three years ago Jairo came back to live in the country. He remains loyal to the political system and structure, whose founders established their first stronghold in these same mountains. But though he describes himself as a militante, he doesn't fit the fanatical stereotype. He's a regular hard-working family man who adores his brother in Miami, despite the fact that Simon is a former political prisoner who has denounced Fidel on Radio Marí. But Jairo's esteem for his brother doesn't mean he has a great deal of sympathy for the suffering Simon endured at the hands of the state. "He brought it on himself," he said without condemnation. And it was true, even though Simon, like most politically defiant Cubans, probably would not have rebelled in the first place, had he any hope for his future.
Paulo and Zulema sat on the back stoop with big aluminum buckets of green plaintains, yuca, and ñame, a potatolike root, in front of them. As they peeled, they dropped each food in a separate pot of water to be boiled over a fire in a brick oven just outside the kitchen window. Benjamin and Jairo had brought sacks of roots and medicinal herbs with them from the mountains; they would be going back the following week to finish harvesting ñame, boniato, malanga, and yuca. "The government is telling me they want a certain amount [of each crop]," Benjamin said wearily, with slight irritation. "I have to turn most of the harvest over to the [government-run] cooperative, and they'll pay me. It's not enough, but there's nothing else to do."
A neighbor, Manuel, a wizened white man in a straw hat, came over to help Jairo roast the pig -- the macho, as Cubans call it. In the back yard the men set fire to a pile of logs in the large pit they'd finished digging. His face and arms illumined by the flames, Jairo expertly thrust a long knife into the pig's heart. After one squeal of terror, the pig lay breathing rapidly as its blood coursed on to the dirt. Even before it was dead, Jairo began shaving it, scraping the hide with a knife to expose the soft pink skin. Then he opened up the gut and extracted the organs and entrails. Zulema, who was standing nearby, took the liver on a plate to her mother to chop and cook. The sun had gone down, and soon the sky would grow black and teem with stars. The fire in the pit was turning to embers.
Manuel brought a long pole carved from a tree limb and sharpened on both ends. He held the pig while Jairo thrust the pole through its body. It took several minutes of thrusting and pushing to position the pig midway on the pole, but finally the men lifted the carcass, pierced perfectly, and placed either end of the pole between split stands, also carved from tree limbs, on either end of the pit.
Several young men had come to the house by then. One cradled a guitar in his arms. They pulled up chairs and sat in a semicircle at one wall, and the guitar player picked through a couple of songs, the others joining in when they knew the words. Wearing an undershirt, old black pants, and a worn-out fedora, Benjamin appeared with his guitar, the one that was wrapped in a cloth on the bed. The young men quickly sat him down at the head of the semicircle. He gently positioned the guitar, his old-man arms black and skinny but still muscled. He strapped a capo onto the neck and began to play a traditional son montuno. He sang with assurance, toying with the rhythm and the words. "Oye," he announced, nodding to the off-beat, his black-rimmed glasses reflecting the overhead light bulb. "Me voy pa la pachanga." He picked out a bluesy break and then threw his head back. "No me llores," he implored. "No me llores." The young men sang along, smiling and watching his guitar work.