The Rum Chronicles

In which the author observes recent changes in Cuba: Cheap liquor is now plentiful but hope has become scarce

By midday I was desperate to bathe and wash my hair, so Luisa scooped a pan of water from the barrel behind the house. She heated the pan over a gas burner and then poured the hot water in with cold in a bucket. It made precious little bath water and did nothing to abate the grossness of standing shivering on a dirt floor in a cramped wooden stall redolent with barnyard stink and filled with insects dangling from spiders' webs.

Nevertheless I realized that I, the pampered American, was being allowed to use more water than anyone else -- and it wasn't me making the mile-long trek to the nearest creek to fill two wooden buckets. The middle brother, Francisco, who spends most of his time at his mother's house, has that onerous job. He trudges back to the house with a branch-yoke across his shoulders and the buckets hanging from either end. It used to be he could transport water and anything else in a little cart pulled by his horse Letty, his pride and joy. But Letty was stolen from this house two years ago while Francisco and Luisa were ten miles down the mountainside at Rita's house, lost in revelry at her daughter's quinceanera. Luisa had sought help from a nearby babalao, who "saw" Letty not far from where she was taken. The babalao urged Francisco to get to the horse quickly, before she would be killed and eaten. Francisco was pretty sure who had Letty, but he never found her.

Almost everyone from Julián's past came up the mountain the second night of our stay. A DJ arrived, too, a friend of the teenagers in the family, with a playlist of about two reggaeton albums. This was disappointing, since I'd been looking forward to hearing the latest Cuban hip-hop and maybe even some oldies, like my favorite rap song, the famous tirade against racism in Cuba, "Quién tiró la tiza." All the DJ had was some Don Omar material heard even in Communist Party members' houses these days.

ILLUSTRATIONS BY DAVID HOLLENBACH
ILLUSTRATIONS BY DAVID HOLLENBACH

That night was also bad for conversation, because everyone except the Jehovah's Witnesses (principally Julián's middle sister, Elena, and several of her in-laws) was very drunk. One of Elena's daughters-in-law did ask me how she could contact church members in Miami, and Elena requested a Spanish-language Bible. I can't say I encouraged them to discuss their religion, but they showed no inclination to do so anyway. Elena doesn't join in many family gatherings, and not only because her husband has been incapacitated since suffering a stroke three years ago. I would later learn that this church, which recognizes Jehovah and not Fidel Castro (or any other earthly leader) as the ultimate social and political authority, is frequently persecuted or ostracized, so members stay to themselves.

Julián is glad his sister has found religion, despite the gulf between her and the rest of the family, even if it hasn't meant the healing of her husband or the paving of the muddy, mosquito-infested dirt trail outside her house, or any material improvement in her life. "She has peace," Julián says. "She thinks her religion gives her strength."

By about 1:00 a.m. I couldn't absorb any more rum, so I put on two T-shirts under my jacket and went to nap on Luisa's bed. I nestled into a space between two adults and two little girls covered by a towel. Luisa's room, like all the bedrooms in her house, is separated from the main living room by a wall of wood with cloth curtains hung in the doorways. Everyone in the house can hear everything going on elsewhere in the house, and the "doors" become almost transparent if one side is lighted and the other dark. So lying on Luisa's bed was almost like watching a stage play. My bedmates and I slept fitfully. Once we were awakened by a short but explosive shouting match between Cristina and Rita that ended when Rita slugged Cristina on the jaw. The fight wasn't really about anything, but they didn't speak for the next three days.

It must have been around 4:00 a.m. when most of the crowd, including the DJ, had either left or passed out, and Benjamin picked up his guitar. The group went through the old songs again, but then a few of them began some amazing improvisations. The star was Yaniset, the new wife of Julián's nephew Armando. Her call-and-response improvisations with Armando and Francisco were so clever and rousing they elicited many rounds of applause and inspired me to get out of bed. One of the best verses rhymed perfectly in Spanish but is clumsy in English: "They say rum makes you drunk," Yaniset sang, "and sweets make the teeth fall out ... so I prefer to be drunk than to see my mouth without teeth...."

Just before dawn, Vicente, the eldest brother, suddenly burst out weeping. He rose to his feet and fell in an embrace on Julián, apologizing for something through great sobs. The family members still awake also broke into grief-stricken cries. There was great wailing and clasping, and then it stopped. The sun rose. Benjamin dropped off to sleep with his guitar in his lap and cup of rum in his hand.

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