A Cuban Idyll
Lucinda and I reached the Santiago bus terminal at about six o'clock Sunday morning, December 17, San Lazaro's Day. The predawn darkness was moist and warm. We had walked the few miles from Lucinda's half-brother's house, wending our way downhill through narrow streets. At that still hour some store windows, bedecked with multicolor Christmas lights but displaying meager wares, glowed surreal amid the nearby dark façades. Like much of urban Cuba, Santiago's picturesque downtown seems frozen in the Fifties, its disintegrating colonial and Deco-style buildings dignified by darkness. We moved sleepily past the cafetería El Iris and a coffee/rum counter on a corner, through the pillared courtyards of Veterans Park, stepping around taxis and horse-drawn carriages, and finally through the open doorway of the terminal. The cavernous room was filling up, and murmurs of sleepy people mingled with the muted sales pitches of maní (peanut and candy) vendors. Other, sharper, voices reverberated off the dingy walls and dull masonry floor.
Waiting for us, seated side by side on one of the rows of wooden pews, were seven more members of my boyfriend Simon's family, which has become my family (Lucinda is his oldest sister). Simon was back in Miami, suffering the worst stages of homesickness. As a newly arrived immigrant to the United States who hasn't yet received his residency, he isn't permitted to travel outside the country.
Only a few hours earlier we had been dancing outside a little wooden house on a rocky hillside, where a bembé was in progress, one of hundreds, or thousands, throughout Cuba that night in honor of San Lazaro, or -- as he is known in the Santería tradition -- Babalu Aye. This santo once had been much like a typical Cuban male: a wanton womanizer and party animal. Until, that is, Elegguá tired of Babalu Aye's dissolution and afflicted him with leprosy and other deadly ills. This humbled him, and he became a great santo. Last night one montada (a person who is "mounted," or momentarily possessed, by a spirit) was whirling round and round, and when someone gave her a bottle of aguardiente, she took huge mouthfuls and sprayed the liquor out over us as the drummers drummed and we chanted and danced. Then the montada, a large woman in a simple hand-sewn white dress, thrust streams of aguardiente directly from the bottle in all directions as she whirled. Big drops landed on my forehead and chest.
We had slept for a while, but in the morning we had to catch the earliest bus to Chivirico and then to La Magdalena, a coastal settlement about 220 kilometers west of Santiago. There we'd gather at the house of the family's 75-year-old patriarch, Benjamin. (His name and all others in this story have been changed.) We would celebrate the holiday, and my visit, with a roast pig, rum, singing, and dancing.
Paulo, Simon's brother-in-law, a tall man in his midthirties with thick, straight black hair and a heavy mustache, shambled over to a counter along one wall of the terminal. He paid an attendant fifteen pesos to fill two empty plastic bottles with clear homemade aguardiente. Returning to our group, he took a swig from one bottle and handed it to his wife, Zulema. The other bottle he suggested I stash in my large shoulder bag. Zulema, one of Simon's three sisters, looks imperious and stern when her mouth is closed -- and lascivious and daring when she smiles or laughs. "Don't forget," she warned me with a playful grin. "It looks like water, but it's not. We're going to need it later, you know."
The bus for Chivirico was announced, and we joined a fast-moving line out a door next to the aguardiente counter. We boarded early enough to find seats; by the time the bus pulled out of the terminal, the aisle was crammed with passengers who would ride standing up for the next twenty miles or more. The highway, paved and narrow with occasional potholes, ran along Cuba's southern coast. Through curtains of sea grapes and lleraguana, we could glimpse a deep blue sea, waves breaking into massive rocks and rolling on to bands of dark sand. On the other side of the road, to the north, were rolling green fields where cattle grazed and goats gamboled, and where white busts of José Martí stood on pedestals before metal-roofed wooden cottages. Beyond the fields, on the lower slopes of the distant Sierra Maestra, white rocks formed messages to the masses, such as "Happy new millennium" and "Onward with the Revolution in 2001." White rocks marked graves, too, in the humble cemeteries we passed. Along this highway, locals informed me, lie at least fifteen such graveyards, hastily plotted during the revolution to bury those who died -- government loyalists as well as rebel soldiers and supporters -- in the heavy fighting in this region. Simon's best friend's grandfather, who hid Che Guevara for months at his farm, also rests in one of those cemeteries.
We arrived at the seaside town of Chivirico at about 9:30. There we boarded a camioneta, a jitney of sorts, for La Plata, some 90 kilometers to the west. Camionetas are outfitted with roofs, usually of tarp, and rows of narrow metal grids that provide seating of a quality similar to a storm grating. Most of us were forced to stand anyway for the first ten kilometers, clinging to rebars while the truck bounced and lurched along, spewing great clouds of diesel smoke. It's always hot inside a camioneta. When we stepped down from the truck into a dusty courtyard at La Plata, it was 11:30, the sun was high, and I was tired, hungry, and craving water.
I thought Paulo was joking when he informed me that the only bus to La Magdalena was at five o'clock that evening, so we'd have to walk to Benjamin's house, twenty kilometers away. But Paulo wasn't joking. I knew enough about the metric system to understand that twenty kilometers is something like fifteen miles, a hike for which none of us was equipped: I would be walking in flip-flops that weren't comfortable even on trips from bedroom to bathroom. My left ankle and foot were wrapped with a cloth tenuously secured by a safety pin, after I'd twisted my ankle the day before in the town of El Cobre as I walked up the hill to the shrine of the Virgin de la Caridad.
Furthermore I'd given my Nikes to Lucinda, who was wearing them -- the only one in our party with shoes suitable for walking. Simon's mother, Luisa, had brought a small umbrella for the sun, which she bravely unfurled as we set out. Paulo took the heaviest bags and satchels.
The road out of La Plata was paved, but poorly, with wide dirt shoulders on either side. Under the blinding sun the sandy dirt burned a desert gold. After 100 yards we turned off the main road to make our way slightly uphill in what looked like a dry rock-strewn riverbed. About 50 yards to our left was the same deep-blue breaking sea we'd been tracking since leaving Santiago. For perhaps half a mile we picked our way along the dirt trail, shaded at intervals by clusters of trees. Then the steep terrain between us and the sea dropped off, and we emerged on to a path almost at the water's edge. We were the only humans for miles around as far as we could tell, overarched in that place by a profound silence. We heard the crashing of the breakers, the crunching of sand and gravel beneath our feet, our occasional terse exchanges, and the jabbering of Yulemis, the two-year-old niece of Marta, who is Simon's niece and who carried the toddler for most of our long march.
And it was only beginning. The path wound uphill again, and we came upon an underworldly stretch of black rocks and coarse black sand that glittered like mica, silver sparks under the intense sun. They must have been disgorged from below during one of the region's frequent earthquakes. The sun was much closer to the Earth here and turned the sky an iridescent azure; I remembered Havana as cold and dark by comparison. The water looked so blue, the whitecaps so foamy, that the temptation to climb down the jagged rocks and dive in became unbearable. But by then my ankle and foot were swollen, both feet were hurting, and I knew it would take all my strength just to negotiate the path.
After an hour or so, Paulo had pulled far ahead of the rest of us. We could see him disappearing down a hill or around a curve, then reappearing further away. When I looked into the distance, I saw no end of the trail, and I felt stunned and angry. I could feel my exposed skin baking and blisters forming between my toes and on my feet. The other women weren't complaining, but they were suffering, too. Luisa, a tiny white-haired woman with sharp, squinting green eyes and a stubborn set to her mouth, was striding alongside her granddaughter Angelica under the stinting shade of her umbrella. Luisa wore a sleeveless knee-length blue jersey dress adorned with ruffles at the neck and waist. Her shoes, black vinyl loafers with soft rubber soles, were brand-new, purchased two weeks earlier by Simon at a flea market in Miami. She was delighted with them.
Luisa has been divorced from Benjamin for more than 30 years, though they have remained close because of their six children and an abiding friendship. She lives with her current husband, Amadeo, in the green foothills north of Santiago, above the Port of Boniato and the Boniato prison. She has always lived in the country and has always been dirt poor; her parents, who immigrated from the Canary Islands, were farmers in the Oriente. She can neither read nor write. Before meeting her I thought she would be uncommunicative and a bit dull. But she's the opposite: Quick-witted and energetic at 67 years old, she has no trouble articulating her thoughts in trenchant Spanish.
As the matriarch of what has become a large and somewhat politically diverse extended family, Luisa often serves as a go-between or peacemaker, and sometimes a good listener who enjoys a bit of gossip. There's been abundant familial intrigue over the years, much of which I am only beginning to learn, and not all the stuff of lighthearted chatter. Her own life has been affected by the refusal of some members of her family, especially Benjamin and Simon, to conform to Cuba's socialist system. Still, her concerns mostly center on everyday life in the rural reaches of a Third World nation, and not on the many political, social, and economic issues often debated in Havana and Miami. Her days are difficult and burdensome in a hundred ways most Americans never think about: cooking and bathing without running water, having to walk and ride in cramped bucking trucks for hours just to get from her house to town and back, no telephone. It's hard to tell if she's so used to living like that she doesn't realize how hard it is. There's no sense of struggle about her, and I got the impression she regards suffering as a waste of energy.
Luisa and Amadeo's two-bedroom house, where I spent my first night in the Oriente, sits at the end of a path of flat white rocks carefully laid out in the dirt. Their front porch is about 25 yards back from a hilly paved road that makes its way downhill to a shallow, narrow river -- really a creek now, after two years of drought throughout the Oriente -- where women wash clothes and young boys jump off rocky ledges into the clear water. Also along this road is a small plywood house, now a modest museum, where Fidel Castro and some of his men were sheltered in the earliest days of the rebellion against then-President Fulgencio Batista.
Like their neighbors for miles around, Luisa and Amadeo live with the constant threat of theft. Not of any household goods (they have nothing of value) but of their animals -- chickens, ducks, goats, pigs -- which provide sustenance. During the past five years, residents here have seen countless animals disappear. When one is stolen, the owner not only loses food, he can be fined by the government. "If someone steals your pig," Amadeo explained unhappily, "you are penalized but not the thief. The only way to keep your animals is literally to keep them inside your house at night." A few years ago Amadeo, with the help of Luisa and Benjamin's fifth child, Patricio, built a roofed enclosure on to the south side of their house where the bedrooms are. So Luisa and Amadeo now sleep on the other side of a gate from two hogs, two sows, and a litter of ten piglets; about twenty ducks and chickens; and a half-dozen goats.
Patricio, who is 38 years old and divorced from the mother of his two daughters, lives down a sloping pasture from his mother in a one-room shack. He owns a horse, a valuable commodity, and at night brings the animal inside to sleep in the same room. "I sleep with one eye closed and one eye on the horse," he said. "The thievery is that bad." He has chosen to live there in relative solitude to help his mother and stepfather. One of the hardest jobs is supplying water to the house. Until a month ago, Patricio and Amadeo had to carry buckets of water from the river a mile away. Patricio at least had a horse on which to balance the old-fashioned pole with bucket hanging at either end, while Amadeo carried a second pole on his shoulders. Then Simon sent them $25 to buy a cart, which the horse now pulls, to transport water.
Patricio hadn't been able to accompany us to La Magdalena that San Lazaro's Day, nor had the third-oldest sibling, Julieta, who lives in Santiago with her husband and four children. Several years ago Julieta became a dedicated Jehovah's Witness, the only one in her essentially nonreligious immediate family to actively embrace a faith. Most of the family members are Catholics en su manera, informally, and with strong Santería influences.
After two hours I began to imagine the trek as a trite allegory. It was Hell in paradise, the way many Cubans describe life on their beautiful tropical island. Just when you convince yourself it's all about to change, that there is an end to Hell, you see the same road ahead. I flopped along, angry at myself, at Fidel, and finally even the Virgin de la Caridad, Cuba's patron saint to whom I am devoted, because she made me fall in love with Simon and come to this place of torment. The rocky seaside shortcut eventually led us back up to the highway, where we could make somewhat faster progress on the asphalt. There was no traffic at all. The sea was still tantalizingly close, sparkling on the other side of grassy ledges, at times obscured by high rocks. The mountains were closer and steeper, their flanks like green- and brown-shaded facets of a gem. Just once was the vast stillness broken by a Fiat speeding west in the direction of La Magdalena, the town that by now I was half-convinced did not exist.
Lucinda, the one wearing my Nikes, was lagging behind, sulking over an earlier perceived rudeness by her daughter and sister Zulema. She doesn't get along with her family in general, although that's rarely noticeable because they try to treat one another civilly. Lucinda is 49 years old, the oldest child of Benjamin and Luisa. She left Santiago as a teenager to go to school in Havana and never moved back. Her only child, Angelica, was born in 1976; the father, an engineer, has lived in Miami for several years but never writes or calls. Lucinda tilts her chin up a little, her round eyes narrowed and her wide mouth turned down in disapproval. Her hair is well maintained in a blunt shoulder-length cut. She has two closets of clothes in her third-floor walkup in Havana's Marianao district, where she lives with a man who is madly in love with her but whom she scorns. (Angelica and her husband of five years have an apartment in the nearby La Lisa neighborhood.)
In reality, Lucinda confides, out of earshot of her boyfriend, she is eternally in love with a man who deceived her many years ago. She talks elliptically about a past in the "diplomatic service," of foreign husbands, and Cuban men who have let her down. Now she devotes a good part of her time re-reading a book that has become a classic of new-age thought, a Spanish translation of You Can Heal Your Life, by Louise L. Hay. Lucinda talks about self-reliance and self-love, qualities she learned from the book. "I don't need a man to be happy," she insists. "I'm not going to look for a compañero, because if I am fortunate enough to go to Miami, I would just be leaving him behind."
She says she always wanted to be a writer but instead was encouraged to take education courses at the University of Havana. She hated teaching. Currently she works in a bakery not far from her house and hates that, too. Several months ago she was fired from a job at another bakery; she claims her boss got rid of her because she complained about him pocketing money from sales. Now she has a lawyer and has filed a lawsuit against the state, seeking a new hearing. It's no secret that vast numbers of Cuban employees steal from their workplaces, since salaries are laughably minuscule. Less well-known is the common (she claims) practice of aggrieved workers suing the government.
Lucinda lives much better than her relatives in Santiago. Still she can't escape the sense of having been stymied, by her own nation and her own people. She, like a million other Cubans, looks hopefully to the United States for her future. Now that her brother is settled in Miami, it will be easier for her to come. Simon, however, scoffs at the notion of Lucinda beginning a new life in the United States. "She hates to work," he asserts. "She doesn't understand that you have to work hard in this country. She'll get here and have to take a job mopping floors. She'll never be able to adjust."
The paved road cut through the rocky slopes; we were imperceptibly trudging uphill. The sun had passed its zenith and was blazing in the west but wouldn't cast a shadow from the roadside ridges for hours. It was after four o'clock, three and a half hours since we'd gotten off the bus at La Plata, when we spotted a figure sitting beneath a roadside shelter, a security checkpoint. The road continued past the checkpoint, but it was blocked by a chain stretched between posts on either side. Paulo was waiting for us, and I rushed to sit down beside him. "Tired?" he asked without irony. As I mumbled something about no one telling me we were embarking on a death march, I noticed a clipboard on the bench. I remember staring at it and wanting to leaf through the pages but being too miserable to move. Moments later, as the other women and child straggled in, a Ministry of the Interior guard appeared and picked up the clipboard.
Everyone else (except the guard) started down a pebbly wash just north of the station. When I got up to follow, I discovered my feet and legs refused to move or bend in any coordinated way. The cloth around my ankle hung in useless rags. At the bottom of the wash, a glass-clear stream meandered over a bed of large rocks. Instead of crossing the stream over the rocks, I plowed through the delicious cool water, my flip-flops sinking into sand. I wanted to stand in the stream but I didn't; the group was moving ahead, and I couldn't fall too far behind. On the other bank we had to negotiate a muddy trail impressed with deep tire and horse tracks. Sugar cane grew all around, shoulder high. Then the cane opened on to a clearing in which a dozen young men and boys were playing volleyball under tall broad-limbed trees. Around the perimeter of the clearing, the terrain rose again, and houses sat at intervals among trees, behind wire fences. I caught up with the others standing outside the fence in front of one of these houses, a peach-color plaster square with a narrow concrete front porch. It was only then I realized we had reached the end of the road. We were at Benjamin's house. The gate was locked, so we climbed through a space in the fence, and someone went to a neighbor's to get a key to the front door.
Benjamin and Jairo, his oldest son, live there (with Jairo's wife and three children) when they're not tending to their crops high in the Sierra Maestra near Pico Turquino, the highest point on the island, 60 kilometers to the northeast and accessible only by horse and foot. They hadn't yet arrived from the Sierra when we showed up, so Luisa, Angelica, and Zulema went to work sweeping the floors and chairs, and washing dishes with the water stored in a barrel in the kitchen. Paulo walked to the nearby river to bring in pots full of clear, cold spring water. Luisa used it to make a sweet limonada. Lucinda had carried three loaves of crusty bread from Chivirico, and she cut slices and spread them with guayaba paste -- the most delicious food I've ever eaten. Then some of us -- Marta and Yulemis, Lucinda, and I -- simply collapsed on a bed covered with a coarse blue blanket. At the head rested a guitar wrapped in a heavy cloth that we didn't move.
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.
Paulo brought out one of the bottles of aguardiente and passed it around. Zulema came in from boiling the yuca and ñame. "Come on!" she urged the little girls, now looking festive in lacy dresses and shiny little shoes. "Let's dance!" She took the oldest by the hands. The girl, seven or so, proved a precociously talented salsa dancer. Luisa had finished cooking the pig's liver, and she brought out a plateful. Cut into small pieces and well seasoned, it was perfect with the aguardiente. Zulema and I danced and sipped the liquor; a little went a long way. After a while I stood back near the kitchen entrance and surveyed the small cement-floor room, barely furnished with old wooden chairs, no television or radio, lit with a florescent fixture on one wall. The front window and door were now blocked with the faces and bodies of neighbors who never came in but just wanted to watch and listen.
"Yo no sé qué me está pasando," Benjamin sang. "Que no dejo un momento de pensar en ti." I don't know what's happening to me; I can't stop thinking of you for a single moment.
Almost two years earlier, Benjamin and his second wife, Sofia, both became very ill with pneumonia. They were in the Sierra when they got sick, without a phone or car. Jairo came to get Luisa, and together they climbed up the mountain and persuaded the couple -- who had no intention of seeing a doctor -- to go to a hospital in Santiago. After they were released, Lucinda invited them to come to Havana and recover in her apartment. In Havana they consulted an orante, a kind of Santería seer. The orante, Benjamin now knows, predicted Sofia's subsequent death, though not in so many words. "He said it would come because of a child," Benjamin recalled.
He and Sofia eventually recovered and returned to the Sierra. But after several months, Sofia fell ill again. Benjamin took her to the hospital, where she died. She was much younger than he. "It was the heartbreak as much as any disease," Benjamin said. "She had problems with her son; he was in prison. Right before she got sick, he sent her a letter that upset her. This is what killed her."
Benjamin reflected for a moment and then added with certainty: "Everything he ever told me has come to pass."
And now he hints he is thinking about getting married again. His children are mystified; they don't know who the prospective bride is.
Benjamin says his grandparents on both sides came to the Sierra Maestra from Africa. He doesn't know which country, but he knows they spoke French because his parents spoke French. His parents, however, never taught the language to him or his eight brothers and sisters. "I did learn to read and write," he said with some pride. "I studied hard and got a good education. It turned out to be of no use at all."
Benjamin's only career option was to become a farmer like his parents. He and Luisa were married in 1950, and Lucinda was born the next year. For more than a decade they lived near Baconao, a coastal town southeast of Santiago. After the 1959 revolution, Benjamin acquired land (he is somewhat vague about the exact arrangement -- it might have been a government giveaway or reallocation) in El Caney, just outside Santiago, and built a house there. They happened to be the first black people to live in the area; other black families followed, some moving on to parcels of land Benjamin gave them. He says his own family, which already was living at subsistence level, didn't prosper under the economic reforms that came with the revolution. Desperate to improve his lot, he planted another crop: marijuana. He figures the plants he sold to brokers in the city were packaged and shipped out of Santiago Bay, no doubt to the United States. While this enterprise helped support his family, it also got him arrested and thrown into prison three times. When Luisa gave birth prematurely to their sixth child, Simon, in a midwife's house in the foothills, Benjamin had just begun his first prison term. In all he spent eighteen years in prison. Luisa divorced him after the second incarceration.
"I admit it was wrong to [grow marijuana]," he said. He rubbed his chin, where white stubble contrasted with the black-brown of his skin. "I lost my wife because of it. I lost years with my children. I'm not going to say I had no alternative. But no matter what you do, the government will end up taking it away anyway. I'm not going to fight anymore." Benjamin looks gaunt, largely because he can hardly eat anything that doesn't cause terrible indigestion. His knees are shot. But the thought of retiring doesn't seem to have occurred to him. He complains about being in pain but never expresses a desire to stop working.
Out in the back yard under the trees and the vast swirl of stars, the embers in the pit illuminated the roasting pig, which by ten o'clock was beginning to smell savory. From next door came the ruckus of Christian hymns, sung with great gusto. The neighbors recently had converted to some evangelical religion, Jairo explained, turning the spit. "They won't so much as lend you a cup of sugar now. They don't socialize at all anymore."
As an appetizer for the hungry musicians and the rest of us, Luisa and Zulema piled plates with rice, yuca, ñame, and boiled plantains. "Ñame," Benjamin said affectionately, lifting a fork of the root. "I love ñame." In the back bedroom Angelica, Beti, and two of her daughters had arranged themselves like puzzle pieces on the single bed. After slaving for hours in the kitchen Luisa joined them. Lucinda, Marta, Yulemis, and another of Beti's daughters were sleeping in the other bedroom. I decided to take a nap on this bed. Zulema and Paulo, however, never abandoned the party.
Zulema's home on a rocky hillside in El Caney, next door to the house where her family had lived a few decades before, has floors of hard-packed dirt, electricity but no running water, no phone, and no bathroom. Her oldest child, a handsome 24-year-old man, is in prison for petty theft. So she enjoys her rum when she can get it, and a good pachanga.
I kept hearing a loud crashing sound during my nap. Finally I rose and peered into the main room. The musicians had stopped for the moment, anticipating the feast. It was past midnight, and Jairo had placed two or three slabs of pig meat on a narrow wooden table at one end of the room. He was bringing his machete down, over and over, chopping the pork into bite-size pieces. It was still hot and had been lightly salted. Women and children appeared at the table, and we picked up the morsels with our fingers, letting the fat slide down our throats. More aguardiente made the rounds. Zulema was laughing, hugging me, and quietly scoffing at a suggestion by Lucinda that she curtail her liquor consumption. "Why can't she stop complaining about everything?" Zulema asked in a conspiratorial stage whisper. "We're here to have fun!"
After a while the meat cooled. Our hands, lips, and faces were coated with shiny grease. It must have been around 2:00 a.m. when the musicians picked up where they'd left off. Benjamin had only been warming up, and now his voice was loose and harsh. He sang crazy songs, like "El Paralitico," in which a man wakes up paralyzed and then debates the mystical reasons for his misfortune. Apparently it wasn't a case of Elegguá striking him down but one of those surprises life doles out. "Bota la muleta y bastón/y podrá bailar el son," he concluded. Throw away that crutch and cane, and then you can dance the son.
I woke up at 6:00 a.m. on the bed where a half-dozen of us had curled up. The bus to La Plata left at 7:00, and we weren't going to miss it. We didn't eat breakfast, and no one offered a wake-up coffee because there wasn't any, even though this is a prime coffee-growing area and the harvest was now in progress. At 7:00 sharp, as the sky was lightening, a bus stopped just past the clearing where the boys had been playing volleyball. The driver would wait there for about fifteen minutes. We straggled out of the house. Zulema and Paulo both looked sick. I felt overwhelmed by the simple exertion of walking to the bus and climbing in. I was wearing the same dress I'd walked in the day before and suffering from oozing blisters on both feet. Luisa was having trouble walking with swollen feet, but she didn't let on. She carried a young chicken in a plastic bag -- a gift from Benjamin, an addition to her menagerie and an excellent future food source.
Benjamin planned to stay at La Magdalena for another day and then return to his harvest in the mountains. He and Jairo walked us to the bus. Jairo stood outside under a lightpost, talking with some of the men from town. They lit one another's cigarettes and gestured toward the cane fields. One, then another of the musicians from the night before joined the conversation. I recognized their shirts, the same ones they had worn at the party.
Benjamin sat with us in the bus until it was time to go. "We stopped when the liquor ran out," he reported happily. "I guess it was about five o'clock." To the east the sky turned pink, orange, and yellow, then a sliver of sun pushed through the tips of the cane stalks. When I told Benjamin what a great singer he was, he beamed for a few seconds and said that once someone had recorded him performing some favorite songs at home. "It didn't come out too well," he admitted. "It wasn't professional."
And he bowed his head, musing. "I'm 75 years old," he said, rubbing the back of his sinewy neck under the faded fedora. The cuff of his pinstripe shirt was unbuttoned; the shirt was rumpled and threadbare at the seams. "Things haven't worked out for me." He didn't make excuses or try to put a spin on his troubles. He didn't say anything about growing up black and in extreme poverty, or about the revolution discouraging individual initiative. He also didn't say anything about hoping his children would succeed where he couldn't. "No," he concluded, shrugging slightly. "I haven't accomplished very much. I did what I could."
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