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Havana Between Screams and Silence

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Havana Between Screams and Silence

Havana Times, March 3, 2014 |

Ernesto Perez Chang

HAVANA TIMES — Havana is a city of loud people. No sooner has the sun risen (before the roosters start to crow) than yelling begins to be heard over every other city noise: the voice of the neighbor who wakes up those who have no alarm clock, the mothers getting their kids out of bed on school days, the street cries of the baker and screams of an elderly woman asking someone on the curb to turn off the water pump.

A woman runs across the street cursing at a bus driver who’s arrived at the stop early and decided not to wait. The people crammed inside the bus complain about how uncomfortable the bus is, the bad smells and the weather (the absurd anger in their voices sometimes makes me think it is a masked way of criticizing the generally deplorable state of things).

Foto: Juan Suárez

As the hours pass, the yelling goes up in volume, as in a wild competition in which everyone tries to sound off the highest note. Street vendors lose their lungs yelling, as do people who buy gold jewelry and empty bottles.

Those who repair mattresses or old sewing machines join the chorus. They are followed by those who neither buy nor sell anything but relay messages and greet people at the top of their lungs from balconies, the employee who announces she can take no more appointments at one of the many lines we are forced to wait in daily, those who tell others the ration store is giving out the chicken or the five eggs one gets every month, water company collectors, fumigators, children coming out from school singing patriotic slogans taught them by their teachers, the loudspeaker touring the streets and announcing a political function at Revolution Square or explaining, with highly elaborate gibberish, why our single-party elections are the most democratic in the universe.

As the hours pass, the yelling goes up in volume, as in a wild competition in which everyone tries to sound off the highest note. Street vendors lose their lungs yelling, as do people who buy gold jewelry and empty bottles.

At night, the way people yell changes. It is still intense, but, if you listen closely, you can detect the weariness in people’s voices, the accumulated frustration, the silence behind the noise.

The late hours of the afternoon, when darkness invites people to undress, are a time of outbursts. The pent-up anxiety expresses itself in quarrels of every kind: yelling over the food that hasn’t been cooked because there’s no money to buy a gas cylinder, yelling because the power’s been cut or is about to be cut because of unpaid bills.

Yelling because a kid broke his new, irreplaceable shoes while playing at school, yelling because the day care has announced it will be closed all of next week because there’s no running water there. The yelling of mothers who know their absences from work will be docked from their pay.

Yelling because the rice has run out, yelling because the head of the household has lost his job, yelling because the television has announced intense rains and people’s roofs can’t hold much more humidity, yelling because they’ve again asked for money at school to buy a gift for the teacher who tends to be quite strict while grading exams.

Despite its intensity and persistence, one knows that those voices that touch the very borders of sound are nothing other than the strictest and most disciplined silence.

Yelling because some paperwork won’t be processed unless a bribe is paid, yelling because the most honest fellow in the neighborhood, a military officer who vacations at Varadero every year, has called the police on the poor old woman who sells roasted peanuts on the corner to survive.

The yelling of two desperate mothers, because no one intervenes in a bloody confrontation between gangs that involves their kids. Yells of indifference by the police, because the old woman selling peanuts without a license is far more dangerous for the nation’s safety.

Strange yelling, all-too-human, that dies out after some shots are heard. Screams that crowd in my ears and I have learned to ignore with time, because I do not want to end up on the roof of my building, yelling uncontrollably, my arms bound by a straitjacket.

In Havana, everyone yells all the time. People yell so loudly one can hear them even from a distance, beyond the waters that surround the island. Despite its intensity and persistence, one knows that those voices that touch the very borders of sound are nothing other than the strictest and most disciplined silence.


A Cuba for All Colors

Havana Times, March 6, 2014 |

Ernesto Perez Chang

Plaza Vieja in Old Havana. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Alexis graduated from a Cuban tourism school. He studied to become a chef for years and graduated with honors. In a number of competitions, his teachers praised his dexterity and good taste, as well as his cleanliness and ability to improvise and innovate. Alexis, however, hasn’t had much luck finding a job.

He found work at a lackluster restaurant in Havana’s neighborhood of Centro Habana, where they have yet to allow him to be anything other than the chef’s assistant. The kid will have a difficult time changing the course of his life simply because he was born with one “defect”: his skin is black, too black.

Odalis has a powerful and majestic voice and impeccable diction. She is incisive and expresses herself with ease. She loves the performance arts and, even though she has a university degree in Communications, her dream is hosting a variety TV show. For years, however, she has been reading local news, locked up in a radio booth inside a provincial station.

She still harbors the hope that someone will one day discover her skills. Odalis, however, is not a pretty blonde with a mellifluous voice or a tall slender mulatto woman, the kind tourism ads and fairs divulge, like Cuba’s national seal incarnate.

Cuban television may be the most shameful example. One is hard pressed to find a single black actor or host in Cuba’s evening shows, soap operas – or any program for that matter.

Odalis’ hair doesn’t cascade in elegant waves towards her shoulders with the softness afforded by certain genes or an elaborate hair treatment. Odalis is black and her limitations in life stem from not being ashamed of what she is.

Tamara is a little girl who dreams of becoming Odette and Odile in Swan Lake. On festive days at school, she puts on a pair of runners sown by her mother and dances merrily and gracefully before students and teacher. She does it well, almost perfectly for her age and considering the fact she has received no training. She is pure talent.

She closes her eyes and lets herself be swept away by Tchaikovsky’s music, which also drowns out the inappropriate comments coming from the audience. Her teachers suggest she should choose a different career, for very few people her skin-color make it in the world of ballet. Tamara ignores their comments. She thinks of a Siegfried who doesn’t distinguish between black nor white, which is why she has a portrait of Carlos Acosta hung in her room, for inspiration.

When one travels from one end of the country to the other, one finds thousands of cases like those of Alexis, Odalis and Tamara. You don’t have to look far to confirm that, on occasion, the dreams and talents of a good many Cubans are crushed by the racism that still prevails today in Cuban society.

One needn’t resort to statistical reports; one need only take a look at any hotel to get a sense of how occupations are distributed in accordance with skin color. It suffices to take a stroll down Havana’s streets and look at the complexion of street sweepers, bricklayers, dumpster divers, custodians and immigrants from Cuba’s eastern provinces. It does not resemble that of the manager, the barman, the maître, the high-ranking general, the TV host, the air stewardess.

The door. Photo: Juan Suarez

In magazines and documentaries designed to turn Cuba into an exportable product, black people appear with smiles on their faces, selling fruits, drinking rum or taking part in a dance ritual, while white people are seen renting Mercedes, smoking a cigar or looking out at the blue sea and a strip of pristine beach from a well-lit terrace. Could it be black people do not reflect Cuba’s tropical light well, that it is a mere question of contrast?

Cuban television may be the most shameful example of this. One is hard pressed to find a single black actor or host in Cuba’s evening shows, soap operas – or any program for that matter.

In the isolated cases where they do appear, you can discern the stereotype of the “noble savage” that the writers based their character on, a stereotype which, given an air of verisimilitude, masks the most deeply-rooted prejudices – a hypocritical and mocking attitude that continues to be tolerated.

Efforts to put an end to racism in Cuba should not limit themselves to a naive and futile switching of the poles, to changing the places colors occupy. It is also useless to establish employment or admission quotas or to make inefficient official declarations against racial discrimination.

We need to recognize that no adequate policy to combat the phenomenon is possible before the government examines its own discourse in depth, acknowledges its contradictions (past and present) and accepts that racial prejudices are present at all levels of our society – without exception.


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