A Common Story in a Multi-Family Havana Building

Ariel Glaria Enriquez

HAVANA TIMES — Juan Mariscal, who the children in the neighborhood nick-named “the Bear” for having a hairy back, was a hardline Communist and a well-off spy who always criticized our education and our families’ ideological commitment when he heard us complaining about Russian cartoons.

He was married to Nena, an unsuccessful middle-class woman, who in the ‘60s felt the end of her attempts to be a respectable woman had come when she met Juan Mariscal walking along the Malecon in Havana wearing his militia uniform and rank of Lieutenant.

Elena, who already lived with her first three children at the end of the corridor on the second floor of an apartment block, understood that that marriage would last forever when she saw the Bear sitting in Nena’s living room for the first time.

Villa, an Asturian anarchist and photography amateur was the one who brought the helpless Elena to live in the Building and he left the young woman the rooms at the back, without any kind of self-interest. He moved to the smallest room in the middle of the corridor between Nena’s house which took up the entire front of the second floor, with a long balcony facing the street, and the end of the corridor where Elena ended up raising her first three children and conceiving the others.

Nena never forgave the old Asturian for doing this and shortly after her marriage to Juan, the couple stopped talking to their closest neighbor after an argument for no reason in the corridor.

It was then that the old Villa confessed to Elena something that she converted into her most repeated phrase: “Nobody can understand Communists.”

During the time they had stopped talking to Villa, Juan started using his glasses and got a phone line installed. Since then, Nena’s bourgeois vocation linked to her husband’s spying on people gave the couple their definitive identity.

The interior of the building.

For being one of the few neighbors who had a telephone in the neighborhood back then and for the slices of cake that Elena’s eldest daughters received and could appear in their 15th birthday photos posing next to the balcony and talking on the phone. Photos which, over those years and for some hidden reason, were always present in catalogs of the sweet 15 birthday parties. In today’s Plaza de las Palomas, there weren’t any horse-drawn carriages back then, where teenagers pose today like girls from the Victorian period, or were there pigeons. And the Gentleman of Paris wasn’t a statue yet.

Villa, whose love for photography would be worthy of an entire article, died more thankful to Elena than anyone else. However, he ran out of time to put his young neighbor as the universal heir of his few belongings. In just two weeks after his death, without any more rights than his spy appearance, the Bear knocked down the false dividing wall between his house and his late neighbor’s room.

Full of needs and children, Elena rescued hundreds of photos from the garbage and supported by her eldest daughter, she took all of the cameras Villa had used in his life. It wasn’t a premeditated action but it put a moral restriction on the Bear’s authority. “That day, I discovered that Juan Mariscal was afraid of me,” Elena confided in me the afternoon she first showed me the Asturian’s camera collection.

The Bear explained himself to his wife giving an unintelligible speech, hiding the real feeling that Elena had picked up on ever since that day and which became proven when the young woman closed off the roof terrace to the couple.

It happened on a Sunday; the youngest children were playing on the floor, chasing a line of frenzied ants who were getting lost among the arasbesque tiles when Nena appeared under the arch in the back, where her neighbor’s property began, with buckets where she had hung the feet of the militiaman’s trousers dripping lots of water.

The roof top terrace.

Elena, in a tone that made Nena avoid her ever since, told her that, “if you hang out your washing on the roof terrace, I will burn it.” During my childhood, I heard her die of fits of laughter when telling this story many a time, “it seemed like she had brought her husband stuck in the bucket,” she used to say.

One afternoon, Juan Mariscal, who acted like he never knew who trafficked “la bolita” (illegal lottery), and who, nevertheless, assumed he knew everything, found out that Elena would give birth again when he saw a tall man with a thick moustache and metal-framed glasses coming down the stairs. All he had to do was give him a look from the balcony to then go and eat with the certainty that there would soon be another kid bothering him on the roof terrace or the stairway and he remembered the old anarchist out loud.

A short time after that afternoon, an April day in 1980, under an unexpected downpour, Elena’s eldest daughter left the building forever when she found out that her mother was pregnant again.

During the time Elena gave birth for the sixth time, her roof terrace had become the best space for kids on the block to go and play and her home was a second home for me.

Ariel Glaria

Ariel Glaria Enriquez: I was born in Havana Cuba in 1969. I am proud bearer of an endangered concept: habanero. I don’t know of another city, therefore life in it along with its customs, joys and pain are the biggest reason why I write. I studied mechanical drawing, but I am working as a restorer. I dream of a Havana with the splendor and importance it once had.

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