Cuba’s Street Cleaners: with a Clean Brow

Dariela Aquique

HAVANA TIMES, March 8 — “People who work honestly, whatever their jobs, they deserve to be well regarded. No work is denigrating!” Those were the words my brother and I used to hear from our late grandfather. This was how he instilled respect in us for people who earned their living honorably.

As a child, what caught my attention every year in the days leading up to Christmas was that my grandmother would give money to the men and/or women who swept the streets and collected garbage.

Simple sweepers or garbage collectors, as some people disparagingly call those who work day and night to keep the city clean, were always encouraged by my grandma, who in no way made them feel as if it were charity – far from it.

According to her, this was an old custom passed down from her parents, what they called a “bonus,” which was given by many families to those people who received low wages from their jobs, such as street sweeping, cleaning floors, running messages or shining shoes.

Over the years those customs disappeared. Young people just weren’t educated in this. Plus, after the difficult days of the Special Period crisis and its aftermath, not many people were in a position to make monetary donations.

The government overhauled the wage rates in this sector, which included all community service workers, and there has been a certain improvement in their economic situation, although it’s still insufficient. Still, the truth be told, things have changed with respect to previous years.

Even though their wages are higher, there is still a long way to go in this society, for these workers receive all due respect for their worthy and vital pursuits, just it does for any job. I believe that education must start in the home, by parents and grandparents, planting in the minds of the youth respect for anyone who puts bread on the table as a result of their work – and not by committing misdeeds.

There should be discussions in schools about different professions, occupations and jobs, without establishing any distances or diminishing any of these (despite the differences that already exist).

Not looking over the other person’s shoulder should be a principle of social behavior. There is always talk about declaring war on sexual, racial or religious discrimination, but I think people ignore occupational discrimination.

An anecdote

A few days ago a man who sweeps streets asked me for a light. I immediately held out my lighter as he removed his gloves and wiped his hands clean with a cloth. He held the lighter almost with his fingertips, and then — before returning it — he cleaned it off. I was a little puzzled by all that effort, which from my point of view was an excessive show of cleanliness.

I said to him, “Man, that’s not necessary.” With his voice breaking, he replied, “The problem is that there are people who look at us and treat us like we’re the same trash we collect.”

I didn’t feel sorry for the man but for the situation that he must have experienced more than once, only because he wasn’t a doctor or a lawyer or an artist. Then I extended my hand and told him, “Don’t pay any attention. You make a living cleanly. Look, that’s just the way it is. You clean what others carelessly get dirty.”

With his eyes fixed on my face, and with a sincere expression, he thanked me.

Like my grandparents, I remembered an ex-boyfriend who was a writer. He had told me that one day a young wannabe intellectual was asking about everything along the Paseo del Prado esplanade.

“Where did Lezama used to live?” he asked, to which no one responded. Some people simply shrugged their shoulders and others looked at him baffled, until the man who was sweeping the corner said, “Youngster – Lezama, the poet, used to live right over there.”

Sensitivity, manners, conduct and even culture are determined by things that go beyond what we do for living. That’s why I wanted to write this diary entry and dedicate it to my admiration for those who collect our garbage and sweep our streets, sometimes without all of the required clothing and thus exposing themselves to infections.

Nevertheless they clean the streets, cities and our country while carrying themselves with a clean brow.

Dariela Aquique

Dariela Aquique: I remember my years as a high school student, especially that teacher who would interrupt the reading of works and who with surprising histrionics spoke of the real possibilities of knowing more about the truth of a country through its writers than through historical chronicles. From there came my passion for writing and literature. I had excellent teachers (sure, those were not the days of the Fast-track Teachers) and extemporization and the non-mastery of subjects was not tolerated. With humble pretenses, I want to contribute to revealing the truth about my country, where reality always overcomes fiction, but where a novel style shrouds its existence.

2 thoughts on “Cuba’s Street Cleaners: with a Clean Brow

  • I share Michael’s sentiments .
    Street cleaners and all those who do the hard unglamorous but very NECESSARY work in a society are heroes in their own way that should be no less honored that doctors who cure illness or anyone else whose work makes our collective societies better places in which to live.

    And what then of the litterbugs ? Think of the anti-social thinking behind that crime against the people .
    Yes sure, perhaps it’s a small thing in the big scheme of things but it makes a difference in your outlook in life when you walk down streets that everyday are strewn with trash OR walking everyday down streets that look neat even beautiful and as if people cared about them, about the neighborhood and country in which they live.

    Little things do add up.

  • Maybe I’m an old sentimentalist, but this story brought more than one tear to my eyes. Too bad so few have learned this lesson, that everyone ought to be treated with respect; also, everyone has a story to tell and, if you listen, all of these stories are interesting. Thanks for reminding us of our humanity…or the humanity which we ought to remember, and practice!

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