By Eduardo N. Cordovi Hernandez
HAVANA TIMES – From what I’ve heard, from what I read or what I remember from my childhood, I know that before 1959, there was misery in Cuba. Especially in the interior of the country. But also, in the capital.
There were beggars all over Havana. Today, the same. There were children who couldn’t go to school –or didn’t have parents that required them to go or laws that forced parents to do it, like there are now–, boys who sold newspapers, cleaned shoes or windshields, or rode on rear bumpers of buses during school hours.
It is also true that until the 1960s, you arrived at any fonda (cheap diner) without money, and they served you a plate of rice with beans and a glass of cold water for free. There was no hunger, but it was not decent.
It is surprising that, in that society, with a government that had to be replaced by means of a revolution, a war, in a poor neighborhood like Lawton, on the outskirts of the capital, there would be a store on every corner, and that they were also profitable.
An old saying goes: any past time was better. I’m not really trying to reaffirm it. Nor do I intend to vindicate past times; nor do I denigrate the present.
But I can’t talk about the years before 1959 without nostalgia. Although my family wasn’t wealthy, those years are tinged with the candor of childhood. My parents were peasants from rural Havana province.
Lawton was still a place of farms. My father continued to work as a farmer at a small dairy. He attended to the milking and care of the cows and the distribution of milk. We didn’t have our own home. Just a house owned by the boss. He, in turn, was not rich either. He was not a politician or an intellectual. Just a prosperous merchant.
My mother did not frequent the big downtown stores in the city. Not even to see the stained glass. The fact was that in Lawton there was everything.
Every week, they changed the decoration of the shop windows. They were illuminated throughout the night participating in public decoration. Everyone crowded around the Havana gates to see the designs, the fabrics, the latest that was being offered. From all the neighborhoods of Havana, people flocked in the afternoon until late at night to see the shops, although it was an excuse to go for a walk, eat out or find a partner, since the city had an intense nightlife.
If there was no money to eat in an expensive restaurant or a cheap fonda, the markets, cafeterias, ice cream parlors, closed late at night. There were the stalls selling fried foods, hot dogs or bread with suckling pig, the street tamal sellers, the peanut vendors, the sellers of plantain mariquitas… While many enjoyed the walk, others were looking for a peso, day after day.
Another disappeared Cuban tradition is the pregon (street seller’s cry).
The pregon is something more than the loud announcement of the product being sold. It is a primary, original artistic expression, related to singing, in which the timbre of the voice, the intonation and the humorous wit of the seller, their comic face, their grace, intervene.
They wandered through all the neighborhoods of Havana. Ice cream vendors with their bells, knife sharpeners with their panpipes, postmen with their whistles. However, in the same way, the sellers of avocados, mangoes, lemons, fresh fish, those who were dedicated to repairing bed frames, all: they disappeared. Self-employment was outlawed after 1968.
After the Special Period crisis of the 1990s, the legalization of some private trades took place. The cry was heard again. With a certain reservation, yes, because this opening, in turn, opened-up the possibility of going out and selling anything: stolen, embezzled, adulterated products. Likewise, sometimes, unlicensed sellers, scammers, and illicit resellers.
The neighborhood of my childhood was framed by Dolores Avenue and Sixteenth Street. Today, Dolores is Camilo Cienfuegos Avenue, although only officially. Most people continue to call it Dolores.
Sixteenth was a street with a lot of traffic. Suffice it to say that despite not being very long, barely eight blocks, it had one of the three Lawton bus terminals. Its routes to the city dispatched buses every three minutes and at peak times every minute and a half.
Dolores had more traffic. It connected a sector of the capital with the Central Highway to the east of the island. These streets, 16th and Dolores, were those of large establishments: stores, hardware stores, pharmacies, bars, bakeries, wineries, dry cleaners, gas stations… In its route of about three kilometers -from Diez de Octubre to the Central Highway Dolores Avenue had eleven service stations. What a job it took to have to cross Dolores!
Today is different, there is only one bus terminal in Lawton, there are fewer bus routes and each one leaves every two hours –if it leaves– because there are no working buses or because there are fuel problems, or a driver did not go to work. In general, it is a question of breakages, lack of spare parts, in short… places that have become the waste basket where many managers justify with what they don’t like: the bloqueo (US embargo).