By Erasmo Calzadilla
On a recent Saturday morning I was once again overwhelmed by Leibniz’s “New Essays Concerning Human Understanding.” I was sitting there astonished with how obscure and muddled the great philosophers can be – or perhaps their translations – when my grandmother came in all worked up and flustered about what she had just seen.
Just for a break, I went to listen to mima’s (“grandma’s”) tirade. This time it involved the neighborhood lunatic who had come upon our property to pick mangos, and how she had managed to get his attention.
But to understand this story it’s necessary to make a detour. In the middle of Cuba’s “Special Period” (economic crisis), that began almost two decades ago, legal authorities took a good look at what already had begun occurring almost unstoppably: the occupation of public land by private individuals, principally for their own food consumption.
There was widespread hunger at that time, and these open spaces where children once played were turned into small farmsteads by many people. The tracts were not sub-divided or formally portioned out; it was more like in the American western, where the land was occupied by whoever was the first one to fence off their plot.
Without having to fight with anybody over theirs, my father and my deceased grandfather cleared and sowed their holding, on the side of the building the place where we live in the Electrico district, on the outskirts of Havana.
It was a rather arid parcel for anyone else to want it, and because of that no one suspected that you could grow more than weeds on this stony patch of ground. But with hard work and self-sacrifice they managed to grow several fruit-bearing trees, from which my grandmother would make the greatest fruit milkshakes in the evenings during the picking season of each fruit.
Though not like in the worst of the Special Period, today hunger is again knocking on the doors of Cubans, in the shade of the world economic crisis.
Often, especially during the summer vacation, area kids come onto our property to collect fruit from off the ground… and while I usually turn a blind eye, when my father sees them he gives them a good tongue lashing, because he has a strong sense of ownership.
But other times bigger boys have come onto the land, which is a bigger problem. In the first place this is because they climb the trees and pick them clean, leaving not even a mango for us jerks who worked to grow them.
Secondly, because these youths generally come from bad homes – a very common fruit of my neighborhood – they’re almost always armed with knives and box-cutters; this means that any close encounter can trigger a scuffle that can lead to the hospital, jail or the grave, in the worst instances.
The descent from Leibnizian metaphysics to the raw reality of our quagmire was like a bucket of cold water thrown on me. My first reaction to my grandmother’s story was, “We should round up all those little… (followed by a swearword),” but then I returned to grappling with “Human Understanding.”
To be continued.