We’ll build a park here, if they let us

Erasmo Calzadilla
Erasmo Calzadilla

The Reparto Eléctrico, as they call my barrio built in the revolutionary period (the sixties) for members of the military and their families, has no parks. To compensate, people always used the open spaces between buildings for public activities, places for children to play, etc.

Then, in the crisis years of the 1990s, and with no control or regulation, some residents decided to take over individual lots for the raising of animals, planting of gardens or to build small workshops on them.

Salaries and pensions in Cuba are insufficient for a family’s basic needs, and these side occupations help support the family economy. The cottage industries also provide certain services to the barrio residents that the State doesn’t supply, creating a local market that benefits the neighborhood.

Although there is still a lot of space left, a group of my friends and I fear that in the future the “privatizations” could continue to the point of eradicating little by little these common spaces that are not recognized or protected officially as parks.

Four or five of my friends and I have motivated each other to do something special for the neighborhood, and at the same time put some brakes on the aforementioned situation. We all agreed that the best way to assure respect for the public spaces is to have them look as much as possible like real parks and have people use them accordingly.

With this idea, we made attempts to contact the local authorities to convince them of our idea and gain their support, but this has been impossible, for one reason or another. So, we decided to take action on our own, the way everyone else does for their individual projects.

We chose a centrally located, empty lot for our plan. Before beginning, we asked the nearest neighbors if they had anything against our planting some shade trees and putting in some benches on that land. They not only accepted, but also expressed their delight at the initiative and lent us some tools.

It took us an entire afternoon to transport some large tree trunks on our shoulders from a distance of more than a kilometer, chop down the undergrowth on the lot, dig the holes and replant the trees.  When we finished, it was already dark. Tired, but bursting with pride, we baptized our public works project with the name of one of us who will soon be going to live in a distant country, with the hope that by the time he returns the young trees will have become a small forest.

As is typical in the Cuban neighborhoods, while we worked many passersby came up to ask us questions and give their opinions. All of them expressed skepticism; no one could believe that a group of young people would do something spontaneously on their own initiative for the good of the community. I understand why they feel this way – the truth is you don’t often see this done. Many were upset, since they thought that we too were grabbing a piece of land to build yet another unsightly pigsty. Of course such misperceptions increased our enthusiasm, and with great pleasure we explained our project to the unbelievers.

When this phase of the project was done, we each returned to our respective homes with our fingers crossed, fearing that some harm might befall our young and fragile park while it was unprotected.  Our fears weren’t unfounded.  A week later, there were ample signs of aggression: the growth had been stripped from the trunks, and the trees showed signs of having be struck by machetes, hit by rocks, and scratched up. A few of them were totally dismembered and left thrown on the grass.

It didn’t seem to have been a premeditated action, but rather the work of the kids from the local middle school accustomed to cutting through the lot after class is out. Now we’re wondering what we can do to protect our project without having to put a fence around it, as if it were another land takeover. And anyway, a fence would be too expensive for us.

Maybe, if the kids from the middle school saw us working there when they got out of school, they’d feel some respect for our effort?  We’re working on these new plans right now.