I don’t like my hometown of Santiago de Cuba. I have thousands of reasons for this, but they range well beyond the scope of this commentary. Notwithstanding, I never cease to feel an attachment to that place where I spent twelve important years of my life.
I haven’t visited my city in more than a year, so I get the news of daily life there from my mother, who has become a kind of female version of Sergio, the leading character in the movie Memories of Underdevelopment, by Tomas Gutierrez Alea. That figure was a passive observer of the revolutionary changes in the country after the victory of 1959.
Like Sergio, my mother is witnessing a city that is falling apart everywhere around her. She remarked in one of her delicious letters:
“While I was having coffee I heard some “resellers” who were commenting about a public trial televised on Revista Santiago. On the show a co-worker of theirs received a sentence of four years in jail, and her husband nine, for disturbing the peace and breaking the plate-glass window of a store that sells sweets.
“One of the people who spoke said they didn’t believe in justice in this country because the people who broke the glass and created such a mess in the store were struggling for food for their family.”
“How is it possible to get food for your house when you have to buy such a large quantity of cookies, cakes, candy…? And those things aren’t “food” per se. Logically, they were trying to get those to resell them in front of schools or around train stations and bus stations and other key places.
“Today I saw a patrol car loaded with several “luchadoras” (“strugglers”) who had got into a fight in the line at a butcher shop. It’s not easy. People are violent in the street and for anything things can get out of hand.”
These cases of speculators (popularly referred to as “resellers”) are not new. They’ve existed ever since I was a kid, and the range of products they “resell” is extensive, including medicine and school supplies that the government provides for free.
There’s another event that has shocked the city for more than a year. Commenting on it, my mother wrote:
“Here they’re continuing with the rehabilitation(?) of the city’s water system. All along Calvario (a central thoroughfare in the city) has become a wide trench (that’s the impression you get from the way they broke up the street to lay the new waterline). Clearly it’s a unique trench, because in it are all sizes of leaks as well as garbage that the residents have thrown in it…
“The streets where the crews are working are disasters, covered with mud, mounds of dirt and piles of rubble. I really can’t see the end of the construction work (though they say in the paper that it’s 88 percent complete). The saddest thing is seeing how children play in these places!”
Talking with my mom recently, she told me that Garzon Avenue (another important artery in the city), after having been asphalted, has become a beautiful spring whose waters bubble up through the new pavement.
Santiago hurts, as I have said before. It hurts with a pain without an antidote. And what especially hurts is not being able to do anything about it. Life there means being like Sergio, on the edge of a violently approaching avalanche devoid of compassion.