A Public Debate on My Block

Irina Echarry

HAVANA TIMES — The afternoon shone with its most beautiful colors. The kids were playing soccer under the orange light reflected by the framboyan trees that line the street. Their shouting pierced the silence of the block. At the corner food stand, the drivers from the bus terminal were quenching their thirst and, like always, venting their work-related problems out loud.

Same old routine…until a group of drunk people (two men and a woman) stumbled onto the scene, arguing. It wasn’t exactly something out of the ordinary. The corner gets rowdy often. We don’t know whether it’s because of its proximity to the bus terminal, if the food stands draw rough types or because the bus stops tend to get crowded…the fact of the matter is that my building’s surroundings are often the stage of disputes.

The drunkards caught everyone’s attention but, after a few minutes, people shrugged them off as hopeless. Then, the situation heated up a bit and one of the drunks started hitting the young woman who was with him. He shoved her down onto the ground and started kicking her as though she were a soccer ball.

People reacted and started yelling terrible insults at him…and, surprise, the young men stopped their game. One of them, Migue, visibly upset, lunged towards the aggressor. Someone called the police and, another surprise, just like in afternoon soaps, the patrol car arrived seconds later to take the aggressor to the station.

The best part, however, what truly surprised me, was the public debate that the incident prompted. Most of the young people who live on the block spend their days wasting time, sitting on benches, speaking in a loud tone of voice, listening to reggaeton music, sometimes brawling, and playing sports. I had never heard them have an interesting conversation. Thanks to Cuba’s gossiping ways, I was able to hear the entire exchange from the fifth floor of the building, as people offered their opinions from benches and balconies.

What were they discussing? They touched on different issues, but one question became the center of the debate: must one intervene when a man hits a woman? The answers were varied: some believed one should, as hitting a woman is a highly abusive thing; others believed one shouldn’t as you can end up in a lot of trouble. “Look how they took Migue away as well.” Some believed one should intervene, but in an intelligent manner. “You can’t hit anyone, only hold him back.”

It was a pleasure to see the teenagers (who have the reputation of being apathetic and indifferent) express their ideas without any kind of instruction from above, and do so in connection with a sensitive topic. Alamar is a peripheral neighborhood with few – or no – recreational options, an impoverished transportation system (though a bit better now than before), a large population facing financial difficulties and a tendency to naturalize the stereotypes of the popular imaginary (men are in charge, women are either whores or saints), etc.

This public debate, of course, was not free from other elements that characterize our society. Most spoke with a tough-guy attitude, yelling out curses and inciting violence: “Hitting a woman is pure abuse,” “let him come over and try that with me, see how I leave the guy,” or “a man who hits a woman is a fag, a pussy.”

In other words, everything was based on the assumption of female fragility and the superiority of males, offenses against those with different sexual orientations and, yes, an additional bit of seasoning: a contempt for people from the countryside, as the drunks didn’t look like they were from the city.

We were all having a real good time when Migue returned saying he didn’t have any problems at the station. The soccer match ended and the young men talked until well into the night, with the same violent hand gestures, but in a lower tone of voice. Their voices faded away when the Brazilian soap came on TV. I don’t know whether they continued to discuss the issue or whether they immediately sank bank into their day-to-day drowsiness.