Happy Birthday in Today’s Cuba

Irina Echarry

HAVANA TIMES — Standing in front of the stereo, the youngster was twisting, waving his hands all around and making gestures with his hips. “Quimba pa que suene” he yelled, dropping the red balloon he was holding. But finally the clown started taking off her makeup, the children simply ran around, and the adults relaxed. The party was over.

But a few hours earlier everyone had had a reason to be anxious.

Cesar was turning six, so he wanted a birthday party with clowns to make him feel special. His grandparents didn’t want to celebrate it at home, but there wasn’t any other alternative.

As for Cesar’s parents, they had a compelling reason to feel stressed out: their pockets were emptying little by little as they had to keep buying things.

And the clown? Well, actually… I don’t know if she was anxious or not, all you could see was that big smile painted on her face.

The party was in a modest, unostentatious, volunteer-constructed apartment, held without violating any of the unwritten rules imposed of late for such celebrations.

For example, very few people follow the custom of bringing gifts to the guest of honor. These days it’s the birthday boy or girl who has to ensure gifts for each of the guests.

In this case the gifts for the females and those for the males were well defined. They even got in different lines when it came time to distribute them.

Caesar’s father ended up feeling a little embarrassed. Why? Because there weren’t enough play necklaces, headbands or dolls to go around; so several of the girls had to resign themselves to little cars.

For modern birthday parties, buffets have become more expensive because most of the items are purchased in hard currency. In addition to the typical cold salad, cake and the croquettes, you have to have a cake, cupcakes, tarts, etc.

That’s what one of the mothers at the party said to me when she was opening one of the gifts. Then she exclaimed: “Look, this is a great party.” That was the moment I realized how much Caesar’s father and mother had spent on all of this.

A party with clowns is the dream of many children, though not all families can afford them. However the “children celebrations industry” has generated such a dynamic that even if people don’t have large incomes or something saved up, most families are committed to ensuring a clown performance – at least one time.

And of course you have to record the event. That was my mission: taking pictures.

The clown for this occasion was responsible for encouraging the kids’ cravings to win. Most of the games she organized were competitive; and she was in charge of animating the ones that weren’t.

For example: She showed them a sheet with a pattern that they had to associate with a children’s movie. That was okay – right? I recalled how on my birthdays, when I was a little, we used to play something similar, but we would shout the answer back together, in a chorus. But these days it’s not like that.

The clown would sometimes call out the title of the movie in English (despite the children there being different ages) while the kids would raise their hands to answer. She would then choose who could speak, and if they gave a wrong answer she would say something like “loser!” Alternately, if the child was correct, she would separate them out of the group and give them a gift (which, as you already know, were little cars for the boys and dolls for the girls).

You can’t imagine what happened? Cesar — the birthday boy himself — didn’t win one single time.  The smile on his little face gradually dissolved with the game of musical chairs. Cesar found himself standing there without a chair in the first round, so he had to leave the game because he was a “loser.”

There was more fun and, at the end, the rope pull! It was funniest when the little kids were pulling as hard as they could, with the girls and boys all together and laughing. A couple adults were then placed at one end of the rope, with only kids on the other (including Cesar). I don’t think I have to tell you how it ended.

Caesar’s crying (after he had believed himself to be the center of his party) filled the small room. Once again he had lost, plus the friction of the rope had hurt his hand.

In order to cheer him up, his parents asked (almost demanded) him to smile and to learn how to lose.

Since the clown decided it was time for pictures (though I had been taking pictures even before the guests arrived), she organized the children in front of the cake for the classic photo.

First it was with the girls, then with the boys, finally all of them together. Next it was with the grandparents, the parents, the great-grandmother, the aunts uncles, and finally with the neighbors.

Though Caesar was bored by that time, his parents asked him to smile and to look at the camera. Conclusion: Children full of happiness.

The piñata, in the form of a children’s superhero, had been made by Caesar’s father. The children couldn’t wait any longer, which made it impossible to spend more time playing with it before someone knocked it to the ground to find candy mixed with pencils, crayons, erasers, notebooks, tiny plastic superheroes, Barbee dolls and confetti.

It was store bought confetti, of course, which took me back to those hours I spent with my father and a hole puncher making our own different-color homemade confetti. Those are only memories now; “memories of poverty,” says a friend.

Something I need to say is that for the game of musical chairs, the clown played reggaeton. Suddenly everyone there, large and small, began to move as if commanded by the reggaeton beat. Mothers encouraged their little ones to imitate them, and that was the end of the children’s music.

As I said, finally the party ended, with the floor covered with boxes, pieces of cake, ice cream cups and balloons blowing around. The children were still enjoying their reggaeton, writhing, jerking their hips and producing proud smiles from the grownups.