HAVANA TIMES — The statue of Mariana Grajales, mother of Cuban independence hero Antonio Maceo, the “Bronze Titan”, as he is popularly known, stands in the park, inciting one of her other sons to go to war.
The monument is located on Calle 23, between C and D streets, in Vedado, at a park that my family and friends used to frequent. In my childhood years, I would go there in search of some peace and the freshness of nature, to read adventure books, run around and ride my bicycle.
People used to enjoy the park’s peaceful atmosphere and would converse enthusiastically for several hours there. One saw couples who had met there to settle their differences, or to kiss and “make out”, to use an expression from those years (now, people talk of “partying”). Those were shows of affection people have forgotten, what with their endless problems. One doesn’t see much of that these days – couples prefer the intimacy of a room, avoiding the gaze of the curious.
While studying at the Saul Delgado High School (which faced the park), my classmates and I used to sit on the lawn and park benches to study. Afterwards, we threw together a kind of impromptu concert with songs by Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes, or with popular Beatles songs (in a broken English that made one laugh). We did this until it got dark and we had to go back home.
Concerts were held at the park some Saturday nights. Popular or folk music bands would go there to play. The stage was very simple: a rustic wooden platform, a couple of stage lights, a two-console sound equipment and chairs for the audience, that was all. The feeling in the air left no room for doubt: young people went there to dance and hear music.
It was a healthy way of spending time and, what’s more, there was no admission. No alcoholic drinks were sold, only soft drinks and bread with something or other, but we still had a lot of fun. It was our age of innocence.
The Special Period and the exodus of Cubans began in the troubled nineties. At this same park, I saw many young people put together rafts and other vessels to leave the country. They would start early in the morning, bringing backpacks full of provisions and water bottles.
I remember Carlos, a friend who lived around the corner, arriving with his belongings there, with a frightened look on his face. He had lived in fear for so long that he suspected someone might show up and put an end to his plans.
Always the farsighted type, he had even brought a compass along. He would tell me that, with that, they couldn’t “mess it up” – that was the colloquial way he talked, even though he was an intelligent kid who dreamt of studying painting at Havana’s San Alejandro Fine Arts Academy. He didn’t pass the aptitude exam and worked as a cook at the residences of a medical school. He never made it to the United States, despite the compass. I cried when I was told he had gotten lost at sea.
A few years later, daily routine took hold of the park. On Sundays, it became the spot where teenagers studying at rural boarding schools were picked up. Hundreds of students with their suitcases, bundles and other belongings would throng there, stepping carelessly on the lawn while waiting for the buses that would take them to their respective boarding schools. A sea of garbage, bits of paper and food, would be left behind.
A sense of stagnation remains in the park: empty benches, empty spaces. Children play a little less than they used to there. On some occasions, when I walk by there, I see people sitting around a table playing domino and hear them yell at each other as they play. I simply turn around and continue on my way, hastily, lost in my thoughts.