Cuba: Dumpster Diving to Rescue Culture

Isbel Diaz Torres

Discos y revistas en  la basura.
Records and magazines in the trash bin.

HAVANA TIMES — I want to talk about my first experience with buceando (“dumpster diving”), which is what we call the activity of searching through the garbage to salvage reusable items. The incident took place a few weeks ago just one block from the University of Havana.

While my partner Jimmy and I were carrying an old wrought iron gate, which a good friend gave us for the door of the little room where we live, we came across a dumpster full of old records and magazines.

Without hesitating, I dropped the gate and began rummaging through the records. Being the music lover I am, I couldn’t resist the temptation, even though I don’t have a record player at home.

I wasn’t by myself in that task. An older man was also busy rifling through the trash. He was only looking for the magazines though, of which there were also plenty. Those ancient copies of Bohemia Magazine — which for decades was ranked among the top journals on the island (and even on the continent — were now just lying there, dying.

The interest of my fellow diver wasn’t intellectual. He intended to sell the magazines as “recyclable material” to pick up a few extra pesos. I watched the end of those editions with sadness, but I focused on the vinyl discs.

There were complete collections of the most important American jazz musicians of the past century. They were RCA Victor records piled one on top of the other, stripped of their original covers but conserved in plastic wrapping.

Along with those were Russian editions of the most unexpected pieces of classical concert music, performed by virtuosos from every nation.

Me, a frustrated musician and inveterate music lover, I walked away relishing the recordings of Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Stravinsky, Mahler, Bach, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and many others, while Jimmy confined himself to asking me where I thought I was going to listen to them.

I even I found an edition of “Musica Electroacustica (Time),” directed by Juan Blanco, in which four young Cuban musicians began their bold audio experiments back in 1986.

Soviet, American, German, Spanish and Cuban labels were all represented there.

A couple children also get into the "diving."
A couple children also get into the “diving.”

Other discs had hymns, patriotic songs by Juan Almeida Bosque, and even the recording of a speech by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, which appeared wasn’t going to be rescued by anybody.

Two children came later and also loaded themselves up with a significant number of magazines to sell to “booksellers.”

An older couple (a Cuban woman and a Spanish guy) also took a plunge. They kept yelling that this seemed like a crime and that it was incredible that, in a country with so much culture, there would be someone who would throw away such valuable objects. They picked out four or five albums and walked away without coming out of their astonishment.

As for myself, after picking out a large number of records I was forced to make a second selection and eliminate some since I couldn’t carry all of them. So, I packed my backpack, slung it on my back, grabbed the heavy gate we’d been carrying and I walked away with Jimmy.

That next day, bright and early in the morning, I returned confident that the huge volume of items couldn’t have been taken away – but it was too late. That preceding night, a garbage truck had come by and picked up everything. The only things left were a few broken records lying in the street and the cover of a Bohemia being run over by the passing cars.

Together with my good friend Mario Castillo, we’ve managed to come up with a place to listen to those old records. We also now have a turntable, which was given to us by another friend. Now we’re only in need of the speakers and to keep on “diving” for more forgotten LPs.


Isbel Diaz

Isbel Diaz Torres: Pinar del Rio and Havana are my cities. I was born in one on March 1, 1976, and I’ve always lived in the other. I am a biologist and poet, though at times I’ve also been a musician, translator, teacher, computer geek, designer, photographer and editor. I’m very non-conformist and a defender of differences – perhaps due to always having been an ever-repressed “model child.” Nothing enthralls me more than the unknown, nature and art; these serve as my sources of mystery and development. A surprising activism has been born in me over the recent period. Though I’m not very sure how to channel it, I feel that it’s a worthy and legitimate energy. Let’s hope I have the discernment to manage it.

2 thoughts on “Cuba: Dumpster Diving to Rescue Culture

  • I’m a dumpster diver too! In the mid 1960s, at the age of four (I think), I would accompany my father to the town dump on his search for treasures that others had discarded. To my chagrin, in the chaos of my sisters’ greed, his great find on my first visit with him (beautiful, hand blown, thick glass, small bowls in a variety of rich colors) were sold at auction after my father’s death. My initiation into collecting “garbage” led to a lifetime of searching through the discards of others, usually giving my finds away.

  • When my best and lifelong friend died in November, 1999, in the depths of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he left a huge record collection (a whole room, including hundreds of pre-W.W. I cillindrical records (and an ancient Victrola on which to play them,too). Wife and I tried to salvage his collections, but after several weekend trips down to N.Y.C. from our home in Vermont we were overwhelmed, and finally gave up. The industrial-sized dumpsters called in by his landlord claimed 98% of his records, books and magazines. What remains are only the memories, plus a few fotos, videos, and other momentos. Even these, after we are gone, will soon be covered over–like the giant statue’s head in “Ozymandius”–by the sands of time.

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