A Lesson on Poverty

Maria Matienzo Puerto

To witness other people’s misfortune is not comforting.  I remember the first time I saw a man eating out of the garbage.  I was just a little girl, but that was the childhood image that has stuck in my mind more than any other.

At times I recall it as a blurred vision, or I see as if it were shrouded in fog, but it remains there.  It never vanishes.  I don’t forget it like I do so many things, perhaps even things more important in my life.

That first time I saw that man scrounging through the garbage for something to eat I didn’t have to ask to anyone what it meant.  Yet instinctively, with certain dose of anguish, I was invaded with one question: How could that be possible if there were no poor people in Cuba?

Now I know, I know, I know.  What a naive question.  But you have to understand, I was all of five or six, and I wasn’t able to understand that me, though I didn’t eat out of the garbage, I was also a part of that poverty.

Perhaps what I survived from those ideas was my readings, childish of course and somewhat precocious, but they left me outside of all the adult circumstances.  In other words, if there was or wasn’t any food, I simply wasn’t aware.

How had that concept of poverty found a place inside my mind as a little girl?  Don’t I know?  Perhaps it was part of the serum that they inoculated us with at an early age and within which was the vital ingredient of the information that Latin America is poor, and that in it are children sleeping in the street and people going hunger.

Please, don’t ask me to also recall those details.

What I do know is that this contributes to excluding us from our fellow Latin Americans; that some Cubans still speak as if the island were a European or US appendix.

But let me return to the first story.  The idea of the nonexistence of poverty in Cuba followed me until the 90s, until when it was no longer possible to ignore.  It was clearly on the agenda, and people did what they had to in trying to overcome it.  They found that poverty has an evil face, and no one wants to look at it dead on.

Why do I return to those memories?  A few days ago I saw one pretty depressing housing alternative.

I went into the building where some friends live, and though we didn’t want to bother them, I saw a couple (a man and a woman) sleeping on pieces of cardboard and covered with dingy frayed sheets on one side of the door; on the other —organized and clean— were some pans and silverware.  What still resonates in my head is my girlfriend’s statement: “And just think, we’ve been at the point of being that very same way.”

Later we found out that the building’s residents call that area “the presidential suite,” and that people even have sex there, without caring who might wander by.

My girlfriend and I laughed, but when we left and we had to cut through that “room” again.  We tried not to even breathe so as to not wake them up…because who knows how long their day had been.

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Maria Matienzo

Maria Matienzo Puerto: I dreamed once that I was a butterfly who had come from Africa and discovered that I had been alive for thirty years. From that time on, I constructed my world while I was sleeping: I was born in a magic city like Havana; I dedicated myself to journalism; I wrote and edited books for children; I met to discuss art with wonderful people; I fell in love with a woman. Of course, there are certain points of coincidence with the reality of my waking life and it’s that I prefer the silence of reading and the pleasure of a good movie.

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2 thoughts on “A Lesson on Poverty



  • Your story remindeds me of a story. For 21-years I worked weekends at a homeless shelter, here in Brattleboro, Vermont. I remember a couple who had a baby while living at the shelter. A few years later, I saw the baby’s father, his little toddler strapped to his back, climb into a dumpster behind a local super-market to retreive outdated food which had been thrown away. Also, around town, I would see him, the baby in a backpack, climbing into other dumpsters to retreive bottles and cans, which were redeamable for five cents each.
    Years went by, and that little baby grew into a young woman. From the local nespaper, I noticed that her name appeared twice a year on the high school’s honor roll. In her junior and senior years of high school, she received several academic prizes. To this day she has a good relationship with her father (I see them, from time-to-time, walking around town–the mother died when the girl was still a child). The father has a good heart, but continues to remain in abject poverty. I don’t know what subsequently became of her–I hope she has been able to make a better life for herself–but this is another example of how we should not stereotype people, of how, despite severe deprivation, at least some individuals are able to transcend their circumstances.

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