Maria Matienzo Puerto

Havana Park Scene - photo: Caridad

No one thinks about what a psychiatric hospital must be like inside or how it functions.  We don’t think about how people who are mentally ill are treated, or how they got to that point, or if it’s reversible, or if once they’ve entered they can ever leave their asylum.  Madness —like jail and death— is terrifying.

No one wants to see themselves behind bars or unbalanced, nor do they want to disappear forever.  Though thousands of theories exist, the reality is that when you die you’re never seen again.  These three conditions share the common consequence of the person being forgotten.  The sole advantage of death is that once people forget you, they don’t run the risk of seeing you again.

However after an experience in prison, I imagine that one never returns to being the same person again.  Yet, as life continues, you have to make the effort and follow the course of what you once began, taking yourself for what you are.

But madness is another thing; I believe it’s even more complex.  In Spanish there are more than ten synonyms for it, though they don’t approach it face on.  Perhaps that’s why it provides us with a justification when the hospitalized patients die [like the 26 who died in a Havana institution in January] and there’s no information about who the culprits were – even months later.

For my part, I admit that for a long time insanity was also my worst nightmare.  I imagine it’s being and not being; that neither they nor you tell the story with objectivity; that it’s doing things and that a part of you says no and another part says yes; that there’s no control over your acts or those of others.

It must be like people passing by the front of your hospital in a bus and seeing you —with absolutely no shame— urinating in front of everyone; or with an aluminum tray in your hand getting in line for a snack; or wearing a “uniform” they’ve given you (a pink polyester robe along with a t-shirt that used to be white but could now be gray or beige, given the amount of stains), with large letters saying “1 LESS” (like what actually happens in the Roberto Sorhegui Psychiatric Hospital in the Havana suburb of Cotorro.)   But you can’t help but ask…one less what or why, or what’s that one less about?

Could they have meant one less person who thinks, one less individual protesting, one less debating? – because it couldn’t mean one less mouth to feed (they do give them food there). Why “1 LESS”?

I don’t want to get my morbidity machine going and let others jump to conclusions.  But maybe this is the reason why I once told a friend that the best thing about this island was being able to concentrate (at least try to) on individual projects so as not to fatten the self-worship of people with more power, or to simply not be one less Cuban on or off the island.


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.

One thought on “One Less Cuban

  • Maria, there is a lot to digest here, but you fly off in too many directions. Still, i like your last paragraph, and also your fascination with the phrase “1 LESS.” Reminds me of a film, “Less than Zero” (though I can’t remember the plot or the actors), and also the slogan, “In the Land of Zero, There are no Number Ones!” Incidentally, asylums don’t necessarily have to be fearsome places where the mentally ill are filed away and forgotten. As their name implies, they can be “asylums,” or sanctuaries from the cruelties of the real world. Sometimes, these self-contained communities become positive places, where fragile souls can be encouraged to develop their potentials in a safe environment. Too often, though, they are as you describe, enclosed Hades from whence folks are forgotten and seldom escape. Up here in Gringoland most of these large institutions have been closed, and their inmated dumped onto the uncaring streets: the psyching “walking wounded.”

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