This One Is for Juan

Maria Matienzo Puerto

Flying Kites. photo: Caridad

I believe in signs and good beginnings of the week.  I also believe in people who I hardly know but who tell me their stories without inhibition and allow me to see what they’ve learned from life.

This weekend I heard some phrases on television that terrified me.  Despite their heroic tone and very deliberate appearances of a certain dose of imperativeness, they reminded me of the stories of friends who experienced the so-called Quinquenio Gris (the Gray Five Year Period).

This occurred in the 1970s and 80s when people who were “different,” as described in ordinances and resolutions, were made to work in agriculture or sent to factories, where they were found to be more “useful.”

In my attempt to console myself, I thought that this time the same thing could occur but in a different form.  But just the same, I didn’t find it less tragic to think that perhaps on this occasion those who would be made to work in agriculture or in places where they would be considered “more useful” would involve workers no longer needed thanks to budget cuts.

For those magic things that happen in life and perhaps as an answer to my concern, I met someone who was different.  Let’s call him Juan.

Juan is 57 and gay, and he’s always been gay.  Since he was little he preferred his older sister’s dolls and his mother never tried to repress those feelings, which was extremely rare at that time. He was lucky.

His present for his fifteenth birthday was a small apartment for his independence and a long conversation.  The sole thing that his mother requested of him was —without stopping him from being like he was— that he shine through his talent and that he respect himself and everyone else.

Juan doesn’t see himself as a failure, though there was a time when he was in and out of police stations.  Every time he left the university they would stop him because of his long hair, his effeminate way of walking and his exotic manner of dress.

He would be picked up and subjected to a “make-up test.” No lie!  The idea was to see if this male citizen had put on makeup like a woman.  Of course the results were always positive.

He was never put on trial, Juan told me.  This was because his mother would always go wherever she had to go to defend and support him.  She would certify that her son didn’t suffer from any illness.

A few other of his many experiences were when they didn’t want to give him his high school diploma because his fingernails were too long; and when in his fourth year of studying law they demanded him to change to another career because a homosexual lawyer was inconceivable; and when, working in a factory, his boss couldn’t bear his eccentric style of dressing.

He also had his strategy so that he would be absolved…so that his beauty would allow him to circulate in the world of show business and modeling.  In this way he also justified his use of make-up.

Juan was free but he was “singled out” in a society that promoted machismo.  Now he only has his memories left, those that he clings to in order to talk about them over and over again, like the theme of a tango, or a pink novel, like a Greek tragedy or a bolero; and it doesn’t matter to him if people believe him or not.

Juan is 57 and gay; he’s always been gay and he always will be.  He taught me that the sole solution that we have in our personal lives is to live with courage and —though it seems very moralistic— to live with all the dignity possible.

By writing from Cuba through this section of Havana Times that might seem easy – or implausible more than anything.  It’s that few people consider anecdotes or personal stories trustworthy sources, much less historical documentation.  I only hope that, perhaps, some crazed anthropologist will one day take into account what we as a group have been recounting over the Internet.

In summary, I sometimes think it’s almost impossible to convince others what we have to live through only from narrating stories in pieces.

That’s why —though I know this isn’t a space for commenting on books— I recommend to those who want to learn about Cuba of the 1970s and 80s to read Alberto Abreu’s Los juegos de la escritura o la (re)escritura de la Historia.” In it they will find out more about the “Gray Five Year Period,” with the story of Cuba stripped of propaganda and chauvinism.

Readers will discover how people who were “different” were persecuted on the island.  In the work, Abreu has gathered resolutions, speeches, documents, moments and characters that were decision makers at the time of “parametering”: this was what they called the act of categorizing artists, teachers, scientists and people in general who were homosexuals, had long hair, were promiscuous, dressed differently, received money from abroad or simply didn’t fit into the mold of the “new man” or what society sought.

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.

2 thoughts on “This One Is for Juan

  • It is sad that a state which aims 2 become fully socialist — & thus democratic & free — has had this sort of official ignorance & repression in its past (& present); but really: *what always has 2 come 1st is the production of food & material goods*. & then services. All the rest of this guff is pretty meaningless, otherwise.

    So certainly this primary need has been an excuse 4 bureaucratic state forces 2 ‘command’ obedience 2 their own social Worldview; but it remains inexcusable nonetheless — whatever the rationale. So then; the thing is: how 2 get the production & productivity, without resorting 2 the heavy-handedness? Not an easy task at all, obviously. But still: *production comes 1st*. People should really concentrate on that — starting with the bureaucrats.

    So leave “different” people alone, for starters. How do their ‘lifestyle choices’ affect economic productivity 4 the worse? Is not “Vive la Difference!” part of what (socialist) Freedom is all about?

  • Thanks for a great story.

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