HAVANA TIMES – Today, I woke up with the masochistic determination to wait in line and buy food at my neighborhood store. The way we have to buy food at stores in Cuba today has been explained on HT’s pages, on more than one occasion. I’ll insist a little with the subject just because it’s my individual right to give my point of view and because it sets the scene for what I want to tell you.
At my neighborhood store, cigarettes are sold on Tuesdays, chicken, minced meat or hot dogs are sold on Thursdays and Fridays. It’s never all three at the same time. Sometimes, they sell one of these three foods on Tuesdays with the cigarettes. Lines for any of these are never-ending.
But talking about lines is a little off the mark. They are rather crowds that gather at store entrances, with an internal dynamic that you can only understand when you’re in one. It’d be too long and boring for me to explain. I’ll just mention the fact that these crowds have a hierarchy, where people who come for the first time – this was the case for me, this time – are at a disadvantage and run the risk of not getting the product. Not the first time around, at least. They are also matriarchal societies. Ninety percent of those in the lines are women.
In order to go up from the most vulnerable class to a class with a chance of buying, you not only need the masochistic determination to stand in line all day, but you also need the determination to stand in it the next day. In summary, if you want to get what you went there for, you need to sleep on the sidewalk outside the store one night.
But that in itself isn’t enough, you have to make yourself seen, talk to everyone else, ask obvious questions and raise your voice from time to time. You also need to form an alliance with your neighbor in line. This isn’t hard to do because once you’ve been standing with the same person in front of you for 40 minutes, something always comes up for you to strike a conversation, they normally begin with a complaint.
It’s also important to wear something that makes you stand out. I wore a hat.
You already know I was waiting on the sidewalk, under the scorching sun and at the end of the line. In front of me, there was a very serious woman who looked older than me. There was another woman behind me. In front of us, there was a crowd that separated us from the store by almost 100 meters. We’re waiting for minced meat today.
After fifteen minutes, my masochistic determination begins to crack. Fifteen minutes more and I’ve already decided to leave when the woman in front of me, talks to me. I soon discover she is 75 years old, has two children and has been living in Cojimar for a short while. She shows me photos of her grandchildren on her phone and in an act of trust, she tells me she is Catholic. Then, she gives me a round-up of her life as a devout worshipper.
She worked many years at a quarry, extracting materials for construction. In the mid-1970s, she signed up to work as part of a micro-brigade so she could get an apartment in Alamar. She worked on site building buildings, for five years. After that time, she had the right to an apartment. Her two children, a girl and a boy, were still children.
At five years and one month, she was interviewed by an official from the Ministry of Construction. It was the step before she’d get the keys and legal documents for the property. At one end of the office, she was seen in, there was a wooden box full of keys joined together in threes with a wire, which had a piece of paper with the number of the apartment on it.
The official praised her efforts and suggested she become a member of the Communist Party. She told him that she was a practicing Catholic and that she wouldn’t renounce her faith. Without even looking at her, the official told her that she didn’t have a right to an apartment then, because “we don’t want religious people in our buildings.” She begged him, telling him that she had two young children and she left the office in tears.
Later, a friend who did get an apartment left her his house in really bad condition, and with the help of other friends she was able to fix it up and it was the small residence where her children grew up.
But the most painful moment in her life came in 1985. That year, her daughter was denied her place at university because she was a Catholic.
She didn’t give any details about this. She fixed her gaze on a hole in the road and after a long pause said “this has all been a very long story. But I still hold onto my faith.” A few minutes later, I left the line. That’s all I wanted to tell you today.