Juanita, the Woman on Our Block

By Paula Henriquez

An elderly woman with rationed food items. Photo de archivo: Patricia Grogg /IPS

HAVANA TIMES – Everybody knows Juanita. Whenever anyone asks about her, the answer is normally: “She’s the short woman, wearing glasses and a wide-brim hat.” That’s who she really is… Juanita is the short woman, who wears glasses and a wide-brim hat, but she also has a tired look in her eyes and a lonely air about her.

She doesn’t look her age, but much older. Years have been added to Juanita because she has been running the neighborhood’s errands for a long time. She stands in line for gas, at the drugstore and at the potato stand. She travels many kilometers every day doing this.

Juanita has a family. She has two sons who do whatever they want to get by. Nobody really knows what it is they do exactly, but everybody knows their income has always been shady. At least, that’s what people in the neighborhood say, and maybe this is why Juanita is the neighborhood’s errand woman. Because she wants to have her own income, from her own efforts. What she earns from running other people’s errands isn’t a lot, but it’s an extra.

She works from sunrise to sunset. Many neighbors need her services. “People who work can’t take care of everyday waiting in lines like buying rice at the bodega store or looking for medicine at the drugstore,” that’s what people here say.

Of course, Juanita is thankful that this is the way things are, she wouldn’t have a job if everyone could take care of trivial errands during working hours. She is happy in her own way, she says, because she knows everything about everyone this way… or that’s what she believes in her own bubble, at least.

The reality is that we have a Juanita here in my neighborhood, but there is a Cachita, Pepito or Manolito, in others. There isn’t a single neighborhood in Cuba without a person (mostly an elderly person), who makes a living in this way. Yep, because it doesn’t matter how much wages and pensions increase, prices of things are still really high and life carries on being really expensive.

This is one of the reasons why some old people have to look for an additional source of income. However, this isn’t the only reason. Asking around, I have learned that many of the elderly people who do these errands, don’t do this just because of a lack of financial means, but because they need to feel useful in society, and as they aren’t able to struggle to get on buses or do their old job, this becomes a fix to their worries.

All of this and more comes flooding to me when I see her come and go, watching her face under the large hat that protects her from the sun. She greets me and I return the greeting. She doesn’t know that she has inspired me to write these lines, maybe I’ll tell her one day.

I would like this short post to also serve as recognition for these elderly people who don’t give up, who carry on fighting. I believe that she will be happy to know that she has been written about, not only for the recognition of her great efforts (which is a lot), but also for being the protagonist of this story.

Paula Henriquez

Paula Henriquez: Since childhood I have been told I should be careful what I say in public. "Think before you speak, especially in front of others," my mother would say, and it was more of a plea than a scolding. Even today I hear her and I obey her, just that I do not speak, I write. Letters and words are my escape, my exit and daily catharsis, which printed on paper, revive me. And this picture is my refuge.

One thought on “Juanita, the Woman on Our Block

  • I was born in Camagüey, and lived there until 1964, when our family moved to La Habana. Juanita’s story reminds me of a cousin of my father. A seamstress, she lived in a poor area of La Vigia. Her name was Leonor, but she was known with the nickname of Ñingo (which she didn’t allow everybody to use!). She was tough (she had to be) but had a soft heart. She took care of all her family, and even raised the children of two others lightly related to her. She sewed for the whole neighborhood and more, and she was very loose with people that had to pay her for her work. She really was a very special person, but unlucky with men because they didn’t liked her strength.

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