HAVANA TIMES — A friend who is about to take her first trip abroad tells me she has already packed her bags and that she’s borrowed nearly everything she’s taking with her. As we know, in Cuba, not even thirty-seven years of work in the public health sector gives one enough for a trip abroad…or to have things to pack.
For Cubans, the success of a date often depends on the clothes or shoes that, much like Cinderella, one has borrowed and must return before midnight. And one should be careful not to borrow clothes with any obvious tears or stains on them, lest this ruin the trust someone places on one or a long-standing friendship.
I recall a phrase that summarized these “quick fixes” and could turn pride into shame in an instant: “Señor, give back what isn’t yours!”, or “If I say señor, you’ll end up buck naked…” What they meant is that, on saying the magic words, all the clothes one was wearing would return to their owner.
As a teenager, I passed on birthday invitations and outings to the cinema innumerable times simply because I didn’t have decent clothes to wear. This wasn’t something out of the ordinary. At school, we would hear nasty comments about teachers who wore the same clothes two days in a row and we quickly became aware of the disapproval that unwittingly giving away such signs of poverty entailed.
The curious thing is that this happened back in the candid eighties, when nearly all of us faced the same hardships. Today, more than fifty-five celebrated years after the triumph of the revolution (by the humble and for the humble), poverty is an even less forgivable reality.
Parents feel overwhelmed by the demands of their kids, who do not want to be the victims of this age-old scorn that survives changes in ideology. Having uprooted the old, “bourgeois” values, respect towards individual thought and even religion, led to hair-raising results, like the statement I personally heard the director of Habana del Este’s municipal education office make, to the effect that “one’s appearance is more important than dignity.”
Looking at the youngest female students in their suggestive clothes and in-vogue shoes, holding their touch-screen mobile phones, I try to discern what psychological mechanism sustains their self-esteem. Ultimately, they are wearing things misappropriated from a State company, products procured from the black market, remittances that say nothing of the work and sacrifice of someone across the sea. It can be any form of prostitution or deceit. How much anguish must lie beneath that scornful gesture and how fragile their poses must be.
Among intellectuals and artists, humbleness is also a short-lived strategy, no matter what claims to spirituality they make. As time passes, success helps replace one’s cheap sandals and homemade clothes with “imported” – albeit exotic – clothes. Not owning a mobile phone is unacceptable and gives others a terrible impression. It gets in the way of making connections and putting one’s foot in the door of juicy projects.
I once met people who turned a humble way of dressing into a form of protest, a cry against class prejudices, consumerism, fashion and the mutilation of individuality. They would claim for themselves the right to do with their appearance as they pleased, the right to a different kind of freedom – a courageous attitude that earned no small measure of contempt.
Time, some trips abroad and money made them tone down their attitude. There’s nothing like the smell and texture of new clothes, nothing like the looks of approval one gets, the sweet-tasting sense of moving up the ladder.
To abstain from doing something one is denied is relatively easy. Several of the most renowned individuals who renounced their possessions, Gautama Buddha, Saint Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Gandhi experienced the exquisite pleasure of wearing elegant clothes before covering their bodies with rags or simple attire they themselves made.
If it is true vanity is the devil’s favorite sin, then he holds the world in his hands. Nearly all of us are concerned about our appearance, no matter how much we claim to be deaf to the mandates of fashion or people’s opinions. Where the shame of not looking one’s best begins and ends is something one alone decides.
I wonder if the solution is really to be found in concealing one’s poverty, on borrowing in order to make a good impression and secure a minimum of respect, on attaining success through things that aren’t ours.
Why should we bear the double burden of poverty and hypocrisy? Why should we feel ashamed of lacking things, when expressing this openly would entail honesty?
In today’s Cuba, the way prosperity is achieved is no longer questioned. What’s unacceptable isn’t the way they treat us, the ever more absurd product prices or those Mother’s, Father’s or Saint Valentine’s Day posters advertising gifts that the vast majority can’t afford. What’s unacceptable is that many secure these things by sacrificing things they actually need, only to avoid acknowledging that they are unable to maintain a given lifestyle – the lifestyle which is forcefully become the official one.
How is this being achieved? By leaving behind more and more beggars along the way, more elderly people, unable to keep up with the pace of times, more children and teenagers demanding that their parents do not let them become the targets of humiliation, more and more parents that can’t see beyond their pride.
Our morality has proven highly elastic over the past fifty years and it is demonstrating that it can go on stretching, adjusting itself more and more to the concept of a “sustainable form of socialism,” or, better said, to the every man for himself mentality.
The saddest part is that social norms should be dictated by those who have never gone without decent clothes, never had blisters from wearing someone else’s shoes, or had their dignity safeguarded by a gesture of friendship and trust – by those who, in the course of five decades, have only had to change their discourses.