Since I was a little girl, I always heard my parents talk about Juana Bacalao as one of the Cuban singers that injected flavor and authenticity into her performances. On both national and foreign stages, she exhibited her rhythmic ease, her Creole humor, her artistic and universal talent that transformed her into a true show woman.
Today, at over 80, black and small statured, this woman is still capable of packing large halls and theaters. She can still get people of her generation to dance and laugh as well as sizable numbers of youth who see her as deserving of the title “the senora of showmanship.”
I had already heard it rumored that a person who was the spitting image of Juana Bacalao was going around on different buses in Havana, but I still hadn’t had the opportunity to confirm it – until I got lucky a few days ago.
As I was riding the route 58 bus (which travels from the east of the capital to the central municipality, Revolution Square), halfway through the trip I heard people up in the front seeming to be having a good time, some even singing. Still, l really wasn’t sure what was going on.
I asked a man who was sitting in front of me what was happening, and he told me that Juana Bacalao (II) had come on the bus. At that very moment I prepared to sit back and enjoy myself.
She was gradually coming toward the back of the bus, which allowed me to see her close up and to verify the truthfulness of everything that I had heard.
Juana Bacallao II —or the double of Juana Bacalao, as they also call her— is a woman very physically similar to the person we all know. What’s more, she sings, dances and jokes in double meanings, which makes her attractive to the national and foreign public alike.
However, after exhibiting her suburb talent to the passengers on bus route 58, she paused and commented that when she doesn’t have any money, she usually goes around Old Havana —a world heritage site— where she can always find tourists who thank her for her performances by giving her generous tips. In this way she’s able to make a living. In this way she can subsist.
When saying these words, those who surrounded her started thinking and began their arguments about Cuban society, present-day difficulties, how things are getting more expensive and asking why a person her age has had to end up doing what she does.
While this happened, I thought that she should thank God every day for being that age and having the strength to do what she does. I also thought about everything that Cubans have had to do to survive. I thought about people who are elderly and who can no longer take care of themselves, and how though they receive a monthly retirement income it’s not enough to get them through a single week.
Where are we going to wind up? We continue saying that it’s “necessary to change everything that should be changed” (according to the concept of Revolution), but we should be ashamed that after so many years of struggling to build this society, for the time being at least, we have to listen to a “lucky” old woman who is able to eke out an existence from tourists that come to the island.
This is only one case among thousands of people who, day after day, are obliged to go out into the streets to forge for their sustenance. But what about everybody else who has these same basic needs? What are they supposed to do? To see it is to believe it.