One of the most exceptional gyms I’ve ever seen is at 203 Santa Emilia Street, in Havana’s Santo Suarez neighborhood.
In this average apartment you can find the most varied bodybuilding equipment and not a single square inch of wasted space. The entryway, the living room, the back balcony and the kitchen all play important roles in the integral quality of the exercises performed here.
Still, what’s best about the Santa Emilia gym doesn’t lie in those facts.
Behind the sweat, the exhausting cries of pain, the competitive elation and narcissistic rituals in front of the mirror, a setting for popular socializing also exists.
Behind each chiseled arm that helps you to lift 130 pounds there’s enjoyment for shared work. The greeting of each recent recruit is one of happiness for being known as a part of a project in which others spontaneously participate in a community of interests. In this lies what pleases me.
I don’t know of another place where youth cooperate in the same way and where the most important thing is being with the others. It’s not ruled by any competitive drive, contrary to what happens with soccer for example.
It’s as if the gym possessed some astounding power over people’s spirits. Here youth enjoy accepting the rules, because they themselves have created them; they are aware of other people’s effort, because they know that these are necessary and desired; they worship knowledge, because it is useful but not obligated.
On occasion we find havens of collective spirit in the least likely places.
I’ve worked out in gyms ever since I was a teen. In the beginning I was motivated by one simple utilitarian end: to have an athletic body. But with passing of the time, I — astonished — felt how the relationship with others was slowly appropriating my expectations.
Today everything is becoming more evident: People also go to the gym to enjoy the solidarity and the real and concrete collaboration with others. You live like you live, with sweat streaming down your face – something concrete, with no ideologies or propaganda.
The Santa Emilia gym also satisfies me politically: it’s a proletarian gym. Stevedores, young and old workers from here and from there, guys from the faculty of farm labor, the ones under surveillance by the precinct police captain, those who next month might not be able to pay their the membership fee – all of them are here at this gym.
Also, for better or worse, this solidarity comes with its own scheming. I don’t like certain indulgences, especially the high prices and the classes of workers. But at Santa Emilia there is true solidarity between those of us who pay US $3.00 a month.
Here at 203 Santa Emilia Street is one of the few public places where part of the world of the everyday life of my neighborhood is lived and experienced.