An Urban Legend in Matanzas, Cuba

Photos by Nester Nuñez

The first time I went up to him was to ask if it was true that he was a millionaire, he told me that he had spent his entire life working.

Text and Photos By Nester Nuñez (Joven Cuba)

HAVANA TIMES – The first thing you see is the old and dirty yellow construction hat, and underneath that helmet, inside, is a man who sells plastic bags. If you need one, you go up to him, always from above, because you’re standing and he’s sitting. Also, because you’re the one paying. You stretch out your arm handing him a bill, only getting as near as you need to, and you receive a shiny white bag where you will put your shopping. He might thank you. You’ll say “No worries,” and walk away without having looked him in the eyes, rubbing your nose unconsciously.   

Then, Marcial Carmelo Garcia Vazquez will continue in that doorframe making a living as best he can, and you, I, they, us, them, will pick up our lives where we left off before we stopped to buy the plastic bag. If it’s hard for us to look into his eyes, it might be because we’re afraid to see our failure as human beings, the frustration of an entire country, in his obvious destitution. Yet, word has it, somewhere between astonishment and doubt, that Carmelo is a millionaire. That he lives like this because he wants to.

The first time I went up to him was to ask him if this was true. He told me that he had spent his entire life working. He was a sugar cane cutter, although not of the tall kind, and he worked at the Bellotex textile mill, and at the tannery in Matanzas, which no longer exists.

He also worked at the port as a stevedore. There, he excelled carrying sacks, he was the brigade leader, and he earned those bonuses the union gave out back in the ‘80s to go to Varadero hotels. Then, he was a street cleaner. He got paid 19 cents for every 100 meters of street he cleaned. He cleaned Milanes, Medio and Rio Streets up and down. He earned a lot of money. He saved some of it.

I interrupt him, I find the moment to insist: are you a millionaire or not? If he answers YES, maybe a kindling of hope will light up in me. A possibility: not everything is lost. If he could do it… Then, I tell myself that is the very idea that feeds an urban legend. The need to believe in a better future. Faith in a prosperous life… I stop my train of thought and look for a photo I took of him on my cellphone, over three years ago.

“That was when I used to collect empty soda and beer cans, and I’d sell them as raw materials,” he tells me. “Before that, I used to deliver washing machines and fridges from the store to your front door,” he recalls. I can’t find the photo: Instagram doesn’t open. The Internet connection has been crap these past few days. Not the Internet connection: ETECSA. He asks me to show him another day, and continues:

“That was a good time. Things are really expensive now. The situation is really bad. Coal can cost you 100 pesos for a bag. It only lasts you three or four days. If its marabu weeds, white mangrove or guava tree, it might last you a little longer, but not that much either. Not even shards of cedar or pine. Ah, and comocladia.

I spent 235 pesos yesterday. I got a pound of bologna for 100 pesos, but it wasn’t bologna at all. I ate it just like that, cold and everything, because it was going bad and I spent the 100 pesos, as I don’t have a refrigerator. By the way, my criticizing doesn’t make me less of a revolutionary.

Things are different here, because lots of people don’t understand the Revolution, they do this and that, but they are hurting it. Ultimately, people will only be able to get ahead and move forward when they come together and face a situation. The people do everything. People uniting together is what does everything. The people are the ones who are going to go out of their way and answer for their best interests, not for the best interests of some good for nothing like we have here and there doing things they shouldn’t be.

But let me tell you something else. Nobody can bring this down. The day they try to do that, they’ll have to kill me. I’d rather give my life than see myself in the clenches of Capitalism. I don’t want to know a goddamn thing about Capitalism. I have family in the North. A brother who is younger than me. He went because of the things he likes about the capitalist system, he went to make a better living. He’s come back to visit my home twice and I told him: don’t say a word to me about politics. You’re my brother first, you’re my blood.”

Every time we see each other, Carmelo says “My friend”, and immediately greets me with a joyful gesture so I can take a photo. I’ve become attached to him. I buy the plastic bags I need from him. I give him cigars from the bodega store, or a couple of cigarettes. But talking is what he likes the most. He’s always alone.

I see him and sit next to him in the doorway, escaping from a handmade mouse trap he has next to him. It’s the first few days of 2023. “Bags can’t be found anywhere,” he tells me. He normally buys them for three pesos and sells them for five. Sundays, the day of agricultural markets, are the best, and they mean he can take a breather for the rest of the week. Then, he changes the subject and talks to me about the machine to make mouse traps…

But I’m thinking about the death of this mouse that is hungry and comes out at night to steal food you left out. Which would be the less painful way to die? Agonizing for hours after ingesting poison or dying quickly after having your neck snapped or your head cracked? That’s when my mind jumps to euthanasia, the right to live a dignified death. To the life you, I, we, they live.

But then, luckily, Carmelo’s intense yellow and dirty helmet brings me back to reality. I ask him where it came from. He tells me he’s had it for years, but he can’t remember the first time he put it on, and that it saved his life once. A strong wind blew off a sheet of zinc roofing off his house and flew straight towards him. The edge cut his right eyebrow. “If I hadn’t been wearing the helmet, it would have split my head in two.”

You’re always alone. Do you have friends? Who do you talk to? What do you think about all these hours you sit here? What happened to your life? How did you get into this situation? What did you do for New Year’s? I ask.

“I spent the 31st right here. I bought three servings of rice and beans and three of cassava from La Cuevita, and a liter and a half of beer from a keg. But man. When that cassava went down with the beer, my stomach swelled and the alcohol said here I am and I got completely plastered. I went home and slept until the next day. That’s it. I got up again and went to work.”

He’s retired because of an illness and receives 1,780-something pesos every month. Just over 10 USD. He ends his workday today without adding anything more to this sum. There either aren’t that many mice in homes or people are looking for cats to keep them away. But there are lots of rats in state institutions.

Carmelo puts the mouse trap and pens he sells in his bag, gets up as best he can, walks really slowly, trying not to drag his bad foot. “It’s a birth defect that got worse because of some tendons…”

Faith in a prosperous life… and Carmelo the millionaire.

“I don’t regret anything I’ve done or have yet to do. I never regret anything. Ever! The only thing I’ve ever done is work like a mule to be able to live. I’ve never stolen from anybody.”

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2 thoughts on “An Urban Legend in Matanzas, Cuba

  • Wonderful story.

    Love and work and work and love. That’s all there is.

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