Cuba: Teenage Chemistry and Other Harmful Substances

Illustration: Felix M. Azcuy

Text and Photos by Nester Núñez (Joven Cuba)

HAVANA TIMES – By 3 PM on Sunday, June 12, 1988, there wasn’t much left to do. In just six hours, we had already crashed a Russian bicycle into a poorly parked taxi because Yoe, who was riding with two of us on the frame and the rack, let go of the handlebars to show off in front of the girls crossing the street.

We had also enraged half the neighborhood with little bombs made from the back parts of water faucets filled with match heads; we electrocuted frogs to hear them meow in their agony, dissected them to see their internal organs, and launched two cats from the rooftop with parachutes we improvised, and which worked perfectly, after catching them with traps.

After that, since invention and mischief make one hungry, we pooled our money and bought sandwiches with croquettes, meatballs, meat empanadas, chiviricos, matahambres, and a glass of yogurt or ice cream syrup for each. So, we were almost dozing, our bellies full, in the living room of a half-constructed family doctor’s office in one of the many neighborhoods filled with straight, boring buildings built by microbrigades.

We were eight or nine skinny, dirty, sunburned kids, with scratched knees or elbows, new and old scars under our scalps, no sign of mustaches yet, nor hair on our buttocks, except for Damian the Repeater, who already had hair on his back. It was precisely him who suggested, because we were teenagers and weren’t supposed to be lying around like old men, that we go to the stadium. Someone opened an eye and replied, “Not yet, the sun and the crowd.” Then Damián said, “Of course, you’re lying there thinking about the kiss you didn’t dare give the girl last night.”

Remembering Saturday night reactivated us all. Someone leaned against the wall, and I stroked my jaw as if searching for an imperfection. Someone said, “I was making out hard and would have gone all the way, but the fight interrupted me.”

Those words distorted our sense of space and time, and in the many seconds of silence that followed, I remembered the beautiful Maria Elena dancing casino to something by Los Van Van while internally singing, “This cowardice of my love for her makes me see her like a star, so far, so far away in the immensity, that I never hope to reach her.” Then I relived the shouting, the panic in her eyes, and saw myself grabbing the braided cable I had “stashed” in a tree hole to defend myself if anything happened.

I remembered removing my Soviet Electronika 5 digital watch from my left wrist at precisely 12:17 and putting it in my pants pocket. I saw myself running back, cable in hand, along with Maria Elena’s group, absorbed by the crowd, to protect her even if she didn’t know it, while the police sirens grew louder in the minds of all of us who weren’t Jacinto or El Habanero, the two wielding those knives whose blades shone even in the darkness.

However, Maria Elena was rescued by her older brother, and my silent act of heroism only served to see me dragged by the tumult of those fleeing, those wanting to see the outcome up close, those pickpocketing in the hysterical, enraged, violent, fearful crowd, increasingly away from the safe place in the park where those of us from the neighborhood were supposed to meet if something like this happened.

It also served to put my concept of courage and manhood into perspective. Alone in the tumult, a hand spun me around by the shoulder, followed by a fist, a blow that struck my jaw and left me in darkness and staggering, though I never fell. I saw no point in holding a weapon I wasn’t going to use, and there I think I dropped the cable. When I reached the meeting point, I felt a strange mix of cowardice, wounded male pride, physical pain, fear, anger, and a desire for revenge. Blood was dripping from my lip.

They asked what happened, who it was, and I said no one, even though I had seen the face of Jacinto, from the Bachichi neighborhood, the biggest bully, troublemaker, and traitor we avoided at all costs. If I kept silent, it was to avoid being labeled a coward, or maybe because my rational side prevailed over emotions and I wanted to avoid greater harm, but staying quiet kept hammering at me and I think shaped many of my behaviors and reactions over the years. That same afternoon of June 12, 1988, for example, I imagined the guys would insist on the topic, and to avoid it, I supported Damian’s proposal to go to the stadium immediately.

Taking risks is a distinctive characteristic of adolescence. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, crucial for developing planning, decision-making, impulse inhibition, and self-control, matures after the limbic system, making emotions weigh more than rationality at this stage. Additionally, dopamine production increases, manifesting in the pursuit of pleasure and new sensations. That is, teenagers can be aware of the risks they take, but they value social rewards more, often losing sight of the real dimension of certain risks when in groups.

I know that now, of course, not when we were running to the stadium with poorly digested croquettes and meatballs tumbling in our stomachs. We were eight or nine immature brains acting impulsively, without considering the potential consequences of our actions. That day there was no ball game, obviously. The fun was sneaking into the stadium, getting onto the field, and running the bases quickly before the guards caught up with us and forced us to leave through the same part of the fence we had sneaked through.

Analyzed outside the group, each of us were normal boys. Sons of doctors, a policeman, humble workers, technicians, and housewives. Even internationalists who fought in Africa. I can assure you there were no major dysfunctions in our families, and we respected our parents. At school, we did well to excellent, except for Damián, who didn’t like studying but was super disciplined in the sports he practiced.

I read many books and won the “Those Who Read More Know More” contests; Yoe was a municipal chess champion, and we helped the elderly cross the street and recited “Where are you, gallant knight, fearless and blameless knight” at morning assemblies in elementary school. We went to the school garden, then to the countryside boarding school, and sometimes our strong little hands gave flowers to the girls.

But something failed in our perception of limits. Something not justified solely by the brain’s unbalanced chemistry. Perhaps our good parents took for granted that everything was fine and spent more time fighting ideological deviation and building socialism than knowing how we spent our free time in an immense neighborhood with a barber shop, grocery store, farmer’s market, pharmacy, Police sub station, a cinema that showed children’s movies some Sunday mornings, and zero sports areas or other cultural options.

What happened was a mix of all that, I say: individual, family, and social factors, as it still is now, aggravated today by reggaeton lyrics and because many parents’ lives have been reduced to struggling (pay attention to the words: reduced and struggling) to ensure a daily plate of food that guarantees survival, with less time and energy to dedicate to education, talking, and sharing quality activities with their children.

The croquettes again, the yogurt and meatballs sneaking into our bellies through the fence bars we knew were wide enough. Running the bases, sliding into home. Running towards center field with five guards instead of the usual two chasing us. The adrenaline, the scare, the bathroom where we hide, the brooms we find and try to separate from their sticks, the guards who discover us due to the noise.

Fleeing to the empty stands, descending the stairs towards the exit, seeing they cornered us before reaching the escape gate. Changing strategy. Climbing onto the stadium roof, descending beside the scoreboard, realizing a guard blocked the exit, threatening him, throwing broom sticks at him. Managing for one of us to escape.

Running to the second-floor dorms, breaking one of the windows facing the street, throwing three mattresses onto the sidewalk. Damian the repeater, the athlete, jumping first. The patrol siren and fear. Yoe jumping and succeeding too. The third who jumped didn’t land well on the mattresses and broke his leg above the ankle. The bone breaking through the skin. Blood and panic. The police. Total embarrassment. The guard with a cut head…

At 4:13 PM on Sunday, June 12, 1988, according to my Soviet Electronika 5 watch, it was Zero Hour for us. We matured in a single stroke; we learned the hard way. As did our parents.

Teenagers can be aware of the risks they take, but they value social rewards more.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

One thought on “Cuba: Teenage Chemistry and Other Harmful Substances

  • Well done.

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