Ernesto Perez Chang
The second of two articles reflecting on the Cuba of 1980
HAVANA TIMES, July 13 – We were the neighborhood kids who would wait for the sun to go down. That strategy we had learned from our parents. Aided by the semi-darkness, we would go over to the “Russians” neighborhood. This was a kind of small colony made up of a dozen buildings where Soviet military advisers lived with their families.
We were all neighbors in a military neighborhood divided in two by a metal fence. On one side was us, the Cubans; and on the other were those strange beings with their strange ways of living.
They were seldom seen walking in the streets, and when they did it was in bands of five or eight. We saw them as tall creatures, extremely white and from whose mouths came unintelligible sounds.
Our parents discovered that some of those sounds meant certain things they had but that we needed and didn’t have. We therefore learned, out of necessity, to utter these in a similar fashion.
They had to listen closely to understand our confused manner of speaking, that species of lingua franca that we used exclusively during those particular nighttime encounters.
I remember that in the daytime, once in full sunlight, our dialects would disappear and each group would return to their own language. Because of this, when some confrontation arose — I don’t I know why but those Russians would get mad easily, any little thing would make them explode— we would insult each other in our own legitimate and national repertory of insults.
Despite those flare-ups, these didn’t reduce the nocturnal rendezvous. We even plotted together, Russians and Cubans, about how to evade the night watchman who guarded the colony; though the use of a bribe was almost always our idea.
The Russians were too stingy —and perfectly “Russian”— to come up with any money. They took risks, not so much with their lives but they did risk losing the beaches, the island, cigarettes and rum (which was a substitute for the vodka they could buy with Cuban money).
However we took a much greater risk. For them, the consequences of our encounters would be perhaps no more than reprimands, but for our parents it would mean everything: their jobs, Party membership, their rankings and even our “own” homes (which were not ours but the army’s, which granted us occupancy rights).
Only a few years earlier, we had seen how they simply expelled some of our neighbors for worshipping before an altar. I remember that when we moved there, my grandmother hid her ceramic saints and her crucifix in a corner of the closet because the inspectors —who also hid their relics in a similar fashion— would come by every week to monitor the integrity of our atheism.
But when we began our expeditions to the Russian neighborhood, those “divine matters” were no longer so strictly enforced. Even visits by the inspectors were less frequent, perhaps because they judged as insignificant that race of petty bourgeois that had a strange and suspicious faith in something that was neither the revolution nor Che’s “new man.”
Ideological diversionism became the buzz words
By this time the biggest crime had become “ideological diversionism,” which was, among all others, the most feared accusation. Articulated in the most diverse tones, these words threatened us —whenever they were pronounced by an official or a teacher, even by our own parents— with a misfortune of the magnitude of a stigma.
Ideological diversionism could be in any place, in an object, in a meal and even in sweets. In the same way that the enemy had been able to condense the destructive power of a thousand conventional bombs into a medium-sized device, they had also done this with bourgeois ideology when compressing it into a simple piece of candy.
This candy that seemed so inoffensive to the rest of the humanity we referred to, in low voices, as chewing gum. To pronounce the name or to chew it in public was a kind of provocative act. Nonetheless, despite the danger, we jumped through all kinds of hoops to get a hold of it. We even had our secrets about how to preserve it for a long time without it losing its fundamental qualities: elasticity and flavor.
To accomplish this, we chewed it without taking too many bites, only those that were necessary; a few dozen on one side and a few dozen on the other and then immediately putting it in the refrigerator wrapped in menthol toothpaste or Chinese balm. Sometimes we shared already chewed pieces, although their were also plenty of selfish kids and exhibitionists. They could chew uninterruptedly, day and night, without limits, without proportions (even without chewing gum) to the point of disarticulating their jaws.
Our adventure toward the Indies
Similar to Christopher Columbus, went embarked on our own risk-filled adventure toward the Indies in search of spices. For years, every night we would go over to the Russian neighborhood in search of chewing gum.
Sometimes an adult would accompany us, though only during the first trips, like a kind of initiation ritual. This was because later, to avoid the danger of themselves being exposed, they would allow us to maneuver on their behalf but under their instructions.
They knew which side of the wall we could use to get into the colony, the schedule for guard changes, the prices needed to pay off each one, what doors to knock on and the exact place of each item of merchandise.
Since each apartment specialized in certain types of goods, the colony operated like a kind of department store. When we needed clothes, we would go to the exact apartment number and —pronouncing the precise word in our lingua franca— the tenant would let us into a room where we would select the garments.
The same thing happened with shoes and with perfumes. We also bought meats, cheeses, chocolates, balloons and, above all, and our precious chewing gum, which, contrary to the other goods, these weren’t sold by the adults but by their children. These rusitos (little Russians), instead of requesting money, would ask us for plastic toy soldiers made in Hong Kong.
One soldier was equal to one piece of candy; two soldiers, a piece of chewing gum. That was the agreement. So since by law all Cuban kids (girls as well as boys) we were allowed to buy only three toys once a year, we preferred the combat games that came from Hong Kong.
If we were lucky in the neighborhood raffle in which kids would win turns to buy toys, then we knew that it would be possible to get one of those big boxes that contained a veritable army.
If we ended up being last in line, we would have to make good to with a plastic bag that barely had a few men devoid of armaments. The handful of those guaranteed only a few savory chews because they weren’t dressed in olive green uniforms but in medieval armor, or Cossack disguises.
Instead, the Russian kids wanted soldiers, plastic soldiers modeled after neither the Russian army to which their parents had sworn fidelity nor after the Cuban armed forces, but instead of the enemy U.S. Army.