By Taylor Emilio Torres Escalona
HAVANA TIMES — They named him Kenny, after the South Park character. He lives somewhere in Havana, where he’s been forced to grow up ahead of time. His mother, who worked at a private cafe, had to quit her job to raise his five brothers, as the grandmother couldn’t bear the burden all alone any longer.
He speaks enthusiastically of all his adventures around the neighborhood, about his older friends who flee from the police and about how everyone celebrated when “Piano” (the chief of police in the neighborhood) suffered a heart attack. That man did everything to get his hands on those who broke the law. He would have dressed up as a woman and jumped into the sea to catch someone.
Of all the fruits one can pick off trees around the neighborhood, Kenny’s favorite are coconuts, and his peers praise him for how skillfully he “frogs” up the trees (a technique for climbing up coconut trees which consists in hoisting oneself up along the trunk with synchronized arm and leg movements, reminiscent of how a frog moves).
He thinks of his grandmother, little sister, mom and aunt, whose home he goes to from time to time to be spoiled and fed.
At one point, he wanted to study Law – not medicine, for one has to study all the time and he doesn’t like studying all that much. Now, he doesn’t know what he wants to study, he hasn’t decided yet. What he is certain of is that he doesn’t want to end up running a ration store or being a butcher, what many kids his age dream of becoming. He knows a lot about computers.
He always gets the highest grades in computer and other sciences. He’s only failed English, and only because he didn’t have time to copy the full exam. He knows about jellyfish, about how pelicans nest in the nearby pine forest and how they’ve returned to the area after they started cleaning up the bay. He knows about government plans for the area and that he should enjoy this recreational and bathing area before they fence it off and turn it into a military unit.
He shares anecdotes involving his neighbors, of how people close to him have experienced 13,000-volt shocks. He can’t get his head around the fact that a 67-year-old can survive such an “encounter” and a 36-year-old didn’t.
He speaks proudly of his secondary school and about how grateful he feels for his teachers, most of who come from Cuba’s eastern provinces.
At age 12, he has seen how leaving the country becomes a solution to people’s problems and, smiling, he tells us about how his mother is thinking of leaving Cuba. He doesn’t know where, she doesn’t tell him, but she is set on leaving and taking him with her, before he is old enough to serve in the military. She’s already got her passport. She paid for it by selling some of the furniture in the house and she is saving because she hasn’t yet been able to pay for his passport.
Kenny says that, if he leaves, he wants to be able to come back, to come back and leave whenever he wants to. He is a practitioner of the Regla del Palo Monte religion and cannot leave that behind. He is a devout practitioner, just like his grandfather, which is why he will never be able to leave Cuba forever, because he has to practice his religion in the country.
He talks to me about South Park and its different seasons, about how the character he is named after dies time and time again and in many ways. He says a schoolmate of his had all of the seasons in his computer and didn’t want to share them with anyone. The kid’s PC broke down and he was forced to get the series back from those he didn’t want to share with. “That’s life for ya,” he says to me.
Kenny is a kid with not enough love and affection in his life, but he looks for it with resolve: he talks to everyone and about everything. He is an old soul in the body of a child.
The three times we have conversed, I have felt he has a very big heart, bigger than those shoes that his feet seem to swim in. I also feel that, behind all of his stories and perhaps the stigma of having grown up in a “rough” neighborhood, great decency and honesty hide. He didn’t even let me pay for his bus ride the first two times and, the last time we saw each other, he said to me: “This one’s on me.”
This is how this Cuban child goes through life, growing up prematurely while managing (inexplicably) to cling to the childhood he almost lost completely, with a future as uncertain as that of his country, happy to be alive and with his sights set on the horizon, full of hope.