Marianao, Havana and Dead Words

Yes for Cuba

By Jose Leandro Garbey Castillo (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – It’s 10 AM and the streets aren’t as busy as they normally are. Less traffic. It’s a national holiday. July 26th. A few meters away from the sign that announces your arrival in Marianao – on 51st Street, after crossing the bridge that separates it from La Lisa -, is Lazaro Arturo Gonzalez’s house. It’s a short street; a hill of destroyed concrete on the side of the bridge that skims the shore of the Quibo River.

Two old people whisper. Behind them, there’s a wooden construction protected by a fence made of old boards, rusty tiles and bits of plastic bags. At a first glance, it looks like a “squat”, a llega y pon as informal settlements built in the area in recent years are known, where low-income families – mostly coming from other provinces – live in totally precarious conditions, just a few meters away. However, one of the neighbors explains that it’s a religious altar.

Neighbors on 49th Street, between 146 and 148 Streets.

Opposite, a building in ruins. Two apartments. A closed window. Sunken floor. Cracked. Metal visible in the roof. Rusty metal. This is where Lazaro lives.

“This was a rental before the Revolution triumphed. My mother rented it until the owner left the country. It was a single house, that was then divided into three to become a building. My mom took the part that was renovated, over time. It’s rent-free. She doesn’t own it yet. They never wanted to legalize it because they say it’s an unsanitary neighborhood. They thought about repairing it once, but it never happened. Everything that’s been done to the building has been thanks to the efforts of every one of its residents.”

Lazaro Arturo Gonzalez Torres in his apartment on 49th Street.

“They paved the road once and never came back to fix it. When it rains, water from the higher areas – from 51st Street – come down here to the river,” Lazaro points out, who has pretty much lived his entire life there.

Word has it that the building on 49th Street, between 146 and 148 Streets, was built almost 90 years ago. It has ten apartments today. Five people live in his apartment, with just one bedroom, kitchen and bathroom; there were 14 people living there before. One of his brothers sleeps in the kitchen, the other one sleeps in a cot. Him and his wife sleep in a small bed. There isn’t any space in a building in a critical structural state.

“A piece of the roof falls down every now and again. Every time it’s happened, we went to the Government. Then, they’d send an official to look at it and they’d leave. That’s all they do. They’ve never fixed anything. They say that the only option is to demolish it [the building] and give homes to people, but nothing ever comes of it, they’re just words. We’ve also gone to Housing a few times and nothing. It’s like they’re waiting for an accident to happen to come and fix the problem. We don’t want a palace, just a place in better condition, even if we have to renovate it. This is really bad. It should be demolished.”

Over half of the ceiling is “exposed”. The rusted metal gives way. Small rusty pieces fall to the ground. Lazaro touches the ceiling along the narrow corridor to the kitchen. A piece comes off in his hands. It falls down. It was big enough to hurt someone. This isn’t the only problem here. He’s put an ear cleaner in a small hole in the bedroom floor, not too far from his bed, to prove that this entire part of the house is hollow. Less than two years ago, the bathroom flooded completely.

That’s when pieces from the roof fell down.

“It was shocking. The floor gave in. I had to fill it with rubble people had thrown over for the bridge. I spent almost a week looking for materials, buying them on the black market because they [the officials] didn’t fix anything. Some friends gave me three meters of cement slabs and I laid these down. But I used the level the other day and you can see it’s given in a bit.”

The kitchen floor is unstable. Lazaro says, “down there,” there are passages, that the house was infested with rats beforehand. Loads of them. “There must still be a few.” Perhaps. The water pipe inside the wall. It burst. He hasn’t been able to take it out. He fills a water tank to cook and wash up with buckets of water from the bathroom.

“I covered the water leaks, but because the pipes are so old, they’re damaged and have worn away at the foundations. The river has also played its part; humidity. Look, you can barely walk along the side of the building. The riverbeds have swollen.”

A furrow just over three meters long separates the building wall from the river. The water here is calm. Shallow. Dirty. There’s garbage on the shore. The stench becomes even more overwhelming as the riverbed gets closer to Maria Rosa Noroña’s house. She lives here with her daughter and Lincon Ochiro, a thirteen-year-old boy, her grandson, who seems to fear something.

Maria Rosa lives with her family just a few meters away from the Quibo River.

Maria tries to tell us her problem as she hangs out the clothes. Dogs bark. Enraged dogs draw nearer, ready to bite it seems. She shouts at them. They ignore her. Lincon watches the scene. Without a word. He calls them. They calm down. “It’s always the same thing. Always,” she exclaims.

Maria Rosa’s home is built upon a base of large, thick and solid stones, which you can find aplenty on the shore of streams. Near the entrance, a small trail of sewage water comes from the back of a nearby building, crosses the unpaved road in front of the house and flows into the river. There aren’t any pipes. The ground is wet. Muddy.

In recent years, part of the lateral wall has fallen in.

They live with just enough to get by. Without any luxuries. In the room closest to the Quibo River, you can see it’s tilted. “Nobody sleeps here. We’re afraid the floor will sink, that the walls will collapse and kill us. “Come and see! Right there”,” Maria points out the bed on unlevel ground. A child lives here. He’s afraid something will happen, that he’ll be left alone at home. If somebody has to die, it’s better it’s me.”

Maria Rosa along with Licon Ochiro, her grandson.

Coco Solo

“I’ll sell it to you for 3000 pesos. I’m not going any lower. Take it or leave it,” a man says.

“No, papi, no. This stove doesn’t cost 3,000. I’ll give you 2000. If you want. But, no more. “Are you crazy? That’s not what it’s worth!-, another one cries.

Two blocks down, another short man, with so much intrigue that it’s like he’s trying to hide a forbidden or morally dubious object, is selling a pair of flip-flops.

“This is worse for wear, my friend. Forget it. It’s even dirty. Who knows where you got this from,” he’s told.

Many families in a vulnerable situation live in Coco Solo.

You can find anything under the sun in Coco Solo. Reselling is a source of livelihood for entire families. This may have been where this popular phrase used in Cuba comes from: “live hustling or inventing.” People without a stable work contract. Alcoholism. Alienation.

According to some neighbors, after a visit to the Communist Party and Government’s institutions, in 2021, they decided to build homes for people in a vulnerable situation. One of the sets of these new buildings can now be found on 146 and 49th Streets. This is where Marisel Capote Morejon lives, who used to live in an old wooden house, infested with termites, which you could see swarm sometimes.

Marisel Capote Morejon at home.

“I’ve been in this situation ever since September last year. Yep, a new house was built which is a lot better than the last one but look how I am right now. The brigade works when it wants to. I had to tell them today to break the kitchen table, because they’d really fudded it up,” she said angrily. 

The house is still not in optimal condition to be lived in.

Earthen floor. Wrinkled walls. Mixed cement left-overs. As you go in, a few boards mark the limits of the sand. The built-up of water has meant that the house is always muddy. Marisel complains. Almost all of her electrical appliances, mattresses, clothes have been damaged… Residents in this building have to sleep in other places. It’s impossible. They only ask for works to be concluded as soon as possible.

Inside the home

On this block, other neighbors hope (at least) to have homes like them: half-done. The condition of their residences is awful. The housing deficit in Havana stands at 185,348 properties.

Between cracks

Windows, lights, and life are missing from the upper floors. At the end of the corridor on the second floor, some boards hold up the dilapidated ceiling of an apartment in ruins. Three children run up and down the stairs. Laughing, they don’t seem to pick up on the dismal atmosphere. The structure has been devoured by Time. There are two neighboring buildings – 14,011 and 14,013 – that stand out on 51st Avenue. Laws of Physics say they shouldn’t be standing, but there they are, aging, while the risk of collapse increases.

Buildings in danger of collapse.

One of the children becomes anxious. “Careful, this is falling down. I used to live there. The ceiling fell in. My mom doesn’t want me going near it,” he says. They all turn around and carry on in their own world. The innocence of young age makes misfortune more fleeting; it minimizes the danger element.

A mother on the second floor says that she is still waiting for the houses the local authorities promised them. Some neighbors were relocated by the Government to San Agustin, La Lisa; other families haven’t had the opportunity to leave despite growing structural damage. Cars go down the street all day. The buildings tremble. The worst thing could happen at any moment.

Hustling to make something

It’s early morning and some people are sleeping on the market floor in Marianao. Many people wait in line. Others have gone home. They’ve already taken their place in line. They’ll come back in a few hours. More people appear as the night draws on. Amidst retail shortages, people are always there to buy bread which, in many cases, will be sold to private cafes in the municipality and in neighboring areas such as La Lisa.

Street sellers selling bread have hiked up their prices. They sell bags of six or seven rolls. One of the big ones, well-made rolls with sesame seeds, can cost up to 15 pesos. Other smaller ones of a poorer quality can be found for less.

Three blocks away, nobody has shown up at the MLC (US dollar) store yet. They didn’t restock the day before, so it won’t be a good day for resellers. This is their only “job”. They have co-partners in stores that tell them when something new comes in. It’s a network of men and women who sell personal hygiene items, food or jams for an exorbitant price, in poor neighborhoods where people don’t have access to foreign currency; sometimes even selling electrical appliances, which are ordered in advance most of the time.

Line at a dollar store

This is the sole source of income for many people. All day, every day, in every line. They live off of shortages, eat thanks to inflation. “They hustle”.

The night

At the back of a platform, a mural: “We are culture. Neighborhoods. Unity.” Underneath, in another font: “We are Fidel.” On the left, opposite the bathrooms, “Put everything into Marianao” and a painted heart. On the other side, “Here we can do it.” Big speakers. Metal tables. It’s the Marianao Amphitheater, one of the few and perhaps the most renowned cultural center in the municipality.

Marianao Amphitheater.

It’s Sunday night on July 31st and the place is packed. People have come from all over the city. A few meters away from where Fizty Ordara and Ja Rulay sing, one of the duos of the neighborhood genre that people listen to at the moment and who call themselves “Los dueños de la calle”, are a dozen blue tables where a few people drink beer, cocktails and bottles of expensive rum.

Most people are singing along to the songs, in the middle. They dance. Entire groups copy their moves. In sync. Some girls “twerk” on the floor. Every now and again, they take a drink from some guy’s hand. They drink. They share them. On the sides, other people are smoking “chemical” – synthetic compounds. Most people just about have the money to pay to get in. Many others can’t afford to go. They surround the place instead. They sing along. They drink alcohol or take drugs.

There are police in some places, especially at the entrance.

On 120th Street, a few meters away from the Municipal Government offices, some young people begin to cross over a small fence; then, they jump the side wall that is almost 2 meters high. Others follow them. Young people. Under 18. Adults older than 30. Women and men. Everyone. They jump. They’re looking for a way to get into the concert without paying. More than one of them are hiding cutting weapons on their person. The police are aware. They don’t do anything. There are too many of them. They overcome them.

The Amphitheater is one of the “hottest” places in Havana., Most of the cultural events here end in fights. Stabbings. There are almost always people injured; sometimes even fatalities. It’s mostly people from the capital’s most marginalized neighborhoods that come together here. The most “troubled”.

The concert goes on. Suddenly, a fight breaks out. There are blows. Cups fly from one side to another. Stones. Chairs. Most people shout. They run away. More than one of them tries to get onto the stage to avoid a beating. Some girls try to hold their partners back. Their partners get away from them. Lots of groups. More blows. It’s another awful combination of music, alcohol, drugs and showing off.

Over time

Marianao residents surrounding the Amphitheater.

In Marianao – a municipality with 134,738 inhabitants – there aren’t many big buildings, or stunning landscapes. Even though not all of its neighborhoods (22) are poor – there are also residential areas -, it’s not a municipality that enjoys administrative privileges. It suffers the consequences of this drawn-out structural crisis, just like the rest of the country has. Hurtful. Bleeding. With no solution apparently. Walking down the street, you can sense the desperation. Shortages. Bureaucracy. Hunger.

In less than a year, a man stoning the Government headquarters won’t be street gossip. Another municipality will be designated the base of political acts by then. They will talk about “progress” in La Lisa or Arroyo Naranjo or Cotorro…, not in Marianao. Another vox populi won’t be broadcast on TV where they disrespectfully sell it as a prosperous place. They’ll forget the irony, memes, and jokes.

By then, the rain would have washed away the traces of recent make-up on the building facades. Thefts will continue. The fights. Alcoholism. Gambling. Many families will survive. Some would have left, others will long to leave. Marianao will continue without making progress because the slogans that invite people to put their hearts and efforts into it don’t transmit hope. In this battered part of Havana, repeated phrases resound like hollow words.

49th Street, between 146 and 148, on one side of the bridge.
Fragments of Lazaro Arturo Gonzalez Torres’ ceiling.
Maria Rosa Noroña lives on the shore of the Quibu River.
The Quibu River.
Many homes are in danger because they are close to the riverbed.
Homes under construction in Coco Solo.
Families with housing problems in Coco Solo.
Buildings in danger of collapse on 134th and 51st Streets.
Line in Marianao to buy basic essentials.

Read more from Cuba here in Havana Times