By Yusimi Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 19 — Iris and Amaury, members of the artistic project Omni Zona Franca, have been a couple since 2005 and have six children (one born this month). Given the lack of space to live as a family, they began squatting in an apartment that stood empty for ten years.
In their squat, Iris explained the situation to Havana Times while her husband was at a meeting of the Omni group.
HT: Why are you living here? What made you move into this apartment with your family?
Iris: I had lived with my parents all my life, and while I was single that didn’t present any problems. Then I had my first two children, but I never lived with their father. My parents helped me raise the kids. When I started my relationship with Amaury, they began to have problems living with people who were different from them generationally, culturally, racially and so on.
Iris’s father not only has problems with Amaury being black, but also his clothing (smocks) and his lifestyle. He’s not a person who works with a pico y pala (“pick and shovel”), he has his space for his meditating and his religious practices; he’s a poet. Iris’s father is almost eighty and has a different way of life.
Since the beginning of the relationship, Iris and Amaury tried to find a place to stay. When she was pregnant with Samadhi, in 2006, they went to an office of the Ministry of Agriculture to propose a project whereby they would offer their cultural program in exchange for a piece of land on which they could build a house.
They wanted to organize cultural activities for children and youth in the community. The response they received was negative. They were told that their plan was impossible since there was neither land nor a legal mechanism to make it available.
In 2007, then interim president Raul Castro pushed through a law enabling the distribution of land to all those who were willing to grow crops on it. The couple therefore went back to the Agricultural office with their same project, this time proposing to farm the land. The answer this time was that all the land had already been distributed.
Therefore they began going through a different process with the Housing Department since they were going to have another child, which aggravated the tension between Iris’s father and Amaury. He wasn’t allowed to enter the house; she would have to go outside to see him and leave the children on the stairs. They slept in the workshop space that the Omni project had at the local casa de cultura (cultural center).
Iris: That’s how our living situation was for a long time, until 2009, when they took Omni’s space away. That eviction was terrible because we lost everything.
Iris went back to the Housing Department with her father, who understood that she couldn’t raise a family under such conditions.
Iris: There, they told us that for them to open a file on us — which would give us a chance to have a home at some point — there would have to be twelve people living in the apartment; only then would it be considered overcrowded. In our case there were just seven people, not counting Amaury, who didn’t live there. Even though I was pregnant and there would soon be eight of us, we couldn’t hope to get an apartment.
At one time her parents thought about physically dividing the apartment. This would mean the older couple would still have the living room, a bedroom and the bathroom. She, Amaury and all their children would then have an independent unit with two bedrooms and the balcony, which they would have to adapt for a bathroom.
In addition, since the parents were elderly, they had been hoping to swap the entire fourth floor apartment for one on the ground floor level. The mother had heart problems and couldn’t be constantly going up and down the stairs. By dividing the apartment they would lose that opportunity.
For a long time, in all their discussions, Iris kept arguing for the division until her father finally gave in. Social workers and the area delegate came up with all the papers for them to buy the necessary materials, but in the end they had to sell those because her father wound up changing his mind.
Things started to turn very violent, and with the children in the middle. Iris’ father would embarrass her in front of friends that visited them. Finally he again agreed to divide the apartment, and she hired a mason. But when the man showed up with the tools, he created a scene.
Iris: So I told him, “Look, I not living here anymore. I’m going leave and arrange for housing where I can live with my children.”
She went to the local Popular Power (the city council office) seeking help. A woman with the Department of Public Assistance told Iris that she saw no other solution to Iris’ problem other than Amaury starting to work for a housing “micro-brigade” program or try to come up with money to buy a apartment.
HT: Amaury hasn’t thought about working on a micro-brigade?
Iris: Micro-brigades don’t exist anymore. Plus we have friends who have worked for ten years on one and they still haven’t been given an apartment. They say they have to meet some standard of having built I don’t not know how many homes. In the end, what’s happening is that the apartments in these buildings are being sold, and some apartments are going to people’s mistresses…
HT: Mistresses of whom?
Iris: Of high-level officials…that’s public knowledge, as are the sales of apartments.
HT: Is Amaury working right now?
Iris: Yes, on the Omni Zona Franca project.
HT: Does he receive a salary for his work with Omni?
Iris: No, but he always gets something out of it that he can use to help support the family a little. He’s also involved with a community project that has a budget based on its production. From this a wage is paid to those who work on the project.
HT: Who sponsors that effort?
Iris: Generally foreign groups, NGOs, friends…
Iris worked as an art teacher at the Superior Pedagogical Institute. She didn’t take maternity leave during her pregnancies. In 2009, when the situation with Omni flared up, she was told to resign since the school couldn’t have teachers with ideological problems. Amaury’s wife was a member of Omni, which had been declared a dissident group.
Iris: I sold food, illegally of course, before they started giving out new licenses. In fact I did a performance. I rolled out my little food cart and while I sold food I read passages from the play Mother Courage by Bertolt Brecht. I did that in Zone 6 (of Alamar) in front of everybody, and I sold the food… That’s how we made ends meet, between what he earned when he did projects, food sales and help from friends.
After her conversation with the woman from Popular Power, Iris was directed to the Housing Department. There, she was attended by a man who told her: “Neither the owners of the house, nor the government has to feed your children – that’s your problem.” He said that Amaury needed to “get off his butt” and find them somewhere to live.
When he found out that Amaury was a poet — like Jose Maria Heredia, Jose Marti and the current minister of Culture — the housing official said that he needed get a “real job.” He reacted the same way when he discovered that Iris was an actress. In the end she was told to get busy and “resolver” (“solver her own problems”).
Iris asked the director of the Municipal Housing Department what legal routes existed to obtain a place to live in Cuba. Specifically, she asked if the government had apartments that it sold or rented. The answer was no.
Iris: What they were telling me to do — to “take care of myself” — was as illegal as us squatting. Even the head of the sector talked about the number of apartments that were being sold. There are two options, both illegal: either buy an apartment, if you have the money; or take over an empty one, if you have the courage.
During the first ten days they received visits from authorities and officials who tried to convince them to leave the apartment. Each time she and Amaury said they weren’t leaving. The officials offered that they leave the apartment in exchange for the Housing Department opening a file on them as a social case, in order to get them a place in a shelter or possibly get them a home…in the future.
Iris: I didn’t need a file. I needed a home for my kids.
The authorities put as an example the district delegate, who has a dozen people living in her home has never invaded an apartment. She has an open file and has written letters to various agencies, but she has always received the same response: Nothing’s available.
HT: How is it possible that despite living with your parents and having two children from a previous relationship, you decided to bring four more children into the world?
Iris: It’s true that family planning exists, but I’m terrified of abortions. I’d prefer to give birth eighty times. The other issue is religious. I think you have to let a child come into the world when it’s conceived through the love of two people who plan to stay together. You shouldn’t interrupt that process.
HT: You could have also used contraceptives.
Iris: Despite having an IUD at the time, I became pregnant. We didn’t use condoms because Amaury didn’t like them. We share a monogamous, stable, and even planned sexuality, because we have periods of purification and total abstention. I don’t smoke or drink coffee or alcohol, and I practice meditation.
Iris began to have a religious life with Amaury. She was tired of the fast life with many relationships but without finding anyone to give her something special. Amaury didn’t get her to fall in love in a traditional way; he proposed a project of spiritual growth as a couple, and that is how it has been.
Far from being upset with the situation, Iris’ two oldest children from her previous relationship are happy. Both of them get along well with Amaury and he’s compassionate toward them. She and Amaury explained to them that being in this apartment was an exercise in civil rights, because as children they have the right to a home. They’re happy and the apartment is nice.
However they have no electricity, no water and no plumbing. Nor can they cook. Food is brought to them by Iris’ mother or a friend. Her father, though he has differences with Amaury, supports what he’s doing for his daughter.
People who tried to get them to leave the apartment said they should have pressured Iris’ parents to swap their apartment to have space for their children. But Iris wasn’t willing to do that because it would have only divided the family even more. Her mother earned her apartment when she was in the military.
The owner of the apartment occupied by Iris and her family is a ten-year-old girl who lives outside of the country. The address of this apartment appears on her ID as she needs it to retain her citizenship. She visits the island every year but has stated that she isn’t interested in the apartment. During the time that it sat empty is was completely stripped.
Iris and her family have benefited from the solidarity of a lot of people, including residents in the building. A woman gave them a TV and food. Iris, Amaury and the children are vegetarians. To bathe, they have to haul in water. Friends, and even the father of the older children, help carry buckets of water.
Iris: The poet Juan Carlos Flores has sent us carts of water.
Every two days, she and Amaury get up early in the morning when the cistern is being filled to haul in buckets of water.
Other residents string an electric cord into their apartment at night so that they can plug in a fan and a light bulb. At first they would do that earlier in the day but the head of the police for the area threatened to fine them 1,500 pesos.
The owner of the other apartment replied that nobody could stop someone from doing what they wanted with their electricity, but tension had already been created; so the neighbors started passing the cord over to them in the night. Iris actually told off the head of sector for threatening them with something that didn’t appear anywhere in writing and that deprived her children of electricity.
Ten days have passed without anyone coming to try to throw them out, but Iris has no idea how the problem is going to be solved. Since the apartment has an owner, the Housing Department isn’t responsible for the matter. In the absence of formal charges by the owners, after the case was posted online for twenty days and since the relatives of the girl are aware of the situation, the police are prevented from acting. The last ones to put any pressure on the family were the people from Popular Power, but they haven’t returned.
Iris went to the Public Health Department to explain her situation as a mother with young children in a house without water or electricity, particularly at a time when there was an outbreak of dengue fever on the block. There, she was told that they couldn’t take care of the problem because no sector operates independently.
If the Housing Department didn’t give them a document indicating that they were there legally, the Health Department couldn’t do anything. Iris continued to press, arguing that it was possible that one of her children could catch dengue, so finally they proposed that a social worker give her a letter requesting the water company and the electric company to turn on those services, at least temporarily.
Iris had to go to school because the teacher of her son Jesus David embarrassed him in front of his classmates. He had asked him questions like “Where do you poop?” and “How do you flush the toilet. He told the boy that he was living in a pigsty.
Iris: I told the principal that this was something that couldn’t be allowed. There are teachers in Cuba who live in tenements with shared bathrooms. I never ask the social class of a teacher who’s going to teach my children. We’ve made tremendous efforts. All this began on the Friday before classes started on Monday. My children attended the first day loaded with all the books they were supplied. They never miss a day of class and they wear clean uniforms every day. They’re washed here in the washbasin or at a friend’s house.
HT: Are you determined to stay here until you resolve the situation?
Iris: Yes, until they give us a definitive answer… They can give another address to the owner, maybe one that’s uninhabitable, to resolve her situation when she comes to Cuba… Or give me an apartment with the proper conditions for my children… That’s the solution. I don’t need a file or anything else. If they come to take us by force, we’ll be in the street. My parents’ apartment has an owner just like this one, so I can’t go back there.
The children of Amaury and Iris are Andy Arturo (10) and Jesus David (9) (from Iris’ first marriage); and SamadhI (who turns four in November), Krishna Darshan (who turns three in February), Satyam (1), and Kali (just born), all four with Amaury.
HT: Do you think you’ll have any more children?
Iris: Now it’s possible that I might get my tubes tied.
The latest information we received is that Iris went back to Popular Power and there she was told that she couldn’t be supplied with water or electricity. All the staff there could do was try to convince her to leave the apartment so that she didn’t “close any more doors” on her family. Iris’s response: “Actually up to now no one has opened any.”