HAVANA TIMES – Each time I walk around Old Havana, I notice ever more garishly dressed people, hoping that someone will take a picture and pay them for it. Although some allow their fellow Cubans to take photos for free, these people must pay for a permit, plus taxes and social security.
No matter how many times I walk along the same area, I always discover new faces in this recently coined profession.
Rosa Esther, whom I met on Saturday, is one of those people who have begun to form part of the landscape of our historical city center. I could easily have passed right by her without much notice, except for the fact that Esther is in a wheelchair – “the car”, as she calls it. She is missing both legs.
HT: Do you have to pay taxes to be here?
Esther: No, only those who walk pay them. I’ve already paid enough: I worked for thirty-eight years. I have my retirement pension of two hundred forty pesos, but as you know that’s not enough to get by, so I come here. Five years ago I lost my left leg, and three years ago I lost the right one. Eusebio [Eusebio Leal Spengler, Havana City historian] told me that I don’t need to pay anything.
HT: What happened to you? Are you a diabetic?
Esther: No, I have circulatory problems, and that’s how I lost my legs. I’m not on a special milk diet or anything, but Eusebio has helped me a lot. He gave me this “car” and a bed with a mattress probably big enough for four people. I adore that man and my country. I have everything I need here.
HT: I meet very few people who speak well about the country. The majority talk about the problems that exist, and only find reasons to complain.
Esther: There are problems here, just like everywhere. But this government is very good. It cares about the people. I love Fidel very much. My last name is Castro, like his, and I’m proud of that. I also love Raul, and I’m praying for Chavez to get well, because he has done so much for people.
HT: What work did you do during those thirty-eight years?
Esther: I worked in Public Health. I was a cleaning person.
HT: Do you have children?
Esther: I have a son who lives in Matanzas and goes the distance for me. He comes and brings me money, he is concerned about me. I was hoping to see him on the fifth, but he hasn’t come. I don’t know what happened. I also have a daughter in the United States, but I don’t want to know anything about that one. She left during the eighties. She found out that they were going to amputate my legs and she didn’t think about me at all, or try to find out what I might need, or send me money to help. I don’t want to know anything more about her.
HT: So you live alone, then?
Esther: My former daughter-in-law lives next door. She brings me here. She makes my food, and helps prepare my bath. I can bathe by myself. She takes me into the bathroom in another “car” that I have that’s a little broken, and I can bathe myself while sitting in it. I can even shampoo my own hair, since as you can see I don’t have any problems with my hands.
HT: Where do you live?
Esther: In the Havana municipality of Cerro.
HT: Your daughter-in-law brings you here from Cerro? How?
Esther: Walking. She pushes the car and leaves me here. In the afternoon she comes to get me.
HT: Does she bring you every day?
Esther: No, not every day. She works. When I’m not here, I stay home. I watch people go by out the window. Everybody loves me. I don’t have a television set, but I don’t want to bother Eusebio about anything else, because he already got me this “car” and the bed with a mattress. Also, I go to bed early.
HT: Do you practice Santeria
Esther: No, I’m wearing this necklace just because it looks nice. And this other one was given to me by a tourist. The tourists give me things, and some give me money.
As I take my leave, I can hear her voice behind me: “My friend, a present, please.” Out of the corner of my eye I watch a tourist couple continue on at a distance, without paying any attention to her.