by Regina Cano
HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 6 — I was able to get on the P-6 bus though I wasn’t at the designated stop. In cases like that, I usually thank the driver for stopping, but this time the surprise of seeing a woman behind the wheel left me speechless. In the driver’s seat was Yurina Gonzalez Rasmunssen, the only female driver of an articulated Metrobus in the city of Havana. Smart, bold and humane, she’s a women who makes her way through day-to-day Havana as part of one of the most controversial elements of the capital: public transportation.
I proposed an interview and she agreed to it immediately.
HT: ¿How did you become a Metrobus driver?
Yurina: I had been a transportation inspector for GETA (the Alternative Transportation Task Force), and when they started recruiting drivers I applied. I started driving buses in 2005 and then I moved up to the articulated Metrobus because I like new situations, I always like changes. So now, if they come up with some of those buses with seven doors, I’ll want one of those.
HT: ¿Did anyone object to the fact that you’re a woman?
Yurina: When I said I wanted to be a driver, the people in my group busted up laughing. I told them I wasn’t kidding, and the people from the union thought it was a good idea, that it was interesting for a woman to be a driver, so they took the request higher up.
The minister of Transportation back then, Carlos Paso, authorized my training and so I became the first female bus driver in the city. Prior to that, I had all the appropriate licenses for driving, except for a flatbed 18-wheeler or a bus.
To get the regular bus license I had to go out to the terminal in Guanabacoa, just to the southeast of Havana. I got a crash course but I showed that I was a good driver. I really liked it, and I was hired right there on the spot.
Now I have a “Masters License,” which makes sense because driving an articulated bus isn’t the same thing as driving a single-unit vehicle.
HT: Is there something in particular that makes you prefer you this job?
Yurina: My father was a bus driver and my grandfather was a driver-mechanic. In the house where I grew up there was a mechanic’s workshop. So I grew up with mechanics and bus drivers.
To me this was fascinating; I love everything that has to do with working with iron. They say I must be the daughter of Oggun (the Afro-Cuban “Orisha,” or saint, of the forge).
I could have gotten a job in whatever I wanted, because in school I ranked 69 out of hundreds of other students. However my maternal grandfather was a lathe operator, so the first thing I chose to study was general mechanics, specifically turnery.
I was the only female in mechanics at Liberty City Technology Institute. I went there with my high ranking, my intelligence, because I preferred working with metal.
In my youth, the young communists urged people to study in fields that were needed right then, in specialties other than what the students preferred. Some of the kids did this but then ended up having to go back and study other things, out of necessity. This was a serious error.
I don’t think people should go where they’re needed, but where they like, because that’s where people are most productive.
A mason is good if he or she likes masonry, just as a driver is good because they like to drive. Also, bus drivers have to have a characteristic that other drivers probably don’t have: liking people. They need to have the vocation of service.
All kinds of people board a bus and you have to have a smile and threat each of them in a friendly manner. That’s why every two years we’re required to go to a school where they study us and have us talk with psychologists to see whether we’re fit to deal with the public. If anyone loses that quality then they’re re-assigned.
I’ve gone to that school four times. We also take different courses, like one called “Transportation, Psychology and Interpersonal Relations.” If you “flunk” in interpersonal relations then you can’t drive a bus.
Let me tell you, people don’t value the men who drive buses. They are as valuable as I am, or more so, because people are deferential to me. “Wow, a woman driving a bus,” or “hey guys pay your fare it’s a woman,” they’ll say.
But with the men, people tend to be cruel. These guys have to be calm and deliberate when, for example, somebody says to them, “I’m not going to pay,” or they say, “The guy behind me is paying for me.” And then the guy in the back says, “no, the guy in the front pays.” These drivers have to take a deep breath and try to stay calm, because it could cost them not only a fight (over four cents), but if a complaint reaches the main office they could lose their job. We have to think about the public first, about the other passengers.
For me, being a bus driver is worth more than anything else. We provide a service that’s super useful, because without transportation the country would screech to a halt.
HT: Have you experienced any special difficulties, misunderstandings or discrimination?
Yurina: Well look, when I started working out of the Guanabacoa terminal, of course there was a problem with my being accepted. The instructor had me driving the bus all around in circles and then acted like he forgot I existed.
But there was one driver in particular, Iran, who said, “Come over here mijita (sweetheart). Do you really want to drive a bus?” I replied, “Sure! Therefore he said, “I’ll teach you.” So I wasn’t taught how to handle a bus by the Guanabacoa instructor; it was this young guy who taught me.
Then when I went to take the test for my driver’s license, they sent me with a guy named Carmenate, a confirmed machista, who didn’t even want to give me the wheel on the way to the police station from where I’d be taking the test. Each bus has its own characteristics and you have to know these, of course I flunked the exam.
Then I went a second time, but they sent me with Kiki, another driver from the terminal.
This guy was great, just like Iran. Just as we were leaving out he said: “They told me to give you the bus when we get to the police station, but I’m going to give it to you beforehand so you can get the feel of it; I want to see you get your license. Take the wheel so you can get it down pat,” and then he gave me a few tips about driving in the El Mañana neighborhood, which is where I was to take the drivers exam. When he saw that I was doing alright, he said, “Now let’s go take that test.”
He was a godsend. If it hadn’t been for Kiki, maybe I wouldn’t have ever become a bus driver.
Let’s see! What happened? I had my detractors, but within critics there are always rebels.
When I started driving buses they used to have “conductors” (fare collectors). I would get to the terminal and sometimes the bus would be there but no conductor, so I couldn’t drive.
That went on until one woman, Martha, a conductor, said: “I’ll work with you.” “They don’t want anyone working with you, but I feel like doing it anyway.”
After the day ended and we returned to the terminal, the manager yelled, “Hey! That was some tremendous driving! You made a baro (pile of money), and that’s not easy.” That broke the ice, so then everybody wanted to work with me.
Sure, it was great, because any driver who’s racing around non-stop wasn’t good. For the conductors, a good driver was the one who was 20 or 30 minutes behind schedule, because they collected more money.
It’s not that I wasn’t a good driver; I was just new and I didn’t know how things worked, fortunately.
So after that I had lots of friends. All the drivers wanted to work with me because it’s not the same thing to work with a driver who argues with the public and one who treats everyone respectfully. Plus, people leave more tips when you treat them better.
As for discrimination, that was constant, but from a minority of drivers. It should be noted though that the drivers are a group of men with their strengths and their weaknesses.
HT: How do you the passengers treat you?
Yurina: The vast majority seem fine with me. But the women…please! They can be fantastic, “Yes, great”, “That’s what we need”, “Women take the lead!”
The men? They’re very gentlemanly. They’re fine, very courteous.
I think it’s a great success that a woman is driving a bus. Like in everything, it has its bad points – a few idiots who see you differently, but everything is fine with most people.
The jerks might yell anything at me from “driver” to “Hey doll!” or whatever they feel like, “open the door in back, damn it.” People are like that so I can’t base my life on what they say to me. My job is to provide a service.
HT: What do your family and friends say seeing you as a driver?
Yurina: My family doesn’t want me to drive buses. My mother doesn’t either because I don’t have time to go see her. She knows I’m a driver par excellence. Her fear is that with the temper I have, I won’t be able to work with the public,” and she’s never wanted to ride on my bus.
She’s afraid that someone is going to offend me and that I’m going to react, because I’ve always been a fighter. I used to think, “Wherever someone tries me, I’ll take them on,” but that can’t happen now because it’s my job at stake.
Of course, my friends don’t want me to drive buses either, because I don’t have any time to see them either.
My time is for the bus… It’s a life of solitude.
When you’re still in bed sleeping, the driver is already there at the terminal.
Those who work in the morning have to leave home at two at night. The farther away you live, the less time you have to sleep. The first departure is at 4:20 in the morning and the drivers have to be there. They finish up in the afternoon and get home around 3:00 in the afternoon wanting nothing other than to sleep. They don’t even watch TV. They’ll just go to sleep, get up and leave out again for work.
For those who work in the afternoon it’s the same. They finish up at around 11:00 at night and get home around 2:00 a.m. What free time do we have?
A bus driver must have two things: people who take care of their home (because if not it becomes a disaster), since you don’t have time for anything. You also need to have the spirit to give up things you like.
My job is like a creature that lives inside you, motivating you from within. Just imagine, punishment for a bus driver is not letting them drive. If you do something wrong, they’ll say to you, “Ok, fine, you screwed up, right? We’re going to take your bus away from you. You hear!”
HT: What about your relationship with the other drivers?
Yurima: Well, in Havana I was in the Guanabacoa terminal, and later in El Bahia, then Alamar, and then in Regla, where I was treated better. I went on to serve in Santa Amalia and now I’m at the el Calvario terminal.
I had never seen anything like in Calvario. There are no “co-workers” there. Instead, I have comrades and friends who love me, who adore me. But they’re animals when they hit their routes, when they go out on the street. To collect more fares they don’t respect the schedules of others. They’ll just as much cut into your time as delay at bus stops.
Sure, it has to do with how public transportation is functioning now. In one night they put in all these collection boxes, and now the fare collectors can’t work.
HT: What happened to the fare collectors?
Yurina: There were bad ones, ones who mistreated the public, just like there are bad drivers who do the same.
They were called “conductors” but really they were collectors. There were the ones who would give you back your change for a peso, whereas now people can’t get change, they have to pay two and a half times the fare.
I had honest collectors, ones who would go to the Collections Office and ask for change. If they didn’t then they would have to overcharge the passengers, because the little bit of change we ordinarily carried wouldn’t reach the fifth stop on the route.
On the other hand, the mechanics don’t live with the salary they earn. There was an agreement that existed between drivers, collectors, and mechanics to ensure the buses keep running – an agreement that even benefited the riders.
The collectors would arrive first, they would look after the buses and be in charge of everything.
But while everyone at the public transportation office knows what happens, instead of trying to improve things, everything got worse.
Now it’s AGESP (a security agency) that is contracted to have people take care of the buses in the terminal. The investigation body that selects drivers also comes from AGESP, they also count the money that’s collected.
Now all the drivers have collection boxes. When you get to terminal, one of those security agents will come running up to you and haul away the collection box.
You never see what’s inside, though you have a pretty accurate idea, with a notebook you keep track along the route: one, two, three, four pesos at one bus stop, another twelve pesos at another stop, and then three more pesos and at the end I’ll add it up. I have a pretty good idea how many pesos are inside.
So they take the money box to the collection center where they count the money and then they send a list back down to the terminal (though the drivers never see the tabulations) and they simply tell you if you met your quota or not.
Neither the driver nor the collection center can be sure that we are judged by what actually comes out on the list.
To my way of thinking, everyone who works with money has the right to participate by knowing what’s collected, why not the bus drivers?
What was needed was to meet with all those collectors and tell them: No more mess, those who don’t collect their quota get the boot the same day they fail to perform. One complaint from people being mistreated, and you’ll be fired without ceremony and a new collector will take your place.
Workers with nine, ten or twelve years as bus collectors —their work, their food, their bread—were affected by this change.
HT: How does that affect the drivers?
Yurina: We’re breaking our backs, attending to the collection box, serving the passengers and dealing with the traffic. The driver can’t be everywhere, we’re there to drive.
In any country you’ll see a sign saying: “Don’t disturb the driver” or “Do not talk to the driver,” but here the driver has to spend the whole day talking and fighting with people to get them to drop their money in the collection box.
If you don’t perform, you’re gone, you’re punished, and you’re sent home without work and without pay. Men with children end up unable to maintain their home because they didn’t meet their quota.
It’s barbaric how bus drivers are being treated. Look, people in public transportation are stressed out.
There was a bright idea where they wanted to be smarter than the capitalists who don’t even waste spit. There were all these collectors, so they got rid of them saying: “Because people didn’t want them.”
Now with each passing day fewer people pay their fare. They’re starting to get more and more nerve.
Some people who don’t pay will tell you, “Hey! It’s only a collection box” or they’ll say, “Come on! It’s not money out of your pocket,” and then they’ll continue on back.
That’s because they know you can’t do anything as the driver, you can’t give change or even touch the money. Some will wave a twenty peso or a five peso bill in front of you, like it’s a pass, and they’ll say, “Sorry driver, I don’t have any change,” and then go on back.
Once I came to a stop where there were seven people and only one woman paid. I said, “Thank you for paying for the ride,” but then I had the great idea of saying I was turning off the engine. I said, “If nobody pays I’m not driving. Jose Marti said the man who gives away the fruits of their work has the soul of a slave, and my soul isn’t one of a slave. I’m not driving. Go look for another bus.”
But then there were people who said, “Hey driver, it’s not the fault of the rest of us who paid,” and that was it, there was nothing I could do.
HT: Are there ways to make the people aware of the need to pay?
Yurina: Driving through Mantilla one day there was a young woman with a child who signaled me to stop for her. She handed me her peso and when I started to reach over to put it in the box she said, “If you drop it in there then we’re going to have some problems.” So I asked, “Why don’t you want me to drop it in the box?”
“Because I don’t want Fidel to get what’s mine,” she answered.
“What is it that’s yours?” I asked.
“The peso I just gave you,” she said.
“And the bus I’m driving? Isn’t it yours too?” I asked her.
To which she replied, “No, this is Fidel’s.”
I responded saying: “No, that’s a mistake. Fidel doesn’t ride here. Those who ride are the Cuban people – you, me, your family, your friends, your co-workers. Fidel bought this bus for you to use it. You’re helping to keep the transportation going that he gave us. Other leaders take the money used on these nice new buses and they spend it on buying islands for themselves and their families. This government invested a quantity of pesos so that the people would have new buses.
“How many things have the government done for the people that the people have destroyed? The government gives you a polyclinic—brand new, with everything—but people come in and steal the light bulbs, they steal everything,” I added.
“Yeah, because our wages aren’t enough, they steal them to sell them for money,” she replied.
“So you’re saying that the government gives to the people, the people steal what the government gives, but it’s not enough, even though the people are receiving, but it’s still not enough… so this is the never ending story,” I concluded.
Anyway, I won a paying passenger. After that she was waiting for me every day: “Look what you taught me,” she would say, followed by a loud clank as her peso went into the collection box. “We have to make our contributions to public transportation.” She became aware that transportation is something for all of us.
HT: So what about your family life?
Yurina: I have children though they’re not mine biologically, meaning I didn’t give birth to them, but I raised them and they call me mom and their children call me grandmother. My environment is the environment of any Cuban, though I have a little less time to criticize what’s bad or to compliment what’s good, because drivers don’t have time for a social life.
As you can see I live with the basics, with what is necessary. I’m not interested in having more than what I do. Love is enough. My family loves me. I think some of my passengers like me too.
My partner is excellent. This means that everything is good in my life, everything is perfect. I don’t want anything more.
What I miss is having peace of mind to work, to be able to enjoy my work, like when I started with the Transportation Department.
I would like to be able to provide excellent service, so that people would be pleased with the service. I wish I didn’t have so many problems with the Collections Department.
I guess it’s the same thing that all my co-workers need. We work with the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. We’re all nervous, taking pills, because all the stress makes you hurt, your whole body hurts.
HT: Do you have other interests and passions?
Yurina: Well, you see, human beings develop depending on their environment. I’m the eldest child of a couple who separated. My mother had five children and was a homemaker without a higher education. When my father left, my mom was left alone and almost died of depression. The only shoulder she had to cry on was mine. I was her support.
When I was nine I got my first job. We had a neighbor, a friend who was an artisan who made clay pots, and I would take those that came out bad. He taught me to make a wire chains; I would put two small ornaments on each one and then sell them out on the street for five pesos a pair and give the money to my mother. That was the first serious work that I did.
I always studied at the same time, because my grandfather—who was German but is now dead—he always told me: “The greatest treasure that a person can have is education. You can do what you want with your life, but you can’t drop out of school.” I passed that same idea on to all those children that I’ve raised and all of them went to the university. They all have professional careers.
My mom had to learn to work. She went to a school to study to be a typist and then she went to work at the port, sending off the older kids including me to boarding school. So I went to the Isla de la Juventud to study; it was a whole year of suffering.
Later, the familiar history, helped me a lot to be what I am and that I have no fear of anything. I can do any job, anything they give me – as long as I’m paid for it. I don’t like working for free.
The only thing I do for free is music. Wherever I go I play, I sing, because it pleases me a lot to give what I consider the divine in me, the talent that God gave me.
I never studied music, but I compose, I write, I make poetry, and that talent is mine – understand? I haven’t had time to develop it because my time has been to make money for my family.
I appeared in public, mainly in competitions. I won a number of awards, ones like:
2007 – Third Prize in Composition and Popularity in the Juan Arrondo Competition.
2008 – Third Prize in the Maria Teresa Vera Competition.
2009 – First Prize in Performance and Composition in the Jauma Competition.
I have also appeared in peñas (recitals), concerts (when I was in the group Duo Amigas) and I performed as a soloist. I’ve sung at Lecuona Hall, the Revolution Square Museum, Resistance Hall, the Alamar Art Gallery, the Museum Gardens of San Miguel del Padron and in Casas de Cultura (cultural centers) in almost all the municipalities of the city.
People who hear the music and songs that I write love them.
Another passion of mine is nature. If it were up to me, I would live under a tree, in a grove, with a hammock, only with the essentials, something to make a fire to cook fish, because I love the nomadic life.
That’s why I worry about the ecology of my country, which is being destroyed. Over there were some trees out in front, in full view, and now they’re gone. But it’s not only the trees that were destroyed, it was the habitat of all those birds, thousands of little bugs, little things that are useful to people.
Wherever you look you’ll see dead trees and disoriented birds. Every time they plow up a thicket, they’ve destroyed three or four nests of quail or mockingbirds.
The city is also being destroyed. We’re losing buildings with beautiful architecture and nobody is doing anything about it.
When I started driving the Metrobus I was so excited with my new bus that I would say, “Look how beautiful October 10 neighborhood is.” But I didn’t realize how beat up the main Calzada Street is. Now that the magic of a new job has faded, I see everything that’s ugly out there.
We have to stop those things so that life is better.
And people! Our interview ended and I delighted in hearing Yurima’s songs and enjoying her fine voice. But finally I had to leave, she lives a little far out…and public transportation isn’t so great.