Cuba’s Little Train Project

By Regina Cano

A session of El Trencito.

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 21 — It’s a heartening experience to visit the place where El Trencito (The Little Train) project originates and opens its doors each week for children to play, enjoy themselves and do some creating as a group.

Accustomed as they are to receiving people of all ages, beliefs and personalities, the people there are excellent hosts.  They offer up their little house in the Vedado area of Havana where the Little Train’s creators have lived for 21 and 19 years respectively.

I began my talk with Yadira Rubio and Ernesto Trians, the two young people that initiated the idea, and with their children Amanda and Daniel.  The interview was marked by their eagerness to respond and the honesty that characterizes all of them. It wasn’t going to be an easy with four people to interview, but off we went…

Okay, let’s begin! For all of you of Little Train.  What does this project mean to you?

Dany: A large family of friends to have fun with, play, and give rein to our imagination and art.

Yadira: A workshop of games and artistic creation for the children of the community.  It includes anyone willing to cross the threshold into a child’s world and join in as one more member of the group.  We insist on fostering cooperation, mutual help, and respect among human beings, towards animals, plants and everything around us.

Ernesto: A space for creating ourselves as human beings, in relation to other facets of life that are not like us and that we need.  A space for love, creation, play, fun; for sharing without competition, for flowing together, for exchanging positive energy.

Yadira: It unites us with the rest, beginning with the ties between the two of us, and among the four of us as well.

Who comprises The Little Train?

Ernesto: Basically, the four of us and all those who feel good about what happens here inside.  There are children, neighbors, family members, friends who drop in frequently or appear after many years.  All those who enjoy participating come and go as they please.  It’s as free as that.

How did you get the idea for doing The Little Train?  What’s its history?

Ernesto: The seed was planted while we were studying for a career in Art History.  In the nineties with the fall of the Socialist Bloc and the subsequent impoverishment of Cuban society, there was a loss of human values and solidarity, and we were faced with serious material necessities.  This caused us to propose to the most humanistic minds among those of us who were studying together, the idea of doing something for society from the platform of art.

A session of El Trencito.

In our minds and desires we conceived a “Group for Cultural Action.”  We had mottoes like “Saving saves”.  The idea was to go out to the countryside, live by the land, and work with that community.  Each member proposed a different interest: popular religious beliefs, inclusive performances, literature; the two of us were clear that we wanted to work with children.

In the end we couldn’t bring the project to fruition. We had some limitations, like the fact that they invalidate your diploma if you don’t complete your social service.  Yadira and I got married, thanks to her grandmother and aunt who told us that we’d have to get married as a condition for giving us this house. “Oh? Well, then we’ll get married!”  So we ended up settling in this space.  “We’ll have to do something ourselves.  It doesn’t matter that nobody else has done anything.” Having the house was the most important thing, because we’re the ones in charge here.

Yadira: That was our Genesis.

How long have you been doing The Little Train?

Yadira: In the summer of ’95 Ernesto was making clay figures.  Three children from the neighborhood saw him and asked to learn.  Right away the rumor took wings and a lot of kids began coming around.  We had good intentions, but we didn’t know how to work with them.  That idea that we adults are superior to children and the only ones to teach them things – we had bought into that one.  But little by little, we began to develop.

What kind of space do you use for the sessions?

Ernesto: It’s almost always here in the house or sometimes in the hallway, on the sidewalk or on Avenue 19,, a dead end street.  When we want it, we have the whole block for ourselves. We request official permission from the president of the CDR* and close it off to traffic.

Yadira: We’ve gone to other neighborhoods too: to el Canal del Cerro, la Ceiba, to Puentes Grandes, and el Fanguito.

Ernesto: To Cardenas in Matanzas; wherever we’re invited.  Somebody gets enthusiastic and tells us. “Oh, we’d love it if you could hold a session here.”  In San Jose de las Lajas we held a workshop at a daycare center with the Critical Observatory.

Yadira: A new world, a group of new kids within a context that we hadn’t completely mastered.  It can feel a little frightening.

How do the children find out about you?

Yadira: They’re neighbors or our friends’ children, or maybe our own kids’ friends. Sometimes we simply announce that we’re offering a cultural program for children and they spread the word amongst themselves.  We pass the word to any child we meet on the street.

Ernesto: Sometimes we put up a sign at the entrance.

What criteria do you have for accepting participants: characteristics, ages, grade level, etc.?

Yadira: Generally they should be older than 4 or 5 – although we’ve had younger – up to any age that wishes.  The little ones need a lot of attention and different games from the rest who are already of school age.

A session of El Trencito.

But they can come as long as a parent is there all the time and willing to join in. However, almost none want to. If there are spectators, the group spirit is inhibited.  When we reach adulthood we don’t want to play or join into a game.

Ernesto: Here, everyone’s a child and a participant.

Yadira: We give the little ones a try, but usually they come one day and the next time they don’t want to come, until they reach 5 or 6 years old and then they stay.

Ernesto: That’s when we are more in sync with their interests.  Generally, in a natural way, when they reach 11 they don’t want to come any more.

How long does it last and how many come?

Yadira: From two to two and a half hours.

Ernesto: Or three, depending on the enthusiasm they have.  There have been longer “Street Plans”*

Yadira: To the point where we’re about to faint.

Ernesto: Ten or more kids come.

Yadira: In the street we can have up to thirty. Passers-by join in, and each day we get more grownups.

Ernesto: We now have several parents who participate almost every Sunday.

And the transformations?

Yadira: In fifteen years, what haven’t we seen? Two maternities – we had to stop for months, or have Ernesto run the groups by himself. I was too pregnant, or had given birth too recently, or was busy nursing.

Ernesto: The roof of the house was about to fall in.

Yadira: While we were studying and developing the rationale for our methodology, things began to change.  We tried out the games and found out which function best.  There were stages in which we only worked on the streets, which required a special touch.  There were months when we stopped to readjust our family life.  And it never stops evolving: the seasons change, the boys and girls, ourselves; there are new sources of ideas and a lot of creativity.

Ernesto: The transformation begins mentally and later manifests itself physically.

Yadira: We don’t know how we’re going to do the session until we begin.  Maybe 20 or 30 kids appear, even though we’ve prepared the Little Train for the house, and it’s ”Out to the street!”

Ernesto: It has to be fun.

Yadira: We first see what’s happening there outside. We have a basic methodology that has been constructed little by little. We think of a central idea and a cocktail of games to go with it: games for warm-ups, ice-breakers, or if new children have come then we need one for presentation.  Later there are games for relaxation and concentration, and we finish up with a creative activity.

Can you give an example of some games?

Ernesto: Dany created a game the first Sunday where the walls were painted with decorations.  We played “Blind Man’s Buff” and he said: “We have to find by touch a certain figure on the wall” and they’ve loved this game and ask for it.  There’s a traditional game….

Yadira: In that game, one person poses like this (she bends over backwards to make The Bridge) and everyone passes underneath.  Not long ago we invented The Carpet because in the winter sometimes we put down a blanket on the cold floor and that’s where we all sit.  So on those days, in order to enter the house they have to give us a password, or answer a riddle, or say a magic word: “excuse me”, “please”, “I love you”, and then they’ve earned their entrance into The Little Train and get dragged in on the rug.  Which is sooooooo fun!

Have you established any rules?

Yadira: Everyone has to participate.  Respect everything that they do.  Take care of each other.  No picking fights, no violence at all.  Ask for things with the magic words that we know.  No one can criticize the creations in a negative way.  You’re not allowed to compare yourself with others.

A session of El Trencito

The games are cooperative ones – they’ll find plenty of competition outside of here.  They come to accept these things naturally.

Ernesto: In almost every session something happens that serves as a reminder.

Dany: One time Althair and Yudelkis were playing and suddenly Althair said to her: “Get away, fatty!” and Yudelkis asked, “but why are you calling me fatty?”

Yadira: And at that point we stopped The Little Train.  Calmly, without fighting..

Ernesto: “Look each of us is different “.

Yadira: “Look, I have a big nose, and I have”…And everyone began to tell about their own defects that someone else could point at them for.  We introduce these ideas little by little and it works.

Ernesto: Over time, their relationships with each other get better and they themselves begin to remind each other: “Remember, we have to get along and respect each other.” Those who come for the first time are shocked: “What’s going on here?  What have I walked into?

Yadira: Or “I don’t understand why you praise me so much,” because we’re constantly saying “How beautiful!  How great!  Of course you can do it!

Ernesto: That forms part of our methodology and aesthetics – to raise their self-esteem whenever we can.

Yadira: They all have values that need to be under-scored, and all of us have to enforce everyone’s common values.  At certain times it may get tiring, but in the end it’s so great that they value each other.

Do the same kids come all the time?

Yadira: Attendance is optional.  There are many who stay and grow within The Little Train.

Ernesto: New ones always appear and there will always be some of the old participants missing.

Yadira: The beginners try to give us their justifications when they’ve been absent, because they’re used to events where you have to register. But here there’s no problem if you don’t come.  We take down their basic information mainly to congratulate them on their birthdays, or for something else.

Dany: In one session each child made a drawing, and put it in an envelope to send. So each one received someone else’s drawing. Because the idea of sending and receiving mail has been lost a little.

Yadira: This brought some really nice results, but that day some of the letters didn’t arrive. There was one boy who burst into inconsolable tears.

Ernesto: “No one sent me a letter.”

Yadira: (imitating a crying child) “I didn’t get anything!”  That day we did it again and almost everyone sent their drawings to him.

How do you deal with parents?

Yadira: The parents’ view has been contaminated by the rules in school.  Often they tell us their problems, and want us to teach their children to draw and paint, or to play guitar.  In the beginning, they are even more shocked when they ask, “What do we have to give or pay?” Sometimes they want to stay and watch and we explain to them: “You’ll have to participate like everyone else; you’ll have to step back from your role as a parent a little; you can’t scold them.”  But almost none of them stay.  In the end, they come to respect us and to like us.  They listen and accept what we tell them.  They help us.

Ernesto: We try to show them a concrete product from each session: a theater piece, drawings, or paintings, so that they become the public for their children’s creations.  Parents almost always come here because they’ve heard about it from someone who has already explained it to them.  There’s a certain community of trust.

Amanda

There are mothers who have stayed through the first sessions, and conflicts have arisen; they want to give orders to their children or correct them, or maybe the other way around: the girl or boy acts up. In these cases, we have to intervene: “Look, she’s not your mother right now, when she’s here, she’s just another child.” Or the other way around.

Yadira: There are mothers and children who don’t accept playing and creating together.

How do you view your own training as facilitators?

Ernesto: It’s an ongoing learning experience.  I had a complete lesson right at the beginning.  I began with an emphasis and desire to teach them to make the little figures that I made.  Two weeks into it, I found out that it was impossible.  In addition, each child made theirs differently.  I learned that each person is different and that it’s just fine that way.  I was creating terrible anxiety for them: “No, that’s not right, you have to do it this way.”  I was making a serious mistake.

Yadira: I had begun as a volunteer in the Children’s Creativity Workshop of the Fine Arts Museum with a very good team.  They began with play and ended with creating and it worked better.  And they invited me to an International Workshop for the Promotion of Programs for Children and Adolescents.  That was the root of our work, the place where we established the basic fundamentals.  I attended one year, and the next year Ernesto went because I was pregnant.  We met a lot of people there from Cuba and other countries.

Ernesto: Argentina, Uruguay, almost all of Latin America.

Yadira: They have great ways of doing things: tons of games, cooperative ways of creating.  From there, we moved on to the library of the “Group for the Socio-Cultural Development of Children and Adolescents,” a service of the Ministry of Culture that…

Ernesto: Disappeared.  An inspirational project.

Yadira: A library dedicated to play. And there we began to lap up different source materials and to discover a world of games and creations.  That’s when we said, “This is what we want to do.”

We’ve consulted books on Pedagogy, Child Psychology, Methodology, Game Design, Artistic Techniques.  We’ve been to practical workshops for carrying out promotional events for children and adolescents.  We also completed a master’s level course in Community Work, a workshop on Mediation and Conflict.

Ernesto: We see ourselves as learning as we go, often through very specific events.  Over time, the Little Train has gained in maturity, in self-confidence, a wealth of tools (games, artistic creation), more publicity, more contact with other people who do the same things.

Ernesto: And we learned non-competitiveness through some huge blows.  Like the time we participated in a contest for children to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of Amelia Pélaez*  We spent entire nights preparing.  And finally we sent the drawings off to the grand contest!  On the day the winners were to be announced we all went to the ceremony.  A disaster!

Yadira: One lone girl received a prize, but no one else.  Of course!

Ernesto: So we questioned ourselves. “What are we doing?”  It’s terrible, because 3 children win and the other 300 who participated feel bad because they didn’t.

Yadira: The other day Ernesto made two paper maché doll’s houses to raffle off on Children’s Day.  He spent weeks making them.

Ernesto: Awful! Girls crying.

Yadira: The sorrow…”We’re done with competition!” we declared.

Ernesto: We put an end to all the giveaways.  No more material things here.  There’s no drinks, no sweets.  Here we aren’t giving anything away to the kids.  Sometimes someone comes with candy, “Okay, fine.  We’re going to share that with everyone”.

Yadira: The kid who comes in eating has to share it with everyone or eat it beforehand in his or her own house.

Ernesto: The only thing we’re giving out here is play, fun and creation, and that’s it!

Have you been in contact with other Projects that have the same goals?

Yadira: Yes, we have ties with people here who do similar activities: Zunzún (arteducadores), Haciendo Almas, Teatro Espontáneo, Grupo Evolución and Demóngeles.  We’re also in touch with educators or community cultural promoters in other countries (Spain, Argentina, Peru).  The one we’ve had the most contact with is called Haciendo Almas (Making Souls), a community project that facilitates communication among like-minded projects in Cuba and other countries.

Ernesto: Over the years a network of friends has been created.  The Educating with Art event was crucial to this.

Dany

The Critical Observatory came at a decisive moment.  It appeared at a time when we felt a bit worn out, very alone in the city and with no feedback.  It gave us encouragement, we found friends.

Do you receive outside help in methodology or in materials?

Yadira: Books and source materials on games and artistic techniques.  Friends who come in and share their knowledge in different areas.  Sometimes we’re given materials like paint, chalk, paper, crayons, markers, etc.  We get a little technological help with the processing of photos, videos, etc.  Basically these are friends whom we’ve met along the way over the course of all these years, and who know that we need materials, and so they’ve gone on offering these to us.  The parents donate paper and tempera paint.  A little while ago a friend brought us six sets of water colors that he got from a school, and so on.  Ludovico from Making Souls has offered us one or another kind of materials.  It’s a big milkshake of mutual help that we usually try to return.

What do you personally get or comes to you with The Little Train?

Ernesto: Our return is that it gives life a little meaning for us.  Each Sunday is like a breath of oxygen in the daily routine.  As you say, you have to get money, struggle – that very Cuban word – to obtain material goods.  You have to worry about this, you have to get stressed about the other.  It’s like breathing something else, something more spiritual.

Yadira: Spirituality, inner strength, joy.  Doing good is very pleasurable.  We learn a lot each time that we try to teach.  Spiritual from a personal point of view, it helps us a lot as a couple because we have something else in common to fight for and share.  It helps us a great deal as a family.  Our children are part of the group, as children first, as one more member of the fun, as coordinators on a par with ourselves, and in that moment they see us in another way and we them.  It makes them feel secure, it educates them in collective, family and community work.  It helps us move beyond the role of Dad or of Teacher.  Here, you’re just one more.  The spirituality of that always gives you back more; your returns are multiplied.

How do the children react to the sessions?

Yadira: Very well, we think, as long as they stay until the end and come back every Sunday.  They want to do it again, again.  Their parents tell us: “They don’t want to sleep in the morning in order to come.” Over the short run, we didn’t really know.

Recently, a friend filmed some interviews with our first children who now are between 20 and 25 years old with the intention of making a documentary.  We had never asked them what The Little Train meant to them.  We work day to day, and we hadn’t really done any research like that.  We saw it only in terms of the basic interrelationship.

Yadira and Ernesto

Those grown-up children said many things: like that it had marked their personalities.  Many of them, in addition to having studied specific professions, have pursued another, more artistic, field: with the guitar, with theater, with poetry – three examples – because they discovered here that creating was a beautiful, fulfilling grandiose path.  They said that we had given them, without being aware of it, all the strength, self-esteem and confidence to believe that they could excel at anything they chose to do. That the road is open, so why not?

Ernesto: It’s comforting to know that they still see that stage of their life as something positive.  And what we thought that we should be seeding as values, they find within themselves.  It hasn’t been in vain.

Yadira: Personal development, non-competitiveness.

Ernesto: “Here all of us were the same, you could come in sneakers, in flip-flops, however you were” one of them said.  “The Little Train is a huge family.”

Yadira: Another said that they had received here all the love that they could never get at home.

Ernesto: We didn’t put that in the documentary, because it seemed too strong.

Yadira: We knew that this child had felt good here and very badly at home.  We were their confidants.

Ernesto: One of them said, “because in addition to teachers and friends they were father and mother to us.

Yadira: That killed us.  That day we cried buckets.  When you hear these things, it’s what I said before, it feels like a betrayal of trust to talk about it with you.  It was very powerful for us: “Okay that’s enough, God!  You’re going to give me a heart attack.  That boy was our friend, and in large part because of us his path didn’t end up in worse delinquency, because we’d say to him: “No, Tito, that’s not the way,” and he finally agreed, “No, it’s true, crime isn’t the way.”  He had grown up with all the family and social predispositions.

And how do the smaller coordinators feel when there’s a Little Train and the games begin?

Amanda: Happy.

Yadira: They don’t watch any television.

Ernesto: And they form part of the organization and the cleanup.

Dany: Amanda has joined in very well.  I’m already part of the Organizing Committee.  When the Little Train begins, I have to start mixing the paints, close off the street if we’re going to close it.  I don’t take on the role of coordinator when the time comes to play, though.  At play time I’m just one more kid.  The relation of our parents to Amanda and I doesn’t come up at all in The Little Train.  We’re just like the others, the same as everyone.

What do you think the Little Train represents to the other kids who come?

Dany: There are a lot of kids here who get everything they want.  They’re in Spanish dance and Arab dance, and in popular dance and in ballet.  And they themselves say that The Little Train is where they feel the best; that dance is fine and they like it a lot, but The Little Train is the only place that they can play with the other kids, be the same as everyone, because there’s no competition and they can be themselves.  Here they develop artistically, socially and culturally.

What Amanda likes best is “Playing the bridge and painting the spots.”

Anything else you want to add or repeat?

STORIES

Dany: The story of Paula and Helen.

Yadira: You have to be aware of the personal conflicts among the kids, use a little psychology.  We have moments when we’re unprepared and conflicts arise that are repeated.  We try to find solutions, to see which will work.  These are two girls with strong characters and they’ve never gotten along well with each other.

Ernesto: They were classmates.

Yadira: We tried not to focus on the problem, but to put them together to do fun things and it worked.  When we don’t know what to do about a conflict, we go see the parents so that they can do something on their own.

—–

SESSIONS

“We almost always go through several activities in a single session.”

1-Ernesto: A friend who was a stomatologist and who came a lot and played like any of the kids and her boyfriend organized a session called “The Tools of Stomatology.”  She passed around the instruments and had them give each of them a name and then explained the name that they already had.  They turned them into characters and made up a play with them.  A conga chant was created, “You have to brush your teeth…” (part of the song).  At first it was “Ay that’s scary,” but once you disrupt this it became, “Oh, look, this could be a puppy and that one could be the hook on a tow truck.”  Each one personalized their instrument without losing the perspective of Stomatology…

2- Yadira: One day we were given some fuzzy little colored cables, a strange ítem.  I took out some of them and they marveled at them and began to make costumes: crowns and moustaches and beards and we made up a huge theater piece with them and it was all based on… Ernesto: One element.

3- “An ant can have a belly/that doesn’t bother anyone/ but what everyone finds indecent/ Is to have an ant in their belly.” From the book Zooloco (Crazy Zoo).  “Hey, com’ere, look at this book, it’s so funny.”  After reading a little piece of that book the session came together in an instant.  Each group made up an animal that contained some parts of each one of the animals of the members of the group, like a cat-hummingbird-elephant-rooster.  And they had to draw it, make up a name and write a story about it.

4- Ernesto: We distributed words to the groups.  They have to make up a story that contains them.  Afterwards they have to analyze that story (literature) then make it into a play, and later, if there’s time and they want to.

Yadira: They draw the story.

5-Yadira: Ay, and the Russian Projector.  That’s one of those special things that we do outside of the sessions.  They sit down on the ground at night.

Dany: And since it’s with little tiny letters, the children make up the voices and the characters.

6- Yadira: Through the senses that apparently we don’t use: smell, taste, touch and hearing.  With the eyes covered, try to define what objects they are touching, smelling or tasting.  They make up a name, create a story.

7- Yadira: We did a session with a friend of ours who knows how to walk on stilts.

Ernesto: It was spectacular.

Yadira: The Monster”

Ernesto: He came over the day before and we made a costume out of cardboard, the body and a face.  The next day we began the activities, adapting them to the idea of a monster.  We have..

Yadira: a game

Ernesto: The expanding story where the children choose an idea.  We made a circle. “Let’s see now! Imagine that we are a monster.  What does the monster look like, physically, what movements does he make?..”  Everyone made themselves bigger, they got up on their tiptoes, and thrust out their chests, you know?  A monster… “And how would a monster walk?”  Everyone tried to do it.. “And now we’re going to walk towards the center of the circle like a monster” and everyone began to walk that way and when we got to the center.. “What other things does a monster do?  Oh, it eats meat…but how does it eat meat?  It eats like this and like this (chewing and grunting) Aha, Now we’re going to go back to the circle and we’re going to say: I’m a monster, I walk like this and I eat meat like that…”

Yadira: And all of this while walking.  Imagine!  A giant circle.  And we kept on walking towards the center and in the center we added other actions: “How does the monster sleep, how does the monster go peepee, and in the end it became a sequence: “I’m a monster, I eat meat like this and I pee like this..” walking into the center.

Ernesto: “I sleep like this.”  Afterwards we did some other games and then asked each one to draw their monster with chalk in the street, this was on the blocked-off street. We took out the cardboard costume so that they could paint it, “Look, this is a cardboard suit.

Yadira: For a big, giant monster.

Ernesto: You paint it.”  We gave them tempera paints and they painted the monster’s clothes.  When they finished and it had dried a little in the sun, we brought it back here.  Juan Carlos put it on with his stilts and and we kept playing that the monster was doing I don’t know what…and while doing this we led them back to the other part so that Juan Carlos could come down the stairs.

Yadira: Together with 3 or 4 friends we were helping Juan Carlos get out, “Come on, over here, now move over there,” all very coordinated.

Ernesto: When all of a sudden we said, “Look! A monster!” Imagine a guy on stilts painted that way with that face on.

Yadira: You couldn’t even see the stilts.

Ernesto: The littlest ones began to scream in horror, “Aaaaaaaaah!” (Everyone laughs)

Yadira: We didn’t know if we’d done a good thing or a bad thing.  You should have seen the commotion that exploded.

Ernesto: It was mayhem.

Yadira: Kids running all over the place.

Ernesto: They went and hid until we said, “Okay, let’s ask the monster if he’s a good monster or a bad one. Monster, are you good?” And When Juan Carlos said that he was bad, “Ay mama mia! And now what can we do to change this monster into a good one?”  Imagine that! That monster was bad, a huge thing two meters up there, and those kids running all over the block and him after the kids.  The mask ended in a point towards the top, like this (ha ha ha), it was incredible.  So we had to make a circle, do some magic, a spell.

Yadira: To make him good again.  We made all this up on the spur of the moment and then the monster said yes, that he would be good.  They began to come up to him.

Ernesto: And later we held hands in a circle and all of us filed under him, between the stilts.

The process is so creative,” and Yadira’s eyes glowed.

Following this we conversed a little longer and it was nearly 10 pm when I left.  I assure you that it was all worth the effort.

“Every child’s creation has something wonderful in it.” Ernesto told me with conviction.

—-

NOTES:

-Social Service: Two years of required work for the State in one’s field.

– Street Plan: Organized games held in the street. These are specific established activities such as sack races, hide and seek, prisoner’s base, etc.

Amelia Peláez: Cuban artist, now deceased

CDR: Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.  An organization whose network extends from the block level up through to the national, to which all but a few Cubans belong.

Matanzas: A province.  The other places mentioned are sectors of Havana.  The San José they refer to is San José de las Lajas, which is a town in a nearby province.



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