She Works at the Havana Garbage Dump

By Irina Echarry

Is she accustomed or just resigned to so much filth?
Is she accustomed or just resigned to so much filth?

HAVANA TIMES, Jan. 30 — I discovered her during a recent visit to the 100th Street dump here in Havana.  Silent, concentrating on her work, she walks atop the garbage with confidence, like someone who knows the terrain well and therefore where to step.  With her boots, handkerchief on her head to protect from the sun, and her gloves on her hands to hold her sack, this woman risks her life and those of her children on a daily basis.

Is she accustomed or just resigned to so much filth?  Is she irresponsible or intrepid?  How can we judge someone we don’t know?  I asked the following questions to learn more about her.

How much time do you spend here daily?

It depends, if I get here in the morning I’ll stay four or five hours.

Do you work for yourself?


What do you search for?

Raw materials, so I can then sell them to the government.

Does anyone bother you for coming here?

Yeah, “the Brigade.”

What’s that?  What’s “the Brigade”?

They call it “the Brigade.”  It’s the police who come through here, and if you’re not legal they can give you a fine of between 150 and 300 pesos (between $7 and $14 USD).

What do you mean by “legal”?  Is that when someone works for the city?

It means that if you’re a dump worker you can be here.   But not all the city workers can do this work.

And now with the government issuing raw material collector licenses, will that help you?

I want to take one out, but even if I get a license I can’t work up here on the dump.

That means that with a license you can’t look for raw materials wherever you want?

Wherever you want except here.

Why not here?  What did they tell you?

They say I might spread epidemics.

Aren’t  they right?   It is very dangerous.

Yeah, but it’s here where people throw away a lot of stuff.

It’s a dump… walking towards here, on top of the garbage we saw hospital waste, broken caskets…

Yeah, there are thousands of things.

Materials from coffins.
Materials from coffins.

How long have you been doing this?

More than five years.

Have you had any problems?  I mean has the Brigade bothered you?  Have you gotten sick?

One time they gave me a 150 peso fine.  You have to run if the Brigade comes.

Run where if all around is open ground?

You run here or there, wherever you can so that they don’t catch you.

When they caught you did they offer you any work alternative so that you wouldn’t continue coming here?

No, what they said was that I couldn’t come up here because I could catch and spread diseases.

Do you haul those full sacks by yourself?

Yep, just like everybody else.  I’ll put them over there, I go looking for more raw materials, seeing what I can use, and then I come back so I can look for more stuff, and so on.  I have to do it alone because my husband doesn’t live here anymore.  He’s in Pinar del Rio province.

Does the Brigade treat men and women the same?

No, they can put men in jail for years…six months or one year for being here.  If they’re lucky they’ll only get a fine and that’s all.  But if they’ve already received a warning letter and they still come back, they know if they get caught they’re on their way to prison.

Is the place where you sell the raw materials very far from here?

In Marianao.

Yes, that’s far.  So how do you do that?

My brother-in-law lives down here, relatively close.  I leave my things there with him and when I have X amount of goods, I take it all to Marianao.

About how much do you earn in a day?

I can’t say per day because what I do is accumulate a certain quantity.  I don’t go to the sales point every day.

Well, in a month…

I don’t know.  It all depends.  Look, they buy paper for 1 peso, but I don’t recycle paper.  But for tin cans they pay 4 pesos (16 cents USD), for aluminum 8…

Four pesos a sack?

No, per kilo, its by the kilogram.

So wouldn’t it be better to go into the city to collect cans that people throw away, plus those are cleaner?

Yeah, it’s easier, but there’s more competition.  Cubans are like that.

Garbage on top of garbage
Garbage on top of garbage

I was asking you that because you’re taking such a risk; you don’t even cover your mouth and nose with anything.  Do you breathe in this rot all the time?

I used to cover my face with a cloth, but it felt like I was suffocating.  Today it’s not that bad, but other days the dust is terrible.  When it doesn’t rain there are tremendous amounts of dust; I almost can’t breathe.  And when it rains, there’s lots of mud…

Do you get medical checkups regularly?

I’ve gotten checkups because I get migraines, but…well…up to now I haven’t come down with anything.

Wouldn’t you like to change jobs?

I worked for a while, but think about it…I have little kids and I’ve been coming here for a while.  I don’t have a boss… Cuban’s are like that… you understand?  I have a couple of tiny jimaguas (twins)…

You’re not afraid that your jimaguas will get sick?

Up to now nothing has happened, and I’ve been doing this for a while.

How old are you?

I’m 32, but there are younger people here.   There are some people who I think were born here.  The oldest person has been coming here for 40 years.

Are there many women?

Today there aren’t that many, but on Saturdays and Sundays, yeah, a good number show up.

How is the relationship with the men?  Do they treat the women well?  Do they respect them or do they abuse because they see that they’re alone?

No, there isn’t that type of problem here.  No man bothers any woman.  Here everybody’s the same.  There’s no disrespect or anything like that.  A woman and a man are the same.  They might both be criminals or delinquents, but each one minds their own business.  They don’t come here to waste time.  I’ve sometimes stayed here late, after sundown, but up to now nothing has happened.

What about those tubes that are buried over there?

That’s biogas.  The plant is farther away, over that way.  This is the buried garbage.

And this garbage where we’re standing…  Do they treat it at all, or do they just bury it like that?

No, what they do is what you see over there, which they do with a bulldozer.  They level it to a certain height that they consider appropriate and then they take it somewhere else.  Maybe over here on the side, and then they do the same thing.  This is not firm land, so sometimes you step in places and it collapses.  They level it and they wait for it to settle…for it to sink.  Meanwhile they go other places to level areas and later they return and so on.  But I haven’t seen them cover anything with dirt; it’s garbage on top of garbage.  When it rains they work in easier places so they don’t turnover or get stuck.

Thank you for your words.  Try to put on something over your face, don’t settle for just gloves.  You can get sick.

Yeah, this is dangerous.

Sure, dangerous in all senses, and if you have children more so…

Yeah, this isn’t easy.  You might not believe me, but the people who’ve been here a long time have never gotten sick.  There are even people who eat food from here. I don’t do that.  I don’t eat anything from here.  But there are people who find food and cook it, especially those who stay here at night.  But even those people who eat here haven’t had problems with illnesses.

Don’t you do that!

No, not even if I was crazy…  What I do is collect raw materials, but there are people who do in fact eat what they find.

Well, take good care of yourself and thanks again.

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