Un-learning What We Know

(An interview with Ketty Blanco Zaldivar)

By Osmel Almaguer


HAVANA TIMES, April 30 — Writer Ketty Margarita Blanco Zaldivar was born in Camagüey Province in 1984, but later moved to Havana.   Since her coming to the capital city, in order to eke out a living she has worked as a vendor at the handicrafts fair on 23rd Street in the Vedado neighborhood.

HT: Ketty, for some people life becomes awkward when they live far from their birthplace.  Often those who decide to emigrate face a world that’s different, even aggressive.  How much did the fact that you’re a writer weigh on your decision to move to the Cuban capital?  What other reasons did you have?  Did you leave important things behind?

Ketty Margarita Blanco Zaldivar:  I didn’t come to live in the “capital of all Cubans” on my own initiative.  My mother was the one who always wanted to move here, I was only following her.  However, I have to thank her for that decision.  For the majority of us artists who were born and grew up in the inner provinces of the country, Havana presents itself as a city of great opportunities for one to realize ourselves.

Here, artists and intellectuals from all across the island converge, and that’s great.  Thanks to my having come to enroll in the Onelio Jorge Cardoso Center for Literary Formation, I was able to meet and chat with Nobel-laureate Jose Saramago (one of my favorite writers), in addition to obtaining access to Internet, with its massive flow of information, and my being able to get to know many other authors who would have been next to impossible to meet in my hometown of Guaimaro.

However, I did have to leave behind my friends and my grandmother, who I miss tremendously, as well as the streets and a trail of memories that still invade me on sleepless nights.

HT: How is Havana for someone who comes here only with the idea of improving their life?

KMBZ:  It’s a challenge.  To visit here is one thing, but to live here is another very different story.  Would I get used to it?  That’s was the question I used to ask myself almost every day.  I remember that I practically didn’t even know how to walk.  I was inhibited and self-restrained.  They would call me guajira (peasant) or say “poor little girl.”  I was cheated out of $30 that my mother had been able to save up so that I could buy a pair of shoes.  And I had to sell cheese.  It’s common for people from other provinces to come to Havana to sell cheese.  It’s prohibited, and if the authorities catch you they’ll confiscate it and fine you, and that’s without even mentioning the problems that you’ll have with your back from carrying so much weight.

I had to take on responsibilities and to work like I had never had to back home.  I lost a considerable amount of weight due to the stress.  The rhythm of life here is much faster compared to the provinces.  And on top of all that, my mother and I still don’t have our own place here; we’ve been paying rent for more than six years.  But despite all this that I’m dumping on you, I have to recognize that Havana has been generous to me.  Because like one sage once said, “It could have been worse.”

HT: In few words, defines the typical Havana resident for us.

KMBZ: Affectionate.  Proud.  Ostentatious.  A lover of their city.  A jokester.  To me my Havana friends seem to be brilliant people. Intelligent. Educated.

HT: Tell me about your work at the 23rd Street handicraft fair.

KMBZ: It’s exhausting work.  Much of the time I’m standing while hawking the merchandise, selling ceramic dolls, plates and ashtrays, but without learning anything.  Every day is as drab as the previous.  Also, there’s the constant flow of people, the loud voices of the vendors, having to repeat the same phrases over and over again, and the sweltering sun that leaves you lightheaded by the end of the day.  If you told me an intelligent joke, I wouldn’t understand for maybe 15 or 16 hours later, probably long after you’ve gone.

The wages are more or less what you get from going through all that.  In four days I earn what a doctor or engineer gets paid in a month.  In addition, this job saved my life, though when I began I was in a state of complete alienation, suffering from the recent ending of a relationship, without a single peso, and thin to the bones.  Everything that I wrote was foul, literarily worthless.  My mother and I constantly argued.  I felt that I was falling and falling to where I would hit rock bottom.  Sometimes I even felt like I might lose my mind.

The initial proposition for me to begin working at the fair was only for fifteen days, to cover for one of the vendors going on vacation.  I met the owner of the stand where I worked through her son.  He was a great friend with whom I lived with for a few months.  At the beginning, due to my edginess, I broke several dolls and was too shy to tout things.  But she was patient, and now I’m their sole vendor.

HT: How do you establish contact with Cuban and foreigners customers?  What anecdotes do you have?

KMBZ: The majority of people who come to the fair are well behaved, whether they’re Cuban or foreign.  A relation of cordiality is produced between them and me.  Sometimes we exchange articles.  I’ve gotten gifts from Spanish, Argentinean and Mexican customers.  Few of them give tips though; almost all they do is haggle, especially the Argentineans and the Chinese students.  Something nice that I remember is when one Russian came up to the table to buy bracelets.  He only spoke Russian, so everything was through gesturing.  He made his purchase and then left, but a little while later he returned and bought more bracelets and left me a tip…all of that without exchanging a single word.

The truth is that if there’s something I enjoy, it’s talking with the people who come up to the table.  They tell me about things in their lives, their cities, even about their families.  A few times I’ve gone with them to get something to eat.  The person who I used to date up until a few months ago I met at the fair.  He came by one afternoon to look around and we started talking.  He asked me if I knew Yoani Sanchez, but I said that I’d only heard of her.  He had come from Brazil to make a documentary on her.  He showed me his photos.  We went out for a week until the final minutes before he had to take the bus to catch his plane home.  I also met my current partner here at the fair.

HT: Would you like to continue moving around or have you now found what you’re looking for here?

KMBZ:  I don’t want to have to continue moving around.  The life of an emigrant isn’t pretty.  It leaves you with an uncomfortable sense of not belonging.  I come from people who need to feel they have a place they can come home to.  And when I say home, I’m referring to a familiar atmosphere: friends, scents, and especially the warmth of the family.

I left one years ago, and now I’m succeeding at rebuilding it in this city.  Although that doesn’t imply that I wouldn’t adapt if circumstances situated me somewhere else.  I would do it just like I did when I came to Havana.  But I like this city a lot, so much so that if I weren’t so curious, I might be able to say that I’ve found what I’m looking for here.  But life is vast, so the whole world wouldn’t be enough to say “this far, but no more.”

HT: Are you a person willing to take risks and without fear of the sacrifices.  How many opportunities are there here for people like you?

KMBZ:  I suppose there are many.  The country’s economy is concentrated in the capital.  The same is true with its opportunities.

HT: What messages do you have for the readers of Havana Times?

KMBZ: It’s difficult to get rid of what we know…to break out of our shells.  But it becomes important sometimes to move forward, to learn…to experience the most that we can of new situations, cities, and cultures, to make ourselves flexible so that we can learn and confront new things.  Everywhere there are astonishing and kind people who show us a slice of joy.

As the leading characters we have the obligation to live to the maximum, to be worthy of this adventure, to show ourselves how special we are.  And to do this we have to shed our skin, or yank out our old claws, like a sparrow hawk does when it discovers that the old ones no longer serve it for hunting.  Then we have to do just that, with all the risks this implies.  But in the end we’ll look at our surroundings, rejoicing, and we’ll be able to say with a smile “I gave it my all.”

One thought on “Un-learning What We Know

  • Beautiful article, thank you.

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