Cuba: How My Compatriots See Me (Part II)

Yusimi Rodriguez

HAVANA TIMES — In 2000 my status changed, at least in the eyes of my countrymen. That was the year I took my first trip to the town of Trinidad. Whenever someone goes to Trinidad, everyone tells them that they shouldn’t miss Ancon Beach.

I was resting in the sand of what is known as the Cuba’s second Varadero when I was approached by a young man. He was part of a crew that was constructing a hotel there in the area.

In pigeon English he asked me, “Vera ju from?” (Where are you from?).

“From Cuba just like you, man,” I answered in Spanish.

That year I discovered that many of my compatriots speak other languages when they’re around tourists, especially when with those people who don’t understand Spanish. They’ve developed a kind of Spanish mixed together with English, German, French, Italian or German words, the results of which are neither Spanish nor understandable to those who don’t speak our language.

Just three days ago I was on a bus and a man was talking on a cellphone within three feet of me. From his accent I assumed he was a foreigner (many foreigners have realized that it’s much cheaper, though uncomfortable, to travel by bus). Two minutes later, the man started talking to another passenger and he sounded as Cuban as me.

I’ve also noticed that my status varies. Every time I think I’ve lost my sex appeal (or the appearance of a hooker) because I’ve turned 36, a police officer will appear asking me for my ID, thus indicating the contrary.

But now that I think about it I can’t change the color of my skin (nor do I want to); therefore it’s always possible for me to be taken as a prostitute.

However even with dark skin one can be a foreigner. This possibility is especially evident when I walk through Old Havana with my camera in hand.

My countrymen will come up to me so attentively, smiling, with their mimicry and attempts at other languages, although some can piece together broken English or French. Then too, others speak these languages almost perfectly, making me almost embarrassed to point out their error in mistaking me.

Few things disappoint Cubans (who are so used to disappointment) more than discovering that the person who they’ve taken for a foreigner — and therefore represented the possibility of a gift or a tip for taking them to a private restaurant — is just another Cuban struggling to get by. In a matter of seconds you go from being a godsend to a waste of time.

Sometimes I go to Old Havana to take pictures with my digital camera. I especially love photographing people. Those who appear in the shots either act with indifference in front of the camera or they behave as friendly compatriots, naive perhaps, not expecting anything in return, proud that someone was interested in photographing them.

Some can’t help but to take me for a tourist and they feel sad for me when they find out I’m just one more of them.

Those who I don’t take pictures of are the ones who make their livings from getting their pictures taken. They charge for those shots; some have licenses. The price they charge for each photo is equivalent to between one and two dollars, which is ten or twenty percent of the monthly wage of a government worker.

I don’t have any money, at least not enough to pay for taking pictures of them. That occupation (now legal) is fairly recent. It is part of the updating of our “socialist” model, which according to our president will occur “slowly but surely.”

We Cubans haven’t been able to take many breaks; instead, we’ve had to move pretty much in a hurry to find ways to survive.

In 2004, I went to the beach with a friend. This guy is so attractive that he makes me jealous. Since all the foreigners kept trying to photograph him, he demanded money: “No money, no photo,” and he stayed alert to anyone trying to sneak a shot of him.

Now the government has noted that people can make their livings being photographed by tourists – and pay taxes on that income, incidentally. In fact, they can live better than many people who have government jobs.

One of these individuals who I wanted to photograph was a Rastafarian, but I didn’t have enough money. “Why should I let you take my picture for free? I need to buy clothes and shoes like everyone else. Plus, I don’t know what you’re going to do with that picture,” he responded. And he was right.

Last year I was sitting in the Plaza de Armas and a group of foreign women stopped to take a photograph of me. I was so surprised that I couldn’t manage to move or say anything. I can only wonder whatever became of that photo.

It didn’t occur to me before, but foreigners pay for each souvenir they get here. Why should my compatriots let them take their portraits for free?

At the same time, I think one convertible peso doesn’t represent the same thing to me as it does to a foreigner, but taking a picture of someone isn’t a basic necessity. If I want to pamper myself with that luxury, I need to pay for it – although I’m not the foreigner that many compatriots think I am.

See part one How de my compatriots see me (part one) 

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One thought on “Cuba: How My Compatriots See Me (Part II)

  • I confess to being a clueless tourist in Old Havana. Wandering through the streets, I saw a very old woman smoking a very large cigar, so I took a photograph of her and carried on walking. Less than a minute later, I felt a tug on my jacket and turned around to see this same old woman now berating me in Spanish; I blush to think what she was saying. The one word I recognized was “peso” and it suddenly dawned on me she expected to be paid for the privilege of taking her photo. I apologized profusely and gave her a peso, which she took quickly and then turned away muttering something.

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