Cuban Filmmaker Carlos Lechuga: With My Emotions Below Zero

View of Havana. Photo: Carlos Lechuga

By Carlos Lechuga (El Estornudo) 

HAVANA TIMES – A few days before my departure, I chose to freeze my emotions, keeping them below zero, as that Reggaeton song says. I put an ice skeleton between my chest and the outside of me, in order not to feel. I kept myself anaesthetized. I couldn’t allow myself any kind of emotion, because if I did, it wouldn’t let me get on the airplane.

I was possessed by two contradictory sensations. It hurt me greatly to leave my mother behind, and at the same time, I was even more frightened that I wouldn’t be allowed to leave the country. That paranoia increased, and the news I got on my cellphone didn’t help at all.

Day by day, my group of friends, plus alcohol, helped me not to think much. Swallowing rum and beer (at astronomical prices) was the only way to survive.

A few years ago, a fortuneteller read my cards and told me I was marked with the sign of a wanderer, a beggar. The woman saw me going up and down, dragging a suitcase, with no home or secure roof – like old St. Lazarus. That was going to be my future: wandering from here to there without rest.

Now the moment to leave had arrived. If I remained on the island, the only thing that awaited me was misery, misery, misery. Those three repetitions of the word came out of my consultation with the fortuneteller.

My mother paced back and forth along the hallway, with the desire to give me a hug or a kiss. I had a tremendous urge to kiss her and embrace her myself, but I couldn’t. Seconds before doing so, I stopped myself and bent my head so that she was the one to give the kiss. I had to be careful of my heart. I couldn’t let myself go, because if I did, things were going to get more complicated.

Knowing I couldn’t spend a lot of time at home, I headed out to the street. I went to 23rd Avenue [in Havana] an hour before the agreed-upon meeting time and stood there, watching people go by. As if I were a foreigner, or an alien from another planet. I watched the passers-by with astonishment, not feeling identified with anything or anybody. It all seemed unrelated to me. Where were the people I knew? The friends? The lovers? The teachers from school? The group from the park? What had happened to the Cuba I knew?

When the few friends left to me arrived, I stuck with them, and we were off to get drunk. At night, I’d go running from the bar to home, shitting myself in fear. As if I had found myself on a dark and unknown street, in a dangerous country I’d never been in.

What was I afraid of? I don’t know. An assault? The police? The air? Everything?

It’s strange how times change. Years ago, my desire was to tell stories, make other Cubans feel things, dissect reality, converse. Now I only think about the last two very strange meetings I had. Two different taxi drivers.

One, without knowing me, spent the entire trip smoking and ranting against gay marriage. I didn’t speak; I watched him out of the corner of my eye. I looked at his pock-marked face and thought: “Why does this guy have to give his opinion about something he knows nothing about?”

The other seemed to think I had the face of an artist, or something like that. In the same way, he began to talk crap: that he agreed with the sentences issued in the July 11 trials [of youth who had gone out to protest]; that he himself would put any of them before a firing squad.

By the end, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. People like that really existed. That encounter convinced me even more that the audience I aspired to, the Cubans I wanted to talk to, the country for which I felt something, had ceased to exist for a while now.

They weren’t here. Or I had simply imagined them?

What’s the sense of making a movie? Of presenting a book?

How could I recover my innocence again, if nothing motivated me anymore?

I couldn’t imagine myself staying on the island and having to share a movie theater or a party with a guy who could be a repressor. A few years back, you might be in agreement with something or not – a million injustices had occurred – but now, there were kids imprisoned. It was a question of humanity. The country was finished.

A heartless elite build hotels and more hotels to leave to their children and grandchildren, while the country crumbles into pieces, between hunger, the need for medicine, the lack of hope, the repression, prison, the dangers of crossing the borders, jail, or exile.

So, a few days before my departure, I opted to put my feelings in the freezer – below zero, as that song says.

The black suitcase I had, square with little wheels so as not to have to carry a lot of weight, was enough to hold everything I was going to take. I carried my 39 years, my three movies, one book and completely empty hands. I threw in the colored socks, the old boxers, the two pairs of pants, the sweaters and the three coats that don’t keep you warm and I realized there was space to spare.

The mother of a friend gave me four cans of Cristal beer to take to the girl. I wrapped the cans in nylon and some clothes, so they wouldn’t burst open. Two bottles of rum, a book autographed by Dulce Maria Loynaz, Reinaldo Arena’s novel Celestino antes del alba [Celestino before the dawn], and a few things to give as presents.

A 1994 copy of Granma for a joke. The hard discs with my things on it, not knowing if everything was there, or what.

Some childhood drawings.

My mother wanted to go out to the street with me to say goodbye. I spoke harshly to her. I didn’t want any kind of grief. Everything was going to pass quickly. We’d soon see each other again. We went out. The wheels of the suitcase made a loud nose on the hall floor. The taxi was already there. I looked quickly at my motherand begged her not to cry. A little kiss. As if we’d be seeing each other in a day or so. A quick hug. I couldn’t fall apart.

I got in the taxi, and the taxi took off.

I tried to look out the window and find some emotion inside myself, but there was nothing. A block of ice.

I watched Boyeros slip by at high speed and I asked myself: “Coño! Why don’t you feel anything?” And I answered myself back: “Stupid, because it’s Boyeros, which is ugly as piss. Why would I feel anything?”

I reached the airport and paid the taxi driver extra. It was a kind of Karmic fine to assure my escape, or that’s what I felt. In the end, I was one of the lucky ones: I wasn’t trudging across borders. Or jungles, or oceans, or rivers.

I reached the counter, and the girl from the airlines told me to put my suitcase on the scale. I picked it up, and my whole body hurt. The girl looked at me and said: “37 kilos, you’re overweight. What shall we do?”

I took my last bill out of my wallet and handed it to her. She smiled. She handed me my boarding pass, and I went on.

I felt empty, emptier, very empty.

I concentrated on my breathing.

I was old, a little broken, and super Zen.

Ready to begin all over again.


“Carlos Lechuga, born in Havana 1983, is a Cuban film director, writer, producer, and author.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times