Elio Delgado Legón
HAVANA TIMES — My friend Celestino was denied a happy childhood. Born in the Cuban countryside, his father had to support the family doing the only thing he knew how: working the land. He had to work someone else’s land, because he didn’t own any – that is to say, he sold his labor to someone who needed it. But jobs in the countryside were few and far between.
Many a time, he was forced to work for two dozen pounds of sweet potatoes or some pounds of corn flour. Other times, he couldn’t find work anywhere and had to head to the river, to fish something he could put on his family’s table on returning home in the evening.
As a child, Celestino couldn’t even dream of owning any toys. He would pass the time playing with bottles he would tie together and fit with a yoke, as though they were oxen. He began to dream of other things when, older, he found out there was a time of the year when Santa Claus brought children toys.
He would ask for anything, the simplest thing in the world, but, even so, such wishes often ended up in frustration, because his father could not manage to scrounge up the few cents he needed to buy him a surprise, a gift that would satisfy his childhood longings.
When this happened, he’d be sad for a number of days, refusing to talk to anyone, alone, trying to make sense of why Santa Claus hadn’t brought him anything that year.
One day, his parents had to explain to Celestino that Santa Claus didn’t exist, that Christmas gifts were bought by parents doing what they could, financially, and that their means, like those of many other families in the countryside, were very humble.
That was the end of that fantasy and of those dreams and frustrations. Others would follow.
Because of malnutrition, Celestino grew up scrawny and sickly. His dreams, however, grew up healthy. He would have liked to have learned to play the guitar, like his neighbor, who’d throw a party on his porch every so often, did. But, how could he even think of buying a guitar when the money coming into the house wasn’t even enough to buy decent food?
He also liked the piano, but the chances of ever learning to play it were even more remote for him. Many a time, while walking around the town, he would hear someone play a melody or simply a practice exercise and he would stop to listen, imagine that he was sitting in front of the instrument, sliding his hands over its keys.
Every time this happened, he would be filled with feelings of frustration and walk away sad and crestfallen.
Despite the tough economic situation faced by the family, his mother always did everything in her power to keep her three children (Celestino had two sisters) in school.
Because of health problems, Celestino passed sixth grade when he was already 15. He dreamt of studying at university, but crude reality didn’t even allow him to think that seriously.
He opted to study the only thing he could at night, to be able to work during the day and pay for his study expenses. He started studying accounting at the Vocational Business School.
What he earned sometimes wasn’t enough to pay for transportation, school materials, lectures and books. Sometimes, he was unable to go to class because he didn’t have the 30 cents the bus fare cost.
It took a lot of effort, but he managed to complete his studies. Despite this, he still felt frustration over not having been able to study electrical engineering, which was the one thing he loves most after music.
When the Cuban revolution triumphed in 1959, Celestino was 21 years old, a young man who had been involved in the revolutionary struggle against Batista’s dictatorship since the age of 17. The struggle, faced with new aggressions from imperialism and its lackeys, continued. One day, Celestino was offered a university scholarship.
It wasn’t what he had dreamed of, but he accepted the scholarship. He was paid the full amount of his salary while he pursued his studies. Thanks to this, Celestino obtained a university degree, the dream and source of frustration of his adolescent years, frustrations that neither his children nor grandchildren would never know.
Celestino tells me that, to this day, he becomes entranced whenever he hears a guitar or a piano and feels the pangs of frustration over having been unable to study music, his true calling. Today, all Cuban children can follow their calling and study what they wish, without paying a single cent for their education.