The Dreams & Frustrations of a Young Cuban from the Countryside

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.


7 thoughts on “The Dreams & Frustrations of a Young Cuban from the Countryside

  • Elio relates an anecdote about the young Celestino’s disappointment at receiving no gifts from Santa Claus at Christmas. The irony is that instead of Santa, another bearded and decidedly less jovial man did soon arrive on the island with his own list of who was naughty and who was nice. This anti-Santa banned the holiday all together, declaring that for Cuba, it will always be summer and never Christmas.

  • I suspect the average Cuban didn’t like the movie because of it’s avant-garde style. It is certainly a dazzling film and well recommended.

  • “Yo Soy Cuba” was a joint Soviet-Cuban production; although directed by Mikhail Kalatuzov and co-written by Enrique Pineda Barnet and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, it starred Sergio Corrieri (who died a couple of years ago). Most of the actors and actresses were Cuban (except for the Russians who played–LOL–the “Americans” in the nightclub scene–as badly miscast as the Englishman in “Zorba the Greek”). Still, with all its faults, it is a classic, alone worth it not only for its opening scene, but also the rooftop pool scene, and especially the musical number, “Loco Amor,” all available on YouTube. It was laughable propaganda only to those of the former Cuban ruling class who could ignored the sufferings of MOST of their compatriots, like the guajiros depicted in the film. Still, the film was probably not that popular in Cuba because in 1964 who needed to relive past misery, since it was in all too recent past. Rather, most of the Cubans at the time probably enjoyed another favorite of mine, the “Adventuras de Juan QuinQuin,” a picturesque tale of a wiley guajiro from the Oriente.

  • For the record, “Yo Soy Cuba” was a Soviet made film shot as a propaganda piece for the Cuban Revolution. While it is a noteworthy film for it’s innovative and avant-garde cinematography, the script is at times laughably clichéd. The film presents how the new rulers wanted Cubans to think about how life was before the revolution. Like all good propaganda, it mixes truth with exaggeration, and serves it up with a powerful dose of emotional manipulation.

    Still, the movie is well worth watching. The cinematography, editing, camerawork and music are dazzling. It is also available in English as “I AM CUBA!”

  • Thanks for sharing your story with us, Elio, and pay no heed to the chorus whose only repertoir is singing dirges. Despite its many faults–for after all, the Revolution was/is made by humans, not gods–the Revolution has made a real difference in the lives of so many who, before, were truly “the wretched of the earth.” There is an episode from the 1964 film, “Yo Soy Cuba,” which depicts the struggles of a guajiro to feed his family. Like your friend’s father, he, too was cheated of his wages (after making the lowest bid to cut a cane field). Although a fiction film, nevertheless, it told a larger truth of the injustices and misery of so many Cubans before the Revolution. I won’t carp about those who were born after the Revolution not realizing how terrible life really was for MOST Cubans before the Revolution, for such carping has existed in society ever since humans have come together (2400 years ago several of the Greek philosophers describe such carping). Nevertheless, those who know nothing about their history will be condemned to repeat it again and again, (like Sysiphus forever rolling the stone up a hill to forever have it slip out of his grasp and roll back down again). Still, I have confidence that the generations now emerging will be abe to make the required changes in order to continue the Revolution’s dynamism and make It more successful. !Hasta La Victoria!

  • Your story, Elio, reminded me of another poor child from the countryside named Celestino. I’m referring of course, to Celestino the poet, a character from the great Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’ brilliant novel, “Singing from the Well”. This Celestino also dreamed of a better life and eventually ran off to join the rebels in the mountains. But the revolution did not turn out so well for him. The Revolution eventually sent Celestino off to one of the UMAP camps, on account of his “deviant counter-revolutionary character flaw”. (He was gay.)

    You might not have read the book, alas. Because along with the vaunted literacy campaign many of the best Cuban writers were banned by the Castro regime. Arenas himself had to flee Cuba during the Mariel exodus, narrowly escaping the police who were coming to toss him back in prison. The value of literacy is greatly diminished by the lack of freedom of the press.

    So yes, it is good that Cuban children can go to school, even if it isn’t really “free”. And it’s a shame the quality of education has been steadily declining, and that even if you do manage to graduate with an engineering degree, you will make more money driving a taxi or waiting tables than you would at engineering.

    If you want to read the other half of your heartwarming story, try Arenas’ books, if you can ever find them in Cuba.

    (Spoiler alert: the Revolution does not have a happy ending.)

  • Stop it Elio! Stop telling the lie that education (and health care) in Cuba is free. With average state salaries somewhere around $20 per month, even Cuban economists have estimated that the Castros tax government workers at more than 95%. Education in Cuba comes at a high ideological price as well. The Castro slogan ‘University is for Revolutionaries” means if you don’t share the Castros’ failed communist ideology, forget about the “free” university education. Finally, it is clear you would have the readers believe that Castros’ revolution improved the lives of Cubans. The truth is that advances in literacy, expanded health care, and international sports came at the too high price of individual political freedom, investment in public and private infrastructure and social morality. The Castros’ “New Man” is a better read and healthier group of pimps, prostitutes, thieves and hustlers. Is this a grand improvement over illiterate and unhealthy? History will tell the tale.

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