By Pedro P. Morejon
HAVANA TIMES – I still remember that morning of the first day of the school year, in September 1986. I felt good, waiting for the bus that would take me to the junior high school (7th-9th grade) in the Sandino municipality, over 80 kms from my home, in Pinar del Rio province as well. To tell you the truth, I had been waiting for months to go to junior high, and if it were a boarding school, even better. That meant leaving home, being free and independent. In short, becoming a man. I was happy with my blue uniform.
I told my mom, “You don’t have to come see me. I’m a man.”
She smiled, gave me a kiss and I got on the bus.
I arrived at the high school and I was dazzled by the two buildings that were connected by a main corridor on the ground and second floor. We were given an introduction and then taken to our rooms. I was given the top of what I would see for the first time in my life: a bunkbed.
At nighttime, just before the lights went out, about 5 boys came in, much bigger than me. They were in 9th grade, some of them already and had moustaches. They had a threatening way of walking and they had a menacing and mocking look in their eyes. I was afraid in a way I had never been afraid before, afraid of being beaten, robbed, or worse still.
It wasn’t like the quarrels we had back on the block with kids my own age, it had more of a prison atmosphere and my only jail references were from Cuco, an old former inmate who used to tell us his stories.
When the lights went out, I heard beatings, cries and people running down the corridor. The result: two kids were beaten up and some sheets had been taken. That’s when I discovered that boarding school wasn’t a paradise, and that I would have to fight for food, water, space and respect, if I wanted to survive and not live in hell.
A normal day meant waking up at 6 AM, washing with cold water, making the bed, going to have breakfast which was a glass of milk and a bit of bread with rancid butter, always the same. A morning assembly when we were told what we had to do, what to say, how to behave and who to believe in, who the goodies and baddies were in this movie.
By 7:30 AM and I was already out in the middle of a grapefruit field, with a machete and a hoe, and we had to weed around X amount of trees, which I was always unable to meet because I was very slim and I wasn’t even 12 yet, plus I had never worked the land in my life and my hands were full of blisters and hurt, which meant that I was always targeted, criticized and threatened with not having a pass in the dreaded performance review.
All of that used to make me want to cry and I missed my home and my family and friends, but I had to act like a man and not be a rajado (weak). I’d return to the building at 11 AM, afraid that my sheet on the mattress would be gone, or that something else of mine would have been stolen and would go without any punishment. I’d have a shower with cold water, it didn’t matter if it was January, and be grateful because sometimes, although just a couple of times, the water would cut out and you’d still be covered in soap and have to come out.
Then, I’d line up in the small square and wait to enter the dining hall. There were over 200 of us. We’d wait under the hot sun and nobody seemed to care. Lunch would come on a tray: a bit of rice, undercooked peas, a little Russian canned meat and dulce de leche or marmalade. I’d still be hungry, just like I would be at dinnertime. Then, in formation, we’d have some educational bla bla bla from the director or a board member, all under Cuba’s scorching sun.
“Cuba’s sun doesn’t burn.”
That’s a phrase that some pains in the asses would attribute to the Apostle, and who I began to hate, in my ignorance, not knowing that poor Jose Marti wasn’t to blame and that this wasn’t what he dreamed of, but I didn’t know that then. Of course, I was told very little about Marti, I was taught that he was anti-US because he said, “I lived in the belly of the beast” or “the turgid and brutal north.” I was told more about Marx, Engels and Lenin in Political Foundation classes… and Fidel, of course.
[After the morning in the fields] I’d go to class, have a snack at 3 PM, which was almost always biscuits or a bit of dry bread, which would at least stave off a teenager’s relentless hunger for a short while. At 5:30 PM, I’d head back to the residence, worried, hoping that none of my belongings would have been stolen, or that a bully would be waiting on my bed looking for trouble. At that time, the sun would be setting and that’s when I would miss my home.
Another assembly, dinner, a bit better than lunch, but I would still be hungry, although it wasn’t completely bad. The country was being subsidized by the former Soviet Union at that time. But, we were still hungry at boarding school, so when my mother would come to visit on Sundays when we didn’t have a pass to go home, I would stuff myself so much that I’d have indigestion all the next day.
The evenings were for individual study and sleep or a leisure activity where girls would come in the darkness to “squeeze” with their boyfriends (boys like me, but more savvy), or with other guys from outside. Some of them ended up pregnant, and there were even girls who would sleep with a few teachers in a promiscuous environment, whether that was because the pedophiles seduced them, or because they felt they needed to in order to pass a subject.
And, things were still bad. They made Rebecca cry because she was wearing a cross. She was sent to the principal’s office, it was taken from her and she was told that if she were ever seen with that nonsense hanging around her neck then measures would be taken because that was ideological divisionism and it could cost her a place at the school. No tolerance for anything different, whatsoever.
That’s why when I remember that morning in September 1986, I smile and think: “Oh, how innocent I was! I had no idea what was lying in wait for me.”
I only came to understand it years later, when I was an adult already, and it made me mad: we were taken from our families at an age that is so important for our development as human beings, we were abused however they saw fit, and while it happened our parents were left in the dark.