Secrets, Longings, and Broken Walls

All photos by Nester Nuñez

Photos and Text by Nester Nuñez (Joven Cuba)

HAVANA TIMES – “Mother, here is your son, Enrique Eugenio Zayas Batista, offering you this money so that you can double it in the name of my godmother Raiza —Maferefún every day, Raiza— and the dead woman who accompanies her, who is my guardian angel, the one who protects and guides me and the one who keeps me in the place where I am.” 

Enrique Eugenio Zayas Batista pierces the tough skin of the pumpkin with the tip of a knife, careful not to hurt himself. He repeats the action seven times, with certainty, without haste or anger, and I wait for a yellow liquid mixed with seeds to sprout, as if the pumpkin were going to deliver to Enrique, as a sign of promise, of mutual pact, its blood and heart. But immediately I realize that guarantees are not demanded from the higher entity. Enrique has faith, he needs Her, and the clean and deep cuts he makes and that he opens more and more with the handle of a spoon are not wounds, but smiles: 

“If you give me what I ask of you, I assure you that I will give you a touch that you will feel throughout the city.”

At his feet, on a plate, there is a little bottle of honey and some yellow coins, worth one peso each, that is, with no real value, because with them you cannot pay for anything. They only serve for Enrique’s ritual. When he bends down to pick them up, he pushes his dress and holds it between his thighs to avoid indiscreet looks. It’s an automatic gesture, very feminine. The dress is a yellow that was once intense, with drawings of avocados cut in half, so they show the peel, the pulp, and the seed. There is one, for example, on Emilio’s left breast, a breast that once occupied a size 32 bra, but now is a nipple with not much juice because many years ago he stopped taking hormones: 

“I need you to keep this money for me so that nobody knows I have it hidden there. Like you used to do, hiding your money in pumpkins… So that neither Elegguá, nor Shangó, nor Oggún know where I have my money.”

There are 21 yellow coins that he pushes to the bottom for the seven smiles he made to the pumpkin. I wish it were a music box, that a melody came out each time, a cheerful song would shake the aged stone foundations of this house of everyone, or a tearful bolero that makes us think about the fate of the thousands of Enriques who have filled our streets in recent years.

Instead, he sees it more like a kind of slot machine, as if in a casino suddenly the bell rang and the coin he put in released hundreds of others, and more valuable. I suppose this is the pumpkin for him: a kind of magical lamp. Or am I mistaken? Maybe I still don’t understand how his Faith works.

“And when this pumpkin dries out, you will give me what I ask of you. Sure!”

He pours some of the honey into the palm of his hand and smears the whole pumpkin. Then, also his face. The black face, with all its wrinkles, shines. His eyes were already sparkling before, perhaps from the emotion of the ritual or because, inevitably, they reflect the flames of the cardboard and papers that he burns every day in a corner to soften the pair of sweet potatoes or plantains that serve as his food. When he finishes with the honey, he heads towards the room where he sleeps: 

“And now I’m going to put you up in the highest place in my room,” he says.

He carries the pumpkin as if it were an old and fragile object. It is the smallest one he found in the corner market. He paid 60 pesos for it. For the honey, 200. In total, almost 150 empty and crushed cans. But he is not thinking that 48 of them make a kilogram, which he sells for ninety pesos: hope protects him, which floats around him and gracefully ripples the faded dress he found where he finds the cans.

I see Enrique elevate his illusions to the highest shelf, smiling pumpkin, with the same attitude with which he throws himself headfirst into a garbage can under the afternoon sun, wishing to find at the bottom the necessary strength to continue forward.

The palace 

In the historic center of Matanzas, close to the City Hall (current headquarters of the provincial government), and very close also to the main shops, the Cathedral, and the most important park, the Sagrado Corazón de Jesus College of the Paules Fathers was founded in 1870.

Conceived as an exclusive school for boys, the education provided there combined the ethical values of the Catholic Church with subjects such as Sciences, Grammar, English, Typing, plus others related to commerce and banking. It had a Natural History Hall, a Physics and Chemistry lab, a library, and the Oratory. In the renowned school, studied students who later became eminent professionals and personalities in the city.

In the 1940s, the Marist Brothers took over the leadership of the College, until it was taken over in 1959 by the revolutionary government, which turned it into a Language School.

When Enrique entered the building for the first time, it was not with the intention of studying English or anything else, because for a long time a part of the left wing had collapsed, forcing the school to close. In the subsequent years, the wooden staircase to the second floor rotted and the plants took over the interior courtyard and the walls. Roots like boas lifted the floor slabs and separated the joints between the stones, and the woodwork of doors and windows fell apart due to termites and humidity. From the imposing building that had been the College of the Paules Fathers, only ruins remained. Among them, Enrique built his home.

“I had just left prison and was staying with some friends. I passed by here every day and saw people sleeping at night, and I said to myself: ‘I’m going to get in there.'”

He says that one afternoon he entered with his few belongings and without a word set up a cardboard bed in one of the most secluded classrooms. In that same place, he started cooking with firewood, in some old pots that he found thrown away. But those who spent the night there, including a Spaniard, he says, “were pigs, they did their business anywhere. There was shit everywhere.” He says he had to put a stop to that. He shouted a couple of curse words, which were not experienced even in the worst of prisons and demanded order. In the end, the others left and Enrique moved, victorious, to the room he now occupies, with windows facing the street.

For curious and sensitive people, passing by that street and looking inside is inevitable. It hurts to see the twisted metal structures, the walls torn like paper by a child’s hand, the cast iron railings hanging in the air. Even so, the building retains some of its former splendor. Perhaps the towering yagrumas, the old wood of the front door, or the designs of the tiles contribute some magic, or maybe it’s the colorful clotheslines that you always see in the courtyard. The feeling of the onlooker is ambiguous. It is like taking a glimpse into a parcel of a prominent past, and at the same time realizing the disastrous future that awaits us if something in this country does not change very quickly.

Without water, without a refrigerator, without a mobile phone, without absolutely any of the comforts of modern life, and surrounded by that bucolic touch provided by plants, dust, and disorder, Enrique lives there like in the Middle Ages. But he doesn’t feel like a servant, but rather the undisputed master of the place. “Díaz-Canel won’t get me out of here. He would have to come with the special forces,” he assures. “If they try to kick me out, I’ll go out naked into the street and start slinging shit,” he points to a bucket with a lid hidden in a nook, and it wasn’t necessary to inquire about its contents. “Where do you think the nickname Caco Tiratiros (Shit thrower) comes from?” It’s a defense method he learned very young, in the first of the five prisons where he was.

But now, in his own way, he is free. The slavery that represents in this country getting a little food daily ends to some extent when he enters and locks the door with a stick. As soon as he puts a foot on the first step of his mansion, he feels like the owner. Or, better, in his words, “the housewife.” The nails of his eleven fingers never stop being painted, but he disguises his femininity while he walks the streets, garbage dumps, and restaurants in search of cans. Only inside the old Sagrado Corazon de Jesus College, that of the Paules Fathers (Catholic and exclusively for boys), Enrique is all the woman that comes out of his guts.

One of the afternoons I spend visiting him, he walks through the rooms upstairs. The sunlight makes that same yellow dress more intense, which now looks like a cornmeal dish with avocados. Enrique has just finished bathing. His black skin also shines while he smiles and enumerates some of the treasures that still adorn his castle:

“Have you already gone up to take pictures? Did you see the graffiti? ‘I love you, baby.’ ‘Yunier made love here.’ And on the blackboard, there’s still a Portuguese class… Did I tell you that I’m a mix of Haitian and Jamaican?”

For some reason, Martí’s verses come to mind: “And your shoes, Pilar? Your little shoes of…”. But what is missing are the railings:

“And the railings, Enrique? The cast iron railings that adorned the entire balcony of the second floor, where are they?”

The language of extreme survival is different.

“I went to Camagüey for a few days to visit my family, and they stole them,” he says, shrugs, downplays the matter, and points to the floor. “And they also took a lot of slabs.”

In the same historic center of the city, there are those of us who have less trouble eating a little rice and ground beef and we should not judge others. From the depths of my heart, I want to believe that Jesus, if he is with the Father in Heaven, will accept that what was once a school for wealthy people is now the most modest temple of one of his most unredeemed and forsaken children.


In the three days after my last visit, Enrique threw away the debris from part of the patio, planted chili peppers, cilantro, and paper flowers in old car tires or buckets, and also decorated the living room with some very striking red plastic roses. A boyfriend he had discovered some electric cables in a corner of the bedroom and installed a light bulb that cost him 240 empty cans, and it shines less than an old chandelier.

But that afternoon he has a bar of soap in his hand, and everything slips off. He looks for water in a hallway in the corner. Six buckets are enough for him to cook, bathe, wash, and clean. He puts the drinking one in a separate tank. He is lying on all fours on the floor, scrubbing the soot-covered shorts he cooks with, when he says to me:

“Asere, call me Naomi, Karol G, Godmother, Caco, Charito… I have a bunch of aliases. You choose.”

The smiling pumpkin looks at him from the high shelf. Inside it are 21 coins—Enrique’s desires—but perhaps it also hides many of his secrets.

“Caco, can I ask you why you were in prison each of those times?”

He nods, as if from the beginning he had been wishing for me to ask that question. He sets the brush aside and looks me in the eyes. Before answering, he scans the courtyard with his eyes, just as a brick falls from the most broken wall.

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