To Rigola I Shall Not Return / Rebeca Monzo

Two years ago, after a lot of red tape, long lines and pointless waits at Immigration, the Spanish embassy and the Plaza Military Committee, I finally managed to get the son of a friend — a woman who lives overseas and who had granted me power-of-attorney — exempted from military service so that the family could be briefly reunited.

Then, a few days ago, she, her husband and her son decided to come here on vacation to visit family. Everything seemed to be going very well. The joy of being reunited with family and friends helped mitigate the enduring economic hardship and deterioration of the country, which are very noticeable to anyone who comes back after spending time abroad.

The night that marked the return to the “mother country” finally arrived but a new odyssey had just begun.

After checking their luggage and paying the 25 CUC per person airport exit tax, an immigration official informed the couple that they could leave but that their son would have to stay behind because he had not yet completed his military service. Of course, the parents decided to stay with their son, but this meant losing their airline tickets, the exit tax they had already paid and the time spent waiting for their bags to be returned. There was also the anxiety and aggravation caused by the incompetence of the system.  Continue reading

Despicable Manipulation / Rebeca Monzo

Yesterday, July 28, I read in the Trabajadores ["Workers"] newspaper about the speech given by 6th grade pioneer Wendy Ferrer during the main event of a celebration in Artemisa marking the 61st anniversary of the attacks on the Moncada and Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Barracks. I could not help feeling shame and indignation over the vile manipulation that was so evident in the discourse read by this child.

To my understanding, the words and phrases used were not typical of a school-age child. If they were so, it would only be an even more lamentable proof of the terrible distortion fed to our students, a political manipulation that takes precedence over the true history of our country, and over true education. This is truly unfortunate. I believe that it is a civic duty to clarify for this girl, or actually for her teachers, some of the very sensitive aspects of her speech:

I completed my primary school studies — starting with a marvelous and unforgettable Kindergarten, as we then called what are today known as children’s camps — up to 6th grade in a public school, No. 31 of the Los Pinos suburb. Never, in our humble school, did we go without a school breakfast, as was provided in all public schools of that time. Nor did we ever lack notebooks — which I can’t forget included an imprint on the back of the tables for multiplication, addition, subtraction and division — or pencils, which were provided to all students at the start of — and midway through — each term. At that time, public education accounted for 22.3% of the national budget. There was also a private education sector, with wonderful schools founded and directed by great educators. Continue reading

What it Costs to Eat! / Rebeca Monzo

This week I invited to lunch a couple who are friends of mine.  I have among the more “respectable” pensions in this country: 340 CUP (Cuban pesos) — the type of currency which is also used to pay salaries.

I set out early in search of the necessary elements and ingredients to prepare for my friends a “criollo” [traditional Cuban] menu. They live outside the country, and I wanted to treat them to a home-cooked meal. Since there would be four of us to feed, I purchased the following:

Four plantains to make tostones, 10 CUP for the four; 1lb onions, 30 pesos; 1lb peppers, 20 pesos; two small garlic heads, 6 pesos; one avocado, 10 pesos; 2lb rice, 10 pesos; 1lb black beans, 14 pesos; 3lb pork steak, 120 pesos; one large (3lb) mango, 7.50 pesos. After that, I stood in line to buy one loaf of Cuban bread for 10 pesos.

As you might have noticed, a simple luncheon for four cost me “only” 257.50 Cuban pesos. My guests brought a bottle of wine.

The meal was a success and we had a great time, but as you can imagine, my pockets are wobbling until my next pension check. Now you see what a simple meal costs on my planet!

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

10 August 2014

A Morning at the Courthouse / Rebeca Monzo

After having had to find out on my own — and wearing out the soles of my shoes in the process — what and where the registrar’s office for my area was in order to request a certificate that, in addition to other documents, was required to have the deed to my house certified, I finally found it. The premises, located on one of the most intricate and disrupted streets of Old Havana, were dark and unventilated. The very precarious furniture caught my eye. There was only one telephone, secured with a lock like those used on suitcases to prevent employees from making calls.

Luckily for me I had kept an old copy of the document in question. Otherwise, according to the employee — who treated me very politely, by the way — I would have had to look through those massive books, their bindings unglued and held together with string, under the same employee’s watchful eye, something which would have taken me all day. The books themselves were not particularly old but bore the hallmarks of long-term abuse. Continue reading

Frida Kahlo / Rebeca Monzo

The daughter of a Mexican mother and German father, Frida Kahlo was born in Coyoacán, Mexico on July 7, 1910.

She attended the Escuela Normal de Maestros and graduated from the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria. She dreamed of becoming a doctor until a terrible accident destroyed her body, forcing her to lay in bed for many months and receive painful treatments, causing her to stop studying medicine.

In the midst of her dramatic convalescence, her iron will and attachment to life led her to become extensively self-taught in the arts and the mysteries of painting. She became an artist and took advantage of her knowledge to teach classes at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas in spite of her physical limitations.

Her first exhibitions demonstrated her talent, which she continued to develop and which culminated in a magnificent work, turning her into one of the most famous painters of her type worldwide.

She impressed upon her work all the pain, feeling, and sensitivity that characterized her life. The memory of Frida is inextricably linked to the great muralist Diego Rivera, who was her husband, lover, confidant, and greatest critic and admirer. In spite of a tempestuous marital relationship, art united them until the end of her life, on July 13, 1954.

This month, Mexico pays homage to those who hold a seat of honor in the plastic arts of the 20th century. I am also joining in this commemoration since Frida was a source of inspiration and presence in my patchwork art.

Frida Kahlo narrated her life through painted images. The painting of this great artist is like no one else’s. As Diego Rivera, her husband, pointed out one day, she “is the only example of the history of art, of someone who tore open her breast and heart to tell the biological truth of what she feels in them.”

Most of her work is unknown; it is held in private collections and by friends. The value of it grows each day.

Translated by: M. Ouellette

21 July 2014

There Is None So Blind As He Who Refuses to See / Rebeca Monzo

For several days now I have not published a post, despite my desires to do so and the nagging thought that it wasn’t getting done.

It is true that the World Cup robbed part of my attention, but that was not what impeded my writing. Rather, it was all the tasks that were piling up in relation to an upcoming exhibition of my works. Preparing for this event takes a lot of effort and dedication, as does the negotiating required to obtain adequate materials.

Even so, with all due respect, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the recent visit of Dr. Margaret Chan, General Director of the World Health Organization, and the statements she delivered in the University of Havana’s Grand Hall, during the unsuitably named magisterial conference. Dr. Chan expressed that, thanks to the Cuban government, our people do not eat junk food. She also praised the work of our public health.

I really do not comprehend how these people, who occupy such relevant posts in the United Nations (UN), take at face value the reports provided by totalitarian regimes, without taking the trouble to check the facts through other means and compare other data.

Most of us know that these people are hosted in our country by high-level officials, and that they are taken over and over to the same places, which obviously are set up for such purposes, e.g.: a certain floor of Almejeiras Hospital, the Biotechnology department, and the La Castellana special school for differentiated teaching, among others. In addition, the visitors are customarily taken down 5th Avenue in Miramar, and they never stop at locations that aren’t set up for these political purposes.

How is it possible that the supreme body that oversees all of these organizations — the UN — has yet to take the trouble to look into these matters more deeply?

Translated By: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

15 July 2014

God Bless America / Rebeca Monzo

My aunt is one of the many thousands of Cubans who never tires of thanking that nation that welcomed her and permitted her to safeguard the security of her adolescent son, giving her the opportunity to work and forge a better and more secure future.

Even so, since her prolonged exile, which began in 1961, she does not let a single day go by without thinking of that marvelous land where she was born, studied and had a beautiful family and which she never intended to abandon until she found herself forced to do it.

Within days she will turn 99 years old and still she keeps dreaming of returning to a free Cuba, although she is now aware that those who will enjoy that forthcoming moment are going to be her grandchildren.

Happy July 4th to the nation and people of the United States of America.

Translated by mlk.

4 July 2014

Sarasota / Rebeca Monzo

Map of the Ringling Complex.

I still remember with much fondness the circuses of my childhood, but above all the marvelous and spectacular Ringling Brothers, that would arrive in our country in December — in the early days encamping in the old Sports Palace on Paseo and Primera streets, facing the sea — and later, towards the end of the 1950s, in the then-resplendent Sports City.

Carmen, punctual as is her wont, came to get me at 5am so that we could go together to the meeting place from which the bus would depart that would take us from Miami to Sarasota. We were the first to arrive, even before the bus, because we are both like that, super-careful in meeting our commitments. Little by little the other tourists began arriving until the full group was assembled.

The tour guide was a “cubanaza*”- very amusing and active, with a great love of the arts – who specializes in putting together these types of excursions, all with a cultural purpose. And so, between storytelling, laughs and songs – including interesting raffles of books and small paintings created by some of the tour participants, among whom were writers, a poet and even a painter – we made this long trip which turned out to be most pleasant.

Arriving in Sarasota, the tour personnel provided us with ID wristbands and maps of this lovely place, so that each person could choose their companions and where to begin their journey through this grand cultural complex, a major attraction and pride of this city, which has been converted from the mansion, art gallery, theater and other property that belonged to the family of John and Mable Ringling, which they bequeathed as a heritage legacy, and which since 2000 has been under the guardianship of Florida State University.

Everything, absolutely everything, impressed me because of its grandeur and splendor, but what most amazed me, owing to its magnitude and level of detail, was the impressive scale model of the great circus industry that gave life to this family empire, whose spectacles I enjoyed every winter in my beloved Havana, up until 1959.

The family mansion, called “Cad ´Zan” by its owners — which in the Venetian dialect means “John’s house” — was built by the architect Dwight James Baum in 1924, in the Venetian baroque style, impressive for its luxury and excellent state of preservation.

Another great attraction is the Museum of Art which displays collections of the most famous European painters: El Greco, Rubens, Velázquez, Veronese, Gainsborough, and other great masters. The building is surrounded by splendid gardens, where the sculptures look to be enjoying the marvelous surroundings. We also visited the Asolo Theater, built in 1798, dismantled and transported from Italy to be added to the Ringling complex in 1948, becoming the only 18th century theater in the United States of America.

We returned well into the evening, satisfied and exhausted from so much walking and enjoyment of this well-organized and enjoyable excursion to one of the most interesting corners of this beautiful State of Florida.

*Translator’s note: “Cubanaza(o)” can be said to be a sort of “super Cuban” – someone who is almost a caricature of the Cuban style of speech, mannerisms, attitudes, etc. The term as used by a fellow Cuban to refer to another is often – as in this case – one of endearment.

 Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

16 May 2014

Route 27: Cattle or Sheep? / Rebeca Monzo

The heat was deathly, the Route 27 bus stop overflowing with people, from which we could conclude that not a single bus had passed for a long time. Asking one of those present, I was told they had been waiting for more than an hour.

I hadn’t been at the stop five minutes when I saw in the distance the yearned for “ghost bus.” We all ran towards it, having divined the intentions of the driver to not  stop where he was supposed to, which is a common occurrence. Between pushing, protests and rude phrases, I managed to climb the step, and at just this moment I was confused because the difficulty of getting inside was greater than I already knew it would be.

I’m sure I haven’t gained weight, I told myself, clinging to my bag, which I was wearing, as usual, hanging from my shoulder, and I put it in front of me. At that moment I realized that the narrowness of the access was because on both sides of the entrance steps where you access “the belly of the beast” they had placed some iron bars, like those used in corrals to guide the cattle into the pens.

Continue reading

It Isn’t What It Seems / Rebeca Monzo

On my planet the abnormal is normal. For example, when we go shopping — whether it be in those dark, poorly ventilated stores, whose scant merchandise is priced in CUP (Cuban pesos), or the well-illuminated, air-conditioned hard currency stores, whose somewhat greater selection is priced in CUC — we are met at every step with surprises.

A few weeks ago a friend who was visiting brought us some wonderful bread sticks, which had been purchased at one of the Silvain stores. They came wrapped in an enormous plastic envelope much larger than the product it contained. When I looked more closely at the package, I noticed it carried the Caribbean Queen label, an indication the packaging would normally be used for shellfish.

Last week there was a knock on my door from a “dark bag” vendor I know, who was selling lobster tails. They came wrapped in a plastic package identical to the one containing the bread sticks.

None of this is surprising. They are simply examples of the “details” we have been experiencing for many years now. We have become so accustomed to them that they seem perfectly normal. Continue reading

What Does a Cuban Miss? / Rebeca Monzo

According to the Larousse dictionary, the Spanish verb extrañar means the following: to be surprised, to find something odd because it is new, to miss someone or something, to be delighted…

Cubans in Cuba miss air-conditioned movie theaters and their weekly premieres that came to us “just released” from all over the world, including those from “across the street.*” We miss the cafes with their popular café con leche — so typical of Havana — accompanied by toast slathered in butter.

We miss the bars and bodegas where for a modest price you could get a nice sandwich or a delicious bisuit. Or a coffee for three centavos, which you could buy at almost at every bus stop. Or the equally cheap and delicious frita cubana, made with beef and ground pork, served on soft, round bread and accompanied by onion rings and julienned potatoes. Or the freshly-made hot little tamales (spicy or mild). Or the fruit smoothies called batidos from Chinese-owned stalls such as Navidad along the Malecon, where you would go to cool off on summer nights or to “chase the waves” as they entered from the north. Or walking up and down the Rampa chatting with friends. Continue reading

The Ghost of a Preventable Death / Rebeca Monzo

It is painful and embarrassing to travel along the Avenue of the Presidents, more commonly known as G Street and, on reaching the huge monument erected to  President José Miguel Gómez, which fortunately is solid and erect, to glance to the right and observe with amazement this enormous skeletal ghost of what was the Pedro Borras Hospital, the largest example of the Art Deco style in America, dedicated to health, a work of the architects Govantes and Cobarroca, whose work was similar in style and use, but not as big, as that found in Chicago, USA, in perfect condition and providing medical services, while ours is a victim of abandonment and government neglect, which has left it in its current sad state. Continue reading