I saw it today. It is in black and white, has little yellow spots on it, and smells like cockroach. I recovered a photo from my adolescence, frozen in time and already in Sepia color. It is a portrait of 11 young men, joyful under the effects of the poor man’s drink, alcohol mixed with water, which we used to buy for 5 pesos per bottle from Giralda’s house, located on Buenaventura street.
It took place, perhaps, towards the end of 1988. I had been demobilized from military service, and while we sat on the steps of the Vibora Institute, I celebrated the fact that I would never again have to wear that horrible and hot olive green uniform which was designed by some Russian sadist who apparently hated the tropics. Besides forcing millions of youths to wear that horrendous garment, he also made them march with heavy steel-tipped boots which were fabricated in a factory in Minsk, in the former Soviet Union.
From that group of eleven only three remain in Cuba. The rest have all left. Damian is now an overweight nostalgic. He works in a canteen in Manhattan and, while a harsh cold sweeps through New York, every night he dreams of once again sleeping in his house on Carmen street, at the corner of Saco.
Mario resides in some corner of Germany. But he and I both know how much he really loves La Vibora, his small country, his neighborhood, and all of his people. When he has enough euros he takes a flight toward Havana to ease his troubles, drink some rum, and cry at the feet of the Jose Marti statue, in front of the Institute, in the hot Havana nights.
In the photo, Ariel Tapia was young and very thin. I remember the moments we shared as amateur independent journalists for the agency, Cuba Press, surrounded by giants of the writing world, like Raul Rivero, Ricardo Alfonso or Tania Quintero.
I can’t forget the day when Raul Rivero asked Ariel and me to cover a story. It was the trial of a dissident from the 30th of November party and we were to chat with the guy and later publish the story. While we waited for the trial to end under that falling sun, Ariel and I bought a bottle of Caney rum, sat under the shade of a horrendous Yugoslavian technology building at the Esquina de Tejas, where the Valentino theater once was, and chatted about women and baseball.
When we returned to the court, the trial had finished. It was a true odyssey, the mother of the dissident was screaming for help at the top of her lungs out in Calzada of 10th of October and shouting at the cops. We didn’t give up. We followed the exasperated woman and managed to find out where her dissident son lived. The news came out. Like the pair of stories which we wrote about the hunger strike carried out by Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet in Tamarindo 34 street. Biscet lived in Lawton, the neighborhood adjacent to La Vibora, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2003.
More than twenty years have passed. Ariel now walks around Florida. Three of the other friends are shown in the photograph also reside 90 miles from here: Javier, David, and Frank. They watch time fly by in Miami, the second homeland of all Cubans.
There is another guy in the picture, but I forgot his name. And I really don’t know how he ended up in Tel Aviv, Israel. They have told me that he makes a living by planting oranges in a Jaifa cooperative and has converted to Judaism.
Erick married a Danish woman and has 6 kids, an uncommon family in that very tranquil society. As for Arturo, I have bad news. He signed up with a drug cartel in Colombia. His body was found in the bathroom of some bar in Medellin. They had cut off his penis.
Only three of us remain on this island of material shortages and poverty. Today, Fernando is a successful music producer who lives between the Mexican capital and his Havana. Frometa, a “jabao” (mestizo) standing at almost 7 feet who played basketball like Kareem Abdul Jabbar, is now 44 years old and is a regular at Cuban jails due to the most insignificant crimes. As for me, I write posts for my blog titled From Havana and for the newspaper “El Mundo”. It’s a way of keeping those ghosts of loneliness away from me.
That’s how a great majority of us have ended up living our lives in Cuba. With divided friends and families. Withering away by the heat of a slow fire, under a revolution that claimed itself to be socialist, and that years ago, many of our fathers, and even we ourselves, would have been capable of giving our lives for.
We belonged to an obedient generation. One which no one consulted about anything with. We marched towards the tobacco fields singing hymns under the agricultural reforms of the secondary countryside schools. Bursting with patriotism we marched towards Angola or to any other lost war in the African continent. No kidding. All of this to glorify the name of a man who only cared about himself and his life’s work.
But all of that was already lost. And black and white photographs, like the one I found in a box, are abundant in the Cuba of 2010. An indelible sign that our lives were lies. That all of this was a trick. A great big fraud.
Translated by Raul G.