Stories of Ordinary People

Life for Juan Domeq, age 69, is a vicious cycle. He gets up every morning at 5:30 am and slowly hobbles to a newsstand to buy 50 issues of the newspaper Granma, and the same number of Juventud Rebelde. Domeq spends 20 pesos (less than US$1) for the hundred copies. If he can sell them at 1 peso each, he gets 80 pesos profit, but he doesn’t often sell that many issues.

“People on the street are not very interested in what our press says. Also, the clerk at the newsstand can’t can’t always sell me 100 newspapers. I usually sell between 40 and 50. Then, if I have a good day, I buy some fruits or vegetables for my wife who has been bedridden four years from paralysis; I must also buy milk or yogurt. The little money I earn selling newspapers is spent on food, and I have to keep my eyes open, because several times the police have fined me 40 pesos for selling the newspaper without a license,” says Juan, a sad old man full of aches, who lives in a filthy tenement in the Lawton neighborhood of Havana.

At the same time that Domeq rises to buy the newspaper, Antonio Villa, 64 years old, physically disabled, wakes up and has a cup of hot coffee for breakfast. He goes in his wheelchair to the Monaco bakery, where at the entrance he sells bags (purses) made of nylon for one peso (5 cents U.S.) each.

According to Antonio, a person can sell a hundred nylon purses for 35 pesos. “Selling bags usually takes between 10 and 12 hours a day. Sometimes I have a good day and manage to sell 200 bags, but I usually sell only 80 or 90. With what I get — between 65 to 120 pesos (about 3 to $5) — I buy food and save some pennies to pay a woman who washes my clothes. The police have taken me to the station many times, and in addition to fining me they have confiscated my bags. But when they set me free, I go back to the only thing I can do to earn an honest living,” says Antonio, a black man who lost a leg during the war in Angola in 1987, and lives in a wooden shack with an aluminum roof.

Also not having much luck trying to scrounge a handful of pesos, Clara Rojas, age 70, old, dirty, and poorly dressed, lives in a decrepit nursing home in the La Vibora neighborhood. Clara sells cigarettes at retail. “In the home they give us lunch and dinner, but so poorly prepared that many old people who live there prefer to find some money on our own and eat in the street.”

After spending 14 hours selling cigarettes, the money earned her enough to eat a serving of rice, pea soup, and an unidentified fish full of bones, in a state joint where the prices are low. With a full stomach, she returns to the rest home to sleep.

Juan, Antonio, and Clara are three old people burdened with infirmities, with mild senile dementia, and without a family to care for them. They have to perform miracles to survive in the harsh conditions of Cuban socialism. And they are not unique.

Iván García

Translated by Marlise Lohmann and Tomás A.