General Raul Castro’s Plastic Bag at the Papal Mass / Juan Juan Almeida

At the bottom right of the photo the general-president’s plastic bag can be seen.

Juan Juan Almeida, 22 September 015 — When, before a crowd gathered in the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana, Pope Francis celebrated the first of three Masses on his visit to Cuba, in the first row was the elegant Lorena Castillo de Varela, first lady of Panama, and next to her General Raul Castro, and on his other side the president of Argentina Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. And, in the row behind, between the legs of the famous bodyguard and grandson Raul Guillermo Rodriguez Castro, almost hidden in a corner, the inseparable representation of Cuban culture, la jaba — the plastic bag.

Perhaps no foreigner noticed this detail. Reasonable, for the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language defines la jaba as: a dark stain on the lumbar region with which some children are born; a box specially made for carrying bottles, china or other fragile objects; a kind of basket made of woven reeds or palm leaves; and/or a bag of cloth, plastic, etc. to be carried in the hand. Of course, the scholars cannot imagine that the word jaba, in Cuban, has a special dimension, almost solemn, representing much more than any of its forms.

When the paper bag died for lack of paper back in the ’70s, la jaba became an indispensable part of the life of every Cuban, so much so that today it deserves a monument. It is a necessity that cannot be associated with a race, nor a sexual orientation, nor a gender, creed, ideology or level of intellect. Walking out without a plastic bag is like walking alone, like listening to an Andalusian tune without good company, like drinking non-alcohol beer or smoking nicotine-free cigarettes.

For some it is synonymous with poverty; for others, status, opulence and progress. An old and redundant joke says, “The body of any Cuban is not divided into three parts, but rather four: head, trunk, extremities and jaba.”

The plastic bag is used by everyone. It is the perfect addition: for errands; to protect your shoes in the rainy season; as an automotive sealant; as a hairdresser’s accessory (for making highlights); as well a form of payment [with goodies in the bag] for some workers in the system of state-owned businesses.

And, as shown in the photo, it can hide a Coca-Cola, the essence of Cuban change. General Raul Castro, putting himself on the level of the humble, has asked his bodyguards to bring his snack in a jaba.