The Incredible Story Of Sad Gabo And My Beloved Grandmother / 14ymedio, Manuel Pereira

Gabriel García Márquez with Fidel Castro and Carmen Balcells in the ‘80s in Havana. (EFE)
Gabriel García Márquez with Fidel Castro and Carmen Balcells in the ‘80s in Havana. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Manuel Pereira, Mexico, 3 April 2016 — One day in 1983 I took Gabo to see my grandmother, who lived in a tenement on Old Havana, at No. 105 Aguiar Street at the corner of Cuarteles. She was a Galician who had come to the island in 1926, the year of the devastating cyclone, the year another cyclone was born, named Fidel Castro.

I wanted Gabriel García Márquez to know the poor, to discover the other side of the moon, because I knew he was always entertained in hotels and protocol houses in Miramar, in Cubanacan…

At the foot of Loma del Ángel, I showed him the butcher shop of one of my grandmother’s countrymen, expropriated and turned into a dive; I also showed him several businesses confiscated years earlier: Cheo’s Juice Bar, turned into a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution; the bodega that had belonged to an Asturian transformed as an accessory to a rooming house, the Catalan bakery closed for good, the Chinese fruit and vegetable stand, transfigured into another hovel. On all sides, makeshift cinderblock walls, unplastered, with anti-poetic bars on the windows. The only picturesque thing left in the neighborhood was the clotheslines on the balconies.

The eyes of my admired writer – well trained by his long profession as a journalist – didn’t miss a single detail. We climbed to the first floor of the apartment building and went to the back, along hallways where in some places there was polychromatic stained glass already half-extinct.

Who was going to say it? A Nobel Prize winner in a Havana solar, a tenement, but my grandmother knew nothing about the Swedish Academy, she didn’t even know where Sweden was. Years ago she confused the famous Cuban writer Carpentier for a carpenter, and Sarte with some famous “sastre” – tailor – who visited the island. She was an almost illiterate villager who, on disembarking in Havana with espadrilles and a headscarf, had to bring up three children cleaning floors and bathrooms in promiscuous tenements.

We entered her home lacking a bathroom: a dining room, bedroom and tiny kitchen. My guest of honor looked at everything. She offered her rickety chairs and a broken wicker armchair. We sat at the table. Embarrassed, I didn’t show Gabo the malodorous toilets and the collective showers, which she never used, preferring to use a basin in her sooty kitchen, behind a plastic curtain.

My grandmother immediately took cold water from the vibrating refrigerator she called the “General Electric,” from ’58, with the white enamel now chipping off. She put on the coffee pot. When the kids upstairs ran across the floor, bits of the ceiling fell on us. Gabo looked at the peeling walls from the corner of his eye. He asked her about her daily life.

My grandmother showed him her ration book, and also her “magic box.” During the frequent periods of tobacco shortages she – like so many others – collected butts from the streets and then stripped them to get the shreds and with them made her “Tupameros.”

“Why Tupamaros?” asked Gabo.

“Because they are illegal,” I replied, and the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude smiled.

She explained the complicated mechanism of the “little machine,” which was like a dominoes box, where she put in the tobacco shreds and then pulled  a little stick that served as a roller toward herself, as if it were a spring, with a rubber tongue that pushed out the freshly rolled cigarette.

Lacking cigarette rolling papers, she used the almost transparent pages of a Map of Spain brochure the embassy sent out. But as these were also limited, she tore pages out of the Bible she couldn’t read, but treasured as a talisman on her altar populated by saints. She smoked verses from Saint John and passages from Ecclesiastes.

When we left and were on the street, Gabo confessed, “I would very much like to write a book about the shortages in Cuba, your grandmother making her Tupameros, the lack of domestic bliss.”

“It would be a magnificent book,” I exclaimed.

He was sad and added, “I would like to write it, talk about the blockade and its consequences, the imagination Cubans bring to overcoming the difficulties, but I don’t want to upset Fidel. I can’t write it, because it is a book that Fidel would consider an attack, I don’t want to cross him.”

After that, I no longer insisted. Each writer chooses his destiny. Above us, as it got dark, my grandmother was smoking a chapter from Leviticus and the biblical smoke wafted from her little balcony to the moon.