Sunday, April 06, 2014

La Habana

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales

La Habana. The noble Havana of ancient columns with rare and different designs, which now display a unique gray, the gray of culpable neglect and oblivion. The place where walls flourish while cracking and crumbling. City of laughter and tears, missed by many who are far and while many who are in it wish they could miss it so. What does  the traveler see when she walks the streets she doesn’t recognize or remember? Of what does he who recently left them reminisce?
Photo by René Timmermans. Paseo del Prado in Havana, Cuba.
The promenade of yesterday, the Prado of the dreamers, remains the privileged place for those who walk at night, saddened by "the nostalgia of the day to come," married to a beauty of which only vestiges survive. Every Saturday we walk in the footsteps of the previous one, and friends tell each other the same story, promise the same fidelity, and wipe the same tears from each other’s eyes. The quiet question strikes the temples, while clenching the jaw so not to pronounce it: where will we be in a few years?

Possessions are few: a few years in college, twenty five years of growing old without experience, some readings that return to us, embellished, a landscape that we have never contemplated, a childish craving for adventure. It is strange to remain tied to a story that has not been ours, feel the loss of a city that we only actually met through old albums and literary descriptions, but we love this plaza because it was Lezama’s and Martí’s, Cabrera Infante’s and Villaverde’s, the plaza of those who were here yesterday and yesteryears, and, somehow, that makes it ours.

Others, also young, sitting in any corner of what yesterday was an enviable construction, let themselves be killed by time, bored out of habit, getting drunk to not cry ... or to not wait. Often life is difficult, but they do not quit. They lay their backs against braced columns and invent a compliment to any woman who waddles in front of their noses, while the wife waits. The rest is dominoes, music and illegal gambling.

The elders get up every day at dawn, with the wrinkles more pronounced and the garments more tattered; they get in long lines at newsstands to buy newspapers to be resold, and, at lunchtime, queue up in dark taverns. Still there, clinging to a life that has been ungrateful to them; they idealize the past and have faith: there will be worse times!

Nothing is too terrible that they cannot find an apparent solution and although we wonder why a thousand times, people laugh. Cubans laugh suffering and suffer laughing; when the reality is very overwhelming, Cubans escape and laugh; when the problem is insoluble, Cuban elude it and laugh; when the radical solution is impossible, Cubans forget it and laugh.

Adult women are crossed by the immediacy and age in their own eyes in front of the mirror; their moods sour; marriages fall into frequent crises; children become more independent and challenging; and there are no more onions, and sugar won’t last till the end of the month; and husbands’ meetings suspiciously multiply; and the nail polish is so darn expensive.

The girls, on the other hand, do not seem willing to inherit from their mothers anything other than beauty; they put on their makeup and comb their hair; some search for a future in less desirable ways; many are alarmed because they do not foresee any promised land; do not think about giving birth; do not stop dreaming; they are perhaps irresponsible, perhaps superficial, but mostly indifferent.

Kids ask, wish, scamper in the rain and remain the greatest force of subversion. Perplexed by the new technologies, they yearn for computers and electronic games and lose their innocence when they discover that money is a fairy godmother.

Tourists look around without seeing anything. They cannot understand the secret spell of that magical city that contains mysterious challenges for each of its inhabitants. The streets contemplate, await and remain majestic. Ah, my city! Sure it's not true that every man is born with a map of La Habana in the head, but that's because we are not perfect. Always from afar, we send to La Habana the poet’s message: “tell her that I miss her when the cold is bitter, when nothing is mine, when the world is sordid and strange.”

Miami, March 1998.

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