From Habanera, a portrait of a Cuban family

habanera cover

The novel is available in Amazon here

Weddings, las bodas…The name conjured up visions of satin dresses, white flowers, Wagner’s wedding march and monumental cakes. But the “special period” had changed that too, scaling down the celebrations.

Newlyweds were allowed to buy just one meringue cake for their party. They had the right to a ceremony at El Palacio de los Matrimonios, the Wedding Palace where a notary public married couples in fifteen-minute intervals and a photographer took quick snapshots that didn’t always come out right. Sometimes the bride’s eyes looked purple and the groom’s hair had a green hue.

But Esbieta, my friend Sonia’s big sister, was marrying a rich Spaniard and things worked differently for them. The legal ceremony would take place at La Maison, the fashionable Miramar boutique that also served as a wedding parlor for foreigners. Pepe, the groom, planned to invite his friends and the bride’s immediate family to a reception in the La Maison gardens. (The buffet cost thirty dollars per guest so attendance was limited, my friend Sonia explained, embarrassed so I was…well, included out.) Later that evening they would throw a more inclusive party at the apartment. To that, I was invited.

La Maison

The three hundred dollars that Pepe gave to his fiancée for her trousseau vanished as quickly as ice cream in my mouth, drier than stale bread during that summer of 1994. Sonia and I went to the collar shops and bought cans of Spam to make sandwiches for the party, packages of Kool-aid, jars of mayonnaise, plastic dishes, a mixer, toilet paper, and a new curtain for their bathroom.

She invited me to a snack in El Rápido, a dollar-zone cafeteria that sold hot dogs, French fries and fruit juices. Once she even urged me to get a dress. They were on sale for seven dollars in Yumurí.

“I can’t take your sister’s money without her permission!” I protested, though one outfit had already caught my eye. It was blue, long and ruffled. Sort of old fashioned, but cute.

“Come on, Esbieta won’t mind it. She likes you. Buy it if you want. Or get something else.”

For the first time I dared to look at the merchandise as a prospective customer. Chinese sandals, Mexican soaps, Canadian coats and Cuban bonbons winked at me from the store shelves.

Anda, Longina!”

I spotted another dress. It was red, shorter, sexier… I wouldn’t ask for both but couldn’t decide for one either.

“Which one do you like best?”

“The red one.”

When we left the store with our “Easy Shopping” bags, I already knew I had made a mistake. The red dress was too revealing and Ma mère wouldn’t let me wear it.

But I didn’t return to exchange it. Trips to dollar-zone places left me in a painful state of mind: a mix of confusion, resentment and bitterness. Why couldn’t my mother and Orozco afford to buy in the “shoppings,” though they both had university degrees and worked hard? Was it worthwhile to continue studying, to go to college? Should I leave La Lenin and become a jinetera instead? I envied Esbieta but also pitied her. How would it feel to kiss an old fat guy like Pepe? Fu!

I swore not to return with Sonia to the dollar shop. But I couldn’t refuse to accompany her to the Comodoro Hotel, where Pepe was staying. She didn’t want to visit him alone.

“Sorry to ask El Abuelo for more money,” she said, not looking sorry at all. “But we can’t miss this chance. Avelina is selling five pounds of pork for fifteen dollars. A bargain! In the ‘shopping,’ they cost thirty-five.”

Comodoro Hotel

The Comodoro Hotel was in the exclusive Miramar area, so far from Centro Habana that it took us two hours to get there. As we approached the lobby, the security guards stopped us. “Are you Cubans? You can’t come in.”

When Sonia explained that we were looking for Señor José Martínez, they eyed us suspiciously and asked “what our relationship with that comrade—er—gentleman, was.”

“He’s my brother-in-law,” Sonia answered in a dignified tone.

The guards’ eyes opened wide. “And how old is your hermanita?”

The receptionist finally phoned “Señor Martínez.” Up close, El Abuelo didn’t look so ugly. He had blue eyes and a neatly trimmed white beard. But my first thought was that he should be marrying my grandmother, not Esbieta.

Hola, chicas,” he greeted us with a thick Spanish accent.

“We need cash, tío,” Sonia said, quite bossily.

“How much?”

“A Franklin.”

He opened his wallet and handed her a hundred dollar bill. I had never seen so much money before.

“Where is Esbieta?” he asked.

“So sick that she can’t get out of bed,” Sonia answered. “The pobrecita is coming down with something, I’m afraid.”

“Let me know if she needs to see a doctor,” Pepe seemed sincerely concerned. “I’ll take her to Cira García.”

Cira Garcia was a dollar-zone hospital where Pepe bought the PPG pills he used to regulate his cholesterol level, according to Esbieta. But Sonia told me that they served another purpose: cuchi-cuchi helpers for older men.

“Esbieta is at Guanabo beach,” she said after we left the Comodoro grounds. “I didn’t want to bother her now because she went with Pavel. He is young, handsome…and doesn’t need to use PPG! Poor Abuelo. You know, I feel sorry for him. He isn’t a bad guy.”

“But how will Esbieta feel when she has to live with that geezer forever?”

“She’ll get used to it. One gets used to everything, Mamá says.”

That was true. Hadn’t we gotten used to the “special period,” the scarcity, the cerelac?

“What about Pavel?”

Sonia shrugged and began to sing a popular Los Van Van song, Nadie quiere a nadie. Se acabó el querer.”

Listen to the song in YouTube

No one loves anybody. Love is gone.

The book is available in Amazon

The Coffee Spot—long hours, strong coffee and friendly staff

Eric Tate and his daughter Augusta 1

Eric Tate and his daughter, Augusta Kyna Nellie Tate

Originally published in Taos News

There are many reasons why The Coffee Spot has stayed busy and successful since Eric Tate bought it in 2010.
“One of them is that we honor our name by brewing good and strong coffee,” Tate said. “We don’t skimp on it. The small espresso drink has two shots; the medium, three, and the large one, four shots.”
Another reason is availability. The Coffee Spot is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., every day.
“We will keep these hours over the winter,” Tate said. “Eventually, we plan to have the restaurant open twenty-four hours a day.”
Their high speed Internet service has also made it very popular. Since The Coffee Spot stays open after the library and other public Internet-access places close, many students do their homework there in the evenings.
“I tell them they are always welcome,” Tate said.
Tate also shows respect for his customers by not “messing around with prices.”
“The price for a drink is the price for a drink,” he said. “We don’t charge extra for a mocha latte with caramel or for using soy instead of milk.”

Expanded  menu

Monte Cristo

Monte Cristo
The Coffee Spot has always offered breakfast but since Tate took over the place, the menu has expanded into lunch and dinner.
He has also increased the offers in the baking department, selling pies, krobars (croissant-donut hybrids) and fudges, besides the regular selection of cookies and muffins.
The menu includes burritos, omelets, salads, salad wraps, and sandwiches.
The Monte Cristo
One of the most popular sandwiches is the Monte Cristo—a French toast with roasted turkey, bacon, egg, cheese and green chile, served with syrup. It has two variations—the Mini Cristo, with one choice of meat, and the Mega Cristo, with everything that the regular Monte Cristo has, plus tomato and avocado.
“The Monte Cristo is my favorite sandwich,” said Tina Miera-Gomez, who visits The Coffee Spot at least twice a week. “When I feel like indulging, I order the Mega. Such a treat!”

Fast and friendly

The Coffee Spot has sixteen employees and there are always at least two around.
“In really busy days we have four,” said Tate. “You can rely on being able to come in, go through the line and get your food quickly.”
Years ago many people ordered their food to go, but that has changed.
“Now we have customers who stay here for hours,” Tate said. “Our staff is really good at remembering people’s names and preferences so they feel very much at home.”

Kids and dogs welcome

Girls working on their homework

Many children, like Tate’s daughter, Augusta Kyna Nellie Tate, and her friends Brianna Amber Lujan and Marielle Nizhoni Gomez like to spend time at The Coffee Spot after school.
“We study and play here, then we go to the park,” Gomez said. “I like this place because there are always good things to eat!”
At first Tate considered applying for a license to sell alcohol, but later he decided against it.
“Many customers have thanked me for not serving beer or wine,” he says. “This is a quiet and kid-friendly place, even at night, and people like that.”
Dogs are also welcome at The Coffee Spot. There is a fenced backyard with gates that can be shut so dogs are free to play and run inside.
“We only ask owners to pick up the dog poop,” Tate said.

A communal space

The Coffee Spot is opened to poetry readings, art classes and workshops.
Musicians get together and play in the backyard and street vendors pass by and offer their wares.
There is a consignment store in the back with jewelry, t-shirts and artwork.
The artistic cook
Food artist and cook Greg Preisch is also an accomplished painter.
He and barista Ren Geertsen started a collaborative art project together three years ago.
They have created several pieces in conjunction with other painters and clients with artistic inclinations.
“I like to have other people involved, like an art family of sorts,” Preisch said. “We are very lucky to have Eric as a boss and a friend. He has allowed us to turn the space into a little gallery as well as a great restaurant.”
There is one working project right now in a corner and anybody can contribute to it.
Preisch also made the store’s street sign and several of the paintings displayed on the walls.
“He has done a lot to create an artsy, welcoming atmosphere in the restaurant,” Tate said. “When I design the new menu, I plan to incorporate some of Greg’s work into it.”

Tate’s rules of success

Hire good employees, pay them well and train them properly.
Make sure that the inventory is always full.
Stay open when you say you will be open.
Advertise.
Have respect for your customers. Don’t cut corners or play tricks with prices.
Focus on the locals
Trip Advisors reviews show that The Coffee Spot is very popular among tourists but Tate makes a point of taking good care of his local clients as well.
“They are the ones who keep us busy when tourism slows down,” he said. “We have established a rewards program for them. And I have noticed that some locals come here every day, just because they love the place. We certainly appreciate their loyalty.”

Other services

The Coffee Spot offers catering on the side and some baked goods are also made to order.
“We have made wedding cakes and graduation cakes,” said Tate. “One graduation cake was particularly striking, shaped as a balloon. We bring coffee service to the businesses that want it and we also do bulk sales.”
The Coffee Spot is located at 900 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte
Phone: (575) 758-8556

https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Coffee-Spot/139452102761240

PechaKucha14 005

Storytelling show to benefit SOMOS and Metta Theater

Originally published in Tempo, Taos News

Candles

Writing is serious business, as most writers know, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun as well.
Lit Up Writers is here to prove it. The inaugural comedic storytelling event will be held on Saturday, November 15th, at 7:00 p.m. at the Metta Theater as a fundraiser for both Metta Theater and SOMOS.

The show…

is being produced by Carolyn Martone, a Wurlitzer Foundation fellow and Los Angeles-based writer, and will be hosted by local author David Perez. It will feature eight local authors and writers: Linda Michel-Cassidy, John Biscello, Ned Dougherty, Joanne Nelson, Gary Feureman, Clint Murphy, Johanna DeBiase, and Eric Mack. Martone will also read about her experiences teaching middle school in Los Angeles.
“It’s wonderful of Carolyn to organize this fundraiser,” said David Perez. “As they say, laughter is the best medicine, and comedy is such a crucial part of the written and spoken word, part of the writing craft, and not an easy part.”

“As a two-time fellowship recipient of the Wurlitzer Foundation, I wanted to introduce this type of literary show to Taos and at the same time, raise money for two very important organizations; SOMOS and Metta Young Artists,” said Martone. “A literary event dedicated entirely to first-person, true comedic stories has not happened in Taos, and so this is an inaugural event and first of its kind fundraiser.”

How it all started

Lit Up Writers began in San Francisco in 2005 as a live monthly storytelling show. Writers read true personal stories on a different theme each month, live in front of an audience.
“I was in the show in the fall of 2011,” said Martone. “When I moved to Los Angeles in 2012, I asked if I could use the name and produce the show there, which I’ve been doing since.”
In recent years, “storytelling shows” such as The Moth, Snap Judgment and Mortified (all on NPR) have grown in popularity around the country, Martone said. Many cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles have embraced the long-lost art of storytelling as both a literary and theatrical genre and the popularity among audiences is growing.
“As our culture has become more and more driven by social media and technology, so too has the need for community and shared experience increased,” she said. “Storytelling shows provide this shared experience. Everyone has a story to tell; not just writers and performers. The goal of Lit Up Writers is to bring forth compelling and comedic real-life stories from people from diverse backgrounds.”

A variety of voices

Eric Mack, who began his journalism career in public radio and spent years as a freelance contributor to NPR and working at tiny community radio stations in Alaska, is one of the presenters. The story he will read comes from one of his earliest radio assignments, covering the end of the Iditarod Trail sled dog race in a very “unusual and inadvisable manner,” he said.
“I nearly killed the winning Iditarod musher with my snowmobile, only a few minutes after nearly killing myself by accidentally driving miles out onto the fragile sea ice of the Bering Sea,” Mack said.
John Biscello, who is originally from Brooklyn, will read a satirical piece about how men and women meet in an urban setting.
“It has a Catholic Italian flavor,” he said. “It’s a bit raw and explicit, but very funny.”
Biscello has participated in similar events before and says that one of the best aspects of the show is the variety of voices that are featured.
“Here we will have Ned Dougherty, that was just named New Mexico Charter School Teacher of the Year and is also a great poet,” he said. “And Clint Murphy, a yoga teacher with an eclectic background, plus many more talented writers.”
Biscello is anticipating a full house so reservations are strongly encouraged.
“Metta has a very intimate setting, so the event will have a living room atmosphere, but it is going to be theater of the best kind,” he said. “Nothing can replace the energy created in a room full of people when you are sharing a good story. It is going to be a fun night!”

Tickets are $15. All proceeds will benefit SOMOS and The Metta Theater’s Young Artists program.

Metta Theatre is located at 1470 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte.

Phone: 758-1104.

Metta

A Virgin for Cachita

From The Astral Plane: Stories of Cuba, The Southwest, and Beyond

Astralcover300dpi

“Coffee is a great procurer of witchcraft and one shouldn’t drink it in strangers’ homes.”
Lydia Cabrera, El Monte.

Cachita

Martin poured milk in his cup of coffee and kept adding it until the mix became the color of Cachita’s skin, a light brown hue. The Chimayó Café where he and his friend Joe C. de Baca had stopped for tamales vanished and he saw instead Cachita’s room in Old Havana and her round, smooth face. Her voice also came back, bringing her last request: “I want a statuette of the Virgin Mary, the prettiest you can find.”
Martin had honestly tried to fulfill the girl’s wishes. Upon returning from Havana, he had looked over an assortment of Virgin Mary statuettes. He had visited the tienditas in Old Town Plaza, the Jackalope store and even San Felipe de Neri church, the oldest parish in Albuquerque. But all the images he had seen seemed to him too tacky, ordinary or simply amateurish. He was determined to get the best, only the best, for Cachita. She deserved it.
“What’s going on?” Joe asked when the silence became too dense.
“Nothing. I was just thinking of Cachita.”
“Is there is a moment when you aren’t thinking of Casheeta?”
“Cachita. I thought you spoke Spanish.”
“Bueno, sort of. I don’t speak muncho… You know what, man? You should just bring that gal here.”
“But I barely know her!”
The smell of the piñón coffee reminded Martin of the first cup of café Cubano he had drank at Cachita’s home. The memory of the curly hairs floating in the dark surface made a foolish grin spread across his face. Joe shook his head and ordered a couple of beers.
The Chimayó sanctuary was the perfect place to get a decent looking statuette of Virgin Mary, Joe had said. He lived nearby and volunteered to buy one, but Martin didn’t trust his buddy’s taste in art. Joe was a retired car mechanic and now worked as a part-time baseball coach at the local high school. What would he know about virgins? Martin preferred to choose one himself.
The tamales arrived, smothered in red chile and accompanied by a bowl of soup and two Coronas. Joe started flirting with the perky Mexican waitress and Martin sulked. A UNM literature professor, Martin often felt intimidated by his female students, more so when they were young and pretty. He didn’t know how to dance. Unlike most of his Spanish-speaking colleagues, he had never visited The Cooperage, the best-known Latino nightclub and restaurant in Albuquerque. Shrouded in yellowish book pages, hiding behind his computer screen, he lived a quiet, safe and boring life.
And yet he had won the heart of a beautiful Cubanita. He wasn’t as bashful as other people thought. Dipping a chunk of bread into the soup, Martin evoked again his recent trip to Havana. Like tamales in chile, his memories were covered in a piquant red sauce.

It all started when Martin heard about The Saints’ Book of Advice, a manuscript about Afro-Cuban deities allegedly written by the deceased scholar Fernando Ortiz and never published. The idea of traveling to Cuba in search of the lost book sounded like a Da Vinci Code plot set in the tropics and he embraced it enthusiastically. There was still another reason for Martin’s excitement—he had always admired from afar both the Caribbean island and its bearded leader, though he knew little about any of them. The Cuba he was familiar with lived under the rule of a Spanish Captain General, not Fidel Castro. However, he had adopted a few common contemporary Cuban terms, like compañero, which he used to address students and colleagues.
“Be careful with what you do in that God-forgotten place,” Ellen Cox, an English Literature professor, warned him when she heard of his plans. “Above all, don’t get involved with the natives.”
Ellen had been married for over two years to a Cuban guy who had recently died in a freakish accident. As a result, she had become depressed and somewhat eccentric, everybody knew that. Martin thanked her and paid no attention to her words, though, at that moment, he had no intentions of getting involved with anybody, much less a Cuban native.
He requested a special travel permit from the Department of Treasury, then called the University of Havana and got in touch with a Cuban professor, Compañero Gerardo Juan, who offered his help to locate the lost manuscript. Gerardo Juan had never heard of The Saints’ Book of Advice until Martin happened to mention it, but he didn’t disclose that fact.
Martin devised a tight schedule for his seven-day stay. He would visit the rural boroughs portrayed in the nineteenth-century Cuban novels Cecilia Valdez and Sab, the primary texts of a literature class that he had taught for years. He would tour the old sugarcane plantations, meet co-op peasants and discuss revolutionary politics with them and their leaders. He would stroll around Jesús del Monte Avenue, a Havana street celebrated in verses by a renowned Cuban poet. The Colonial Art Museum, the Taíno Town and the National Library were also necessary spots in his itinerary, as well as Revolution Square, where, if he was lucky, he could even see Castro delivering one of his three-hour speeches. Martin longed to experience life in the island. Cubans were probably less selfish and consumerist than his mall-crowding, crap-buying, popcorn-ingesting fellow citizens.

The trip from Miami to Havana was short and uneventful. An airport cab took Martin to the Meliá-Cohiba Hotel for fifty dollars, which was only ten dollars over the regular rate. The following day, when Martin ventured outside the hotel, the hot and humid air wrapped him up like vaginal secretions. Gerardo Juan was already waiting for him in a nearby park.
“The security guards will ask for my ID card as soon as I set foot in the lobby,” he explained. “It would take the whole afternoon to convince them that I am not a jinetero.”
“A what?”
“Jineteros are Cubans who do illegal business with tourists. They sell cigars, rum, Che Guevara posters, CDs… you name it. Not to be confused with jineteras, hookers.”
Gerardo escorted Martin to Jesús del Monte Avenue, a dilapidated and smoke-filled street where big buses called “camels” and a few old Mustangs and Fords terrorized the pedestrians by their utter disrespect for traffic lights. Strolling on the cracked, dirty sidewalks was out of the question. All museums were closed because it was a Monday. They would have to wait until the following day to book a tour of the ingenios, if there was one available, but Gerardo advised Martin to refrain from discussing “revolutionary politics” with the peasants, their leaders or anybody else.
“You don’t want to get people in trouble,” he said. “And you don’t want to get yourself in trouble. Remember that you are an American. Here, you’re the enemy.”
Martin protested indignantly. He had always had a high regard for Cubans, he told Gerardo. He even belonged to a Santa Fe-based Amistad de Cuba group, an organization that defied the embargo by sending money, medicines and food to the island. How could he be considered an enemy of its people?
“And how would you prove that to the political police?” Gerardo retorted. “For all they know, you may as well be a CIA agent.”
A CIA agent! Martin tried to laugh it off, but Gerardo remained deadly serious.
“Well, fine,” he said at last. “I’ll be careful.”
Gerardo also pointed out that Jesús del Monte Avenue was located in a rough neighborhood and that Martin looked just like the befuddled foreigner he was. Kids of all ages and races ran after him repeating “Oye, Yuma!” and asking for money, soap and chewing gum. Martin wondered if Yuma was a common Cuban greeting or a bizarre allusion to the Arizona desert.
“What about the Book of Saints?” he asked Gerardo. “When do we start looking for it?”
“Tomorrow, si Dios quiere.”
As it turned out, Dios had different plans.

As the day wore on Gerardo suggested they visit Café Havana. Martin remembered seeing it advertised because the nightclub was part of the Meliá-Cohiba complex. The lobby posters showed scantily-clad dancers, trumpet players in red shirts and sweaty drummers. Clubs weren’t Martin’s favorite spots and these people certainly didn’t look like compañeros, but, wanting to please his new friend, he agreed to go. Once there, while sipping his mojito, he suffered through Gerardo’s litany of complaints, which ranged from high food prices to the impossibility of obtaining permission to visit his niece in Miami. Martin couldn’t tell if Gerardo was discreetly asking for a twenty-dollar bill or help in getting an American visa, but he didn’t offer either one.
“This is the Cuban problem,” Gerardo said from time to time. Martin nodded, though the conversation was making him uncomfortable. Weren’t people supposed to be selfless and… well… not too materialistic here?
Café Havana’s velveteen chairs and vaulted ceilings recreated a 50’s ambiance. An old Cubana de Aviación airplane was on display surrounded by even older motorcycles. Benny Moré and Ernest Hemingway posters covered the walls and the place smelled of rum, strong colognes and cigar smoke.
A salsa band began to play. The vibration of the steel drums and the shrill voice of the lead singer reverberated inside Martin’s head. Intermittently, the drummer let out an ear-splitting whistle and yelled “A gozar!” (Let’s have fun!) Next to him, a bald mulatto managed to smoke a Cohiba cigar at the same time he shook a pair of maracas and stomped his feet.
Feeling the first symptoms of a headache, Martin turned his attention to the dancers. A white-haired lady’s partner was a dark, muscular teenager who could pass for her grandson. A Nordic-looking couple moved every conceivable part of their bodies, except their hips. Three young Cuban girls (a blonde, a mulatta and a brunette) danced by themselves under flashing red and green lights. Despite her well-developed body, the brunette had a round, childish face. She wore a sequined miniskirt and a red top that sparkled like a flying flame.
Gerardo ordered a ham-and-cheese sandwich, an omelet and a daiquiri. Martin was shocked to learn that he would take care of the bill—it had to be paid in Euros or dollars and Gerardo had neither one.
“Sorry, but I can’t use my pesos here, compañero,” Gerardo said.
“You mean they won’t accept Cuba’s official currency?”
“That’s right.”
“Why not?”
Gerardo mumbled something about “the Cuban problem” again.
Martin tried to cover it up, but felt he had been taken advantage of by his companion. He didn’t mind spending the money or paying for Gerardo’s food, but the way he had been…set up. He ordered a mojito and fell silent. While Gerardo munched he followed, as if hypnotized, the contortions of the brunette’s pelvis and the continuous rocking of her hips.
Two Spanish men, over fifty and overfed, joined the girls. Looking at their beer bellies, Martin felt proud of his trimmed figure. Had he been less shy, he’d have joined the hopping crowd. No one cared about dancing skills here; the Spaniards moved like drunken Labradors on an icy pavement.
At eleven o’clock Gerardo wove his way toward the bathroom. Martin sneezed and yawned. He was bored and the headache had turned into a migraine. He couldn’t stomach another minute of the salsa, rum and smoke mix. The drummer’s invitation to have fun sounded as empty as Gerardo’s daiquiri glass.
“Want to dance, Yuma?” the shapely brunette, who had materialized at Martin’s side, addressed him in English.
“I’m sorry,” he answered, “I’m not Yuma. My name is Martin.”
She laughed. Her caramel eyes glittered like her miniskirt sequins. “You American?”
“Yes.”
“Then you are a Yuma, chico.”
Gerardo came back and shed light on the issue. In Cuban slang, Americans were Yumas and the United States was La Yuma. It didn’t have anything to do with the Arizona desert.
“Maybe it’s a mispronunciation of the word ‘united,’” Martin said.
“Uh….maybe.”
The girl introduced herself as Cachita and told Martin that she was a masseuse. Was he interest in a good, deep rubbing? (She didn’t bother to ask Gerardo.) She would do it in his room if he was staying at a hotel, or they could go to a nearby house, where there were rooms for rent.
“Only fifty dollars,” she purred, “for two hours. A bargain, uh?”
Martin refused civilly, recalling Ellen Cox’s advice. Besides, the mere thought of the girl’s manicured hands touching his skin made him tense. As she got ready to leave the table, he noticed two charms that hung from a thin gold chain around her neck.
“I believe this is Santa Bárbara, also known as Changó,” he said in his best Castilian Spanish. “The other one is Yemayá, the goddess of the sea.”
“You know the santos, Yuma!” Cachita smiled. “Yes, this is Santa Bárbara. The other is not Yemayá, but Oshún. I’m a daughter of Oshún, the orisha of love.”
Cachita had never read Fernando Ortiz’s books about the orishas, but she possessed an empirical knowledge of Santeria. Her mother was a santera, she explained, and her grandfather had been a babalawo, a high-ranking Santeria priest. Martin invited her to eat something and she accepted. Her order was almost as big as Gerardo’s but this time around the American didn’t resent it.
When he left Café Havana at two a.m., Martin had spent one hundred and forty dollars and changed most of his plans. He wasn’t going to tour the ingenios, which would probably be as much of a disappointment as Jesús del Monte Avenue. He wouldn’t look for the manuscript either (Gerardo sounded less enthusiastic about it in person than over the phone, anyway.) Instead, he had agreed to meet Cachita at one o’clock the next day, and accompany her to visit her mother.
He said good-by to Gerardo after handing him two ten-dollar bills—all he had left in his billfold—but avoided making another appointment with him. “Hasta la vista, compañero,” he told the Cuban, and pretended not to notice the mocking grim that cracked Gerardo’s face.
Martin returned to his room, collapsed in bed and dreamed of Cachita giving him a foot rub, her Oshún medal dancing wildly against her full breasts.

Oshún is the goddess of flirtation and love. Honey, amber and cinnamon are consecrated to her. If you want to win a man’s heart, cut off five pubic hairs, smear them with honey and boil them in the water used for his coffee.

It rained before dawn, a potent shower that unearthed pungent smells and washed the sidewalks. Martin woke up at ten and spent a few minutes trying to understand why he was in that air-conditioned room instead of his Nob Hill condo. He finally remembered and said, “Cachita.”
The streets were already dry and clean when he left the hotel, at twelve forty-five. Just as Gerardo had done the day before, Cachita had preferred to wait for him a few blocks away from the Meliá-Cohiba complex. It occurred to Martin that she could very well be a jinetera but he rejected the idea at once. She was just a pretty young woman who liked to dance and to have fun. As for her massage services… well, it seemed that everybody needed dollars to solve the “Cuban problem.” Being a masseuse was not a dishonorable choice, was it?
This morning she wore a more conservative, almost modest outfit—bluejeans and a brown loose t-shirt—and greeted him with a shy peck on the cheek. They called a turistaxi, a cab that only accepted dollars, and Cachita gave the driver an Old Havana address.
“Petra, my Mami, is so thrilled to meet you,” she told Martin. “She likes it when foreigners know about our santos and show respect for them.”
Martin did his best to show respect for Cachita, too. He didn’t stare at her breasts, at least not as much as he wanted to.
The rundown house that Cachita and her mother shared with six more families reminded Martin of a decrepit New Orleans mansion. Built in the early 1900, it was the ghost of a manor. It had long, tiled corridors and an inner courtyard where someone had managed to park a 1958 Chevrolet that lacked the passenger door.
A strong smell of fried onions and black beans floated in the air. Many doors were ajar and, as they walked by, Martin couldn’t help but peep inside the rooms. In a windowless cubicle, a woman ironed school uniforms and a man stared at a black and white TV set. In another room, a young couple exchanged insults while a kid threw a tantrum.
“Tu madre, cabrón!” the woman yelled. “I’m going to cut off your balls and boil them!”
“These people are chusmas,” Cachita said, “really vulgar and crass. Most of our neighbors aren’t like them.”
A woman who had a towel loosely wrapped around her body (and nothing else on) stopped to address Cachita, “Mija, if you want to take a bath, hurry up. No water after four, remember!”
She smiled at Martin and moved on, her wooden sandals clapping on the tile floor and the flesh of her arms quivering like homemade flan. A man dashed by carrying a chamber pot that left a stomach-turning odor on his wake.
“Water comes in only for two hours every day,” Cachita said. “And we have problems with the bathroom, too. The toilet has been clogged for a month so people throw their caca to the streets, wrapped in old pages of Granma.”
“Granma?”
“That’s a newspaper, chico.”
“Oh, yes!”
“But you don’t need to worry; there is a urinal in my room if you want to use it.”
“Well, I…Thanks.”
“Here is my home, and yours. Mi casa es tu casa. Come in.”
Four life-size statues of santos startled Martin as soon as Cachita opened the door. Oshún, the mulatta Aphrodite, presided over an altar covered with a yellow tablecloth. Five sunflowers in a golden vase, five candles and a copper pot were in front of her. Toy ships, blue vases and pink seashells rested near Yemayá, the blue-clad goddess of the sea. Changó, god of thunder and battles, brandished a rusted sword and had a fiery countenance. Babalú-Aye, the orisha of healing, leaned on wooden crutches and had a plaster dog lying at his feet.
“Mami! Come and meet my friend.”
Petra was a dark, thin woman with tired eyes. Squeezing Martin’s hands in hers, she led him to a wicker armchair. It had been built for just one person but Cachita snuggled next to him.
“The santos are happy to have you here, Señor,” Petra said. “You may want to greet them. Cachita will tell you how.”
Martin had read dozens of articles about Santeria, but he had never been in personal contact with a practitioner or attended a ceremony. He found the six-foot tall Changó with his long, black hair and that realistic sword particularly threatening. To conceal his uneasiness he began to walk around the room, pretending to examine various knickknacks. A photo of Cachita holding hands with a sixty-something man caught his eye. The picture was next to a discolored Las Ramblas poster.
“Have you been in Barcelona?” he asked.
“I wish,” Cachita sighed, “but I haven’t traveled abroad…yet. My Papi sent me the poster last year.”
“Is he your dad?”
Cachita didn’t bear the slightest resemblance to the red-faced, chunky guy.
“Yes. He and my mother are divorced and he lives in Spain now,” she raised her voice. “Mami, why don’t you make coffee for Martin?” Petra disappeared behind a faded curtain. “And you, Yuma, sit with me.”
Martin obeyed. Sensing it was the thing to do, he put an arm around Cachita. She smiled and kissed him on the lips.
Petra came back with three small cups of coffee. So as not to embarrass his hostesses, Martin ignored the short, dark hairs that floated on the surface. Water was indeed a problem in Havana, he reasoned. In any case the Cuban coffee, sweetened with honey, was savory and strong.
He discussed the santos and their attributes with Petra, but not for long. She had to go; one of her many goddaughters had requested a spiritual cleansing, a limpieza, which needed to be done that very day.
“Don’t forget to greet the santos before you leave,” she reminded Martin. “They have brought you to our humble home.”
Once they were alone, Cachita offered Martin another massage, this time for free. His blood pressure rose. Cachita closed the door. Martin remained seated, with the empty coffee cup in his sweaty hand.
“Why don’t you take your clothes off, Yuma?”
Martin began to undress under the scrutinizing gaze of the four orishas. Changó’s dark eyes made him so nervous that he avoided looking at them.

Cachita glued herself to Martin for the rest of his stay. Ingenios and museums were forgotten and so was Fernando Ortiz’s lost manuscript. Martin didn’t get to see much of Havana, not even Revolution Square, because Cachita preferred to spend the evenings at the Meliá-Cohiba swimming pool or eating in the dollar-only restaurants, and he only wanted to please her.
She was also fond of hotel shops and had a weakness for La Maison, a pretentious boutique where Martin bought her a two-hundred dollar dress, a bottle of Carolina Herrera perfume and an exorbitant amount of sexy lingerie. His money evaporated like rain in the Havana streets. But what could he do when she murmured, “Only for you to see, my cielo,” and tongue kissed him?
The affair moved at dangerous speed. By the following Saturday, Cachita and Martin were engaged, or so she said. Martin didn’t agree, but he didn’t want to hurt the girl’s feelings. It might also be a semantic confusion, he thought. In Castilian Spanish, “comprometidos” meant “engaged” but it could have a different connotation in Cuba. She also said she had fallen in love with him the night they met at Café Havana. But there was more: in a Santeria ceremony, Oshún had confirmed her feelings. Martin was her true, her only amor.
Cachita swore she wanted to take care of her beloved Yuma, iron his clothes, clean his three-bedroom condo, and cook his favorite meals while he taught at the university. Martin, who had never received so much attention from any woman, hardly knew how to deal with it.
“Do you really want to live with me in New Mexico?”
“What? Mexico? I thought you lived in La Yuma!”
“Sweetheart, New Mexico is in the United States.”
“Ah. Okay.”
Cachita informed him that the only way she could go to La Yuma was by marrying him… and why not do it right away? He simply needed to ask someone to send his birth certificate and his single certificate (Martin didn’t know what that was) to Havana by DHL. Then they would go to a notary public and become husband and wife, just like that. The next step was to write to the American Interest Section and apply for a family reunification visa, something that Martin could do from his hometown. It would cost around four thousand dollars to complete the process, though the money for her plane ticket might be sent later on.
This was all too fast and confusing and Martin felt that Cachita’s demands were out of line. Fortunately, the week had ended and his cash had already melted in boutiques, restaurants and turistaxis. American credit cards, much to Martin’s relief, couldn’t be used in Cuba. Tears running down her cheeks, Cachita agreed to wait. Before leaving the Havana airport, Martin gave her all he had left—two hundred dollars. In return, she offered him her Virgin of La Caridad charm.
“I don’t care about your money,” she sobbed. “If I take it, it’s only because I need it to buy food for Mami and me. But I do want a statuette of the Virgin Mary, the prettiest you can find. Could you send it to me from La Yuma, amor?”

If you want the Virgin Mary to answer your prayers fast, take her baby Jesus and hide him. Keep him away from her until your wishes are fulfilled.

After lunch Martin and Joe resumed their search, but the works of most local artists made a poor impression on them.
“This one is too discolored,” Martin said about a clay statuette. “And that one looks like a fat Barbie doll.”
As the last resort they visited a small, unassuming store. Martin stumbled over a three-foot tall bulto of the virgin of Guadalupe surrounded by a floral frame. The colors were bright, but not too flashy and Mary’s face had a sly smile that reminded him of Cachita’s.
“That’s it!”
“Did you look at the price?”
It was four hundred dollars. Martin hesitated, but then the shop owner approached the two men.
“This bulto was made by one of the best-known Taos santeros,” he said. “Jesús Cortinas, el Chuy, who died only two weeks ago. Now his art will be ten times more valuable. You know, it always happens when Doña Sebastiana takes someone with her… Look, look at the virgin’s crown! It took him weeks just to complete it. Besides, the Chimayó priest blessed the bulto,” he told Martin. “I won’t mention that to every customer, but I see by your medal that you are a devotee of la virgen.”
Martin nodded.
“If I were you,” Joe whispered. “I’d send the girl three hundred bucks and a five-dollar plastic virgin.”
“But you are not me,” Martin replied. He turned to the owner, “Do you take MasterCard?”
They left the store with the bulto protected by bubble wrap.
“Now I have to think of a safe way of sending it to Cuba,” Martin said. “This isn’t a garden variety virgin.”
“You bet it isn’t.”
“The fall semester just started and I can’t go back to Cuba right now. But if I could find someone willing to take the bulto and… well, not spy on Cachita, but let me know how she is behaving, I’d be happy to pay for some travel expenses.”
“You mean the plane ticket?”
“Yes, and a couple of nights in a hotel.”
“How soon do you want her to get that overprized piece of lumber?”

Cachita’s home looked exactly as Martin had described it, except for a new Panasonic TV set that had now taken Changó’s corner. Joe stood at the threshold knocking on the open door until Petra came out.
“I’m looking for Señorita Caridad Perez,” he said. “Yo soy Martin’s friend.”
“Martin who?”
“Welcome!” Cachita came out and kissed Joe on the cheek. “Martin is my Yuma boyfriend, Mami,” she said in Spanish, “the shy one, the professor.”
Joe handed her the package, “Your virgin.”
“Gracias. Ay, it’s heavy!” she put it on the floor. “When is Martin coming back?”
“Probably around fall break.”
“Fall break?”
“In November.”
“What about the single certificate? Did he get it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did he send anything else?”
“Only this package.”
Petra and her daughter exchanged a rapid glance.
“Excuse me,” Petra said. “I have to run some errands. Come in, please. Let me offer you a cup of coffee, Señor, and then I’m on my way. You can stay here with the girl.”
After drinking a cup of coffee, Joe turned to Cachita and said, “So you’re an expert masseuse, I hear.”
“I am,” she grinned. “Would you like to have a good massage? Only fifty dollars, because you are Martin’s friend.”
“Well, hell, why not?”

Cachita and Petra had been standing in line for two hours in front of the Maisí dollar shop. The queue moved at the slow pace of a well-fed turtle but finally the women got to the door.
“Oye, Mami, these Yumas are so tight,” Cachita said. “Joe only left me eighty lousy dollars, plus twenty I took from his wallet when he was drunk. He couldn’t make it a hundred, el cochino! And he managed to stay away from restaurants and cafeterias, wouldn’t even buy me a McCastro hamburger!”
“The other Yuma was less stingy, wasn’t he?”
“But he isn’t coming back until November! Does he think I’m going to wait for him eating slices of air?” she shrugged. “Did you see what he sent? Dios mío, a piece of painted wood I could have bought here, at Cathedral Square, for ten pesos!”
“Intentions are what counts, niña.”
“Intentions, mierda! He probably bought the cheapest thing he could find. And he hasn’t yet gotten the single certificate…Forget it.”
“What about the Swedish guy?”
“Nah… he’s too young.”
“He’s ten years older than you!”
“Too young to marry me, I mean. He can find a wife in his country. The same goes for Manuel, the Mexican.”
The security guard waved them in, glancing at Cachita’s lycra shorts.
“Isn’t he the one who owns a grocery store in Morelia? You could eat anything you wanted and never be concerned about food prices. You could also send me groceries every month.”
“Manuel is a flake, Mami. He hasn’t called me in seven weeks. He’s like most foreigners: a lot of blablablá when they are here but once they go home, they don’t even remember my name. ”
“You’re right, mija. Your best bet is that old Spaniard, el Jordi. He has returned three times and bought us a new TV set. You’d better stick with him.”
“I will. That’s why I wanted a Virgin Mary. I would have hidden her baby until Jordi came back and took me to Barcelona. But what can I do with that big ugly thing? What kind of virgin is it, anyway? She doesn’t even have a baby Jesus!”
They stopped in front of the condensed milk shelf.
“Buy ten cans,” Cachita told her mother. “Jordi doesn’t care if I get fat.”
She glided gracefully toward the meat counter and began to check the prices of ground beef. A new, gleaming Virgin de la Caridad charm dangled between her breasts.

At that very moment, Joe C. de Baca was mentally balancing his checkbook to see if he could afford another trip to Havana in the near future. He decided against it.

At that very moment, Dr. Martin Sanders was welcoming his new graduate students and discussing the syllabus.
“During our semester together, we will analyze the position of women in contemporary Cuban literature,” he announced. “As a possible research topic, I suggest that you focus on the improvement of their social role after four decades of change and revolution.”

El Difunto Fidel, eBook

My short novel El difunto Fidel C. (Spanish) that won the Rincon de la Victoria Award in 2009, is available as paperback.
To buy the paper edition, follow this link
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If you prefer to buy the Kindle edition, it is available here

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Esta novela, ganadora del V Premio Rincón de la Victoria, se publicó por la Editorial Iduna en Miami en noviembre de 2010 y por la Editorial Renacimiento en Sevilla en 2011.

Sinopsis:

Una viuda desconsolada y una ex secretaria-amante acuden a la misma espiritista en busca de respuestas. ¿Se suicidó Philip Carballo o tuvo un accidente en el Express Way de Miami? La espiritista, que es médium escribiente, se comunica con el difunto y Philip empieza a contar su historia del pe al pa, sin omitir detalles.

¿Qué podía hacer un cubano cincuentón, pero todavía en activo –se pregunta– con una mujer que se ocupaba más de su gato que del marido? ¿Acaso no era plenamente justificable que se hubiera buscado una querida? ¿Y es pecado cambiarse el nombre, si uno no quiere señalarse como el único Fidel C. en todo Miami Beach? Durante el alegato de defensa de Philip se revelan sus peripecias, desde su existencia de “dirigente profesional” en Cuba hasta su conversión en furibundo defensor del American Dream. Es una reflexión burlona sobre la reconstrucción de identidades, la historia reescrita y el amor en los tiempos de la crisis hipotecarias.

Find out more about it here

A chic-tea short story

Every Third Wednesday at the Saint James Tearoom

A short story, now available in Amazon

Three friends get together at the Saint James Tearoom in Albuquerque and deal with work issues, infidelity, how-to books and all things middle-aged.

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Featuring a real place, St. James Tearoom, in Albuquerque

 

 

 

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My doctoral dissertation

Since I am having fun creating eBooks, I made one of my doctoral dissertation
“De señora casera a jinetera: imágenes de la mujer en la narrativa cubana masculina del siglo XX y principios del XXI”

(From housewife to lady of the night: portrayals of women in Cuban male narrative of the 20 and early 21 centuries)

Available in Amazon
Don’t let the cover fool you… it is a dissertation. Really.

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