An excerpt from my novel Habanera, a Portrait of a Cuban Family
It was a party doomed from the start, when the cracks that would finally erode the family began to appear. But at that time no one knew it. And we whispered to each other Feliz Navidad, a phrase that had the alluring jingle of prohibited words.
“Merry Christmas” was a taboo greeting that only the gusanos used. In the official calendar Navidad was an ordinary day. If it fell during the week, people went to their jobs as usual. When it fell on a weekend, they were asked to do voluntary work. Decorating the house with Christmas ornaments was also a bourgeois trend. So was singing Silent Night and Little Drummer Boy. Those who kept pre-Comandante plastic trees hid them in bedrooms or kitchens, afraid of the informers that peeked in when one least expected it. Only in churches were Christmas trees displayed, from December to January. Nuestra Señora del Carmen, in Infanta Avenue, exhibited an elaborately ornamented árbol de Navidad and a larger-than-life Nativity scene. Los Pasionistas, in Lawton, had a more modest set.
Our next-door neighbors, Tony and Silvana, were the only ones in San Anastasio Street who hung a string of Christmas lights in their living room. It glowed faintly and several bulbs were burned out, but the comecandelas noticed and asked the offenders to remove it. They refused. Adding insult to injury, Rita, Silvana’s sister, sat on the front porch to knit sweaters with Christmas motifs for Carlitos and Sandra. Tony, a wiry schoolteacher, played Silent Night on his violin. Silvana took the kids to Los PasionistasChurch for Midnight Mass.
My folks never went to church, but celebrated Navidad at home with Cuba’s traditional Christmas dinner: roasted pork served with white rice, black beans and yuca with a garlic sauce. Yuca, rice and beans were sold in Havana, but pigs were black market items and had to come straight from the countryside.
We went in together with another family on one. Every December, Papucho and his buddy Gerardo took the Pinar del Río train and traveled to Piloto, a small town, to buy a Christmas pig. Gerardo’s cousin, the guajiro Miguel, sold a few animals clandestinely, risking several years in jail if he was caught.
My grandma started talking about the Christmas party in November. “This may be the last Navidad we can all get together,” she said.
“Next year in Miami” had become her mantra. She invited her brother Armando and his wife, Jacinta, to celebrate with us. Muñeca volunteered to make the roast, the yuca and the dessert. Jacinta would take care of the rice and black beans and Armando, the drinks. Though Tío Armando and Tía Jacinta were comecandelas and often argued with Muñeca over politics, they agreed to come. On one condition: they wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas, they warned us, but “another anniversary of the revolutionary triumph.”
Ponciano, naturally, voted against the idea. “What’s the point of having these people over?” he asked Muñeca. “They don’t care about us.”
“They are family, Poncianito.”
“Family, merde! Don’t count on me for that stupid party. I’m not staying.”
“I already knew that.”
He always went to the Capablanca Chess Club on Christmas Eve. The only places that Ponciano visited regularly were the cemetery, the restaurants where he worked as a colero, and the chess club. Ma mère said he was an avid player but I never saw a chess set at home.
In the end, as usual, Muñeca prevailed. Arrangements for the fiesta de Navidad began. But there were problems right away. The motor of our refrigerator, an aged Frigidaire, stopped working. A clandestine mechanic charged two hundred pesos to repair it. “The party is doomed,” Ponciano said, taking off his eyeglasses. His green eyes had an evil, mal agüero gleam.
* * *
The trip to Pinar del Río took around five hours. Papucho and Gerardo left the Havana Train Station on a Saturday morning. They were supposed to come back the following evening with the slaughtered pig hidden in unmarked suitcases. If the police stopped them, they could claim they had just found the suitcases and didn’t know what was inside. A feeble excuse, but an excuse nonetheless…
The next day Ma mère and I went to pick them up in a ‘55 Chevy that Fernando, a family friend, rented to us in exchange for three pounds of pork. This was also an underground business since taxi drivers were only allowed to work for the state.
The Pinar del Río train arrived on time but Papucho and Gerardo didn’t. There wasn’t another train from Piloto until Tuesday. We went home and waited for a phone call explaining the delay. Yet the days passed and no one called. Ma mère began to get anxious. Papucho was carrying eight hundred pesos, four times his monthly salary.
“You should have gone with him,” Muñeca told her. “He has enough money to buy two barrels of Coronilla rum.”
“But he hasn’t drunk since we applied for the exit permits,” my mother replied.
“Which means he’ll go on the biggest drinking binge of his life,” Ponciano put in. “The guy now has a three-month old thirst.”
“Oh, he’ll be so ashamed if…,” Ma mère started to say.
“Don’t be so naïve, Carmencita!” Muñeca cut her off. “That husband of yours doesn’t have one ounce of shame.”
My trust in Papucho began to fail. La otra, a disciple of Ponciano, had no faith at all. And when Gerardo’s wife joined Ma mère and me at the train station, her comments were everything but soothing.
“Gerardo drank in just one day the two bottles of rum we got by the ration card,” she admitted.
“Ay, Alicia, don’t tell me that, por Dios!” Ma mère exclaimed.
But Papucho wouldn’t drink too much during Christmas. He prided himself in staying sober, or semi-sober, while the regular non-drinkers had a couple of beers and made fools out of themselves. He laughed at the unskilled drunks who, after a glass of rum, tried to sing the Spanish version of White Christmas, Blanca Navidad, so out of tune that it ended up being a sad mockery, triste Navidad.
“I’ll never get drunk after the tenth of December,” he had said many times. “That’s for beginners.”
It was December fifteenth. And he had promised not to touch another drop of alcohol, hadn’t he? But Muñeca suspected that it wouldn’t take long to change Papucho’s mind, particularly when he had an encouraging companion and plenty of pesos in his pocket. “I’m afraid we aren’t going to see that pig’s ears,” she said.
The Tuesday train was crowded but Papucho and Gerardo weren’t among the passengers. By then we owed Fernando six pounds of pork or their equivalent, eighty pesos. He was getting anxious too.
There was little we could do. The guajiro Miguel didn’t have a phone. Telegrams took a week to get to Piloto and the service wasn’t reliable. Calling the police could get Papucho and Gerardo in trouble if they were found with “incriminating evidence,” that is, with a dead pig in their suitcases.
“Didn’t I say that the party was doomed?” Ponciano gloated.
After another trip to the train station, Ma mère cried, lit a candle in front of her Virgin of Charity altar and prayed for Papucho’s return. “Dear Oshún,” she said, addressing the virgin by her orisha name, “Please bring my husband back. Though he’s a drunk and rather lazy, I love him.”
“But he doesn’t drink every day,” I hurried to explain, not wanting the virgin to get the wrong idea about my father.
Papucho had never spent a night in the streets nor stayed out for so long. We called his mother, Grandma Rosa, but she hadn’t heard from him either. Where was he? I asked la otra and wrote an urgent letter to Fidel, placed carefully in my Aniuska doll, but got no response from either one.
Three more days passed. In the meantime, Alicia got news. Gerardo had been spotted in the Piloto streets, drunk out of his skull and accompanied by another borracho. My mother was so angry at Papucho that she even talked of divorcing him. Muñeca agreed. “I’ve never understood what you saw in that drunkard,” she said. “You could have married a more successful man. More educated. More…like you.”
“I’m afraid you’re right,” Ma mère answered, looking down. “But I’ve tried all these years. I’ve kept hoping…”
“There is nothing to hope for, hija! He’s a borracho and will die a borracho. Just face it.”
“You’re right,” Ma mère repeated. “And I’m getting tired, you know?”
That was, I recognized later, the beginning of the end.
* * *
A fourth, unsuccessful trip to the train station took place. My mother, looking tired and depressed, said that we needed to take a bus this time because there might not be any pork to pay Fernando. She had lost her faith too.
On our way back, after we got off at the Alameda Movie Theater, a man ran after us. He had thinning hair, elephant-like ears and a warm smile. “Carmen! Carmita!” he called to my mother. “Do you remember me?”
“Humberto Orozco!” her face changed instantly and became rosier. “Where have you been?”
I had heard his name at home. Humberto Orozco and Ma mère had been high school sweethearts. In 1958 he left her, and his own “bourgeois” family, to join El Comandante in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. My mother went to college and, years later, married Papucho. Orozco married a rebelde comrade and became a doctor. He was a prominent comecandela. Ma mère had heard about him through common friends but they hadn’t met again.
“In Angola, for the last three years,” he answered.
“What did you do there?”
“I was an international doctor. Now I work at a polyclinic here in Lawton, on San Mariano Street.”
“Well, I live at the corner of San Anastasio and San Mariano streets.”
“I know, chica. I still remember the way to your house,” Ma mère blushed and he went on, “We are neighbors because I spend more time at the polyclinic than at home. I’m a volunteer miliciano, too.”
“I’ve been asking everybody about you, Carmita. What have you been doing these years?”
“I work for Revista Mujeres. I’m an editor there.”
“You always had a way with words. But I thought you and your folks had gone to Miami a long time ago. It’s a pity that our political ideas aren’t the same.”
Ma mère changed the subject, tactfully, “Mira, this is my daughter, Longina.”
“Oh—you got married. Well, Longina looks very intelligent. Just like you.”
“Thanks,” I said, feeling an instant sympathy for someone who didn’t come up with the “what a pretty girl” cliché that most adults spat. I knew I wasn’t pretty and fake compliments made me sulk.
Doctor Orozco and Ma mère talked nonstop for a good hour. After his return from Angola he had been given a Lada, a Soviet car, as a reward. He offered to take us home, but we refused since it was only a few blocks away.
“I will drop by your house one of these days, Carmita, if your husband doesn’t mind it,” he said, bashfully.
“You are welcome anytime. And Muñeca will be enchanted to see you again.”
Ma mère was humming Se fue all the way home.
The following evening Doctor Orozco came and took her out.
“We are going to visit several hospitals,” Ma mère explained to me, “in case your father had an accident and is unable to call us.”
She smelled of her favorite fragrance that was, until her political ideas took a turn to the left, Chanel N°5. She had bought it on the black market and wore it only on special occasions. But this was a regular weekday and she was supposed to be concerned about Papucho, no? The whiff of sophistication that filled the house seemed out of place.
When Muñeca saw Ma mère get in Doctor Orozco’s Lada, she smiled knowingly and began to sing Lágrimas Negras, an old ballad by the Trío Matamoros,
Un jardinero de amor
Siembra una flor y se va.
Otro viene y la cultiva.
¿De cuál de los dos será?
(A gardener of love
Plants a flower and leaves.
Another one tends to it.
To whom will it belong?)
I didn’t like the not-too-subtle message. Would that big-eared guy have the intention of taking Papucho’s place? As if reading my mind, Muñeca said, “I think Carmita has just found a replacement.”
“Like you found Ramoncito,” I replied, almost aggressively.
She stared at me, shocked, “Niña! You are getting too big for your britches. You are becoming a cabroncita, you know?”
A cabrón is a bastard. But a cabroncita, at least in my grandma’s vocabulary, was a pretty smart ass.
“I don’t want Papucho to be replaced!” I said and left the room in tears.
A remorseful Muñeca rushed to console me.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “Papucho will come home. Where is he going to go that he’s worth more? And your mother will forgive him. She always does. I was just joking. Anda, let’s watch together Nitza Villapol’s show.”
Nitza Villapol had a cooking show on Channel 6—Cocina al Minuto, that is, Cooking to Order or Cooking in Minutes. The latter was a more appropriate name because we lacked so many ingredients that making dinner didn’t take a long time. Nitza’s show had started in the early fifties and Muñeca commented how her recipes had changed after 1959. They went from olive-garnished chicken and rice and minced meat with onions and raisins to cucumber lemonade and cheeseless macaroni. Now Nitza warned her audience that eating too much beef was unhealthy. That sounded funny since we got only one pound of red meat per person each month.
My grandma accused Nitza of being a government brownnoser. But because she came up with useful recipes, Muñeca would sit in front of the TV, notebook and pen in hand, to copy them. As soon as I learned to write she entrusted me with this task. In a few months we had our own Cocina al Minuto cookbook at home. But Nitza’s peculiar desserts, like beets boiled with brown sugar, never tempted my appetite.
The hospital search was useless. The next morning Ma mère, advised by Doctor Orozco, decided to alert the police. But when she opened the door, cursing “that damned borracho,” she saw him. He was sitting on our porch floor with a week-old beard, a bruised face and no suitcases in sight. “Are you hurt, Papucho?” she cried out. “Are you sick? Are you drunk?”
He mumbled “yes” three times and crawled into the house under Muñeca’s disapproving gaze.
I felt cheated, to say the least. Not only had Papucho broken his promise, but he had also ruined our Christmas party. Muñeca was right. He didn’t have one ounce of shame.
It turned out that Miguel had lost all his pigs that year due to an epidemic. The few Piloto peasants who had animals left didn’t want to sell them. So Papucho and Gerardo partied without remorse, spending their days in seedy bars and sleeping in alleys. They got into a fight with a thug who tried to steal their wallets and gave Papucho a bloody lip. The suitcases were lost after the confrontation. “But they were empty,” my father assured us. He caught a cold after lying for hours, passed out, on the wet grass of Piloto Central Park. With their last fifty pesos the smashed compadres took the Havana train, coughing and feverish, and bought a bottle of cheap Coronilla rum “to keep their bones warm.”
Ma mère nursed Papucho’s wounds. And he, looking embarrassed and sorry, promised her solemnly, “I will not touch another drop of alcohol for the rest of my life, mi amor.”
Muñeca and Ponciano said “Ha.” I couldn’t help but being of the same mind. I wouldn’t trust adults—or anybody—again.
Alicia blamed my father for leading her husband astray. Ma mère, offended, replied that “poor Papucho” had never drunk during Christmas until he went out with Gerardo. Muñeca sided with Alicia. A monumental fight ensued and that was the end of our pig-buying venture.
We didn’t have any pork to cook or contacts to buy another in time for Christmas. The party was cancelled. Tío Armando and Tía Jacinta, believing that Muñeca had cheated her way out of the celebration, didn’t talk to her for months. Ma mère had to pay Fernando a hundred pesos for the three useless rides to the train station. We ate only rice, beans and chicken croquettes that triste Navidad.
The next year Papucho resumed his drinking. Muñeca continued badmouthing him. Life went on as before. Except for Doctor Orozco’s visits which became more and more frequent with every month that passed.