In my bedroom in El Vedado, my cousin Nestor and I continued stuffing bars of homemade lye soap, small bottles of goat’s milk shampoo, and homemade cassava bread in our backpacks. We’d need these for our yearly trip to the trabajo voluntario in Tarará, either to use for ourselves or to barter with our troupe for other goods such as deodorant or toothpaste.
Part of Tarará, about 19 kilometers east of the center of Havana, in a municipality known as Habana del Este, was a gated community with mostly foreigners, foreigners who were allowed to visit the pristine beaches of Santa Maria del Mar and Guanabo.
Many Ukrainians, especially those with babies, came to Tarará after Chernobyl to recover from the fallout and for continued medical care. Most of them never left our island and remained living here, speaking the most beautiful Spanish with a Ukrainian accent.
The only time we Cubans really visited Tarará was not to visit the gated community or its beaches, but rather it was to work in the fields just outside of the municipality; like all other pioneros our age did on a rotating basis. It was our duty as teenagers.
I never really understood why voluntary workcamps were necessary, but Nestor’s godfather, Guillermo, who was now living in Buenos Aires and was now known as William, explained to us one day why it was so important for us to volunteer, why it was our duty to attend whichever camp they sent us to each summer or winter break.
“Ulises, Nestor, come over here. Stop all this complaining! At your age, bah. That’s just antisocial behavior!” After chastising us for not wanting to work in the fields, whether planting yucca or reaping soybeans, Guillermo explained that based on socialist ideals from around the world, el trabajo voluntario became the ideal resource of any country like ours wishing to develop quickly.
Cuba needed all of its people – young and strong people – to till soil, clear brush, and plant sugarcane. Proudly, thousands of future doctors, engineers, professors, and, of course, future politicians participated in some type of trabajo voluntario until around university age. So what were we complaining about?
Neither Nestor nor I cared about such things, we just knew there was rarely a break from school to play baseball or just hang out on our city block and whistle at the pretty girls who walked by without their older brothers.
It seemed that all we did, year after year, was take part in an educational project, a political or economic study, or simply attend a workcamp like this one in Tarará, all on a voluntary basis.
“Uli, don’t forget the soap,” Nestor said looking out the window and seeing the bus with many of our troupe members already on it. On the lid of a cardboard box, written in permanent black marker, the bus had “Troupe 476 – Tarará” posted on the front right hand side of its windshield. This was the one for us! If we were late, someone would have to drive us, or worse, we’d have to hitch a ride.
The morning bus ride to Tarará took more than an hour, as the streets were rivers of mud and rock after last night’s thunderstorms. Nestor got bored and endeavored to sell the extra bars of soap he packed to some of our younger comrades who naïvely expected these basic necessities would be provided to them by the State.
A game of hot potato quickly ensued using one of the bars of soap. Nestor and I weren’t happy that our currency was being used this way.
This somehow quickly turned into a game of the cooties that didn’t end until somebody stuck his elbow in Nestor’s eye.
“¡Coño!” Nestor shouted at Albertico. Albertico quickly crouched next to the flat emergency tire in the back of the bus, afraid of the repercussions for elbowing Nestor in the eye.
Everyone grew quiet waiting for Nestor’s next step. Realizing all eyes were on him, he broke into laughter. Everyone, even the bus driver, took a deep sigh of relief that he didn’t have to stop the bus in a hurry on these muddy roads; the tension was broken.
There was always an order of socialization at these camps; that went unspoken and was established early, many times even before we arrived. Nestor had obviously taken command of this bus, this troupe.
It was bound to happen that someone took commanding rank. After all, we couldn’t have anarchy. By the time we reached Tarará, all the boys tacitly understood their roles for the next month.
The weak ones, like Albertico, were always spotted immediately on the bus, usually the tenderfoots or the ones who never fought back. These comrades would be the ones to be picked on and pushed around for the rest of the month, sometimes even made to be the camp housekeepers taking care of duties that our mothers usually handled. It was never anything difficult, they just picked up around the barracks so the troupe did not receive demerits for untidiness.
This summer, we were mostly unfamiliar with one another. The State decided to mix things up by gerrymandering how we went to camp.
There was El Morito, the Lebanese-Cuban, Roberto Clemente, the kid who would represent the under-15 group in the Pan-American Games. Albertico became El Codo, since he struck Nestor in the eye with his elbow. Then there was El Enamora’o who pined for his girlfriend throughout the entire bus trip. El Bizco, Fumeco, and El Poeta, as well as Jirafa with his long neck, were also amongst our new friends.
Nestor and I did not escape this rechristening. Nestor, who arrived with a black eye and a big bump because of El Codo’s clumsiness, was known as El Cíclope. I immediately took on El Tiburón because they felt my crystal blue eyes made me look like a nurse shark. Stupid, I know, but that’s just the way we were. To this day, I’m not sure I could tell you many of our new friends’ real names!
We arrived in Tarará, taking the business road away from the gated community, and it looked different from the last time Nestor and I were there. A fábrica had been built in the valley below our barracks and adjacent to the fields where we worked.
The camp leaders made it quite clear that this newly erected factory was off limits to anyone. When we asked what it was for, we always received different answers. Some said it was for the processing of yucca and malanga that would hopefully grow here by next year if the rains ever let up. Other camp leaders said it was an oil refinery. Then there were those who simply told us it was not for us to question.
The rains that we thought ended last night started up again. However, we didn’t mind as this meant settling in our bunks without anything to do. It would be like a small vacation in the countryside, a vacation that allowed us to continue taunting each other.
Everyone immediately claimed his bunk. Even though our names were on the bunks already, if someone wanted your bunk and you didn’t fight for it, your name came off and that was that.
Most of us wanted the top bunks. I don’t know why. I guess it felt as if there was more privacy up there. Not everyone could manage to get these, so some of us had to settle for the bottom bunks.
There were thirty other bunks in the barracks that should hold no more than fifteen. They were pushed together to form one giant top bunk, thirty beds wide, and one giant lower bunk of the same length. As much as we attempted to move the bunks at least a couple of centimeters apart, it was to no avail as the barracks were only so wide.
They told us that in the morning we would be served breakfast, which usually consisted of pan de boniato and a cup of watered-down soy or rice milk. This was a warning not to be late, and it was the most efficient way they knew of to get us up on time. Anyone who had been to the camps before knew that if you didn’t eat the Cuban sweet potato bread as soon as it came out of the oven, you could only use it as a doorstop.
It was truly miraculous. When it was hot, the buns were soft and sweet. As soon as the Cuban humidity hit it, however, the sweet potato bread metamorphosed into the hardest material known to man. Nestor said that they sometimes used these buns in wars when soldiers ran out of artillery. No one believed him of course. However, we all agreed that some of the campesinos could use the old sweet potato bread as bricks out in the country.
The sun was setting and there was not much to do due to the rains. Some of the kids started playing canasta. El Poeta began writing his poems to the many señoritas awaiting him back in El Vedado. Fumeco joined my cousin by setting up a small table next to the black and white TV to continue selling the soap my cousin had smuggled in; Fumeco sold his American cigarettes he received from his cousins in Miami. It proved to be a profitable endeavor, even though the Marlboro’s were incredibly weak in comparison to Cuban cigarillos.
Most of us didn’t have any American dollars, the only true currency left in Cuba, but Fumeco and Nestor still made out like bandits by bartering for camp services. El Enamora’o promised to tend to Fumeco’s bunk for the rest of the month in exchange for three cigarettes a day. El Morito took on the same chore for Nestor, if Nestor made sure to save enough soap for him to take back to his mother whose birthday was coming up. I just hung out watching the canasta players, whispering to El Bizco how he should play his hand.
“This isn’t poker,” El Bizco told me, his eyes crossing every time he got nervous or got riled up.
“Yeah,” interrupted Jirafa. “Either join in or shut up.”
“Fuck you!” I said. An expression I had learned from an American uncle who had visited us a long time ago from Tampa, an expression that sounded so vulgar yet proper at times.
“Fokee ju, too!” Jirafa tried to repeat. Everyone laughed.
I went to the window and noticed three of the guards on their way to our barracks. This was strange that they would leave the comfort of the officers’ barracks to traverse the rain. No matter how important it was, it could certainly wait until morning. Unless our bunks were bugged and they knew about the little capitalism my cousin and el fumeco were developing.
“Oye! Oye! They’re coming. Put all that stuff away. Three of them are coming!” I warned my comrades.
“Put that away,” my cousin told Fumeco. “Now!”
People scurried like organized ants, hiding soap, cigarettes, dirty Vietnamese magazines, and extra sets of underwear under the worn, dingy mattresses. Most of us nervously gathered around the canasta table.
“¡Attención!” one of the leaders barked.
“¡Attención!” repeated my cousin Nestor to show that he was on their side and the elected leader of the troupe.
“We don’t need your help, gracias.”
“Sorry,” Nestor said. “Just trying to maintain some . . .” he knew he better shut up by their sneers.
“We have a very important announcement. During your stay, things are going to change a little bit. We have just received news that El Líder himself will visit Tarará with his brother, Raúl.”
Everyone gasped. Castro himself was going to visit us here with the Vice-President. There were mixed feelings in all of us. Did this mean extra work for us to show him that our generation was as committed to his demands and progress as was the generation who placed him in power? Did this mean that TV cameras were going to come along with him? If so, we were lucky because we’d be sure to receive gloves for digging, fresh food, and the opportunity to shower every day.
The camp guard continued, “It is necessary that you show him and the Vice-President how hard you work. But more importantly, it is necessary that you show him that you are good pioneros who know not to ask questions and who know not to complain.”
“Like about the factory in the valley below?” blurted El Poeta. Poets were always stupid like that, keeping quiet when they shouldn’t and speaking their thoughts when it was not called for.
“Who are you?” demanded to know one of the camp guards.
“That’s El Poeta,” answered his colleague. Everyone laughed that the officer knew our comrade’s nickname.
“El Poeta. Our own José Martí! Well, El Comandante will be proud. Listen, Poeta, I suggest you stick with your poetry and not worry about the factory.” Turning to all of us after placing his hands on El Poeta’s shoulders, “This is exactly what I mean. When the President visits, there will be no questions like this. The factory is his concern, and we have nothing to do with it.”
Looking down at his papers, the guard continued, “Furthermore, there will be a luncheon provided by him and Raúl where the President will speak to you for approximately 20 minutes.”
Luncheon and speech, there would be cameras for sure.
“Will he help us till the soil?” El Poeta said again, ignoring the soldier’s hand heavily placed on his shoulder. “After all, true socialists have no differences in class and duties.” No one laughed this time. El Poeta had gone too far.
Without a word, two of the men grabbed our compañero, dragging him out into the stormy night. Damn fool couldn’t keep his trap shut. Why didn’t he save his wisecracks for his journal? No one said a word, as it was obvious that El Poeta was made to be the example for any of us who thought we could speak out and disrespect the State.
El Poeta screamed and kicked, but the men showed no hesitation or remorse. To them, he was just a sniveling kid who needed discipline. Being the first day, someone was bound to be made the example.
After the loud-mouthed poet was dragged out of the barracks, “Before I continue is there anyone else that would like to join their comrade?” Troupe 476 remained silent, except for the Russian cartoons emitting from the black-and-white TV near my bunk. “I didn’t think so. There will be guests with him. Important guests from Hungary and Russia, maybe even China, but that’s still unclear,” the soldier looked at his notes.
Looking back up, “They’re thinking of turning this camp into a vineyard using Hungarian soil. El Presidente has invested a lot of money for our future. The Hungarian soil will produce fine Cuban wines for exportation. This will bring in necessary funds for our country and bring more tourists to Habana del Este. Needless to say, these foreign diplomats will be very impressed by meeting you as their first workers on the vineyard. Don’t disappoint us or them. We will explain more as soon as the weather lets up. But first, the soil has to be prepared with the appropriate nitrates, etc. to accept the rich Hungarian soil. The new Agricultural Minister will also come down to run some tests.”
They told us what they thought we should know and left us alone.
A few seconds after they left our cabin, we heard El Poeta scream. The scream sounded like a cat shrieking in the night. There were laughs of drunken men, more screams and crying, and then silence. We tried to get to the window to see what was happening, but they had taken him below our view. What were they doing to him? Were they beating him senseless? Poets weren’t very popular in my country, unless, of course, they worked for the State.
Nestor looked at me and nodded as if saying, These bastards shouldn’t get away with this. I agreed without saying a word.
“¡Hijos de puta!” someone shouted from the back of the room, breaking the silence that contained us in fright.
“Where do you think they’ll take him?” whimpered Albertico.
“Who knows?” I said. “Who knows what they will do to him.”
“It’s for the good of the State,” mumbled Jirafa.
“You’re crazy, man,” El Bizco attacked, his eyes more cockeyed than ever. “He’s our friend!”
Talks about what was right and wrong were tossed around the barracks all night. Nothing was resolved. Some of the troupe thought that insubordination just led to anarchy. And anarchy could not be tolerated at any level. Then there were those, of whom I was more and more becoming a part, who felt that if one has to force things to happen, silence those who do not agree, then perhaps you’re fighting a losing battle, a battle Cubans stopped fighting ages ago.
We all went to our bunks, smoking the weak Marlboro’s El Fumeco had sold us and listened to the rain. That was the last time anyone saw El Poeta again.
I walked over to El Poeta’s bunk and etched his name. It wasn’t enough that his name, his spirit, would always be etched in my memory. Memories fade and get rewritten, and someone needed to create physical proof that our friend existed.
Trying to forget what occurred, we made a list (my cousin’s idea), giving us each time alone with the dirty Vietnamese magazine. Nestor was first, as he came up with the idea of taking turns. Albertico was dead last. Magazine and all, I still couldn’t put my loud-mouthed friend out of my mind.
We were later told El Poeta was sent to another camp where Castro would not visit. But we soon found out, not even his mother, who was terrified to ask what happened, ever saw him again.
The rain continued beating on the tin roof of the barracks as I replayed the evening in my head again and again. Sure, each time was a little different, but El Poeta was always taken away.
My comrades left the TV on for its luminescence, and the sounds coming from the cartoons, although we could barely understand Russian, comforted us. I heard El Enamora’o start fighting with Jirafa about whose turn it was with the Vietnamese rag.
Most of the boys sat around, playing cards, smoking cigarettes, trying to work the TV antenna to get some type of reception that would give us something other than the Russian cartoons that incessantly played on channel 3.
Some of the boys counted the lapse between the thunder and lightning, betting on when the next storm would hit us. None of this mattered to me.
Finally, after manipulating the antenna and changing the black-and-white’s position around the room, my comrades managed to get WCIX Channel 6 from Miami. They roared with excitement, not only deafening those wretched Russian cartoons, but at reaching out across the sea and grabbing hold of real yanqui television.
With the little English, we learned in school, most of the troupe could follow what was being said in the commercials – except for colloquialisms, which always mystified us no matter how good our English became.
I had to look, so I rolled over, hugging my musty pillow and saw my first yanqui commercial. I felt like some peeping Tom, sneaking a peek into the minds of North American capitalists. I wondered if my relatives in Miami were right now watching the same exact channel. I wondered if they wondered what I was doing.
The commercial was for a store named Burdines. They seemed to carry everything you could possibly ever want, and all at 50% off that week! Shoes. Designer clothes. TVs. There was some sort of Clearance Sale. Nestor explained to the troupe that this was the American way. When fashions went out of style, the stores let you know by giving it all away at half off.
Jirafa said that his family in Miami sent him clothes from Burdines all the time. He sold the goods in the black market in exchange for food and US dollars. His family was able to eat for a whole month on a pair of Levi’s, Nike’s, and a T-shirt that changed colors from purple to green to fuchsia due to some sort of heat-sensitive cotton.
Americans think of everything! But his family back in Miami didn’t know he hocked their stuff. They’d be hurt and would stop sending gifts. I’m sure if he explained it to them they’d understand that we needed a loaf of bread or a gram of coffee or rice much more than a pair of tennis shoes with a built-in air pump.
The model on TV spoke with a rich un-American accent, lisping due to a gap in her front teeth that made her even more alluring. Although we couldn’t understand most of what she was saying, she was better than any Vietnamese rag any day! Everyone grew quiet. The model, who later identified herself as Lauren something-or-other, was then rolling around in a haystack, playing with other girls as the Burdines logo danced all around them like an out-of-control ball of fire.
We didn’t care what they were selling, but oh, how we all wished to have whatever it was she was giving away at half off. The commercial’s reggae music and pictures of beautifully built men and women strolling around what I would later know as South Beach made us all envious of life less than 150 km away. The TV screen went gray with a loud SHHH, and someone turned it off.
“Everyone looks so happy in Miami,” El Bizco muttered, his eyes twitching nervously after witnessing such splendor.
“It’s all just a ploy,” interjected El Enamora’o. “They base happiness on material objects. I don’t know how they can live like that. But that’s what keeps them going.”
“What do you know?” Nestor challenged. “They all look pretty satisfied to me.”
Nestor had the last word. Everybody just retired to their bunks and went to sleep, no doubt dreaming of Lauren, the slender gap-toothed model, and of all the riches America offered. No doubt thinking of what really happened to El Poeta.