Home for the last time

The heat, exhausting, and magnified by constant rain and the lack of even a wisp of a breeze, made our third and last day in Santa Clara a long one. Sweat stuck to our skins, and in turn, our clothes to the sweat.

For me it’d been an emotional visit and for Stew a revealing one. He’d been hearing about Cuba from me for forty years yet had never set foot on the island. Still, weariness had set in. I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to come to Santa Clara again.

Then on our final afternoon in town, almost as a time-killer, we stopped by again to chat with the elderly couple who now own my family home. As it turned out, if I come to Santa Clara again it will be to visit these folks.

During our first two days here we had visited four of my classmates who stayed behind in Cuba when our school closed in 1961 and many of us left for the U.S. 

The Marist Brothers school we had attended, an art-deco, three-story fortress, has deteriorated nearly beyond recognition: The sign over the main entrance–“Colegio Champagnat” sculpted in the masonry–was the only sure indication this was the place I had attended from first through ninth grades. 

The old school. 

The two light fixtures flanking the entrance were long gone, with wire stumps poking out of the holes in the wall like bits of the building’s entrails. Many if not most of the windows were covered with plywood, zinc panels or other improvised fixes to keep the tropical rot from completely devouring the place. Some third-floor windows were missing altogether, leaving gaping holes better to gulp the sun and rain. 

Yet the building was still a functioning school, with shrieking kids running around and hanging out from some of the windows. It seemed odd that a government one of whose chief claims to history are its accomplishments in public education would allow its children to study in such near-squalor.

When I tried to enter, two stern guards, a man and a woman who had already spotted me taking pictures from across the street, told me no visitors were allowed. I explained politely, and while flashing my most disarming smile, that I was an alumnus from many, many years ago–visiting from far, far away–but that didn’t elicit any sympathy or exceptions. The man said he was afraid of people “who would do harm or slander” the school [gente que vaya a perjudicar la escuela]. He cut off another plea in mid-sentence. Abort visit.

Visiting a few of my classmates was more cordial but equally discomfiting.

One, a year older than me, had been someone I looked up to. Francisco was elegant and graceful from an early age, had green eyes–uncommon in Cuba–a thin, long nose and wavy dark hair that he combed straight back. His slight effeminacy didn’t faze me much because I regarded him as one of my smartest classmates.

After some hesitation on his part, Francisco had agreed on the phone to meet us at the restaurant in the center of town where he worked as a piano player and singer. I didn’t recognize him. Stew had to poke me: “I think that’s your old friend from school.”

Fifty years after I had last seen him, his appearance was indeed startling. His hair, now dyed jet-black and straightened, swirled over his head in an intricate comb-over. He wore some makeup, most noticeably liner on his eyebrows, along with copious jewelry and a flowery silk shirt. He beat back the heat by waving a Spanish-style fan, the kind you’d see in “Carmen.”  His carriage was regal and operatic, an unexpected stroke of glamour in this otherwise unremarkable, backwater Cuban town.

Stew suggested an uncanny resemblance to Quentin Crisp, the outlandishly gay British writer and actor. I agreed.

Francisco, or Fran, as his colleagues at the restaurant call him, and I chatted awkwardly at the bar for a bit and then he took off for the piano and a full-throated  rendition of the sentimental, and beautiful, Cuban song, “Noche Azul” which he dedicated to us. It was deeply moved by this gesture. 

The next day at his home, Francisco filled me in the details of his surprising career and showed me a couple of sequined, Liberace-style jackets he used in some of his performances. He had become a lawyer but didn’t practice for long, moving on to what he called the artistic phase of his life.

At the restaurant he makes the equivalent of forty dollars a month, supplemented by tips and fees from private music lessons. He said he has a partner who is nevertheless married with two children. Francisco added that he wouldn’t consider living full-time with someone also openly gay.

His daily life in Santa Clara, he said, was uneventful but he complained about being assaulted and robbed while walking back and forth to work. As if anticipating my next question, he said the incidents were not caused by his being flamboyantly gay but because of his expensive jewelry and attire attracted attention.

As I listened, the urge to feel sorry for Francisco gradually gave way to awe for his courage–the cojones–to live his own life the way he wanted to, especially in a cultural and social setting as confining as Santa Clara. Quentin Crisp at least had the hugeness of London as a backdrop to his colorful life.

I found myself still looking up to Francisco.

Two other classmates I visited led lives of quiet conformity and resignation. They had survived military service, erratic and irrational government policies, disastrous economic times and other vicissitudes that ultimately had led them nowhere. Both receive government pensions of about fifteen dollars a month, and survive on small side jobs and remittances from relatives in the U.S. I wouldn’t nominate either one of these guys as happy poster children of the revolution.

Perhaps the classmate with the most prosperous gig was Francisco’s younger brother, Augusto, who held the post of “honorary consul” for the government of Spain. Their late father was a Spanish citizen and now Augusto, from an office in his house, prepares papers for those Cubans claiming Spanish citizenship on account of parentage.

It’s a thriving business: Cubans who can prove a Spanish bloodline can claim a Spanish citizenship and passport that permits far freer travel abroad and other perks. Augusto doesn’t get a salary from the Spanish government but fees from applicants provide him with a steady income.

He travels outside of Cuba occasionally, visits a daughter in Tampa and by all accounts should be reasonably content. Instead there was anger and resentment in his conversation. He kept needling me to imagine what my life would have been like if I had stayed in Santa Clara, as if saying “how come you got to leave and we got stuck here?”

Though I never reacted directly, in my mind the answers to his question were clear. No, I could not imagine living in Cuba during the past fifty years. And yes, I was deeply grateful–to whatever or whomever–that I got the hell out of Santa Clara.

I doubt anything else I could have said would have soothed his anger or frustration.  He hasn’t replied to two e-mails with photos I had taken of him and Francisco. 

At my former home, I received a far warmer greeting, from Edilberto González Pérez, his wife and his mother-in-law, all of whom I had just met briefly two days before. This was nothing like the icily polite “hola” I got from the previous owners in 1998.

Meet the new owners.

Until very recently Cubans could not buy or sell houses to one another. People instead swapped houses among themselves through a murky transaction called permuta, in which one party sometimes paid the other some amount of money if one house was considered more valuable. So Edilberto had traded his house in the countryside for our former home in Santa Clara. 

Edilberto, 77, welcomed both of our visits with a toothless, ear-to-ear smile, and assured me how much they enjoyed their house. On our second visit his wife, whose name I neglected to jot down, arrived with one scrawny bag of groceries, probably food rations provided by the government. Her mother, 90, greeted us warmly too though she didn’t say much.

Life has been hard on both Edilberto and my former house. Routine upkeep seemed to have ceased with the departure of the previous owners. The fancy furniture I had found in 1998 was gone and the kitchen in particular had turned into a grungy alcove. The big window in the living room was covered with black plastic. I suspect these folks are flat broke.

Hard times in the kitchen. 

We talked about the Battle of Santa Clara and Edilberto went on to chat casually about Fidel and Raúl Castro, Ché Guevara and other revolutionary icons as if he had known them personally, which in fact, he did.

It turns out he had fought alongside the original band of revolutionaries in the eastern part of Cuba, and ultimately rose to the rank of major in the rebel army. As one proof of his story, Edilberto pulled up one leg of his pants to show me a deep scar.

By his own account, Edilberto was a hot-headed 20-year-old making a meager living as a traveling salesman in Oriente province. He and a handful of buddies, tired of the poverty, inequality and abuses by the Batista government, and particularly the police, began their revolutionary career first by carrying out small-gauge terrorist stunts, like spreading nails on the highway to impede traffic, and then graduated to planting bombs and blowing up bridges.

On February 1957, when someone ratted on him to the Batista police, Edilberto decided to join the small band of rebels in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Castro and eighty-one others had landed in eastern Cuba in December 1956, crammed aboard a pleasure yacht called Granma. The landing was almost a total disaster and only a handful of men lived to make it to the mountains.

Edilberto went on foot to join Castro and the incipient rebellion. “What do you want to do?” Castro asked him. “The same thing you are doing, to fight against Batista!,” Edilberto replied. There was no stash of weapons to be distributed to newcomers, so he had to somehow earn his own in his first skirmish with the Batista army.

Ché Guevara later invited Edilberto to join a group of fighters who were going “on a long trip”–probably toward Santa Clara and eventually Havana–but Edilberto declined and stayed in eastern Cuba. According to him, he and Celia Sánchez–one of Castro’s closest advisers and perhaps his lover–became close buddies and even planned a birthday celebration for the then thirty-three-year-old commander in chief.

Old comrades: (from left) Castro in the middle, an unknown man, and
a  beardless Edilberto on the right, wearing a cap.

“Happee Bert-day to Yoo! Happee Bert-day to Yoo!,” Edilberto sang absent-mindedly to remember the occasion.

Perhaps sensing my growing  incredulity about his war stories, Edilberto’s wife went to what used to be my bedroom to fetch a weathered cardboard box containing a handful of documents and photographs.

One was a creased photo of Castro, triumphantly entering Havana, with a young Edilberto at his side. Another document was a 2011 certificate recognizing his partipation in the force that fought off the “Yankee imperialists” at Playa Girón (to Americans better known as the Bay of Pigs) in 1961. Edilberto’s eyes glistened with pride.

Bay of Pigs certificate, marking the defeat of
the “imperialismo yanqui” in Latin America. 

From my conversation I sensed that Edilberto, an Everyman who happened to join a historic military campaign at an early stage, probably wasn’t destined for a high-visibility post with the revolutionary government.

But neither could I figure out how he had been apparently forgotten to retire in near poverty. Perhaps the house was his reward for his meritorious service to the revolution. Edilberto and his wife appeared profoundly flattered that anyone would stop by.

His wife added they hadn’t been invited to a reunion in Havana of veterans of the Sierra Maestra campaign. A brief but awkward silence paused the conversation. Maybe the government thought Edilberto had died.

As we began to leave, the old guerrilla asked me all sorts of technical details about the house–where was the cistern? how old was the water pump?–that I couldn’t possibly answer. His wife talked wistfully about their plans to arrest or reverse the house’s deterioration, though we both knew it wasn’t likely to happen.

Finally I asked how much it would cost to replace the glass in the front window and so remove the disfiguring black tarp keeping out the rain. Stew suggested we give her the equivalent of $50 dollars to get the work going, and so we did.

One last look at the old homestead. 

I wished them a long and healthy life in my former home and last this stop in Santa Clara dissolved into hugs and tears by both Ediberto and his wife.

Next time we’re in Cuba I’m going back to check on them and the work on that front window.


6 thoughts on “Home for the last time

  1. Sometime in the not-too-distant past Mexico became “Home”. We made the transition from the U.S. being “home.” I wonder if this will ever happen to you two?Great story by the way. Gracias!


  2. I know that many of the Spanish citizens in Cuba went there to avoid the Franco dictatorship. It is a bit ironic that despotism seemed to follow them wherever they went.


  3. I've read and enjoyed all of the posts on your visit to Cuba — you've done a terrific job of communicating life on the Island in its social and economic context (at least I think so — I've never been!). This last post was especially wonderful. Thank you so much!


  4. ¡Dios! Vaya aventura la tuya y la de Cuba. Interesantísimo relato sobre lo que una vez dejaste y que al volver, sentir que la casa sigue allí, destruyéndose por el paso del tiempo y la falta de capital para su mantenimiento. Debes sentir un vuelco de recuerdos y de tristezas el ver lo que una vez fue Cuba y lo que es ahora. Me encantó el relato. Mil gracias por compartirlo con nosotros. Alfredo.


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