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He’s laughing so hard he’s shaking and I can see the black, pitted holes where teeth once rooted. Peering into the rot, I wonder how he eats carrots or the gooey slabs of peanut brittle hawked at bus stops around town. The moon is still high and bright as trucks peel off the Autopista, catching the laughing man in their headlights before trundling on to market.
In these pre-coffee, pre-dawn hours, the laughing man is not alone. No matter the time, place, or circumstance, somewhere there’s a Cuban burdened with a sack of potatoes, stranded by the side of the road, or simply hungry who’s also laughing. Troubles are smoothed here with this tonic for the soul.
There are the two girls sent running, giggling, into the street when an unexpected wave crashes over the Malecón. Darting from the path of a ’46 Plymouth, they find each other’s hand again as they leap back onto the sidewalk. Their eyes are dancing, delighted, while salt water drips from the hems of their school uniforms. A student on lunch break whistles his approval in the direction of their strong, but still spindly legs. Under his confident gaze, with eyes like agates working up towards their chests and faces, the friends break into gales of laughter and saunter on hand in hand.
Joyful and energetic, Cuban laughter is infectious, instinctive. It smoothes troubles, but also creates fellowship. Every hug, favor and joke unifies, helping keep it – and us –together. Cuban solidarity protects the island like chain mail, functioning as ingrained and sacred scripture. Neighbors arrive at my door unannounced proffering limes and honeyed squash fritters, young men guide octogenarians across the street, and public phones with money remaining are handed to the person next in line. Stoked by Cold War fires extinguished almost everywhere else and against all odds, the human spirit thrives. Like family in the ideal, Cubans stick together, watching each other’s back, lending a hand or leg up, and pitching in; it’s no coincidence that Cuban immigrants have had such success in the US. Through squabbles and dark, hard-kept secrets, Cubans stand as a unit, ready, willing, and able to circle the wagons.
As dysfunctional as it is sacrosanct, Cuban society-cum-kin is forever battling internal demons. Here, indolence and inertia are the norm as ‘hurry up and wait’ mixes with ‘what next?’ to paralyze the island. Like an ant trapped in amber, we’re frozen in our languor. Soap operas, gossip, church, salsa, manicures, hair dying, baseball, dominoes, and kite-flying are all passionate pastimes. They’re how we save ourselves from being bored to tears. Entre col y col, una lechuga – literally between all that cabbage, some lettuce – is the Cuban way of saying variety is the spice of life. Here, going to the movies becomes an act of self-preservation, while that hushed conversation about Ramón’s new underage girlfriend breaks the work-cook-clean grind.
Intellectual release and freedom, meanwhile, are found in humor, that particularly impassioned and Cuban show of mental acuity and creativity, cleverness, self-effacement, and irony. When not eclipsed by a healthy dose of denial, Cubans recognize that their revolutionary experiment has led them up the proverbial creek without a paddle – brilliantly evidenced by their jokes. The revolutionary slogan ‘Socialism or Death!’ for instance, is bastardized to ‘Socialism or Socialism!’ and Fidel is (was) sometimes referred to as The Onion because each time he talks, you cry.
Entire nights are passed sharing jokes, and as the rum bottle empties, the crowd gets rowdier, the jokes raunchier, and the laughter louder. Cubans are known as ‘gritones,’ prone to gritería, which means they shout, yell, cry, hoot, holler, and scream. Loud music and laughter bridge the sorrowful waters all Cubans have tread. With these same melodies and humor, they sail into the deep sea of their future.
To read Chapter 3 in full: http://www.connergorry.com/hereishavana.html