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Anyone who has been to Cuba or knows Cubans is familiar with cuentos cubanos. These often hilarious and frequently revealing stories make the rounds at parties, in meetings, on lines, and in the street. The best tales – especially in the hands of master tellers – become legend, like the one about the hick mason (from Pinar del Río, claro) who bricks the cement mixer into the theater he’s just finished building.
Other cuentos are just building momentum, like what occurred recently at Guamá, a recreated Taíno Indian village replete with bohíos and young bucks in loincloths. Tourists file through the huts to ogle the loin clothed-lads sitting Indian style on the floor. Instead of them pounding yucca or talking about moon phases in keeping with their roles, I heard one confide to the other: “that blond chick?! Careful, she’s a sewer rat.”
Then there are the tired, old stories about the whereabouts of your Cuban boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband/lover, but that’s another type of cuento altogether.
‘Tirando cuentos’ is part pastime, sport, and diversion, and there’s a certain type of Cuban with both the knack and need for storytelling – our oral historians of a sort. The following are three totally true cuentos, as told to me recently by different, but equally comic and charismatic, Cubans.
Racquetball with Barbarroja
If you live in the Bronx or Kendall, you likely know the fury Cubans have for handball. Here across the Straits, racquetball is equally (if not more) popular and enjoys an active fan base.
Back in the early 80’s, my friend – we’ll call him Juan Carlos – had a standing game with Comandante Manuel Piñeiro, known in these parts as Barbarroja. No small potatoes, this compañero was Vice Minister of the Ministry of the Interior, charged with strategic intelligence. In addition to being one of Cuba’s most popular cats, he had the ears of Fidel, Che and other revolutionary hot shots.
By all accounts, Barbarroja was a force to be reckoned with and respected – extremely intelligent, with cracker jack analytical skills and the confidence and station to speak truth to power, he was also gregarious and fun-loving in the best Cuban tradition. He was what we admiringly call a ‘tremendo jodedor’ or jokester extraordinaire.
After one of these regular matches, with Juan Carlos on the losing end once again (see note 1), Barbarroja made my friend a gift of three brand new racquetballs. The gist came with counsel: practice before their next meeting. Juan Carlos, being an entrepreneurial fellow with empty pockets, traded the bright yellow balls for a couple packs of Popular cigarettes.
Fast forward to the next match, where Juan Carlos again played poorly and lost. This time Barbarroja had another present, especially chosen for Juan Carlos: a carton of Popular cigarettes, gifted with a wink and a smile. Talk about hand on the pulse…
Painting the Pastor’s House
For several decades, Revolutionary Cuba was officially an atheist state. In addition to human rights violations, including internment in labor camps, religious adherents experienced discrimination in schools, the workplace, and society in general (see note 2).
So it came as no surprise that when the new pastor – we’ll call him Reverendo Lázaro – moved into a working class neighborhood, there was a good dose of wariness laced with suspicion. But over time, the humanistic pastor won over the neighbors with his moving revolutionary sermons, vigils to the sick and dying, and open door policy for all – believers or not.
When the local government initiated a neighborhood improvement plan back in the 80s, the cornerstone of which was a house painting program, residents rejoiced. But enthusiasm waned once everyone learned that the church and modest pastoral house where the Reverend lived with his family didn’t qualify for new paint. The neighbors rallied, singing the praises and merits of Reverendo Lázaro and petitioning the local government to reconsider. The paint and required labor were denied still.
The neighbors pressed on, informing officials that if they didn’t paint the pastor’s house, no one would agree to have their house painted. As a result, the entire neighborhood was denied paint. Undeterred, the neighbors raised money independently for paint and labor, which they donated to the pastor and his church. In the end, those were the only buildings painted that year of neighborhood improvement.
If I were writing this cuento for my book (and maybe I will), this is how it would have ended. Truth is, this story actually ended the way many things do around here – in a standoff and the paint went to a different neighborhood, presumably one sans charismatic pastor.
Silvio’s Baby Food
If you know Latin America, you know Silvio Rodríguez. Often called the ‘Bob Dylan of Cuba,’ Silvio was in the vanguard of the nueva trova movement of the 60s and 70s and continues to write and perform politically-charged songs. He’s an icon and touchstone for many Latin Americans and is especially beloved by Cubans.
Not surprisingly, musicians from all genres invite Silvio to play on their records since his talent and fame lend credibility and boost sales. Such was the case of a famous choral director some years ago. It was a simple request for the trovador to lay down a couple of tracks with the chorus, which he did.
While the record was still being mixed, Silvio received a visit from the studio manager.
“Tengo tremenda pena, but we have to charge you for the studio time on the tracks you laid down.”
“Really?” Silvio responded.
“It’s only $50 – our usual rate. It’s for my baby, she needs food.”
Without a word more, the superstar agreed. The following week, Silvio (who knows a cuento when he hears one) complied, sending $50 worth of baby food to the studio manager.
1. Juan Carlos didn’t tell me if he lost on purpose, though given Barbarroja’s position, wouldn’t you?
2. In 1992, Cuba amended the Constitution rescinding the atheist nature of the state, allowing full religious freedom, including permitting adherents to enter the all-important Communist Party for the first time. It’s important to note that religion was never illegal in Cuba and today, all manner of churches are present and active throughout the island.