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Mavis Alvarez: Palma Soriano is my home town, in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, part of what was known as Oriente, up until 1976. In the period when I was born, the people of my town were half urban and half rural; neither town’s folk nor farmers, but a little of both. And there seems to be some kind of genetic predetermination in that situation, because when I was deciding what to do with my life, I studied agronomy. When I finished my studies, I wanted nothing else but to work with farmers. And that’s what I did for the rest of my life, until I retired. Sometimes I write stories about things I remember; I study what interests me and I live peacefully in a large house in the Vedado district of Havana with my dog Tuka, who is just about as old as I am. I have one son who in turn had four children, and I now have two granddaughters, two grandsons and a great granddaughter. I don’t think the end result has come out too badly; I have planted trees, written books and given birth to a son.

An Older Woman on the Streets of Havana

July 1, 2010 | Print Print |

Mavis Alvarez

Elderly in Havana park. Photo: Caridad

Either things are moving too fast or I move so slowly that I can’t keep up.  Over the last few months I haven’t been in the capital much; instead, I’ve been roaming and combing backcountry roads, observing and talking with women and men of the forest.

So what were we talking about there and what was I looking for?

Well, in fact, those women and men who work together —who are the same but different— have gradually contributed to more than a fourth of the agricultural surface of this country being covered with trees.

What sparks one’s curiosity is that little is known about these women.  They’re there, but since they’re invisible, one talks only about what they do together with the men, but not what they do in that unity of “together but not integrated,” as equals but different.  But anyway, since this is not the issue for today, I’ll see if I can get back to it later.

What I want to talk about is my reencounters on the streets of Havana after months of forests and back roads.  I’m somewhat concerned.  I have to pay closer attention; if not, within a short span of time I won’t understand anything that people in the street are saying.  And not just any people, but my people, older women and men.

As for the youth, it’s been a long time, and I mean a really long time, since I’ve been able to understand anything.  They’ve left me “on the curb,” as they say.  I’m not speaking of ordinary popular speech, which is now considered classic in Cuban street language, but the language among educated people.  If I’m not mistaken, even the illustrious Academy of the Spanish Language now recognizes these expressions as “Cubanisms.”

Nor am I referring to the words “aunt” and “uncle,” words used by young people and which were imported from Spain.  These are modern copies that have been adapted to the affectionate Creole way of speech.  They have an old meaning for relationships and have now become a part of crude Cuban street language, where any middle-aged person who does or doesn’t have nephews or nieces are called aunts and uncles.  But let me leave that point and get back to my original idea.

What I was saying was that I have an old friend, so old that she’s now celebrating 90 years of life.  She’s an elderly woman (she doesn’t like the word “old”).  We flower her with the term “golden-ager” or “of the third age,” which is nothing more than a euphemism for “Adios Lola,” although life expectancy here continues to rise and can reach up to 120.

I met this old ol’ friend of mine more than twenty years ago while she was working as a cleaning assistant in a maternity hospital near my house.

She’s a good person, and it had been a long time since I’d seen her.  It’s true that I now go for my gyneco-obstetric examinations less often and you readers can imagine why so I’m not going to get into explanations.

What happened was that while I was walking through the neighboring streets of the hospital recently, I ran into her out in front of the door for patient admissions and discharges in the back parking lot.  She was dressed in full uniform, with symbols of authority and badges of the respectable Surveillance and Protection Corps of that facility.

And she was still working!

She was clean as a tack, with her clothes well ironed, neat and with her long white hair combed back.

Even her neckerchief was correctly positioned in the center under her collar…

I was surprised when I recognized her, just as she was to recognize me.

I asked her a silly question, because the answer was obvious: “But my friend, you’re still working?”

“Sure,” she responded, “of course I am.”

And she smiled, with her half-closed enduring blue eyes and a roguish smile of a 15 year-old, navigating the wrinkles of the pretty woman that she was and still is.

“Sure,” she repeated, “and I’ll keep on until I pay off the “fridge.”

My astonishment increased. In this country we pay for electricity, which can be expensive if you exceed the normal level of consumption.  Water is practically nothing; it’s almost free of charge.

But the fridge!… The bills for these must be in the millions.

“Yeah girl, the fridge.  It’s the new Chinese one they gave me to replace the beat-up energy-wasting fridge I had; it was 40 years old.  I’m buying the new one on payments, and I only have ten more years to pay it off.

She continued, roaring with laughter, while petting the street dog that keeps her company during her monthly guard duty watching over the hospital parking lot.

And now, tell me if there’s anyone who understands the postmodern language of Havana’s streets!

Tell me something more: do you know anyone more optimistic than this older woman?


What's your opinion?

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CubaNews/ Walter Lippmann

    Somehow I don’t expect that the sheriff is likely to show up at the home of this 90-year old woman and take her refrigerator away for non-payment of her installments. From this account, she doesn’t seem to be sweating that prospect, either.

    While I’ve heard some complaints about the performance of these new Chinese machines, I gather that they do use electricity a lot more efficiently, thus reducing the country’s expenditure, and the individual’s bills for electricity usage. She doesn’t mention of her electricity bill has gone down.

    Has her electricity bill gone down?

  • Michael N. Landis

    Last time I visited my friends in La Lisa, they had a brand-new Haeir, replacing their truly ancient Crosley left behind by the Northamerican family who had previously resided there in the 1950′s/ early 1960′s (I knew that family, too.). The Crosley lasted more than a half-century! The new fridge was up off the floor on a wroght-iron stand, and the condensers in the back were dusted frequently, thus preventing future problems tipical when dust woozies collect in the rear intakes.

  • mary

    Mavis you are back!