HAVANA TIMES — I started asking myself this question three years ago. I was in Central Park in Old Havana, seated a few yards from the place where many people, mostly men, gather to argue about baseball, soccer and volleyball – or about Michael Jackson’s death at that particular time.
A couple of tourists passed by and asked if I spoke English so that I could explain to them what was happening. What to us was a lively discussion about sports was — in their eyes — a raging quarrel that at any moment could explode into bloodshed.
It took me a couple of minutes to explain the situation, in English. In the end they smiled at me thankfully but the woman did something that surprised me: She pulled a bar of soap out of her purse and gave it to me as a gift.
That wasn’t the first time I had received a gift from a foreigner. Actually, now that I think about it, most of my clothes have been given to me by foreign friends or Cubans who live abroad.
But that was the first time I felt like some starving beggar. Why did this woman think that she should give me a bar of soap?
I think it started in the ‘90s, during the Special Period crisis, when everything was desperately welcomed: from a tube of toothpaste to a pair of shoes.
I heard or read an anecdote about a Cuban woman who wrote that she didn’t have any sanitary pads, and a European woman sent her an exaggerated amount of packets. The Cuban was a writer and she had written a fictional story…fiction based on harsh reality.
In the ‘90s, we Cubans used pieces of cloth during menstruation, and we washed them so that they could be reused.
With the official end of that period, we should have left behind any reliance on what some foreigner might give us. Likewise, they should have stopped looking at us like the starving poor who barely survive on their salaries and have to sacrifice to buy a bar of soap.
Four months ago, a Jamaican friend was about to come here to Cuba on a visit, so she asked me what I wanted her to bring me. Although I only asked for a USB flash drive, she insisted that I ask for anything I might need, without being shy: clothes, shoes, food, soap or whatever.
I asked if she would make the same offer to a Canadian friend, if she were traveling to Canada. She responded by saying yes, explaining that a Canadian friend might ask for some special type of tea, spices or something like that.
But would an adult Canadian university graduate have to ask for a flash drive, clothes, shoes or even deodorant? I don’t have an answer to that question. I don’t know how a grown female college graduate lives in Canada.
When I finally saw my friend at the hotel where she was staying, I was introduced to a group of her friends, who to my surprise had also brought gifts for me.
How did I feel, standing before the warm and sincere faces of those women who, inadvertently, gave me a cold shower in my own underdevelopment, stripping me of the little dignity I had left that morning?
I hadn’t mentioned a small incident that had happened a half hour earlier, when I got in the hotel elevator with my friend and the security guard made me feel like a potential criminal. Perhaps that expression is exaggerated – hell, maybe the whole thing was in my mind.
When I explained to him the circumstances (my friend didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to go up to her room without paying or without a special permit, and I didn’t know that she wanted to take me up to her room), the guard was very polite. He only called his supervisor as part of the hotel regulations, because they had seen me on the camera. The manager was also very friendly.
Feeling like I’m a potential criminal is still a conditioned reflex. Just four years ago we Cubans couldn’t go into hotels without feeling we’re being watched, that we’re out of place.
Now we can even stay in hotels (those who can afford it), which is to say that officially we aren’t second class citizens in our own country. Still, it’s hard to get used to the new status.
Back to the question: How did I feel standing there in front my friend and her gift-bearing friends? I can only say that what came to mind were those times when my parents and all the adults around me would say, “Study to be someone in life, so you don’t have to depend on anybody.”
My whole generation was brought up with that idea. Now I receive my basic necessities from the hands of foreigners, including people from developing countries who aren’t rich but are able to bring me things I can’t afford.
How did I feel? Tremendously grateful. Fortunate and extremely grateful.
So, did you think that I accepted the bar of soap from that woman who was from who knows what English-speaking country? Of course I did. I smothered the incipient attack on my dignity in seconds. It was a luxury I couldn’t afford.