Breakfast at my great uncle’s home in Havana used to consist of toasted bread which the Cubans call “desmayado” — or “fainted”, because it is so soft it flops to one side, with guayaba marmalade and papaya -or “fruta bomba.” My great uncle, Manolo, got up at around the same time every morning, made his bed without a single crease, put the bread in the toaster for when I would wake up and then feed his sausage-type dog Manchita, before going out to buy vegetables and greet the neighbours.
I met Manolo when I was about 19-years-old. He came to visit me and my mother in our flat in Spain and I happened to have a ticket booked to Cuba the following summer. I stayed at my friend Frida’s grandmother’s home in Nuevo Vedado, in Havana, but was moved by Manolo insisting I stay with “my family”, despite him barely knowing me.
I took up his offer, and ended up spending a couple of days with Manolo and Maruchi in in the sea-side suburb of Miramar, eating seafood in the patio and talking about our family back in Spain, including family members I had never heard about before.
The walls downstairs were beautifully covered with Maruchi’s original colourful art works, from artists like Gatorno and Portocarrero, and upstairs with her family photos.
Manolo showed me around the neighbourhood, and pointed to the Russian embassy on the palm-tree lined Fifth Avenue, a concrete square-shaped building which I used as a reference to get to his home. Another day he took me to the “cabaña”, to see a ceremony he helped organize when he was in the military, “cañonazo de las 9”, to remind vistors of a tradition dating back to the XVIII century when the cannons fire at the fortress to announce the closure of the city’s gates.
I was 18 the first time I visited Cuba, and my uncle showed me around the city with so much enthusiasm and told me endless stories which I was a bit too young to appreciate then.
Back to Cuba
Six years later, I went back to Havana to visit Manolo. I was curious to learn more about him. His wife, Maruchi, had recently died, and so I spent some time with him, and bought him a bunch of flowers.
He made me feel at home again, as though I had always been around. One of the ways we bonded was by making “frijoles.” I watched as he patiently separated bean by bean, to make sure there were no stones.
Though I had spent little time with Manolo, I felt at ease with him, and that I could understand him. I felt like he cared. Like me, he had roots in more than one place. In Cuba, he was Spanish, and in Spain, he was Cuban.
But living together wasn’t easy at times. The first week I stayed at his home, he asked me if I would like something to drink. I said I was tired and wouldn’t mind a coffee. But his answer dazzled me. “The coffee machine is only put on in the morning in this house,” he said.
I couldn’t understand his bitterness and rigidness at first, but came to realize that his austere personality had been molded over many years, product of a sacrificed life he had endured since a young boy living with his mother — who worked hard to provide him with a shelter and food and allowed herself little, if any, pleasures in life.
Manolo was born in 1931 a small town in Asturias in north Spain, where my mother was also born, and where I also spent endless summer holidays as a child. He says he loved going to the coast on the weekend, and remembers how his father would put him on the boat’s bow. He went to school there and had a horse, and his father taught him to dance rumba.
He recalls having a happy life, at least up until 1936, when the Spanish civil war broke out.
Manolo’s father was a “leftist” and Manolo says he had a Cuban character and “got up to mischief”. That year, his father’s neighbour, a right-winger, told him that dictator Franco had arrived in a nearby town. On 29 august he told his father, “Look, leave, because if you don’t, they’re going to come and kill you.”
His father followed that advice and fled, his mother trailing behind him. Manolo, who was only four years old at the time, says he clung on to his mother’s dress so tightly that she ended up taking him with her. They went off in search for the Republican lines, leaving his grandmother and his half-brother, aged 12 and his half sister, aged 13, behind in the village.
Manolo’s father had Cuban nationality; he was born in Cienfuegos, in the southern coast of the island. So Manolo and his mother got all the necessary papers together and embarked on a speedboat with 14 other Cubans. It was long journey to Cuba, via Bordeaux, where they got the Flanders boat to an island which eventually took them to Santo Tomas. From there they were picked up by a Cuban cargo boat and finally got to Santiago, the second largest city in Cuba, in the East.
Manolo started a new life in Cuba, where he says he adapted fairly quickly. He had no choice but to. From then on, he rolled from home to home, wherever they could find shelter and food.
Manolo’s father died in hospital six months after arriving to Cuba and his mother, Carolina, ended up working as a maid at the homes of the Cuba’s most wealthy families.
When Manolo grew up he worked as an accountant but gave his career up after hearing heard Fidel Castro’s speech in 1959. He was deeply moved by the speech and wanted to become part of the revolution, and soon trained to become a soldier, working his way up to coronel.
“What were you doing before the revolution?,” I asked Manolo one evening.
“Well, I was going to work, going back home, going out dancing with girls… Just normal things,” he told me. “I had no interest in politics at all.”
I wanted to learn about Manolo’s history and his views of the country, but soon stopped questioning him on politics as despite being a very calm, gentle man who hardly ever raises the tone of his voice, I felt my questions offended him.
His answer to almost all the country’s problems, including low salaries and lack of internet, summed down to “Los Estados Unidos” (The United States) and he would get defensive when I asked about freedom of speech and press. But is it fair, I asked him, that people can’t write anything in the government’s only paper, Granma, against the government?
“Why would anyone want to write against the government? Because we are an enemy of the United States? Do you think the press in Spain is democratic?” he snarked.
The U.S was his answer for everything: for the shortage of foods, for the lack of internet access, for poverty.
Shortly after arriving back to Portugal from that trip, the U.S announced it was stopping the embargo. I called Manolo up, to tell him I would be visiting him before too long. And what did he think about the recent changes? “It’s all a lie,” he muttered. “The U.S just wants to destroy us.” I didn’t question further, and told him I would soon be booking my ticket. “Let me know so I can plan everything,” he told me.
But months later, soon after I bought my ticket when discovering that he had cancer, Manolo passed away. I was now to spend the Christmas holidays with Haydee, his neighbor who lived just across the road. A new chapter for Cuba and for me.
Staying in Miramar again felt safe — I knew my way around. Small things in Cuba had changed. New private cafés and businesses had sprung up. There were wi-fi spots everywhere, and I could now access the internet for around 3 CUC an hour. (I would purchase it from someone selling the tickets on the street for 5 CUC, to save me from queuing up for an hour at the state-run communications company, ETECSA.)
I couldn’t have imagined there would have been wi-fi spots the last time I had been to Cuba, and could imagine Manolo wouldn’t be too happy. I remember him saying once that wi-fi would be a way for the U.S to “penetrate us.”
Haydee didn’t understand my project about Manolo. Though she thought he was quite a well known person in his neighbourhood, why would anyone outside Cuba think he was interesting? And now that he was no longer here, how could I complete it without him? I didn’t even have old images of him.
When I asked his wife’s family for pictures, they told me they had been sent to the historian of the Havana, and that it was too late to get hold of any family pictures for me. It was only a day before leaving that there was an envelope waiting for me, with all these old pictures I had never seen before.
At last, I felt like I had an excuse for having gone back.
Shortly after arriving back in Lison, I travelled back to Albuerne, in Spain — the town where Manolo was born in Asturias, and where I have family. We went to meet my great aunty (Manolo’s sister), Dora, for the first time, who recalled how afraid she was when the next day after Manolo left with his mother, her home was inspected by a an agent, accompanied by a neighbor.
Her eyes swelled up, and so did mine, as she sang a song from the civil war, about the “fascistas” arriving, and women having their heads shaved off if they were found to be republicans.
Manolo spoke a lot about his family in Spain, as though he had come back every year, but Dora said she only saw him a few times.
I realized talking about Spain was a way Manolo felt rooted. Albuerne was where he was once happy.