Report from Ernesto – about Ernesto and Marisa – Havana, Cuba August 11, 2011 - Via E-mail

Ernesto – Age – Early 20’s; Birthplace – Havana, Cuba; Residence – Havana, Cuba; Lives with Mother and Extended Family; Occupation – Educated in Business and Finance, Works in Hotel Operations for Government Owned Hotel; Fiancé of Marisa

Marisa – Age – Late Teens; Birthplace – Havana, Cuba; Residence – Havana, Cuba; Lives with Parents and Extended Family; Occupation – Educated in Business and Finance, Works at front desk of Government Owned Hotel; Fiancé of Ernesto

Hi, Franklin. I thought I’d write this little story about Marisa, the love of my life, and our lives here in Centro Habana.

I run my fingers across the bars of the gate that enclose the living area of the apartment where my love, Marisa, lives with her family. I check my watch. Five in the morning.

Her face peers around a wall across the room, on the other side of the bars. She holds up three fingers, and mouths “Almost.” I cross the narrow street and sit on the curb, imagining her fresh, gorgeous face, and her delicious scent.

Marisa’s family occupies the front half of the first floor of the old building, deep in the bowels of central Havana. All the buildings in the neighborhood are former apartment houses, several stories tall. The architecture varies, but most have concrete or tile facades, balconies, and wood-shuttered windows. Now, many years after the revolution, they are falling down all around. In Old Havana, the government has created a serious project of renovation, bringing back the former elegance by restoring crumbled concrete, painting the details in colors that cause a good contrast — bringing the streets back to life. But not here, in the slums.

At age eighteen, I’ve never seen these buildings in their elegant former state, but I’ve seen some photos, and I’ve heard how elegant this area was. In fact, when I have time and access on the Web, I search the Internet looking for photos from the old days.

My family lives in a portion of the third floor of the building next door to Marisa and her family. Like Marisa, I live with my father, mother and a grandmother. My grandmother and Marisa’s grandmother have lived in the same apartments (the entire floor, not just the portion they occupy now) when Castro and his revolution took title to all real estate of Cuba in 1959, and allocated living quarters to the people. Like many others, out grandmothers remained where they were, more or less. In the case of Marisa’s grandmother and the rest of the family, the government determined that they did not need the entire unit, so the government divided it and assigned the back half to somebody else.

My grandparents had been given the entire unit at first, and then the government took a portion later. Later still, after my grandfather had died, my grandmother had allocated two rooms to others, who’d created tiny self-contained lofts in rooms the size of small bedrooms. In each unit, my grandmother had allowed the occupant to install a flimsy, unsafe half floor, extending from the middle of the wall, and a makeshift wooden ladder to reach it. This was the bedroom portion of the room. The occupant would also shield off a tiny portion as a kind of bathroom, with or without plumbing, and another corner as a kind of kitchen, again with or without plumbing. There are hundreds of tiny “barbacoas” in apartments around the city. The party who had the right to occupy the dwelling collects rent for allowing the occupancy. If the existence of the room were known to the government, the “landlord” would have to pay tax. But many barbacoas go unnoticed.

While young people and some parents would complain about the government, those the age of our grandmothers never say anything.

Last night, Marisa and I sat here on the street, sharing hopes and dreams, holding hands, I sitting on the sidewalk and she crouched in front of me. I don’t remember exactly when we crossed over from neighborhood acquaintances, then friends, to having this extremely close relationship. Only recently, we’ve begun talking of marriage. I haven’t proposed. Our marriage just became an obvious result at some point. We aren’t going anywhere. We aren’t going to meet anybody else. We would never have a date like might be common elsewhere in the world.

A rat scrambles across the street. A scurvy dog lumbers by.

The love of my life arrives at the door with a large key, snaps the huge padlock, pushes the barred gate open, closes it, snaps the lock closed again, tosses the key into the middle of the room, and kisses Ernesto on the cheek.

I touch her hand delicately, careful not to be improper, as we turn and head to work. Her eyes sparkle as she gazes at me.

She whispers, “I studied the Excel book last night after we left. Do you know the word ‘series’?”

We’ve been secretly studying English, computers, and computer programs, hiding in our kitchens, or on the floor of the front room, so the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution will not see us.

“Yes,” I say. “It’s like a list, but in an order, like one, two, three, or January, February, March. You know?”

“And ‘fill’?” The sun reflects off her enchanting eyes.

“It’s like putting something into something - like dirt into a hole. In Excel it means input data. There’s a feature, where you have a number, and you mark it and some empty spaces, and hit fill down or fill right, and it logically fills in the other empty spaces.”


We have decided that if we learn English, and computers, we will have several advantages. First, all Cubans receive basically the same paltry wages for working. But if a Cuban has knowledge about something important, it is possible to make additional money — the money that foreigners use, as opposed to the Peso Cubano. We can earn money by tutoring, and if the government of Cuba ever falls, and the relationship with the United States returns, we’d be one step ahead if if we know English.

“How long was the man in the brown suit outside last night?”

We’d noticed a man in the neighborhood the last couple of evenings. We presumed he was some kind of spy, because a stranger showing up and standing in a neighborhood was usually sent by the government to watch somebody. Maybe he knew about their studies and believed it was subversive. Maybe he was watching somebody else. Maybe he was watching their neighbor, Yaineris. We were sure she was selling her body for money. Maybe that’s why he was there. Or maybe he was looking for people who were renting out rooms without a license and thus without paying the tax. But surely he was watching somebody.

After walking a few blocks towards the north, towards the water, we turn eastward. The sun glows between buildings, illuminating crumbled and filthy apartment houses. Brick and other materials show through collapsed stucco building material. Precariously hanging balconies, some held up by two-by-fours or metal rods protruding from walls, keep them from falling.

A few old cars and modern European taxis pass by. Most of the time, we walk in the streets. Other workers walk towards the outskirts of the center city. Those who work farther away stand in seemingly endless lines at bus stops. We make our ways towards the Malecón, the long walkway that hugs the water from Old Havana to our right, inside the harbor, all the way to the other side of Havana, through the up-scale Vedado area to our left. We both work in the Hotel Deauville, right on the Malecón, in Centro Havana. It’s the only hotel in the area, rather old, but popular, rather far from Havana Vieja and from Vedado, but popular none-the-less. Tourists who read guide books would visit in order to see the 6th floor pool view of the city.

The blue building below is Hotel Deauville. The 6th floor pool area is on the other side, in the back, so the views are of Centro Habana.

As Cubans, we would not be allowed to enter a hotel except to work, and even though we work in the hotel, we’ve not been permitted to go to the 6th floor until recently, when I was promoted as a food server at the tiny outdoor bar area there. One day, I convinced a manager to allow Marisa to accompany me to the pool area, just to admire the view for a few minutes.

Below is one view from the 6th Floor of Hotel Deauville:

Marisa is working towards a degree in economics at the University of Havana, and works in the hotel part time. That gives her the right to work in the business office. She is good with numbers, and loves creating ledgers and spreadsheets, by computer when possible, but also by hand. I work in various areas of the hotel, but mostly in food management.

I am organizing the espresso bar in the lobby, when I hear the manager call Marisa out from the back room. “There’s a problem with the computer,” he says. “Do you know what’s wrong?” Like the computer she uses in the back, this is a dinosaur, slower than slow. It has a large, old fashioned, white monitor, keyboard and mouse, the plastic discolored by years of cigarette smoke and dirty fingers. I walk to the counter and peer over. She hits control, alt, delete, pulls up the task list, and closes the non-working program. I’m proud that I taught her that, on my laptop, which is lightning-fast compared to these pcs. My father, who left Cuba many years before, had a visiting friend bring it in from Panama.

As Marisa fiddles with the computer, a guest says his hotel key isn’t working. He hands a plastic card to the front-desk worker, who sticks it into a slot, and then slides it out and returns it to him. Prior to working here, neither of us had ever seen or imagined that a key could be computer-set like that.

Gabriela, the large, black cleaning woman who lopes around the hotel all day long with a mop and bucket, is talking to a white, male European guest. “Won’t you put me in your suitcase, and take me with you,” she says.

I laugh. I think it’s risky for Gabriela to say out-loud that she’d like to leave the country. Marisa always takes care not to criticize the government in any way.

A young, white, Cuban man enters the lobby. He shakes hands with and hugs a foreign man. It seems they knew each other from the past. The foreign man says in English, come up to my room for a minute, so we can transfer photos from the computer. The Cuban says, still in English, “I cannot go to a room. It’s not permitted.”

“Then, let’s go to the 6th floor, and have a coffee at the bar.”

I hear that I may have customers so I enter the elevator as well, at the same time they do. The security guard vaults across the room and sticks a foot in to hold the elevator open. In Spanish, he demands, “Where are you going?”

The Cuban says, in Spanish, “Sixth floor. To the bar.”

The guard looks at them. “Not to a room?”

“Not to a room.”

The guard sticks his head inside and looks at the buttons. The only one lit up is the 6th floor. The guard looks at me, like I’ll report an infraction. Then he backs out and lets them go.

The Cuban says, in English, “That’s how they treat Cubans. Second-class citizens.”

Marisa and I have a mid-morning break from work, so we walk, hand-in-hand to the Malecón. “How was your morning,” she whispers, in English.

“That’s it,” I whisper back. “Practice your English.”

Then we revert to Spanish. We sit on the wall across from the hotel. The water is a bit rough. Across the street, next to the hotel, stands one formerly stately home, in disrepair. One is being renovated. It has a street-level balcony, supported by sliced halves of concrete drainage pipes.

We can picture how grand the other was, but it’s hard to grasp its former beauty, as it crumbles.

Below is a view from the street to the left of the hotel:

Marisa brushes her fingers along my arm. “Mi amor,” she says, “What time do you get off? Are you coming to the University with me?”

“I think about three. Yes, I’ll accompany you.”

“Do you imagine the United States, so close, across the water?”


“How I want to go.”

“I would love to go with you.”

“But we never can. We are stuck here, like flies in a trap.”

“We have each other.”

“Yes,” she says. “Will we marry?”

“Of course.”

“And we will be happy? Not like so many who become bored with each other and unhappy because they are stuck?”

I smile at her, and squeeze her hand. “We will always be happy because we will be together.”

“Will we have children?”

I sigh aloud. “I suppose, but I will feel guilty bringing another life into the world to be stuck here.”

“It will change,” she says. “Some day. Fidel will die. Raúl will be overthrown. He’s worse than Fidel, but not as powerful. He’ll be overthrown.”

“You know,” I reply, “The things we’ve been studying — Venezuela — all the other countries that seem headed down the same road — and those historical books we’ve read, about Russia, and China, and Germany, and so many others — I am not so confident about our future.”

Recently, we came across a paperback book left in the hotel, called ‘Shanghai Girls’, by a Chinese-American writer named Lisa See. Marisa says, “You know, in that Shanghai Girls book, the way they describe what happened in China in the thirties, and even the way the Americans spied on them and tricked them into confessing in the fifties, I don’t know if any country is safe, or better than any other.”

“My love,” I say, placing an arm on her shoulder, “I still believe Cuba is the worst. Being stuck here, it’s certainly the worst for us. Before we were born, there were so many bad people in government, and Fidel was supposed to be the savior, to save us from that horrible dictator, Batista.”

“Ha,” she says, “But then it turned out he was worse. He was supposed to give Cuba freedom. The big lie. The big lie.”

“We’ll have each other,” I say again. “I love you.”

Walking back across the street, Marisa squeezes my forearm and says, “I love you to, mi amor. I would love a beautiful wedding, with a grand party here at the hotel, and a honeymoon — remember we saw those articles about honeymoons the Americans take in exotic places.”

I laugh. “A honeymoon might consist of a day off of work.”

She smiles. “And whose grandmother will we live with, since we certainly will never, ever qualify for a dwelling in Havana?”

“Yours has more room. Maybe after a while, we can move to a smaller city, where there’s more availability.”

She puts an arm in mine. “We’ll keep studying, and find somebody to tutor, and we’ll be happy.”

“I am happy — with you.”

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