Memories of a Park
Translation from the Spanish version, for my English-speaking friends
By Luis F. Brizuela Cruz
As I navigate the proliferating social pages of my hometown (in exile), I frequently submerge myself in the memories of a time that my mind, capriciously, persists in sketching in black and white. Useless to me have been the digitalized hues provided by the traveling cameras of this new age, absent of causes and saturated with instant gratifications -which often seem to offend and disown past convictions. My ancient city remains just as I left it, undisturbed, with that mystical color aged by four and one half centuries of a certain innocence, which may be nothing else but an intimate preference of my own psyche.
My memories continue, invariably, walking out of my home on Martí South Street, searching for Marcos García Avenue, later converted to the “Avenue of the Martyrs” -some kind of imaginary “ghosts” purposely inspired by the revolutionary rhetoric. I make a sharp left at the corner to avoid an allegoric traffic, as I head toward the central park of my colonial city, turned later into a province. My anticipation excites my pace, as I salvage a short block, then a long one and suddenly the image amplifies just like the configuration of a motion picture set.
Every remembrance of my childhood and early adolescence seem to carry out the very same trajectory; even those when I transported my city inside a makeshift wooden suitcase to Pojabo (farm schooling), where I would take “it” out every once in a while simply to mitigate my home sickness. As I reach the south corner of the park, right by The Parados restaurant, many landmark symbols seem to greet me, reaffirming their presence. The magnificent marble wall that used to cover the front of the bank is still there, so are the various shops on both sides of the Serafín Sánchez movie house, whose name somehow managed to escape the transition. The luxurious Progreso Private Club building of our capitalistic past transformed into a public library; the Renacimiento theatre degraded and renamed “Conrado Benitez”, after one of the many fabricated heroes of the revolution; the majestic, long porch of the Hotel Perla, reaching almost the full extent of the northern side of the park and agonizing in years of solitude. Further down I envision the vestibule of the smaller Colonial Hotel, where I still can distinguish my father playing Dominos with some idle employees, as they all sip recycled, watery “café cubano”, during the middle years of the decade of the sixties.
The eyes of my imagination continue their trip around the memories of my park. A faint scent of a Mahagua tree reaches me. On the makeshift stage of my daydreams singer Luisa Maria Güell proclaims with the voice of an angel that “she is not of age yet to love” and reciter Luis Carbonell paints another folkloric image of our land with his poem where a black mother lullabies her new born baby: “Ninghe de mi vida, ninghe de mi amor”. At the center of the park, the municipal band stage serves as a circular hideaway for playing children. That old man, over there, seems to be Ramiro, the Quixote of the Funny Face, whom the Revolution rewarded with a portable chessboard in exchange for his trumpet, so he could teach us the game of Capablanca and the soviets.
The iron chairs sew an uneven seam around the gardens: “No pise el cesped” (“Do not step on the grass”). I believe I have never done it. I also think that I have never been irreverent in front of a statue, since the ones from my park learned how to look at me forever so inquisitively. The chill of the chairs in autumn do not diminish the fervor of the first innocent romances and their time is brief and tremulous, as we respectfully watch for the roaming elders. Even the dress code is pleasant amid the scarcity. My hometown is still elegant, even as the irreplaceable attires age inconsolably and the girls of the first romances wear out their mothers’ remaining perfumes and cosmetics -a mere presumption from a not too distant past when nobody imagined that so many essential things would disappear. I hear a murmur of voices speaking of a “renovation” for the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the “Villa of Sancti Spiritus”, as originally named by the conquering Spaniards. My wandering soul is startled by the sound of a language which it cannot fully comprehend. Even the smells are different and, suddenly, there are colors on the scene. To my left the main Independencia Street is now a “boulevard of dreams”, but only a few can turn them into reality. The living walk among the newly erected statues of the renowned dead from our local history. My hometown is now a city of statues and diverse social classes.
Demolition hammers echo in the distance as they drill the pavement of the park. They are talking about excavations that will serve a double purpose: “archeological” in a country where logic disappeared a long time ago and of “renewal” in a country where one would have to start by renewing the collective soul of its people. What a state of disorder! Those Carnivals from the summer of 1970 may have been the definitive turning point to this state of disorder. Here, in my park we saw things that we had never seen before: fights everywhere between locals and out-of-towners over the limited supplies in the stores and the improvised kiosks; the smell of urine mixed with the agitated spirits of cheap beer and liquor. People are confused, yet they proceed, as they have for various generations. They must survive, particularly now that they at least know how life is on the other side of life. Or do they really know? The worst damage caused by so many years of incoherent slogans has been to train an entire nation to be idle to then tease them with all the temptations from the repudiated, and yet envied world of “excesses”. People are still confused, but they proceed…
Suddenly, I see myself up above, on the balconies around the park, the same balconies that my childhood could never reach. They were the last parapets from which our town’s elite watched the magnificent floats and festivities of our famed yearly Carnivals. There is in my mind the memory of one of those perfect afternoons in which I had wanted to go up, but they would not let me. And the girls of the first romances would laugh from the heights their last mischiefs, before the equalizing exile. I find it ironic that it was the exile what made us “equal” and yet the failed revolution has created more social classes than ever before in our nearly five hundred years of history. Now the amount$ of the alms from the fellow Cubans abroad determines the social class of any national. There lies another example of the many contradictions of “socialism” and “communism”.
I look down and I see a familiar figure. It is me as I turn around to initiate my return home. The same road will bring me back, once more, to the starting point of my virtual tour, except that this time I have chosen the other side of the street. I want to make the traditional stop in the middle of the second block, where speedy chess players engage in a frantic and defiant match against each other and the fiction of time, as they watch and protect an imaginary post assigned to them by the “revolution”. Accustomed to the transient audience, they seem to ignore my presence. Thanks to Ramiro and, ironically, to the “revolution” I can anticipate the peril of the next move, yet I do not interrupt. It is a game of discrete gentlemen, unlike Dominoes. The player on the left executes an alternate play and loses his knight. Filled with indignation, he rises and walks toward the back of the quarters to attend to the ringing telephone: “¡Comité de Defensa de la Revolución! ¿Qué quiere?” (“Committee for the Defense of the Revolution! What do you want?”)
My soul smiles and continues down the street. Evening falls and I notice the first lights of my hopeless city full of parables. We are getting close to the start of the Celebration of the Five Hundredth Birthday of my hometown. I still hear the echo of the demolition hammers drilling the humanity of the park behind me. I do not believe my city, my Cuba or my people will ever be ready for any real celebration.