Juani, the flower man

By: Carolina Hidalgo-McCabe

I peered over the side of the balcony, and below me, on the corner, I see an elderly man with a cart of sunflowers and gladiolus. He’s not yelling out to let people know he’s selling flowers, just standing calmly. I quickly descend the stairs to go speak to this man, but as I arrive, he’s no longer there. I almost head back up to the balcony of our Airbnb but decide to take a loop. Sure enough, there he is on the next corner.

“No hay alegria aca” (there’s no joy here) these words flow out of Juani’s lips, as he holds a cart filled with flowers. Juani was born and raised on Campanario street. He’s an elderly Afro-Cuban man wearing a Yankees hat, a red and white striped shirt, and some light-wash jean shorts. His cart of flowers is looking sad this morning and he gifts me one of his white gladioli stems, two flowers blossoming off it.

Short in stature and missing half of his teeth, Juani stood every morning on this corner from 9am to 1pm selling his sunflowers and gladiolus flowers, and the occasional rose. For a man who sells flowers, his vision of Cuba is dark. “No hay Esperanza, la única esperanza es el mar” (There’s no hope, the only hope is the ocean) We both look out to the sea, where thousands of Cubans have risked their lives on rafts to get to the US. “Cuba está vacío” (Cuba is empty).

To Juani, his community is breaking down. No longer are the bars filling up, the clubs have closed, the stores have emptied, and the lines just keep getting longer and longer. Down the street from us, a pharmacy sits on the street corner, and a poster of Che Guevara looms over empty shelves. The ration line for bread grows next to us. One piece of bread a day.

Juani is alone, but surrounded by community. Everyone seems to know him. As we converse on the side of the street corner, countless people, old and young come up to greet him or yell to him from across the street. An icon of the community it seems. He has one brother, who pulls up to us in his motorcycle at one point during our conversation and says hello. His other brother left for New Mexico on a raft in 1994 but was murdered three years ago. A friend of this brother in the US sends him the occasional medicine. It is remittances and money from exile that keep so many Cubans surviving.

Cuba, to Juani, is home, but a home that is crumbling. “Las cosas estan malas, pero bien malas” (things are bad, really bad) Juani states as he shows me his ration card, recounts all the people who have left the neighborhood, and describes the hunger that persists. Juani tells me he used to go in stores for fun, to look at the products. Now, he dreams of the days he could find a medicine he’s prescribed anywhere on the island.

I ask Juani what it’s like to be the flower man, a symbol of so much hope and joy, and to feel so little of it. He laughs and his eyes melt a bit, looking at his cart. He does it to get money without the state involved. The regime has failed him time and again. Failed them all. Juani misses the days when the streets were filled with music and laughter when you’d grab a bottle of rum for a good time, and when the malecón was bustling with people and rhythm. Instead, he sits out at night and watches the few people wander the streets. He stands on the corner, waiting for friends to come chat. Waiting. But as an elderly man, he has few expectations of a different life to live.

For the reality Juani faces, he emanates warmth. The first day he gave me a sip of his Cafecito out of a red plastic cup on his cart, the second day, we went to a window down the street, and he treated me to a coffee. We quickly sipped our slightly bitter cafecitos out of small glass cups and returned them for the woman to serve the next customer.

On each of my nine days in Cuba, I got to spend a short amount of time with Juani, he’d clue me into whether the people were able to get their bread ration for the day or if there was coffee or not. These daily interactions, filled with his honesty and tender compassion fill me with tremendous joy, heaviness, and hope for a world in which the flower man down the street can nourish himself and feel nourished by his country.

Cuba Blog Post

By: Ava Vander Louw

Prior to travelling to Cuba, I didn’t know what to expect—when trying to understand the reality of life on the island through google searches, it was apparent that the truth was obscured by government-owned travel agencies and hotels flashing images of beautiful beaches and retro cars. When I first arrived, through my window, even while blurred by my moving taxi, it became apparent that the photos I had found on google had not captured the reality I was witnessing. By the time I reached the Airbnb, my conception of Cuba that once only consisted of photos of fancy rooftops with luxury bars and salsa dancers was replaced with crumbling buildings and the remains of bankrupt store fronts. As my taxi driver, Carlos, rounded the corner of Companario, I had arrived at the place I would call home for the next 8 days. After putting my luggage away, another student, Gabby, and I walked along the streets near our apartment to familiarize ourselves. We walked down the street until we reached the T-intersection that led to a plaza. Along the water, the unmarked plaza had three fountains—all of which were non-operational and slowly eroding away. Within the basins of the fountains, Gabby and I watched as a group of boys, whose ages likely ranged from 7-17, play fútbol. As someone who grew up loving soccer, I became emotional watching them play with a ball that was visibly deflated and torn on all sides. Yet, as I was thinking about how the ball they played with would be considered trash where I played as a child, all I could hear was laughter and all I could see were smiles—especially when the “referee” would pull out reused pieces of paper to give a yellow card. This scene captured a lot of themes I would see over the next couple of days: even as families struggled to put food on the table and clothes on their backs, Cuban’s kept smiling, and kept laughing. Every morning, I would walk down the street to grab coffee from a man who was selling a shot of espresso for 30 Cuban pesos—equivalent to one dollar and 25 cents—and he would greet me with a warm smile each time. I saw groups of children playing baseball with a bottle cap and a stick, men who propped up their 1950’s Chevy BelAir’s with chipped cement blocks as they repaired their cars with their neighbors. It became clear overtime that the joy I felt around me was because, in a city as big as Havana, it felt like a small town. It was commonplace to see street-level apartments with wide open doors, and people perched up on their balconies, watching as people walk by or chatting with their neighbors below. Down every street, people kept an eye on what was happening. Carolina, another student on this trip, filled me in on something a local had told her. When she had asked a local lady why she never saw any ambulances, the lady responded with ease: “We take care of each other here. In the event of an injurious accident, neighbors, and even strangers, would instantly respond to help by picking you up, placing you in their cars, and driving you to the hospital.” When I heard this story, I was amazed; can you imagine this type of community initiative in the United States? I thought about this repeatedly throughout my time in Havana. On the last night of my trip, I watched from my balcony as my neighbors gathered in front of a door a few houses down to sing Happy Birthday as the clock stuck midnight. Lights turned on around them, and people filed out of their houses onto their streets and balconies to clap. I was so lucky to witness this in my last moments on the island that solidified an appreciation for Cuba that no google search could have shown me: in the absence of the material wants, and at times basic needs, the embracement of community and dedication to each other built a joy that couldn’t be taken away.