Friday, January 15, 2010

Where is my “Piruli”?

Mercedes, “la china” (the Chinese) as everybody knows her, was a school teacher for more than 35 years, the kind of old school teacher who loved children and enjoyed being surrounded by children. And for all those 35 years she was, in body and soul, a dedicated teacher in a primary school in downtown Havana. Day after day, she made up from her house near Neptuno to the school and life was passing through her age, seeing her own and foster children leaving Cuba with no return.Where is my Piruli

Her older son lost his life in a rafter after a disastrous attempt from Mariel, on the western side of the capital city. Mercedes was heartbroken. Her last and younger son set off for Spain two years later. At the age of 61, Mercedes found herself alone with her husband in a big empty house and without news of her only child. It was 1991, and Cuba’s economy started to feel the premonitions of its collapse. Mercedes requested her retire.

She couldn’t face anymore the school, children running and playing innocents games and some not too much innocent games. She was tired to deal with ignorance in the school system, with teachers without any aptitude and with shortage of everything from a pencil to the most essential book. One late afternoon of that year, she picked up the few items she kept at school and walked out forever. Nobody told her goodbye.

A small pension covering no more than a week, and the currency loosing solid ground made her life a misery. She had to find out a way to survive in the new jungle. One day, wandering on her way home from her daily routine she almost step over a mother with a little girl looking desperate through a store window: the little girl was demanding a candy with the despair and sorrow any child claims when is impossible. For Mercedes the child’s tears were a ray of light in the darkness. She decided to sell candies, what we call in Cuba “Piruli” which is a kind of lollipop in the shape of a cone with a little flavour of lemon or a hint of vanilla when the occasion was extraordinary.

And here you are, from school teacher to a Piruli’s seller. From Heaven to Hell but surviving as she said. The hard thing was to find sugar, but her husband who was at his beginnings a field worker and later worked in the railway sector knew where to go to fetch sugar: Guanabacoa, where many train convoys were delivering sugar from and to Havana. Every 2 or 3 days, Francisco or Pancho as people knew him, headed to Guanabacoa and returned a bit later at night, the business had to be done late at night and carefully.

Life wasn’t easy all times. There were moments were Pancho came back home empty handed: the police was patrolling the railway. But mostly was fine and Mercedes was fairly well with her little business, but always with the shivering sensation on her skin when she saw any policeman around the corner.

In 2001, Pancho died in his way home from Guanabacoa. Mercedes was desperate and complete alone this time and she was a little bit intimidated because his death revealed the other side of her: the side that life and poverty brought to a lovely school teacher with a tiny pension. To live in Cuba is to resolve, to cheat the government the other way around: it doesn’t pay your value in life, anyway.

With the help of a kind-hearted nephew, Mercedes went on with her little factory of candies to her neighbourhood. There was a school nearby, and many parents in their way home stopped in Mercedes’ door and for only 1 peso they got the priceless candy to their children. It wasn’t Heaven, but it wasn’t Hell either.

Poor Mercedes, in 2008 Raul Castro’s government decided to install cameras around Havana, one of them was installed in the very corner of Mercedes block, a few metres from her front door. According to the official language of the system, cameras were installed to fight crime, illegalities and bring more protection. But in Mercedes case, there wasn’t any other important premise around her corner rather than the church where Mercedes spent her Sunday mornings. It looked by Cuba’s standards that a catholic church is a place with high criminal activity, or illegal transaction or at least something that you have to protect from somebody, rather than a place where you find the voice of God and His protection.

Mercedes suspended her little “business” frightening with the perspective of any deal with the police in which she never stepped one day in her entire life. At the beginnings, the usual “customers” flowed requesting her “Piruli”, but Mercedes was terrified, people had been saying that the cameras were installed to catch any illegality and with the new government instalment this time won’t be any salvation possible: neither dissidents nor illegalities.

Twice Mercedes was astonished. The first time, a policeman knocked her door and asked her for a candy. She thought the man was trying to catch her in trouble, but he was trying to buy something to her daughter, after all a policeman is also a father with the same necessities. But the second time she got a fine, and for the first time in her life she dealt with the law: just she paid the fine. It was easy.

Life is a path: you travel along and grow; you learn and get use to the challenges you find in life; you fear and defy; you live. Mercedes learned that to live in Cuba is to live in an eternal illegality. It was written by her own leaders from the beginnings: no government elected, no institutionalism established, no president in charge. Just one man seated in the palace’s chair acclaimed by the hordes of followers.

So, life is to survive with audacity and she did. She is selling “Pirulis”. Now and then, the authorities give her a fine, a warning and even a few hours in a Police station expropriating her belongings: sugar, moulds to make the candies and something they find “illegal” in her fridge; mostly some beef steaks which in Cuba is a capital crime. But being a 78 year old has some advantages: the authorities let her go but retain the merchandise. Nobody knows to where it goes when Mercedes left the Police station.

Meanwhile, with a few intervals when people wonder where the beloved “Pirulis” are, Mercedes is still selling her candies after return patiently and with a smile in her lips from the Police Station.