Memories of an Unknown Cuban Guerrilla (a fragment)*
Some time passed until I turned to playing at being a partisan, but with so much repetition in the morning exercises at school, I ended up convincing myself that I wanted to be like Che and that a simple retreat of cowardice, provoked by an instinct of self-preservation, didn’t diminish any hero, as our recent history shows.
My career as a guerrilla, like that of some other little friends, was very well hidden. One fine day, when I had not even entered into adolescence, someone whispered in my ear that Velasco Alvarado, the president of Peru, had invited me to visit his country. The first thing I thought was that this Velasco must be crazy, because only someone demented would think about inviting a boy he didn’t know; there were enough Peruvian kids to invite in Peru, and surely they were better educated. Later I found out that the invitation wasn’t for me, that I was going as a “gatecrasher,” but as the subject was traveling, I got ready immediately, because certainly my ideology was closer to Marco Polo than to Che Guevara.
I didn’t like the secret character of such a grand adventure. which had to be kept silent to maintain the simplicity of a guerrilla. Of course I ended up violating the secret rules because I liked to gossip and because I considered it ridiculous to travel without boasting. I think from that moment I started being different from the so-called “modest” ones.
Several little revolutionary friends and I traveled with an escort, but I won’t reveal such important names in order to avoid problems. The flight was fascinating, more so because I knew that traveling was an exclusive right of free and trusted men. The so-called gusanos, or worms, those who had left for Miami, did not travel and were considered cowards. I had been on planes to travel to Santiago de Cuba, but never such a large one. I was impressed to the point that my suit and tie seemed comfortable. I behaved as my mother ordered: quiet and obedient during all the guerrilla-tourism.
At that time I thought that traveling to other countries was like visiting another world with totally different things, that people lived in caves or on spaceships, that they flew or floated like in my dreams. But no, upon opening the door of the aircraft I saw a city like any other. Lima was like Havana when the sky was clouded over, and the whole time a type of drizzle came down that didn’t get me wet or bother me. The people spoke my language, although with quite a different rhythm, and they used a “pues” (“well”) that I nicely heard everywhere. But the colors, pues, they were novel.
According to what they showed us, the city was capturing me, telling me those enigmatic secrets that easily envelop the imagination of any kid: a ton of people, new tastes that went from the barbecue of ceviche to a dessert that tasted like laundry soap; the historic old town, an enormous fort on the edge of the sea, testimonial museums of archeology, the fish nailed by the pelicans, and all that, enveloped in the phantasmagorical fear of being constantly threatened by an earthquake, made my voyage into something fascinating.
My first encounter with capitalism was with Adam’s chewing gum, Halls caramels, toy shops, the toboggan in the amusement park, the train of terror, the house of mirrors, the television commercials and the cartoons about Popeye the sailor. In my Cuban childhood, nothing like that existed. Chewing gum was forbidden, the carousel in Acapulco Park had been broken since its inauguration, and in the house of mirrors of the extinct Coney Island only detergent and water got lost. Let’s not talk about the cartoons,because Mashenka was always messing around with his bear, Elpidio Valdés was always fighting with the Spaniards, and Matojo, my favorite, bored me with his voice of a lovesick old lady. And then, what cartoon hero would surpass Fidel Castro?
We stayed in a pretty neighborhood, in a pretty house with a pretty garden, behind a pretty wall and with a pretty Great Dane dog that went by the name of Rocco. Surrounded by such beauty, disagreeable things started to appear: You couldn’t go out to play ball on the sidewalk because in Lima children were kidnapped. We couldn’t say we were Cuban in public because the press would stalk us; we couldn’t get near the outside door because the CIA might kill us; and we couldn’t invite anyone over to the house for fear of I don’t remember what. Of all the restrictions only the last bothered me because I spent my mornings at the window looking out for a girl who walked by every day with a black leather backpack.
I never knew if she was going to school, but probably not, because she wasn’t wearing a bandanna. Often I wondered if my unknown friend was poor or a Jehovah’s Witness, because Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only ones who didn’t wear such an honorable pioneer badge. According to what they taught me, they were either confused or counterrevolutionaries. For poor people outside my country, education isn’t free, and children are born stupid. But stupid or counterrevolutionary, I wanted to know her, to carry her backpack and talk with her. More than that, I think she was my first platonic love.
Some days passed until we got to know who had invited us. One of his sons took us to the meeting; he was curiously romancing a blond little Cuban girl. This wasn’t much commented on, I remember, because we Cubans liked to gossip. The boy showed off his car with elegance, and his way of driving in the style of a Formula One racer. We covered a large distance on a gigantic auto route with tollbooths. If Alvarado junior had bribed me with a couple of pieces of Adam’s chewing gum, I would have told him that my female compatriot was madly in love with his adornments and his male charms.
The meeting between guerrillas was very interesting. A fantastic house, a dinner out of a movie and a luxury swimming pool that I couldn’t enjoy because there was a spotted dog that scared me and even though someone yelled, “Don’t worry; he doesn’t do anything,” whether he did or not, I’m afraid of dogs and decided not to display my gifts as a swimmer.
In a few words: the President was like any president. A trivial conversation in which I smiled without opening my mouth. The senior leader thought that among the invitees was a stupid little boy, but I preferred to keep my mouth shut from fear of overacting and so as to not appear as egocentric as I am. To stand out was dangerous, and a single error could get me sent back to Havana. But I didn’t tell this to my mother, who days before I left Cuba, had me read a book about the famous Nazca lines and pre-Columbian culture. She had the illusion that she had a cultured son who could speak extensively about Illapa, Inti or Viracocha, the Inca deities that represent the moon, the sun, and God the creator. The simplicity, modesty and humility of the Cuban revolution was talked about, until finally the itinerary, the budget, and the arrangements for our expedition came into focus. I don’t remember if it was then or later when they handed over a Polish AKM rifle, an Israeli UZI sub-machine gun, a 2.2 rifle with a telescope, backpacks, caps and a ton of things that were distributed according to the level of responsibility of their future porters. I want to imagine that it happened there, because to have entered a foreign country loaded down with that arsenal would really have been an irresponsible act that violated international law. But it didn’t matter; something remained clear to me: You can only manage the art of living if you speak from the left, think in the middle, and live like those on the right.
Some days after the important meeting we began an expedition which someone started calling by the very ridiculous and sarcastic name of “Pioneers for the Amazons.” It would seem that the author of such a tasteless phrase didn’t know that Cuban kids couldn’t leave Cuba, not even accompanied by their parents, unless it was a definitive exit from their native land, or on a rare cultural or sport delegation, but it was logical, and I am not going to judge him for that. Cuban politicians never know anything or pretend they don’t know.
Cuzco is an ostentation of energy, an extravagance of cultures. And the city, with its cobblestone streets, the colorful dress of its inhabitants, and its walls of stone, made it a place of dreams. To board the train was a unique experience, and Machu Picchu was the culmination, because its height provoked in me an altitude sickness that left me like I imagined were left the victims the Incas offered up with corn and cocaine leaves in their festivals for Inti Raymi.
There was something that the others loved to do: feed the llamas. It’s true that they’re inoffensive animals, but they scared me because I saw them as a strange quadruped lost somewhere between a horse, a sheep, a rabbit, and they even seemed like that dirty and skinny dromedary that subsisted in the Havana zoo by eating “jawbreaker” candy.
Another unforgettable place was the desert. At least I had never seen so much sand in one place, much more than on any beach, and it was mighty curious to walk and see that a few seconds later the air erased all my tracks.
After this experience our group flew to Iquitos, formerly an important port when there was rubber fever. From there we left for the Amazon, where we took a launch to navigate on the deep river until we moved into the jungle. I hadn’t put one foot on board when someone humorously called our attention to a woman who was washing her clothes in the current. I almost died of amazement upon seeing that this compañera was doing her wash bare-breasted, and her breasts moved with total freedom to the rhythm of her washing as if they were the swings in my grandmother’s house. Up until this moment I had seen only the titties of my sisters, insignificant next to those huge dancing things, and I couldn’t stop looking even though I didn’t want to. I tried to focus on the sky above, but my eyes betrayed me and stuck terrifyingly to the dark nipples of that feminine exaggeration. I think that the experience awakened my fondness for pornography. In the face of such a huge shock, the camera, which was my responsibility, fell from the boat into the water. Fortunately it was quickly recovered and nothing worse happened.
Our boat captain took us on a long walk up to a tourist enclave in the middle of the jungle. There was a hotel of rustic but excellent construction that reminded me of the hunting chalets in Cuba. There was even a trained Toucan, and I thought that if things were like that, I would love the jungle. We fished and ate piranhas, we saw eels, and after a bit we went to sleep.
The next day things began to get complicated. We left in large but very narrow canoes. If they tipped over, the family of piranhas we had fished the afternoon before would avenge themselves given the tremendous feast of Cuban meat and especially mine because surely I had the spiciest flesh due to the exquisite rice with chicken a la chorrera that my mother prepared every Sunday.
Finally, after a long time of suffering in silence, we arrived at the shore. I could say we disembarked in style like Columbus, but in my case it was more like a shipwreck. I landed on my butt in order to not touch the water, which was full of piranhas, eels and nutrias, which are small, hideous animals that look like rats. We walked with difficulty through the Peruvian Amazon bush in search of indigenous settlements. I fell constantly because I was not watching the ground and was always expecting a sudden attack of jaguars, monkeys, snakes, or CIA officials.
At those elevations I missed the security of the tourist hotel, and I didn’t want to be in that dark place where I never should have been. While we approached the heart of the jungle, our guide, in order to savor the moment, told us we would be the first people in the “civilized” world to have contact with the natives. The encounter was friendly. We exchanged gifts with a show of affection: clothing, pens, arrows, bows, blowpipes, little mirrors and other things. I felt as moved as I imagined foreigners felt who visited my country in search of prostitutes.
In a demonstration of precision the natives launched their venomous darts with enormous blowguns, and we answered the gesture by firing off bursts with our UZIs and AKMs. Just our presence made them more humble, and except for some nervous giggles about so many Indian women with naked breasts, I almost burst out crying from the pain that I felt about the aboriginals.
Our experience as colonizers was going perfectly until we saw hidden in a corner a mountain of beer cans and a tape recorder. In addition, those deceitful Indians liked chewing gum more than I did, and this deflated my balloon of respect, fantasy and innocence. They have to live from something, but that show in the middle of the jungle really disappointed me. I was full of mud from my head to my feet, and I looked grotesque, like Robinson Crusoe after getting malaria. I had traveled halfway around the world so that these toothless guys could laugh at my naivety. I hope the philanthropists and ecologists forgive me, but I prefer the urban jungle; because of that I understand the prostitute who robs the client who thinks he’s Diego Velázquez. I’m not going back to the jungle.
When we returned to Havana our guerrilla group was received with honors for having raised high the name of the Pioneers. Because of my tremendous political immaturity then and now, I didn’t understand much. But I liked being a wandering guerrilla.
Sometime passed until I again was a passenger on an international flight. When I was 12 years old, another important mission rang deliciously in my ears, proposing to me the possibility and the honor of raising our standard, this time in Mexico. Another passport, more photos, more vaccinations. I don’t like needles, but for travel I will tolerate violation. I enjoy the preparations for a trip: buying new clothes, going to the tailor, the plans for a visit and all that. Now you should know that when you travel, people suggest places, meals and reading. I had almost bought a bag for chewing gum, because I had discovered the existence of this capitalist vice, but unsuccessfully. An indecent old lady frustrated my trip to the country of the Aztecs by inferring that her sons had more rank than I. I had to stay like the brides in the telenovelas, clothed and in church. Well, in church, no, because religious beliefs then were also prohibited. My only consolation was to listen to the stories of my little friends who went, to see their photos and to be grateful for the cheap little gifts.
Many dentists say that chewing gum is harmful for your teeth, but I have to recognize the pain I felt at leaving my little friends with all their teeth in good health because they didn’t sample the ton of chewing gum that I promised to bring for them.
Juan Juan Almeida
*Memorias de un guerrillero cubano desconocido,
Ediciones Espuela de Plata, Sevilla, 2009, pp. 10-18.
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Translated by Regina Anavy