New Internationalist

Princess Caucubú Goes Shopping

Issue 339

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Fiction / CUBA

NEW WRITING: From the South - NI 339 - Princess Caucubú Goes Shopping
This wry look at the vagaries of Cuban society displays Roberto Uría’s sprightly humour and accurate eye for the minutiae of street life. In common with many of his short stories, it focuses on people trying to live their own lives in their own way, despite the strictures of society and morality.

Teacher: ‘Who was Christopher Columbus?’
Pupil: ‘A nasty German who was so crazy for pepper he killed all the indians and brought the black slaves, who refused to work.’

Perhaps calling her a princess is an exaggeration. In fact, Caucubú is only the daughter of the chieftain Manatiguahuraguana, better known as Tabo, lord and master of the fields and village of Mancanilla, today’s Santiago de Cuba. But since in these proletarian, tropical lands of ours there’s no shortage of chiefs, maybe the title is appropriate. And it could be due to her ancestry that Caucubú is known as ‘the prettiest little indian in all Guamuhaya’. Like the skilful wordsmiths we are, legends about her abound, passed from mouth to mouth to a backdrop of flames of guayaba logs, the glitter of vine leaves and thrones of palm fronds decked in lilies. In other words, a real ritzy soap opera.

Yet, leaving aside all the enchantment of legend, the real story of Princess Caucubú who is over five hundred years old now, is, as they say here in Cuba, ‘well worth a look’. Or rather, it’s a story that’s both sweet and harsh, like the taste of pineapples which grow and thrive in our country, and are exported, along with big mommas of tomatoes, by Cubafrutas Inc.

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Illustration: Jonathan Williams

Many, many moons have licked the reeds of our rivers since the arrival of the Spaniards disrupted the rhythm of Taino indian life, which wasn’t worth writing home about anyway, what with all those mosquitoes and the lack of electricity. To tell the truth, Princess Caucubú wasn’t as taken with the indian Narido as the eternal romantics claim, because she was dazzled by the physical charms and Made in Spain clothes of some of the white men. So she finished up as the adoring and adored lover of one Ojeda (blond and blue-eyed, of course), who for business reasons (conquest and colonization, disguised behind the motto ‘Christianity or Death’) took her with him on the back of a splendid chestnut mare to far-flung regions such as Sabaneque, Jagua, Camaguëy and Guacanayabo. Caucubú always loved to travel, and so... lulled by endless greenery, the call of the mocking-birds and the boom of the Spaniards’ firearms, the happy couple celebrated their babylonic nuptials, without the Caribbean so much as blushing.

For several centuries they learned to live together with no great dramas, without bitterness or traumas that might have called for psychiatrists or pharmacists, for richer, for poorer, until Princess Caucubú has become this woman of today, Juanita Rodriguez, ‘the indian’, daughter of Tota and Tabo, living and loving in a tenement on Teniente Rey Street in old Havana, who boasts as proof of her lofty ancestry and Cubanity not only a plaster statue of the Virgin of Charity from El Cobre on her altar at home, and a gold medal of her between her breasts, but also the changes time has etched into her features: straight black hair, green eyes, thick lips and fiery thighs like the mulattas at the Tropicana nightclub. Juanita is, to put it in our best Cuban manner, a rich and spicy dish ideally suited to these hot climes of ours...

And, like every other Tabo, Ricardo and Juanita, our revolutionized princess has set off today to do her shopping since, in accordance with the rationing established for industrial goods (yes, you heard me right, and may future generations forgive us), today is the day for her group, letter and number. Today and no other. Nothing for it then but to get her card stamped at work, then to rush to see what they’ve ‘drawn’ in the stores. Really, ‘drawn’ as in a lottery is the only way to convey the delirium, the ‘shot of adrenalin’ feeling we all enjoy, when we go off to claim our ‘prize’.

[image, unknown] focus

Many Cuban writers today are children of the 1959 Revolution, shaped by the twists and turns of Castro’s Government as it responded to the US boycott and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. This latter event heralded a ‘special time’ marked by disillusion, plummeting living standards, severe rationing, food and energy shortages. Despite growth in tourism, many now live in poverty, shanty-towns reappearing on the outskirts of Havana for the first time since 1959. Yet the view that most of Cuba’s 11 million people can’t wait to leave the island is not borne out by its contemporary writers; the thoughts, feelings and loyalties involved are far more complex than that. And writers there are aplenty in Cuba today, thanks to the priority given to education during the first years of the Revolution. Nourished by literary prizes, newspaper and radio serialization, the Cuban short story in particular enjoys a strong tradition. However, today’s writers can use it openly to explore themes – including homosexuality and drug use – that would have been censored a decade ago.

After spending most of the morning in a vain search for the thousand-and-one things she needed – shampoo, deodorant, a pair of panties that fitted – beginning to feel overwhelmed yet again by the unequal struggle that is daily life in this our vale of tears (water-sprinklers, bolero and all the rest), princess Juanita Rodriguez decided to end her via crucis along Galliano Street and go home. Then, praise be! she saw a long, tempting line outside La Victoria store, and leapt to join it. She soon learnt that this time they’d ‘drawn’ some portable Siboney radios. Her lifelong Taino dream!

She wasn’t too put off by the card in the window warning there were ‘no batteries’. Once she’d bought the radio she would find some way to adapt it, maybe even that old Kato crane generator would come in handy. She was so carried away she herself could have provided the electricity for her Siboney; she could see it now installed in her beach hut, plastic turning to tortoiseshell as they grew old together.

So our princess fell in behind Luz Divina, a coal black Cuban momma, three layers of make-up and a family-sized swaying backside. After her came Concha Ruiz, from Galicia in Spain no less, as white as milk and fat as a beached whale. Next in line was Widow Wong, wearing pebble glasses and her plait as long as the queue they were in. Last but not least, Ernesto, alias Sweet Pickle, said by malicious tongues to be as queer as they come. Nothing for it but to wait and wait, praying they would achieve their portable, musical dream. Waiting in the clammy bosom of this August day, rapidly reducing them all to ‘iguanaism’, the kind of beatific stupor that comes from standing out so long in the sun, mouth open and drooling like so many decrepit old iguanas. And Juanita, who has never read Mr Joyce, but who has lived a full life, drifts into a playpainful monologue:

‘It’s hot a lot in Cuba! If only I had a nice ice. Cuban ice is nice but cola ice keeps you cooler. Cool fools in the queue on cue for ice cubes. The country of cubes discovered by cool Columbus with his collection of coolies and lumberjacks, all for its nice ices, so the earth is a cool cube? Cue who? Who’ll queue and cry Cuba a cube my kingdom for a cube? A can of cola with a cube of ice keeps you cooler in the queue shiver from collar to colon so long Columbus can you decide as side by side we stand in line waiting to collect the correct connection our cool collective corrective collapse, collapse...’ Princess Caucubú, alias Juanita Rodriguez ‘the indian’, was lost in these metaphysical considerations when she heard the daily war cry ‘They’re pushing in’. Sweet Pickle had spotted two black friends of Luz Divina in the line.

After her came Concha Ruiz, from Galicia in Spain no less, as white as milk and fat as a beached whale

‘Keep your cool, boy, we only came for a chat,’ one of the newcomers said, fanning herself with a piece of cardboard. ‘Mind you, if our friend Divi here could get her hands on a nice little radio for each of us, we wouldn’t complain,’ the other one added.

‘You don’t say! Over my dead body,’ thundered Concha Ruiz, and Juanita realized there was going to be trouble. She thought: ‘The gang’s all here, let the show begin.’

‘Hey, what’s got into Moby Dick?’ Luz Divina shouted.

‘A little more respect, lady; I never called you a black slave, did I?’ Carmen sobbed, red in the face. Her words had no effect on the Kikuyu sisters:

‘Black slave your grandma, cheeseball.’

Juanita kept her silence as the missiles flew and the conflagration escalated.

‘The only cheese around here is between your legs, loudmouth,’ the Galician warrior struck back.

‘My God, you can’t imagine how much I need that radio,’ Widow Wong lamented.

‘Yea, of course, if not four eyes here will die of homesickness,’ Divina stabbed.

To which Wong replied in her best inscrutable manner:

‘Don’t put me down like that, I have my needs too.’

‘Needs, tell me about them. I have to get a radio so I can swap it for a pot of skin cream for my brother,’ sighed Sweet Pickle the martyr.

‘Shut it, you old hen, it was the likes of you brought chaos upon us,’ one of the black women spat.

‘This country is the original chaos,’ Widow Wong decreed. Everything descended into melodrama when Concha Ruiz suddenly broke down and cried:

‘I’m a sick woman, and my husband’s away fighting in Angola.’

‘Poor thing, so what she’s suffering from is a lack of vitamin P. Why doesn’t he send you some from Africa?’ asked Luz Divina with her snake’s tongue.

[image, unknown] Then Sweet Pickle, bathed in sweat and swaying to and fro with an enormous green bag on his shoulder, declared:

‘Columbus is to blame for everything.’

‘Whaddayoumean, it’s that Simon Bolívar who messed everything up, thinking he was Napoleon and causing all that independence nonsense,’ Concha Ruiz replied.

‘That’s what you reckon, is it? And what about that sonofabitch padre Las Casas?’ Luz Divina wanted to know.

‘No, it’s Saint Hippolyte who’s to blame for all our troubles,’ Widow Wong whispered. Everyone’s eyes opened wide, trying to understand what she meant...

Mass hysteria had taken such a hold that Princess Caucubú, who until then had been watching with amusement, decided she should restore some order. With aristocratic gestures and best Radio Encyclopedia voice, she started to put them straight once and for all:

‘What is all this? How long are you going to carry on with all this bullshit? It’s too hot to be swapping insults and fighting about the colour of your skin: “black slave”, “cheeseball”, “rinkydink chink”. It’s not the moment to be washing our linen in public like this, or trying to find someone to blame for our troubles. The worlds you all came from – tearing each other’s hair, shouting – they’re all long gone, they flew about as far as the balloonist Matías Perez, ie a few feet and straight to the bottom. What matters is the world we’re in now, and where we’re headed. And since we’re all on this raft together, what matters most is to avoid anyone rocking the boat and sending us all down below. You’ve got to keep your cool: aspirin or camomile tea before you start to fight. And keep the faith: Our Lady is powerful and will never abandon us. We’re all the same in her eyes, and what we need is to keep our wits about us, so the bigshots here and elsewhere aren’t always telling us what to do...’

Juanita was really warming to her sermon when a voice – one of those off-mike that can sometimes puncture all the dramatic tension – suddenly announced: ‘No more Siboneys, none for anyone.’ This produced an explosion of shouts, an epic tumult, a flood of idiosyncrasy, an effusion of popular lyricism, as some official folklore expert might put it in his bureaucratic report.

‘Assholes,’ Luz Divina summed it up.

‘I’m off to the clinic to have my pressure checked,’ Concha Ruiz announced, well and truly harpooned.

‘I’m glad they’ve run out, those radios are shit useless anyway,’ Widow Wong pronounced, pulling out a peanut bar.

‘Just my stinkin’ luck. I’ll be putting aloes on my skin till it turns to leather,” Sweet Pickle moaned.

By now they all looked like steaming coffee pots under the August Havana sun. Only Princess Caucubti, alias Juanita Rodriguez, ‘the indian’, was still cool and relaxed, as if the hurricane that had swept over them had passed her by. She simply said: ‘I’m off, I’ve dried peas to soak.’ And off she went, humming to herself the words of a song to the Virgin: ‘stick, stick, stand by me and do the trick...’

Princess Caucubú Goes Shopping by Roberto Uría from Columbus’ Egg, is edited by Nick Caistor © 1992 Roberto Uría, published by Serpent's Tail. Translation © 1992 Serpent's Tail. This book is currently out of print but Uria’s work has also appeared in translation in other anthologies, including The voice of the turtle: an anthology of Cuban stories edited by Peter Bush, Quartet Books, 1997, which may be ordered through www.bookshop.blackwell.co.uk or www.amazon.com

[image, unknown] Author Profile Roberto Uría was born in Havana, Cuba on 6 August 1959 – the year in which Fidel Castro came to power, that man, writes Uría, ‘who grew his beard under a lucky star, who worked so hard for the happiness of all Cubans, yet never got there’. While still a student at the University of Havana Uría won several prizes in poetry and fiction. In 1987 his collection of short stories Why Does Leslie Caron Cry? won first prize in the prestigious 13 de Marzo literary competition for young authors. In 1988 he was appointed an editor with the magazine Casa de las Américas but was sacked in 1991 for ‘political and ideological disobedience’ after a jester’s hat was superimposed on a photograph of a prominent fellow journalist, Luis Sexto. Denied work at the various magazines and institutes where he sought employment, Uría applied to leave the country but was refused. After three years, during which he supported himself by selling his rations of rum and cigarettes on the black market, he was granted refugee status in the United States where he now lives. He has said: ‘My preoccupation has been a curiosity to discover what’s behind people, my neighbours, especially those who are considered marginal.’ When asked by an interviewer whether he was 'a homosexual' Uría replied: ‘Are you a mammal?’

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