The Wonders of Childhood

Finally my visit to Matanzas, postponed twice for complicaciones, is happening. Daniel picked me up in Havana in his very official and very small Kia with the insignia of Poder Popular, the legislative governing body of Cuba’s municipalities and provinces. He is an administrator. I’m not sure of what. I sat up front, which could not have happened 10 years ago—me, anextranjera, and from the U.S. We chatted about politics—U.S. and Cuban—for the hour long trip to this port city, interrupted only by a traffic stop. My stomach clenched a bit as a uniformed policewoman motioned us to pull over—was it my presence in the car? Were we being profiled? But no, only an almost friendly warning that Daniel had been exceeding the speed limit of 60 mph and we were on our way.

I asked Daniel the question I have been asking everyone here—“what do you think about the upcoming elections?” His answer was more complex than most, more detailed—as it should be perhaps for a government functionary. Like everyone he assumes (and is pleased by the fact) that Villas Canel, the current V.P. will emerge as President of the Republic. He is well-prepared for the job, Daniel thinks, and relatively young—58 years old. Daniel explained a recent amendment to the Constitution that divides state power between three men (well, they have all been men up to now)—the President of the Republic, The President of Poder Popular, and the Chairman of the Communist Party. His opinion? This is a change for the better, ensuring more of a mix of ideas and lessening the heavy weight of the Presidency a bit.

We pass the last leg of the journey in silence, arriving at this “city of bridges” in mid-afternoon and in the middle of a baseball game pitting the kids of Maravillas against a team from a small Canadian town in the far north of the country—an exchange built around baseball. Canadian team members and their families sit in the sun. The Cubans huddle under the shade of a large tree. The Cubans are winning—the score a lopsided 19 to 3—but that is as it should be, Daniel says. “We have baseball in our blood.”

Maravillas de la Infancia—the Wonders of Childhood—Cultivador de los Sueños—Cultivator of Dreams—a project created out of love for children and community, out of nothing but the ruins of a long-neglected colonial mansion and the determination of its fierce director, my friend Maria Eugenia, and her dedicated team. I first visited this amazing project with a group from the largest public housing development in the Bronx, under the sponsorship of MEDICC, an organization I worked for 3 years as the local coordinator of the Bronx Community Partnership for Health Equity (CPHE).

As we approached the address that first time, the bus driver shook his head. “It can’t be here,” he said, pointing at a colonial mansion that was falling down around itself. “The address must be wrong.” He circled the block and at the back of the mansion we saw a hand-painted sign, “Maravillas de la Infancia,” a well-tended garden and the entrance to this world of creativity and love. We were greeted by the children with kisses, flowers and songs and then treated to an hour of dance and skits, poetry and music executed with spirit and confidence by young boys and girls from this neighborhood who have come through these doors and created something alive, dynamic and each day more beautiful.

Since that first group experience, I have visited the project on my own, spending a couple of nights in the guest rooms they have built next door to accommodate the many international visitors who come to spend time with this model program. And Maria Eugenia spent a week in my home in Brooklyn, invited by the Bronx CPHE.

Tomorrow I will conduct a writing workshop with the kids, but first there are baseball games to attend, and some time spent reconnecting with my one and a half year old godson, Yosley, Maria Eugenia’s grandson. I was honored to become his godmother a year ago at a baptism ceremony at the local Catholic church. Few in the group that attended church that day were religious, but many Cubans baptize their babies “just in case.” The ceremony had many moments of suppressed hilarity as the very serious priest in his Italian-flavored Spanish questioned the godfather (a young much-tattooed and Mohawked friend of the father, Maria Eugenia’s son) and the godmother (an older blue-haired visitor from Brooklyn, N.Y.) about our preparedness to take our duties seriously. “Have you been baptized?” he asked, bending before me. I had told Maria Eugenia that I was Jewish and she said, no worries, it won’t be a problem. Now what should I say? Somehow I had the ridiculous idea that I shouldn’t lie to him so I murmured a quiet “no.” From behind, I felt Maria Eugenia’s hand gripping my shoulder. “She doesn’t understand the question,” she said, her words sounding very loud in the quiet church. “She is baptized.” I kept my mouth shut, deciding I better just go along with the program no matter where it led. After we had silently acquiesced to our responsibilities, which included taking Yosley to church when his parents couldn’t (that would be a feat from Brooklyn), and made the sign of the cross (I wasn’t the only one in the group who didn’t know how to do it properly), Yosley was dunked and we headed back to Maravillas.

This year my godmotherly duties are discharged by the gifts I have brought this lively, perpetually smiling toddler who has a village of kids and adults who adore him. One of the gifts is a battery-powered furry hamster that somehow captures your words and parrots them back to you. Everyone is astonished by it, none more than Yosley, who holds it away from himself as it echoes his laughter and the voices of the people around him. He is frozen in astonishment until he seems to make a decision and flings the toy across the cement patio, as if to say “stop making fun of me.” His mother promises she will put it away until he is a bit older.

The afternoon of the workshop we set up chairs and tables in the room where the kids have entertained me so many times. Now it’s my turn. 14 young girls and one young brave boy gather around, their faces eager, pencils in their hands, ready to begin. We start with a prompt that I explain is more like a game. They are to make a list of 5 things about themselves and one of them must be a lie. I encourage them to construct their lie carefully since they all know each other and we will be guessing. Pencils fly across the paper—they are ready for the challenge. And when I ask who would like to go first, hands fly into the air. I ask them to say their names, but the combination of invented names and a noisy echo-ey room makes it hard for me to decipher them—Naiyelis, Dainelys, Idalis, Laritza. Laughs all around as I try out each name. Naiyelis begins. She is sitting to my right—a 10 year old with a mischievous grin, freckles across her nose and eyes that perpetually twinkle. I remember her from other visits. Her hand is always first and most insistent to be recognized. Their “facts” are similar—they like to dance, they love school, they have brothers and sisters, they were born in Cuba—with only a few outliers. Unfortunately for our guessing game, their “lies” are also similar—the most popular being their school grade –sixth, when they are in seventh, seventh when they are in sixth. Even so they are eager to guess and be recognized for getting the right answer. I point out that when we write stories we get to make things up, invent them—characters, places, events—and it doesn’t matter if they are “lies.” though sometimes they may be based on things that are true in our own lives.

We move on to the second prompt. I invite them to move around the room and select an object—there are many of interest in this multi-purpose room (drums, murals, plants, sculptures). They are to describe that object with as much detail as they can without naming it. Once again we will play a guessing game. I am the only one who moves. The kids stay at the table and pepper me with questions—can it be a person? Can they describe the “interior” of the person or does it have to be the “exterior”? Can they describe their best friend? Yes to all, and they begin writing—some launching onto the page, others chewing their pencils and struggling a bit. Not everyone wants to read this time. No problem. Those that do have mostly written about their best friends, which usually happens to be someone sitting around the table. I am touched by how freely they describe their love for their friends and the things they do for each other to make each other happy.

Finally, the only boy Christian who is sitting on my left, nudges me and asks if we are done writing. I nod. He carefully folds his paper into an origami flower as we move on to the final exercise. I intended to have them write a collective story, but Nayelis pipes up with an alternative suggestion. “We are tired of writing, Elena.” She shakes her hand out to show me how tired it is. “Can we tell the story instead?” So we do—inventing a character and funny things for her to do. The workshop finishes. The kids pitch in to replace the chairs and tables where they belong, kiss me and say goodbye.

Christian presents me with the origami flower and when I unfold it I discover that he has written his description about me—a teacher with blue and silver hair, blue and black clothing, bracelets and rings, who is a good teacher and linda. This is why I love doing writing workshops. This is why I love Cuba. T

he next day Yosley gives me a big kiss good-bye and blows more into the air as I take my leave of Maravillas. The next day I get a phone call from Maria Eugenia, his grandmother. She sounds distraught and very tired. She has just come from the hospital. A dog in the house where Yosley lives with his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother took a bite out of his face and he had to have an operation. He was left with multiple stitches in his mouth and nose, lost a few teeth and is crying all the time from hunger and trauma. Ay pobrecito! Que horror! I know the impact this has had on my friend. He is the center of her world. She has a lot of support. The Canadians have brought a cream that prevents scars and I’m sure everyone in Maravillas is doing what they can. Should I rush back to Matanzas? I stay put, waiting to hear more news. “It will be a long recuperation, Elena,” Maria Eugenia tells me when I reach her that night. “He’ll be okay, but it will be a long recuperation.” I can hear the exhaustion in her every word. For the first time, I feel like a real godmother. Yosley has captured my heart and I wince when I think of the pain he must be going through. As a pediatric nurse, I have cleaned and treated similar wounds, and offered whatever solace I could to suffering parents. What can I say to my friend? Only that I will call her tomorrow and I will be thinking of her and Yosley and sending love.

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