Living in Cuba no es fácil . La verdad. But when you are a kid, the problems that anguish your parents don’t even faze you. That is, if your parents were good at hiding those problems from you. And boy, were my parents good.
Cuba has many problems. Food problems. Government problems. Se fue la luz y el agua problems. But more importantly, as any Cuban will tell you, we sometimes have a Chivaton problem.
And that’s how I lost my “political” innocence in the 5th grade.
But first, some lessons in Cuban slang:
Chivato or Chivaton: A police informer, a snitch. The quintessential communist government bootlicker who will ruin your day by reporting you to the authorities for no other reason than to joderte el dia!
My 5th grade teacher, Barbarita, was a Chivaton(a). She was the real deal. I distinctly remember her tears of joy when the U.N had just voted to adopt another one of its useless resolutions condemning the Cuban Embargo.
That rare type of Cuban that you can’t find anymore. The one that doesn’t have to fake a smile at the pro-government marches where employees are coerced to attend. The type who, until this day, unironically refer to Fidel Castro as “Comandante en Jefe”.
Barbara genuinely believed in La revolución, even when La
revolución had stopped believing in her.
But what can I say, she was a pleasant person and an exceptional teacher. A woman who in the early 2000s must have been somewhere in her late 40s. Raised during the Cold-war, and like many other Cubans, a survivor of the infamous Periodo Especial. She was battled hardened by material necessity , and if she still believed in Fidel’s Communism after all that, she wasn’t about to change.
Barbara teaches us a lesson about hate.
Sadly, one of my earliest memories of the filth that is ideological orthodoxy comes from her.
I remember that it was a slow day at school. We had just finished all of our assignments and Profe Barbarita allowed the class to get into groups so that we could talk. She was sitting at her desk, reading a book, lost in the pages…..or so we thought.
At some point, in between our prepubescent screeching and super-interesting 5th grader conversations – one of us, probably not me, steered the conversation towards a subject of “Anti-revolutionary” character. Who knows what was said, maybe we made fun of Fidel’s beard, or repeated an anti-government comment we heard at home the day before.
It doesn’t matter. It was enough for Barbara to spring from her creaky chair like a bat out of hell.
PB: “YO VOY A VER DE QUE CARAJO USTEDES ESTAN HABLANDO!” – She screamed!
The anger in her face was akin to that of a religious fundamentalist who has just found out someone drew a picture mocking their prophet.
PB: “Mucha Gusanera en esta clase! Ustedes van a ver ahora!”
She uttered that last sentence while aggressively swinging the classroom door open. It looked like she was going somewhere. To do, or say something.
We didn’t think she was listening. How many times had we been told by our parents, over and over: “No hables nada en la escuela.”
We braced for impact.
Minutes later, Barbarita walked back into the classroom as if nothing had happened.
What the hell?
The uncertainty of what she did or did not do was awful. We had no closure!
We went home that day thinking that our parents might be dragged out of the house in the middle of the night by the state police because of the comments we had made at school earlier that day.
More importantly, Barbara had referred to us as Gusanos. Worms. She had deployed that nasty word which the Castro regime had turned into a slur against government dissidents as a means to dehumanize them.
In that ephemeral moment of anger, that is what we were to Barbara. Not her students. Not kids, or even humans. But insects. Worms. Gusanos contra-revolucionarios.
Nothing came out of that. No one was arrested, and the school never even called our parents. We weren’t even officially reprimanded. Profe Barbarita’s dramatic outburst about our comments was, like the Shakespearean comedy, Much ado about nothing!
10 year old me learned two things about himself that day, however:
- I did not want to grow up in a country where a simple comment made at school kept me up at night, worrying for my parents or myself.
- Profe Barbarita’s political moral compass saw no issues in referring to 5th graders as Gusanos. Whatever ideology that attitude sprung from, I wanted no part in it.
My political innocence was lost that day because I learned for the first time that no one, not even children, are safe from the dehumanizing and frightening machinations of Political Hate.