When just a few days ago I asked in Lawton about a potato outlet I was told that it was four blocks farther ahead, in front of the Erie cinema. I walked in that direction and when I got there I saw there were no potatoes and neither did the Erie exist, just barely a building in ruins. Where there had been a cinema now there was a wound, in the surrounding area and in memory.
Havana is a city full of wounds. There is hardly a place in the city that does not show them. The worst part is that the memory of Havana residents is also wounded; an entire diversity of buildings, streets, places, spaces that only exist in our lacerated memory.
The death of the cinemas is one of the wounds that hurt us the most, which do not heal. The ruins and the absence of some – Capri, Campoamor, Rex-Duplex, Moderno, Tosca, Ideal, San Francisco…. – and the functional inexistence of almost all the rest, turned into warehouses, offices, dance or theatre locales, creates in us an indelible sensation, between sadness and anger.
But there are other equally terrible losses, like Teresita Fernández’ Gathering and the Amphitheatre, in Lenin Park – where Juan Manuel Serrat, Santi Castellanos, Luis Gardey, Dean Reed sang -, Prado’s Paraguitas, the network of clubs, the public swimming pools, the sports fields, the bookstores, the shops, or the amusement parks.
The ghosts of the restaurants are similarly persistent and anguishing, perhaps the worst, because they still “exist”, but without a soul, without the flavour that gave them fame: El Polinesio, El Mandarín, La Carreta, El Cochinito, El Conejito, El Emperador, La Torre, La Bodeguita, the Centro Vasco, Taramar…. Where did all those paellas, rices, soups, fabadas, paradisiacal dishes go?
Because if there is a sector that has suffered erosion and the changes of the last decades, that is gastronomy. To not go too far in time, in the 1960s eating pasta became popular with the boom in pizzerias. Enormous lines were made to have access to them, but it was worth it to savour those lasagnas, spaghettis and pizzas whose prices and quality were lost years later. The popularity of the pastas has not decreased, but “those” pizzerias only dwell in our memory.
The 1960s also saw the flourishing of restaurants called Mar-Init, full of seafood. To remember them now is one of the most tormenting exercises, another wound in our memory. Lobsters, shrimp, squids, crab, oysters, red snappers and swordfish get muddled up with mythological beings in our dreams and nightmares.
The Pío-Píos got here in the 1970s, specialising in chicken. In some places, they replaced the Mar-Inits, in others, the occupied new spaces. They were very welcomed and quickly became very popular. Their spacious bars were always full by people addicted to fried chicken and beer.
The widespread consumption of beer among the Cuban population and its being sold in bars, cafeterias and restaurants demand a chronicle apart, but the breweries on this list of losses have to be mentioned, the so-called “pilotos,” so similar to the canteens of U.S. westerns – because of the violence unleashed there – that their disappearance was a relief for the environment. However, some of them – like the one located in the so-called Feria de la Juventud, in Plaza – are missed.
Actually, the sale of beer in bulk had a fortunate beginning in Havana with the creation of La Taberna Checa on San Lázaro Street during the 1960s. The liquid was of optimal quality and the atmosphere agreeable, perhaps an attempt to establish in the city something resembling the British pubs. But there was an astronomical difference between the taverns and the pilotos, like a Mozart symphony and a reguetón.
While the pilotos left a bad memory and, therefore, do not form part of the yearning, neither did the hamburger outlets that invaded Havana during the hottest point of the 1990s crisis. They took over the spaces of restaurants and cafeterias and got here to offer something when there was nothing to set on the table, but that mixture of soy and doubtful meat was never well received. It was a recourse for survival like the collective food pots in the shelters.
The last mutation of the spaces saw the birth of the vegetarian restaurants, which languished in a short while until they finally disappeared, between the slack administrative attitude and perhaps the lack of habit among Cubans of consuming vegetables. The corner of Infanta and San Lázaro is a sample of those mutations. Whoever passes through it will be able to feel the vibe of those ghosts – with the Caballero de París included – in a locale that still doesn’t know what its next destination will be.
In the last century – in 1928 – a controversy broke out in the Havana press because of the names of the city streets, many of which had been renamed. Eight years later, a project by historian Emilio Roig restored the majority of the former names, but 22 of those streets conserve the new ones. The population, however, continued using the traditional names: Galiano, Reina, Belascoaín, Prado, Monserrate, Egido, Cristina, Infanta…, all of them established in memory and out of habit.
The people refused to refer to Galiano as Avenida de Italia, to Belascoaín as Padre Varela, Infanta as Avenida del Presidente Menocal, or Reina Street as Avenida de Bolívar. Many of them conserve the oldest signs and those that came later, contributing to passers-by’s confusion.
Similarly, Havana residents give as ghostly points of reference in the city the Víbora Pío Pío, the Galiano dime store (Transval shop), Sear (the current Palacio de la Computación in Centro Habana), El Picadero and El Golfito (in Alamar), Feíto y Cabezón (a hardware store on Reina Street), the Martha cinema (in Arroyo Naranjo) and a great many more.
Naming what no longer exists is perhaps a form of the memory’s resistance, a way of dealing with their wounds and containing the yearning for so many losses. (2014)
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