Juana Maria, Cuba

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Juana Maria

Born: Matanzas, Cuba, 1934

Mother Tongue: Spanish

Grandkids: Gillian Alejandra, Kevin Eloy

The call her: Abuela

I began to make this soup around forty years ago and have been making it ever since. I don’t like noodles with soup or pasta in a broth so I decided to start adding plantain to make my broth more substantial. The traditional plantain soup in Cuba is usually a broth with bits of plantain included but I just took out the bits I didn’t like and added more plantain because I like it more. The original is chicken stock, potatoes, sweet potatoes or noodles.

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I was born in Matanzas so I’m a country girl. I came to Havana in 1952 when my godparents invited me here. I was 18 and wanted a life in the city - it was calling to me. I lived in a small town and it had a lot of life but I had so many siblings and my mother was very authoritarian. My godparents in Havana were wealthier so life improved when I moved. It meant freedom. I went to learn shorthand and to type then I became a hairdresser and manicurist. The opportunities were here for me. 

At that time, everyone was aware what was bubbling under the surface with the revolution. I came to Havana in the very same year that the leader of the opposition to President Batista’s regime killed himself - supposedly. We all knew that if you took part in these things, you could be killed. If you didn’t, then you’d be left alone. I never took part. My husband, however, was one of the original revolutionaries.

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He took part in the famous attack on the presidential palace in 1957. We were not married yet but we were together. I was working at the hair salon and he came to give me a message that something would happen at 3pm. I didn’t know where and to what scale. He said, “If you don’t see me again, it’s because tomorrow something will happen.”

Many people were killed during Batista’s time. We would hear about arrests, torture and murder. This was frequent and we all would know someone who knew someone who had been taken. He was a very corrupted man and was in with the American mafia. They owned Cuba. It was a charged time to live through.

On the day of the triumph of the revolution, my husband and I were on a bus from Havana to Matanzas to celebrate New Year at my parent’s home. I didn’t know anything had happened. It was only when we arrived in Matanzas that we learned Fidel Castro and Che Guevara had overthrown Batista. It was January 1st, 1959. My husband decided we should get back to Havana immediately. So back on the bus we went. Shortly after, the tires were shot flat by revolutionary soldiers and we were taken off the bus because the soldiers were shutting everything down - a sort of prevention of revolution to the revolution, I suppose.

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We walked for three days all the way back to Havana. My husband was so desperate to get back to Havana to celebrate the revolution. I was furious with him for making me walk for three days and he was elated. You need patience to be with someone because you have to endure and be endured. No one is perfect. No bad mood of mine could bring him down though. He was married to the revolution. 

Those first years were glorious. The new laws greatly benefited the people. The land and housing reforms meant that everyone had a roof over their heads. Evictions were not a thing and homelessness ended. Also, everything was suddenly very cheap. You paid 40 cents for a litre of milk. The sheen faded fast though. Before the revolution, Cuba was plentiful. Stores are empty now.

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I’ve had my ration book since the early days of the revolution but what we have access to has fluctuated over the years. The list was long before the crisis of 1990. We could have potato paste, detergent, soap, animal fat to cook with, beef.  Now it’s 7lbs of rice, 3lbs of sugar, 10 ounces of beans, 1 packet of coffee for the month, half a pound of oil per month and 1.75lbs of chicken. It’s basically just the meat off the chicken without the skin, bones or fat. Then the man selling it to you will steal a part of it for himself.  

It isn’t the prices that went up but a severe scarcity of food because the government can’t afford to pay workers to produce food here in Cuba and we have this embargo from America which makes importing impossible. My neighbours keep chickens in their tiny apartments here in Havana, just to have a couple of eggs each week. 

Now to cook, you have to go through the black market. That’s things that have fallen off trucks, things that have been stolen, or perhaps the odd fish or lobster that has been smuggled into the city from the periphery. Getting out isn’t so easy for me anymore. I can’t stand in a queue for three hours for a piece of chicken, which is what most people have to do to get their hands on ingredients every day. 

Things like onions and tomatoes are at ridiculous prices. It was 5 CUC (convertible pesos) for some onions and tomatoes just for this meal today. That’s basically $5. So far, my daughters and grandchildren are helping me. Otherwise, I would not be able to survive with what the government hand out.

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In order to live decently in Cuba, you either have to have it very hard or been born into a wealthy family with connections. When my daughters’ children were born it was the happiest moment of my life but being a grandmother, for me, about teaching them to survive and to do everything they can in order to get by in this world.