Part I: A Day with a Cuban Family in the Barrio

“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”
― Plutarch

When Sandy took us to meet her large extended family in Marianao, Cuba, I had no idea what to expect. We had only been in Cuba for one day and I had no understanding of life in a communist country. My understanding of communism was that everyone in the Cuban society received equal benefits derived from their labor. I thought that it was a classless society where the government controlled everything and where wealth was redistributed so that all are of the same social and financial status.


We arrived in Marianao surprising Sandy’s family because she had told them that she would visit the following Monday. The matriarch of the family, wrapped in her worn cotton dress, limped to the door and showered hugs and kisses on Sandy. Then, she showered us with hugs and kisses, too!

She is 97 years young and still going strong thanks to socialized medicine in Cuba. She lost a leg many years ago, but she received a plastic leg that enables her to walk. All medical care is free in Cuba…or so we thought. The matriarch’s daughter showed us a plastic bag filled with medicines for her and her mother. She said that she has to pay for them, and that medicine is dispensed on a sliding scale depending on the finances of the family. Since she is a teacher, she has to pay for the medicines.

It was only seconds before word spread throughout the crumbling neighborhood that Sandy and her family ( Ron and I ) were in town. Sandy’s god-daughter greeted us wearing her Judo outfit, her medals dangling proudly from her neck.

She showed Ron some of her Judo moves. She’s a strong, agile 10 year-old. The last time Sandy saw her, she was one year old. They had a lot of catching up to do!

Her handsome brother was the next to arrive. I was fascinated with his tattoos and he modeled them for me. Ernestico is a plumber. He told us that he has a wife in the U.S. and he is waiting to go to Miami to be with her. He tried to explain the process to us, but it sounded very complicated.

Ernestico is optimistic that he will be able to go to the United States and get a good paying job as a plumber. I, however, am not so optimistic about his prospects. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that many things have changed since January.

Ernestico’s generation grew up with the subsidies of the rationed market. He was raised with two currencies, one for the foreign tourists, and the other for the Cuban residents. In a city that has suffered serious cuts in electricity, where water is rationed to every other day, where the public transport system is overwhelmed, and where a pound of pork costs up to two day’s wages, he dreams of escape… like most young people his age.

Most Cubans who have family in the U.S. are blessed with needed materials, clothing, and supplies that are sadly lacking in Cuba. Sandy regularly sends clothing and other things to her family. On this trip, she arrived with a huge suitcase full of clothes, toys, dishes, books, Tupperware, and a treasured wall clock for her family.

Her god-daughter, Ernestico, and their mother share a tiny one room apartment with one bed. Mercedes’ husband, Ernesto, sleeps at his mother’s house because there isn’t enough room in the bed.

They have an old refrigerator, a sink, and a tiny machine that Mercedes calls a washing machine, but it is more like a centrifuge. A tin barrel outside, stores water since they don’t have water everyday. Mercedes proudly showed us her flush toilet and new tile in the tiny bathroom. She said before she got the washing machine, she washed their clothes in the shower.

In comparison, we rented an Airbnb from a retired Cuban couple near the malacon in Havana. The beautifully furnished apartment has air-conditioned bedrooms, flat screen TVs, balconies, and sparkling crystal glassware displayed in the dining room. They live in a small bedroom behind the kitchen and rent out their rooms to foreign visitors on a regular basis.

Ernestico is already too tall to stand upright in their room. He has to walk stooped over.

After the bombardment of extended family members, trading photos, trying on new clothes, and many hugs and kisses, it was time to find something to eat. We gave Mercedes 10 CUCs to buy food.

We thought Mercedes would go to the store alone, but that isn’t how things are done in this Cuban family. So, we all squeezed out the door single-file and headed to the market three blocks away, while gathering more family until it looked like we had a pack of paparazzi following us.

We stop at the Campo de Tiro Leventan, which means shooting range, where everyone took a few shots with a pellet gun at an assortment of soda cans stacked up against the wall.

To mitigate the heat, there is nothing like a cold glass of Guarapo juice, Cane juice. The juice of the sugar cane is a natural energizer rich in protein and calories.

The juice extraction machine was set up in plain sight and it appeared to be a very simple process. The cane passes through a pair of toothed cylinders of a simple mill that strips the bark and extracts the juice. Then, the juice is strained to remove the bits of pulp and it is ready to serve.

You have to drink the juice immediately because it quickly turns dark and loses its flavor. It is for this reason that companies cannot bottle the cane juice and market it.

Mercedes inspected the chickens in the market, but she decided it would take too long to pluck the feathers and roast a chicken for lunch. Besides, I didn’t see a stove in her tiny one-room apartment.

The grocery store was a tangled maze of people waiting in line at each station. There were long lines for bread, meat, beans, and vegetables. Mercedes was impatient and we were starving, so our family troop marched behind Mercedes to the pizza place.

The struggle to supplement meager rations for a Cuban family is a daily obsession. There are regular shortages of milk, bread, and other basic foods. Every family registers with a local supply store where they can buy their food with a ration book. The basic supplies are guaranteed, but usually they are not enough to supply the large families, so they have to travel to several different places a day to make up for the shortfall.

To buy scarcer items, the Cubans have to use the tourist currency, CUCs. One day, Sandy and Mercedes went to the big grocery store in Miramar, where Sandy treated the family to $50 CUCs of groceries. They bought cereal, candy, soda pop, spaghetti, and other items that they would never be able to buy with their pesos.

One thing that we never saw a lack of was mayonnaise and bottled water. There were shelves and shelves of mayonnaise, which we found to be comical.

I waited outside the grocery store and watched the “yank tanks” flow through town.

We paid 10 CUCs for two giant pizzas and a bottle of homemade pineapple juice. What a treat for Sandy’s Cuban family!

With full bellies, we wandered through narrow alleys to find other family members that weren’t aware that Sandy was here. Some of them were at work, most of them were waiting in the long lines at the grocery stores.

Probably the most interesting experience we had, was visiting the local Santeria expert, the madrina.  We spent an hour discussing the spiritual practices of Santeria, which I will save for another post.

The madrina showed us her special saint doll and we each had an opportunity to ask the saints for blessings for our families and friends. Cindi got in trouble with the madrina when it was her time to shake the maracas because instead of asking for blessings, she cursed our current administration.

The day we spent with Sandy’s family was the highlight of our trip to Cuba. I couldn’t possibly include everything that happened and everyone we met in one post.

Stay tuned for Part II…

Sandy rents a Guagua ( pronounced Waawaa) to take her Cuban family to watch a reenactment of cannonballs fired from a fort in Old Havana.

A quinceañera and a little history of Cuban sports, music, and dance.







12 thoughts on “Part I: A Day with a Cuban Family in the Barrio

  1. Such a cool read! Thank you for sharing this story 🙂 And that juicing machine = the coolest!

    PS: I read all your posts, but this is probably the first time I’ve ever de-cloaked and commented. 😉 Happy travels!

  2. I’ve long found Cuba fascinating (what is it about the forbidden that is so tempting?) and it’s been on our “must see” list for years. Rather than its beaches and beauty which are always extolled, you’ve explored some of the issues that I find much more interesting and made it more real by introducing some of its people. Thanks, Debbie for a very insightful post! Anita

    • Thanks so much Anita. I wanted to write about the Cuba that many people don”t see. Thanks to Sandy, we have a new family that is embedded in our hearts. I will still post the tips and touristy things, but like you,said …these posts are more interesting to me.

  3. I’ve read and been told of similar lines and supply issues in Communist countries throughout time and the world. There are reasons people risk their lives coming from Cuba to the US on boats that are unsafe and overcrowded. I don’t pretend that everything is perfect in the US or other non-communist countries, but I do believe socialism and communism are failed attempts, benefiting those in power.


    • Janet, it was an insightful day with the family in Cuba. Instead of answers, I only have more questions. The one thing I did learn about Cuba is that the people love their socialized medicine.
      We talked with our host in Cienfuegos who is a pediatric nurse. She told us that when there is a medical condition that is grave, all expenses are covered regardless of the financial situation of the family. They have a grand hospital in Havana for HIV research and they have made many advances.
      I believe socialized medicine is the way to go, but no society can exist peacefully and happily when there is a huge division between the poor and the rich.

      • Even when we know the questions, the answers are so difficult and well-meaning and informed people from all parties/groups have ideas about what works best. When government pays for something, people pay for it, so it’s always a matter of how much, where and how to spend, etc. Helping the poor means education and training for jobs that have to be there and so forth, all difficult things. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. I’m very much enjoying your insightful series.

  4. Having recently revisited Havana, this post is most interesting and adds a few snippets of information to that which I had already gleaned

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