CAMBIO – A short story by Alberto de la Cruz

The noise and commotion awoke four year old Mariela from her afternoon nap. She rose from her small bed in the cramped bedroom she shared with her 17 year old brother and with her frayed stuffed dog held tightly to her chest, she opened the door and peeked out into the living room of their first floor apartment in Havana.
She noticed the dinette table had been pushed up against the couch and one of its chairs had been knocked over on its side. She then peered further out and saw the front door open to the hallway. Voices were coming from the street through the doorway and the open windows facing the street.
Mariela then stepped out into the living room. The voices all seemed unfamiliar, except for the voice of her older brother, Ricky. She then heard her mother yell above the din.
“Ricky, don’t be afraid of them! They are nothing but cowards,” she said.
Mariela began walking toward the window to see what was happening outside when she saw a round white band laying on the floor in the middle of the room. She stopped in front of it and picked it up. It was the rubber bracelet with letters embossed on it that her brother had been wearing on his wrist earlier in the day. She wondered why he had taken it off, but then she heard a scream that sounded like her mother.
“Stop hitting him, you animals! You bastards!”
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Mariela felt a pain in the pit of her stomach and ran out the front door of the apartment and into the hallway. She looked out and saw her neighbors standing outside the entry to the building, blocking her view. With her stuffed dog held to her chest and the bracelet still in her hand, she walked out, pushing her way around the legs of the people standing in front of her.
Once she got past the line of spectators, she saw a van parked in the middle of the street with its back doors open. She then saw her brother, his face bloodied, being carried away by two large men wearing police uniforms and then thrown into the back of the van. Then she saw her mother try to run after him only to be slapped across the face and knocked to the ground by another man who stood by the open doors of the van.
“Mami,” Mariela cried out.
She tried to run to her mother who lay on the street, but she then felt two hands grab her from behind and haul her back into the apartment building. Mariela began to cry, yelling out to her mother while the neighbor from across the hall, who grabbed her and now held her in his arms, tried to calm her down. She writhed and pushed against the man’s chest trying to break free, dropping her stuffed dog, but the man maintained his grip on the little girl.
The crowd that had gathered at the entry of the building then parted and in walked Mariela’s mother, Carmen, her lower lip swollen and bleeding from the blow she had received moments earlier. Carmen saw her little girl being held by the neighbor. She rushed to her, and took her from him. She held the crying little girl close to her and stroked her hair trying to calm her down before walking back into her apartment and closing the door behind her. She stepped into the kitchen and with her daughter still in her arms, grabbed a dishtowel and wiped the blood from her lower lip and chin.
She then walked into her own bedroom and sat down on the edge of her bed, placing her little girl on her lap. She continued to hold Mariela, rocking her back and forth until the she finally stopped crying. Mariela leaned back to look at her mother and then reached up to touch her swollen lip. Carmen tried her best to manage a smile and grabbed her hand before she could touch it.
“What happened, mami? Why did that man hit you? Did Ricky make him mad?”
“Don’t worry, my angel; it’s nothing like that.”
“But why did those policemen take Ricky away?”
“It’s just a misunderstanding and they wanted to talk to him. He’ll be back in a little while.”
“But Ricky forgot his bracelet,” Mariela said, holding up the white rubber bracelet she still held in her hand.
“You can give it to him when he gets back, my love,” Carmen replied with a smile.
Tears began to well up in Carmen’s eyes as she looked at the simple white rubber band in her little girl’s hand.
“What do these letters on the bracelet say, mami?”
“Those letters say CAMBIO, my angel; change.”
“Why does it say that,” the little girl asked, examining the embossed letters on the bracelet.
Carmen could not help but to wonder the purpose of that word herself. Ever since her young son came home the night before and showed her the bracelet, she knew that sooner or later, trouble would accompany it. She tried to convince her teenage son not to wear it in public, but just like his father, his stubbornness would override any of her pleas. Her son was well aware of the consequences his actions would bring after witnessing three years earlier the violent beating and arrest of his father, Ricardo. Weeks after the arrest, Ricardo was tried and convicted of anti-revolutionary activities and sentenced to five years in jail.
Mariela was too young to remember, and had only seen her father a few times in her life. Eighteen months into his jail sentence, he was transferred to a jail on the other side of the island. The trip to visit him became too far to take such a young child. But Ricky had made the trip with his mother every time. And each time he saw his father, the torture and lack of medical attention was more evident. And with each visit to his languishing father, the young boy’s resolve and resentment grew stronger.
Life had not always been so complicated, Carmen reminded herself. Before the birth of their daughter, she and her husband had led, for the most part, an apolitical life. They were neither supporters of the communist dictatorship in Cuba, nor were they detractors; they knew that picking either side had its consequences. Their conscience would not allow them to cheer on an oppressive regime like so many of their friends and neighbors did, but their desire for a peaceful existence precluded them from publicly showing their discord. They had both learned to live that way from their parents who had been around when the revolution took power, and had chosen to remain in Cuba.
They lived like this for the majority of their lives, finding ways to make ends meet with the meager jobs they were given by the state due to their lack of political connections. Then Mariela was born, and everything changed.
She remembered the day Ricardo held Mariela for the first time. While the tears streamed down his face, he proclaimed that his daughter would not grow up to become a jinetera; a prostitute selling her body to foreign men in order to put food on the family table. He had seen the daughters and wives of many of his neighbors and workmates take up this vile, yet profitable, vocation, but he could never allow his own daughter to fall into that trap.
Of course, both he and Carmen would teach Mariela that such activities were not an option, but he also understood the lure of quick and easy money. He had already seen too many nice and decent young girls fall prey to the temptation to provide for their families in any way they could. He also knew that the problem did not lie in the way these girls were raised, but in the system they were living in that made such an act a viable solution to their misery. From that day on, Ricardo was no longer apolitical. And soon thereafter, Carmen understood how important it was not to stand by and watch a repressive regime destroy their family.
It began with passing out pamphlets calling for the end of the dictatorship. Ricardo then began making contacts with other dissidents on the island and his acts of opposition became bolder. But only a year after starting his crusade to bring an end to the tyranny in his country, an infiltrator in his group provided state security with his name, and the names of several others, as traitors to the revolution. Within days, all of the men were arrested and soon after, sentenced to jail.
Now her son was following in his father’s footsteps. But as painful as it was to watch the beating and the arrest of her own son, the same way his father was beaten and arrested, she knew there could be no other way.
She remembered the first time she saw Ricardo after his arrest. She had gone to the police station everyday for three days, and they would turn her back without any information other than that her husband was “being processed.” On the fourth day, the police allowed her to see him and led her into a windowless room where she found him huddled on the floor in one of the corners, shirtless with his torso covered in bruises. She threw herself to the floor and on her knees in front of him, held his face in both hands while she gave him a gentle kiss.
“Oh my God, Ricardo; look at you. What have they done to you?”
“What are you talking about, I’m fine,” he answered with a half smile.
“I knew this wouldn’t be worth it,” Carmen said. “What good is all of this if you’re not going to be around to raise your children?”
“You must be strong, Carmen,” Ricardo replied, the smile now gone from his face. “You have to be there for Ricky and Mariela. Don’t worry about me—take care of them.”
“Don’t say that! You have to stop this. The kids need you! I need you!”
“The kids and you don’t need me as much as you need your freedom and your dignity. I will do whatever it takes and pay whatever the price to give my family, my country, its dignity back. Don’t cry, my love; my only regret is not having done this earlier in my life.”
Carmen buried her face into Ricardo’s shoulder and cried. It pained her to see her husband in such horrid condition, but she knew there could be no other way.
“Why does it say CAMBIO, mami,” Mariela asked again, interrupting Carmen’s thoughts.
She smiled and looked into her daughter’s hazel eyes. They were Carmen’s mother’s eyes. Every time Carmen would look into them, she would remember her own mother, Luciana, who died years before Mariela was born. Luciana had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and at first, all the doctors assured her that the cancer had been found early enough that her chances of survival were good. She went back home and waited for the call from the hospital to schedule her surgery and treatment. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months without a call from the hospital. All her local doctor could tell her was that it took a while to get an appointment for surgery and that they would call her as soon as a slot opened up.
It was then that they realized their apolitical existence would be the hindrance to Luciana receiving the medical care she needed. None of them had any high level friends to call and ask for a favor, nor could they contact the leader of their block’s Committee for the Defense of the Revolution for help; they were considered bad citizens and not real revolutionaries. The system in Cuba was reserved first for those who were true revolutionaries, so Carmen’s mother had no choice but to wait for treatment.
By the time she was able to get into a hospital for surgery, the cancer had grown and spread to her lymphatic system. It was no longer operable, and two months later, at the age of fifty-nine, Luciana died a painful death.
Carmen grabbed the bracelet from her daughter’s hand and looked at the six letters embossed into it. The letters formed the Spanish word CAMBIO, which means change. A simple one word message that held the solution to the almost half-century long darkness that enveloped her country. Only one thing could bring light and liberty to her homeland: CAMBIO.
“The reason it says CAMBIO, Mariela, is because it is what must happen in Cuba.”
“Why, mami?”
“Hopefully, my angel, by the time you’re old enough to understand, you won’t have to worry about it.”
Carmen then pressed her daughter’s head to her chest and held her little body close to her as she began to cry. She looked down and saw her tears dripping onto Mariela’s shirt. She knew things would get much worse for them and the country before they would get better. She also knew that the only way her daughter would be spared the misery they had all endured, there had to be CAMBIO in Cuba. There could be no other way.
Author’s Note: This short story is a fictional account based on true and actual events that take place in Cuba on a regular basis. The characters in this story are based on a culmination of real life Cubans who have shared with me their individual stories of repression and violence at the hands of the despotic dictatorship that rules Cuba today. This story may be fictional, but there are tens of thousands of true stories, similar to this one, that have taken place in Cuba since 1959.