Mamatita’s house

On our last day in Cienfuegos, we set out to fulfill a promise to a friend.

Marina Villa wrote a terrific book about growing up in Cuba and emigrating to the US as a young teenager with her mother, her older sister, and her grandmother. It’s called Leaving Castro’s Cuba, and I had the great good fortune to help her whip it into shape for publication. Marina is a natural storyteller, and her account of the displacement of her solidly middle-class, single-parent family is colorful, informative, disheartening, hopeful and—often—very funny.

Marina’s great-grandmother, Mamatita, was a tiny woman whose firm but loving grip held her vast clan together. Her house was in Cienfuegos, on Avenida 58, and the family gathered there every year to celebrate Christmas and the coming of the Three Wise Men.

Castro came to power, and the Christmas crowd thinned, as member after member of the family drifted out of the country. Mamatita died, and the emigration trickle became a torrent. At last, the house was left in the hands of the Bustamantes, a brother and sister who were the last of the grandchildren left in Cienfuegos.

Rafaelito Bustamante was allowed to leave Cuba first. Then, in the 1990s, his sister Ana Maria received permission. Cubans could live in their homes after the Revolution, but they could not sell them; they could only pass them down to family members or leave them to the government. Ana Maria had no desire to hand over Mamatita’s house to Fidel, so she convinced a government official that her good friend had been her brother’s lover, and therefore had rights to the property. And so, Ana Maria Bustamante left the house in Cienfuegos to her friend Margarita.

Paul and I emailed Marina when we signed up for the tour of Cuba, and asked if she and her husband might want to go with us, since she hadn’t been back to the country since she left. She told us that she wasn’t ready to go back—but she gave me a copy of her book, and asked me to “leave it somewhere” in our travels.

Oh–also, since the tour would take us to Cienfuegos, could we find out what had become of Mamatita’s house?

And so, on our way back from Santa Clara, the Great Bus of China drops us off at the junction of the Prado and 58th Avenue in Cienfuegos, and we strike out to find Marina’s great-grandmother’s old house. I scan the addresses on the street to see how far we are from number 3511, and am amazed to find myself looking at it. It is very close to the spot where Yacton let us out.

I take pictures of the outside while Paul presses the buzzer once, twice, three times. We are turning to leave when the door opens, and an elderly man peeks out at us.

We tell him the story of Mamatita—that this was once her home, that she was the great-grandmother of a friend of ours, that the last members of the family living here were the Bustamantes.

I am surprised when he invites us in.

His name is Ramon, he says, and he explains that the owner of the house is his brother’s wife, and she and her husband have gone to Havana for the holiday.

I glance around. The front room is spacious but utilitarian; the furnishings old and far from opulent. Pictures of his family hang on one wall, over two chairs and a round end table, on which sits a vase of flowers and a few Hummel-style figurines. The wall is smudged and grubby. One of the chairs holds a desk fan, which whirls away noisily; next to the second chair there is a standing fan, its unprotected curved metal blades unmoving.

The room ends in a knee wall, where a small eat-on wooden table sits flanked by chairs. Beyond it is a narrow outdoor courtyard that ends in a shed. The left border of this yard is a whitewashed cement wall; the right is a row of simple wooden doors beneath an overhanging roof that is propped with long, round sticks. The courtyard looks more utilitarian than decorative, with a cement floor and two water drums, a file of scraggly shrubs, and a scattering of potted aloe plants.

I ask Ramon if I can take a few pictures with my phone for my friend, and he nods. He poses next to a bookcase with the picture of two women tucked behind the glass—from what he says, I think that one of them might be Ana Maria Bustamante—and I snap his picture. He poses with Paul. Then he graciously permits me to take pictures of the living room and the courtyard.

I take very few, actually; it’s embarrassing, knowing that I am in this stranger’s house, blithely snapping photos of his life to bring to a world so far removed from this place that it might be on the moon. Is he willing to let me do this because he’s accustomed to having life do what it wants with him? Does he believe I’m a harmless tourist? Does he think that, in spite of my terrible Spanish, I might be Fidel’s spy, checking up on his family?

I’m…sheepish about this.

When we leave, I realize that I did not get his sister-in-law’s name, though he mentioned it more than once. Nor do I know her relationship to Margarita, the owner after the Bustamantes. I guess Marina will have to fill in the gaps herself, once she feels ready to come back to the island. If she ever does.

In the meantime, I have a few pictures of the room and the courtyard beyond, and some pictures of the town that I took as we walked back.

The next day, on our way to Havana, I give Marina’s book to Ariadna. Perhaps, for some future tour group, she will be able to embellish her history lessons with a first-hand account of the early Revolutionary period in Cuba.

(Note: Marina Villa has since told me that the picture behind Ramon is indeed of Ana Maria Bustamante, with her friend and successor in the ownership of Mamatita’s house, Margarita.)