August 2, 1999


To Be Homeless in Havana

Manuel David Orrio, Cooperativa de Periodistas Independientes

LA HABANA, julio - Havana divers are called that because they dive; not under water, but in garbage bins, looking for food scraps, discarded shoes and old clothes.

The divers are a Cuban version of the New York homeless. Due to psychiatric problems or alcoholism, they live in dark and smelly corners, abandoned to their fate and with the complicity of the National Institute of Housing. Some even have a pension, the extent of which is more a euphemism than social assistance.

Some divers live between misery and poetry. The Banana, for example, an institution among Havana divers, is a mental incompetent who loves dogs and who used to be a photographer of some renown. On one ocassion, he decided he had to save the Cuban flags he found in garbage bins. He simply wanted them burnt, as a sign of respect, but both those on the Left and those on the Right decided the whole affair could be embarrasing and the matter was swept under.

As with The Banana, other neighborhoods sprout divers with their own personalities. A man finds it hard to renounce his uniqueness. So, in the Chinese Quarter, in Old Havana, there is a diver who deserves full first and last name: The Box Diver.

To understand his style, one would have to understand a gastronomic peculiarity of Havana. Whereas in any other area of the city, fast food means pizza, in the Chinese Quarter it means a Box.

Basically, the Box contains a complete meal: rice and beans, some pork, maybe fried bananas and some salad greens. Curiously, the Chinese in Cuba have never shied away from Cuban food. The Box can cost anywhere between 10 and 20 pesos, depending on quality.

At sundown, the Box Diver finds himself a Box; not the 10 or 20 peso warm, full one, but an empty, used one that he then carries in his left hand. With that, he forages through the neighborhood, collecting what he finds in his Box. Later, sitting in the park, he'll parsimoniously consume the contents.

I have tried to approach the Box Diver. I have even tried to take his photograph, all to no avail. He knows me, and he knows that I belong to the same street geography that he does, where they call me, in spite of myself, The Journalist.

Maybe in these Cuban times, at the threshold of the Third Millenium, there should be someone like the Box Diver. And, maybe, also, there should be someone to record his reality, to record his silent witness.

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