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La Jinetera

By: Barbara Torresi



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La Jinetera

February is the coldest month of the year in Havana, with strong gales that ruffle the ocean and hurl its foamy tentacles across the low seawall.

On the other side of the waterfront, barely shielded from the sea's silvery sprinkle by the sparse evening traffic, a tall, bespectacled man with an empty glass of mojito clutched between bony fingers is listening intently to a young girl, concentration digging a deep canyon across his forehead.

In the face of his best efforts to learn Spanish and a two year relationship, if long distance and hiccupy, Tommaso still finds Lisy's thick Cuban accent a hindrance for communication. He frowns, he furrows, he shakes his head in frustration, but Lisy's hectic dating schedule, which revolves around boyfriends from all over the world, gives her no time to take French classes. Of course, she has learnt to blurt out the odd 'merci' to please her lover, but then she can skilfully thank people in half of the EEU languages. And Russian too, given that affluent visitors from the pearl of the former socialist block have become the most generous customers of the city's fast growing industry of pleasure.

The Cuban word to describe women like Lisy is jinetera, generously translated by some guide books as 'mistress', when in fact the term encompasses the whole spectrum of commercial sex workers, from vendors of one-off specialist performances to salaried fiancées. Rarely do women hover only on one side of the continuum, and roles change according to client, contingent need, and, of course, personal inclination.

In spite of her tender age (she has just turned twenty) Lisy plays skilfully most parts in the book, even if her dream role, the only one she acts out sincerely, is the wife-to-be of a handsome, young entrepreneur speeding around Havana's pot-holed calles in a 200 dollar a day rental Mercedes.

Alas, her current suitor doesn't quite cut it as a dashing heartbreaker: with thinning grey hair and heavy bags under eyes framed by designer spectacles, the history teacher from Toulouse looks at most like a stylish uncle. He belongs to the category of occasional boyfriends, someone whose main attraction lies within the folds of his wallet. Sometimes Lisy even feels a bit sorry for Tommaso and his seemingly genuine, and on the whole unrequited, affection for her. On other occasions pity is replaced by contempt, and expensive shopping sprees are the only activity she deems him fit for.

While, by and large, most jineteras would never dream of throwing icy water on Tommaso's timid suggestions of orange flowers, Lisy's ambitious plans for the future exclude categorically a husband approaching the sixth decade of life. And as a beautiful child-woman with honey coloured skin, a mouth like a rosebud and pitch black, almond shaped eyes, she knows her bargaining chips are high. Her family needs are also soaring, and while waiting for Mr Right to rescue her from an uncertain life in the crumbling city, she rarely passes an opportunity to make a few bucks. Lisy is the eldest of four siblings and the family's prime breadwinner. Her mother works as a nurse for 275 pesos (barely twelve dollars) a month and her stepfather is, in her words, as useful 'as a sole-less shoe'. At age seventeen she was grassed up by a neighbour who had seen her smooching with a blond yuma (foreigner) in one of Havana's most exclusive bars.

The blessing of the family followed suit. All considered, they thought, she may as well find a man who can help with household expenses rather than a good for nothing who sits on his doorstep drinking cheap rum all day.

The Gutierrez family's financial worries keep cropping up in the conversation between the unlikely couple sipping cocktails in the haze of a furious Caribbean:
'Tomi, mi vida, do you remember that hotel job Pablito was offered last time you came to visit? Well, it never materialised because they said his English was rubbish! Mother didn't stop crying for a week. Lisy, she said, if only we had enough money for some private classes… so I gave Pablito 20 dollars, but that scoundrel came home with a pair of new trainers instead. He said the money wasn't enough for the lessons anyway. But what can I do? The boys eat like lions and all my money I spend at the market. Buying groceries. Do you know how much a bottle of vegetable oil costs? Two dollars and twenty cents, or one fifth of my mum's salary'. Tommaso's heart never fails to soften and promises of imminent financial aid are made. Lisy smiles and pecks him on the neck. Then, with the corner of her eye, she catches a glimpse of the couple holding hands at a table next to theirs.

The girl, a pretty negrita about her age, is smiling adoringly at a handsome Spanish boy while he whispers in her ear something that makes her burst into a resounding laughter. When their giggles subside and his voice becomes audible, Lisy's heart is stabbed by pangs of envy:
'I can't wait to take you to Europe ... we can go to concerts ...we can go to ... the beach with my friends… the Canaries. I've never been to the Canaries, can you believe it?' and the evening with old, boring Tommaso turns into an unbearable torture. Two hours later Lisy is sitting at another plastic table with chipped edges, in another of Havana's all-night drinking dens, talking to yet another foreigner: me. After shaking off Tommaso with an excuse she moved to the next hunting ground down the road, joining our common friend Roberto and me for drinks when it became clear that the night would bring her no fruitful romantic encounters.

It is rare for Lisy to fail an approach, and her disappointment translated into a long moaning session centred on Tommaso renewed marriage talk:
'But he is forty-nine!' she shouts into Roberto's left ear, 'In fact, I think he's been lying to me. Have you seen his hands? I bet they have been around at least a decade longer ... he dyes his hair!'
'So what?' says Roberto only half jokingly 'you should be happy. You'll get your inheritance before you are too old to enjoy life ... or if you can't wait that long just divorce him as soon as you receive your green card.' Lisy mocks disgust. She is not that type, she insists. One thing is hanging out with someone occasionally, another committing to being the mother of his children:
'You must not get me wrong' she says turning to me 'I am not like the others. I have no pimp and only do quickies when I am really strapped for cash. What I really want is to meet someone nice whom I can fall in love with, a man who'll take me to a place where I can do something with my life,' she turns to Roberto, 'something that doesn't involve changing incontinence pads to a senile husband.'

And she continues, 'Here I have no opportunity to study or get a decent job because I have to feed my family. And food is soooo expensive! I have no money for clothes or entertainment. Do you know how much two pounds of pork cost? Three dollars, or one fourth of my mum's monthly wages.' For a split second I can't suppress a slight motion of sympathy for poor, duped Tommaso, then a glance at my squalid surroundings reminds me that Cubans have excellent reasons to complain about their predicament, and all the rights to pursue an uncompromised love life.

But what can I do, after all? Lisy will have to decide for herself whether economic security and political freedom are worth sentimental captivity. My help will have to be limited at another round of drinks, worth one fourth of her mother's salary.

Barbara Torresi April 2006




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