Petty crime in Havana
"Toys were hard to come by." Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Israel Sanchez is our latest Guest Writer Program writer. It’s funny, I’ve sometimes described Humans of New York as one of the inspirations for some of the content in this newsletter, and after I accepted Israel’s piece, I realized he’d been featured for a different story on HONY. I’ll include a link at the end.
Israel Sanchez was born in Cuba. He immigrated to the U.S. when we was 11 without his mother, who had to stay behind for another dozen years. This is a story from 30 years ago, about what he came from, and why his family sent him.
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When I was 9, my mom got me a water gun. If you live in the United States, you can easily get one of these toys at the dollar store, but there’s no such thing in Cuba.
Toys were hard to come by. A shiny, neon-green water gun meant months of saving and sacrifice. Most adults spent their money, time and energy on putting food on the table.
The government rationed our food, but the supplies were sporadic and never enough. A bread the size of a typical Hawaiian roll would turn green just mere hours after being handed out. You either ate it that day or you didn’t. There was one year when there were no eggs in the entire city of Havana.
For a period of time owning dollars was illegal. Only tourists, extranjeros, were allowed to carry them. A friend of my mom’s was arrested and sentenced to over two years in prison for owning a hundred dollars that he had saved up over time from serving extranjeros at a restaurant.
The tips were supposed to be turned in to management, but he secretly kept some until someone turned him in. While in prison, he was arbitrarily beaten and tortured.
Not long after his release, the Cuban government needed cash and dollars became legal tender for Cubans to own and water outages were a daily thing.
The day I got my water gun I had just come back from my Taekwondo lesson. I was still wearing my kimono and white belt.
It was another scorching summer in Havana and a water gun similar to one I had clandestinely seen in American television was finally mine. My step dad had built an antenna that reached the American television signal that was broadcast for tourists at the local hotels.
This lasted about a year before he was ordered to take it down or go to jail, but it had been a good year, during which time I memorized jingles, coveted juicy hamburgers and shiny toys.
Watching commercials and imagining living the “American dream” was a common fantasy amongst me and my friends. There were so many toy commercials; from Ninja Turtles, to remote control cars, to nerf and water guns, all pointing to a life that I never thought would be mine.
“Don’t use it in the house because I just finished cleaning,” my mom said and handed me the water gun. “Take good care of it.”
“Thanks!” I beamed.
With that, I filled my water gun and carefully went downstairs to the common area and park underneath our building. It was a 10-story descent, during which I carefully maneuvered around chipped steps and people walking up.
It was an overcast day, so the heavy cloth of my kimono didn’t bother me too much. I stood beneath the windows, ready to shout and ask my mom to watch me water the plants when a group of six kids I had never seen before came up.
I was so busy playing that I didn’t realize they were there until they’d encircled me. I was surrounded. The leader of the group spoke.
“That’s a really nice water gun,” he said. “It’s a cool color.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Let me see it.”
Growing up, I was always the shortest one in my classroom, so I learned to literally fight my battles, but that was usually one bully at a time. Now, there were too many of them.
“You can see it from here,” I answered.
They came closer.
“Come on, don’t be like that,” he said. “I just want to look at it. I promise.”
I did some quick calculations and appraised that I had practiced enough Taekwondo to perhaps take out two of them, but the rest would gang up on me before I could even cry out for help.
And maybe, just maybe, he really only wanted to look at it?
“You’ll give it back?” I asked.
“Promise,” he said.
I handed him the water gun, my mom’s months of sacrifice slipping away from my grasp. The leader took it in his hand, looked around at his pack, and gave them a signal.
One kid from behind me pulled hard on my kimono, and I lost my balance. They took off running. They crossed the four-lane intersection in a flash, my stolen property in hand. They howled like wolves and laughed like hyenas.
I chased them partway, but they were too fast and they were quickly leaving my neighborhood. What would they do if I was isolated in their territory?
I grabbed a big piece of rock and threw it at the leader. It him right on his heel. He yelled an expletive and grabbed his foot for a second, but he kept running, squirting water as he shouted with joy and pain.
I went back to the park by my building, out of breath and with my kimono torn. I should have done more. My dad and my grandfather would have expected me to fight, even if I was outnumbered.
The clouds were darker now and the smell of summer rain began to fill the air. A neighbor approached me and said he saw the whole thing unfold, but that it happened too fast for him to intervene.
Don’t worry, he told me. They had just shut off the water to the building again, anyway.
(You can read more of Israel Sanchez’s writing here. And, here’s a link to the Humans of New York post about him, from 2021. It tells a lot more of the story of how he reached the United States, and what happened afterward.)
Comments are reopened for everyone today. Fingers crossed! Note: I will never ask you to contact me via the newsletter comments. But you can reach me simply by replying to this newsletter.
7 other things worth knowing today
A man arrested in connection with a series of incidents at the Dallas Zoo, including cut enclosures and missing animals, told police he plans to return to the zoo and steal again if he’s released from jail, according to arrest-warrant affidavits. Davion Irvin, 24, who told police he “loved animals,” faces six charges of animal cruelty and two charges of burglary. (Dallas Morning News)
The hottest ticket in town for advertisers is officially sold out. Fox says in-game ads for Super Bowl LVII have all been sold. Most ads sold between $6 million and $7 million. Anheuser-Busch remains the biggest advertiser with three minutes of national airtime. (AP)
A woman in Washington state is facing electronic home monitoring and possible jail time after spending the past year willfully violating multiple court orders to have her active, contagious case of tuberculosis treated and to stay in isolation while doing so. "Most people we contact are happy to get the treatment they need. Occasionally people refuse treatment and isolation. When that happens, we take steps to help keep the community safe." (ArsTechnica)
Why February is (arguably) the most advantageous month in which to be born. (Fatherly)
A nine-year-old boy from Pennsylvania who loves science and computer programming has become one of the youngest ever high school graduates. David Balogun received a diploma from Reach cyber charter school in Harrisburg, and is taking community college classes. "I had to get outside of the box," explains his mother. "He's a 9-year-old with the brain that has the capacity to understand and comprehend a lot of concepts beyond his years and sometimes beyond my understanding." (WVTM-TV)
A personal finance writer on how being "broke" for years eventually made her really good with money: "We need to start applauding broke people for making tough money judgments on a daily basis—and celebrating their efforts to sustain life on meager means. Because it truly does take a skilled person to make that happen." (Real Simple)
LeBron James, age 38, scored his 38,388th NBA points, breaking the record held by Kareem Abdul Jabar for 38 years. The game was played Feb 7, which was the 38th day of 2023. Just saying. Also, here's the photo gone viral: Note that everyone in the stands is using their phone to record James -- except for one man, later identified as Phil Knight, founder of Nike.
Thanks for reading. Image by Esa Riutta from Pixabay. Thanks again to Israel Sanchez; you can find more of his writing here. See you in the comments.
Not fully sure what this story is about other than a story that could be told by almost anyone from a poor background anywhere in the world. Is it not true that a lot of the hardship in Cuba was part of the result of USA sanctions and political espionage?
Despite all the political ravings, daily annoyances and slipping bank accounts, we’ve “got it good” here in America. Amazing to think that people not far from our shores, can have so many obstacles to even the smallest success. Kudos to those whose inner strength surmounts these cruel attacks on the survival of their spirits.Thank you for making us think.