Jose Antonio Michelena 

Today, I am 10 years old and I am still here, in the same place I was born and I continue with my life cycle: growing and shrinking, like almost all of my twin brothers and sisters in the city.

Sometimes, I grow so much that I become a giant. I feed off paper, cardboard, fruit and vegetable peelings, scraps of food, bottles, cans, glass, fabrics, tree branches, tables, chairs, windows, tools, rubble; car parts, computer parts, kitchen appliances, fridges, phones, TVs; anything you can possibly imagine.

When I take on bigger dimensions, I spread out in every direction, so much so that cars and trucks have a hard time driving down the road because I take up quite a bit of it. Some people quicken their step as they pass by, covering their nose and mouth. It seems I disgust them. But, not others, they don’t even look down on me.

With over two million inhabitants, Havana produces several thousand cubic meters of solid waste every day. Photo: IPS Cuba Archive

Rats, cockroaches, flies, cats, dogs and dumpster divers are the ones who visit me the most. There are many different kinds of the latter, but they fall into two main groups: temporary and professionals. The former collect a table, a chair, a trunnel, a bit of sand, a bit of a window. The latter are split up according to their specialties: those who look for beer and soft drink cans, bottles, cardboard; or those who come looking for food.

The dumpster divers looking for food also fall into two groups. The first is made up of those who belong on the last rung of poverty, the homeless; but there are other dumpster divers who seek out food with another status: pig breeders.

Dumpster divers who rear pigs go through garbage with a can to collect food into and a tool to rummage about the container with. Some use gloves and a face mask to protect themselves. Sometimes, they come in pairs and they divide up the work between them: one holds the can and the other takes out and throws in the content.

Because pig rearing is a profitable business, they see dumpster diving as a respectable modus vivendi, just like any other. Without any kind of complex. If someone thinks to call them out on the heap they make, pig rearers can become very aggressive. All dumpster divers are like each other in this aspect. I tell them: leave them alone, don’t bother them, that’s why there are law enforcement officials and they don’t say anything.

Pig rearing dumpster divers normally go around on bikes so they can move quickly between one place and the next and get there first. I have seen dumpster divers arguing, claiming their superiority, their right to dumpster dive; nobody can come from another neighborhood to rummage about the area before they do.

In the long time I’ve been here, I have been able to get to know the people who come to throw out their garbage really well. There are the people who always throw their garbage in the container (when it isn’t full). Even if it’s closed, they open it to throw their garbage inside. And then there are others who don’t care and throw the garbage wherever they like. It isn’t their problem, they say.

Another group of visitors we have every day are those who come to leave their rubble. They come with their wheelbarrows and unload their waste everywhere. Then, on top of the rubble, people leave toilets, sinks, kitchens, doors, branches, grass… and I begin to grow and grow.

When days have passed and I have grown so big that rats and flies have a whale of a time everywhere and my closest neighbors have got tired of protesting and complaining, then a Communal Services truck comes along. They come with a bulldozer that picks up everything, but it also destroys the fence of the warehouse that’s in the back, the pavement, the road… And, the hole that swallows everything up becomes deeper and wider, the ditch where everything sinks, where I am duplicated again, and again and again.

Just yesterday, the trucks came and they took away a mountain of garbage and reduced me to my basic state; plus, they left new garbage containers behind; but I know that this order won’t last very long. Communal Services will disappear again for several days and then the wheels on the garbage cans will disappear, they won’t be useful anymore, and then garbage will grow again, taking over the public space.

I have heard that efforts have been made to wipe out my brothers and sisters in other parts of the city, they say that it has to do with the anniversary of the founding of Havana city, but there aren’t any hotels here, tourists don’t walk past, nobody important lives here, it doesn’t affect anyone apart from my nearest neighbors. It’s as if this neighborhood doesn’t form part of the capital.

Do you want to know something? It isn’t nice being a garbage heap, it isn’t pleasant being a den for rats, flies, cockroaches, smelling this bad; knowing that we represent the outcasts, bad habits, social indiscipline, insalubrity, lack of culture; and to be scorned by well-educated people with good manners. It’s embarassing. Somebody should put an end to our existence for good. But, when will that time come?

Featured image: “Con la Puerta Abierta” (2015) by Tomas Sanchez

Jose Antonio Michelena is a journalist with IPS-Cuba. This article is reprinted with permission from the Havana Times in which it appeared on March 4, 2019.