YENNIFER COCA IZQUIERDO, 18
Yennifer Coca Izquierdo was born in a small town in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba. She admires her father who has always tried to provide her with the best educational opportunities. He worked relentlessly in his rice mill every day, but living in a communist nation made his continued work there impossible. Even though Izquierdo had access to an education, the chance for her having profitable and stable employment was small because the economic state of Cuba prohibited it. Izquierdo immigrated to the United States at age 14 with her father to create a future for herself.
The first school she attended was the Newcomer Academy in Louisville, Kentucky, which is a school designed for recent arrivals to the United States. Izquierdo’s English proficiency was low, and she had to repeat the 8th grade. Facing the language barrier was a tough challenge; the incessant feeling of inferiority isolated her from her peers and diminished Izquierdo’s self-esteem, but it did not stop her. She created a routine of reading one book and memorizing 20 new vocabulary terms weekly. At the end of the school year, Izquierdo received an award for earning A grades in all of her classes and for perfect attendance. Izquierdo attended Iroquois High School after one year at Newcomer, which opened many doors for her.
Izquierdo is a published author to the collection No Single Sparrow Makes a Summer. In one chapter, “This is the Coca-Cola That Will Make You Forget Us,” she wrote about her experience growing up in communist Cuba, her father’s immigration story, and her own immigration story. She interviewed several Cuban immigrants from her community and shared their stories. In past years Izquierdo has been an activist in her school and has worked with the Center of Women and Families and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth to organize social justice events for her peers. She was an ambassador for the Kentucky United Nations Assembly for several years, where she led her delegation to pass a resolution calling for an Active Response to Climate Change, Degrading Infrastructure, and Economic Inequity in Vietnam. Izquierdo is a member of the Aspen Institute, where she is working with a group of seven young people on a project in which will create and promote a program that both integrates and celebrates Louisville’s diverse cultures.
Izquierdo will attend Berea College, the first college in the Southern United States to be coeducational and racially integrated, on a full scholarship.
Bike Rides Through Sancti-Spiritus City
By Yennifer Y. Coca Izquierdo
Excerpted from No Single Sparrow Makes a Summer
During the afternoons in the summer, my dad and I went on daily bike rides to his rice mill which undoubtedly was the best part of summer vacation. It was fascinating to wake up in the fresh Caribbean mornings, put on shorts, flip flops, and hop into the backseat of my father’s antique bike. Wandering around the isolated boulevards at 6:00 a.m., gripping tightly for protection onto the torso of my beloved father, without a clear insight of what to expect next. I lived for the thrill, the interest in new places and people yet to be discovered. These bike rides not only awakened my curious instincts, they were a way in which my dad and I could connect and talk about topics that we would not talk about at home like politics, history, and religion. We knew our mother would feel uneasy if we chatted about controversial topics; she was raised most of her life in a conservative, Communist household.
The early morning wind rolled through my hair making it flow along like blossoms on a tree. I pressed my tiny feet onto the metallic sides of the bicycle, as my dad’s exhausted legs kept going. These rides allowed me to see a part of Cuba I was not familiar with. As a six-year-old, whose parents have always worked to ensure their little girl had everything she wanted, I thought all kids my age were granted the same opportunities as I was. Traveling around the city exposed me to the reality of the social classes in Cuba that are usually disregarded by many. I observed people’s faces: some overwhelmed with despair, others robust with hard labor. Even though my dad used to think some of the poor people we saw on the streets were in such circumstances because they did not want to work, I could not help but feel remorse towards them. They would gather in the Serafin Sanchez Park and wait for foreign visitors to come out the main hotel La Plaza, supplicating for for 50 cents or a dollar (10-25 Cuban pesos). While noticing them, I used to wonder how they could live in such circumstances when communism was supposed to ensure financial equality for every citizen.
I was forced to believe my country was a utopia where socio-economic issues were nothing to worry about. “Socialismo o Muerte," my friends and I yelled at the top of our lungs every morning while standing in the school’s plaza. But, where were the Marxist ideals expressed in the Communist Manifesto, declaring the existence of no social classes? Even though the government attempted to enforce the utopian economic state where no social classes were present, it was not successfully implemented. Students were all required to wear uniforms, and schools prohibited the use of jewelry. Restrictions were set to make us seem as equal as possible, but you could not help but see the imparity among all of us. The kid with the ripped socks and deteriorated backpack muttered the national anthem alongside the rest of us as Patricia—red bow in her hair, expensive Lacoste tennis shoes—kept complaining about how warm it was outside, the sun reflecting on her gold necklace.
Riding our bike through Sancti-Spíritus was like traveling back in time to the colonial periods when you have the ancient buildings with their monotonous shapes. The air was alive and pure although the busses created a stream of dark clouds. Then you have downtown, which is known for being extremely populated at all times, and where the merchants sell a variety of handmade artifacts. The street contained a variety of transportation methods ranging from Chinese buses, to Soviet bikes and wagons pulled by horses. The higher class rode the wagons, while the poorer individuals had no option but to walk or ride the asphyxiating busses if they had the courage to do so.
I often begged my dad to go get me some chocolate ice cream as we were on the way to the mills. Dad pulled three red pesos, while Che’s face poked out of the bill like an honorable communist would do. A few quarters were left in my dad’s empty pockets. The ice cream man—polished head and affable manners—knew me and would remember my order: chocolate ice cream with honey, and red coloring to replace the inaccessible dessert syrup. “Dad, do you want some ice cream?” I would ask him every time. “No, Nene. You can have it all. You need some meat on those bones,” he said, followed by a comforting smile. “Papa, you know this is too much for me” I said, trying to avoid the “you need to eat more” sermon. He would shake his head from side to side, as I would share my ice cream with him. His eyes were filled with love and a sensation of joy. I did it not because I would not be able to eat it all. I was somehow aware that because of our financial situation, he was not able to buy two cones. I did not mind if I was not eating the ice cream cone entirely because the person who I love the most was. At that moment it did not matter if I tasted it at all.
My grandma’s house in Colón was located one hour away by bike from my home in Los Olivos 2. It had multiple rooms and patios, and unquestionably was the biggest house around and, I would argue, one of the most visited places on the entire avenue, almost like a sanctuary. People came just to sit around and talk. It was always full of neighbors who would usually come each afternoon to chatter with my grandma and drink a cup of coffee, their infant kids running around, playing with each other while chasing my grandmother's beloved cats.
In the back my uncle Chichi worked as a welder and lived with my aunt and two cousins. He had all his working tools out back in a chaotic zone overcrowded with wires, metallic chunks, disintegrated bike’s parts, bird cages, and a few livestock corrals that would be deserted during the holiday seasons when my uncles Chichi and Lazaro slaughtered the pigs.
In the front of the house where my grandmother and grandfather lived, my dad built a rice mill. Going to the rice mills with my dad was always an entertaining experience. As soon as we arrived at my grandma's house, he would put on his damaged and dusty working apparel and I would sit on my grandma’s bed playing with dolls until I heard the mills turning on. Then I would run to the front of the house, sneaking through the front door hoping my grandma could not catch me so I could help my dad put the rice powder into sacks which later would be processed by the mill. My grandma and mother were not fans of seeing their six-year-old girl with a shovel working in a mill since it was unconventional for a little girl to be covered in dust, yet my dad would let me work with him anyways because he knew how much I loved to do so.
Most of the customers who went by the mill where farmers, or people who owned livestock; the rice powder my dad processed had a lot of nutritional value and could fatten a pig by a few hundred pounds in less than ten months. We also received visitors from the countryside who would come in wagons selling fresh milk and cheese. My dad would exchange the rice powder for the dairy items, since my grandma loved organic products.
Grandma believed lunch was the most important meal of the day and should not be missed no matter what. The entire family would come together at lunchtime to eat her black beans, which were delicious. Every time we asked her what her secret ingredient was, she said they were made out of love. But I knew the secret was her cilantros, she cultivated them in a ceramic pot, and would take care of them daily. Even if someone from the family was working at the time they would get off work for a few minutes, have lunch, and then go back to their regular everyday activities. My grandmother, Sara is one of the most compassionate people I have ever known. She often brought food to her neighbors if they did not have any or gave them her bread quota. She wore a long tight apron on her waist, which in my eyes made her look like a medieval princess, and her voluminous silver hair hovered in the air like clouds in a summer morning.
My Grandmother’s neighborhood was called “Tejar y Mambi.” The name “Tejar” is derived from the tile factory located in my neighborhood, and which was a job site for few of my neighbors and family members. “Mambis” is the name given to patriotic farmers who fought alongside other combatants in the Cuban Revolution. Tejar y Mambi was a poor district. The main street was just a straight dirt road lined with paperboard houses. Women rushed out of their doors sweeping carefully, ensuring their balconies were pristine, coughing at the commotion of dust. Although the tropical music of Polo Montañez with maracas and tambours stirred the spirit of the occasion, their faces looked tired, struck with deception.
It was typical Cuban barrio with a panaderia at the corner of the street; one small store, a polyclinic surrounded by food places, and a butcher shop on the balcony of a house. The butcher would place the meat on the rails, so all my neighbors could see the meat when they walked by and ensure the best for the day. I remember the house where I usually bought my candy; four pieces for one peso, which seemed like an excellent deal back then. The panaderia was a place of social interactions where the elderly met up every morning to chat and get out of the extreme temperatures of summer.
Once, when I was sent to the Panaderia to get our daily ration of bread, I lined up alongside all the elders where I heard a woman shouting to someone,
“This bread only gets worse.”
“It is almost as if we were back in the Special Periods all over again,” a light voice responded.
When it was my turn, the woman distributing the bread took my libreta - the little notebook that keeps track of your food rations. She opened the page to the date and signed it with a scribbly handwriting. I gave her the few pennies my grandma had put at the bottom of the cloth bag and placed the four small rounded pieces of bread into it. Outside, people were still talking about the Special Period. I had heard my grandmother and aunt mention the phrase before but was never sure what it meant. Whatever it was, it must have been significant to everyone if you heard about it on any street corner.
As soon as I got home, I ran up to my grandma, “Abuela, what is the Special Period?” I asked.
“Hay, mija, don’t you think today is not the day to talk about this? why don’t you go and take the bread to your aunt who has been waiting to make some torrejas,” her worn out voice answered.
“Grandma, everyone is talking about it lately, and you know I do not like to be left behind in conversations,” I said.
“You are a curious little girl.” She calmly sat on the kitchen chair, so I sat on her lap as I usually did. Grandma took a strand of her silver hair from her side and positioned herself in a comfortable manner. I could see it in her eyes that she was ready for the chance to open and let all these memories out.
“The Special Times was a period after Russia and Cuba broke their economic relations, and our island was devastated. We lost our canned goods, good meat, and condensed milk,” she said. I wondered how all of this could have happened so fast in a country that had once had so many material goods. “When they were both communist nations, Cuba and the Soviet Union kept good relations. Cuba traded sugar in exchange for inexpensive Russian products which overcrowded the stores, and the Cuban economy elevated for once. But after the relations among both nations dissolved, the island suffered a serious downturn. It was extremely difficult to find everyday products at the market, and hunger, poverty, and unemployment flourished.”
El Periodo Especial is still considered one of the most devastating chapters of Cuban history. During the US embargos of the 1960’s, Cuba’s economy collapsed, and the Soviet Union, the nation’s only ally, was the only country that would sell petroleum to Cuba. US economic warfare weakened Cuba, but Soviet support made sure the country’s economy would not crumble. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba lost approximately 80% of its imports and exports and its Gross Domestic Product plummeted. Food and medicine imports stopped or severely slowed. The agricultural and industrial economies were paralyzed. Domestic production of meat, milk, and eggs were hampered by the lack of imported animal feed. The disappearance of medicines from local pharmacies, together with food shortages, threatened the health and nutrition of all people.
“It’s ironic,” my abuela said, “your cousin Yandira was born before the Special Periods, and she had the best childhood you could ever imagine, fine dresses, chocolates of all kinds, leather shoes. But her sister, who was born five years after, had to go through all that struggle of the time. That poor girl. Our family was just not equipped to deal with it. There was no milk for the poor child in the stores. Your uncle Chichi had to work extra hard to provide for the little girl. People back then became magicians in order find ways to regulate their money. When there was any, we had to fry mango chunks because plantains were too expensive to buy.” She said.
Out of all the things I could have said in that moment, the first thing to come out of my mouth was, “Fried mango sounds disgusting,”
“You’d be surprised how much the flavor resembles fried plantains. I will make some of those one of these days."