I was walking around looking for traditional Cuban food to eat in Havana while walking past restaurants such as Castro Pol, and La Roca. My curiosity wasn’t satisfied. The restaurants were full of tourist, but I wanted to eat where the people of Cuba ate. A friend of mine recommended eating at a casa (someone’s home). A lady called Nucar G Prez owned the casa I visited.
Warm, welcoming and spiritual are the words I would use to describe this home. We had a brief discussion about where I’m from and how my experience of Cuba was so far. The first thing I asked was ‘what’s on the menu?’ “Rice, beans, chicken, pork, salad, and fruit are the food I prepare every day for 1 dollar” she replied. I was surprised. Happy, but surprised. One Cuban dollar is equivalent to 65 pence. In England, you would be lucky to buy a good packet of rice for that price.
The casa owner Nucar didn’t always cook to make money. The mother of one used to be a nurse. She loved being a nurse but knew things had to change. “I decided to finish this work because it’s very hard for me; the money wasn’t enough” – she left three years ago. The average monthly salary for a nurse today in Cuba is $20 (£13 roughly), which is the same amount of money I was paying a night to stay in a casa. Eight years of hard work studying to become a nurse resulted in having to work even harder, with hardly any pay, let alone a better quality of life. Doesn’t make sense, does it? I can understand her frustrations.
“I’m a cook, I prepare food for the people, I like it, I enjoy it, I’m not hungry now – but many people are hungry, so I give them my food.”
Not only has Nucar changed her home to a restaurant, but she plays an important part of her community. Everyone is welcomed in her home. While at this warm woman’s home, she would have many visitors for many reasons. Some people asked her for lottery numbers, others came to buy jelly, and some came for a chat. One woman came late in the afternoon with her young twin boys to receive a phone call from their dad who is in prison. Nucar didn’t charge the lady to receive this call; I’m sure some people would have as money in Cuba is tight.
Cuba’s money problem could change shortly if the embargo against the Americans becomes lifted. The embargo started in 1960 when the communist dictator Fidel Castro led Cuban government to take over all American businesses within the country.
In response, American President Dwight D Eisenhower blocked exports from his country going to Cuba. Things had been getting worse between the two nations as time passed. This included failed attempts to assassinate President Castro. Just last year in 2014, President Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother) and President Obama begin to re-establish diplomatic relations.
If all goes well, Cuba and America could do business again which will pump more money into the country. 20% of the Cubans I spoke to about the embargo are not happy to see it lifted.
“Yes, Cuba has its problems, but it’s our problem, we will deal with it our way – in a Cuban way. We don’t want to have to deal with other people’s problems, or for other people to add problems.”
This was the opinion of barman Rowen Barrios. Nucar was one of 80% of people who disagreed with Rowen’s views. “If the things in Cuba change, maybe I will work for the government because the salary may be the best.” Nucar spends most of her time in her casa. She is a single parent. “I am happy being single as the men also have no money, what’s the point of having two broke people in one house just staring at each other, I don’t care to go out as it’s too expensive.” She said she would rather read and save her money.
“Cuba needs to change for the young; many young don’t have money.” There is a high rate of women involved in prostitution and Nucar is happy that her 22-year-old daughter isn’t one of them. “My daughter is an intelligent girl, thank God! She is studying computing.” Although the 22-year-old is trying to build a career for herself, her mother worries about her future due to the lack of money.
“Everything I do now; I do for my daughter, I live for her, and all the money I make is for her.” If Nucar could, she would like to open a restaurant called Nucar’s and serve the most delicious Cuban food. If she did, I would visit there, her passion and outlook on life reflect her food; rich, beautiful, and another reason to revisit the landmark that is Cuba.
Photography & written by Cris Blaize