Monday, May 30, 2011

From a Cuban Tenement to an Italian Brothel: The High Price of Escape

Yoani Sanchez Award-Winning Cuban Blogger

From a Cuban Tenement to an Italian Brothel: The High Price of Escape
Posted: 05/30/11 02:20 PM ET

She was raised to succeed. As a little girl, her mother took the fried
egg of her own plate, if need be, to give it to her, because she was a
promise which the whole family was hanging from. They didn't even let
her scrub, so that her hands would not crack and harden from the
scouring pad and the soot. When she combed her hair into ringlets her
elder sister predicted she would one day marry a Frenchman or a Spaniard
or a Belgian, someone from the "nobility" of monarchy or business.

"Everyone will love you!" cried her grandmother, whose fingers were
twisted with arthritis from half a century of washing and ironing for
the whole street. They wouldn't even let her have a boyfriend in the
neighborhood, because she had to be preserved for the future that
awaited her, for the potentate who would come and take her from that
crowded tenement in Zanja Street, from that crowded country in the

One day, when she was barely out of adolescence, she found him. He was
much older and didn't belong to any wealthy family, but he had an
Italian passport. Nor did she like him physically, but simply imagining
him in Milan made his bulging beer belly look not so big. The aroma of
the new clothes he brought every time he came to Havana also covered the
smell of nicotine and alcohol that always came from his mouth.

At home, her family was delighted. "The child is leaving us to live in
Europe," they told the neighbors, and her own mother cut her off when
she tried to explain that her fiancé that occasionally became violent
and beat her. And so they pushed her to complete the legal paperwork and
make the marriage official. In the wedding photos she looked like a sad
princess, but a princess.

When the plane landed in the Italian winter, he no longer seemed like
the kind man who, 24 hours earlier, had promised her mother that he
would take care of her. He took her to a club that same night where she
had to work serving clients liquor, and even her own body. For months
she wrote her grandmother about the perfumes and food she had tried in
her new life. She recreated, in her letters and phone calls, a reality
very different from what she was living. Not a word of extortion, nor of
the husband who had evaporated leaving her in the hands of a "boss" whom
she had to obey.

In the Havana tenement they had all spoiled her and made her happy and
she didn't want to disappoint them. When the Italian police dismantled
the prostitution ring in which she was trapped, she sent a brief text
message to her relatives on the other side of the Atlantic, so they
wouldn't worry, "I won't be able to call you for several weeks. I'm
going on vacation to Venice to celebrate my wedding anniversary. I love
you all, your Princess."

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