The First Real San Giving Day
According to my abuela, once the revolution took hold in the midsixties, "No había nada. Castro rationed everything. Two eggs a week, una libra of rice every month, and two cups of frijoles negros, if there were any. There wasn't even any azúcar. Imagine Cuba without sugar!" she'd complain in her crackly voice, "Gracias a Dios, your abuelo worked at the sugar mill in Hormiguero." Every week, Abuela made sure he took home double or triple his sugar quota. With the extra pounds, she cooked up vats of dulce de leche and guava marmalade. She also traded with the town baker—a few cups of sugar for a few stale loaves she'd use to bake her homemade pudín de pan. She sold her confections on the black market, and in two years made enough money to buy visas and plane tickets to get the whole family out of Cuba.
A few months after we arrived in New York City, Abuela started her own business, sort of. Once a week she took the bus downtown to the discount stores and bought girdles, scented soaps, cigarette lighters, chocolate-covered cherries, alarm clocks, gold-plated earrings — anything of "quality" that she could mark up and resell door-to-door to the puertoriqueñas in our apartment building. "Those muchachas buy any mierda you bring to their door. They're too lazy to find the good prices," she would say. Abuela also worked at a purse factory, sewing the linings of the bags. Far shy of five feet tall and stocky, she wasn't exactly a bombshell, but that didn't stop her from using her broken English to sweet-talk her americano foreman into letting her buy the scuffed-up purses wholesale. She would then cover up the scratches with her eyebrow pencil and sell them at full price, good as new.
When we moved to Miami, Abuela became a bookie for La bolita, an illegal numbers racket run by Cuban mafiosos. She took bets all day long, recording them on a yellow legal pad and calling them in every night to Joaquín, the big boss. She also sold Puerto Rican lotto tickets, which she marked up twenty cents. Every month Graciela, her contact in San Juan, would send a stack of tickets; in exchange, Abuela split the profits with her: 25 percent for Graciela, 75 percent for herself. On Saturday nights, I'd help Abuela with her bookkeeping for the week. We'd set up at the kitchen table, her disproportionately large bust jutting out and over the tabletop and her short legs that didn't reach the floor swinging back and forth underneath the chair. "Make sure all the pesos are facing up — and all the same way," she instructed every time we'd begin sorting the various denominations into neat stacks.
As we handled the bills I tried teaching her about the father of our country, the Gettysburg Address, the Civil War, and the other bits of American history I was learning in school. Who's this? What did he do? I'd quiz her, pointing at the portrait of Jackson, his wavy hairdo and bushy eyebrows, on a twenty; or at Lincoln's narrow nose and deep-set eyes on a five. But it was useless: "Ay, mi'jo, they're all americanos feos. I don't care who they are, only what they can buy," she'd quip, thumbing through the bills, her fingernails always self-manicured but never painted. Without losing count, she'd quiz me on la charada — a traditional system of numbers paired with symbols used for divination and placing bets. She'd call out a number at random, and I'd answer with the corresponding symbol she had me memorize: número 36 — bodega; número 8 — tigre; número 46 — chino (which I always forgot); número 17 — luna (my favorite one); número 93 — revolución, the reason why I was born in número 44 — España instead of in número 92 — Cuba. Everything in the world seemed to have a number, even me: número 13 — niño.
In a composition book with penciled-in rows and columns, she'd tally her profits, down to the nickels and dimes I helped her wrap into paper rolls. Sometimes — if I begged long enough — she let me keep the leftover coins that weren't enough to complete a new roll. It seemed like a fortune to me at age nine, enough to buy all the Bazooka bubble gum I wanted from the ice cream man once a week; even enough to buy TV time from my older brother, Caco, so I could watch old TV shows like The Brady Bunch instead of football. But every now and then I'd go broke paying him not to squeal on me, like the time he caught me coloring my fingernails with crayons. Eventually I'd earn the money back by making him sandwiches, cleaning up his side of our room, or getting paid off for not telling on him, like the time I found cuss words scribbled all over his history textbook — in ink! Still, it wasn't much money for him; he constantly bragged that he made more on a Saturday mowing lawns than I did in a whole month "playing around" with Abuela. He didn't need any of her "stupid" money, he claimed.
Once Abuela and I were done with our accounting, I followed her through the house as she stashed the money in her guaquita, her code name for the hiding places she shared with only me. Ones, fives, and tens went into a manila envelope taped behind the toilet tank; twenties and fifties underneath a corner of the wall-to-wall carpeting in her bedroom. The coin rolls we hid in the pantry, buried in empty canisters of sugar and coffee. "In Cuba I had to hide my pesos from la milicia — those hijos de puta! That's when I started making guaquita. I even had to hide my underwear from them," she'd claim. The pennies she tossed into an empty margarine tub she kept at the foot of her blessed San Lázaro statuette in her bedroom. Every Sunday morning she emptied the tub into a paper bag and dropped the pennies into the poor box at St. Brendan's before mass. "You have to give a little to get a little, that's how it works, mi'jo," she'd profess, making the sign of the cross.
But somehow Abuela always seemed to get a whole lot more than she gave. She was just dichosa — lucky, she alleged, though she helped her luck along most of the time. When my parents had wanted to move from New York City down to Miami, she "gave" them ten thousand dollars for a down payment on a new house with a terra-cotta roof and a lush lawn. The same house where we now lived, located in a Miami suburb named Westchester, pronounced Güecheste by the working-class exiles like us who had begun to settle there once they got on their feet. Abuela had also agreed she'd take care of my brother and me while my father and mother worked full time at my tío Pipo's bodega, named El Cocuyito — The Little Firefly. All Abuela wanted in exchange was for her and my abuelo to live with us rent-free — for life! My parents had agreed to the deal, and Abuela was sure to remind her daughter-in-law every time they got into a squabble over money matters: "Gracias to me and San Lázaro we have this casita and we don't live frozen in that horrible Nueva York anymore."
From The Prince of Los Cocuyos by Richard Blanco. Copyright 2014 Richard Blanco. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.