Josephine Herbst

A Passport from Realengo

Published: The New Masses, July 16, 1935.
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for in 2001.

On the earthen floor of the house on the poet of Realengo 18, one of the Realengo men draws with a stick a map of Cuba. The hardbaked earth swept clean with a broom makes a good blackboard. He shapes the island and we stare at its smallness that is now being related to the world. Outlines of the United States take shape roughly. There is an ocean, Europe and a sudden great bulge of the stick moved by an inspired curve makes the Soviet Union. Everyone in the room smiles. Jaime, the actor, turned Realengo farmer these ten years, says excitedly that in my pocketbook I carry a passport that has a visa from the Soviet Union upon it. Two little girls sitting together on a narrow bench keep their seats, everyone else crowds forward. The passport goes from hand to hand.

Through the doorway is a view down the valley. We are very high on top of the world in Realengo. We are in the midst of steep cultivated mountains with banana and tobacco growing in regular rows. Around these cultivated patches virgin forest bristles in tough areas. Realengo 18 feels somewhat protected by its location, by its difficult trails too narrow for the artillery of an army. Last August airplanes whirled overhead looking for places to drop bombs. Now four men of Realengo are gravely studying the map of Cuba on the floor and they are looking at my visa from the Soviet Union.

They stare slowly at the visa and pass it from hand to hand. Someone picks out the tiny hammer and sickle on the seal. Jaime says that there ought to be a visa from the Soviet of Realengo 18. He says there are plenty of blank pages and I should certainly have a visa from the first Soviet on the North American continent. The visa has changed the atmosphere of the room in a moment. Realengo 18 is a small spot on a small island and we have been discussing the problems of this island, its relation to the world. Every person in the room has been weighed down with the great bulk of the United States pressing from above on that map drawn upon the floor. We have been looking at the map and feeling the powers that are against this small island in its battle for freedom. The visa is a kind of magic that restores everyone.

The wife of the poet gets up briskly and makes some coffee. She serves it in tiny cups with sugar--cane juice. Though this island is devoted to sugar, there is no sugar here, only the juice of the cane pressed out with a rude handmade machine of logs. Sugar sells, is not eaten, is not made in Realengo. Jaime, who has traveled in his day and knows the ports of South America, loves my passport. He keeps looking at it and insisting that I get a visa from Realengo. They are now discussing it gravely and the question is to be taken up with the secretary. After that it will be taken up with the president, Lino Alvarez. A stir and bustle of business and the relation of this tiny spot to the great one-sixth of the world where the Soviet Union flourishes changes the entire mood of the party. We get on horseback again and start out over the trails.

In Realengo 18 it is not possible just to travel. In every hut is a Realengo man who wants the news. I am a stranger in a pair of overalls and a blue workshirt sitting astride a very bony and mangy horse. This only lasts a moment. The very next moment I am in the house, we are smiling and talking. Thee man of the house may be very ill of malaria. This sickness is a terrific scourge in Realengo where the outside world seems never to have come except for plunder. Agents from the big sugar mills below penetrate Realengo 18 on horseback wearing very white starched clothes, riding haughtily with whips in their hands and guns on their hips. Realengo men passing on their own humble horses never speak to these emissaries. The silent procession goes past the rider whose spying eyes look sharply. Contempt is thick in the air as the invader disappears. Realengo men exchange glances; someone spits loudly and with fury. Not a word may be spoken until we are in the house of the sick man whose bright feverish eyes want all the news. From what deep source does this talk about politics and history come? Their own struggle to hold the land to which they have given so much labor is the answer.

There isn't a hut that must not have a look at the visa. It is taken out, passed shyly, delightedly; again the question of putting a Realengo visa in the book is seriously pondered. An old woman cannot stop her tirade against the spies sent in by the sugar companies long enough to look but her son thrusts it under her nose. She cannot read, few can, yet those who do read talk much. They explain, going over and over the situation in the world, relating it to this little world of Realengo 18. They are practical people, not romanticists, not Rousseaueans. They know that they need more than the fighting men of Realengo to keep their land and be free, they need more than Cuba.

Doves strut around cooing. The little pigs hunt frantically for bits of food, nuzzle each other's hide searching for crumbs. A lean and hungry look is in this fertile land. A fire is made on the pile of stones that makes a hearth and the very sight of the crude fire makes fierce talk bubble up about the day that will some day come when they will have electricity, radios and their children will not need to pause on the long toil up the hill from the stream with the heavy water jug. So much tiredness in children, so many thin bodies, yet the little girl in the house where I spend a night hunts for a tiny bit of a broken comb to comb out lovely hair. She takes a morsel of soap from its place behind a splinter on the wall, delicately washes her hands in a tin basin, laughing. "Some day we will have lots of water, lots of soap."

They believe in that some day and they believe in their today and are proud of their struggle. They should take their place beside the great of the world, they have fought well. Everyone agrees on the necessity of the visa. So it is no surprise that night, very late, with the darkness heavy with the scent of many flowering herbs, to hear footsteps coming along the banana path. Under the banana leaves they are carrying a typewriter and Lino Alvarez their leader is coming with many papers to show me. We go through these papers first, with a tiny oil lamp flickering and the owner of the house sitting upright in a hammock very excited and happy at all the company that has suddenly filled the room. The wife has made a wonderful drink out of oranges yanked hastily from a tree by the children and she has brought out a treasure, a tiny round tin box the size of a silver dollar, with a white powder in it. It turns out to he nothing more extraordinary than soda, a pinch of which makes the drink foam up in a way to delight everyone. Lino Alvarez, with his white clothes and blue shirt and the sword of the Spanish general that he wears since his days as a soldier in the Spanish-American war, wants the entire background of the struggle in Realengo understood. His stubborn integrity makes the trickery of the companies who have tried to defraud these people seem even more shameful. We are going over the papers and it is only toward the finish that the matter of the visa is again brought up. The question has been threshed out long before the trip to this house was made, it seems, because the visa is now ready. Lino Alvarez did not think a visa should be placed in the book but he thought a paper of some kind was fitting. The paper was already in an envelope and as it is laid down the whole scheme of these mountain lives resolves itself more clearly. Not only miles but steep mountains apart, they must have been busy all that day hurrying up and down, consulting, carrying messages, by some secret telegraphy of the mountains transmitting news.

They are very proud as I read the visa. The secretary and one of the vice presidents sign. Lino Alvarez, the president, signs slowly. He is only learning to write now. Little pigs grunt for food and in the excitement of signing, a huge pan of corn that had been painfully shelled that day by the entire family so that on the next day it could be ground up for Realengo bread, a thick corn mush, fell to the floor. All the children scrambled to save it from the assault of the greedy pigs. The mother pig outside with a brood of very thin tiny young, screams for her share. A horse sensing food, winnies. Doves begin chortling and bristling around one's very legs. The whole room is humming and what kernals are not saved, are scooped up and guzzled by the noisy pigs. Hunger is here, it was here all during the evening meal of flame and malanga but no one is paying attention to it. Bright eyes are looking at the paper as I put it in my pocketbook they take seats again gravely.

This is a small hut. The district of Realengo is small in comparison to Cuba and Cuba is only a tiny island but no one in Realengo feels alone in the fight for freedom. They talk too much of what is going on in the world. They know too much to be alone.

I am writing this many weeks later than the visit yet it is impossible not to write of it as if it were in a continuous present. This is Pennsylvania farming land. On May Day the farmers of this community had May Day in Doylestown. A woman told of the effort to evict her family of eight children. It took many hours to get her off the land. They had to pay her a dollar apiece for five pigeons before she would go and the little humble triumph sounded good to every farmer. The meeting on the courthouse lawn closed with singing the International and I remembered one Sunday afternoon in Realengo 18 where it rained hard on the palm roof all day and little boys played a game with beans on the earthen floor. The calf stepped inside out of the rain and a parrot screamed on its hoop swung from the roof. After a while it got dark. We had been talking about the problems of Realengo and some of the men had again drawn maps to show the relation of this district to Santiago and Havana where workers had gone on strike in sympathy with Realengo last August. Soon it was too dark to make maps and we began singing, first the Marseillaise and then the International .

Everyone knows that since that time much blood has been shed in Cuba; the iron military rule has tried to crush strikes, stifle protests. Neither jail nor guns can completely silence such singing.