“Es un crimen de mentir a la policia en Cuba.” The policewoman glared at me from across the desk. I’m not lying, I thought, I just don’t know how to fucking count in Spanish. “Si miente a la policía, yo le enviará a la inmigración.” Two and a half hours into my interrogation with the Cuban police, that seemed like a very good option. At this point, anything that got me out of these whitewashed walls filled with propaganda posters, or better yet, out of this country, seemed like a good idea.
To all of those (and there were many) who predicted that I would end up in a Cuban jail, this experience was pretty close. Though I had not committed a crime, given the long ordeal with the police, I might as well have spent the day in handcuffs. The night before, my money had been stolen from the Casa Particular where I was staying and I was going to all lengths to try to resolve the situation. My Spanish was holding up pretty well, however, being essentially self-taught, numbers were something that I had found trivial and skipped after 50. Too bad money has everything to do with numbers and the numbers that we were dealing with were a lot higher than 50. The woman across from me rolled her eyes as I stuttered through another numerical account of what I had had in my wallet earlier and what I had now. She looked like she would rather be anywhere but here with a foreigner, particularly an American.
This was not my first experience with a robbery. Years ago, around the age of 13, I had my money stolen from me by a girl who would eventually become my stepsister. The memory has faded in the years since and been tainted by carefully calculated lies which manipulated my memory. I think it happened at either in my locker at school, or maybe my room at home, I think it was $20 dollars (much less than what disappeared this time), months after it happened, I thought it was my neighbor who took it, but that wasn’t the case. At the time of the original incident, my knowing was as certain was it is today: it was Maddie.
Entering the Cuban police station, I had been nervous, but had never felt clearer surrounding the details of an experience. The simple concept of being confident in my experience was a gift and one that I was not going to waste by backing off easily without fighting for the truth. The nerves faded as I settled into answering questions and explaining what had happened. Then I waited. Officers came in and out and were interested in the events that had occurred. I thought, at the time, it was because they wanted to help me but, after reflection, it’s likely because I was a girl. In the street, these same men, in their uniforms, would have been cat calling me in a way that is politically and socially acceptable in Cuba but would be considered sexual harassment in the United States. They asked several questions but the one I heard most often was, “La familia…es blanca or negra?” Are they black or white? I said, negra, and they nodded their head, walking away, as if that would have made a difference.
My dad, unknowingly, played a huge part in the certainty of my current experience. Previously, on a family trip to Kenya, he became the subject of relentless mocking from his children after declaring that we all needed to wear our passports under our clothes and around our necks at all times. All times included eating, sleeping, dressing up, going to the bathroom etc. At the time, it seemed ridiculous but as I started to travel alone, I was confident knowing that my most important valuables, including passport and money, were always safe on my body. Settling into my Casa in Cuba, I got lax and assumed that a lockable room was ample enough security to watch my belongings, at least when I was in the house. On the street, however, my snazzy, new money belt was always an attractive accessory to wear under my clothes and add to my waistline. It never left my sight or my body giving me confidence as to the one location where this robbery could have occurred, the house.
After about an hour in the police station, I panicked and wondered about the consequences of my actions. Was I making this into too big of a deal by involving the police? What would this accomplish anyways? What if nobody believed me? How will the family react? My concern for my safety grew and I made an emergency call to my dad. Though I had spent ten days in the streets of Cuba by myself, this was only the second time since arriving in this country that I had felt concerned for my physical safety. The first time involved an altercation with a taxi driver who tried to trick me because I was clearly a tourist. In that instance, similar to this one, I abandoned my normal, non-confrontational manner and stood up for myself. On the phone, my dad assured me that it would be okay and that I would never have to see this family again. The money was gone but I had wisely changed Casas and escaped the family forever. Turns out he was wrong. Moments after getting off of the phone, a police car showed up and I was escorted into a car with officers who were both more serious and less friendly than the ones I had dealt with earlier. In the car they informed that we were going back to the house. Immediately, I started shaking.
Cuba. What a unique place to have my first ride in a police car. The car was old, like the majority of cars in the country. The seat was frayed and, obviously, there were no seatbelts. The doors to the backseat opened only from the outside. Inside, I felt trapped unable to escape this car, this experience and this country. There were three others in the car with me, two officers who rode in front and a random guy, about my age, in a lab coat in the back. He didn’t speak a word the entire time and seemed to just be along for the ride. An officer on a motorcycle escorted us to the house and chatted through the window as we drove. Upon arrival, we were greeted by another officer. For a second, surrounded by the police in a country that is supposedly aggressive when it comes to protecting its tourists, I thought they would take the case seriously, but the second we got in the house, it was clear I was wrong.
When my money was stolen at the age of 13, I knew what happened and so did my mom. In fact, she went to my unbeknownst future stepmom bashing the girl’s family and sharing the fact that Maddie stole from me. “The family can’t be trusted,” is what she told Maureen. Funny how less than a year later she was dating the girl’s dad, John, and somehow had worked it into my head that my neighbor and friend Elise stole my money. Not Maddie. Her mind games worked. I barely remember the incident now.
Rapid fire doubts and other explanations were thrown at me like pitches in the nearby Estadio Latino Americano. Channeling the patient eyes of a batter, I waited for the perfect pitch. This time, unlike the last, it wasn’t worth swinging at anything else.
If my money was on me all of the time then how could it have gotten stolen? In the house, in my room, the only time it was not on my body. Only you and the family have the keys. Exactly. When you were in the house on the main floor the family was always with you. That is not true. They come and go from the main floor. Plus, last night I went on a walk with everyone except Oseyda, the mom, who stayed in the house. She was with friends. That is not true. You walk alone through the city. Yes, and my money is under my clothes where no one can reach it. Oseyda says you have gone out to discos alone. Yes, and my money is under my clothes where I can’t even reach it. Did you drink at the discos? No. Oseyda says you met an American boy the other day. Yes, we met at a restaurant. We ate dinner together. I went home. That has nothing to do with anything. You are in Cuba alone. Yes.
That was my crime. Being alone in Cuba. That had been thrown at me by Oseyda from the second I questioned the location of my missing money. It was thrown at me again as my only Cuban contact sat down with me to try to mediate the situation with the family. Finally, with the police, it was brought up repeatedly by Oseyda as she buzzed with her incomprehensible Spanish, pulling the police aside, away from me, for private conversations. When I asked her to repeat something she just looked at the police, threw up her hands and said, “See, she doesn’t even understand.”
I did understand. It may have been years later, in a different country and in a different language but it was the same situation. Oseyda was the Cuban embodiment of my mother, doing all she could to belittle the “little” girl who stood in front of her. Spinning stories in an attempt to tarnish the validity of my claims and provide a more rational and less incriminating explanation. The police were eating it up. I still wasn’t swinging.
Solitude does not mean a lack of safety or lack of competency as everyone tried to make it seem. Traveling alone means watching your own back, making more cautious decisions, taking a cab home instead of walking, keeping your money on your body at all times. It means, as a girl, carrying pepper spray in your bag when walking at night even though it is probably illegal. When by myself, my guard is up more than any other time because I know that for all incidents, I am 100% accountable. Traveling alone is not why this happened. But for Oseyda it seemed like a damn good defense and for the police it seemed like a damn good excuse. For me, it seemed like a damn good opportunity to do absolutely everything in my power to have my own voice, defend myself and keep myself safe. So that’s what I did.
As the police escorted me out of the house, we passed a brand new Chanel purse sitting on the couch. I thought about the new sculpture and kitchen fryer that Oseyda and her husband had bought and showed off to me yesterday. I remembered moving to a new house earlier this afternoon and, before leaving, Oseyda demanding to have all business cards with information as to the address and phone number for her Casa back. Not once had she or her husband ever said they were sorry this happened or that I should call the police. All they said was that I was here alone.
No one had to believe me. My own knowing was proof enough though I won’t lie and say that the family’s new purchases and accusatory reaction to the situation wasn’t a little extra reassurance.
Nothing would be resolved. My money was gone. Throughout the official report (which I was not allowed to have a copy of) and interrogation that followed at the station, I was sure that nothing would happen. Except, everything happened. I found my voice. I fought for myself and for what I knew to be true. I defended myself, for hours, in a language that I did not fully understand. Struggling for words that I knew existed to explain an experience that was far from simple. Moments of fear came and went like the waves of the ocean crashing up upon the Malecón. But throughout it all, the walls of the Malecón stayed strong, protecting the city that it surrounded.
I was no longer a 13 year old girl getting talked out of her experience, believing a story that was not her own and strayed so far from her truth. I knew. And I fought.
Nearly 10 years later, alone in a communist country, I got my voice back. Maybe I am still standing at the plate or maybe I got walked. Even though I didn’t get my money back, what I know for certain is that I didn’t strike out. I am still in the game. The perfect pitch, the perfect moment, is still waiting. My batter’s eyes are a bit more experienced, my timing more patient and my intuition infinitely stronger. And that will make all of the difference.