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Xavier Simpático and His Old Church

David W. McFadden
From:   There'll Be Another. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1995.

In a certain seventeenth-century church in Old Havana
there where you'd expect an altar
there are two giant bank vaults
the place has been gutted
the vaults are hanging open and empty
dirt and grime everywhere
it looks like an old firehall with bank vaults
except for the Cuban mahogany panels
and Cuban marble floors and columns
the only reminders this was ever a church

A white-haired black man comes out of a dark corner
and tells me that when the Revolution occurred
the priest of this church was taken out and shot
for being too middle class and more interested
in Richard Nixon than the Pope of Rome
and the church was gutted and turned into a bank
but after a few years the bank failed
and the place was turned into a mint
for the minting of revolutionary medals
but after a few years there was no longer
a call for revolutionary medals and in fact
no money for the minting of revolutionary medals
revolutionary medals went quietly out of style
so now the old church just sits there in the gloom

The black man is named Xavier Simpático
he doesn't look a day over fifty or maybe sixty
he is of course very skinny as are all Cubans
who do not work in the upper levels of government
or in any of the many levels of tourism
he shows me a rusty set of old dyes left over
from when the building was used as a mint

Like many black Cubanos he speaks excellent English
he says it's because so many black Cubanos
have connections with Jamaica
and besides he studied hard in school
he says he served as a construction adviser
for the Cuban government in Iraq Libya
Angola and the Congo he said he was
particularly happy to be in the Congo
because that's where his family originated
and now as for taking care of this old church
he is paid eight pesos a day
for eight pesos a day you can't buy anything
except maybe two oranges and two bananas
if there happen to be any available
it's particularly hard to get bread these days

For a souvenir he gives me one of the rusty dyes
an extremely heavy one used for stamping huge gold
medals for the Marina de Guerra Revolucionaria
and he carefully wraps it in heavy paper so I won't
get rust all over my delicate white hands

I give him a small gift of five U.S. dollars
not for the dye but just because I know he'd put it
to better use than I would I'd just spend it on rum
in the tourist hotel he couldn't get into

And I tell him I'm a writer and ask him if it'd be
okay if I returned with my notebook to interview him
He smiles and says he'd be glad to tell me the story
of his life but damn it I never managed to get back

And later I got to wondering why it is
so many blacks (though not Xavier) complain
that racial prejudice has returned to Cuba

These days everybody wants a job in tourism
so they can get their hands on U.S. dollars
but most of the people in the tourist industry
are snow white and speak no English

You find many black people whose English is flawless
but if they have jobs at all they have jobs taking care
of gutted old churches at eight pesos a day
or handing out toilet paper at public washrooms

My old notion of Cuba as a place where blacks and whites
were united in perfect harmony and equality
(oh I've been so naive I've been so damned stupid)
that was true for a while after the Revolution the blacks
sweetly patiently tell me but now it's not true any more

In the Government for instance there are no blacks at all

Carmen is an ardent old communist who uses phrases like
The Victory of the Revolution and The Triumph of the Revolution
I mention to her that many blacks claim they're suffering
from racial prejudice and she says before the revolution
the blacks were like animals they had to walk on their own
side of the street and they were the greatest beneficiaries
of the Revolution the Revolution liberated them
but they weren't grateful oh no not them they were
the first ones to get out of Cuba when they had the chance

You tell me why that would be so she demanded
with a stern and serious tone in her voice
I had no idea why that would be so
I had no idea what she was driving at
I was embarrassed
I said I didn't know
she said neither did she
and pretty soon the conversation tailed off
leaving me with bitter suspicions

I don't understand I can't even figure out
how to end this poem except to remind myself
that in spite of all this seeming hardcore racism
Fidel himself has been initiated into la sentería
and is said to be a son of no less a god than Elleguá

David W. McFadden's works copyright © to the author.

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