Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 1998
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APRIL 1998


Weddings are a favorite pastime in today's Cuba. But wedded bliss is fleeting.

S P E C I A L    R E P O R T

Cuba's Marry-Go-Round
Story and photos by Joanne P. Cavanaugh

WEDDING CAKES ARE EVERYWHERE IN CUBA. Walk down the streets of Havana, and you'll glimpse the sticky white cakes balanced on the laps of bicycle passengers. Consider, for a moment, what goes into the phenomenon:

Combine six eggs with a cup of flour, a pinch of salt and another of baking powder. Mix in an espresso-sized cup of milk, though you probably won't have milk so use water or orange juice. Add a cup of sugar, the white kind if available and brown sugar if not. Mix together in an aluminum pot lined with waxed paper and watch carefully as it cooks on the kerosene stove.

For the icing, mix three egg whites with a half cup of sugar and whip vigorously into a stiff meringue. If the electricity goes out while cooking, set the meringue aside until the apagon lifts. To decorate, use food coloring. If that's not available, substitute a blue antibiotic medicine.

In today's Cuba, a wedding cake recipe calls for more than a pinch of resourcefulness. Cubans call it "inventing" or "resolving," words that have become part of the daily vernacular in an economy where food items are often scarce. Yet the bakery orders run on a conveyor-belt schedule. Here, in one of the world's most persistent communist nations, such high production parallels a social reality: Despite economic shortfalls, or perhaps because of them, weddings are a favorite pastime in Cuba- -even if marriage is not.

SQUAT EASTERN EUROPEAN CARS and 1950s Chevy roadsters crowd a narrow alley in central Havana. The Gonzalez and Cuevas families climb the stairs of a mud-brown Soviet-style tenement. The bride's brother carries a wedding cake. Inside the cramped apartment, tile floors have been scrubbed white, the dining room table draped in lace. On the wall are pictures of waterfalls cut out of magazines and laid in old frames. Everyone is waiting. The men slap backs. The women exchange air kisses. Seľoras reminisce about their weddings; señoritas plan theirs. The bride's young cousins, some in dresses with puffy white sleeves, others in jeans and tight blouses, line up giggling on the Naugahyde couch.

As a journalist working in Cuba, I'm here at the invitation of the bride's brother, who lives in the home in which I rent a room. I've never seen the wedding couple before.

In the bedroom, the bride bounces impatiently on a bed; a toned man with sideburns frets over her hair with a tiny comb. She sits under a painting of Jesus, the image of the suffering Savior that graces many Cuban homes. The Christ figure holds bulging red hearts and looks to the heavens. The bride twists her fingers and rolls her eyes toward the ceiling. Marielys Gonzalez does not like this tipo doing her hair.

Outside, neighbors clump on balconies. The word's out. The Gonzalez daughter is getting married. When the bedroom door opens, she is met by the first wave--her family.

"Oooooooh, que bonita!"

"Lindisima, mi amor," her grandmother coos proudly, pulling the bedroom door closed behind her.

Marielys smiles, lips full and painted red, eyes lined heavily in black. Her forehead is beaded with borrowed pearls. As the guests chatter and file out, the bride steps down the stairway, the train of her dress flowing behind like glossy magazine waterfalls. She touches the door of the Eisenhower-era Ford Fairlane, and looks up at the people on the balcony. Neighbors cheer and watch the car drive away, a fat pink balloon bouncing from the rear antenna.

As she climbs into the Eisenhower-era Ford Fairlane, Marielys looks up at the balcony, where neighbors stand cheering as the car drives away.

The Fairlane's horn bellows, announcing the wedding caravan as it careens through the streets to central Havana's Palacio de los Matrimonios, the white palace on the hill where couples are wed, Cuban communist-style. People on the streets wave and shout good wishes: Suerte! Old women carrying canvas bags of dirty potatoes and thin men smoking Marlboros stop to watch the spectacle.

At the palacio, and at 13 other state Palaces of Matrimony in Havana, weddings run year-round--with an average of 200 ceremonies a month at the most popular venues. Many of the buildings were once glamorous mansions owned by what revolutionaries termed the bourgeoisie. Despite the four-weddings-an-hour-pace, many couples find these sites laced with a worn elegance not easily encountered outside.

This sort of elegance comes cheap. A civil ceremony costs 30 pesos, about $1.50 U.S. The photographer costs another $1.50, the cake about $1. The 24 allotted bottles of beer run about 45 cents, and two bottles of rum about $3. A dress can be rented from the state for $15. Even for a family that earns only $15 or $20 a month, a basic socialism-subsidized ceremony is not a great hardship.

But today many Cuban couples, dissatisfied with dingy dresses and bland cakes, are searching for something more. They have begun to hire private caterers and Mercedes-Benz drivers to chauffeur the bride. Those costs can soar to hundreds of dollars, usually money earned in Cuba's thriving black market.

Marielys and her groom, Jorge Cuevas, spent 2,500 pesos on their wedding--about $120 U.S. They rented her wedding dress from another family for about $16. Because the bride and groom are unemployed college students, family members helped cover these costs.

On the street below the wedding palace in central Havana, the polished Fairlane rumbles to a stop. Marielys waits. Every few minutes her mother and sister poke their heads through the car's open windows. Inside the Georgian mansion confiscated by Fidel Castro's forces nearly four decades ago, couples are signing their wedding certificates. Here, love is officiated every 15 minutes.

Finally, it's their turn. At a signal from her mother, Marielys steps lightly up the staircase. She pauses to let another smiling bride swish by, fingers lifting the front of her dress. The two brides sidestep and circle each other as they try to pass without colliding. Their dance triggers a wave of giggles.

On the wide porch above, Jorge fidgets. In his white tuxedo, white shirt, and white shoes, he blends into the stately, bleached building. Once inside, the couple joins hands and sits down behind an ornate wooden desk, Marielys pushing her dress back from curving mahogany legs. Family and friends stand behind them, half filling the room.

In front of Marielys and Jorge, a woman with bleached blonde hair leans heavily on the desk. She wears a pink blouse and a miniskirt. Opening the Codigo del Matrimonio, she begins reading in a flat voice. The couple stares ahead, listening to the mumbled words about the sanctity of marriage. A state-hired photographer, muscles bulging underneath a sleeveless shirt, darts in and out, shooting other weddings in adjoining rooms. When the woman's drone ends, the bride and groom exchange a quick kiss. Their families applaud quietly and bustle out. A few steps behind Marielys and Jorge, another couple walks hand in hand, accompanied by two tuxedoed men playing violins.

At the reception back at the apartment, guests dance to salsa music pulsing--with a tinny echo --from a battered chrome-plated boom box. The bride's mother hands out small gray cardboard boxes filled with state-issued wedding fare: a tiny sandwich, a piece of shiny white wedding cake, and fried potato mush. Guests scoop out the monochromatic food with flat cardboard spoons. One woman jokes quietly: "This is a wedding of the Periodo Especial."

Many Cubans in their 30s have been married three or more times. Causes include financial troubles, liberal divorce laws, and in-law conflicts. There's also boredom brought on by high unemployment and a suffocating social ennui.
AFTER THE 1959 CUBAN REVOLUTION, Castro's government created the civil matrimony system to make weddings accessible to the masses for a token cost. Converting homes once owned by the wealthy into the communal palacios was part of the socialist ideal--and not without a jab of irony. The first wedding palacio was opened in 1966: The Old Havana Wedding Palace is a former gambling casino whose Greco-Roman-style figurines still adorn marble end tables. But the elegance is muted, the yellow walls smudged with dirt.

Since the opening of the palacio, Directora Patria Olano Navarrete has officiated at thousands of weddings here. "Before the triumph of the revolution, a couple could not get married with luxury unless they had money," she says. "Now they can get married--with luxury."

Broad-shouldered, wearing a red dress and pearl necklace, Seľora Navarrete walks through the palacio's crowds one Saturday, clasping hands with brides and smiling. She chats with a bride's mother who remembers her--the woman had been married in the palacio two decades ago; her daughter is maintaining the tradition. "Everyone can get married here," Seľora Navarette says later, breaking into a grin. "Weddings are very happy occasions. Love is splendid."

Wedded bliss, however, is fleeting. Cuba has one of the world's fastest marital revolving doors: the nation's official divorce rate is now about 50 percent. And it has been high for decades. Many Cubans in their 30s have been married three or more times. Causes of the nuptial turnover are many, including financial troubles, women's increased independence, liberal divorce laws, and conflicts with in-laws. There's also boredom brought on by high unemployment and a sometimes suffocating social ennui.

In Cuba, unlike many underdeveloped countries, women have achieved a certain level of financial independence. Most are educated at least through high school, and many have bachelor's and master's degrees. Under the socialist work ethic, women are trained to be engineers, doctors, psychologists. Despite general unemployment problems in the country, they don't necessarily rely on men to survive.

Says Directora Patria Olano Navarrete, who has officiated at thousands of weddings, "Before the triumph of the revolution, a couple could not get married with luxury unless they had money. Now they can get married--with luxury."
Today, divorce in Cuba doesn't carry the stigma of a failed marriage, as it can in the United States. That's partly because the institution of marriage itself has a spotty history here. Before 1959, common law marriages in Cuba were the norm, mostly because of the prohibitive cost of formal weddings. As in other Latin American countries, those who could afford church weddings were a minority. In the 1960s, what existed of the ornate church wedding tradition followed the Cuban business class as it fled to Miami. With the advent of communism, and its backlash against Catholicism, divorce laws also were liberalized.

Yet stresses on the institution of marriage are especially great in the 1990s, the "Special Period" that began when the demise of the Soviet Union marked the end of lucrative subsidies and trade for Cuba. That--as well as a 38-year-old U.S. economic embargo-- has helped maim an economy that was neither efficient nor self-sufficient. The housing shortage is severe, the daily search for jobs and food daunting. Food, in fact, is the most expensive commodity: at about 50 cents a liter on the black market, fresh milk purchased daily could cost three-quarters of a monthly salary.

Because the state has assigned all houses and apartments (and laws prevent Cubans from selling property), newly married couples often live with relatives, many sharing a bedroom with their children. Since getting married young is the norm, these problems translate quickly into domestic trouble.

Love and sex are tempting diversions if nothing is going well at home or work. And in Cuba, either one can be a lottery ticket out of the travel-restricted country. In the chrome-and-pink nightclubs of Havana, an underground industry grinds for young women. Marriages to foreigners--Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, Italians, or Spaniards--are becoming increasingly common. One of the highest tallies, between Spaniards and Cubans, last year hit 100 per month. The groom is often a middle-aged Spaniard, the bride a young Cuban woman seeking a new life. Those desperate flights are blamed on the nation's economic troubles.

In the palacio where Seľora Navarrete has worked for 30 years, another wedding party whips through. Coralia Tosar, an older woman with wispy gray hair, is a friend of the family. After the ceremony, she whispers that the dress cost the bride's family $30 to rent. It is intricate, with a silky train and puffy lace veil. And it was more than the couple could afford, she hints.

"Weddings are a very pretty custom, and Cubans know how to keep it," Tosar says. "They live in reduced circumstances, but they have one day of happiness, a day they are dressed beautifully. At least they have memories and photos."

Two years after the wedding of Marielys and Jorge, I went back to Cuba to visit and work. I phoned the house where I had stayed before, and learned from the family that the young couple was still together. They lived outside Havana, in a house with no phone. I paid a neighbor $10 to drive me there one Sunday last year.

On the front patio was a clothesline pinned with stained blue baby clothes. At their wedding ceremony, Marielys had been three months pregnant. Her son, Jorge Cuevas Jr., was now a toddler. When Marielys and Jorge were dating, the doctor had told her that she could not get pregnant. She is still angry at him.

After their son's birth, they moved to the two-room concrete house in Santiago de las Vegas, about 18 kilometers outside Havana. The squat white casita is a pending inheritance from Jorge's grandmother, who is ill and living next door with his parents. The couple has been lucky. Most of their friends who married at the same time are divorced. Marielys explained that couples try to stay together, especially when children are involved. But everyone counts on the safety net of extended family--grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.

The godsend to their marriage was getting their own home. "It's much better to live alone. It's much worse to live with your mother or mother-in-law. Everyone has a different lifestyle," Marielys says.

As she speaks, a woman's scolding voice rises from nearby. Marielys explains, "That apartment is about the same size as this one, but 10 people live there: the parents, two sons, their wives and children. They fight and scream all the time. It's crazy when one fights so much. They should separate."

In the early months of their marriage, she and Jorge used to drop cassettes into the boom box and waltz together in the empty living room. On this day, toys pile up on the concrete floor. The climate here is humid, so they use fans to beat back mosquitoes. When the electricity goes out--a regular event--the young mother and father stay up fanning their fussing toddler so he can sleep.

"I wish I had some time to be married without a baby," Marielys says, as her son grabs a papier-mëchÄ watermelon teetering atop a fruit bowl on the table. The bowl skids off, crashing to the floor. His mother laughs and scoops up the paper food. Jorge, shirtless and wearing jeans, jostles the child in his arms, saying their son is their world now.

When Jorge and Marielys took their vows, they agreed to follow the Family Code, a 1976 Cuban law. Aside from mandating that both spouses raise and educate their children "according to the principles of socialist morality," the law says each should also participate "in the running of the home . . . and have a right to practice their professions."

Marielys, who recently turned 25, got a job at the local cigarette factory, testing the quality of Cuban Populares. She was trained to be a chemical engineer, but there wasn't much call for her skills. Cuba, like the former Soviet Union, is a nation where nearly everyone studies to be an engineer, though the most intricate machinery on hand may be a Chinese-made bicycle or a circa-1954 car engine. So now she gets up at 4 a.m. for the two-hour bus ride to work, about nine kilometers away. If she's late, she can't get in and loses a day's pay. She earns 200 pesos, or $10 a month--as much as one 16-ounce carton of Kraft grated cheese costs in the state-owned stores.

Jorge, who is two years older and a trained veterinarian, does not have a paying job. He stays at home watching their son. For the time being, his hobby is tending the carrier pigeons in a hut on the roof. The couple fights about that a lot. "He's on the roof," Marielys says. "Where else would he be? He's like an old man."

It would be hard not to clash in such a tiny space. The kitchen is coffin-sized. A crib is lodged at the foot of the bed, with barely enough room to get by. A 1958 Frigidaire hunkers in the living room, its buzz filling their home. When they arrived at the little house two years ago, there was nothing. They bought and borrowed chairs, and cut out magazine photos of beaches to put in a frame on the wall.

"There are times when we really go at it," Marielys says, laughing and rolling her eyes. "We are very much in love, though. I'm still young."

MARIELYS KEEPS HER WEDDING PHOTOS in an album in her closet. She says she doesn't really like the pictures: She thinks she looks fat.

"I want to do my wedding all over again, one with a better party," she says. "At my wedding, I couldn't drink or smoke or dance. And I want another honeymoon. I wasn't feeling too good."

Jorge laughs. "It's more fun to get married than it is to be married."

Joanne P. Cavanaugh (MA'97), a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine, can be reached via e-mail at She researched and wrote "Cuba's Marry-Go-Round" in fulfilling the master's degree requirements of the Writing Seminars' program. As of winter 1998, Jorge and Marielys were still married.