Through Thick and Thin, But It’s Always Thin

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Contigo Pan y Cebolla Looks A Lot Like America Today

In 1955, Havana, Cuba, life was not characterized by the communist revolution yet. It was very Western, complete with capitalists, cars, radios, and refrigerators. Parents would dream that with education and hard work, the good life would come for their children, and opportunity would bring fortune to the household. Parents came from a time when work was life, but by the late 1950’s, materialist competition had become the mindset of Cubans. Excess looked like necessity.

With all human material needs met, young people started to dream. European capitalists held the economic power in Cuba, so there was wealth disparity, and eventually social resistance. A communist revolution sounded like a pretty good dream — much like a democratic-socialist revolution has great appeal today. Contigo Pan y Cebolla isn’t about that though, it’s about families struggling to level up in that world, and children trying to find themselves in it.

The Prieto Family apartment is the play’s setting, and they are the model nuclear family: one daughter, one son, and grandma living at home. But they haven’t got a peso to spare. Matriarch, Lala, performed with great energy by Veronika Nuñez, married a decent, low-income man, Anselmo, and they both insist on paying for a cultural education. The setting comes complete with a sassy, gossiping divorcee neighbor, Fermina, who comes over to use the phone to talk to boyfriends.

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Fermina yells at her boyfriend over the Prieto phone. At left, Anselmo, and right, Fefe. Photo by Russel J. Young.

Lala is a whirlwind in the house, on everyone’s case to be their best, to strive and to achieve. She believes in her son Anselmito, who wants to be a great abstract painter, yet she cannot help but insist he paint something sensible. Her daughter, Lalita, hates all the piano and dance lessons, but Lala insists as the young woman complains, “Shut your mouth. You don’t know what you’re saying!”

Meanwhile, all that Grandma Fefa wants is to hear the radio and sit in her rocking chair while Anselmo simply wants to take care of them, and enjoy his cigarettes. Anselmo is employed by a Polish-owned fabric store and makes ends meet at 110 pesos a month, a wage that hasn’t seen any raise in over a decade, despite the continued success of his foreign employer. He is stuck.

I could not help but think that this was also a white family in Brooklyn, sixty years ago. Adapt the play to any American city today, as wealth inequality has become the new normal, and the story is the same: Families struggle to get ahead as their wages fall behind the very real inflation of living costs; their educated children dream for a life of significance and meaning.

The colloquial translation of the play is “through thick and thin” and that is what this family teaches us. I’m afraid that in today’s world, most families never realize anything but to get by with the thinest of resources. The notion of living for each other seems to have expired.

Contigo Pan y Cebolla got me thinking about this, and what life in Cuba once was, before Castro, before communism, and immediately after. Because the play was written in 1962 by the late Cuban-raised playwright Héctor Quintero (1942-2011), there was no need for contextualization within the work: The context was contemporary. At that time, optimism for a better Cuban world was real, and this play reflects the need for that revolution when the people who build a country are brushed aside by those who own it.

As serious as the themes are, as honest the struggles are, it is a riotous, character-driven comedy. If I were a better Spanish speaker, and the English supertitles were better timed, I think I would have laughed harder and more frequently, because timing and delivery is everything. This is something the predominantly Spanish-speaking audience understood, and that in itself is infectious. I wouldn’t let a language barrier get in the way, but I’m learning the language, so I viewed it as a great opportunity.

You may see this story and its meaning unfold for yourself at Milagro Theatre until March 4th.




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