Villa America, known as the most elegant of all the inns built in the vicinity of the Coney Island Amusement Park before the triumph of the Revolution, is located only a few meters from the Fifth Avenue, very close to the Playa roundabout.
Up until the beginning of the 1990’s, its comfortable rooms used to be rented for short-time stays to a long line of secret, passionate or occasional lovers or adulterers. The Coney Island became known as the dating centre of the Cuban capital and the nearby beaches were often sought by people eager for a social chat. When they needed temporary accommodation, they used the services of Villa America. Their number grew over time and Villa America thus became a haven for many. In March 1993, however, a hundred-year storm brought the glory of the place to an end.
When the rare storm devastated the neighbourhood of La Puntilla (Miramar), dozens of families lost their homes and high-ranking officers of the Revolution government gave an order to convert inns into hostels. Villa America, whose accommodation capacity at that time consisted of 26 rooms, housed 26 families, which, naturally, multiplied over time.
Each room served as home for one family. Maria del Carmen Grell came to live in one of those rooms on August 23, 1993. The robust black woman who has spent her whole life working told us that the place was in better conditions back then, when it was an inn.
“Villa America is now, more than ever, a temple of perdition,” says Maria del Carmen, who is a community services worker in the Playa municipality, where she cleans the streets. She dreams of living long enough to get decent housing that she has been promised by the government.
“I’ve been living here for 26 years and I’ve seen the place falling apart, little by little. First there were leaks from the floor above and pipes got clogged. The roof has fallen in several parts of the building and once I got almost killed by one of the pieces. Look at the table, I have covered it with everything I have to protect the glass surface.”
Furnished with a large bed and a cosy bathroom, Maria’s room seems miniature from the current point of view, although it provided enough space when it served its original purpose. Now there’s mould and leaks of sewage water everywhere and the place has turned into a pigsty. Where there was a closet before, Maria constructed a kitchen. When I asked her why she has never been given proper housing as she was promised 26 years ago, she replied:
“Once they gave me a house. And another to my sister, who lives in the neighbouring room. They helped us with the move, but when we were about to move in, we found out that we had to live together in one house for a while. When I protested, it turned out that the municipal housing agency had sold my house and I had to return to Villa America. They promised to give me another house soon. In the end I’ve settled here and I’ve been living here for 26 years now. Look at the mould… Can you catch the smell of the ditch? And the smell of mildew? That’s how we live here, in all rooms.”
A man arrives from the floor above. He is very skinny and looks sick. His name is Nelson. He invites me to go up to his room to take a look. It’s on the top floor and the long corridor is lined with closed doors of the rooms which once used to be rented by couples exchanging kisses and caresses. Today they provide haven for the faded and vague faces of those who have fallen prey to the need for survival.
Nelson lives in a crammed room, like everyone in Villa America. He says that his children sleep on the floor because there is no place for another bed. The room is filled with the smell of moisture and mould. He tells me that he has also been given a house once. They told him to pack up all things, that they would pick him up the following Monday. However, the house suddenly vanished and since then he hasn’t heard of it anymore. Not that he would want to ask, either.
“Why would I ask? The municipal housing agency is the boss and it’s no good to be on bad terms with them.”
After the visit to Nelson, I return to Maria del Carmen’s room and she tells me that over the 26 years, Villa America has been tended by 15 maintenance brigades, which, however, have never fixed anything.
“They stole the cement and the materials, pretending they were doing some small jobs while they loaded everything on a truck, even new toilet bowls intended to replace the old ones.” Maria shows me hers, which has been broken for a long time.
Maria hangs up her clothes in an improvised wardrobe under the kitchen unit. The clothes are wet and mouldy. She shows me a shirt, which, as I learn, is very important for her.
“Diaz Canel gave it to me when I was cleaning the street in the Nautico suburb where he lives. He’s a great man. He used to tell me: ‘Blackie, don’t take so much sun.’ So, I’ve kept this shirt as a remembrance.”
When leaving, the oldest inhabitant of Villa America takes me out to show me the ditch.
“It’s calm today,” she says. “Let’s pray that it won’t rise and thrust the rotten water inside the house. Because then I would have to go and find where it is clogged but I’m dying from exhaustion as I’ve been cleaning streets all day.”