It was just a matter of time. She could feel it in her bones. The rumors had been swirling for months, and while she didn’t want to believe them, in her heart she knew.
As she shifted items on the grocery store shelves, in an effort to make them a little fuller, she recalled a time not so long ago when she thought she would need to ask her neighbor to build her another shelf to hold the overflow of goods. When she first opened her grocery store, he was the one who had built the bins that now sat empty. The joy of that opening day when she fulfilled a dream she had since she was a little girl was now overshadowed by the fear of losing everything she had worked so hard for.
¨How had it come to this? What could she have done differently?”
It wasn’t just her store. Others had been witnessing the same from meat markets and delis to cafes and restaurants. The entire country was experiencing a shortage. It was reported as a temporary situation, a period of adjustment, but her instincts were now telling her otherwise.
A deep voice interrupted her thoughts. She turned to see a tall man, document in hand, standing in her doorway. He was wearing a government issued, olive green, military uniform. Her heart sank. She called her husband’s name who quickly came to her side and took her hand.
The soldier handed her the papers that essentially informed her the government had ordered her to shut down her business. His words traveled across the store, barely audible over her racing heart.
“We have bigger and better plans for the “new way” which will be for the betterment of the country. With this new system of distribution and rationing in place, everyone will benefit, not just those who have been better off financially. This way everyone will thrive. There will be no more shortages, no more hunger, no more suffering. We will be able to ensure all are taken care of this way.”
He offered them both a job at one of the new grocery distribution centers. He described how much nicer they were than her own store, as he waved his arm dismissing her dream and the means by which she had provided for her family for so long.
“You’ll enjoy working there much more than here. I assure you.”
Her husband immediately refused the offer, but she knew it was a matter of survival.
Squeezing her husband’s hand, she stood a little taller, and with great resolve uttered the words that would change her life forever.
“I accept your offer.”
As he walked away, she thought about how strange his words were. It hadn’t been a choice at all.
Nevertheless, determined to make this “new way” work for her, she arrived early for her first day. Upon entering what had originally been her favorite department store, she was taken aback. A large counter had been placed at the entrance. There were no groceries in sight. She stood paralyzed…with shock, fear, trepidation? All coursed through her, making her skin crawl. This morning she had given herself a pep talk, hopeful that maybe her reservations about the new system were premature, and it would in fact benefit all.
However, as she was trained in her new position, her hope dwindled with every word. The new system consisted of a “Libreta de Abastecimento” which translated to a ration card provided to each family for their monthly allowance of provisions. Each family was entitled to a quarter pound of meat monthly per family member. Each family was entitled to ten pounds of rice for the entire family for the month. There was no longer any shopping to be done. One was merely there to pick up their rations.
These provisions would be distributed based on available supplies, and citizens would still need to pay for them. Her job would consist of signing off each ration card, witnessing the exchange. As she signed each card, she wondered how long before those who lined up outside the storefront and down the street would be able to afford even this pittance provided.
Just last week, her neighbor had told her she had resorted to bartering in order to feed her family. She had heard of a young farmer who was to be married. Given store closures and fabric shortage, he was in search of a suit to wear on his wedding day. She pulled out her husband’s suit, and with tears in her eyes presented it to the young farmer in exchange for one of his pigs.
A few days later, a pig was delivered to her door. The only problem was the pig was still alive. The government had banned ownership of animals wanting to control the livestock supply as well. She had to hide the pig at her mother’s house until the opportunity arose to kill it and eat it. Even cooking it was a risk. A neighbor might smell the meat cooking and report you to the Committee of Defense, essentially a Government Watchdog.
She found herself saying a prayer with each ration card she signed. She prayed for her family, she prayed for those in line, she prayed for her country, and she prayed for its future.
These days, I find myself praying for the same things my grandmother prayed for in Cuba after losing her grocery store and ultimately her country. Yes, that woman was my grandmother. And, the woman who traded her husband’s suit for a pig to feed her family, was my aunt. I have been raised listening to these stories of how freedom can be stripped away inconspicuously until one day you wonder how your beloved country reached this point.
This is my history, and I pray it doesn’t repeat itself.