I’m on the ropes and she knows it. Crow’s feet deepen as her eyes flit from domino chain to trough and back again, but Raquel doesn’t seem worried. Calculating maybe, but not worried. A two and a six sit at opposite ends of the wooden serpent, waiting for a match as Havana’s late afternoon thunderclaps shake our flimsy card table. Outside her apartment porch the tropical downpour intensifies. Dulce, Georgia, and I shorten our breaths as Raquel thumbs her dotted arsenal. Suddenly knuckles stretch taught, an arm rises up, and wood meets plastic with a resounding THWAP!
Double two. “Igual,” she smirks, rubbing her palms together. Same.
With the board unchanged and my competition one piece lighter, I know I have neither a two nor a six. Defeat is mumbled in broken Spanish. “No tengo nada.”
The others laugh nervously, but minutes later they too fall victim to Raquel’s hand. She smiles a grandmotherly smile between sips of café con leche, but her eyes betray the façade, burning the fiery blue of a commander eight decades in the making.
I’d met the 81-year-old comandante two weeks earlier, not at the domino table, but in a park down the street. The Caribbean sun had announced its presence to smoggy Havana streets, and a crowd of older ladies in mismatched sweats gathered at the corner of Calle L and 13. I had spotted them days before, but this Wednesday approached on foot.
Following their chatter of mango prices and grandchildren’s visits from the States, I struggled to getmy bearings. My feeble attempts at interaction were finally recognized by two ladies on the periphery, and I tried, quite without much eloquence, to find out what was going on. Norma glowed quietly behind thick prescription lenses, as Maria Christina assumed spokeswoman duties. “So you’re here for the grandmas?” Startled by fluent English, I mustered a nod, unsure of what I was agreeing to.
Maria Christina, who had learned English through her 30 years of work in Cuba’s tourism agency, explained that the 20 or so old women were actually part of an organized fitness class, the Circulo de Abuelos, or Circle of Grandparents. They met in the square every weekday at 8:30 a.m., she went on, and though there were other Circulos around the city, this one, Circulo de Amor a la Vida, was the original. In fact, the co-founder of the program lived around the corner, leading the ladies every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
On cue, barked orders brought the gossip circle to an abrupt halt.
Alright ladies, enough standing around! Two lines, single file. Let’s go, let’s go, not much time today! Georgia, lead us, please.
From across the park, a woman in floral hospital scrubs angled over a cane, her eyes squinting adorably in the morning sun. It couldn’t be. Then, sure enough, the call came again.
Let’s go ladies! While Raquel Suera Reguera may not have looked like much, it became apparent that she commanded this patch of concrete. Lines materialized, the grandmas beginning a choreographed routine of leaning, twisting, and reaching, and she continued her amble towards a suddenly intimidated gringo.
The unease dissipated quickly as Raquel melted from drill sergeant to doting mother, using my shoulder to ease onto a warm concrete bench. She introduced herself as “one of the girls,” and was visibly excited by my interest, talking like she had only a fleeting chance at my attention.
She explained that the circle was indeed the first in the country, a project started by her and Dr. Raul Mazora, the director of sports medicine for Cuba’s national sport and physical education program, INDER, in 1985. Originally she had begun a circle for toddlers, El Circulo de Infantiles, and the government hoped to continue its success with the older population. The goal was to keep the elderly physically and mentally active into old age.
Movement was the lifeblood of this community, and the grandmas embodied it: laughing, dancing, and running into old age with grace.
As she continued, I watched the ladies start a circle game that resembled Duck, Duck, Goose—laughing, cheering, and moving to a palpable rhythm. A woman with tight pants whom they called Caridad broke into the middle, shaking her hips and twirling with an invisible dance partner, the other women urging her on with cat calls and shrill whistles.
Raquel estimated that close to 320 circles existed throughout the country nowadays, stretching east to Baracoa and as far west as Pinar del Rio. Groups had even popped up in Guatemala and Venezuela, she said. Classes were open to women and men, but machismo kept male participation in choreographed exercise to a trickle. That was fine by the grandmas, who used the time to enjoy friendly company outside the confines of daily duties.
“We spend our whole day running around for others, our husbands, our children, our grandchildren,” she said. “But for 30 minutes we have this, this is our time.”
I was impressed to learn that classes were also free, an initiative started by INDER and then officially adopted by the Cuban government, who now provided gratis instructors on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The other days, like that Wednesday, the girls belonged to Raquel.
Rising suddenly, she herded her grandmas with one hand, clutching cane with the other. A fall had broken her hip three months previous, but she boasted that self-rehab had prevented surgery.
As she began a relay race of rubber balls passed through legs, I was smitten by the zeal with which the women approached their 30 minutes. Sports were ingrained into the island nation—its heart connected to the swing of a bat, its trophy case home to more Olympic golds per capita than any country in the Western Hemisphere—but I had severely miscalculated the role of exercise in Cuba. Stretching beyond competition, movement was the lifeblood of this community, and the grandmas embodied it: laughing, dancing, and running into old age with grace. There were no wheelchairs, no ventilators, and while each woman arrived with a cane, they lay cast aside on a park bench, as if mere props for morning sidewalk strolls.
They gathered tight as class ended for the day, dancing and striking up a rousing round of Cuba’s unofficial patriotic anthem, Guantanamera. Midway through, Raquel stopped the chorus and waved me over. I sheepishly joined the final verse with my new friends, an honorary guest in a circle of octogenarians bent on living.
“So you’re here for the grandmas?” Startled by fluent English, I mustered a nod, unsure of what I was agreeing to.
I visited the Circulo de Abuelos several times after that, the 30 minutes becoming part of my day just as it had for the grandmas. I began to join Raquel’s afternoon domino games as well, losing soundly but enjoying the animated exchange. Hands waving, curses flying—if life waned after a certain birthday, no one had told Raquel Suera Reguera. As long as La Comandante had a say, old age would just have to wait.