When Karla González Toro turned 15 on September 9, she knew the day would not be marked with a party. Havana, where she lives, was under lockdown after a spike in COVID cases, and Cuba’s food shortages were the worst in recent memory. The González family had meat to eat only because Karla’s parents had begun keeping pigs three years earlier to raise money for a special event: their only daughter’s quinceañera.
In Cuba and across Latin America, the quinceañera—a blowout celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday—is a monumental occasion. In a Cuban house, the framed photograph from that event is as cherished and proudly displayed as a bridal portrait: a teenager encased in a layered taffeta dress, hair piled into curls or straightened down her back, lips brightly glossed. “For Cuban people, it’s like a religion,” says Eliana Aponte, a Havana-based photographer who spent a week documenting the González family’s quest last fall. No matter how long it had to be delayed, no matter how much they would have to scrounge, they were determined to pull together Karla’s quinceañera.
Mirelis Toro and Juan Carlos González, Karla’s parents, had been breeding the pigs and selling piglets for the equivalent of U.S. $40 each. Toro cared for them in a muddy enclosure behind their house; González went out to fish on his rented boat. In accordance with Cuba’s Communist system, most of his haul must be sold at set prices to the government; the rest he can sell on his own, or keep for the family to eat. By last spring, the family had managed to stash away nearly $1,300.
Then the pandemic hit. As the virus ravaged Europe and the United States during early 2020, it appeared to be under control in Cuba. By July 20, Cuban authorities announced no new cases had been registered that day. In August they loosened restrictions, opening beaches and allowing some tourism. But within weeks, dozens of new cases were being reported every day. Beaches and restaurants were shut down again, and travel between provinces was closed. On September 1, Havana was put under a 7 p.m. curfew.
For Cubans trying to buy food and household goods, the combination of the COVID lockdown and Trump-era U.S. policy was creating the kind of supply shortages that hadn’t been seen in decades. Renewed sanctions had already cut back tourism from the American mainland, as well as dollar remittances that support many sectors of the island’s economy. Even in the best of times Cuba’s food supply system is complicated. Many families obtain what they need through an elaborate system of government-subsidized rations, private vendors, and underground trade. But with the arrival of COVID and the restrictions it brought, the most basic items were disappearing from store shelves.
Shops had no rice, no beans, no sugar. Some offered little more than bottles of rum. Lines outside markets, grocery stores, and banks snaked down city blocks. A new online ordering system—for those who could afford Wi-Fi or phone data—would sell out within minutes each day.
Dramatic food shortages are not new to Cuba. Any Cuban old enough to remember back four decades has stories of the years just after 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed, suddenly ending the support that had long propped up the island’s economy. During the near-famine that followed—a profoundly difficult time described by Fidel Castro’s government as the "Special Period"—Cubans survived by improvising and refusing to give up. Improvisar is a key word in Cuban Spanish, as is resolver: Families resolve to barter, to repurpose, to improvise creatively in order to obtain what they need.
Karla’s parents were in their twenties during the Special Period, and they remember what it was like: using bikes and horse carts instead of cars to save fuel; families living off plants and vegetables grown in their yard; residents spending power blackout nights outdoors along the miles-long seawall that borders Havana. The average adult lost around 10 pounds of bodyweight.
Now, in 2020, Cubans were once again improvising just to find enough to eat. On lengthy group chats on the secure app Telegram, hundreds of neighbors compared notes on which stores had what supplies, and when orders placed online might be delivered—often days late, and with just part of what had been promised. Food started being sold in modules, or baskets, leaving some people with an abundance of one item—like oil or shampoo—and a dearth of others. On Telegram, strangers arranged intercambios, or barter meet-ups, to swap cheese for oil, pasta for coffee, shampoo for eggs.
The government began encouraging Cubans to grow their own food in winter planters and garden plots, as they did during the Special Period. Between Trump and the pandemic, “It was a one-two punch for Cuba,” says University of North Carolina history professor Louis Pérez, the author of a dozen books on Cuba. “How does an economy that depends on food imports, and developed dependency on tourism, now recalibrate?”
The blows of 2020 hit the already fragile country hard. Total imports dropped more than 30 percent, and the economy fell more than 10 percent. “We are worse than in the Special Period,” said González, Karla’s father. “Now there are no things, no money, everything is very expensive. It is impossible, everything we have to do to be able to eat. That is why we have to invent—I sell my piglets, I sell pigeons, I handle the boat and so on. I can earn something. We have to eat.”
But they also had to honor Karla’s important birthday. In a time of extreme need, is a 15th birthday party excessive, a luxury when basic needs aren’t being met? Karla and her parents didn’t think so—not for the couple’s only child together. Toro remembered how special she felt during her quinceañera, and how much she still treasures her photobook, which she keeps protected in a bag inside a drawer.
Many families have relatives in the U.S. or Europe who send them supplemental income. Karla and her parents had no one. But even as food grew scarce, they kept Karla’s birthday funds aside. “These little pigs are our salvation,” Toro said.
Karla’s birthday week came and went, and she waited. It was a blow not to be able to celebrate with her friends, but she understood the pandemic rules. Then, in late fall, as the cases dropped and Havana’s curfew was lifted, her mother set a date: November 7. In their neighborhood of Guanabacoa, a historic quarter that stretches out from eastern Havana, they began preparing for the party.
Karla’s party would be a 2020 quinceañera: There would be masks. It would be partially outside. There was a risk to gathering in a group, but Toro and González were reassured by the government lifting Havana’s curfew, and they would try to keep the guests in the courtyard; only six people were supposed to be indoors simultaneously. Pulling it off would call for the Cuban ability to adapt to hardship. “It is a Cuban tradition, despite how difficult it is today,” Toro said. “It does not matter. That photo of when the girl turns 15 will always be in the living room of the house.”
Karla had hoped to get new shoes for her big day, so she and her mother took the bus to a local market. Shelf after shelf displayed inexpensive housewares, jewelry, clothes, and bric-a-brac. But they had to wait in a line of hundreds to get inside, and by the time they did there was nearly nothing left. They walked away with a few rings but no party shoes.
Hiring a photographer was next—a photo book is a crucial keepsake. Karla bought Keratin to straighten her hair, had her eyebrows shaped, and applied fake nails with swirls of rhinestones. Then it was time. She showed up for the photo shoot at 8 a.m. and it ended 10 hours later, after 13 changes of studio-provided outfits. Karla looked striking. At one point the photographer, Jorge Luis Ruiz, warned her not to succumb to the temptation to quit school. “Beauty is fleeting, but knowledge is the only thing that remains,” he said. Yes, she said. She would study.
Karla and her parents live in a small home behind her grandmother’s place, beside the courtyard where the family’s pigs squeal in the mud. Since their living quarters are small and dark, they decided to host the party in the front house. Karla had a location, a guest list, and an outfit planned out. But to throw a quinceañera, they needed to serve food.
A few days after the photo shoot, Karla’s mother went to the open-air food market. Long lines stretched from each stall, the longest leading to a coffee vendor. Some of those waiting would likely resell the food at a higher price to those with funds who don’t want to wait.
Standing in line is one of the few viable moneymaking schemes left for families like theirs, Toro observed when a friend dropped by the house later for a visit. “I don't have a job because someone has to wait in line,” she said. “You can spend eight hours waiting for a product.”
Toro wanted to buy fruit to serve their guests, but the piled pineapples, papayas, and bananas were too expensive. The prices had doubled since the pandemic began, she noted. She walked home from the market with peppers, ham, and ingredients to make croquettes.
On November 7, the walls were draped in red and white streamers and the number “15” dangled from a string of balloons. Karla had been given a slinky red dress by a relative, high slit up one side, and she changed into it. She pulled her long dark hair out of a bandana and draped it down her back.
In the late afternoon, her friends began to arrive. The group of around 20 wore masks, though sometimes they slipped off or hung from ears and necks. They sang “Happy Birthday” over a frosted white cake. Karla’s mother served pasta and croquettes and mixed a drink of milk and rum. They ate, danced to blaring reggaetón, and chatted in the courtyard. It was the first time in many months that most of them had been in a group, on a dance floor, or tasted cake.
The family had spent the equivalent of nearly U.S. $600 on the party—half their savings from the past three years. If there were lingering worries about money, they had vanished in a haze of laughter and conversation that finally died down around 1 a.m. Turning 15, Karla said later, “is the best thing that can happen to you in Cuba.”
Once the prints from Karla’s photoshoot returned from the studio, Toro would pick one to hang in the family’s living room. Visitors to the house will be greeted by the memento from her teenage daughter’s proudest day, proof that Karla, too, had carried on the tradition of many generations of Cuban women before her—despite a pandemic, a food crisis, and uncertainty over what hardship would hit her country next.