Lennon Park: Enjoying traditional games among Cuban children

In a safe and sound atmosphere, Parque Lennon in Havana’s Vedado neighbourhood, transforms every evening into a lovely postcard of the city’s everyday life. It’s where children enjoy playing traditional games, making new friends, and putting their creativity to test in order to have a good time. A sculpture of John Lennon, sitting on one of its benches, is the eternal silent witness to the park’s hustle and bustle and day after day attracts the young and old, thus adding to the lively activity.

Lennon Park: Enjoying traditional games among Cuban children

More than once I’ve enrolled my son Martin in a sport practice, but one way or the other, he ends up quitting it. He has clearly stated that what he likes is to run around; not too differently from a track and field discipline, but in his own style. Given that he’s physically very active, I resolved to take him almost every weekend to a park where he could feel free to run and play at his will, with no rules to pay attention to.

John Lennon Park, or, "Parque John Lennon" as it is officially called is one of his favourites, located on 17th St. between 6th and 8th streets, in very close proximity to our home. On Sunday afternoons, I pack my bag with a good book, two water bottles and we set out to pick up Leonardo, my son’s best friend. Sometimes they take balls, rackets, toy guns or just about any other toy. Other times they take nothing; they just go to see whatever the afternoon has in store for them, and have fun going along with whatever adventure the day brings.

As soon as we set foot on the park, two little heads; one black-haired, the other blonde, throw themselves into a race and seconds later, get lost among the luxuriant flamboyant trees and groups of children. I don’t worry about losing them from sight because sooner or later they’ll find me. They know where; in a bench, near Lennon’s sitting statue; the park’s most famous reference point.

How do local children have fun in the park?

It might sound odd or a bit of a paradox, but I dare classify Lennon Park’s lack of mechanical attractions as one of its best assets. There are no swings, no roundabout, no slides, nor any other type of playground attractions. Everything that takes place there, when it comes to children’s fun and entertainment, depends exclusively on their resourcefulness and ingenuity to invent games or resort to old traditional ones. “Tag”, “hide-and-seek” and baseball continue to be as popular as they once were during my own childhood.

It’s actually very interesting to see how children here spontaneously organise themselves, deciding what position each one will play, and which will be the improvised bases for their baseball game. It’s undoubtedly; an excellent socialising exercise, because many of them don’t even know each other, and just meet at the park for the first time. Even though we are regulars at the park, I can’t avoid smiling with a hint of surprise as I hear Martin call them by their names with resolute familiarity. I have even seen him asking another mother permission to grant more playing time in the park to his friend, whom he just met twenty minutes ago. So, I can assure you that if on any given afternoon, you visit the park with your child or children, in the blink of an eye, without knowing how, you’ll see him or her engaged in some game along with a group of children. Age, gender or language makes no difference; the only rule is wanting to have fun.

Something new each time…

These visits to the park always end as a jack-in-the-box surprise. It all depends on how the people present there at the time get on with each other, but also on the intense cultural activity that reverberates there all the time. For example; on our last visit we were lucky to witness the inauguration of a piece erected there on the occasion of 12th Havana Biennial, an art festival the park has been a part of on several editions. This time the aforementioned piece was a huge human molar erected in the centre of the park’s roulette. From the moment of our arrival at the park, the piece; like a magnet, attracted Martin and his friend Leonardo. The art work was named “Tremenda Muela” (“Tremendous Molar”), but this phrase actually has another meaning in Cuban slang and is something we use to describe long conversations or situations when people won’t shut up. Martin went up to the sculptor and asked questions about the piece’s weight and what it was made of. Thus, we learned that it weighed more than 150 kg and was made of polystyrene and glass resin. I got up from my bench and went to witness the artist’s presentation and that of his curator. We left almost at dusk, convinced that there would always be new ways to have good time in this park.

And why is a park in Vedado named after Lennon?

Well; by this point, this must have become obvious to you but just in case, the Lennon that I’m talking about is John; the legendary member of The Beatles. With the laidback pose of an intrigued observer, he casually sits with his legs crossed on the end of one of the park’s benches, standing out as the park’s most eye-catching feature and attracting as much attention as he did during his lifetime every time he went up the stage. This life-size statue created by Cuban sculptor José Villa Soberón is so masterfully done to such a realistic level, that Lennon looks like any ordinary "habanero" (native or resident of Havana) who just left his home to get some fresh air. The park wasn’t known by Lennon’s name before. Its neighbors used to call it the roulette park because of the previously mentioned roulette positioned at the centre of the park . Various small steps provide access to it.

The park began to adopt Lennon’s name during the 1990s, as a result of a great concert that took place there to pay tribute to him and his music. Like thousands of "habaneros", I still treasure that night’s vivid images in my memory. It was extremely intense. That night marked the end of several decades of the intolerance of rock and rock n’ roll official intolerance and marginalization. Lennon’s definite conquest of the park occurred later on in December 2000, when his statue was erected there.

Although I always bring a book to the park, I sometimes find it difficult to concentrate because the English musician commands my attention. He’s never alone. The children are constantly fluttering around him. Every passer-by stops, looks at him, or sits beside him like an old friend. Lennon doesn’t lack Cuban or foreign tourists wanting to take their photos with him, or wanting to bring him flowers. I have even listened to some of them singing to him.

There’s an old man in the park who has become an attraction all on its own, without meaning to. He is Lennon’s official guardian. His job; quite peculiar by the way, is to put away the Englishman’s glasses in his pocket. This is due to the fact, that the statue’s glasses have been stolen more than once, so now; in order to protect them from theft, they are as Cubans say, “quita y pon” (detachable) style. The old man will place them back on the statue, if you want Lennon to have them on when having your picture taken next to him. Even I have asked the old man for Lennon’s glasses.

Like a Havana postcard…

If visiting the park were to deserve an award, my son and I would have to be declared multiple award-winning visitors. Countless are the days when dusk has surprised us, sharing our time there with other children playing baseball, “hide-and-seek”, or taking their bicycles or skates for a spin while elderly people take their dogs for a walk, the peanut vendors go about their business, mothers chat with each other while their children play, the karate instructor who uses an area of the park for his classes and every other passer-by determine to disturb Lennon’s serenity. It all makes for a beautiful moving postcard of the city’s everyday life which you too can enjoy, and become a part of. So, if you happen to be strolling around Havana’s Vedado neighbourhood, especially if you’re doing so with children, make a stop here before getting back to the rest of your plans for the evening. It will add a wonderful touch to your day.

Carmen Romero

Carmen Romero

Family juggler advisor

I am the mother of a seven-year-old boy who works with and for children. When I wake up every day, I...

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