HAVANA TIMES — This month, when mothers are traditionally honored, I remembered how we were instilled with admiration towards Mariana Grajales at school. That extraordinary woman who fought for Cuba’s independence became a symbol of self-sacrifice, encouraging her children to go to war.
Like most children, I’d read those stories without becoming fully involved in them and, many a time, without even understanding them. Textbook heroes didn’t seem all that different to me than plaster busts and I could not imagine the horror of the battlefield, nor grasp the seeming contradiction that a person meant to protect others should consider it her duty to urge her offspring to die by gunfire or the bayonet, wielding only a machete.
Now that I have my own take on the world, after absorbing new things and discarding others, now that I can make my own opinions about what was imposed on me and what I’ve gradually discovered on my own, I often wonder whether it wouldn’t have been more fair for Mariana to let her children choose their own path, and I am infinitely pleased to see that those who seek political changes in our country today do not consider violence an alternative.
I think about women like Yoani Sanchez, Larisa Diversent and Tania Bruguera, who have shown us another side of courage, women no student in our country will be taught about in civics or history.
The first is admirable for having decided to share her particular take on Cuban reality without accepting any censorship, the second for sharing her legal knowledge and helping common Cubans defend themselves with their own country’s laws and the third for defending her right to express herself through art, the right of her audience to see her work and the right to enter and leave the country of her birth freely.
I also think about the many people whose lives we could learn from, people we are unaware of because we lack information, because they work anonymously or because they are hidden from us.
Elsewhere, I mentioned that, when I saw Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi at age 25, I regretted this hero had not been among the many whose statements and biographies they made us memorize. I recall that phrase by Reina Maria Rodriguez, about our “dead loves on the shelf” (the authors one adopts to survive), and I understand the reaction of adolescents who replace the revolutionary martyrs who have been imposed on them with movie, music, sport and even pornographic stars.
For some time now, I’ve kept photos of my dead loves under a pane of glass on my desk. These include Van Gogh, Isadora Duncan, Antoine de Saint Exupery and Erneto Sabato.
During an exercise I once proposed at a narrative workshop (consisting in writing about an author dear to them), a participant wrote about Mark Twain and, describing the moment he saw his children salute the flag and repeat the slogan of “We will be like Che Guevara!”, he’d add: “And like Tom Sawyer as well.”
At the time, I gathered that, without delving into the indoctrination and violation of basic rights that children are subjected to in Cuba, this person had found a means to become reconciled with his reality, by mentally incorporating a character of his choosing in it.
As a primary school student, I was also forced to take part in this ritual, without understanding its meaning. Many years later, I would ask myself:
“Why wasn’t I allowed to choose the person I wanted to be like?”
“Why, if it was a question of imposing an example to follow on us, was it a violent and radical foreigner? Why not Jose Marti, whom they were happy to call “the best of all Cubans”?”
The other side to this is that rituals serve no purpose when they are carried out insincerely or when they are inherited as empty shells of what they were. It is no secret that, for the new generations, these heroes and their supposed virtues are increasingly foreign. In addition, official information is increasingly fragmented, as children and teenagers study using alternative sources of information, such as Wikipedia.
In the meantime, as we await the needed and profound changes to Cuba’s program of studies and teaching methods, they could at least include examples of peaceful individuals, such as Irena Sendler or Mother Theresa. Since religious belief has been decriminalized, why not broaden the list to include exemplary mystics, such as Saint Francis of Asis, at a time when even television acknowledges the country’s crisis of values and urges people to once again be compassionate in response to the confusion, intolerance and lack of solidarity of our day.
I do not believe it impossible for teachers to begin advancing exercises in which students are free to choose, on the basis of less restricted and rigid information, who their heroes and heroines are.