A Cuban woman who knocked the door down
By Juventina Soler Palomino (Alas Tensas)
HAVANA TIMES — Private spaces and the way the female imagination visualizes them is a fascinating aspect of gender studies. As I enter this field, I realize that there is indeed a (re)construction of these imaginaries which can be seen in every step a woman takes in her environment here in Cuba, which is an eminently patriarchal country.
I have heard the phrase “I want to get out of the house” in many of the spaces I frequently visit. You might think that whoever is saying these words is a prisoner in their glass cage or that they aren’t allowed to go outside (there are still cases, here in Cuba, where men don’t let women leave the house) and this is where my shock came from: these are women who have financial solvency, who now work in the public sector but used to work in the self-employment sector, or the private sector, within the space of their own home.
As I continued to observe the phenomenon carefully I stumbled across one of these women, as she was very close to me: her name is Aliusa Aguilar Rosales, a lawyer by profession, although she only worked as such for a very brief period. Today she is now the director of the “Juan Clemente Zenea” Literary Promotion Center in the city of Bayamo.
Aliusa, I have heard you say several times: “I had to get out of the house”, I have really tried to understand what you mean and maybe I have, but what do you feel when you say this over and over again?
Aliusa Aguilar: I was working in the self-employment sector, or private sector, for 17 years; I was a manicurist and hairdresser and I earned in a day what I now earn in a month, but I had my business set up in my home. You can probably figure that it isn’t the same thing, but I feel good and I’ll tell you again: I had to get out of the house. At home I felt suffocated and I didn’t just want to form relationships with people exactly because there comes a time when your customers become a part of your emotional relationships, and they are still my friends even today; but getting out of the house was important.
Do you believe that the house was paralyzing your future and your social development as a woman?
AA: I was in contact with people, but I had to change the subject of conversation to something other than work; daily chores are a vicious cycle, life stops, you have to do your job but be in direct contact with the kitchen and domestic chores. I would cut hair and also keep an eye on all of the chores and problems around the house and believe me that exhausts you until you reach a point where you can’t take it anymore. Many of us have gone through that and even though you earn more that way than by working in the public sector, it doesn’t mean anything because you drown and can’t breathe. Believe me, it’s a position that not many people understand, but it fills you with despair all the time.
That is to say, that you were fulfilling your professional role and domestic role at the same time; you were the so-called Cuban “one-woman band”.
AA: Yes, that’s what it was like and I didn’t complain in the beginning, but years passed by and soon enough it was 17 years and I told myself things needed to change. I did all of the chores around the house with pleasure, every Cuban woman is taught what we need to do at home when we are little girls and I used to do everything for my husband. He drove the family car and would also contribute a lot to the household financially and, even though he was unfaithful, that influenced but wasn’t the decisive factor in my decision to leave my job as an independent worker and go out on the street, as being surrounded by people doesn’t mean you are accompanied or recognized by society a lot of the time; you need other things to free yourself from a repetitive life that is deadbeat.
Do you believe your social position is better now?
AA: I’m laughing at your question because other people have asked me the same thing; not in those words, but with the same meaning. I feel good about myself, I leave the house every morning now, I watch people walk… talk… I like everything when I’m outside the house… I get to work and I get mixed up in the writers’ own problems and activities, I have learned a lot with you. Now, domestic chores are in the background, I’m not there to see if the furniture is dirty or if the breakfast plates are still in the kitchen sink without being washed up; it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t bother me because I leave in the morning and I come back in the afternoon and I come back with other concerns from work, but not the same ones I used to have when I was constantly at home. I live with my 18-year-old son and I’m divorced, that is to say, I’ve even managed to get that freedom, I don’t have a man to look after anymore.
And what about your financial situation?
AA: I knew that question was coming. My financial situation isn’t the same by a long shot and it’s hit me, like we Cubans say, it hit me in the ribs and then some, but I’ll tell you something: when you fill yourself, with food I mean, it doesn’t matter whether you fill yourself with bread alone or with ham, nothing compares to being free to be yourself, to feel like a woman that society recognizes.
In Cuba, women are recognized on a social level, but in their private context…
AA: That’s our patriarchal education’s fault. You’re taught starting from a young age to be a woman for men, to please them, and even though you’re told you aren’t discriminated against, it’s a lie: yes you are and all the time, because of the education we receive. For example, they don’t tell you at school when you can be discriminated against or not, they don’t tell you what you have to do to make your own decisions; your boss discriminates against you at work, many women are sexually harrassed, and if your boss is a woman, things get even uglier because, I don’t know, this woman takes on her leadership role with a tougher hand; that must also be because of the way we are educated.
Well, like Nora in A Doll’s House, by Ibsen, did you knock down the door of your house and decide to step outside?
AA: I watched a documentary where the protagonists spoke about knocking down this door; and yes, I knocked it down and I knock it down every day, I believe that I won’t ever go back to working at home, God forgive me, but that would be the last resort, at least for me.