By Aurora Paz (Alas Tensas)
HAVANA TIMES – Things that happen in our childhood leave a very special mark on us. Many memories and moments from our childhood can stay with us our entire lives, sometimes as images, although they might not be entirely real, because they could be distorted by the situation or the subjective gaze of the person seeing them.
If some of these images stay in our memories just as they were when we were children, and we only discover that they weren’t true many years later, but that a friend, someone you can never ask for forgiveness suffered as a result… then, you are left with great pain and the desire to make things right.
And, Lila is the person in this story.
Lila was my childhood friend who played with me, even though she was a couple of years my elder. I learned how to switch on a toy coal-fired oven and to make grilled cheese. She was very active, kind and joyful; she would always come to my yard with a thousand ideas for us to have fun. I remember her drawing dolls on cardboard and then making them beautiful paper dresses. She was from my neighborhood, but when high school started, her father wanted to move her to another school, and that’s when everything started.
We grew apart because we no longer had time to play and because she was hardly ever in the neighborhood. I sometimes saw her, but she didn’t want to play anymore, or talk, or share. She soon became different to the rest of us, the younger girls. Her mother took her to the hair salon where she worked and she had so much flair, that she was a model when they had to exhibit hairstyles and dyes. Over time, her style, the way she walked, her appearance… it all gradually changed.
Her kind innocence was lost and we no longer shared anything. She left early with her parents and we didn’t see her return until the evening. If we ever ran into each other at a neighborhood party, she was distant. She came with new friends, all of them dressed differently to the rest of us, as they were always dressed in black, in trousers and shirts. They formed another group, and she wouldn’t even look at us: this is how the rift grew between her and us, her childhood friends.
The adults in our families had also picked up on these changes in Lila, and they began to give her suspicious looks, they said that she was “walking down a bad path”, “hanging about in bad company”. We distanced ourselves from her. And, to our surprise, she also withdrew from us without even saying a word. There wasn’t a lot we could know about her parents. They were government officials, they were hardly ever at home. Lila came and went by herself. The time came when even weeks passed by and we wouldn’t see her.
Nobody told us anything, and we didn’t dare ask. When our parents talked about her, or her family, they did so under their breath, almost in a whisper. One day, I heard how everyone was sad about this girl “straying”. This was the damning word that was used to defame anyone who was different. In the neighborhood, there was no reason for this happening without her parents stepping in to do something about it. There was talk about Lila forming part of a group of “strange” and “crazy” girls who unsettled people with their manly displays, and that measures were being taken to “resolve” this kind of behavior.
Lila wasn’t a girl from the block anymore. She withdrew herself from everyone, and we kept a distance from her. We turned our backs on her.
It was the ‘70s in Cuba, back then.
Only people who have experienced this time first-hand, or at least have read about it or studied it with compassion, can understand what those so-called “grey” years by some, and “black” years by others; can have a real notion of what it meant to be “different”, during those so-called “tough years”. A series of standards and frameworks were established at an institutional level which marked society in every way. People who were “marked”, by something that didn’t allow them to fit in this model, were interrogated and removed. Being different was a crime punishable by the law. And, people accused suffered “standardization”, an official procedure of isolation and punishment.
The subject of a supposedly “antinatural” sexual orientation (in the eyes of the “revolutionary” morale in power) became one of the many stigmas that influenced society during those years, not only in public spheres of life, where “the problem” was most visible, such as the artistic world (which we are learning about in recent years in Cuba, with the memoirs of writers and artists who were unfairly persecuted, and are now trying to seek redemption); but was also something that hurt ordinary people, families and individuals.
And, my childhood friend Lila formed part of this story.
Self-marginalized, she knew what situation she was in and, before people could put her at a distance, she withdrew herself. We didn’t know very much about her life, although we found out almost everything over the years, in some way or another. She left her home and our town, we didn’t know if she was trying to make a fresh start or whether she was going to carry on what she was doing. She suffered a lot, because almost all her family avoided her, and she was in camps built in rural areas, where many young people were sent so they could help out in agricultural production, with military discipline.
Then, she lived in the capital, Havana, and she avoided coming back to the town: she didn’t come, even when her father passed away. Only her mother went to visit her, but, she always looked so sad when she came back from these visits, that nobody dared to ask about Lila.
Years passed by, until she came back for the last time. She was sick, physically weak. As far as we could figure, the same drama that had distanced her from her family and her friends sunk her into a life of excess and full of all kinds of poverty. She came back to die in her childhood home.
When Lila died, I tried to find the memories of an innocent and beautiful period in my life in her mother. I went with her to the wake, trying to fill the void a little. I didn’t want to talk about Lila, about what our childhood friendship had meant, or about what had happened to her afterwards. I didn’t want to touch this sore spot.
But, my friend’s mother did need to talk. She wanted to tell me the real story about Lila.
I curled up when I discovered the truth. I got a knot in my throat.
The truth was that she never really was a homosexual. She never wanted to leave her friends, her high school, her neighborhood and her loving environment.
Her father worked as an undercover agent in a government organization that was committed to identifying and dealing with young people with “different” behavior, and in his eagerness to penetrate homosexual groups, he had the sick idea of infiltrating his own teenage daughter as a secret agent. He transformed his own innocent daughter into an instrument, and into a victim of his ideology.
Lila did her job really well. So well, that she could never leave it to recover her real identity.
Every painful word I’ve written here is real, too real. And, I cry today because of this truth.