An Image of a Mother, and a Plea

Illustration: Mary Esther

By Jesus Arencibia (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – The best images almost always bring a torrent of ideas, representing the deepest things we feel. They’re worth more than a thousand words as popular wisdom has it, and that’s certainly no mistake. Artist Mary Esther Lemus has demonstrated this many times, most recently last Sunday with the piece titled “To Cuban mothers”.

In an image adapted from the Cuban flag, a woman clasps in her hand the solitary star that belongs on her red breast, as if offering it. There’s sadness in her eyes, there’s fatigue. Her body is painted in generally dark tones, but the star shines radiantly. Perhaps it’s illuminating the humiliations, the dedication, the pain the anguish and the hope, all at the same time.

No machine has more power than mothers to generate hope. There’s also no greater deposit for anxiety. There’s no sacrifice deeper than theirs, from the moment that they literally tear off part of themselves to give birth, until they go into the darkness, leaving us forever those scraps of light and a bottomless absence.

Illustration Mary Esther

I think of that emphatic image of Mary Esther, and I see a message that Julita, the mother of Leovel Canga, posted several days ago. Leovel is one of the youths who went out to protest in a civic manner in his town of San Cristobal, Artemisa, and is now in jail, pending trial.

“First, I want to ask our Lord the all-powerful, and everyone who can hear me, to pray fervently for clemency for my son and for all those ill with COVID. My son isn’t a criminal. Thinking differently isn’t a crime. My mother is 85 and I have another son who’s 22 years old with severe cognitive impairments. I have a granddaughter (Leovel’s daughter) who’s 12 years old and is suffering because she doesn’t understand, since she knows her father is an honest person. I’m ill. Our family is humble, we’ve never done harm to anyone, nor has he. (…) Please, I ask for clemency, for a healthy, unstained justice. (…). May God lay a hand upon all of us, I can’t speak.”

How many mothers in Cuba right now have that same knot in their throats? How many, like Julita, can’t put into orderly words the dagger that’s piercing them?

Those who went out onto the streets last July 11 are mostly young. The same youth who those mothers probably begged over and over: “Lower your voice”; “don’t get yourself labeled”; “be careful, because you can’t change anything.” Because, sadly, we’ve survived in a society where fear and intolerance for the dissenting voice have taken over to such an extent that you almost excuse yourself in advance for thinking differently.

How many grandparents right now know nothing about their grandchildren, or perhaps know only what the nebulous official wants them to know? Testimonies have appeared about summary trials, murky legal processes, mistreatment and outrages on the part of those who, once in an ever more remote past, claimed to be “the people themselves in uniform”. There are other notices of the liberation or change of sentencing for some prisoners, especially those who have stronger networks of acquaintances, friends, and colleagues advocating for them, due to their professions or social connections. Many clamor for amnesty or a dismissal of the cases. Freedom is the word of the day.

Then there are those who sincerely continue believing that this is the earthly paradise of all utopias. Another group disguise their fears of speaking up as convictions or good manners. But ever more leaders of public opinion are raising their voices and standing up beside the poor of the earth.

“They’re our children, who grew up and are teaching us with their skins and their wounds, that they have a right to their words and action. No more jail without public trials. The truth must be faced without fear, we must humbly lower our heads and tell them: ‘We were mistaken about many things. Help me build the country we yearn for without squelching others’ criteria.’” These were the words of Flora Lauten, the great theatrical teacher of generations and winner of the National Theater Award.

I know Leovel. I helped him write an article on his life. I know that in his thirty-five years he’s suffered the searing mark of a twisted legal process, after he tried to leave the country illegally in 2016. That happened at the same moment when he understood that his status as head of family, a clinical psychologist and an honest man wouldn’t yield him enough to live with even a minimum of peace.

Every one of those who are unjustly imprisoned right now also pains me, as part of that larger body full of scars that we call our Homeland. Or better yet, the Motherland, that fecund mother who in the last three decades has had only hardships and promises to get her through each day.

Putting their distances aside, in Julita I see again Leonor Perez who begged for clemency for her imprisoned son. If the Powers continue in their errors, deaf and clumsy, perhaps tomorrow – and I hope it won’t be necessary – another legendary mother will be born in Julita, a mother who spoke with her cubs only in the language of machetes. Remember her? Jose Marti called her Mariana Maceo.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.