By Alejandro Langape
HAVANA TIMES – Weeks after we published in Spanish the first article with confessions from a survivor of Cuba’s Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), today, I continue to delve in the nonsense that also marked the glorious ‘60s. That’s because I continue to fight forgetting our past, like the character Gertrudis in the book The Bleeding Wound and defying those who prefer not to remember and if they don’t then it never happened, here is another story: the story of a guajira woman who grew up among sugar cane.
Growing up among sugar cane, or a non-Gorkian Mother
Why are you crying grandma, if there are so many lights, cars and people? The child was five years old and Havana appeared before his astonished eyes. It was definitely a big city, nothing like the nearest town to his rural home.
It was any year in the ‘60s and the child lived on an island that was constantly buzzing. A few hours beforehand, his mother (The mother from here on out with Gorki’s permission), had seen the soldiers arrive and had listened to the troop leader’s words in disbelief. She and her children had to accompany them. Accompany them where, for what and why?
She was just a simple guajira woman, who had grown up among the sugar cane, waiting to be painted by Romanach (1), a single child who had suffered the misfortune of watching her husband be arrested for helping his brother, the leader of one of the groups “in revolt” who opposed the new order. The mother heard the words clearly, Escambray (2). “Sir, I don’t know where Escambray is,” she confessed.
Her parents’ protests didn’t do anything either. The mother packed her suitcases, she took her two youngest children and left with the soldiers. On the town’s outskirts, a group of buses and the familiar faces of other women were waiting: her mother-in-law, sister-in-laws. The mother didn’t know that years before, not too far away from that town and following Captain General Valeriano Weryler’s orders, hundreds of women and children had been ordered to take a similar trip, leaving their humble homes among the marshes behind and then forced to beg for bread, to die of starvation on any old town’s streets.
Believed to be the capital of utopia back then, Havana was a city of beautiful mansions that were abandoned by its owners. The same Havana that received thousands of rural girls who learned how to sew in the Ana Betancourt (3) way and then returned to their humble shacks with a Singer sewing machine which allowed them to make the most beautiful dresses. The Havana of neon lights that was shining in the young child’s eyes as he held onto his grandmother’s hand tightly and asked her not to cry.
The mother didn’t know the happy seamstress apprentices, or the taxi drivers dressed in purple or the former housemaids who had now become bank employees. The mother was taken to the show home and, the next day, she discovered that she was in Miramar and that she, her children and many other children and mothers, like the one who had such a fright that her milk dried up, formed a part of “Plan Miramar 2”.
And the mother and her children started their lives over, the children a little more oblivious in their innocence, while she was defenseless in her solitude, terrified about the blunt change of scenery, fearful about the restrictions the government had imposed on her movements, full of unanswered questions. She and the other mothers soon found out that they could buy supplies at a place that wasn’t very far away and that every authorization one of them received to go there should be taken advantage of by the others so they could also get their things, that the chances of leaving that life were uncertain and visits were a distant wish, even if they just brought a couple of poorly fried croquettes for the mother’s kids which they would devour anxiously while the visitor wiped away a tear and the mother tried to smile.
If the Ana Betancourts, staying at the Hotel Nacional, made great efforts in their cutting and sewing work, the mother was given the opportunity to sweep floors at a hair salon while she continued to dream about property, the strange name that her colleagues in misfortune gave to the letter that allowed them to return back to their normal lives.
Young women who barely knew how to boil their young children’s milk, grandmothers who complained about their arthritis, lives that suddenly came together in what used to be a well-known member of the bourgeoisie’s mansion. Thanks to God and the virgin (The mother always prayed to them in the silence of the night and in hiding, to avoid being reprimanded), the property came and she could return to the overwhelming tranquility of her home in the countryside.
Protected by the crickets’ chirping, the mother set about forgetting those days, so that nobody would find out, pretending that nothing had ever happened. In the end, she also learned how to sew in the Ana Betancourt way, to embroider diapers, looking for food for her children by using her right foot to push the pedals on a Singer sewing machine.
One day, she saw her husband leave for the United States, having become an ex-political prisoner, and she chose to stay behind with her parents. The mother’s children were not discriminated against by anyone. Both of them became professionals, they built successful lives.
One day, the daughter went with the mother to sort something out at a state-run office. For some reason, somebody spoke about the ‘60s. One of the public servants denied there being any kind of discrimination, reprisals and the mother spoke to them about Plan Miramar 2 and the public servant denied it again.
Days later, when they went back, the daughter showed the skeptical public servant the property, that kind of freedom letter that the mother had kept for so many years, that she still keeps and looks at from time to time, when she feels that she’s had it with denying what happened, when she asks herself again why they took her from her home when she didn’t commit a single crime, when she was just a simple guajira woman who was about to be painted by Romanach with sugar cane in her arms.
1 – Leopoldo Romanach (1862-1951). One of the greatest Cuban masters of painting in the 19th and 20th centuries.
2 – Escambray: name of a mountainous area located in Cuba’s central region. A place where people who didn’t agree with Fidel and his politics took up arms in revolt. These people were known as the “insurgents” and they stayed in the mountains, receiving aid from some farmers and their own families. The “Escambray Clean-up” was a government campaign to kick the insurgents out of the mountains and that meant removing farmers from the area. Many of these families never returned to their homes and were sent to live in other areas, like the town of Sandino, in the Pinar del Rio province.
3 – Ana Betancourt: Cuban pro-independence fighter (1832-1901), the foremother of the struggle for women’s rights. In 1961, a school for rural girls was named after her. Women from the countryside were recruited from all over the country and were taught to cut and sew, then they were given a Singer sewing machine so that they could be financially independent. These girls, known as “Anitas”, stayed at the Hotel Nacional and that’s where the first course of the school was run; later spaces were created for classes near to where students lived.