No Peace for Paula

In Cuba she was a symbol, the Madonna of the Counterrevolution. But in Miami, it's a different kind of fight for Paula Valiente.

By 1991, with Cuba's economy and national morale going from worse to nightmarish, Valiente had become part of the burgeoning underground opposition movement, meeting at homes to record denuncias and communicating by phone with Ninoska Perez Castell centsn, who keeps close contact with dozens of island dissidents. In November of that year, Valiente, Bertha Galan, and poet Marielena Cruz Varela founded their own opposition group, the Asociaci centsn de Madres por la Dignidad. (Of the three founders of Mothers for Dignity, only Cruz Varela remains in Cuba; she has abandoned activism. Galan emigrated to Miami this past June.)

The next year Valiente had a dream. "It was in June. I'll never forget it," she says, her eyes narrowing. "I was walking along the street in Havana when I came upon a group of people. Four men were carrying an image of the Virgin on their shoulders. It was in an area like the Malec centsn, not exactly the Malec centsn but a place close to the sea, and they were making a procession. Then there was a confrontation with people on the street and fighting began, and one of the men carrying the Virgin was hit and fell to the ground. The Virgin didn't fall, she tipped over, and I ran and took the place of the man who had fallen."

Valiente became obsessed by the idea of a procession of holy figures, a common Latin American religious motif and a tradition carried on inside many Catholic churches in Cuba at the time. "When I told members of my organization that I wanted what happened in the dream to really happen," Valiente recalls, "they told me it was madness because you didn't go out publicly with a saint. They said I'd be killed and everyone with me." But the madness began a month later, with a spirited call by Ninoska Perez Castell centsn on La Voz de la Fundaci centsn, accompanied by the strains of Willy Chirino's "Havana D.C." ("Havana After Castro"), which beseeches the virgins of Caridad, Regla, and Mercedes "to bring liberty to Cuba quickly."

On July 8, 1992, six women and a young man gathered with Valiente in the town of Regla, on an island just across the Bay of Havana. After a prayer at the church of the Virgin of Regla, the seven rode a launch back to the city and walked two dozen blocks under a hot afternoon sun to the Malec centsn, carrying signs calling for "freedom for the Virgin." Explains Valiente: "To ask for freedom for the Virgin is to ask for freedom for the people of Cuba."

State Security agents watched from a distance at first, Valiente recalls, admonishing the marchers that they were betraying the atheist people of Cuba. When the agents saw that Valiente was actually urging bystanders to "renew their faith" and that some seemed to be responding, police were dispatched to shoo the demonstrators away. At that point a crowd began to gather near the intersection of San Lazaro and Prado streets. Fearing a large-scale protest, the authorities packed Valiente and her followers into patrol cars and took them to the nearest police station. It was there, Valiente recounts with wonder, that "something strange happened." Six strong policemen were unable to force her into a jail cell while she clung to her figurine of the Virgin. Finally able to wrest the statuette from her hands, they managed to push her fully through the cell door.

The detainees were released early the next morning after paying 60-peso fines, with instructions to stop their nonsense. Another procession was soon set for the following month, on August 8. That day, Valiente says, she was preparing to leave for Regla when she found State Security agents surrounding her apartment. With the help of an unexpected distraction on the street, she managed to slip out unnoticed. As a gesture of thanks for her "escape," she adopted the Santeria initiation practice of dressing only in white for a full year. She has, however, vowed to wear white "until Cuba is free."

"After this suffering, when this repression started against me, I began to embrace both [Christianity and Santeria]," Valiente explains, adding that she does not consider herself a santera and does not identify herself with Santeria deities. "Suffering will make you embrace any faith, from wherever it comes. I began my peregrinations with the image of the Virgin of Regla. But inside me I have the Virgin of Regla and Yemaya. It's the same thing with most of the people of Cuba. So when we left the church on the peregrinations, we'd begin to sing to Yemaya."

In Miami Valiente encountered a sizable number of Catholics and santeros alike who disapproved of her liberal blending of traditions. Joe Garcia says CANF received a letter from a group of santeros who made it clear that Valiente didn't speak for them. There was also some resistance at Ermita de la Caridad when Valiente first called for exiles to join her in prayer there, according to Ninoska Perez Castell centsn. But the initial criticism has died down. Father Francisco Santana, who hosts a Radio Marti program called El cubano y su fe, meets and prays with Valiente, fully aware that not all church officials are as accepting of her religion. She has been a guest twice on his show, which she listened to on the island before her exile.

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