La Vida Dura

Her husband is in exile. Her daughter is handicapped. Her country is in ruin. And the pope? He barely registered. Welcome to Sonia Gonzalez's life.

Sonia Gonzalez leads her three-year-old daughter down an unlighted flight of wooden stairs and out the front door of their apartment building into the dazzling sun over Havana, fiery even in January. Her face set in grim concentration, she unfolds a borrowed stroller and tells the child, Sonia Maria Elizondo, to hop in. This morning her daughter decides not to fuss, and mother and daughter set off briskly, heading northeast on Avenida 17, crossing busy Calle 42, deftly negotiating in black midheeled pumps the jagged ruts, piled garbage, and mud patches along the aged sidewalks of the city's Playa district.

"AOye, chica!" calls a worn-faced man in dingy T-shirt and dungarees as he rushes across the street to greet Sonia. He's a friend she hasn't seen in months, and he inquires about Sonia Maria's godmother, who recently moved to Spain. "She called you twice before she left," Sonia tells the man, "but couldn't reach you."

"Ah, bueno," he says; faulty communication in Havana is hardly unusual. Then he smiles down at Sonia Maria. "Hasn't that baby grown so big, Anina! So did you watch the pope yesterday?" Pope John Paul II had arrived for his historic visit to Cuba and celebrated a mass in Santa Clara the day before; the papal tour is an obligatory part of every conversation. "Sure," Sonia says, even though she'd caught only a bit of the live broadcast and won't have time to watch much of the ceremonies in CamagYey later this day.

Almost every weekday morning at about eight -- the time she should be working at her job as a mechanical engineer, selling machine components to manufacturers -- Sonia makes this trek to a clinic for her daughter's hourlong physical therapy. Sonia Maria was born with a malformation of her feet that has required surgery and months of therapy.

Sonia is 27 years old, her smooth brown face and black Asian eyes (characteristic of her mother's side of the family) framed by long ringlets she usually pulls back in a braid or bun. She is dressed for work in ivory pants and black, lacy blouse. Her daughter has the same dark, cottony hair but her father's down-turned eyes.

Two oversize posters adorn the walls of the small physical therapy room: One touts the legendary Tropicana nightclub; another features a happy couple standing next to a bright red Nissan Sentra they've rented from Havanauto, the state rental-car enterprise. "Somos los primeros," the print proclaims. "We're number one." Interspersed among the posters are graphic color photos of patients with missing legs, burned arms, arthritic hips. Against the far wall a man lies on his side on a flat examining table, two heated discs placed on his left hip, which is covered by a towel. A woman in a skirt and full slip sits in a chair with a heat lamp trained on her upper spine.

Sonia Maria's therapist arrives and promptly pours herself a thimble of thick, sugary coffee from a red thermos. Behind her enters Teresita, one of the clinic supervisors, carrying two of the posters that are everywhere in the city these days: the pope against a brilliant azure background. Teresita sits at a desk and unfurls them. She gazes down for a moment. "Ay, Santo Padre," she sighs. "May you bring us tranquillity ... unity ... peace." Then she rises quickly and strides to the center of the room. Reaching out a hand in mock blessing, she addresses her audience: "The pope sees a jinetera [prostitute]," she begins. "'!Carisimo!' he says to the jinetera. 'No,' she replies --" and Teresita spreads her arms and shimmies her insubstantial chest. 'ABaratisima!'" (It is a play on the church blessing, with Spanish words for "very expensive" and "very cheap.")

At this cue, therapists and patients begin to offer their own papal jokes. There are a thousand going around Havana these days, and many extremely obscure or obscene puns. At the same time, with their penchant for embracing the contradictory and tenebrous, Cubans are putting on a passionate display of piety in honor of the pope's unprecedented visit to their island. They crowd into churches, cheer the passing of the Popemobile, and decorate their homes with images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Virgin of Charity, Cuba's patroness. They voice hope that the Holy Father will somehow impel change in their unworkable economic system, somehow encourage Cuban families to unite instead of dispersing to other parts of the world. But they also say that five days of comfort and joy can't possibly have a lasting influence on their lives or their nation.

Unlike the many Cubans gathering around kitchen tables or front porches to debate the meaning of the visit, unfiltered cigarettes in one hand and glasses of rum in the other, Sonia Gonzalez doesn't allow herself the luxury of speculation. There was a time she might have been likely to discuss the significance of the occasion with her father, a party militante, back when she was a student and member of the communist youth party. But that was before her life got much harder. The pope is not going to bring back her father, who died almost two years ago, or her husband, who, three and a half years ago, left for Miami with no advance word to anyone, without knowing Sonia was pregnant.

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