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.

But less than two years later, during the worst days of a national economic and social crisis that precipitated mass migrations to the United States, Manuel defected while the boxing team was at a tournament in Mexico. Only a few weeks after that, Sonia learned she was pregnant. The two families, while struggling to maintain outward normality, would never regain their closeness. By the time Sonia Maria was born, in March 1995, the relationship had shifted unalterably.

Manuel and Nilda sit on the brown vinyl couch in the apartment's narrow living room, and Sonia carries her daughter in. Prancing from one adult to another as they catch her attention, the child needs some coaxing to offer the customary kisses and doesn't want to stay on their laps for long. Sonia sits quietly in a chair. Her manner is cordial, but she barely speaks. Conversations range from news of relatives in Santa Clara to food prices to, of course, the papal visit. Manuel and Nilda were already en route to Havana by the time Su Santidad held his first mass in Santa Clara the day before. In any case, they didn't regret having missed it, partly because the location was a sports complex on the outskirts of town, entailing an inconvenient trip even on the free buses that were provided.

Manuel is a retired bus mechanic; Nilda has never worked outside the home. They have two children still living in Santa Clara. Before the younger Manuel defected, crossing the Rio Grande to seek asylum in Laredo, Texas, in the fall of 1994, he'd said nothing to anyone. Though this is usual in such cases, Nilda says she was surprised when he surfaced in Miami, even though conditions in Cuba were as desperate -- materially and morally -- as they ever would be. "It was a shock for all of us," Nilda says. "Especially since I remember he told me sometime around then, 'Mama, I'm not going to leave -- I'm going to stay here.'"

Still, during the past few decades, she saw all eleven of her nieces and nephews abandon Cuba one by one; the six boys would go on to box professionally in the United States, and most still live in South Florida. In the Seventies, Nilda and her husband were prepared to take the family into exile in Spain. They secured the proper visas from the Spanish Embassy on four separate occasions, but each time, the Cuban government denied them permission to leave. Finally they resigned themselves to life on the island. "Things were better before the revolution," she declares. "Now we're isolated from the rest of the world, and there's no future for our children. Tourists have more privileges than Cubans! The people at the U.S. Interests Section tell me they see my boy [working the corner in professional boxing matches] on TV all the time, but I can't see him."

Manuel decided to leave home, as many others did then, because he'd simply lost hope for his future. It's not anything he cares to discuss at length; among Cubans, the motivations for leaving the island are understood and often unspoken. He had nowhere to go professionally, and he knew, no matter how hard he worked, he'd never have any money. So he exchanged the bleak life at home for emotional and cultural deprivation in exile. But always, like so many Cubans who have left without really wanting to, he guards the latent thought, or hope, that the system will change and he'll be able to go back to live before he loses all sense of his place of origin.

If his flight was a shock for his parents, it was devastating for his wife. Sonia doesn't talk about the phone call that came one evening from Miami. "I will be testimony to that time," says Argelia. "To the crying, the anxiety and nervousness, the sleepless nights, the difficult pregnancy, the vomiting, going to the hospital in the middle of the night, then to have Sonita born with such problems."

Argelia is cooking dinner: a stew of chicharros flavored by mild peppers and chunks of malanga, plantains, and yuca; braised chicken, rice, and fresh tomatoes. Yolanda Hernandez, a slender, doe-eyed blond woman who lives upstairs with her husband and eight-year-old son, appears at the kitchen door, having stepped down a back stairway to visit and to smoke one of Argelia's cigarettes.

Yolanda is one of Sonia Maria's guardian angels. She became part of the household over the months when the child was sick and required frequent visits to the neighborhood doctor's office or the pediatric hospital in Centro Habana. Seventeen times before her operation this past October, Sonia Maria was checked into the hospital, only to be turned away at the operating room because her asthma made administration of anesthesia too risky. Yolanda still demonstrates a remarkable empathy with the child and sometimes is the only person who can get her to stop crying.

In Argelia's bedroom, the little girl is standing on the bed, performing a skewed version of a military salute to the encouragement of Sonia's mother Marta, who is half-seriously preparing her granddaughter to be one of the Pioneers, an organization formed to inculcate socialist values in young children. The room's wood-louver doors open on to a narrow balcony, overlooking Avenida 17, where clothes, towels, and sheets dry on a line. Other than the bed, the only furnishings in the room are a large cherry wardrobe, an aluminum lawn chair, and a dressing table supporting a mirror and a dusty shortwave radio. Photographs of Argelia's late husband, mother, and father sit atop the wardrobe, and a picture of her and her husband when they were young sits next to the bed. "Now let's march," Marta urges Sonia Maria, who slithers off the bed and begins a spirited dance.

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