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.

Over the years Marta, like Argelia, has remained dedicated to the revolution and expresses genuine affection for its heroes. The reasons for her loyalty are simple, she says: The revolution gave her a place in society. Before 1959, her family in Santa Clara belonged to the most marginalized segment of the population -- poor, uneducated, and black. In the city's central park, they were literally marginalized: "The white people walked around in the park, and the black people had to walk around the perimeters," says Marta, who smokes cigarettes with gusto and is thin despite a great fondness for food and drink. "There were two social clubs in Santa Clara before the revolution -- one for whites, and one called El Gran Maceo [named after the hero of the war for independence, mulatto general Antonio Maceo]. They wouldn't even let us into Maceo." She runs a finger up and down her right forearm. "We were too dark."

Argelia, whose father was the first secretary general of the communist party in Santa Clara and was eventually imprisoned by the Batista government, remembers longing to be one of the Daughters of Teresa, a club for Catholic girls at her church. Except she couldn't join. She too runs her finger up and down her forearm in explanation. "On Sunday the black girls would have to wash the front steps of the church, then the white girls would go in for mass. We had to wait until their mass was finished. Then we'd have ours."

After 1959 the Castro regime wiped out the most blatant racist practices, instituted free universal education and health care, and provided jobs and housing. It also confiscated private property and businesses, closed church-run schools, persecuted priests, and imprisoned and executed thousands of "enemies of the revolution." But the families of Marta and Argelia, who had little to begin with, didn't see the darker side of the new society. Overall, they gained.

So neither woman will criticize the revolution. They hear plenty of complaints: from young blacks and mulattos who confront less overt forms of racism today, and from all ages who want more freedom and fewer economic restraints. The older women suffer with everyone else from power failures and water cutoffs and scarcities in medicine, food, and clothes. They scrape by on pensions worth about six dollars a month, knowing life would be almost unlivable now without dollars and the meat bought on the black market with those dollars. But they don't have to worry about the future any more, and they remember the harsh past and feel grateful.

In some ways, Marta reckons her life had its beginning with the battle of Santa Clara. She was just fifteen when the rebel army took Santa Clara during fighting in the last days of 1958. The battle was the final one of the revolution, clearing the way for Castro's forces to march into Havana on New Year's Day 1959.

Marta vividly remembers the famous "tunnel" the rebels constructed inside Santa Clara homes to hide from Batista's police and army -- they knocked down walls within a line of homes, some belonging to friends of her family, so they could obscure their advance. "The people fed the [rebel] soldiers," she says. "The women would take turns cooking for them. They captured the police station and the 31st Battalion. The whole city of Santa Clara was dark, and by the morning of the 31st, there was a truce. But before that, Batista's soldiers were going around to houses and searching for the revolucionarios. In the house of my friend Ofelia, they came in and there was a sick old man, Antonio, lying in bed, and they killed him, and then they killed Ofelia's brother."

Nilda Castillo's memories of that time in Santa Clara are just as vivid. Late on the night of December 29, she was about to give birth to her second child, Manuel Elizondo, who 34 years later would marry Marta's second child, Sonia Gonzalez. Her husband drove her to the Santa Clara military hospital. "All the doctors were gone," she recalls. "There was one nurse on duty, and she told me the only thing she'd ever done during a delivery was to cut the umbilical cord." At five the next morning, Manuel was born. "The nurse took him and went around the hospital, showing everyone this baby she birthed," Nilda says, "leaving me lying there in a daze."

By January 1, 1959, Argelia Prado had been living in Havana for more than ten years and was enjoying the capital's famous bacchanalian night life. "We went out to fancy clubs all the time," she recalls with a smile of pure delight, "and danced until the sun came up." She was happily married to her second husband Juan Manuel Molina and working as a housekeeper/nanny for a wealthy family in the Alturas de Vedado neighborhood. "There was practically no other job a black woman was allowed to do," she explains. "Clean a rich woman's floors and take care of her children. That's not to say I didn't like that job -- they were very good people, and they treated me extremely well. The woman ran Pan American Airlines for all of Latin America."

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