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.

Argelia and Juan Manuel had been out partying New Year's Eve and didn't discover until the following afternoon that Havana and the nation had changed hands. "Everything was closed. We asked people, 'What's going on?' And they said, 'Don't you know? Batista has left Cuba, and the rebel army has taken over!' We were thrilled! We went with everyone else to watch the soldiers marching into town." Argelia doesn't begrudge the government its wholesale closure of casinos and nightclubs. She didn't stop dancing, but she danced in other places, like community halls and residences. "Fueron dias divinos," she says. "Those were divine days, when I was young."

The father and children in the mansion where she worked left Cuba soon after, but the woman stayed. "She didn't want to leave," Argelia says. "But her family in Miami kept urging her to join them. She finally did. She gave me all the papers of ownership of the house, all the keys, and she cried and wished us well."

In 1961 the government decided to convert the three-story mansion to an embassy and moved Argelia and Juan Manuel into the apartment in Edificio Elena. She got a new job as a classroom assistant at the Ciudad de Libertad, a complex of schools in nearby Marianao. They never had children, but family members were always around.

And that's how it was until the desolate day in 1984 when Juan Manuel died. Walking home from his job as a construction worker, he was passing a friend's house where several men were sharing a bottle of homemade rum. They offered him a glass and, though he was never much of a drinker, he stopped to sip and talk. At home an hour later, he collapsed. Argelia found some men to help her take him to a hospital. "I stayed there alone with him until he died," she says. "I took a bus home alone, and then I was alone in our apartment." The rum had been part of a batch that poisoned dozens of people, Argelia explains. Several other men died as well.

She was glad when Sonia came from Santa Clara in 1987 and moved in with her. By then the apartment building was showing the effects of decades of wear and little if any maintenance. Sonia, with an engineer's resourcefulness, got to work painting the walls, installing shelves and locks, patching the ancient metal tanks that provided running water.

But in the world beyond Cuba, the entire communist infrastructure that had been the island's philosophical and economic lifeline was beginning to collapse, and the country would soon enter its "special period," the government's euphemism for that time of extreme hardship. New economic measures included legalization of the dollar and increased emphasis on foreign investment and tourism. Those measures inevitably encouraged the opening of Cuba's closed society to more outside influence, while also creating greater rifts between Cubans with access to dollars and those without.

When her baby was six months old, Sonia injured both legs in a bicycle accident. She was in casts for the next three months. "And her taking care of that child, going around on crutches," recalls Argelia. "Both of them with their legs bandaged. But at least Sonia had her father. She'd call him, and he'd drive over in three minutes. They were so close."

Manuel Gonzalez and Marta Gracia, Sonia's mother, lived in a large apartment near the Havana airport, where Marta lives alone today. Manuel was a handsome, dynamic man, a "militante de lo maximo," in Argelia's words: a communist militant of the highest order who served on several party committees, in addition to his work as a mechanical engineer. His family still grieves over his sudden death in 1996 from heart failure. He was just 51. Marta, whose face had shown barely a line before, suddenly looked a decade older.

Sonia endures other, more subtle losses shared by thousands of Cuban women who have been symbolically widowed by the disappearance of their husbands into voluntary exile. "People talk about you because your husband is there," she says. "Even if they don't know the truth, you can't stop it. And if your husband has left, most people assume you're going to leave too. With me at my job, that can hurt me." To be the subject of rumors in Cuba isn't always the same as elsewhere, largely because rumors can become official information via the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, in which neighbors keep tabs on neighbors and may report counterrevolutionary behavior.

Even though she (like most other highly educated professionals in Cuba) earns an impossibly low salary -- around 300 pesos per month, or less than $15 -- Sonia loves her job and is optimistic about her future, citing an increasing demand from foreign companies for the equipment she sells. "I can't let anyone think I'm going to leave." Her husband used to call her from Miami and ask her to join him, she says. "I could probably do that, but I thought about it. I'd have to wash floors or serve food. I couldn't work as an engineer. Why would I want to abandon everything to live like that?

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