Guantanamera . . . (episode 46)

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November 14 1998

Castro Central Women’s Prison
Havana
CUBA

Querida Mama

I have just had a bundle of mosquito netting (and a rather cross note from Ralph) delivered to our cell. He says he doesn’t know why you thought he might have such a net – and that he’s had to ask someone called Hortense to run one up from some, rather florally-decorated, net curtains!

The days wend by slowly here. We seem to spend many hours standing at attention, and in full uniform, out in the compound and I have seen women faint and simply left to lie where they have fallen. We have to recite endless communist sayings, whose intended effect is presumably to brainwash us into believing that the regime is good for the people and that all comrades will flourish. But I feel mainly brainwashed by the sight of the fronds of a distant palm tree skirmishing in the wind.

One good thing is that I have made a friend of one of the women in my cell. Her name is Catalina and she has been sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for shooting her husband dead while he was sleeping in their bed. This sounds terrible, I know, but she tells me that he had beaten her, and the children, for many years – and that both her bones (and her spirit) became broken over the years. She tells me that she simply could not conceive of a way out of it, for she had nowhere else to go, and that she became apathetic and helpless. It was only, in the end, when Juan kept on whispering – at night – that he was going to kill both her and the little ones, that she, dead-eyed, reached for the gun.

In Cuba, apparently, domestic violence is not a crime in and of itself. it falls under the broader category of ‘assault’ and penalties relate to the severity of the injuries caused. Catalina tells me that the issue of ‘machismo’ is a serious one in Cuba and that men may ‘want to acquire you like an orange, to be enjoyed, or thrown away . . .’ A man called Jose Marti – he is a national icon – came up with those words I think. Well I should know what that feels like Mama, shouldn’t I? After all, I was only ‘an orange’ in Austen’s eyes, for such a long time.

So, last night, the four of us women in our cell, sang the song ‘Guantanamera’ (Girl from Guantanamo) in the light from candles in the dark. And we ate the crumbs of bitter chocolate that one of them had received in a visit from her relatives. Catalina leant her head against my shoulder and her dark hair fell against my skin. I could feel her heart fluttering against my ribs, and I think this sensation will remain with me long after I (hopefully) am freed from this place and leave her still locked inside. I think perhaps that the sound of singing voices here, represents the sound of a woman’s pain.

I remember hearing this song sang by Jose Feliciano and it has always haunted me:

‘Yo soy un hombre sincero
(I am an honest man)

De donde crece la palma
(From where the palm trees grow) . . .

Con los pobres de la sierra
(With the people of the earth)

Quiero yo mi suerte le echar
(I want to cast my lot)’

Those aren’t such bad lyrics are they Mama? I think Marti had something to do with them also.

Hasta otro dia

Harriet

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2 thoughts on “Guantanamera . . . (episode 46)

  1. josna

    I love the richness and complexity of this letter! First of all, Guantamera: a favorite, than many people do not realize was a poem by Martí (not to mention its association with Guantanamo, which has altogether new associations these days, quite apt for your story). Second, the fact that a man can be both a beacon of freedom and blind to his own role in women’s un-freedom. Third, the fellowship of women in the prison, tenderness amidst the hardship and after having faced such brutality. By coincidence, I was just telling my students about a very similar description of tenderness in the South African-born writer Bessie Head’s story, “The Collector of Treasures,” about the fellowship of women in a prison where every one of them was serving a sentence for having killed her abusive husband. And fourth, as an American who is subjected to endless and often-gratuitous Cuba-bashing, I appreciated that you didn’t ascribe the backward attitudes about domestic violence to communism but rather to the machismo that reigns throughout the region.

    Aside from all that, I loved Harriet’s language: the “distant pal tree skirmishing in the wind,” and Catalina’s heart “fluttering against [her] ribs.” And her humor: the floral mosquito-netting and Ralph’s peevish note.

    Always a pleasure, Mama Evangeline.

    Reply

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