My mother squeezed my hand pitilessly when we were going to cross a dangerous street, back there in the 80s when ice cream cones were licked carelessly and Misha the bear waved from all the newsstands.
The mothers who worked in the factories and offices, or in the schools, hospitals, and government ministries, were different from those who stayed home. The former were called “workers”, and the second were “housewives”. A woman worker was on the Bag Plan, a privilege that consisted in being able to make their purchases ahead of the rest of the women in any line that formed. The mothers who were raising their children at home were the last to buy, and the last ones called to acquire the industrial products on the ration book, or the toys for their children when the Day of the Toy arrived (always in July, never in January).
The mothers who worked outside the home, that is, who had a work schedule that involved a contractual relation with the State, could leave their children in school for the entire day. These were semi-boarding schools, where their progeny had the right to lunch and a glass of cold milk, the kind sold in glass liter bottles. That much-heralded liter of milk which accompanied many people’s meals in Cuba, as if it were water. Those were the tender years of the eighties. Since then, milk has never again been a liquid.
The women and the mothers never stopped working. The most elegant gesture of an “understanding” man was to refrain from stepping on the still damp tiles of a floor that had been recently washed; or to lift their feet resignedly for a brief instant, so that the heavy cloth mop could get under the easy chair. During the eighties, women put up with a machismo that was rarely made visible and almost never pointed out, sometimes shown in an innovative film, or in a television comedy where the stereotyping of women predominated over any criticism of the dominators, beneficiaries of the patriarchy.
The women and the mothers still never stop working. Now, thanks largely to the independent press and civil society organizations, it’s public knowledge that femicides exist, and that they occur much more frequently than what society is prepared to accept or the government to recognize. Women die at the hands of their former partners, partners, close relatives, neighbors, as if the jungle were our habitat, as if the right of property extended to the bodies and souls of women.
Women continue having to endure and resist, as if their environment were a jungle: to feed their children, to get to work early, to study after everyone is asleep, to find a moment to be themselves and not the combative members of the Women’s Federation. Meanwhile, many men in this panorama watch them go by as if they were prey to devour, to touch and to take home. We’re in the third millennium, but women continue being abused by men as if time and laws had never happened in our culture.
Men defend themselves instead of swallowing their power and pride and their miserable privileges. In the best-case scenario, they put women into a place of needing protection, aid, in a place of tenderness, of beauty and of languor. A woman with credentials, with money, with autonomy and with free social relations is a threat to these violent machistas.
Some of us continue claiming that there’s no need for an integral law against gender violence in Cuba. We in Cuba need everything: the law, bread, education about our rights, security, legal and institutional guarantees. Nothing is too much, and everything is needed. It’s a question of repairing thousands of years of injustice, to which we’ve been accomplices in the best of cases; swallowing them whole in the worst and looking the other way while the next femicide happens.
Cuban mothers sustain the homes, while carrying the burden of their husbands’, fathers’, and sons’ machismo, and also resisting the likewise macho totalitarianism of the Cuban government. They teach their daughters to survive in the jungle that is the world for them. There are rights, there are jobs, there are Assembly seats, there are grandiloquent Constitutions, there are investigations, there are liberated bodies and minds, and there are women who struggle. However, there are also rights that are lacking, discriminations that persist, posts that have never been held by women, lies in the laws, investigations that are filed away, bodies and souls dominated by men, and women who can’t struggle because they can barely subsist.
There are also hundreds of mothers with their children in jail, in hospitals, thousands of miles from home. For them, there’ll be no postcard or bouquet of gladiola, or sweets that cheer their Mother’s Day. Mothers will be celebrated, but what’s needed is to work, so that the sun can penetrate the jungle where they continue surviving. What we don’t do right now contributes to their pain and their oppression.
That’s the simple glance of a man who has been and still is a witness to the life of Cuban women. I’ve seen them, listened to them, read them. But I continue being a man, and there are experiences and struggles, suffering, delights, and rituals I can’t explain. That’s the place I write from and try not to be an accomplice to forgetting.
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