Married to Cheo, “the handsome guy”, Milagrito represented joy for the children from our neighbourhood. She lived two houses away from ours, a short run from our patio, there was no need to jump over any fence; in Chincha Coja, a suburb where I was born, all patios were shared. I used to go to her patio where they had the sweetest plumps and skinips in the world which she would give away in handfuls to all children.
My girlfriends and I would think of the pretty mulata Milagrito as the perfect mom that allowed us anything we wanted. She made us laugh so much, with her heavenly blue eyes, with her muddle stories about witches riding naked on peacocks mocking the gossiping neighbours. No matter how much our parents prohibited us seeing the “easy woman” Milagrito, we wouldn’t obey because her joyfulness was contagious and made us forget the problems and hardships of our own home.
But Milagrito’s face wasn’t always radiating with happiness. Many times we found her covered in bruises, with a split and swollen lip. The beatings given to her by Cheo were as famous in our part of the world as her beauty. “One day he will kill her,” neighbours would say, but I had never seen anyone to stop the furious man from coming home drunk and take her smile away. “One day he will kill her,” terrified my friends and I would cry out to Rosita, a fat woman with glasses, the head of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) of our quarter. “Look,” she responded to us unterrified, “don’t you know that no one should interfere in the husband and wife matters? Besides, she provokes him…”. “But he will kill her,” we repeated only to be sent home.
As expected, he killed her shortly afterwards, with a machete. Submerged in sorrow, we were furious overhearing our neighbours’ commentaries saying “She asked for it.” The handsome guy from our quarter served just a few years of imprisonment for committing a “crime of passion” – doesn’t this legal term sound almost beautiful or novel-like?
Unfortunately, the story of Milagrito was not the only case I have got to know throughout my life. In my quarter, for instance, Sergito slit the throat of his wife when she refused to come back and live with him; to make it even more horrifying he committed the crime in front of her daughter. Never too much time passes before a new “crime of passion” becomes the word of mouth here. Under the accomplicing silence of the media, domestic violence occurs on daily basis, femicides (murders of women committed by men out of hatred, contempt, pleasure or possessiveness) are committed more often than we can even imagine and we don’t have access to the statistics. The law condemns these crimes under the euphemistic term “crime of passion” which conceals the atrocity of a barbarian act as well as the essence of a macho and misogynous mentality and psychology that produces such crimes. Women and girls are the most common victims of domestic violence.
Subjugation and marginalization of women occur on regular basis and form a normal part of the daily lives of Cubans. They range from psychological and physical mistreatment and abuse, body subjugation and rape, to various more subtle types of liberty restrictions, and even to homicide. To eliminate them, sporadic campaigns or projects organized by some official institutions are not sufficient. The Federation of Cuban Women, a government institution that should safeguard women’s rights has – similarly to the majority of institutions in our society – been swamped with the red tape, lost credibility and public support. Groups that would fight against gender-based violence and in favour of women’s equality and empowerment, that would resemble a real sivil society, do not exist, at least in the inland of the country. When they manage to be heard, they become suspected of “subversion” and “destabilization”. In reality, a woman subjected to a systematic abuse or gender-based violence has no one to turn to, as there are no institutions that would secure direct support or sustainable and effective assistance. The biggest achievement of an institution would be to turn victims into activists, as agents of change, but this spontaneous and conscious evolution process, characteristic of an authentic civil society, is very limited in Cuba as it is supposed to be taken care of by the state.
Laws that would foster gender equality and women’s dignity do not represent sufficient support for Cuban women. The fight for women’s equality and emancipation – even more in inland towns and villages, as well as on their peripheries, where patriarchal mentality thrives almost in anonymity – still has a long and difficult way to go. Women must start to become aware and start to identify their subordinance, and any type of violence or discrimination they face. They have to find their feminine identity that breaks the established ways of thinking and traditional roles to which they have been submitted for generations by the patriarchal society.
Similar objectives cannot be achieved by simple and ephemeral government campaigns and publicity slogans. It is necessary to create a favourable environment to build a real civil society that would include the foundation of centres of resistance, associations that would raise the awareness, eradicate the patriarchal power and provide the necessary tools to reach a new consciousness that empowers women not only in the professional and social life but also at home.
The work to erradicate gender-based violence must inevitably include speaking transparently, without hypocrisy, about the wrongs present in the Cuban society that concern us all. The wrongs that unfortunately even in the truly feminist speech are sometimes full of genuflection, pretense and camouflage. The wrongs fed by the ideological submission of women in the masculinised society in which we have been living. This can be perceived when we hear people say in front of an assassinated woman “she asked for it”, or when we allow women -white or black, young or old, that express their ideas in a peacefull way by attending Sunday masses with gladiolus in their hands- to be harassed and hit in the streets of our country.