Opening Statement

Thursday 25 December 2014

Christmas In Cuba 1996! [Complete]

Chapter 1

December 24 1996: 

I remember Christmas in Cuba. Early in the evening Matilde and I are in our room at Josef y Luisas’ casa, in little Bohemia, not far from the cathedral in the city centro, Santiago de Cuba. A bare light bulb dangles overhead the simple little white washed room, bathing a handmade stool, our rumpled bed in its penetrating glare. I stoop by the stool, wrapped in gay red and green Christmas paper, tacking up a cardboard Christmas tree to the cracked wall. Placing her gifts beneath. The none too secret lumpen shapes of make up, a Walkman, a pair of Reebok shoes.

Mati prances about the room, Wheee! My mujar Cubana, such childlike joy! In her bare feet, cutoffs, a halter top, dancing to a Madonna Christmas song crackling from our ghetto blaster. No. Not the Virgin Mary -the other one. Leaping off the bed, to the kitchen to fetch my gift. Gingerly putting it under the tree, the heavy sweet smell of fresh roasted coffee beans fills the air.

Giggling, hand daintily over her lips, she tosses back her thick black mane of hair with careless abandon, a twinkle in her big baby blue Spanish eyes. Eyeing the gift, I reach for my crumpled pack of cigarillo negrils atop the rickety dresser top. Lighting a cigarette, taking a hard acrid drag, the hazy blue smoke curls through my fingers, spreading out across the room. Plopping herself  on the bed beside me, Mati’s tickling fingers reach under my shirt. Collapsing on our backs I playfully run my hands through her hair, down her slender neck. Breathlessly she whispers, “No! No! Not now. Let’s open the gifts!” 

"Ummmm. I wonder. What is it......?” I wink. She tenderly brushes her lips to mine, directing my gaze with a tiny pout to the little package underneath the tree. I whisper in her ear; “Matilde, aunque soy pobre todo esto que te doy vale mas que el dinero porque si es amor/ [Although you’re poor, all this you give to me is worth more than money because it is truly love].”

“Si. Is Okay?” Damn. We may not be saints on Christmas eve. Not very religious either. But tonight is very spiritual all the same. In our hidden room, tucked away from the suspicious eyes of the policia; amor prohibido. Forbidden love. Los dos, the two of us, from different countries. Different worlds. In a land where relationships between a Cubana and an extranjaro/ foreigner are barely tolerated. In Cuba, where Christmas was banned as even a secular holiday until recently. Still isn’t officially a religious holiday, “Creemos en la amor.”

“Yes,” Absently Matilde reaches for my cigarette, with outstretched hand, a sudden little tremor, as she reflects upon my words, “We believe in love.”

“Davido! Matilde!” Josef raps on our door, “Dinner. Es ready!”

Laughing Matilde sits us. Straightens out her top. “Come. We can open our presents later!”

Chapter 2

Matilde and I sit, her hand in mine at the dining room table with Josef and his family. Its Christmas dinner. Christmas eve. Josef looks pale, thin, drawn. A bad year health wise, he’s had problems with his heart. The operation sounds pretty crude. There’s little medicine available. But there will be no more talk of that tonight -his family and friends are joining him for a feast!

His wife, Luisa scurries to and fro. The women help her in the kitchen. The men smoke cigarettes, pour shots of rum, catching up on the latest news. A quite traditional Cuban family. Nowadays, a very luxurious Cuban meal; fried chicken, rice y beans, sweet potatoes, a tray of sliced tomato and onion. Endless cups of thick black expresso laddened with heaping teaspoons of coarse raw sugar. 

Everyone is quite pleased. Josef y Luisa have done well renting out the rooms in their home to the foreigners for dollars this year. Indeed, reasonably priced and they treat us like family, making what for many would be a small fortune here. Together we toast their success. [1]

I look about the dining room; the tall arched ceilings, tiled wainscoting, marbled floors. Once this was a fine Spanish home, befitting an aristocrat. Before the revolution, the family also owned a prosperous plantation in the countryside; growing fruit, raising chicken, y cattle. After the communistas took over, only the house was left. 

Now 38 years later, it is worse for wear and tear. A ragtag collection of old lawn chairs, a simple cupboard, a shaky table collected below a grand old glass chandelier, sad reminders of yesteryear. But Josef is happy for the good companionship, the family ties. They couldn’t take that away! He tips his glass to us with a smile.

After dinner I pull out a pack of Marlboro's. American cigarettes! The men are quite pleased. Matilde too, for different reasons, with the foreign touch. Since she’s my girlfriend she won’t have to join the women in the kitchen, washing dishes, cleaning up, mopping the floors. She leans back happily in her chair, smoking a cigarette too, enjoying her new found freedom. Eagerly listening as we talk business. 

So and so’s 1959 Thunderbird needs new tires, even some old retreads would do. After he drives it into the ground? Nada. The hombres pour him another shot of rum. Laugh. Save up! Maybe in another year you can buy a bicycle. There’s some Chinese ones down at the dollar store. 

Hey a crosstown ride to work on the back of a flatbed only costs a peso! How much are you earning now as a teacher? Two hundred pesos a month? [2] Naw. A bicycles the way to go! Your wife can ride on the back, your daughter on the crossbar, then you can drop them off on the way to work too. You’ll save a lot that way! 

At a loss for words, I silently take a long hard drag on my smoke. Look about at the men. Mati leans forward, boldly crushing out her cigarette in the ashtray. Hmmm. She’s decided to join in the conversation too! “Maybe Davido’s going to take a cut in pay! Schools are being closed. Teachers might even lose their jobs in his country!” [3]

Ho boy! Here we go. How can I explain my situation to them? As terrible as it is for us back home? I gently kick her under the table. Me Querida, my dear, dear one..... 

“Que?!? What???” She stammers, quite perplexed. 

“Well. I think I’ll be able to hold onto my job but ahhh, I’ll keep in mind what you guys said about the car. Retreads. Or a bike. Ummmmm.....” 

“Closed? Si?”, Josef's cousin raises his brow, looks at Mati, at me. “Fidel [Castro] promised they won’t close a single school in our country! No matter what happens next.” [4]

The men all awkwardly nod in agreement to one another. Knock back their drinks.

“Hmmmm. That's very good, Raphael. Its different where I live.”

“Aha! My capitalista friend!” Leaning across the table, he pours a shot of rum into my glass, with a wink of the eye. “This is one of the advantages of our communista system.” 

“Amigo! Gracias! Pero/ but I don't drink. Somebody. Please. Have it for me.” 

“Bah!” Mati slams her fist on the table, reaching for the shot, just like one of the guys. Oh if it were only so easy for a Cubana! She tries. She really does. Maybe sometimes just a little too hard I think, “Eets all bullsheet!” 

“Pssst...Darling, that’s “it’s”. In English the “I” has an “E” sound. Don’t you mean to” 

Alas. I wag my head in despair. How complicated it gets when two worlds collide!

“Si!” She leaps up, one hand jauntily posed on her hip, the other waving in the air. “In his country still they have mucho! And they share!” 

“Pssst! Pssst! Matilde!” I roll my eyes, but there’s no stopping her now. 

“But here? For over a year he has been trying to send boxes to our country. Food. Clothes. Medicine. School Supplies. People have nothing. But the government Cubano? Ha! They want to take it all! Or charge 100% taxes!” 

Oh oh! Politics. The hombres nervously shuffle their feet. Staring at Mati. Towards the other women in the kitchen. So many taboos, all of them broken!

One wags his finger at her, “Mati! How can you say that? Your family! They fought in the revolucion! No? Josef too! And Raphael? He is a director for the provincia! It is not true!” 

“Listen. Guys.....” I tug at Matilde's arm, hoping she’ll sit down. Say the wrong thing, to the wrong people, in Cuba this could be very serious indeed. Always, she reminds me of that, but tonight? 

“No. No. Please.” Raphael winks at me. He does not want any trouble. Looking around reassuringly at the other guys, he waves for silence. “We are all family and friends here. We can talk. Yes. It is an emergency situation in our country, with the economy, the US embargo. But things are changing. Slowly perhaps....” 

He pauses in careful deliberation. Shrugs. Perhaps lost for words, he awkwardly flashes me a hopeful little smile “ can go to church now! For Christmas eve!”

Si. Si. Si. The hombres wipe the sweat from their brow. Pass around the rum bottle. Hurriedly knocking back another shot in awkward silence. I notice Josef looking at Mati, then at me. Nervously he scratches his chest. With a smile, a shake of the head, he pats his hand on the table and laughs. “Yes. It is Christmas eve. We are friends. We are family. We are Cuban. Let’s all be happy. Please.” 

“Si Josef. So. Darling. Do you want to go to church tonight? It is very beautiful on Christmas eve.” 

“It is okay.” Raphael nods, “The children are getting dressed to go. You better hurry.” 

Mati stares at me in silence. Wary now but determined, rolling it over in her head. Usually she knows what to do best. But tonight? Christmas in Cuba?  It certainly is different, for both of us. She’s not too sure what to do, “All right. But we go by the backstreet. It’s best to be careful.”


Chapter 3

"Dos patria tengo yo: Cuba y la noche/ 
Two fatherlands have I: Cuba and the night." 
*Jose Marti*[1]

Matilde and I step outside the house into the pitch black night. Cuba y la noche. Its just before midnight. The long narrow street is silent, for most Cubans tomorrow is just another workday. We stand under the dull street lamp waiting for Miguel. Mati is resplendent in her flowery cotton dress, and white pumps. Her hair pulled back into a bushy pony tail. The usual assortment of bangles; a ring for every finger, the bracelets. I chuckle. Very Cubana -except for the rosary around her neck. “Mati, that’s to hold and pray."

“No. No. I saw Madonna's video.”

Hmmmm. I’m wrong. It’s very Cubana too. I lean over, kissing her on the cheek, “Si Querida, you look very beautiful but.....

“Ahhh. Here you are!”, Miguel greets us from the doorway. “My mother and father say to be careful. Nowadays many desperate banditos prowl the streets at night!" 

Behind him, Josef y Luisa nod and wave good-bye, securely bolting the tall wooden door with a heavy steel bar. Miguel lights a cigarette, cupping the match in his hand. Steps out onto the street in his freshly pressed pair of black slacks, a clean white shirt. Twenty five years old, a computer technician at the telephone exchange, he is doing well for a young man his age in Cuba these days. I am somewhat surprised he is coming with us. The religious were not allowed into the parti until very recently. [2] Perhaps it is still not wise for him to be seen at the church? “Miguel! I thought you were a Communista?”

“Si.” He smiles. Thoughtfully he takes a drag on his smoke, tossing the burnt match in the gutter, “We all are."

“Except for Josef.”, Matilde notes. She taps at her watch, to remind us its almost midnight.

“Yes. Well. I have less trouble this way...”

“But, maybe tonight will create a problem for you?”

“No se/ I don’t know. I will make sure the children are okay. Come. They are already at the cathedral. We’re going to be late.”

Silently we walk down Calle San Basilio. Each of us alone with our thoughts. I peer at the darkened lane ways. Mindful not to say much, draw any attention. Mati quietly takes my hand. Together we navigate the cobblestones, careful not to trip on the forgotten old weathered streetcar tracks, now long fallen into disuse. Passing the rows of crumbling Spanish houses, the stars above peaking out between the ornate stone roof gilding. Past the huge wooden doorways. The shuttered windows. The rusted wrought iron grates. The high doorway portals. The cracked masonry and weathered walls. A sleeping city in ruins.

Quietly we enter the city square. Cespedes Park. I sigh. Wipe the sweat from my brow. The heat of the night. Thirty degrees C. Very typical Santiago de Cuba. A mad mix of the holy, the profane? I nervously chuckle to myself. [3] [4]

Happy party sounds spill out from the corner terrace of the Casagrande Hotel. From down a side street beside the church a mad salsa beat pours out from a courtyard discotheque. Before us looms the municipal government building blanketed in the dark. 

Look! Police lean against its flat forbidding front. Watching the park where more wait, in silence, huddled, resting on the park benches under the palm trees and ferns. Eyeing the churchgoers streaming into the cathedral. The peel of church bells ring from the twin ornate steeple towers. 

It’s midnight! I gaze up at the lone crosses atop the copper coloured, cone shaped cathedral tower roofs. [5] In between, a stone angel, weathered, horn in hand, looks out to the park. Heralding the days of future past? Or a new beginning? Pointing at the sky above, I gasp in surprise, “Look Mati, a shooting star!"

“No. No.” She winks at me. “A spy satellite. The Americanos must be watching too.”

Hmmmm. But there’s no time to figure it out now. We join the crowd heading towards the cathedral. Under a homemade fresco of the nativity prominently displayed above the arched doorways along the pillared entrance way. Inside we go.The service is about to begin.........

Chapter 4 

*Y el Verbo se hizo carner, y habito con nosotros/ 
And the Word became flesh and lived among us.....*
                                                                                           (Juan 1:14)

December 25 1996

From the back of the packed church we watch, standing inside the huge gaping doors, gazing into the cavernous old stone Spanish cathedral. The ecclesiastical procession makes its way through the crowd. The padre, the altar boys in their flowing robes. Nothing fancy. Tattered. Worn with simple pride. Between the folds, a glimpse of jeans, clean white shirts, worn sneakers. A simple wooden cross held high.

Slowly they proceed to the altar past a giant tinfoil star, edged with a trim of bright flashing Christmas lights. In the centre a chipped statue of the baby Jesus, his arms outstretched, a very heartfelt if not garish supplication. It's Christmas in Cuba!

On an old battered organ, a chico leads the choir. The Hallelujah chorus. The rhythmic beat of clava sticks. Maracas. The sweet pungent scent of incense fills the air.

The padre places his missal upon the lectern. The altar boys fan out beside him, heads bowed in prayer. Carefully he adjusts his glasses. Smiles. Raises his arms: “La gracia de nuestro Senor Jesucristo...../The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all."

The congregation murmurs its response, “Y con tu espiritu/ And with your spirit."

We make our way to a small side vestibule near the front of the church. Mati sits on the broken pew. Miguel and I lean against the cool stone wall, watching the crowd joined together in prayer. Heads held high. A simple wonder -a natural charm. Pressed tight around us, a bedraggled mix of the young, the old. Black. White. Most dressed in their finest, first world hand me downs, their Christmas best.

Beside us, a young mulatto couple hold hands. His baggy clothes hang loose on his thin, emancipated frame. She’s decked out in her finest spandex, gay lipstick, high heels, hair carefully pulled back into a bushy bob. Very Cubana -petite, there’s been very little to eat. It has not been a good year. Shoulders held high, a simple pride. Tonight is very special -as best it gets. Curiously they look over at Mati, at me, and smile.

Before us, three campesinos from the countryside, sit in homespun white shirt y pants. Their straw hats and stick walking canes held tight in gnarled callused hands. Hand rolled cigarettes tucked behind the ear. Unshaven. What to do when there’s no razor blades anymore? On the floor lie their burlap bags. Fruita. Maize. A live chicken peers out, squawks. Their offering, to be left afterwards up by the altar. Giving what little they have -who could expect anything more? They watch in humble silence.

Miguel nods to his cousins. The girls wave. Sitting daintily with the other little muchachas across the church from us, gathered behind the choir. Eager to arrive early, they found a good spot. Observe the service in wide eyed wonder. In simple, lace, homemade party dresses, pretty ribbons in their long braided hair.

I look about at the Santiago community, gathered together, in simple faith, in prayer. Thinking of Christmas back home in Canada, from a world far removed, with few of the familiar trappings; the bright lights, fancy decorations, the rich bounty; plenty of gifts and food to eat. Our heads also bow in thanks at midnight service. But here there is hope of so much more. The locals crane their necks, watching the padre. I close my eyes in prayer, surrounded by the beauty of the Cuban mass, the innocence, the romance of the Spanish language. In light of the poverty does it all not say so much more?

“Dios todopoderoso tenga misericordia de nosostros..../ May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to life everlasting.”


Matilde beckons me over to a little side altar, “Ahhh, Mati it's the Virgin Mary!”

“Que?!? No! She’s la Senora de la Caridad del Cobre.”

As we kneel, I gazed perplexed at the Cuban statue, the crown, the blue veil, the flowing white gown. The baby Jesus in her arms; the cross, the halo. A darker face, but we are in the Caribbean; “Querida, it’s Mary!”

“La Virgin de la Caridad!” She rolls her eyes, looks at me quite shocked, “Don’t you know?”

“Okay. Okay.” I lean forward, to pick up the little prayer card she’s dropped, as she closes her eyes in prayer, “Is this Lazarus?

“Aiye! Davido, it is Eleggua!”, sadly she wags her head, raising her brow. 

“No. I'm sure it's Lazarus!”


“Matilde, this is Lazarus, from the Bible.”

“You must be loco! It is Eleggua. E-l-e-g-g-u-a! The guardian of all pathways, the keeper of the gate!”

Ho boy! Of course! Like many Cubans, sometimes both black and white, Mati practices the Yoruban faith. Dating back to the days of the Spanish conquistadors. The slaves being converted by the cross and the sword secretly worshipped their Afrocuban deities; the Orishas, under the guise of the Catholica saints. A spirit for everything, each with a Biblical name. Lazarus? Or Eleggua. Mary? Or La Virgin de Caridad. Both became uniquely Cuban saints.

Tonight is the last night of the ancient bembe fiestas. Outside in the alley beside the church from a courtyard not far away, I hear the mad frenzied beat of the drums. Tolerated -there but not, echoing among the back alleys and rooftops -lost but not lost, an Afrocuban spirit drifting across the years. The drums, as always, beating out an ageless tattoo.

I watch Mati, recalling how in colonial times the rich Spanish women would’ve dressed up  in their finest Catalonian dresses, the men in tails. Flocked to the church. Afterwards mingling briefly outside with their African servants and slaves. Acting Christian. Being nice, but for a brief moment on Christmas eve. Mass at the cathedral: a bourgeois decadence. The Vatican's authoritative stamp of approval for a class system based upon wealth and race, no longer tolerated after the revolution. Now Mati prays in silence, in her favourite cotton dress, openly, proudly, her first visit ever to a cathedral on Christmas eve. Nothing more need be said -in her own way she too knows oppression. In Cuba -a tie that binds. Behind us the congregation chants the Kyrie Eleison;

“Senor, ten piedad -Lord have mercy.

Cristo ten piedad  -Christ have mercy.

Senor ten piedad -Cristo ten piedad.”

Quietly, I repeat the words to myself. Wondering, whom among us are really sinners? And whom are saints?

Back at the pew. I stand beside Mati, holding her hand. She crooks her finger, whispers in my ear;

“The padre says it is the Evangelio de Segun San Juan. Umm, numbero 1:1-18.”

We listen, intently with the congregation, as he reads the Gospel;

“En la principio existia el Verbo.... / In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God......

The sermon is in Spanish. I can’t follow much of it. My thoughts drift to the message of John; “And the Word became flesh and lived amongst us.....”  

In the person of Jesus, God becomes one with us -a Christian platitude? I think I’ve heard it all before. I’m not very religious these days. Rather cynical I guess. In Canada, we often say these words at church. Maybe we even teach them at school. Easy enough -but what does it mean anymore? Content to praise God, pay lip service, we go on with our everyday lives. Business as usual, everybody screwing each other around. At least that's the way it often seems. Queens Park Toronto? Now there’s a place that really cares, is filled with the spirit. Ha! And in Cuba? Does the little baby on the silver star by the altar really matter, even here? Who believes in miracles anymore?

 A hushed, excited murmur! I gaze toward the church doors. A line of policemen hands on their hips are standing against the back wall! Watching intently! In Cuba, only the parti organizes and speaks at any large gathering. Billy clubs now in hand, they nervously exchange glances. Suspiciously staring at the padre, the congregation. King Herod's foot soldiers? I nudge Matilde. She casts me a knowing glance, “Si!” anxiously she fingers the rosary around her neck, “Mucho problemas. You’ll see.”

A straw collection plate passes by, from hand to hand. The Cubans humbly toss in their crumpled pesos, their meagre centavos. A few dollars too. I look about. Yes, there’s other extranjeros/ foreigners from the resorts outside of town. Must’ve come in on their own. I didn’t see any tour buses outside. Doubt the cathedral is where the party is at. Christmas? The resorts will lay out quite the spread. But what's happening in town tonight? 

The policemen argue at the back of the church. Echoes of confusion. My mind's awash. Que pasa? Que? Nada?!? Nothing??? We are not expected here tonight.

The padre stands at the altar. The choir gently sings “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” in Spanish. Adjusting his gown, he looks up to the congregation for the Eucharist Prayer, “El Senor este con ustedes/ The Lord be with you.”

The congregation grow silent. Without prayer books, many of them don’t know what to say. They listen carefully to the old-timers who still remember the Order of the Mass, trying to join in the response. I know this part pretty well. Roll it over in my mind. Distracted. Whispering in English, "....and with your spirit.”

“Levantemos el corazon/ Lift up your hearts.”

“Lo tenemos.../We have lifted them up to the Lord.” 

Somewhere, from far in the back, the tiny cry of a baby echoes through the church. The padre, hands raised in supplication, pauses for a moment. Smiles. Hushed silence. Que pasa/ What's happening? 

The little Cuban girls cover their mouths. Giggle. The women exchange glances. Smile too. They know! It's a very profoundly simple, heartfelt truth.

“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”

“Es justo y necesario/ It is right and just.”

I can hear the rustle of the policemen shuffling their feet.

It is the mystery of faith with a Spanish twist. The padre looks up from preparing the chalice. He clears his throat, “Este es el misterio de nuestra fe.”

A murmur sweeps through the Cuban parishioners, “Anunciamos tu muerte, proclamamos tu resurrecion. Ven, Senor Jesus.”

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. I repeat the words to myself, touched by the beauty, the hope, of their Spanish translation.

“It is the Padre Nuestro,” Matilde whispers, “ How do you say it? The Our Father?”

“Padre nuestro, que estas en la cielo/Our father who art in heaven,” The chicos bend their heads in prayer. I feel her gently reaching for my hand.

“...santificado sea tu Nombre/hallowed be thy name...” My thoughts drift back to my first visit here; a school trip, an empty church, in 1992.....

“...venga a nosostros tu reino/thy kingdom come...” I remember all the many efforts to reach out, to help the Cuban Schools, for the past 5 years.......

“...hagase tu voluntad/thy will be done...” Often a futile task, lost in the everyday shuffle of life. No easy answers, in Canada or here, no matter what we do.......

“...en la tierra como en la cielo/on earth as it is in heaven...” Mati catches my eye and smiles. Hmmmm. Can she read my mind? Yes, of course, we met on the project!

“...danos hoy nuestro pan de cada dia/ give us this day our daily bread...”

It’s all relative, I suppose. Mati, her family, her friends -they have so little, there’s so little they can do.....

“...perdona nuestras ofensas/ and forgive us our trespasses...” Then again, half the time I’m lost. I look at her standing beside me, at the police by the door. Being together, especially here, she is in so much danger. A Cubana, with an foreigner; amor prohibido -they won't like that. I wish I knew what to do. I can get back on my plane and fly home, but her?

“...como tambien nosotros perdonamos a los que nos ofenden/ as we forgive those who trespass against us...” 

A siren blast! Whistles.The police are blocking the church door! I can see more of them coming in. A nervous murmur ripples through the church. Good God its hard not to feel hate!

“ nos dejers caer en la tentacion/and lead us not into temptation...”

“No no!” Mati gasps, “Don’t worry! There are foreigners here. They won’t do anything -yet!”

Ho boy! God help us! Show us a way! “...y libranos del mal/but deliver us from evil.”

“For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever......”

The padre explains its time to offer each other the sign of peace,

“La paz del Senor este siempre contigo.” Matilde blushes. An old woman reaches out, they embrace. A simple human touch -of peace, good will. No matter how bad it gets, Mati’s got it. She looks about, beaming. Good God -that’s why I love her so. Her hearts always in the right place.......

“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed” The communion procession makes its way up the main aisle. “Pssst! Davido! I got the rosary! Can I go?”

Is she serious? I look at Mati. Oh my God! Yes -dulce Angelita! Sweet angel! “Sure, if it was up to me......”

As the service draws to a close, the padre walks to the communion railing to address his flock. “Mati! Que pasa? What’s happening?”

Mati translates, breathing excitedly into my ear, “He says he knows everybody is worried because we cannot afford enough food to eat this Christmas, let alone a tree. He says we have something here though, that we cannot buy for pesos, for dollars. We have Christmas. This is mucho mas, more -Jesus Cristo is born....................He is inviting everybody to sing happy birthday to the baby Jesus!”

At first, it begins slowly. The congregation awkwardly shuffle their feet, peering nervously at the police by the church doors. One by one, they join in song, growing more confident, catching the spirit. In the simple voices, a newborn hope, for most of them a first -the spirit of Christmas in Santiago de Cuba. The padre reaches out. Together, everybody joins hands. Amigos. Amigas, Chicos. Chica. Muchachos. Muchachas. United in hope, in love, and in song.

 As the song finally comes to an end, as the last voice trails off, a few awkwardly begin to clap. Soon, everybody is clapping. They clap. They cheer. They stomp their feet. Louder and louder and louder, a thunderous roar, rolling off the floor, echoing from the churches arched ceilings, stone alcoves and vestibules. It echoes out the huge open window shutters, the wooden doors, to the street, to the park.

The police tap each other on the shoulder, spread out along the back church doors. Legs squared, tapping their billy clubs on their open palms! In Cuba, this is unheard of! Solidaridad? Comunidad? Strength? In a land where there is only one way.

The padre raises his hands, trying to silence the crowd, at first to no avail. Nods. Among the confusion, some of the locals lead the children rapidly out the church side door. Soon it's closed off too, the police now standing guard. Miguel, Matilde y I are tightly pressed up against the inside wall of the church, amongst the crush of the crowd. Clapping. Cheering. Still stomping their feet, “Miguel! Your nieces?”

“Si, I saw them go!”

“Por Favour! Por favour! Please!” The padre waves his hands in the air. Steps back up to the altar, catching everybody’s attention; “Pueden ...../Go in the peace of Christ.”

“Demos gracias a Dio..../ with the grace of God.”

As the choir sings “Noche Silencia”, he slowly begins the procession to the door. Row by row the congregation begin to follow. The policia step back onto the street, spreading out through Cespedes Parque. Paddy wagons at the ready. 

The tourists hurriedly head outside, trying to wave down the taxicabs. They pull up to the curb. The padre surrounded by the faithful, peer outside. “Quick! Rapido!” Matilde grabs my hand, “They won’t do anything right now. It is time to go!”

And so we head back out, into Cuba y la noche, the Santiago night.............

Chapter 3

*La luz luce en las tinieblas, y las tinieblas no la sofocaron./
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.*

                                                                                      (Juan 1:5)

We slip out the church, skirting the park, keeping close to the brightly lit cathedral. Past the tourists trying to cram into the taxis. They scratch their heads. Looking about for a fast ride back to the resorts. Across the street in Cespedes Parque, the police stop the parishioners. Demanding  their i.d. Eyeing them suspiciously. Asking many questions.

Hurriedly, we make our way to the corner; the Casagrande Hotel. The maitre’d stands on the steps out front, blocking our way, “No no! Not tonight! We are closing early. Go home. Please!”

He nervously shuffles his feet, stares at the park from the open terrace. Behind him the waiters put up the chairs. Turn off the Christmas tree lights. Anxiously, Miguel gazes at the paddy wagons parked along our route back home, “Come. It is not safe. I know where we can go.”

We duck down a quiet, pitch black, side street. Follow an alleyway. The clack of our footsteps echo along the cobblestones, off the cracked courtyard walls. Come back into the lamplight out front the Palacio Provincial, a few blocks away. Huge black y red Communista banners hanging from the pillar arches. We continue at a steady clip down the street through Delores Parque. Pass under the palm trees, past the empty benches, the statues of the revolutionary heroes, without a word, alone in the night.

Miguel points to a lit doorway -an all night local haunt. Finds an empty table y chairs in the courtyard, under a towering palm, where between the ferns, obscured from view, we can watch the street. Matilde y I sit back while he goes to check out what to do. We sigh with relief. Its pleasant, cool for Cuba, not unlike a Canadian summer night.

Minstrels wander among the tables playing trova musica; sad romantic ballads, on their beat up Spanish guitars. Young couples cram about the tables, holding hands. Amigos knock back shots of rum. Pass around cigarettes. There’s laughter in the air. A few tourists sit at the bar. The jinetera saunter over, in their spandex tights, split skirts y heels. Soon are sitting on their laps. Whispering in their ear. They order them a beer. In a darkened corner, a old couple sway, a boozy dance, arms wrapped tight around each other.

Mati and I decide to order drinks. I sip my Tropicola, she her glass of wine, a late night, early morning Christmas drink. “So, Querida. I’m so sorry. We should’ve stayed at Josef's house tonight.”

She looks up at me, surprised, “Que? No. No. We see Jesus. There is hope!”

I pause. Mid drink. Pondering her words. Puzzled by her seeming innocence. “But darling, there is much trouble now.”

“Si? What did the prayer say? Deliver us from evil?”, she nods to herself, ”He will protect us.”

“Well. The Communistas say follow us too. Everything will be okay. Is this not the same thing?”

She smiles, puts down her drink, wagging her finger at me, “You think too much, I feel.”


“Listen. You have a spirit, no? It is love. It can make the impossible come true. Otherwise? Nada. Nothing.", reaching over, she takes my hand, “Our life, it has no meaning.”

I gaze into Mati’s eyes. Amazed. At a loss for words. Such simple truths: love -a reason to believe? The reason for living? Whew!  Yeah, I guess she’s right. I think too much -often miss the obvious. Mati? She just feels it in her heart. Leaning over she kisses me on the cheek, winks, “Don’t worry, we will find a way.”

“Davido! Matilde!” It’s Miguel, “Come, we best go now. Rapido!”

We walk back home down the dark, narrow, winding streets, cautiously stepping around the pot holes, the worn streetcar tracks. Always watching -are we being followed? We pass the familiar crumbling building fronts. The arches. Pillars. Wrought iron window grates. The impossibly tall narrow wooden doors, bolted for the night. The street lights few and far between. Unreal. They cast their glare as if upon a stage, a theatre of the mind, Cuba and the night. Christmas eve? It's another world, so close to my heart. Otherwise? So very far away.

“Pssst! Buddy boy!” Mati giggles, squeezes my hand. Perhaps sensing my sudden loneliness.  My thoughts of Christmas, back in my homeland, in Canada, where snuggled in their beds everybody will soon awake, to so much more than this. Or will they? I look up at the stars shining brightly above. Feel Mati’s body pressed warmly against me. As we make our way down the street, she whispers in my ear, “ We go to our room, no?”

Miguel points to his house, a few doors away. We laugh and joke, relieved our little adventure is almost over. Or is it? He raps loudly on the door, calling Josef's name. We wait, patiently at first. Its quite late, he must be sound asleep. And the door? Its barred tightly from inside. We gaze up at the locked iron grate on the windows. Mierda! What to do? Miguel shrugs, raises his fist, pounding again and again on the heavy wooden door.

Suddenly a whistle blast. It’s the police! They pull up to the door on their bikes. Mati gulps, nervously begins to play with her hair. It must be her worst nightmare come true. So late at night. Los dos. The two of us. Ho boy!, “Darling, do you have your i.d.?”

“Mio Dios!” she whispers, “No!” God help her, she could get arrested for that alone. There’s nothing we could do, “Lean up against the wall, and please -don’t say anything!”

I move a few feet away, feel the cool stone against my back. Matilde stands at a distance in the shadows, her chest rising and falling, nervously tapping her fingers against the wall. We watch as Miguel turns to the police with a friendly wave, explaining Josef must be asleep. Reaching into his pocket he pulls out his cigarette pack and identification, offering them a smoke.

Down the block, on the steps, a group of hombres sit, passing around a cigarette, a bottle of rum. The pounding beat of Afrocuban drums rumbling out the bright doorway, into the night. They catch the policemen’s eyes. Wave. The police nod, handing back Miguel his i.d. The guys in the neighbourhood, the last night of the bembe fiesta, perhaps the police will just let us all be?

They watch in silence. One of them yawns. Miguel again pounds on the door, hollers for Josef, laughing, exchanging a joke with them in Spanish. Oh please Josef! Wake up! 

I can see Miguel sigh with relief. The wooden door shakes, light spills out, Josef peers through the crack; “Que pasa?”

Looking about, he sees Mati and me, crooks his finger. Quickly we step past the police and inside the door. Josef rolls his eyes, apologetically clapping his hands to his head. Stepping outside to talk to the police, he closes the door behind him.

Safe in our room again Matilde and I wait. Miguel, knocks, wishes us good night. “Don’t worry.” he winks, ”It’s okay.”

Chapter 4: Post Script

December 25 1996

“Querida, do you believe in miracles?” I sit on the bed, untying my shoes. Reach for my journal and a smoke. Matilde gazes at me from the mirror. Brushing her hair. Pulls it up. Back.Ties it into a bun. 

“Si!“, she blows me a kiss, “I have hope, mi amor. Don’t you?” Sitting down on the bed, leaning over, she whispers in my ear, “Feliz Navidad.”

Yes! Merry Christmas one and all! May the spirit of love be with you! As Jesus moves among us, so to is the Word truly made flesh!

The End

Alt Edit

The Second Edition of Christmas in Cuba was posted online this month: 

SERIES: Part 1 @  Here! Part 2 @ Here!  Part 3 @ Here! Part 4 @ Here! Part 5 @ Here! Part 6 @ Here! Part 7 @ Here! Part 8 Here! Part 9 @ Here! Part 10 @ Here! Part 11 @ Here! Part 12 @ Here! Post Script @ Here!


Chapter 2:

[1] Recent reforms allowed private bed and breakfasts to be rented out in the family home.
At the time it cost about $25 a night. An extra $5 bought dinner for everyone at the local market, the family included.

[2] 25 Cuban pesos = $1 US

[3] In Ontario, Canada, the Harris government was implementing education cuts that were being used to pay for a tax cut for the rich.

[4] Universal education from kindergarten through university is available across the island of Cuba. Primary and elementary schools have been built in the mountain, interior and isolated regions. Public secondary boarding schools, colleges and universities are made accessible for everyone in the larger urban centres.

Chapter 3:

[1] Poemas de Jose Marti: Dos Patrias 1:1

[2] Rapprochement between the Cuban government and the Roman Catholic Church occurred 2 years later during January 1998 with Pope John Paul 2's trip to Cuba. He visited Santiago de Cuba. Workers were given time off work to attend the papal events. See @ Report

[3] "Santiago de Cuba: Faded Glory, Lost in Time" @ Blog

[4] A current Google Map and photo panorama with stills is @ Here!

[5] Catedral de Senora de la Asuncion/ Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption


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