Remembering Vilma Espín

Remembering Vilma Espín

A Cuban writer pays tribute to Vilma Espín, wife of Raúl Castro and Cuba’s first lady, who fought tirelessly for the rights of women in a male-dominated country.



My earliest memory of Vilma Espín dates back to an afternoon at elementary school in Sancti Spiritus, one of the first villages founded by the Spanish in Cuba that, had the new political and administrative division of the country not taken place in 1977, would still be a Cuban Peyton Place and not the provincial capital city it is today.

There, as everywhere else in my country in the 1970s, our Iliad consisted of stories of the struggle against the Batista dictatorship in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, as well as in the cities of Havana and Santiago.

As if she were reliving them, our teacher used to tell us these stories. She seemed haunted by them. One day she brought us a picture of a very beautiful lady, in guerrilla attire, smiling to the camera. The teacher had torn it out of a magazine, I believe. She tacked it on the blackboard and talked about this girl who, before the triumph of the Revolution, had been one of the leaders of the 26 of July Movement in the Oriente region, had fallen in love with Raúl Castro in the Sierra Maestra and was now the President of the Federation of Cuban Women, an organization specially dear in the rural towns in Cuba, because it represented day-care centers–which I attended–jobs, family protection laws and the Ana Betancourt schools for rural girls.

These schools yearly graduated 10,000 women–among them all the girls in my family. This was the first time women were institutionally taken into account in this country with its deep male chauvinist tradition. I do not remember now all the details that my teacher, Juana Morera, told us at the time. But I never forgot an anecdote she told us about Vilma, who was then the subject of fierce manhunt by Batista’s henchmen.

Vilma had been hiding in a house in downtown Santiago, when Batista’s men broke in. She heard them and, in her nightdress with her hair down to her waist, she jumped unto the roof of the house next door. Her neighbor, who was hanging clothes out to dry in her backyard, saw Vilma slowly emerging before her and thought she was the one and only Virgin Mary. She got down on her knees and began crying: “A miracle! A miracle!”. Thanks to the confusion that ensued, Vilma was able to get away.

As I grew up, of course, I increasingly saw Vilma as someone more familiar and miraculous. I use the term miraculous with premeditation, because that is the only way to describe the project that the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) implemented in Cuba. Bent on endowing women with dignity without pitting them socially against men, the FMC focused on fighting against every remnant of discrimination and on educating men.

Vilma was the first person to talk to our people about gender equality and, specifically, about the right of homosexuals and transsexuals to a full life, swimming against the tide of the sort of Victorian Marxism which in our country blended with a native plague of machismo that caused much suffering to quite a few. The first time I talked with her, face to face, was in the early 1990s, following a story I had published in Juventud Rebelde on prostitution in Cuba, which was reemerging together with tourism, as one of the main foreign exchange sources to which the country resorted desperately to lessen the economic crisis.

With the collapse of the socialist field and the opportunistic intensification of the US blockade, “jineteras” (the term by which prostitutes were called) became a marketing product overnight to supposedly demonstrate the failure of the Cuban Revolution. It was simple logic.

If prostitutes, who had almost disappeared immediately after 1959, now reappeared, the Cuban revolution could be considered a failure. I will never forget my conversation with Vilma. I was impressed by the sweetness with which she spoke with me, a young journalist just out of the university. As she spoke, I could not shake from my mind the schoolgirl images that I first formed of her in the second grade in Sancti Spiritus.

Vilma gave me a piece of advice that was really a lesson in ethics: “Don’t forget that jineteras are not mere prostitutes. They are our prostitutes and we must not demonize them, because we run the risk of attacking the victim instead of attacking the wrong.”

Among the many persons I interviewed for that story (an article that later grew and became a book) was Alfonsina Benítez. She had been one of the 100, 000 prostitutes in Cuba in 1959, the highest rate per inhabitant in the world, probably, since population was then only 6 million. Thanks to the programs of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), Alfonsina had become a nurse.

Among other things, I asked her what had been the most important thing in her life. She answered without hesitation: “All the women I knew in the bordello used pseudonyms so as not to embarrass their families. The most important thing that ever happened to me was that, thanks to the FMC, I recovered my name.”

During one of the recent homages to Vilma at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana, I ran into Alfonsina again. She was in the crowd that attended one of the tributes held in honor of Vilma throughout the country. Alfonsina did not even see me when I said hello to her in the crowd. She was crying like a child.

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