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.