Diocesan videographer Brianna Arambula chronicles her recent journey to Cuba to meet her great grandmother for the first time
By Brianna Arambula
HABANA, CUBA—The first time I saw an image of Christ while visiting the island was at my great grandmother’s apartment in Central Habana.
I had traveled to Cuba with my grandmother, Suzana, to meet her for the first time, with only a photograph of the street she lived on. Like so many families in Cuba, ours had been divided. Some had left for America while others stayed behind. For all the 91 years of her life, Zenaida, my great-grandmother, had lived on the island. Our family had very limited contact with her since she lived alone and could not afford a phone.
Our taxi driver was able to help us find her apartment from his recognition of the street in the photograph. His eagerness to help did not cease once we reached her apartment. Together the three of us carried clothes, food, and toiletries we’d brought for her up some precarious stairs to the second floor. The Most Sacred Heart of Christ was hanging above her bed as Zenaida, all of four feet tall, opened the door to greet us.
I took in every detail of her apartment as I sat listening to her and my grandmother exchange stories. It was surreal for me to digest that this woman, my mother’s grandmother, lived in these conditions. She received about 20 pesos per month, one peso being nearly equivalent to one American dollar. I knew to expect poverty, but the lack of running water, the dim lighting of her apartment, her broken stove, and her empty fridge broke my heart.
I gave her a rosary I’d had blessed in the States that first afternoon. She never took it off, wearing it faithfully around her neck on the last day we saw her. Zenaida’s taking of the rosary and wearing it faithfully in the privacy of her apartment reflected the undertone of the Church’s presence in Cuba. For many generations Catholics were persecuted, forced to privatize the practice of their faith in their homes.
Once Fidel Castro took control of Cuba, he seized and shut down more than 400 Catholic schools. The state of Cuba was proclaimed atheist, as the beliefs of Roman Catholics were seen to be dangerous to the government. Priests were expelled from the country and churches were closed, some that still remain so today. It is estimated that there were among 10,000 “house churches” during these years. It was not until recently, in the early 1990s, that Castro declared Cuba a secular state after Pope St. John Paul II’s visit to the island nation.
The Church has slowly gained more traction among the culture, and now provides soup kitchens, medicines, and education for children. During Pope Francis’s visit in 2015, he spoke on the “logic of love” of Jesus; he encouraged Cubans to love with a selflessness that inspires transformation to mercy. Such actions I witnessed from the very beginning in our earnest taxi driver and many others. Churches have reopened, and bans on Christmas decorations have recently been lifted.
Before the revolution about 90 percent of the population was Catholic. Yet since the close of churches only 27 percent remain Catholic, with 44 percent claiming no religion. With so many generations without a shepherd, many Cubans do not know the Catholic heritage of their country and there remains a great thirst for deliverance.
While this yearning is present in so many Cubans, their culture portrays strong elements of Christ’s characteristics. As a people they have an incredible sense of communal joy, with an unparalleled authentic interest in getting to know others. Their good sense of humor and vigor for life can be seen in the passion they have for their children. They do not complain for the lack of the most basic necessities of life: safe housing, food, medical care, and hygienic supplies. Never mind the creature comforts we expect and take for granted in the States. Even toilet paper is considered an expense and luxury, as you will not find it in any bathroom except your hotel room.
Cubans move through life’s suffering with smiles, understanding that, in the words of my great-grandmother, “la vida es como el tango, dificil de bailar.” Life is like a tango, difficult to dance.
As the Cuban people continue to carry their crosses with dignity, and look to the light of the future, I have great hope in the growth of the Church in Cuba. I pray that we remember the incredible blessing we have as Americans to worship freely and take Christ with us in public.