The family prison

By: Josefina Martínez Calvo

In these times of change when family is so much mentioned, family reunification and the new version of the Family Code, I thought it appropriate to bear witness to a very rare situation regarding its disclosure in our environment, so perhaps its content is surprising. Family prison?… What is it? I’ll try to sum it up in the best way possible.

When the experiences of a prisoner are recounted, the terrible experience that this fact represented for his family is often ignored, and it is scarcely recognized that its members also suffered confinement, which I have always regarded not as the prison of an isolated person, but as the prison of the individual and his family. We had this tremendous and unforgettable experience that I now feel, omitting strictly personal and therefore very intimate aspects.

We will never forget that violent jolt and after so many years, we still overcome its consequences. Of all the experiences of those early decades of the revolutionary process, family prison was the most crushing and heartbreaking. From that moment everything changed and as a gain we only got a social stigma. A political prisoner, as someone once said, was considered a missing man – not physically as happened afterwards and still happens in many countries of America and the world – but a social missing person, a person who lost all his material property, all his citizen rights, all his legal responsibility, his affiliation to civic and religious organizations, in short, ceased to exist while still alive , a true “invisible man”.

Already the family before my father’s prison, had longed for this “taste of fear” during the invasion of Playa Girón, when at dawn on April 16 people, now militiamen and soldiers, showed up at home to require the presence of my father and uncle with the order to move them – along with dozens of coterráneos – to the distant prison of the house about 70 km. Despite his active political involvement in the Batist dictatorship, no relative was involved in desations, crimes or torture, let alone my father, so the only reason for detention, as explained now, was “preventive.” Many of those held then, when they were released, left the country, others joined the revolutionary process and others, like my father and uncle, maintained their opposing position.

Since that first “family prison,” I became my mother’s permanent companion on these journeys. I remember staying at the entrance to the house all afternoon of the day my father and uncle were taken away, anxiously observing in the distance the place where they were locked up, or what to think we could get close to, until at dusk I saw the trucks leaving where they were being transported to the capital, occupied by men of all ages. That prison lasted a time similar to the invasion, three or four days, and of those days at least two, my mother and I were at the entrance to the prison with hundreds of other relatives held for equal reason; we were out in the open, not eating solid food and facing the sun and the saltpeter – which were really aggressive there – so much so that when we came home without seeing them, it looked like we had enjoyed a beach trip and… nothing so dissimil!

Over time, both prison-fortresses were transformed into a tourist park and although sometimes some friends have invited me to visit it, without many explanations I reject their proposal, because that place, both in the first family prison experience and in the next, have very unpleasant memories for me; I will never be able to enter without glimpsing after a divisive wire fence, my father’s diserated and lean figure, which prevented me from showing him our affection with a hug.

On these events of the invasion of Playa Girón and using a war language, I have always accepted that for the revolutionary process it had a victorious, resonant and unquestionable epilogue, however, for another group of compatriots, including my family, those days had a bitter taste.

This first experience of “family prison” allowed us to glimpse what would happen if we chose to stay in the country. My father was convinced of it and decided to emigrate, but he could more his affective bond with the extended family than his foresight and weakness determined his second lockdown. As he quietly suspected, three years later he entered a prison again and on that occasion his stay would mark us forever. Because of his personality and character, he intended to overcome the physical and psychic aftermath, and we, his close family nucleus, tried too, although I still doubt that we have succeeded. The cause of sanction was a “crime against the powers of the state”, an accusation generated by his open confrontation with the prevailing political system and which at that time was almost a death sentence.

In the circumstances around us, I could not understand his position at the time, although he also did not possess the maturity for it and now, in the light of time, I understand that his behavior responded directly to his political ideas, and I understand his consequent firmness of convictions, although for a large majority of Cubans they were wrong. I have always recognized the position “of the other” and although age did not allow me to understand then the reasons for their political attitude, time illuminated my judgment and became admiration for their convictions, which deserve no repudiation. We are not ashamed of this, for our father has sustained and defended his ideological principles, it is no indignity.

For the family, this second prison experience began with the nightly break-in at our home of state security officers and agents. It’s okay to expose the deplorable conditions of the family group, when we saw my father leave in the back seat of the police car and give us encouragement with the misleading phrase: “Don’t worry, it’s a clarification, I’ll soon be back with you,” but he didn’t imagine his return would take five long years.

At dawn the next day I left for the capital fulfilling the wishes of the family, especially my mother, to touch the doors of the ancient “friends”. Of course, none of them responded… these were difficult times and their answers were the same on each threshold: they could do nothing without committing and running the same fate as my father; other doors would only be interstened and the owners whispered denial of help. Three days after his arrest, we received a telegram alerting us to the first and only visit to the isolation center, where he was being held.

On the day of the longed-for visit, when my mother, sister and I arrived, my father’s image was another, peeled short, somewhat pale and dressed in the cream-colored uniform with a black P on his back and that would accompany him from that moment, until his first five and endless years of closed prison.

The soldier’s inhibitory presence led to the strangest conversation I’ve ever had, when it must have been a gathering of comments about what happened. Within five minutes he concluded the almost mute encounter and not even imagine the farewell. We dared to ask the soldier when the next visit would be and between his teeth he replied that until after the trial. The word judgment paralyzed us, for we had naively thought that my father from that place could return home shortly and that prognosis greatly obscured the future, therefore the sanction was certain. My father was sanctioned nine years into lockdown.

I believe that, as never before, the helpless expression of “not being able to believe it was true” was so pertinent. The weeping and wailing of my mother and aunts when they heard the news, were lacerating; ever since I was right to know that my father was the bastion of the family, the financial support, the solver of all problems. We were left as empty, helpless, unhappy, destroyed, certainly… “we die in life”. Thus we began our family prison, with the zozobrante pilgrimage through four prisons during my father’s five years of forced confinement, until, sickly, he was given home detention to end his sentence.

The first lockdown center was a prison-fortress. He managed to, with the relatives of older prisoners residing in our village, send us a pencil-written “paper” so we knew what we had to bring him for the first visit, that is, everything. This is how we started meetings that, in those five years of prison visits, would become an inseparable part of our lives.

On that initial visit, my mother and I as only authorized, walked a few minutes along a corridor from which we were separated by a low wall, but covered to the ceiling by a fence; there were already people talking to his family prisoner and we didn’t distinguish my father, until he raised his hand himself. It was definitely someone else, almost shaved, in that yellow uniform, thin but smiling – I don’t remember a visit where I didn’t smile. This was our first visit and the beginning of many more.

Prior to this family prison, from the same year 59, we had the persistent company of the feeling of marginality and political-social rejection, because even some of the relatives who were once so close, walked away under various pretexts, although we easily detected their true motives. These circumstances forced us to live in two worlds: that of a politically stigmatized family and the world of two adolescents first and two women later, who gradually took responsibility for the family economy, as incorporated into their respective labors.

With a friend and contemporary, of proven fidelity and trust, I have always commented on that duality of life, those silences to which circumstances forced us, those intergenerational struggles that often by incomprehension and others by ageless intransigence, did not allow us to understand differences and made us offend the adults of the family with our dissent for their “backward” political ideas that , at the end of the day, for them they were reasonable, fair and relevant.

Only talent and dedication to work allowed survival and already adults, professional recognition, although always under the shadow of our father’s political background, sometimes more visible and sometimes less. We often wondered: how far will we be allowed to move within this convulsive society? Only a well-reinforced self-esteem, the desire for personal realization, trying to achieve in this world what we project for the dissolved world, achieved the miracle. This apparent digression was inevitable in talking about our father’s sanction, to understand how much the fact damaged us and at the same time to check the inconceivable reaction of the social environment. Today retired old ladies, we are pleased to have traveled during all these years, without moving from where we were born and contemplating the social changes impossible to imagine long ago.

On the day of the visit, it was almost a ritual for our mother, to place all the food tidy and lovingly in the jaba. During the two or three years my father spent locked himself in the military fortress, the journey from the village concluded in the capital, but when he was transferred six months to a prison in another province, our situation was terribly complicated. The journey stretched for about two hours and concluded in an impromptu and inhospile whereabouts, facing a dirt road that we had to clear for six long kilometers, with the essential and valuable cargo and in the company of our “tropical sun”. The return of these distant places better does not tell it, imagine it by the time of arrival in our village, almost always between eleven o’clock at night and one in the morning of the next day. It was worth that sacrifice because, unlike military strength, here we could touch my father, hug him and kiss him.

In the military fortress and in the camp, he kept wearing the cream-colored uniform with the black letter P on his back and for anyone who ignored the political prison world of the sixties and seventies in Cuba, even if it seemed banal, had a transcendent meaning accepting the use of blue uniform (common prisoner). I think my father didn’t give in to his principles and when he had a heart attack, they changed the color of his uniform so that it was not recognized that he was still infarction, he was imprisoned.

Visits on several occasions were suspended and we found out when we arrived at the prison with our cargo. What a sad return home! For my mother, this situation was unbearable and only her immovable religious faith kept her in her feet. We all suffered, he and we… Also. To visit him at that last place of seclusion, the journey was also long, but at least it concluded in the same village; we only had to walk about 600 or 800 meters from the bus stop to the prison, where the atmosphere was different from previous detention sites and, in addition, he retained a better physical appearance.

My father was released from his forced confinement in 1969, his release was unexpected but he continued, rather, we continued to be in house prison until he fully fulfilled his nine-year sentence. His freedom, apparently, was due to the unhappy situation of having suffered a heart attack and other conditions such as the age of about sixty. I think the real reason for his release was to have served more than half his sentence in a closed prison. During all that time, he only took to the streets once in 1965, when his dearest sister died and was allowed to spend a few hours with us in the wake because, although we requested it, he was not allowed to stay to attend the burial. Isn’t it true then that we’re suffering from a family prison?

Another man returned to our house and that man encountered other family and social circumstances. The multitude of “friends” flooding the house during my childhood and adolescence years had disappeared; not even the most assiduous, because some chose exile (some have already died), others were set aside by political fears and prejudices, from which we rejoice very much, for in situations such as those experienced, human decanting is inevitable and thus the few faithful friends were preserved.

My father, already totally free from his condemnation, accompanied us for twenty-seven uninterrupted years sharing joys, sorrows, vicissitudes, deficiencies, new threats, permanent vigilance towards his person and all the limitations inherent in the environment around us. He never again mentioned his departure from the country, although by right, he could have subscribed to the special immigration program for political prisoners – really political prisoners, not the current one disbanded with a majority of repentant, opportunistic and ambitious – offered by the United States government. This possibility of departure was valued as a family and rejected, as there were other circumstances of the family nucleus.

He did not want to leave his house, nor the land he inherited from his ancestors and which he loved so much. When he left, he took his prison experiences well guarded, for on this matter he confessed very little, although we imagined almost everything, since with him – at least this family – he shared that prison. My mother survived him for a decade and as he asked her God earnestly, her degenerative mental illness did not allow her to be aware of her definitive absence. Many years have passed since that first visit to my imprisoned father, but those who read my testimony will agree that time… time… doesn’t erase everything. The footprints of our family prison will be eternal. Ω

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