Shirley, a woman with full drawers

By: María Antonieta Colunga Olivera

Shirley Núñez Guilleuma rodeada de sus tres hijos, su nietecito y su esposo.

When I started working in the national office of Caritas Cuba, about three years ago, one of the first things I adoré was the number of women (and more specifically women with children) who flooded the place. Behind each office door there was always some small one, and it was a natural thing to see the “little girls” working with them on the floor, drawing on the back of disposable leaves.

At the time I also met Shirley, the one in the fullest office. At forty-five, she is the mother of three, grandmother of one, wife of a musician and the national coordinator of the largest program in Caritas: that of the Elderly.

How do you manage?… I’ve always found it a mystery; and more so when I saw her with her unalterally paused speaking, her immovable smile and the doors always open to other people’s children, to those she entertains and attends to as if she always had all the time in the world.

Looking for answers we sat on a Monday and the conversation lasted just over an hour…

How did you and Abraham meet and how did you get to marriage?

“I was a single mother when I met Abraham. Sofia wasn’t a year old yet. We agreed on a Saturday in a project with children in which I volunteered, and that day, when I saw it arrive, almost that I didn’t like it, it seemed to me that it was out of place because he was walking – musician after all – with a shorcito, sandals and a pachanguita as a European fashion, plus his long hair and he who is so white… was very striking in the middle of that neighborhood.

“After that day, he began to go to the parish, we began to agree in many spaces. I remember there was a lady of the church, who said to me, ‘That boy how he looks at you, always sits near you…’; and I said, ‘Oh, no, Fefita, you’re seeing ghosts where there isn’t.’ I was really very engaged in my work, going ahead with my little girl, taking care of her and not quitting work and doing the things I liked… I was very focused on other things.

“Then I invited him to Sofi’s first birthday, really what I wanted was to capture him for that children’s project he was active in the Marcellus neighborhood. He, for his part, didn’t tell me anything because he thought the other volunteer on the project was my husband. Anyway, little by little we got to know each other, until one day it appeared to me at night in the house, without warning or invitation, and we became boyfriends.

“We went through a lot of work to agree. It was very difficult because I had a daughter and in addition to taking care of her, I had to work… I didn’t have that much time to go to court. There was also the age difference, Abraham is five years younger than me, so we are always living different times. And the other thing is that he is a musician, the life of his profession is always at night and I worked by day, it was difficult for us to find the time to go out together. Sometimes he would show up at my house at ten o’clock at night, and my mom would convulse because… Imagine yourself, a visit at that time.

“Little by little we tried, I remember we went to live together in a house borrowed by a friend, that there were times when we ran out of a penny and Abraham sold his bicycle. these were complex times. We fought a lot and then we came back, Sofia was growing; we were yyyy to agree. Sofi would be five years old when we got married. At that point, we decided to try harder, and the wedding madness came.

“We said ‘we’re going to start raise money for the wedding.’ Imagine, with two state salaries, in a year we put together just 400 pesos. That was enough for us just to pay for the honeymoon (which was then subsidized by the state). But thank God and the friends we have, who have always supported our family, we marry a very nice wedding; not elegantone, because it’s not our style, but nothing was missing from what we wanted. There’s even food left! And we’ve already really started living together, and things got a lot better.”

How different are Abraham and Shirley?

“We are very different, so I have repeated to you so many times that at first we fought so hard. We haven’t stopped fabing, check it out. Abraham, as I told you, is a musician: musicians perceive reality differently; I am a very concrete person, very practical. He’s the defender of dreams, I don’t allow myself much to dream. He really enjoys the moments, he is the people who enjoy the process no matter how long it lasts, for him there is no time and I am always against the clock and I am impatient to see the results. He’s peaceful, serene and I’m a collective, I get upset and blow up by anything, even though I get over it in five minutes.

“But those differences make us more complete by being one, because we complement each other. To me he is like Joseph, Mary’s husband: he is always there, patient, he is not easily obfuscated; but at the same time, it does not tolerate injustice, abuse. I mean, he’s pretty clear about the things he’s bothering about. I don’t, I get upset about everything, all the time. Oh, and he always has a very good sense of humor, that that to me is one of the best virtues that human beings can have; because even in a butt discussion, which you already think you can’t do anymore and you’re about to pick up the lump, his humor helps us relax.

“With children, I love that you always have time for them, you respect time with your children very much. He doesn’t mind that the task is perfect (I get hysterical that if the blur, that if this stroke, that lack of spelling); he looks for the children to build trust in him, and teaches them that no matter if it went wrong this time, the next one will work out for us.

“But regardless of the differences, I think at the value level, those things that give foundation to a relationship and make it last, the things we enjoy, the prices we are willing to pay and those that do not… in those things we are very similar. Abraham is not at all ostentatious, he never seeks material good in what he does, his quest is always in feeling good and that others feel good. I think that’s what makes things at home walk.”

Did they always want to have so many children or was it something that happened?

“We always wanted to have four children (three more, besides Sofia). We didn’t get there because between the second (Maria Paula) and the third (Marcel), I had a pregnancy that I lost about twelve weeks old, and that made me have to wait two years, as doctors recommend, to go back out in a state. Already a fourth child was complicated by age, because the first (Lidia Sofia) had had it at twenty-six.

“We were also grabbed by the issue of housing, space and perhaps the economy, although I tell you that neither. We are not one of those families who receive fixed remittances every month from someone outside Cuba, but we have always managed with our income and learned to distinguish what is essential and how many things can be dispensed with, without sacrificing being happy.”

What is people’s reaction to seeing them with three children and a grandchild, and hearing you say you would have wanted to have another child?

“Well, I’ve gotten used to being ‘crazy’. Socially it is so, wherever we come and say that we have three children the reaction is that: ‘But are you crazy?’ or ‘tremendous contribution to demographics!’; although I think deep down, people admire you too.

“I have a very funny cousin who always says to me, ‘Prima, you’re making kings’ day difficult for me.’ And I’m telling you, it’s hard, because we live in a country where all the time we’re talking about aging and the need for women to stop, but it’s not a country that sustains that or promotes it, not even financially (we’ve had to make a million resignations).

“It is not the same a walk for three people as for five or six, now that we have Thiago; nor eat six mouths where they used to eat three. Both at the society level and even at church level, a speech for birth and large families is promoted, but in practice everything works for small families.

“At school they look at you like a freak, because you have many children; there are no social programs for large families as in other countries, which make things easier for you, including extra income. For example, when my third child was finishing the Children’s Circle, it was that they lowered the cost of the circle from seven pesos to three fifty. That’s all the help I’ve received for being a mother of three… it takes note.

“But I think I’ve gotten used to, you know, reactions. For example, Abraham has never liked us to say that Sofia is the daughter of another relationship, he from a young age assumed her as his own and raised her, so we always introduced ourselves with our three sons; and people immediately let go, ‘But are all three of them from the same father?” Or they tell you ‘that’s because you’re Catholic, you can’t have an abortion,’ things like that. Even when I lost the third pregnancy, in Motherhood Worker, the staff who attended me said to me ‘but be glad you lost it, if you already have two little girls’… I’m telling you, it’s a country that doesn’t assimilate that naturally, the idea that I want to have all these children. Maybe in other countries with another culture it’s a normal thing, but not here.”

Do you think Christian status helps a marriage in its enduring?

“Let’s see, I don’t know if the things I have to answer that question you’re going to like, but there it goes. It helps me to believe in God, and to have that as a center; because then there are many dogmas, many doctrines, Christian and non-Christian, Catholic and non-Catholic, that moralize many issues.

“As I was telling you, I was a single mother, and people at the time would say to me ‘oh, congratulations, because you didn’t have an abortion’ and I would say ‘if they knew, what you live inside you. it’s not that simple.’ I wasn’t sure I wanted to have my daughter, all I was sure was that I didn’t get over an abortion, I thought I was going to go crazy if I did something like that. That was my only clarity, and I do think it gives you a little believing in God, although there are many people who opt for life and say they don’t believe in anything.

“The priest who trained me as a child, when I went to see him for Sofia’s pregnancy, I remember me saying ‘Vicente, if I say in my house that I’m pregnant they kill me, but if I say I had an abortion, they kill me more’; and he said ‘in that decision only you and God count.’ He didn’t tell me about the Church, he didn’t tell me about the community, he didn’t tell me about my parents. And I believe that to the extent that one has a relationship with the God of love, not with the God of laws, not with the God of precepts, not with the God of doctrines, with the God of Love, you find that things make sense.

“When Abraham and I decided to marry for the Church, I think God gave me that process. We trained for the sacrament in the parish of Santa Catalina, the parish of 25 and Paseo, with which he was then his parish priest: Silvano, now bishop at Guantanamo; and he searched for every meeting of formation to a marriage. Each topic was given to us by a marriage: domestic economy, sexuality, etc.; it was a very human and very successful thing. It’s not the same as a priest telling you about marriage, who doesn’t really know about it because it’s not his sacrament. Marriage is known, when you are married, when you have to live every day for years with the same person. I really enjoyed this training because we were a group of young people who wanted to get married, with the difficulties and realities of any couple: some who did not have a home, others who were not sure whether they married or not; and that group of marriages, already of years, told us their experiences, not the beautiful things that are written on a paper, nor what the doctrine that must be marriage or the couple tells you, but the things that happen to you in everyday life.

“Then, to answer you, I think so, that marriage as a sacrament instituted by the Church helps you, but as soon as you see it as an expression of God’s love. Because if you see it as people see it on the street: ‘He who marries for the Church cannot divorce, that is for life’, then marriage becomes a prison, a slavery, something that you have to assume and to which resign yourself is as it is.

“In that sense, the words of Pope Francis, who is very landed, help me a lot. I once read that he said something like ‘fly the plates, if they have to fly; But then look for a way.’ Sometimes the Church, as an institution, sells a sacrament of marriage that is ‘in display case’; that ideal family, with children, of perfect love and untaged fidelity. Actually, I think more than dogmas training, you have to know that there is a God who loves you, and he does it in that coexistence that is not perfect, I tell you, you that you are starting, only that you have a vow, like Mary, who said ‘yes’, did not know what was coming up to her, but said yes. Marriage is that saying yes every day, and if you do it from God it makes sense; it makes sense to forgive, it makes sense to take care of each other’s fragility; but not from the display case of the books.

“It is good that marriages accompany marriages, as it is good for people who have children to accompany the one who has children; because only when you live something can you understand what’s happening to the other and you can give it a real testimony. The other thing is theory, hypothesis.”

How difficult is it to be the national coordinator of a program that accompanies more than 18,000 people in the country, and also to be Sofia’s mother, Paula and Marcel, Thiago’s grandmother and Abraham’s wife?

“It’s hard, certainly very difficult. I often wonder that I am selfish, that I am not a good mother, because I have to sacrifice family time in pursuit of my work. I, who studied what I like and love my profession, overcome myself, be independent; I feel like the way to serve others is with my work. And when you’re a mother or a wife, you don’t give that up.

“There are slightly idyllic criteria for things, such as that children fill you all your life. You are a mother, and that gives fullness to your life; but you are also a professional woman, you are a wife, you are a daughter; and they’re all drawers from the same shelf, but they’re all independent and it’s important to fill them. Finding the right measure is difficult.

“When I started here in Caritas Cuba, which I came to the job interview with Maritza, and she taught me a role with all my work content, the role of the national coordinator of the Program, I said scared: ‘I believe that the person you are looking for is not me… I have three children.’ And I remember Maritza saying to me, ‘Many times we go further and work better, while we watch a son’s fever in the middle of the morning than in the time we spent sitting in front of a computer.’ And that’s true, I often work in the early hours, it’s the time I’m ‘free’.

“The other thing is that I feel that one has to give up being the ideal model of mother, wife; and be the one that often has the house watered, or that many weekends can’t clean, or that keeps clothes uninsterated… that is, in your home and in your life there will be many things that will not be all that is finished that others expect of you. And more so when it’s the woman who has to go to the province, the one who has to travel, the one who has to work late. As much as a process of liberation of women has occurred in Cuba, socially that prejudice is there; and that it is the woman who works and the man who cares for the children, that is not socially well seen.

“But if you’re willing not to be the pretty girl in the movie and still feel happy, nothing. It’s a big challenge, they put posters on you. There are times when you have everything ready to go on a trip and someone dawned with a fever and then nothing, you have to be humble and learn to say, ‘Well, it’s not going to be mastery yet, or such a project… still.’ But not to give up, but to rearrange, because if you don’t, you spend your life postponing. Obstacles you’re always going to have, and valid, justified reasons to postpone, you have thousands, it’s just a matter of leaving that flasher on, telling you that you’re settling in, that you can give a little more, that you have to take care of yourself too.”

Shirley Núñez Guilleuma
Shirley Núñez Guilleuma

What’s Shirley and Abraham’s dynamic like at home with the boys?

“The dynamics of us are, not strange, because there must be other couples like that, but it is peculiar. Because Abraham is a musician, he usually works at night, and I basically work by day, in the office. So Abraham is the one who takes the children to school, every day. We prepare them together every morning; but since my check-in time at work prevents me, he’s the one who takes them to school. That has been a path that we have been building, because we all like to sleep in the morning and more to him who works late; but the reality is that feeding three kids and going out in time to be punctual in my office is not something I can do without it. Maybe I have to sacrifice the nights, and sometimes I’m at ten o’clock ironing a shirt so I can go to work with your group, and then I can’t fall asleep deep, pending if it arrives, if it doesn’t come, why it’s been delayed.

“But well, it’s basically like this: Abraham takes the children to school and stays home during the day, most often rehearsing. We’ve had a lot of help from my mom, my mother-in-law, from my dad now that he’s come back to live in Cuba… but there have been times when there has been no help, and that has made us more independent.

“When I have to go on a work trip, I try to leave as many comforts as possible: the uniforms of the whole week ironed, the glasses peeled and chopped into pieces in the cold, but that is not a substitute that one day you got up and no water entered the building and you have to face a day without water.

“When couple communication grows and you get better, which is a challenge and takes years to happen, things flow. It’s hard, and it’s not a comfortable life, but if that’s what you chose, you’re finding the hows on the fly.”

How was your teenage daughter’s motherhood experience?

“Look, for me the hard part wasn’t that another child came. People would say to me ‘oh, how hard now another boy, another mouth, more money’, and I would tell people ‘I don’t care about that, if I one day open the door and see that they’ve left me a child, I take it and I raise it.’ My pain was motherhood, seeing my fifteen-year-old boy who had to face motherhood. When I chose to be a single mother I was twenty-six, I had made a career, I knew what I wanted, it was something else. But having to accompany my daughter in that fragility, I think it’s been the hardest experience I’ve ever faced. because it was a path she had to do, that I couldn’t do it for her and that I could only accompany her.

“And I think I learned, … well, I don’t know if I’m still learning it, when you have to respect each other’s pace, each other’s decisions, the rhythm of the other. When there’s a pain you can’t take away your child. When there’s bad news you’d like to erase it and you can’t erase it.

“And then there are the people, who tell you things like ‘how good they chose life, that an abortion was not done, I congratulate them’; those things are sometimes very superficial, sometimes those words sounded in my face like a biscuit because he said to me, ‘he has neither the slightest idea nor the slightest awareness of what I am living.’

“Thiago today is our joy, like Paula and Marcel; with my grandson I have no problem and I love that it is and that it is different, energetic, that makes you feel; and I get tired of the way other kids get tired. But the hard part is seeing when your daughter is at a dream-building age and has to face motherhood. A lot of people would say to me, ‘Well, that’s what she wanted, what she was looking for.’ I felt misunderstood by everyone, because I knew that was not something she had intentionally sought. Pregnancy came as a result of bad decisions, but not because it was a conscientious step, let alone because she was prepared and willing to bear those consequences.

“In that accompanying my daughter I did tear myself a lot apart. I remember the day Sofi was given the pains of childbirth, I thought I couldn’t; in fact, Abraham was the one who entered the hall with her. I had already given birth three times and knew what it was about, and I couldn’t bear to see my little girl suffering those pains. Then, likewise, watch her face breastfeeding, not to be able to sleep at night, when so many friends stopped by to say hello because they went out and Sofi there, with their child.

“Those moments of getting out of where you don’t know what you have yet… that’s where God is in your life. In that fortress in the face of a fragility you feel that you will not be able and that God makes you see that you are going to be able and makes you see that what is happening is the best, even if you do not understand it. A doctor made me rumble in a consultation when she said, ‘Mom, it’s better to have a pregnant daughter than a dead daughter.’

“But yes, it is difficult, many dreams are broken, there are many discussions, the dynamics of the house are upset, there are many misunderstandings, there is a lot of pain, a lot of forgiveness is needed, there are many broken hearts inside the house. I can’t tell you it’s been easy, but not because being a grandmother bothered me, but because my daughter’s motherhood came at a time when I didn’t want or be prepared.”

We always talk about school, parent meetings, how’s the street… how does Shirley deal with the influences her children get away from home?

“Look, I’ve learned that the street is undeniable. You’re never going to have your kids so protected that they’re not vulnerable to what’s out of the house. And for me the only real answer in front of the street is the house, it’s home, it’s family.

“Many times we tend to blame the government alone (which I am not denying all the negative things that education has today in Cuba, the current situation of the country); but in other countries you hear parents complain about bullying, violence in schools, gun tenure… I believe that in any difficult situation on the street, the best armor, the most effective, is the family, and in our case, from an experience of faith, of love for God. Abraham is always very persistent in that children must be created good self-esteem, in which they must be made to feel safe, that they must be helped. It’s like in the movies, that part before the fight or the sporting match where someone cheers on warriors or players; if that part works at home, ‘the street’ doesn’t hold.

“Because in this country, education remains for the house, but instruction is not chosen; there is a teaching system where your children will learn things that are not perhaps what you want to be taught; then you have to intervene; but trying not to turn them into schizophrenic beings, who live two parallel realities in the house and at school, and who are not aliens either, who do not know the reality of their country.

“The challenge of the Christian is in what Jesus said, in being meek as doves and cunning as snakes. Notice he didn’t tell us to be meek and meeker. And he also told us to learn to live like lambs among wolves. The house is that space to comfort, to generate self-esteem, to explain the things of the street: ‘what is happening, exists, happens every day, but it does not mean that it is right.’

“After all, they are eight hours of their day interacting with a world that you cannot control or change or choose; and that alone you manage to handle it and you manage to give it another meaning when the command post, the control of the keys, is in the house, so that we can talk, to tell the story of Cuba in another way. Also so as not to have our children all the time faced with the environment, because that is also not healthy… many times we want children to free up battles that are ours. When you educate a child, you have to try to make it free of you, your story is yours, theirs have to be built by them, little by little.

“And there are always values, there are rules; we go to the dominoes to church and I say, you may not want to go tomorrow and I’ll have to respect it.
“What you have is to give them the best armor, create that space for them and let them know that they will always be able to reach the house, and they will always have there the blanket that will protect them, as well as the rod that corrects them.”

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