It has the name of a Garciamarchyan character, Zoe de los Dolores Larrea Dihigo, but in 1942 he did not come into the world in any town in Colombia or in any of Greece, where his name means Vida; but in one named Vereda Nueva, in Havana, currently part of the territory of Artemis.
His family, a killer, already with the brutal blows of the economic crack of 1929 in tow, without the properties of his cane colonies in Matanzas and Camaguey himself and lost his properties in Havana, set a salvador heading towards a finquita located on the outskirts of Vereda.
The devastating passage of the 1944 cyclone would destroy the small estate and then the economic situation would get worse. The saving hope that Zoe’s male brothers could work at Ariguanabo’s textile company, work center of great perspectives, prompted her family to settle in Bauta, where the silent but magnificent history of this woman would be written, today at the age of seventy-seven, “archivera” of the church of Our Lady of mercy, catechist of children and adults for more than twenty-five and member of the Archdiocesan Commission of Catechesis as coordinator of the vicarage San Francisco Javier and the Marianao-Bauta area.
In the midst of a conversation that was born without any protocol in her small office in the church of Nuestra Señora de la Merced, with deep humility, Zoe evoked her privileged trip to Rome, in 1994, to attend the endowment as Cardinal of S.E.R. Jaime Ortega Alamino, her brief exchange of words with S.S. John Paul II and her face-to-face meeting with S.S. Benedict XVI in the Cathedral of Havana , among other events that touch her so much.
In a measured tone, without ever uttering a single word of bitterness or disenchantment, Zoe set out to answer each of the questions I asked at the smiling and calm sincerity of her eyes.
What nearest family history binds her to the Catholic Church?
“My parents and grandparents professed the Catholic faith and also its predecessors. That’s why I’m part of a very strong Catholic family tradition. My father, Pedro Larrea Melgares, studied at a religious school of the Trinitarian fathers of Cardenas and my aunt, Dolores Larrea, took up habits at the end of the last century to become Sister Mary Josephita in the Oblata Sisters of Providence, a congregation that entered Cuba in the early twentieth century from the United States, where she had emerged in order to provide education to girls of the black race. When he settled on the island, he not only did so in the capital, but also in Cardenas, Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey.
“My sisters Maria Felicia and Carmen were also educated in the Oblata Sisters. The first of these graduated as a lawyer; but then, like my aunt, she became religious, under the name sister Mary Angel. And I, who continued the family Catholic tradition, came to the parish of Our Lady of Mercy at the hands of my parents, since I was only three years old.”
And when does her career as a teacher begin, another of her great passions?
“In 1959 I graduated from the Normal School for Teachers in Guanajay. (Unfortunately this school only had two graduations).) In 1961 I participated in the Literacy Campaign in Bauta itself and served in primary, secondary and upper middle level classrooms, both in my village and in Caimito and San Antonio de los Baños”.
Was it in Caimito that he suffered the setbacks motivated by his religious faith?
“I have always defended my faith against wind and tide. I’ve never hidden it. In Caimito they understood that for this reason it was not suitable for working with teenagers. Then I stayed working only in adult education in San Antonio, a job that I was sharing with my high school assignments.
“From San Antonio I was coming back very late. Sometimes I’d run out of guagua for Bauta at eleven o’clock at night and have to wait a long time for another one. Many times I came to my house after half past one in the morning, dead of tiredness.”
Were you diminished by this arbitrary decision?
“Never. This exclusion took place in 1969; but as early as 1971 I was elected direct delegate to the First Congress of Education and Culture, I was able to advise teachers, work on courses for leaders, study and graduate degree in Education, in the specialty of Spanish and Literature, with a degree of gold, in 1991.
“In total, I taught for thirty-seven years, joined the Ministry of Education’s Program and Textbooks Committee on adult education, and I can say that on this path I received many more satisfactions than bitterness.”
Do you see these results as a prize?
“For me, the biggest prize is to meet someone who says to me, ‘teacher, do you remember…?’ and tells me anecdotes from the past that I no longer remember or fragments of literary works. I feel especially touched also when I am introduced to children and grandchildren and they say, ‘She was my teacher.’ Or when someone confesses to me, ‘I am who I am because of you.’ There’s the best payment to any teacher.”
You have been closely linked, for many years, to the parish of Nuestra Señora de la Merced, a spiritual refuge for the writers and artists of the Origins group and the poet and priest Angel Gaztelu, mentor of this special group for Cuban culture. Were you able to meet him personally?
“Yes. Father Gaztelu was my Master of Sacred History at José Martí Elementary School. He was the spiritual director of that school. He was the one who gave me the first communion, in this very church.
“I remember that he brought to school such important figures of the time as the actor Alberto González Rubio, the poet Gastón Baquero and the writer and journalist Jorge Mañach, among others. He also took us to visit the now defunct Quarries of St. Lazarus, where the Apostle suffered terrible prison. Father Gaztelu was Spanish, but he knew Cuban culture deeply. I saw him again when he was old and living in St. John Bosco Church in Miami.”
The fact that this church treasures great works by artists such as Mariano, Portocarrero and Alfredo Lozano, imprints on it a special value, widely recognized. Is that how you feel?
“The main satisfaction I feel for Our Lady of Mercy is not so much for her magnificent works of art, but because it is my church, my house, an essential part of my life. Even if he had no fame, no great work of art; even if she was the smallest and humblest, I would have loved her anyway.”
For ten years she has been an “archive” of the parish of Nuestra Señora de la Merced. What specifically attends to?
“In church I work as an archivist and secretary. The first is a very interesting task, because the books we keep begin in 1798, and are closely linked to the history of Bauta and its inhabitants, from the origins to the present day. Being a secretary allows me to get in touch with many people, each with different characteristics. For this reason you have to prepare your character to know how to give the best attention to each of them.”
What do you owe to the fact that you have professed the Catholic faith for so many years?
“I owe you my complete formation, as a woman, teacher, Cuban and Christian, the indissoluble whole that makes me.”
In 2009 she received the medal awarded by Pope Benedict XVI, who recognized her as Benemerenti. Did you expect this recognition?
“It was for me a distinction both undeserved and unexpected. So, as now, and going over the past, I keep saying like the Apostle, ‘I’ve only done what I had to do.’ I thank S.S. Pope Benedict XVI and S.E.R. Jaime Ortega Alamino for this. Likes, so many people who, during this long journey, have supported and helped me, even in the most difficult times. And above all, to the good God for his gifts, for all this has been and is grace.” Ω