The Everyday Magi

This article appeared as “Las magas de cada día” in the newspaper El Mercurio, from Santiago de Chile, on 6 January 2009,

As the seventies ran their course an old woman put her grandchildren to bed with the long ago story of three kings who led their camels to Bethlehem.  In Cuba, we lived in the time of atheism, a time of putting aside saints and virgins in order to be able to study at a university or hold a good job.  The rite of baptism skipped a couple of generations, while crucifixes and rosaries remained hidden in people’s homes.  But in spite of an atmosphere of total austerity, each January 6 someone left a symbolic gift in my tiny shoes.  With time, I came to understand that the enjoyment of this forbidden fruit made Christmas that much more appealing and I developed a taste for the banned creche.

Nearly thirty years after the eradication of celebrations for Christmas Eve and Three Kings Day, the two traditions have returned to the Island.  But having grown up over those many years without garlands, I learned that where there is an atmosphere of love and harmony, the height of the tree and the opulence of the gifts don’t matter.  The turkey and the nougat can serve as a reminder, but the scene of the festivities mustn’t lack the warmth of family.  So, instead of Christmas carols I receive the gift of listening my niece sing the latest song, or of hearing the voice of a friend who calls from the far away place where emigration has taken him.   These are days of reviewing all my progress and, believe me, the balance of my faults doesn’t leave room for triumphalism.

In spite of the extraordinary character of these days, the real three queens are the women who manage to prepare a delicious dinner and to put toys in the hands of every child.  How they accomplish it, among the economic constraints and with the dual currency, is a mystery few are willing to disclose.  They go out into the streets with their ubiquitous bags hanging from one shoulder, and gather up what later will sparkle on the table and tempt the palates of relatives.  They are true mistresses of illusion, the women who manage to prepare these celebrations, as the exorbitant prices in convertible pesos leave little room for culinary surprises.  Dawn finds them already standing in line, and before nightfall they’ve managed to squeeze in a new hairdo or a manicure.  A smile erases the worry lines drawn by the anxiety of trying to find the food, and a drink goes a long way to relieve the soreness in the legs.

Something of this art and artifice I learned from the women in my family, all of whom bear the name Mary, and whom I follow after in other, less conventional, ways.  Though they weren’t in the manger and didn’t rock the baby, they’ve been the creators of a miracle repeated every day.  In Cuba, this prodigious feat can take on sad tints when we consider that a month’s wages will buy two pounds of pork, a bottle of oil, a box of tomato sauce and a packet of powdered milk.  Period.  So, they’ve immersed themselves in the informal market and become experts in locating all the parallel tracks that allow them to sustain their families.  To a double workday, divided between job site and home, is added the time we need to find the products to put in the skillet.

In recent days Parliament has met to talk about the fattened figures of economic growth in the country, but from where we sit we see clearly the distance between these statistics and reality.  With spoon in hand, like soldiers in a domestic battle, we must do everything possible so that the knives and forks will find something to cut into each evening.  This effort has led many to abandon their low-paying jobs in order to devote themselves entirely to meeting the unending needs of their offspring and husbands.

Amid the end of year festivities, we’re overcome by a strange mixture of happiness and sorrow.  Before we’ve had time to take off our make-up, we’re immersed again in the anxiety of lines, shortages and the two currency system.

* Yoani Sanchez won the 2008 Ortega y Gasset Prize for Digital Journalism from the newspaper El Pais and Time magazine included her in its list of 100 most influential people in the world. Today’s column in the start of a special series over the summer for Revista Ya. 

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