Sonia Garro at her sewing machine
It all started one sunless noon, on the 24th of February, 2007. “Up here,” said Sonia, a laboratory technician, who sews on a 50-year-old machine on the porch of her home, from where she often saw accidents involving children playing without the watchful eyes of their parents. And her large eyes filled with tears on nights when she saw girls 12 years old, with emaciated bodies, like that of her daughter, prostitute themselves for trinkets.
And it was decided. That day Sonia established an independent community project that would help poor children in her neighborhood, regardless of the ideology of their parents.
We introduce to you Sonia Garro Alfonso, 34, a black woman, somewhat overweight, who lives on Avenida 47 No. 11,638 between 116 and 118, in the populous and humble district of Marianao, at the north end of the City of Havana. If anyone can talk about poverty, prejudice, and setbacks in life, she can.
“I can count the happy moments of my childhood on the fingers of one hand. I am the tenth child in a family of twelve children, desperately poor. Forget Christmas presents. We always wore second-hand clothes given out of charity to my mother by a neighbor. I went to school with my old, broken-down shoes, but with an immense desire, always thinking that studying and outdoing myself could change my fate,” Sonia tells us in the narrow room, panelled with mustard-colored wood, in her precarious two-story house.
Unfortunately for Sonia, her luck did not change in her early youth. On her own, and against obvious shades of racism, during the years when she studied to become a laboratory technician, to climb the hill and leave poverty behind, choking down bread to ward off hunger and be a person who is solvent, it was almost a mission impossible.
“I lived racism firsthand. I remember one day I wanted to make a complaint at the school and the assistant director, with hatred, told me “Go wherever you want, who’s going to listen to the case of a black woman?” When I graduated from the technical school in laboratory science with a first class degree, they had a ceremony in the Astral theater in the middle of Havana. The Minister of Public Health was to hand out the diplomas to the most outstanding, and another person from the minister’s circle approached me and said someone else would receive my diploma for me, because to have someone with such black skin in the photo wouldn’t look good. “No offense, it’s not because of racism, but with skin that dark you’ll spoil the photo,” recalls Sonia in her calm voice.
That night, which should have been the happiest of her life, she had to swallow the bitter pill that another person, of the white race, had taken her diploma. She was so humiliated that she left the theater. “I never got that diploma,” she confesses. But as the saying goes, on a skinny dog, all that falls are fleas.
Then, when she was employed in a clinic in her neighborhood, in an “emergency” meeting, she was expelled from the health center for having a husband who was a political opponent. “‘You can do one of two things,’ they told me, ‘either separate from him, or you have to leave the clinic.’” Sonya left.
If anyone has pushed this woman to dissent, and to set her own standards, it is the government itself, with its absurd way of acting. Until for her the light went on. After spending hours sitting on her porch, watching children get hurt, getting stuck between trash dumpsters, playing barefoot and squabbling among themselves, Sonia knew she had to do something.
Then with the help of her husband, she founded the Independent Cultural Recreation Center, on February 24, 2007. In their house, every afternoon after school, scores of children between 7 and 15 years old meet on the porch and in the living room of their modest home.
“The first rule I have is not to talk about politics at all. I organize activities of drawing and cutting and sewing. My husband, Ramon Alejandro Muñoz, a musician by profession, is in charge of preparing dance choreography and teaching them to play musical instruments. When we can, on weekends we have parties and distribute children’s books and toys. Some foreign non-governmental organizations have helped us with materials and medicines. Also embassies of European Union countries, and individual people, who give us what they can. Because this is not a work of one person,” says Sonia, while showing us many photos of activities with clowns, where the common denominator is the bright smile on the faces of those children.
After that initial experience, Garro decided to go for more. She opened another community center in the El Palenque slum, in the borough of Marianao. If you want to know how El Palenque is, look at photos of a sordid favela of Rio de Janeiro or a shantytown of Port au Prince before the earthquake. It is almost the same. There, Sonia and her partners serve between 16 and 18 children.
What looks like a healthy activity of civilized society, which brings more benefits than problems, has unleashed a small hurricane from the State Security forces of the Cuban state. Accustomed for 51 years that any good idea always starts at the desk of a senior official of the Communist Party, it always raises suspicions and makes a person suspect when a citizen, on her own, creates a project without the support of Father State. And Sonia Garro has had to pay a price for her humanitarian work.
“The government’s response to my social work has been three acts of repudiation and a couple of beatings. The last act of repudiation they tried to give me did not work, because nobody on the block went to support them, they had to march with empty hands,” she says, without animosity or emotion.
Most of the children who attend the project live in little hells at home. Almost all come from dysfunctional families where the father is in jail or his children do not know him. At the very least, revolutionary neighbors, supposedly integrated into the system, “congratulate the Garro Muñoz couple.”
“There are even police who welcome and encourage us for what we do,” says Sonia’s husband.
Sonia Garro is far from being a sociologist or expert, dedicated to studying just why in Cuba, a paradigm of a happy childhood, cases like this occur in her neighborhood. Neither does she want to emulate Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Nor Zilda Arns, the Brazilian doctor who died in Port au Prince as a result of the Haitian earthquake, and left a legacy of thousands of children rescued from poverty and marginalization.
The task of this Cuban is simple. Seeing the children laugh and grow in a healthy environment, free from violence. If in the future these children become professionals, educated in civic values, and not locked up in jail, she will be satisfied. She does not ask for anything more. And that is why she doesn’t understand why her work arouses such resentment among the authorities.
By other pathways, Sonia Alfonso Garro assumed that the State wished to accomplish the same thing. But the government does not think like she does. On the contrary.
Iván García and Laritza Diversent
Translated by: Tomás A.