“Eres Diferente”

By Ana M. Vázquez Catoni

   At 8:30 a .m. in Camuy’s countryside, “Eres Diferente” by Los Cinco Latinos is heard throughout the whole empty house, a song that reminds Letty of the days of her youth in her hometown of Santa Clara, Cuba. Sitting in her small computer room, filled with mementos, she sings gracefully, clenching her fists, with radiating passion, remembering elements of what once was her childhood. Carmen Cabrera, fondly known as Letty, reminisces her past with great joy and satisfaction, no matter how harsh her experiences.

   Letty is a 68-year-old mother of five children. Of small stature and a warm complexion, she describes her life as an open book. She was born on 1946 in Santa Clara, Cuba, and brought up in a family with Spanish customs. Her grandmother, mother, father and sister lived together.

“My grandmother was the most important person in my life; she influenced me on how to be a decent and caring person,” she says with a proud grin, “she did a lot of charity work and always took me with her to teach me the needs of others.”

“My childhood was joyful. I was the center of attention,” she recalls. During her teenage years, political tensions started rising; the rebels occupied the mountains. According to a PBS source about the history of Cuba during the late 1950’s, the repressions started, the government started killing citizens, and people, who where opposed to the government, started planting bombs.

On December of 1959, Letty remembers waking up to war zone-like surroundings. Her street was taken by the rebels, cars across the street set as barriers and machine guns poking from every corner. They went to another street, and stayed at a relative’s house.

“Silvio Fleites, our neighborhood doctor, went to cross the street to talk with his neighbor and, suddenly, un fogonazo (an explosion),” Letty says, still astonished, “I saw Silvio fall on the sidewalk, shot in the head. The other man was shot in the abdomen and died in the act.”

Letty met the reputable revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara: “It was not uncommon to see Che, swaying on a swinging chair, having his famous asthma attacks, in the middle of the street, shirtless.” She talked with him various times, “he always said people had to educate themselves because educated people will not be deceived”.

Due to the political tensions, on January 18, 1961, Letty left from Havana, Cuba to Puerto Rico, a decision she was not happy about. Her parents said they were going to Puerto Rico on vacation for three months. Trusting them, she didn’t take any memorabilia from home. “It was a very beautiful trip because you could always see the coastline. My mother had the saddest gaze; she left everything and she knew she was never going to return,” Letty says with a sorrowful expression, “Our uncles had a house prepared for us, my father had a job the next day after we arrived, my sister and I were enrolled in new schools and began our new life.”

Letty’s adolescence was marked by misery. Her mother struggled with depression, a pregnancy and suicidal tendencies. Eventually, her mother commited suicide. “I was the person who found her. This event destroyed my life, my happiness ended.” Letty explained faintly, while her blue eyes turned watery with such a tragic memory.

She had a 10-year-old sister to take care of. Her life changed overnight.

She studied at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. In 1963, her father drowned in Caracoles, a beach in Arecibo and his body was never found.

Letty married Gualberto Catoni Cano on December 21, 1968. It was during the Vietnam War, so he started working as a teacher to avoid being drafted. Letty also worked as a teacher and in 1969 her first daughter was born.

Letty and Gualberto had five children, three boys and two girls. After 25 years of marriage, he left her for another woman and subsequently came the divorce.

After her divorce in 1995, Letty reunited her children and said: “From now on, there is no father in this house. But, there will be a mother and nobody here will grow up damaged.” Letty explained how it was very difficult but she never had any preference over any of her children: “If there wasn’t anything, there wasn’t anything for anyone. I stopped being a woman and I became a mother.”

She laughs and a warm smile reappears as she remembers when she had a small car that fitted only three in the front and the rest in the back all together. “We laugh now but they were very difficult times.”

Letty’s proudest accomplishment in her 68 years of life is her children’s success after everything they’ve been through. “They are loved, respected and all successful professionals. Including my granddaughter who also grew up with all of them,” Letty expresses joyfully.

Today, Letty lives in Camuy with vast plains and her harvests surrounding the house. She is knowledgable about diverse subjects like classical music, history and literature. Also, she dedicates her free time to communicating with her friends. Also, she enjoys fishing and agriculture, the perfect combination of land and sea:  “I find that being in contact with the sea, purifies the soul and you become a new person. Working with the land makes you very human and sensitive.”

She does not regret anything good or bad because she learned from everything and grew. “Everything in life happens for a reason. Be happy with what you have. What counts is what’s left of the family together,” Letty conveys with the satisfaction of a life well lived.

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Carmen in 2014, enjoying herself traveling in Queretaro, Mexico . (Photo courtesy of Carmen Cabrera)

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(Left to right) In 1949, Carmen’s mother, father, grandmother. Carmen is in the middle. (Photo courtesy of Carmen Cabrera)

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