About two weeks ago, I noticed that as most of the flowers around The Farm were beginning to "call it quits" for this year, there was a gladiola emerging and sending out a bloom spike amid a thick clump of irises. Very surprised to see it, I remembered buying some end-of-the-year gladiola bulbs on sale and sticking them in the ground rather haphazardly - certainly not thinking I would see a bloom until next spring. Then, on Wednesday of this last week, I saw the bottom flowers on the stalk were beginning to open, and I told myself I'd wait to bring this unexpected "glad" in for the weekend to enjoy while I was at home for a couple of days. Friday afternoon I placed the beautiful magenta-centered, lilac-fringed flower on my dining room table, and a very special connection with the beauty and delicateness usually associated with spring adorned my home as the autumn leaves fell and a brisk wind howled outside.
Still, I remained perplexed as to why this breath of spring had decided to open as the frost approaches.
The answer came a few hours later when I received a second phone call from Laida Carro, president of the Coalition of Cuban-American Women, just minutes after we had hung up after a lengthy conversation. Shocked and stunned, she informed me that Laura Pollán, a founder of the Ladies in White (Las Damas de Blanco) in Cuba had died. In our earlier conversation, I had told Laida I didn't feel good about Laura. We knew she was in the hospital in Havana, and there was something that haunted me about her condition...My hunch proved correct...Laura had died just minutes earlier....I was dumbfounded and so, so saddened.
Initially when Laura was admitted last week, doctors had said she had pneumonia...then a viral infection....then a staph infection....then dengue fever....Ultimately, she suffered cardiac arrest, not long after a tracheotomy. To no one's surprise, her body was cremated within 12 hours of her passage. The Cuban government wanted little or no information of her death to filter to the public. Best to get rid of her body quickly...best avoid any possibility of an international call for an autopsy.
Even if people didn't know Laura Pollán by name, she was easily recognizable as the short, stout woman who led the Damas de Blanco on their weekly march of silence through the streets of Havana, gladiola in hand as if it were her blossoming sword of protection. Not only was it her symbol of protest, the flower she and all the Damas proudly display as they walk has become a symbol of their internationally recognized call for freedom for their loved ones who were suffering as political prisoners in Cuba's jails. And, since the release of those arrested in the Black Spring of 2003, the Damas with their gladiolas now vow to continue to walk in peaceful silence as they demand respect for human rights on the island.
It was Laura Pollán, along with a few other courageous women, who founded the Damas de Blanco. It was Laura Pollán, who with other Damas by her side, suffered harassment and humiliation during those marches as thugs paid by the Cuban government cursed, beat, stoned, spat upon, and attempted to strip off her clothes and in some instances, injected them with some mysterious serum. It was Laura Pollán, a former literature teacher and lover of gardening, who spearheaded a grassroots movement that has spread from one side of the island to the other and will not be silenced.
It was and remains this peaceful warrior and her gladiola who have become a powerful symbol for humanity, proving that strength, courage, and dignity, as well as commitment to a cause, can indeed, effectuate change. It IS Laura Pollán who will continue to be the inspiration for the Damas de Blanco to continue, despite their unfathomable loss.
I never met Laura Pollán, nor did I ever have the chance to speak directly with her. But through the flower that so unexpectedly bloomed in my garden last week, I now feel an even deeper connection with her cause - the cause of freedom from a totalitarian government that's been in place now for over five decades. Just as she pierced the Cuban government's core with her dignity, fortitude and call for justice, this small-statured, humble yet so very powerful woman has ignited my heart with a greater passion to work for the noble ideals for which she died. She's a hero in my book.
Little did José Martí know when he wrote the following words that they would define women like Laura Pollán in the 21st century, but he couldn't have been more spot on:
"The campaigns of the people are weak only when the hearts of women are not recruited to carry them out. But when women step in and help, when the naturally shy and quiet woman stands up and applauds, when the cultured and virtuous woman annoints the task with the sweetness of her affection, the campaign becomes invincible."
En paz descanse, Laura, knowing that you leave an americana-cubana in Ohio who will continue to carry your legacy and hopes for a free Cuba in her heart with her gladiola in hand. And, as I plant hundreds more in my gardens, your spirit will guide my hands....and my heart. ¡¡Viva Cuba Libre!!
(Laura's gladiola, along with La Virgen de la Caridad, patroness of Cuba - The Farm, Marietta, OH)