Queen Street, our street of balconies and colonnades, of five peso pizzas and sewage running down the sidewalk. Avenue of shady deals and self-employment, with its furtive vendors advertising mattresses outside the stores and a Gothic church pointing to heaven. Along Queen Street children scamper to school in the morning, beggars stretch out their hands with a picture of Saint Lazarus, and prostitutes ply their trade at night. In its doorways there is room for everything, the beautiful and the rotten, the past and this present in halves that never quite come together, the smile and the grimace.
Yesterday, Queen Street’s noisy traffic stopped, the indigents rose from the ground and the food kiosks closed for a while. It was the day of pilgrimage of the Virgin of Charity, whose worship now spreads among Cubans after decades of forced atheism. Agnostics and the curious, devotees and political police, accompanied the entourage of a small image draped in its golden mantle. Many came with candles, sunflowers, dolls dressed as the Orisha deity Oshun, scarves and dresses in the color yellow. Thousands came through conviction and many others joined the procession to nose around. In a country where it’s not allowed to take to the streets as a form of peaceful protest, September 8th in Havana attracts parishioners as well as nonconformists.
Just at the moment when the “Queen” was turning into Queen Street, someone pulled out a poster with the word “Freedom.” It was just a second, but enough to live in anticipation — a biopsy in advance — the horror. People running, the plain clothes cops launching themselves at the hands that grasped that paper, and the contorted face of the priest, fearing the worst. For an instant, the image teetered among the petals placed around her. And then came the calm, the fear, the whispered prayers. One old woman said, almost as a lament, “Don’t politicize the procession, they won’t let Cachita out next year.” Madam — I wanted to say to her, but I kept quiet — if she is, as they say, the Virgin of all Cubans, she will accept us whether rebellious or tranquil, apathetic or protesting, whispering our prayers or shouting our discontent.”