Rosa Maria Paya: About Me – Part I
I was born in Havana in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which exacerbated the hardships in Cuba. We depended on the Soviet Union and its supplies were cut: the Special Period was inaugurated. I had a tough childhood, but my parents, Ofelia Acevedo and Oswaldo Payá , founder of the Christian Liberation Movement and who died in a car crash seven months ago, did the impossible because my two brothers and I did not resent the deficiencies. We were kids, there were things we did not see. The 1990s ushered in a wave of malnutrition in Havana and weekly electricity blackouts were scheduled. The critical years were between 93 and 98, I had not reached ten years of age-but, two decades later, I feel that things have hardly improved. During this time the government banned all Cubans from entry into hotels and public transport worsened: Havana became filled with bicycles. I look at pictures and see my parents very thin because they had to travel 40 kilometers by bicycle every day to go to work. Still, I remember being happy with my brothers. We grew up with the privilege of knowing we could think for ourselves, we learned that since we were children. So in school we had discussions with teachers early and we fell into conflict with them, not with our peers. Our dad would say: you say what you think and then talk to me. Years later we learned that our school was visited by state security. Until now in Cuba the primary or secondary school where thinking is taught is rare.
I was born as the daughter of a dissident. In 1990 my father had just founded the Christian Liberation Movement and we were a family with Christian values, centered in man and compassion for others. They represented an open challenge on the island. We grew up with values that were never exempt from questioning and became, therefore, controversial and exciting. Such freedom was rare and, as children, we opened the door to complex thought. I was a little over twelve years old the day we learned that my father had won the 2002 Sakharov Prize, awarded by the European Parliament to defenders of human rights in the world. We fell into the euphoria, many people stopped in the street to congratulate him. After that, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times: in 2002, 2003, 2008, 2010 and 2011. His defense of the Gospel marked us. Today I recognize that sometimes my faith falters because I have seen evil up close, but if I did not have faith, my rights struggle that follows the values of my father, would be much bitterer.
At five or six years of age we played in the streets of the neighborhood with our friends, that’s how life is in Havana. Because of the weather and the lack of places of entertainment, children play in the street and teenagers gather in parks and esplanades. In my childhood no one had new toys. I grew up with used dolls and my friends with discarded used trucks and wooden blocks. From far away we would get more modern games that made us special, because nobody in the neighborhood had something similar. They were gifts from family, my father has six brothers and of these, four were living outside Cuba. They cannot go to their country, not even when my grandmother died could they come. Once, when my seven year old brother, who was very ill, traveled to the United States, he returned with a toy gun with water arrows and set off a children’s revolution in the neighborhood. To me they brought a toy kitchen, I did not know them.
It was rare that I had a new dress, but on that trip they brought me one and I never forgot it. We dressed in clothes that our uncles sent us from the United States and Spain, had it not been for their help, we would not have survived. So far I only know some of my relatives who live abroad. But family separation is not exclusive to the Payá’s: the majority of Cuban families suffers or has suffered it. The split has left traces in all. I remember, as a child, I dreamed of leaving Cuba. I thought candy never ran out and that there were cuter toys, newer dresses. I was seven and I wanted to go, but I was born into a family that never wanted to leave its land. In recent times I have thought that if we had migrated my dad would not be dead today. He died in July 2012 in a car crash, but in our family we do not believe that the tragedy was accidental. He’d been receiving threats for his commitment to political resistance. My father gave his life defending the rights of all Cubans to live on the land that we were born, that is, after all, the best of homes that we can found. Today I want to live in Cuba, because I know that outside I would always feel foreign and divided.