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Blessed by Thunder
Memoir of a Cuban Girlhood
By Flor Fernandez Barrios
Seal PressCopyright © 2008 Flor Fernandez Barrios
All rights reserved.
I was born in the town of Cabaigüán, Cuba, in the middle of a hurricane. Just as I was entering the world, a few minutes past midnight, a thunderbolt struck nearby with such force that all the lights went out in the hospital. At least that's how Grandmother Patricia told the story. "Negrita," she would say to me, "you have a don, a gift. Never forget that thunder greeted you into this life." Then she would explain that thunder and lightning were the powers of the Yoruba deity Changó, also known as Saint Barbara in the Catholic religion.
My name is Flor Teresa, but my Grandmother Patricia always called me Negrita, which means "little black one." It was her way of expressing affection and love for me, her favorite grandchild, the one she believed would carry on the tradition of healing and become a curandera, like her. Therefore, it was her responsibility to prepare me to use this don.
Because of these circumstances, Grandmother Patricia was more than just a grandmother to me. She was a protector and a teacher who spent endless hours instructing me in the mysteries of life, from its most mundane aspects, such as how to mop the ceramic floors of her kitchen, to the serious subjects of spirituality and healing. A gifted storyteller by nature, Grandmother was able to weave into her stories a kind of wisdom that was both magical and practical.
Doña Patricia, as everyone in town called her with respect, was convinced that it was during the stormy night of my birth that she received the signs confirming my destiny as her apprentice in the arts of curanderismo. For me, this story is an important link to my roots — not only to the place of my origin, but to the line of women whose identities were created in a healing practice, in a place where women were considered wise.
The last time I heard Grandmother's tales of my birth was right before my family and I left Cuba forever. I was fourteen and had gone to visit her on a Sunday afternoon. Grandmother greeted me with the usual kiss on my forehead and the blessing "Dios te bendiga." Then she stood there looking at me. She didn't say a word but signaled me to follow her to the kitchen. Grandmother walked slowly in front of me, as if suddenly all the years of her life were beginning to weigh on her. She pulled a couple of chairs away from the table.
"Negrita, come and sit." Then she placed her hand over my knee. "I'm sixty-five years old now, and the images of your birth are as if time had never passed. In the hurricane season, the winds blow so hard that the slender palm trees sway like pendulums. The rain pours down with fury and the rivers swell and swell till the valleys finally flood with a brown mix of soil and water.
"The night when you were born, the cyclone was at its peak. It entered through the eastern part of the island in the province of Oriente. Even though we were in the central area, in Cabaigüán, we had winds of at least forty to sixty miles per hour. In the dark, rain poured down without mercy. A big thunderstorm was on its way, lighting the sky with the fierce passion of Changó.
"I knew then that you, my long-awaited granddaughter, must be someone special to come into this world on such a night. I said to your mother, 'Your child has a strong soul, Felicia.'"
Grandmother paused, and her eyes looked into mine, making sure I was listening to her.
"You know, Negrita, I must say this, your mother Felicia was not my choice of a wife for my son. I didn't think it was going to work. She was a niña adinerada from the Barrios family. They were wealthy all the way to the bone, and we were poor. When I met your mother for the first time, she had the well-manicured hands of a princess — with long red fingernails! Felicia spent most of her afternoons glancing through the fashion magazines — Vanidades, La Familia and Ella ... But in all fairness, after the marriage, she kept the house clean and fed my Pepe like a king."
Grandmother looked down as if she felt ashamed of the words she had just said. She patted me on the knee gently.
"That night of your birth," she continued, "I chose to be there by her side, in the delivery room of our small town's hospital, holding her hand. Her face was pale and thick drops of sweat fell on the white sheets of the bed.
"As I ran my fingers through Felicia's damp hair, I prayed to the Virgen del Cobre to give Felicia strength. In moments like that, when you're watching someone in pain, time moves so slow. I swear, the black hands of the old silver clock on the wall stopped at midnight."
I asked Grandmother to tell me more about the hospital room. I was curious about the place where I was born.
"Oh, Negrita, I remember a small window, maybe three by four feet, on the west wall, overlooking one of the neighborhood streets — that was the only opening to the world. Outside, the street lights were flickering from the force of the wind. Near the bed was a metal table, its top covered by sharp gleaming tools — scissors, knives, needles — that sent waves of chills down my spine.
"To me, hospitals smell of death, of sick bodies rotting on sterile beds. Ghost houses, mi niña. People die with no one to assist them in shedding the shell. Then their souls wander forever in confusion around the halls and rooms, searching for a way out. To me, hospitals are not the place to give birth, but your mother, like any woman of her time, wanted to do it 'the modern way.' She also wanted me to be there, as in the old way, when women knew women. It was unheard of before, going to a hospital to have a child. Women took care of childbirth in the privacy of their homes, and the men waited outside till they were told to come in."
I interrupted to ask how many women Grandmother had seen give birth.
"Oh ... so many I've forgotten the number. But you I'll never forget — it was past midnight when Dr. Gamboa said, 'The baby is coming, the baby is coming!' and right at that moment, a lightning bolt hit a pole outside, and the electrical power in the hospital went out.
"Oh, my dear child! I couldn't believe it. You were making your entrance into this world accompanied by nature's powerful roar. I took it as a message from the skies. One cannot disregard such a good omen as thunder and lightning.
"The room was pitch dark. At first, I could see only shadows. Gradually my eyes began to adjust, and I saw Dr. Gamboa, his long, thin fingers running over the top of the table, searching for the instruments but knocking them instead to the floor. The nurse tried to help him, but Dr. Gamboa was young and inexperienced and that only angered him. 'Stay away till I ask for your help!' he yelled. I knew he was afraid of losing you.
"Then, I heard your mother screaming. 'Doña Patricia, ahhhhh Patricia, no puedo más. This pain, no aguanto! I feel like I'm going to die. Please do something ... Help me! Why is it so dark in here?' Felicia was writhing and grabbing my arm so hard I thought she was going to pull it from its socket. 'Calmate, everything is going to be okay,' I told her. 'Take a deep breath.'
"'Where is Pepe, where is he?' I assured her your father was in the waiting room, like the other men, pacing up and down and smoking their cigars.
"'I'm afraid we're going to lose this baby!' I heard Dr. Gamboa say. Softly, I began to pray. 'Stop praying, señora!' the young doctor shouted at me. 'Patricia ... uhm, uhm, ay, don't let my baby die!' your mother cried."
Grandmother's voice was louder now. I felt myself caught up in the storm, the wind blowing, the darkness, and my struggle through the birth canal, trying to find an opening into the world. I even saw my mother's face contorted with pain, and Dr. Gamboa nervously trying to see under the white sheets that formed a tent around my mother's legs.
"It was at that moment." Grandmother stood up from her chair and looked out to the mango tree just beyond her kitchen window. "It was at that moment I felt a strong presence in the room. My eyes turned to the the window. At first, only a glow of light was visible, and then it began to take the form of a young woman. The image was somewhat transparent but very vivid. She was dressed in the usual habit of nuns — a long black dress, a white wimple around her neck and chin, a black cloth over her head. I was so captivated by her radiance that I forgot where I was. 'Oh, mi Dios! What's going on? Did I fall asleep while waiting?' I said to myself."
Grandmother paused. Her body was shaking. She always got caught up in the drama of her own stories. Like a fine actress, she allowed the voices of the characters to flow through her, spilling out their emotions.
"Then, Negrita, you wouldn't believe it. The young woman spoke to me: 'Don't you recognize me, Patricia? I am Santa Teresa de Avila.'"
I couldn't help but express my disbelief in Grandmother's words. It was difficult for me to picture Saint Teresa in the hospital room.
"Well, believe what you want, Negrita, but that is what happened. I asked what she was doing there. And you know what she said? 'How could I possibly miss the birth of your first grandchild?' She was even upset with me that I wasn't taking over to help deliver you. She told me Dr. Gamboa had lost his confidence and that it was my job as a midwife to be in charge."
Grandmother came back to her chair and took my hand into hers.
"It's nothing I can explain to you in any other way, but you must know she was there protecting you. She was there! I could see her as clearly as I see you right now.
"And a few minutes later you were out of your mother's womb, in my arms, screaming with healthy lungs."
She looked at me now with the same expression of adoration I imagined she'd had when she first held me.
"Joy filled my heart when I saw you, Teresa," Grandmother continued, her voice trembling ever so slightly. "Not quite five pounds, but well formed with a moon face and dark eyes wide open to the world. Even with your skin bluish and wrinkled, you were like a doll, with thick black hair and a small round nose just like your mother's.
"I checked your fingers and toes, ears and mouth, legs and arms, back and buttocks. You were whole and healthy. Then, I turned to the window where I had seen Santa Teresa. She was still there. I raised your little body in my arms, facing the Virgin. I asked her blessings. She smiled and simply lifted her right hand. She sent a beam of light that touched your forehead, and then she disappeared before I could even thank her."
I was moved by my grandmother's tale, but I wondered whether, being the charming storyteller she was, she had added a bit of her imagination to what had really occurred.
"You could say I'm just a crazy old woman," she continued as if she had read my mind, "but I know Santa Teresa was there that night, and that's why I named you Teresa, in her honor."
"Why her?" I wanted to know.
"Santa Teresa is the one saint we curanderas call to for help during difficult situations, but in your case, I must be honest with you, la Virgencita came without my calling her, which means she is your protector and guide. She blessed you.
"I remember bathing your little body in the lukewarm water. Under the candlelight, I gently sponged your soft skin. What a magical moment in my life!"
No one, not even my mother, had talked about my birth with such passion and excitement. At fourteen, I felt uncomfortable with the attention the old woman gave me and the weight of unknown responsibilities I was not mature enough to comprehend.
"I was so happy you were born a girl. And as I was washing your tiny fingers," Grandmother turned my hand so the palm faced up, "I couldn't contain my excitement. Yes ... yes ... it is all in here. I saw it then, and I see now. Your destiny is to become a curandera. Your path is that of the healer. Curanderismo, Negrita, runs in families and you're my blood. My mother was a yerbera. She was the kind of curandera who worked with herbs and plants to help people heal. My mother taught me what she knew and the night you were born, I knew you had been chosen by the spirit to be my apprentice. I knew it the second that lightning illuminated the sky. The healing power God has given me is like the energy of thunder. That's my don, my gift. You have it, too, Teresa! Someday you will be called to learn about this don, and it will be important for you to hear the call."
"What if I don't hear it?"
Grandmother frowned. She got up from her chair and stood in the middle of the kitchen with her hands pushed down inside the pockets of her skirt. Then, in a dramatic gesture she moved towards me and lifted my chin with her hand.
"Negrita." She stared into my eyes. "Don't you ever forget, you have been blessed by thunder. No matter where you go, you must remember my words! Look at this wrinkled skin. This old woman you see knows how dangerous this don of thunder can be. I almost lost my own life."
For a few seconds, I failed to recognize my own grandmother. This woman in front of me was as fierce as a thunderbolt. My head was spinning with images of fire and of lightning flashing across the sky. Grandmother went back to her chair. We sat in silence for what seemed to me like a long time. Then she placed her hand over my knee again.
"Don't be afraid, Negrita, thunder doesn't just kill. It also heals." Grandmother leaned back in her chair and began to tell me the story of her own birth to the thunder don. At the age of twenty-two, Grandmother had developed a series of illnesses that plagued her with debilitating fatigue, high fevers and loss of weight. The doctors couldn't find the cause, no matter how hard they tried.
Doña Antonia, her mother, having exhausted her repertoire of herbal remedies, decided to call a friend, Doña Mariana, an old curandera with great wisdom.
The healer arrived at the house early in the morning, carrying an old leather bag. She was no taller than five feet and as skinny as a bamboo cane.
"I remember her blouse was so white it seemed to glow. And she wore a straw hat with a red cloth flower on the side," Grandmother reminisced. "Doña Mariana looked more like a rancher's wife than a curandera. She took her hat off, sat right next to my bed and examinined me carefully with her deep, black eyes."
Grandmother tilted her head back and, with her eyes half closed, described how Doña Mariana's gaze felt like the warm, soothing waters of the ocean washing the sickness from her feverish body.
"Doña Mariana looked so ancient!" Grandmother said in a low voice. "Deep wrinkles ran across her forehead like dry riverbeds across the land. Spider webs of lines around her eyes gently pulled her eyelids down, and time had carved long canyons in her cheeks and around her mouth."
The wise woman talked to Grandmother about the healing energy of thunder and lightning, and from her leather bag she pulled a bundle of fresh herbs tied with a piece of white cloth and proceeded to brush Grandmother's body with long, rhythmic strokes.
"This don is so powerful that if you don't learn how to use it, it will kill you," Doña Mariana said to young Patricia.
The old curandera asked Grandmother to close her eyes and began to chant some prayers. Soon Grandmother Patricia found herself feeling lighter and lighter, as if she were a feather floating in the air.
"Suddenly, a beam of light struck me right on the chest. At first I was very afraid. I could feel a current of energy moving through my body. Even with my eyes closed, I could see zigzags of lightning in the skies."
After this visit from Doña Mariana, Grandmother recovered quickly. In a few days, she was back helping her mother in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, cutting vegetables and cleaning the house. One afternoon, not long after Grandmother's recovery, the sky turned dark and the clouds became swollen with rain. Anticipating the storm, the workers left the fields and took refuge in the house.
Everyone found something to do — some were carefully rolling a fresh supply of cigars, others were mending the fishing nets used to catch river trout, and old Armando found pleasure in weaving a new hat out of palm leaves. Arturo was playing his guitar softly when lightning suddenly bolted across the sky. A few seconds later, the roar of thunder shook the house, shattering a couple of empty glasses on the kitchen table and unnerving everyone, including the horses outside in the stable.
Grandmother's father was the one who noticed that Elias, a young cowboy, was missing. Another cowboy, Alberto, mentioned he had seen Elias riding his horse towards the river early in the afternoon. Doña Antonia pulled out her rosary and sat in a corner of the room to pray for Elias's safety. Grandmother went into her room and lit a candle to Saint Barbara, the saint of thunder and lightning, for protection. As she gazed at the flame, she became fascinated by the glowing dance of the orange, yellow, red and blue colors — a dance that pulled her into the heart of the fire. Grandmother told me that she had seen Elias being hit by lightning and thrown from his horse by the electrical charge. She could see that he was about a mile away from the house, near the cornfield.
Excerpted from Blessed by Thunder by Flor Fernandez Barrios. Copyright © 2008 Flor Fernandez Barrios. Excerpted by permission of Seal Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1. Two Births,
2. La Revolución,
3. La Finca,
4. Petra and Alazana,
7. Stories from My Hometown,
8. La Libreta,
9. School Goes to the Countryside,
10. Life in the Camps,
11. Las Capitanas,
12. Ten Million Tons of Sugar,
13. Canta Rana — Where the Frogs Sing,
14. The Telegram,
15. Good-bye, Cabaigüán,
16. Night from Hell,
17. Flight to Freedom,
18. City of Angels,
19. Grandmother's Visit,
20. The Crow,
About the Author,