Reduced Vocabulary / Yoani Sánchez

Fuegos artificiales frente a La Habana por el día de los DDHH
Fireworks off Havana for Human Rights Day*

In the long list of the words forbidden in my childhood, there were two in particular that were censored: “Christmas” and “Human Rights.” The first I heard from time to time, in a whisper, from the lips of a grandmother who had known the trees with garlands, the traditional nougat candy and turkey. But the other, the second, was muttered disparagingly to allude to someone who — it was said — was involved in counterrevolutionary acts, enemies. And so I grew up, oblivious to the festivities of the last week of the year, and believing that evil lurked in that statement adopted by the United Nations. My compartmentalized vocabulary ended up conditioning me to a civic attitude full of fears and led me to fall into line with so many prohibitions.

This December the stores display twinkling lights and trees loaded with ornaments. A Santa Claus with hardly any belly smiles in the window of an important commercial center in the city. People run into each other and delight in every syllable of expressions such as “Merry Christmas”; “I’m shopping for Christmas”; “drop by to celebrate Christmas.” The reduced vocabulary of my childhood has given back a word, a term cursed for decades. But my next door neighbor still says, “Careful, don’t get too close, they’re ‘human rights people’.” At some repudiation rally — across the country — someone might now scream, “Down with human rights!” and the political police stationed on the corner confirm on their radios, “Yes, here comes a little group of ‘Human Righters’.” And there’s always a friend who asks us to whisper, “because if you’re going to mention such ‘things’ it’s better to turn the music up.”

A fake snow falls on the red Christmas hats, but a huge downpour dissolves it; the rain of intolerance, the big fat drops of the arrests, the gales created on this Island when someone dares to barely pronounce the phrase “human rights.”

Translator’s note: These photos from Havana are of the greeting in fireworks for Human Rights Day from a flotilla of Cuba exiles, who remained in international waters as they showed their support for Cubans on the island working for freedom and democracy.

December 10 2011