America Emilia Varela arrived at her mother’s home in Alturas de Belen with three young children and a shattered heart.
The young woman that served as a second mother to her siblings and an ally to her mother now needed her family’s support more than ever before.
A few weeks before, on August 27, 1961, Nena and the kids said goodbye to her husband as he headed to a town hall meeting. She was home with the three kids: Clara, Margarita, and Jacobo when there was a knock on the door.
“Ma’am,” they said. “Your husband has died; he had a stroke.”
Nena could only muster, “What?”
“Luis Rogelio is dead. He started to get up to give his speech and fell suddenly. We’re very sorry.”
Nena felt every particle of her soul vanish when she became a widow at the age of 32. The smile that previously adorned her face became a thin line of the trauma caused by her first and only love’s death. In burying her husband, she also buried her most profound joy.
Besides the blast caused by Luis Rogelio’s sudden death, Nena was tormented by the reality that her husband did not die by accident. During the second Cuban Revolution, both of them had been agents of the clandestine army. They set prisoners who awaited executions free; they rescued people chased by Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship.
As agents, Nena and Luis Rogelio would provide refuge for soldiers traveling toward Havana to fight the dictatorship. After the triumph of the revolution in 1959, Luis Rogelio started noticing changes in the town he disagreed with. He was meant to voice his grievances on the day of his death. Rumor has it that he was poisoned before he entered the town hall meeting.
In Havana, the family embraced Nena. In particular, her sister and brother-in-law, Felica and Nestor, took care of her and the kids until they could move out independently. This took many years. Her husband’s loss would be the first of many dark times Nena would have to endure in her lifetime.
Before Luis Rogelio’s death, Nena was joyous. She was indispensable to her family. Her relationship with her mother was exceptional. From a young age, she became her mother’s midwife and received all of her siblings at their birth. Nena was the first to hold them and bring them to their mother’s breast to feed.
Gradually, all the siblings began to grow. Each of them worked on tasks in and outside the house that were inappropriate for their age. However, they were all very happy and close to each other; they loved their family’s grandeur despite how little they had.
As was common back then, the town would gather around the park in the plaza during the afternoon to listen to music and stroll. Mari, one of the younger sisters, would accompany Nena to the park and notice the intensity in which she and Luis Rogelio looked at each other. Every encounter between them was brief, but it filled the air with bubbling energy.
At a party held at Luis Rogelio’s grandfather’s ranch, the entire family noticed love was blossoming between them. Their passion was so contagious that everyone else eventually fell in love with him as he was a special kind of person. The ties that were forged by that love allowed them to escape at night without the elders noticing.
But like everything else on this earth, Nena and Luis Rogelio couldn’t keep their secret meetings hidden for long. On one of their escapades, they consummated their love and conceived their first child.
The news infuriated Nena’s father; the old Spaniard couldn’t accept that his first grandchild is born outside of holy matrimony. Despite the affection he felt for Luis Rogelio, he grabbed his shotgun and headed to his house.
“Alright, sir,” he said. “Either you marry her, or you marry me. Pick.”
Luis didn’t have to think about it twice; he was madly in love with Nena. “That’s easy. I’ll marry her.”
Clara was born soon after their wedding. The family moved to Escandón, where Luis Rogelio built a house. Magaly and Jacobo were born there. It was in this house where they spent the happiest moments. Their lives overflowed with love and affection for each other. They lived in tandem with their kids and looked after the family’s wellbeing. The walls resonated with a mixture of laughter and scoldings over running around barefoot in their home. Every inch of it was built from the heart.
All those memories would be engraved in Nena’s heart for the rest of her life. The light in her eyes had faded, and she dedicated all her time to two simple tasks: taking good care of her family and religiously visiting her loved ones at the cemetery.
Luis Rogelio’s death left an interminable void in her, stripping her of the possibility of enjoying her life as she had before.
After several years, when it seemed that the worse loss of her life had already happened, her first grandson, Alejandro, died at the age of 19. Stripping her soul from her again.
Then, her youngest son died suddenly, at the same age as his father.
Dear reader, I’d like to think that imagining where she found the strength to carry on despite those heart-wrenching events doesn’t begin to compare to its tragic reality.
Ironically, due to a genetic defect, Nena’s heart was abnormally big. She was kind by nature, despite having a robust character. She prepared meals for her daughters and grandchildren, she would set up the parties and leave, she’d pick up groceries for her siblings if they needed it, and without a single absence, she would walk to the cemetery—sometimes with Ñica.
In her lifetime, she cared for and spoiled all her grandchildren. She always preferred the boys but was equally as loving to the girls. During lunchtime, her grandchildren sat with her, she held a loaf of Cuban bread
as a weapon to cure misbehavior. Dayami would stare outside the window while Damarys and Ibis whispered and giggled to each other. All of them, of all sizes and ages, would start lollygagging until it upset her. When they didn’t stop at her request, she would chase them all around the house, usually grabbing one hostage to show the others she was serious.
She took care of all of them while her son and daughters worked. Taking care of her grandchildren was just part of being a mother and grandmother; for them, it would engrave unforgettable moments, growing up together, playing in the rain, laughing joyously, and being chased by a loaf of bread. After Alejandro’s death, she was particularly attached to one of her youngest grandsons, Armandito. She would care for him and defend him against anyone who dared touch him. When he was little, she would sleep beside him, and as an adult, she would wait for him to come home so he could eat the meal she had prepared for him.
She was able to meet her great-grandchildren. By then, she had suffered so much that she had no choice but to open up to so much tenderness. She was delicate and sweet as honey with us.
On September 30, 2009, she had her final death. Her soul was reunited with those who had previously parted with it.
America Emilia Varela (May 30, 1926-Sept. 30, 2009)
Luis Rogelio Soto (R.I.P. August 27, 1961)