Her heart isn’t yet hanging by a thread.
But it soon will be. It’s the night of May 10, 2015 and in her house in Regla, on the outskirts of Havana, Cándida López receives a call from her daughter Mayara Alvite in Quito, wishing her a happy Mother’s Day. Cándida recalls a bright, loving conversation, dampened only by the anguish of physical distance. Her daughter seems livelier and more upbeat than she has been recently, more like herself. Which is reason enough for Cándida to recover a bit of the calm she’s rarely felt since October 2014, when Mayara sold her dead father’s house in San Miguel del Padrón and decided to emigrate to Ecuador to try her luck with her girlfriend, Waday, a forty-year-old, half-Chinese woman Cándida has always detested because she is very controlling of her daughter, only twenty-three.
From the night of the phone call on, Mayara, despondent and in an unfamiliar place, becomes progressively glummer until, on the morning of May 12, Cándida receives another phone call from her daughter’s number. It is Waday. It is a dam which the events come bursting through.
“When I woke up that day I hadn’t felt like having breakfast,” she says. “I didn’t even want to get out of bed. I had a tight feeling in my chest. I didn’t know what was happening to me.”
Cándida, petrified, deep in the tunnel where they tell her over and over again that, yesterday night, from a beam in a closet, with a luggage strap,
Her blood pressure goes through the roof. Everything Cándida does from now on—her relentless crusade for the return of her daughter’s body, the brief moments of trying to think about anything else—she will do with her nerves pulverized, sunk deep into a cancerous struggle that will manifest itself in different ways, with one horrific constant: the feeling of having nothing to lean on, nothing to look forward to.
Forty-five minutes after the conversation with Cándida, Waday—whom everyone calls La China—calls again and talks to Cándida’s sister-in-law. She needs five thousand dollars, she says disdainfully, and power of attorney, authorizing her to deal with the process of getting the body repatriated.
On her way back from the polyclinic, still unsettled and clinging to the ever fainter possibility that this is some cruel trick, Cándida decides she’s not going to send any money to La China, firstly because she doesn’t have any, and secondly because under no circumstances will she give one penny, and far less power of attorney, to that harpy.
And then Cándida gets another idea.
“La China murdered my daughter,” she says. “My daughter was full of life. A mother can’t be wrong. More than anything, my daughter loved and respected life.”
And a while later:
“If they bring her, I’m going to dress her up real nice. If they don’t let me dress her, I’ll kiss her, I’ll touch her. I want to do it all.”
And so, during that first week, caught between blind rage and unlimited affection, Cándida visits different organizations in search of help. She goes to the Calzada and K. funeral home. She goes to the office for public assistance at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Minrex). She goes to the Council of State. She goes to the Ecuadorian embassy. She goes to the National Center for Sexual Education (Cenesex), where her daughter was an activist. She goes to the studios of Kcho, an artist with some influence in political circles. She goes to the cathedral to speak to Cardinal Jaime Ortega. She goes to see the city’s historian, Eusebio Leal. She writes letters to President Rafael Correa and—why not?—the Telesur journalist Walter Martínez.
She is accompanied in this process by Mayara’s ex-partner Iris Jiménez, who, when she found out about the suicide, could think of no other way to ease her mind than by putting herself at Cándida’s disposal. In the end, the information Cándida gathers basically validates La China’s demands.
“For the transfer of the body, the family needs to contact someone in the country, a friend or relative, and send them the money, in this case around six thousand dollars. You arrange that through the consulate, and when the flight arrives here they notify us, pay two hundred pesos at the airport, and then we make the transfer to the place of burial,” says Emir Díaz, from the office for International Coordination at the Calzada and K. funeral home.
But six thousand dollars—for the plane tickets, legal documents, preparation of the body—sounds like compounded punishment. All the money Cándida has earned in her life wouldn’t come close to covering that figure.
“There was one case,” Díaz says, “in which a family sent the money, but it got lost, and they decided to cremate instead. It worked out cheaper and easier.”
But Cándida won’t hear of cremation. She reacts as if someone were brandishing a burning stick. There has to be another option, she thinks.
No one offers her any help, and though she does get advice from Minrex, it is given, she claims, through gritted teeth. After the first couple of days, La China too disengages herself from the matter, partly because of Cándida’s hostility.
On June 10, an email from the Cuban Embassy in Quito reaches Minrex, written in the name of the Consul in charge of Consular Affairs:
I’ve been trying for days to locate Waday to ask her why she hasn’t cooperated further on the procedure required for the remains to be repatriated. She had begun the process of arranging transportation, but the corpse is still in legal medicine and until we give permission, they won’t release it.
If the deceaseds [sic] mother has any information regarding Waday’s whereabouts we would be grateful for it, as the information we have is insufficient. In addition, the mother has to grant Waday authorization to begin the process of repatriation […]
I don’t have the results of the investigation since it would seem, according to forensic medicine, that the verdict of suicide is undisputed.
July goes by. August goes by. Entrenched in her battle, Cándida has no resources to move forward. No money. No allies. Neither the charity of an NGO nor the support of a state. She loses her link with the staff at Minrex. Friends from the United States share what they’ve managed to find out: that Mayara has been moved to a funeral home called El Diazepán. Cándida tries to get in touch with magazines and television programs in Miami, like the tabloid show Al Rojo Vivo, to bring attention to her situation, hoping someone might come to her aid.
Black ribbons of impotence rise up from her insides.
“I’m an honest person, and I’ll say what needs to be said: if I have to shout that the president’s a homosexual in order for Human Rights to bring me Mayara’s body I’ll do it. I’m not afraid. They can’t get me to kill someone, to carry a bomb, commit an atrocity, none of that. But shouting? I’ll shout anything they like, because I want my daughter’s body back. Because if you’re my government, you’re my state, and I come to you, my representative, as my only recourse, and you won’t help me out, so what can a mother do, tell me? Whatever it takes. If I could swim there, I would.”
This furious rage is preferable to quiet. In real calm, when she manages to forget about the bureaucratic entanglements, the legal procedures, the institutions’ lack of interest, and the impenetrable wall of those thousands of dollars, there gleams an idea far more damaging, one that leaps to her face like acid.
“I can’t give in. My daughter, wherever she is, can’t find out I’ve given in, because I’m not the kind of woman who gives in, especially not for her.”
That’s the idea that comes: her daughter is lost in a dark and distant kingdom, and she needs someone to rescue her.
You’d think that, next to a daughter who has killed herself, next to the concrete fact that she’ll never come back, the suffering of not having her body would be nothing. But in reality, it’s everything. You’d think that, after the cliff-fall of surviving your own daughter, vulgar obstacles would be nothing to you. But in reality, they’re everything.
Death can become even more excruciating than the plain fact of death. Death is not just death, there are things that make it better or worse. What Cándida is asking for—without knowing whom to ask—is both nothing and everything.
She just needs one moment. To say good-bye. To look at Mayara. To look at her. And that’s it. But until this tiny thing happens she’s not going to give in. And then yes, then death. But that stubbornness, that brute pig-headedness, that animal obstinacy—perhaps that’s what makes us humans.
To commit suicide is to untie yourself. To look at the tree of existence and say: no more. Some, like Mayara, gently undo the knot and skip off. Others—hard, dry, weathered—persist. Like Cándida.
A few months after she was born, her mother abandoned her on a stairwell, where some neighbors found and rescued her. Then at seven she took her back, basically turning her into her servant. Her stepfather raped her at eleven, and nine months later she had a son whom, she says, she never saw as a son.
“I was a girl, and thought of him as being more like my brother, something like that, and not like my son—I had no idea what it meant to have a son. The truth is, I couldn’t love him.”
With a special work license, she began cleaning floors to support herself. At fifteen she met Ricardo Alvite. She was hitching a ride with a friend and Alvite, who ran a private fleet of cars, invited them to a party. They would remain lovers for years.
Alvite had six other lovers and a rock-solid marriage. The strange thing is, the women all knew about each other. Cándida and his wife even began a friendship.
“He gave me everything,” Cándida says. “He got me out of the pigsty I was living in.”
Cándida had Mayara in February 1992, when she was twenty-eight. She and Alvite separated when Mayara turned one, but Alvite continued to be a devoted father. He bought Cándida a little wooden house in Regla and did it up little by little. He also took care of Cándida’s son until the boy, who showed the same rage towards her that she did towards him, ran off on his own.
In 1996, Hurricane Lili destroyed Cándida’s house. She received a government grant for reconstruction materials, but they never showed up. She stayed in the house, which was almost a complete ruin, until someone in the neighborhood emigrated to the United States. Before the government could confiscate their property, Cándida made it her own.
“I’m a force to be reckoned with. I take life on and I’m not afraid, that’s how God intends it. I went up onto the roof, got into the little patio, broke the seal, and snuck into the apartment where I live today.”
When the Housing department tried to get her out, the neighbors protested. Cándida deserved a decent home. She didn’t know whether or not she deserved it, but what she did know, as she stood there, machete in hand, was that nobody was going to kick her out. She denounced the police, went to the Party and the government, insulted any and every official they put before her, and in the end she won the battle.
Mayara was a sickly child. Cándida, who knew what it was like to have no protection, reacted by overprotecting her.
“As a mother I was always on the lookout, ever watchful, and I always used to say to teachers, ‘Wherever you go, I’ll be watching. Make sure you don’t touch her because I’ll kill you like a dog.’ No, I didn’t understand.”
Cándida, the attack dog, tirelessly sniffing around.
“My daughter had a diary and I never thought twice about looking through it from time to time.”
“I knew she was a homosexual by the time she was four. I saw it in her.”
Cándida, the sensitive oracle, predicting, presaging, from day one.
“I went to my mother’s house—she raised me—and said to her: ‘I have to tell you something. Mayi’s going to be a lesbian.’ And she said to me: ‘Hush, child, the devil will hear you.’ I don’t know why—she was feminine, she played with her girl cousins. I bought her dresses, dolls.”
Claudia Rodríguez, one of Mayara’s closest friends, tells me:
“We knew each other from the age of eight. We used to play house, and she always wanted to be the daddy.”
At one point, amongst many scattered memories, Cándida mentions one unsettling detail:
“Scarves. My daughter loved scarves.”
When Mayara began primary school, Cándida started working at the school as a cleaner. She followed her through secondary, and when Mayara started accountancy school, Cándida would wander around the outside of the building. When, as a teenager, Mayara would go to Park G in Vedado at night to hang out with her friends, Cándida would make surprise appearances.
Her mother’s presence was a disagreeable one, embarrassing.
“To be a homosexual is to belong to a very dirty world,” Cándida says. “It means fighting against homophobia, but it also means fighting against twisted and shameless homosexuals who do bad things with one another. Am I wrong?”
How much did her mother’s obsessive surveillance affect Mayara? Her interference caused problems early on in their relationship.
“She used to say to me: ‘Mom, how many times does God forgive? I forgive you every day. Why are you so pigheaded?’”
Mayara was already coming out to others by the time she turned sixteen.
“She used to confide in me and Dayana, my girlfriend and her best friend,” says Claudia. “And at the time Mayara was in love with some little girl from school.”
After reading her daughter’s diary from cover to cover, Cándida sat her down and begged her to tell her what she’d always known anyway. Mayara told her that she didn’t feel male, that she was a woman before anything else, but that she wanted nothing to do with men, and that she was disgusted by the idea of a man touching her.
Cándida went to the kitchen and took a knife to bury it in her own heart, but Mayara, Cándida says, took another knife and told her that if she couldn’t share in her happiness then she didn’t want to live either. Cándida asked to be forgiven, said she was stupid, that she loved her, she really loved her. She went out onto the street, rented a lesbian porn film, and sat down to watch it with her daughter. Shock therapy? Solidarity? Cándida battled between excessive love and her concern about what she considered to be a defect.
“She asked me why I was showing her these obscene things, said I didn’t respect her. I told her to pay attention, because that’s what she was going to be doing from now on.”
Mayara offered grudging comfort, telling her that as long as her father was alive, she’d have no relationships in public. Her father was an honorable man, with different principles, from a different era. She was spending a lot of time in her father’s house in San Miguel del Padrón, and he was a mentor to her.
But the deferment wasn’t long. Ricardo Alvite died within months. And Cándida—of course it was Cándida, it was always Cándida—found Madelín for her. Her twenty-one-year-old neighbour, her first, fleeting daughter-in-law.
There’s a rather strange photo of Mayara. She’s young, older than four, maybe six or seven. She has light and intentionally scruffy hair, a fringe hanging over her brow. Her lips are like a pink communion pyx, her solemn nose dead center in her symmetrical face. Her mauve blouse hangs off her slight shoulders, and you can make out the faint semicircles of bags under her immense, deep blue eyes, like the inevitable shadow cast.
We’ll never know exactly what, but something—turbulent, unshakeable—is gestating in her. At six or seven, she was a child any other boy or girl would have fallen in love with.
“If it wasn’t incest, I’d have been a lesbian to satisfy her,” Cándida says. “To stop others from harming her or from messing with her mind. Or her heart.”
The nation’s news bulletins announce that Pope Francis will arrive in Cuba on September 20 and give a mass in Havana Cathedral. Cándida comes up with a plan: she will interrupt the mass, explain her situation to the Pope, and commend herself body and soul to the most holy. She’s heard that the Pope is an apostolic leader, renowned for listening and attending to the needy. She looks in her wardrobe and rifles through her clothes to decide what to wear for the occasion. She says she doesn’t care if the police arrest her, mistaking her for a political dissident.
But September 20 comes and goes and Cándida doesn’t go anywhere, and after speaking to La China again, her mental state flips from religious and devout to violent, demonic.
“I’ll rip your heart out and eat it, I don’t care,” she tells her at the end of one of their last conversations.
She keeps count of the days. Four months since she died. Eleven months since she left Cuba. Seven months since her last birthday. Et cetera. A dead child hits one milestone or another every day. She takes amitriptyline, she’s prescribed floral essences. Her breasts are inflamed with psoriasis, her diabetes spikes, sometimes she forgets things, and she’s started wetting herself and uses muslin diapers because the disposable ones are too expensive.
“They want to admit me to the hospital. I’m not doing well. I’ve been driven to despair.”
A psychologist prescribes Cándida a certain melody which she has to listen to at regular intervals throughout the day to help her relax. Some strangers visit and ask her if her daughter had taken communion, if she was Catholic. Cándida probably suspects they won’t help resolve anything, but she chats away regardless. She needs to let it out, let it all out. She knows that God sees suicide as a sin and gives the visitors a detailed lesson on the subject. When a person hangs themselves there’s a sudden yank and then they wet themselves and their tongue droops out. But her daughter was sitting down, like she was trying to force herself up with her legs. That’s what Minrex told her. Her daughter was a dark blue color, which means she’d been asphyxiated. Then she asks them, as she’s asked so many others, if they know anyone who could go to El Diazepán funeral home and take some photos of Mayara for her. There’s an unmistakeable tattoo on her left hand.
“Don’t look at her eyes, they’re sure to be different now. A tiny little tattoo, that’s how you’ll know. A moon with two angels. One sitting on one tip, the other on the other tip. That’s how she got it done.”
By the time Mayara turned twenty, in 2012, she was already living alone in San Miguel del Padrón and had begun to frequent Cenesex, where she became a fierce activist for the rights of the LGBTI community. She attended conferences, talks delivered by specialists, and joined circles of exchange where each member had to reveal some of their personal secrets or explain why they were there, what their motivations were, and other empathetic exercises.
She met Iris Jiménez, who was the same age as her, at one of these meetings, and they became romantically involved.
“She was very pretty, with lovely blue eyes. And her personality was magnetic,” says Iris. “Extroverted, entirely lacking in reserve or self-pity. You’d talk to her for five minutes and feel as if you’d known her all your life.”
Mayara was her first relationship, the one she discovered everything with. Romance, long conversations, a way of being in the world.
“People looked at us like we were weirdos. It made me sad, as I wasn’t used to that. She told me not to let myself be intimidated. She told me she cut her hair short and wore shirts simply because she felt like it.”
Their relationship lasted barely a month, but it left such an impression that three years later, Iris didn’t think twice about contacting Cándida and putting herself at her disposal. Without Iris, Cándida wouldn’t have been able to knock at as many doors as she did, though they haven’t gotten her very far.
It hurts Iris, bothers her, that Mayara got together with La China only a few days after they broke up, and she still can’t figure out how the hyperactive girl she’d been so close to became the submissive, dull creature who would end up hanging herself with total disregard.
They met at a party in Virgen del Camino and moved in together straight away. La China had a son whom Mayara doted on, and Cándida initially accepted La China, but she turned against her once the abuse started.
“Mayara would get furious whenever I got involved in their relationship. She turned against me, because Waday was everything to her.”
It was an unequal relationship from the outset.
“La China would say to her face that she had no job, that she was a deadbeat. She even told some of us, her friends, that she didn’t like Mayara, that Mayara was a whiny brat. But La China kept on going to her house, brought her son over. To be honest, I never really understood that relationship.”
Cándida did, though, and sums it up succinctly: forty years old versus—at the time—twenty-two. Although Mayara didn’t see it as a battle.
“She wouldn’t accept any criticism. We all warned her not to get attached,” says Claudia. “But there you go: she was in love. She didn’t even mind that La China hit her. There were beatings and insults, break-ups. There was this wall of shame that, even after she’d started to work—selling clothes and soaps—cornered her, in ways I couldn’t imagine. After the break-ups, La China always decided to ‘give her another chance,’ although—everyone thought—all she did was use her.”
“They’d fight, but every time my daughter made some money, she went straight back to her,” Cándida says.
Then, in the midst of the darkness, like a flame ignited and accelerated by her youth, Mayara started thinking about emigrating.
“I remember La China saying that what she needed was to leave and leave for good, that she didn’t want anything from Mayara. But in the end, she did want something,” says Claudia.
Mayara sold the house in San Miguel del Padrón for twelve thousand dollars. She went to the cemetery in Colón and, standing over her father’s grave, promised him she’d get the property back. She bought her plane tickets and—according to the diary Cándida managed to peek at—a five-hundred-dollar air conditioning system and a three-hundred-dollar stove for La China.
“I gave you life, I fed you,” Cándida told her a few days before she left, “but if I have to kill you, I will, because that bitch is abusing you.”
At that moment, Cándida hadn’t even suspected that Mayara intended to pay for La China’s tickets as well.
“She didn’t call me again, and she didn’t say good-bye, but I stayed strong. I didn’t call her either,” she says.
Mayara arrived in Quito in October 2014, on a five-day tourist visa. La China arrived in November. Sometime later, she brought her ex-husband.
That was the final blow for Mayara—illegal, exposed, betrayed, her money gone. As she wandered alone through harsh, foggy Quito on the night of May 11, the delicate threads that tethered her to herself unraveled, and in her apartment in the La Floresta neighborhood, on Sevilla N24-606 and Vizcaya, she finally let herself go.
Two days after the suicide, Dayana Stincer—Claudia’s ex-partner, Mayara’s best friend—calls La China, and the conversation, for some reason, is recorded:
“Tell me it’s all a lie,” Dayana says.
“Child, how on earth…Look, Dayana, how could you think it’s a lie, something like this, I mean, wow. How could I call Cándida and say to her, ‘Cándida, your daughter’s dead’? Of course it’s true.”
La China tells her they were already separated. “But she couldn’t find work, she was depressed, she’d also tried to end her life the month before, she cut her wrists in front of me and I had to tell her all manner of things. Then she calmed down, she was very calm, but I have a job you know, and look, I’ll say it again, we were already separated. I’d go over, leave her money for food, rent, for all those things. And also things like helping her with her papers, so she wouldn’t be illegal. Every time I went we’d fight, and you know the way me and Mayara used to fight. That Monday I went over, we argued as usual, and then I went out to get her some food because she didn’t have any. I get back, put down the things, go into the room, and then I found her, hanging, in the closet. I cut her loose and then I went running to call an ambulance, but by the time the ambulance arrived it was way too late. And I’d taken my time in the shop. I never thought Mayara would go and do that, go figure. Legal medicine came, the police, and I was caught up in that whole fucking thing until three a.m., and then in the morning I called Cándida. Now I have to wait for Cándida to send me power of attorney, but that takes time. Then I have to send over Mayara’s stuff, her clothes and shoes, her belongings. Cándida wants me to send it and I will. I don’t want anything that belonged to Mayara. What for? I have no use for any of it.”
“And how are you doing, mami?” Dayana asks.
“Well, right now I’m still experiencing the shock of finding her. I’ll say it again, I never thought…I spoke to her many times, told her that though we weren’t together anymore, she had to stay strong, keep going. She wanted to go back to Cuba. I told her that if she wanted to go back I’d pay for her ticket and she could go back, but that’s not the point. The point is you have to keep growing in life, face challenges. Mayara was never like that, she wasn’t strong. All of you who were close to Mayara knew that she was in love with me, that she wouldn’t leave my side. All Mayara thought about was La China and you know it.”
Four months later, in October, Dayana had already emigrated to Miami, and having said on Messenger that yes, she would talk, she finally says she won’t. She doesn’t want to keep remembering.
May she be forgiven, she says. Her friend will understand.
Once Mayara was in Ecuador, Cándida says they spoke often, the way you imagine a mother and daughter would speak, but she can’t forget that the last time they saw each other they both ended up screaming. And she blames herself.
“I’m going to say the saddest thing now. I didn’t deserve my daughter. I was too tough with her. I persecuted her, didn’t let her be.”
Those cries come back to haunt her today and Cándida, the fighter, cannot dispel them. The noise of the past is not something that can be silenced.
On November 9, after many attempts by Cándida to reach her, La China answers her cell phone in Quito. She doesn’t seem agitated or apprehensive, she reacts naturally, she says she’s ready to talk and asks to be called back later. But no such talk ever takes place. She doesn’t pick up again, she doesn’t answer any messages. Her silence is a stance in itself, and perhaps also an answer.
On November 11, exactly seven months after the suicide, it’s confirmed that the El Diazepán funeral home doesn’t exist and Mayara has been in the fridges at the Pichincha Department of Legal Medicine in Quito the whole time.
Sergeant Luis Armando Quispe, from Pichincha, explains that Legal Medicine signs annual agreements with the city’s funeral homes and that, once approximately a year has passed, and subject to availability, they do the necessary preparations and unclaimed victims are buried in a communal grave.
Quispe doesn’t allow Mayara’s corpse to be viewed, the authorization of a family member is needed for that. But he will share the forensic ruling, the police report—including La China’s declaration—and the letter from the Cuban consulate. Time of death: 7.55 p.m. Cause: hanging.
In the photos, Mayara is wearing brown slippers, a blue sweatshirt, and pink trousers. Her lower lip is split and she has bruises on her shoulders and cheeks: the consequences of rigor mortis. There is a broad welt on her neck. Her face has stiffened with death. Unless there is some miraculous solution—thousands of dollars for her repatriation—Mayara will end up in a communal grave, or in some medical school where her organs will be used for clinical studies.
On her left hand, on the canvas of her deathly pale skin, a faint tattoo shows three stars and a waning moon. One angel is sitting on one tip. The other sits on the other tip, breathing.