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    paper artwork of an old woman selling stacks of brightly colored cloth

    A Legacy of Survival

    For my grandmother, the struggle to survive was rooted in faith.

    By Kat Armas

    November 22, 2022

    Available languages: español

    • Burl Self

      Bless our hard working immigrants. Without which our nation would be a shadow of its former self.

    • Christopher Evans

      Amazing story of faith and struggling, praise God for this uplifting article.

    “Aleluya, Gloria a Dios!”

    These were the words out of Abuela’s mouth as she emerged from her first session of chemo, locking eyes with me as she entered the room. Her steady, strong, and determined gaze on that day will always burn brightly in my memory. Even then, at a young age, I knew that her eyes told stories of persistence, resistance, and faith – stories I longed to hear, stories that live inside of my body now. Stories of survival.

    Abuela’s declaration that day was not only one of gratitude to God in hard times (although, surely, it was that too), but of an intent to survive, and of trust in a God who supported her in that endeavor. These words were the words that sustained her through widowhood, through motherhood, through exile, through loss.

    This was not Abuela’s first time encountering the struggle to survive.

    Abuela arrived from Cuba a year after her husband, my grandfather, made his own exodus. He boarded a lancha one night after learning that the government had caught wind of his opposition efforts and were coming to arrest him in the morning. Within hours, he was gone, left at the mercy of the pitch-black ocean. Often called the Corridor of Death, those ninety miles of coarse water between Cuba and Florida swallowed up refugee bodies by the thousands. And yet, for others, those very same waters became the gateway to a transformed, more hopeful life.

    smiling old lady holding a wedding photo

    Abuela in 2016, holding a picture of her wedding day. Photograph courtesy of the author.

    Most who left the island buried their jewelry and belongings, drawing maps on napkins to keep in their pockets. They were convinced that they would return, positive they would get another chance to dig their toes into the white sand, to walk through the colorful streets of Havana, to sit around the table once more with friends, to feel the salty breeze offering a cool respite from the warmth of the tropics. When he realized that moment would never come, my grandfather sent for the rest of his family to join him in the States. And in time, they too made the treacherous journey. And they too survived.

    There was a term popularized in Cuba to describe the economic situation in the early 1990s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union: resolver, the struggle to survive. To resolver is to discover within oneself the power and agency to face the hardships of everyday life, relying on the earth and one’s neighbors. Those who live their lives resolviendo understand that the struggle to survive is not something done in isolation, an individual mission, but a communal endeavor. You cannot resolver without community. This has been the way of life for most people throughout history (and a majority of the world today): getting what they need for the day at hand, and looking no further. Survival doesn’t have the luxury of planning ahead.

    And in those early days, that was exactly what Abuela and our family did: resolver.

    In Cuba, my grandfather and his brothers had worked as carniceros (butchers) in their local supermarket. During the first year in the United States, before Abuela, Mom, and my aunt and uncle arrived, my grandfather obtained a similar job at a local grocery store, as did the other carniceros in the family. After several years, a few of them were able to save enough money to purchase a small grocery store together in Little Havana. It had two cash registers, several aisles of food, a fruit stand, a carnicería (butcher shop), and a small cafeteria where they sold pastelitos and cafecitos (pastries and coffee). The store was divided into sections; each brother owned a small part. Abuela worked the register, Mom packed bags. This small grocery store became a lifeline, providing both financially and emotionally for our family.

    When Abuela wasn’t running the cash register at the grocery store, cooking food for our family, or tending to her mango and avocado trees, she was singing in the choir at church. She found solace within the stained-glass walls of St. Dominic’s where she was sustained by the chorus: Aleluya, Gloria a Dios. Gratitude and resolviendo. This was the faith I witnessed growing up: one that infiltrated every aspect of life, that engaged the senses, the hands, the vocal cords. For Abuela and the exiled, faith was no lofty, intellectual endeavor; faith was rooted in the body. It was rooted in survival.

    And soon enough, that survival was threatened. My grandfather's heart gave out after only a few years into living in the States. Some say it was the stress of the exile that killed him, but I can't help but feel that it was the thought of never seeing his island, his family, his people again. His heart not only gave out, it broke. When my grandfather first became sick, Abuela found herself spending more time at the store, working double shifts, keeping up with her own and her husband’s workload, trying to protect their “share” of the store and make ends meet. And when she was home, tending to my grandfather became her primary focus.

    We are not sure when the plan began to transpire, when the other store owners – her own family members – decided to push Abuela out of the business, but they planned to do so once my grandfather died. Her brothers-in-law each wanted a larger portion of the store for themselves, and with my grandfather gone, they saw an opportunity: a widow, a vulnerable woman with no man to protect her. Never mind all the work she’d put in prior to and during my grandfather’s sickness, never mind her rightful claim to the store, never mind decency and kindness. My family uses words like “torture” and phrases like “made her life a living hell” to describe what Abuela went through. The men showed no mercy as she fought vigorously in the midst of her grief to preserve what little remained of community, of my grandfather’s memory, of financial stability. As she fought, in short, to survive.

    Perhaps it was something like resolver that Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples to pray “give us today our daily bread.” Our daily bread. No more, no less. Just enough to resolver. Perhaps Jesus knew this would be the reality for most people in all ages: figuring out how to get by day by day. Latino theologians have described the daily struggle of survival as something that happens in lo cotidiano, the everyday, informal space where life and faith are experienced. Lo Cotidiano is the starting place for encountering and knowing God. As mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz describes, lo cotidiano is “the sphere in which our struggle for life is most immediate, most vigorous, most vibrant.” It is the space where survival takes place – where both God and structural and systemic sin are encountered most intimately. Theological discourse dislodged from the lived experience of the majority of people turns lo cotidiano into an abstraction. But it is precisely in our day to day struggles where our life takes its shape.

    It reminds me of the daughters of Zelophehad. You won’t often hear about these brave sisters in your Sunday school class, but they are introduced in Numbers 26 and besides them, only Miriam and Moses are mentioned as often in the Hebrew Scriptures. Their story begins when God instructs Moses to distribute the Promised land according to paternal tribal affiliation, which means that only males were entitled to the inheritance. Because their father had died during the Exodus and they were without husbands or brothers, the patriarchal system of kinship that Moses was using to allocate land excluded Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – and probably other women who were without men in their lives – from receiving a portion of the land.

    Chapter 27 begins with Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah “coming forward,” standing before Moses, Eleazer the priest, and the entire community at the entrance of the meeting tent” (v. 2). The passage leaves much to the imagination. Whose idea was it to come before Moses, the priests, and the entire community? And why now? The timing, according to the narrative, seems measured, deliberate. It happens at the end of the land distribution but before leaders are assigned and dispersed. The sisters literally place their bodies in front of Moses, the priests, and the entire community, an act with immense symbolic meaning. By placing their bodies in front of the entrance of the meeting tent, they took the position usually held by Moses – a bold decision. Then, the sisters made their appeal, concluding with confidence: “Give us property among our father's brothers” (v. 4). Not a request, a demand.

    paper artwork of an old woman selling stacks of brightly colored cloth

    Yulia Brodskaya, Textile Market, paper quilling. Used by permission.

    What makes this interlude so daring is that they question not only Moses’s instruction but also a decree made directly by God, insisting that a divine command be revised to take them into account. I like to imagine what the community thought. Were they surprised by the sisters’ audacity? Inspired? I imagine some in the crowd feeling frustrated: Who do they think they are?

    You can imagine the tension in the air, the sense of shock, the suspense.

    And then, God answers.

    “Zelophehad’s daughters are right in what they are saying. By all means, give them property as an inheritance among their father’s brothers. Hand over their father’s inheritance to them” (v. 6–7). Not only does God grant their request, but God then changes the law, adjusting it to include women in future inheritances: “Speak to the Israelites and say: If a man dies and doesn’t have a son, you must hand his inheritance over to his daughters” (Num. 27:8). Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah were vindicated, their assertiveness met by God’s response. God listened to the cries of the sisters and took action on their behalf. Aleluya, Gloria a Dios.

    To me, this story caries a simple but profound message: God cares about the everyday lived experiences of those who are crushed by systems that oppress. What’s more, when we speak up for ourselves, God listens. The simple act of surviving causes God to change the course of things. There is a sacredness to survival. It is a holy endeavor, blessed by God. These women didn’t just seek out their own survival, but that of the other women in their clan, and the generations of women who would come after them. Their story is one of resolviendo – of women embodied, communal, relying on the land – doing what they can in the moment to ensure their survival and the survival of future generations of women. God listens to and honors their cries.

    Like Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, Abuela stood up for herself. Although she ultimately ended up leaving the business, she didn’t do so without first securing a portion of the cafeteria which still belongs to her to this day. She is well into her late nineties and dementia has stolen her memory of the store, but the bit of rent money she still receives from her portion helps pay for the nurse that assists my family in taking care of her. That money is a reminder of the daily struggle of survival – that God listens, and responds accordingly.

    In his book Nobody Cries When We Die, Patrick Reyes writes that in conversations about our vocation we often think of it as “God calling us out of our present reality and into some divinely purposed and infinitely better future. Unfortunately, life does not always allow this to occur,” he says. “In fact, God often just calls us to survive.” This is true for most people in the world; their Christian “calling” is simply survival. But this, too, is a holy, sacred endeavor.

    For Abuela, keeping the store open was about provision and survival – both monetarily and spiritually. It was where the exiled could congregate, find hope and healing. Ada Maria Isasi-Díaz once wrote that “La vida es la lucha” (the struggle is life). She explains that for over half of her life, she thought her task was to struggle and then one day enjoy the fruits of her labor, only to learn gradually that “I can and should relish the struggle … the struggle is my life; my dedication to the struggle is one of the main driving forces in my life.” Relishing the struggle of life involves recognizing God’s presence within it, realizing that the struggle itself is sacred.

    So often, stories of women in scripture and in history are over spiritualized, or made to contain some kind of inspirational moral. But when I look to the Daughters of Zelophehad, or to Abuela, what I see is a sacred string of survival, a legacy without which I quite literally wouldn’t be here. The struggle to survive was not a precursor to the meaning in their life, it was the theatre in which they encountered and came to know God. It was their legacy. And mine.

    “Aleluya, Gloria a Dios” has become a refrain in my home. I whisper it to my young baby as I tell her stories of her and of Abuela’s commitment to resolver, to survive, physically, emotionally, spiritually. This prayer is a reminder that survival lives inside of her body, as it lives in mine. It is a part of our collective memory. You too can resolver, little one.

    “Aleluya, Gloria a Dios!”

    Contributed By KatArmas Kat Armas

    Kat Armas is a Cuban American writer and podcaster from Miami, Florida. She holds a dual MDiv and MAT from Fuller Theological Seminary.

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