These days I am frequently asked why, if there are so many Christian faiths ordaining women, I am intent on becoming a Roman Catholic Woman Priest. And my best answer is that I have a long history with the Divinity and with the RC Church, and my greatest connection began in the Dominican Republic, 1964-65, just before the counter-coup, when I attended Colegio Santo Domingo, a RC private school in Santo Domingo. The school sent permission slips home to attend a retreat in the mountains, led by a RC priest, and my mother gave me permission because it was her church.
I had fallen away from the church, having been turned off by some of the more egregious authoritarian conduct of its priests and nuns, but I had some excellent teachers and it was something to do. I did not expect much, quite frankly. I had been accused by a priest from whom I sought help with sexual abuse at the age of 12 of being somehow “guilty” and doing something to “bring the abuse on.” I didn’t even know, in those days, where my sexual organs were, this was the age before sexual education in the schools, and I was just an ignorant prepubescent child…
The young priest at the retreat spoke a different message, almost a different language than what I was accustomed to hearing in my church or in my catechism classes… He spoke about the poor and marginalized, those who ate the spoils of our tables, who had no money for education… and I was very familiar with those members of our society. In the DR of those times, there were always families roaming the streets for food, for anything to do just to eat a meal. I was constantly bringing people into our kitchen who would offer to do “any job just for some food.” My mother would yell at me saying that one of these days we were going to be murdered in our beds by the people I fed in the kitchen. And the children all had large bellies from parasites… most of them had no teeth, and some of them sported filmy eyes. The poverty was devastating. My stepfather would simply state that “they were lazy and didn’t want to go to work.” Those were the days when every meal was an ongoing fight with my stepfather… I couldn’t see how babies could be blamed for anything; they were the ones who broke your heart every minute of the day.
Into this picture walked the young priest from the retreat… he wanted us quite simply to heed the words of our elder brother, Jesus who might have been Joshua, who said that the first shall be last and spoke about our duty to feed the poor, visit the ones in prison, welcome the stranger, care for the widows and the orphans…
On the third day of the retreat while still angry with the divinity that I felt had betrayed me, I had a breakthrough. I broke into loud sobbing and my heart broke open. By “graduation” on day 4 I was ready personally to bring the message to everyone I could reach. So several of us, especially the daughter of the chief of police, signed on to teach domestics how to read and write. In those days, the wealthier Dominicans found very young girls in the countryside, frequently 12 year-old girls, and brought them to the city to work for approximately $5 a month, almost as slaves. They didn’t have proper days off, and if the lady of the house wanted tea at 3 in the morning, a bell sounded in the room where the maids slept, in separate and cramped “living” quarters, so the maid could get up and make the tea. We paid ours $40 a month, and she felt we were the best thing that had happened to her, but we had moved there from Miami, and $40 a month still seemed a pittance to me.
Most of the girls could not read or write… Many of them were raped by the master of the house or his sons, and then fired when they became pregnant. We thought that, rather than catechism, we needed to teach them how to read and write. And for a short while, because my friend told her father that we would be teaching the maids catechism, we were allowed to use the police barracks for our classes. When it was discovered that we were doing something else, we were immediately shut down… But my heart and my soul were on fire. Only years later did I discover that I had been exposed to and ignited by Liberation Theology. I had become one of many who wanted to be the voice of the poor… to end poverty… to console the heartbroken.
In April of 1965 there was a counter-coup in what had become my beloved island. Having had to leave Cuba at the age of 11 when my stepfather decided that the country would likely become Communist, I missed its beauty, warmth and music every day of my life. I had seen a lot of its poverty, especially in the countryside with the guajiros who lived in small thatched bohíos with dirt floors, and I had also seen the horrors of the US-supported Batista regime, for about ten days after Batista fled to the US, the tortured victims of Batista’s cadre of torturers came out in droves and showed the scars of their torture on television. Chief among the torturers were the infamous Conrado Carratalá Ugalde and Esteban Ventura, who were both welcomed to exile by the US, despite a record of cold-blooded murder and torture. Among these deaths were more than 500 political prisoners languishing in jail after days of torture, who were machine-gunned by Carratalá. All of these monsters were granted permanent residence by the US Immigration Service. And for years, continuing until today, the US imposed a cruel embargo against Cuba, which hurt the country in every way possible.
To a nine-year-old child as I was then, the memory of women showing chests whose breasts or nipples had been chopped off, or who had had fingers cut off, or a number of similar beastialities, left profound scars. When the US invaded the Dominican Republic, for the second time, to interfere with a country that was hungry for freedom, I watched US Marines school the insurgents in brutal techniques. I remember in particular a member of the Air Forces under constitutionally elected President Juan Bosch, the first democratically-elected president of the Dominican Republic after years of brutal dictatorship (which the US supported), being beaten all over the head and face with the butt of a gun, while a US Marine gave instruction. His very pregnant wife, dressed in a white maternity gown, screamed and screamed, while her pristine white gown became red with the blood of her husband. The 22,000 Marines unleashed a bloody civil war; the war cry, or rather, the reason why the US intervened is that “we don’t want another Cuba.”
My stepfather went to the US Ambassador and demanded transport out of the island. There were shootouts at the hotel where we were temporarily put up, and the trip to the harbor was punctuated by frequent stop by both sides, during which we had to leave the bus and have assault weapons pointed at us. The weaponry used by the insurgents was made in the US, of course.
We were eventually packed, like sardines, into the U.S.S. Ruchamkin, which had just brought some of the US Marines to the island. The trip took more than a day; everyone on board was very ill, but I seem to have been a sailor in another life, so I went around with the medic, Dennis, giving people saltine crackers and helping them to deal with their terrible seasickness. In the evenings I was serenaded by the young men on their guitars, and I don’t recall ever being proposed to by so many people at the same time… My mother, stepfather and the rest of my siblings were busy vomiting while I was enjoying this unexpected trip on a large destroyer… Eventually we offloaded in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and became Dominican “refugees” staying at the naval base in San Juan.
I had gone to a public school for 9th grade in Hialeah, Florida, completed 10th grade at Colegio Santo Domingo, and now it was time to enroll in 11th grade. I was enrolled in Academia del Sagrado Corazón in Santurce, Puerto Rico, and found it a harsher environment than that of Colegio Santo Domingo. Puerto Rico had never had the opportunity to be a separate country; although they are said to be a “commonwealth,” the truth is that they have been a colony of the United States since the end of the so-called Spanish American War, when the US interjected itself into Cuba’s war for independence from Spain and attempted to annex my native land. In fact, when the US took over, the speaking of the Spanish language was forbidden throughout the island… And Puerto Ricans, who had been fighting alongside Cubans for freedom from the Spanish Empire, found themselves forced to adopt the language and mores of the ‘yankis’ and to begin a new fight for independence. We were once brothers and sisters under the skin, as the poet Lolita Tió once wrote, while exiled in Cuba: “Cuba y Puerto Rico son de un pájaro las dos alas.”
We had all been fighting together for independence: Máximo Gómez, from the Dominican Republic, and various Puerto Rican patriots who planned to start in Cuba and continue in Puerto Rico after Cuba won her freedom. The two countries even shared similar flags, Cuba’s flag being created by Venezuelan general Narciso López, who was fighting also for Cuban independence. In 1892 in New York “Club Borinquen” was founded by a group of exiled Puerto Rican patriots, affiliated to Martí’s Cuban Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Cubano). It consisted of an alliance of Cubans and Puerto Rican who were fighting for the independence of both islands by using joint strategy and resources. A meeting of the Puerto Rican section of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, which took place on December 22, 1985 at ‘Chimney Hall’ in New York, had 59 Puerto Rican attendees and designated delegates in several countries, such as Ramón Emeterio Betances, who lived in Paris, Eugenio María de Hostos, who lived in Chile; Lorenzo Mercado, who lived in Venezuela; José Ramón Paradis, who lived in Haití; and Aurelio Méndez, who lived in Santo Domingo.
The minutes of that historic meeting show the presentation of the new flag, “… which is the same shape of the Cuban flag, but with its colors reversed.” The three colors in both flags as well as the single star represent the Republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity proclaimed in the French revolution. (Did you know that the longest-held political prisoner in the United States is Puerto Rican patriot Oscar López Rivera, arrested for “seditious conspiracy?”
I realize I have gotten carried away, so at another time I will finish this “history” as I’ve lived it. For now, I want to become a Roman Catholic woman priest because a) it is not allowed; b) I will more than likely receive a letter of excommunication contemporaneously with my ordination certificate; c) it is what I believe my subversive Jew, he who may be Jesus or Joshua, would have done and campaigned for, because he existed to make others uncomfortable with their set rules and beliefs, and it is part of who I am on this planet at this time.
And I was granted the boon, the third time around, of meeting my absolute soulmate, the Scottish Forsyth patriot whom I loved and who loved me unconditionally. He continues to support me in everything I do. So here’s to you, Jim, my love.