I am often struck by the reality that, unlike most friends my age, I did not experience the trauma and upheaval of the 1960s culture and the changing Catholic Church that they describe in the United States. Instead, the Cursillo movement, energized by reforms of the Second Vatican Council—brought increased vitality and renewal to the Catholic Church of Puerto Rico, a stunning tropical island in the edge of the Caribbean.
In Cuba, both of my parents had been Catholic-school teachers in my hometown of Pinar del Rio until Fidel Castro shut down and appropriated the diocesan buildings. Within months, Castro’s militia collected the sisters and priests that had been serving in these schools—my parents’ friends—and ejected them from the country. A group of 300 priests was amassed without explanation, put on a boat, and shipped to Spain. For years my parents and their friends began every conversation comparing notes regarding the location where these religious women and men had been sent.
Largely through the encouragement of these relocated women religious and other Cuban priest friends, I watched my parents’ life evolve from living as newly arrived refugees to immigrants making a new life and home in Puerto Rico. My parents brought with them the energy of their experience as leaders of Pinar del Río’s Juventud de Acción Católica, Catholic Youth in Action, joining Puerto Rico’s Cursillo movement and organizing activities and ministries through the schools and parishes. And they took my brother Ignacio and I everywhere they went. We visited prisons. We collected and repaired toys for needy children. We attended fund-raising concerts for underprivileged schools. We traveled hours through the island’s windy roads to events hosted by their friends to support their ministry. We hosted organizing meetings in our undersized living room, usually accompanied by my grandmother Josefita’s cooking—just as it would have been done in Cuba.
Looking back on those early years of my life, I am amazed by the reality created by my parents. If having nuns and priests regularly in our house and as part of our activities was weird, I never knew it. It was simply my normal kind of weird! How could I have known that other families didn’t function this way?
I have no stories of nuns with punishing rulers and chastising practices. My experience in Puerto Rico with sisters and nuns, both in Catholic schools and daily life, were enticing and inviting enough to place a seed of desire in my heart for a vowed religious vocation.
Sor Presentación taught me reverence and the reason why we kneel and bow in church. I learned to ask “why” as a way of growing in my faith. My principal Sor Pilar loved to tell me jokes while I waited for my mom to be done with her school work. I learned nuns were funny, real, and loved to have fun. Sor Isabel let me help her in the kitchen. I learned that even nuns had to do chores, clean house and do laundry. And Sor Marta, my mom’s best friend from childhood, invited me as a teenager to come visit and stay in the convent overnight. I learned that nuns were not just idols, but people who considered me a friend.