Human Flower Project
Laura Pollán’s Gladiolas of Freedom
The leader of Cuba’s Damas de Blanco has died after winning the freedom of their family members. But the cause goes on, fortified by her defiant flower.
Laura Pollán Toledo marches in Havana in a demonstration for political freedom by the Ladies in White.
Photo: Javier Galeano, for AP
Why symbolism? And, at the root, why flower symbolism?
The direct floral action of Laura Pollán Toledo can answer. Pollan, a former schoolteacher, died October 14 in a Havana hospital. For eight years, holding a pink gladiolus high, she led Las Damas de Blanco (The Ladies in White), a brave and influential freedom movement in her native Cuba.
Pollán’s husband was among 75 journalists and other pro-democracy activists who were rounded up in March 2003, swiftly tried, and jailed for speaking out against Castro’s regime. Some, like Pollán’s husband, Héctor Maseda, were sentenced to more than 20 years for allegedly undermining “the territorial integrity of the state” (which means challenging the status quo, not pressing for annexation to Haiti.)
Working to free her husband, Pollán came to meet—then to organize—the families of others who had been imprisoned during the infamous Primavera Negra (Black Spring). They began a weekly protest vigil through Havana. Dressed in white, the prisoners’ family members would attend Mass together at the Santa Rita church and then march ten blocks to a nearby park, carrying pink gladioli overhead.
Laura Pollán (front right) stays calm in the crush of a street protest.
Photo: The Broken Image
Their peaceful protests, with silent floral defiance, inflamed attacks and inspired honors. And finally, over the past year, the faithful effort of the Damas de Blanco mustered enough international support (principally from Spain) to secure the freedom of their family members.
Many of those jailed were released on the condition that they not return to Cuba. Laura Pollán’s huband refused these terms, yet he too was turned out of prison in February of this year. Some predicted that that “success” of the Ladies in White would mean their dissolution. But Pollán and many of the Ladies in White continued to march each Sunday after Mass. She told the Associated Press in September, “We are going to continue. We are fighting for freedom and human rights”
October 7, Laura Pollán was hospitalized with respiratory problems, likely a result of infection with dengue fever. She suffered a heart attack and died a week later. Two days thereafter, the Damas de Blanco, accompanied by others, including Héctor Maseda, held their Havana march.
“As long as this government is around there will be prisoners,” Pollán had said in September. “Because while they’ve let some go, they’ve put others in jail. It is a never-ending story.”
Damas de Blanco at the Santa Rita Church in Havana, two days after Pollán’s death at age 63.
But without its leader, how does the “story” of a movement like this one continue? In part through the durability of its symbols. “No one can see a gladiolus without thinking of Laura Pollán “ wrote Yoani Sanchez, for El Paiz. “Since the afternoon of October 14, dozens of Cubans had been buying up so many gladioli that the flower sellers had run out.”
But more gladiola will grow and be brandished through Havana’s Miramar district, at least so long as the Castro regime persists. Berta Soler, a longstanding member of Damas de Blaca, will speak for the movement.
Bertha Soler (left) will be the spokesperson for The Ladies in White; shown here she comes down the aisle at Santa Rita Church after Mass with Laura Pollán.
Photo: Franklin Reyes, for AP
Why symbols? Because they outlast individuals—blooms or leaders. Because they are powerful enough to relay messages from the past to the future.
We post in full a statement Pollán issued after the release of her husband in February (translation by Karen Phillips).
“When I wake up and sense my husband’s body next to mine, I ask myself if I’m dreaming or if it is true that he has returned to our home.
“Eight years have passed since 75 Cubans were uprooted from their homes for thinking differently than the governmental discourse and having the courage to express it publicly. So many days and nights of agony and suffering for their parents, wives, children, and grandchildren; so much accumulated pain. But the important thing is that they couldn’t uproot our love. Our love gave us the motivation needed to undertake a tenacious and constant fight for the release of our loved ones.
“Sometimes they tell us, the Ladies in White, that we are brave women. We disagree: We’ve simply experienced so much pain and love that, without realizing it, we crossed that line between fear and bravery.
Laura Pollán is gone, but thanks in part to a floral emblem, her work will not be forgotten. Las Damas de Blanco will carry on, gladioli in hand. Shown here, she greets members of the Ladies in White.
Photo: World Women International
“When you love, you believe in what you do. The 544 Sundays that Mirarmar’s 5th Avenue has felt our footsteps and heard our voices demanding freedom for the political prisoners, carrying gladiolas, the symbol of love and family, are proof of this. Perseverance has yielded positive fruits and this year there will be no “Black Spring” because the cells have opened, liberating the ideas that could never be destroyed and showing that, when you fight for a pure ideal, for true convictions, neither time nor prison bars can defeat them.
“Time and adversity changed us; the humiliation, repression, and beatings have forced us to put on iron armor to resist and confront those who would oppress us and make us suffer. But God gives us strength and fills our hearts with even more love, which we use to seal our bleeding wounds and continue our fight for the freedom of all political prisoners and for a better world, where other families don’t have to endure such bitter experiences and where springs are beautiful, filled with colorful and perfumed flowers.”