El Convento de la Santa Caterina was not as large as El Convento San Francisco,
nor as elegant as El Convento Santa Clara. Those beloved and respected Havana institutions
were like million-dollar mansions compared to the humid, crumbling, two-story cement
fortress that housed more than a dozen women from the Catholic Order of the Nazarenes.
They were overseen by Sor Maria Quintana, the Mother Superior, although she forbade
anyone from addressing her that way.
“I am just one of you, a humble servant of our Lord,” she’d admonish.
Still, she ruled the convent with tyrannical force. Many women came to her in their
darkest hour to seek shelter and salvation—few were taken in and even fewer
were allowed to stay.
The Nazarenes were the most self-sacrificing and self-punishing of all the cloistered
orders. Their devotion to humility, poverty, and atonement was clearly evident in
their cold, dark, cockroach- and rat-infested retreat.
The sisters starved themselves and concentrated on their acts of charity, which
were numerous and performed in such a way that even those who benefited from their
generosity hardly knew that the sisters existed. Needy families often found bags
of food at their doorsteps, or discovered that their overdue rents had been paid.
Hospital rooms were mysteriously filled with fresh flowers. During the Christmas
holidays, toys appeared in the cramped living rooms of humble families as if benevolent
shadows had been listening to the hushed prayers of the children who lived there.
The nuns received a minute stipend from the archdiocese, which they proudly repaid
by cleaning the altars and sanctuaries of the many churches of the city. All proceeds
were immediately invested in the needy of Havana; Sor Maria Quintana detested the
accumulation of wealth. Their work began as soon as the sun had set and was performed
in secrecy and in absolute silence. Silencio, the sisters believed, helped
them walk on spiritual, interior paths, and it was an unwavering rule of the Nazarenes.
They were rarely seen in public, few saw the sisters enter or arrive or depart,
no one heard their dainty footsteps as they crept through the dark and narrow alleys
and backways of the city. Their silence, their black habits, and the heavy wooden
crucifix that hung from their slender necks, protected them from criminals. They
were never accosted, harassed, or propositioned by drunks or accosted by any of
the numerous sinners that abounded in the city. They came and went with ease.
Come morning, the faithful, the penitent, the mournful, and the fanatical never
wondered who was responsible for the sparkling, stained-glass windows, the gleaming
altars, the polished pews, or the immaculate marble floors. The churches were always
as they should be.
Once all the churches were spotless and ready for early services, by 10 p.m. they
were back in the convent; and in complete silence, without so much as a “good
night” or a “God bless,” they retired to their cells until the
Mornings found them in the basement chapel where they prayed for those who do not
pray for themselves. After prayers they retired to an adjacent work room and engaged
their delicate hands in the moneymaking endeavor of manufacturing rosaries, chaplets,
scapulars, badges, medals, and calendars.
Having renounced all material goods in order to be more like Jesus Christ, the proceeds
from these popular sacramental items funded their inconspicuous acts of charity.
The work filled their hearts with a joy that completely vanquished any mortification,
any doubt, or any anguish that might disquiet their mortal souls.
Every night they humbly thanked God for bestowing on them such a beautiful vocation,
for the privilege to live and work in His presence, and for the grace to perform
small, quiet miracles in His name.
The nuns avoided the outside world; they lived in complete seclusion, seldom venturing
outside the crumbling cement walls of the Convento de Santa Caterina in daylight.
Men were never allowed inside except for extreme emergencies—a fire, a flood,
an earthquake. Exceptions were made for doctors and priests, but their visits were
rare and those men were usually too old to pose a threat.
Convento de Santa Caterina was at the edge of El Fanguito, a bustling, impoverished
neighborhood, populated with lottery vendors calling out numbers, offering strokes
of luck, women who yelled at each other from one house to another, vegetable carts
pulled by mules, their wooden wheels and clomping hooves resounding off the cobblestone
streets. Meat markets displayed everything edible in a beast; big, skinned, cow
heads looked sullenly through fly-covered eyes. Ragtag beggars stopped everyone
who passed, and petty thieves slithered through looking for opportunity. Police
and ambulance sirens competed with the bell-shaped amplifiers of political candidates
and religious proselytizers who circled in little white cars promising every sort
of solution and salvation.
In spite of its central location, it was as if the convent and its inhabitants didn’t
exist. The only indication that something sacred was working behind those walls
was the pious neighborhood ladies who stopped briefly and crossed themselves. They
made the sign of the cross silently, from forehead to navel and from shoulder to
shoulder, as they walked past the convent’s front door, the same way they
did whenever they walked past a funeral home, a church, a bar, or a brothel.
The sisters prided themselves on their self-sufficiency and had become quite adept
at hauling their own water from the well in the courtyard, mending their own walls,
and repairing the roof. It was the little things they couldn’t fit into their
daily schedule. Someone was needed to shop for groceries, cook their meals, wash
and iron their clothes, and help keep the place from filling up with spider webs
and rodents, but so far everyone had failed them. Whomever they took in soon became
so lonely and sick of the silences and demands, that once out at the market, they
couldn’t help but engage in conversations and gossip.
Sor Maria Quintana always knew because suddenly there would be people at her door
asking questions that they did not need answered, and begging for favors that she
found extremely inappropriate. The night when she reluctantly answered Aspirrina’s
insistent knock at the front door, Sor Maria had known, at a glance, that the woman
standing before her was a first-class hustler. The nun lived a serene and cloistered
life but she was well aware of the outside world. She would have slammed the door
in her vulgar face if it hadn’t been for the look on the young girl that stood
at her side. Sor Maria would never admit this to anyone, but the girl, in spite
of her modest dress and dime store shoes, reminded her of the girl she herself had
been not long ago.
She had been born into what most people would consider enviable circumstances, the
only daughter of the social and profuse Calixto Betancourt and his glamorous wife,
the former Isela Castillo-Plana. She had been the sought-after heiress to the popular
Minerva Soft Drink fortune. Her family fortune was second only to the Bacardi’s
and that never would have happened if it wasn’t for the increasing popularity
of Coca Cola.
The fortune had been amassed by her paternal grandfather, a crafty curandero.
He had called himself an herbalist but was better known as The Witch Doctor, the
man who magically turned a common weed known as Yerba mate into a golden bubbly
soft drink many called the “Cuban ginger ale.”
Maria’s early life had been spent floating distractedly from the beautifully
decorated drawing room in her parents’ great country estate and beach front
residence to the equally breathtaking homes of the friends in their circle. The
talk was always of servants, schools, and who was going to host the next lavish
coming out party for their daughters.
Maria attended the best private schools, always under the instructions of strict
Catholic nuns. She never gave the nuns much thought; they had always been there,
like the servants. They were people who got paid to do things for her. The nuns
were paid to teach (or try to teach) her and her wealthy friends. She saw them as
sad and bitter women in shapeless cotton dresses, thick black tights, and uncomfortable
But slowly, almost imperceptibly, as her body started to change, something inside
her had started to change as well. After a lifetime of luxury, she began to believe
that luxury was not enough, and the thought of it frightened her. A terrible emptiness
started to gnaw at her and she could not understand, define, or explain it. Then
the headaches began.
The throbbing behind her eyes started late at night and continued until dawn. In
her spacious bedroom, alone in a four-poster bed big enough for three people, deep
in layers of fresh, pink-flowered sheets and ruffled pillows, surrounded by her
precious dolls and stuffed animals, her thoughts echoed like shouts in a canyon.
As she took stock of what the day had been like, and what awaited her the next morning,
a strange sadness invaded her, a sorrow she had never felt before, and could not
She tried everything, counting sheep; reading heavy and boring books on subjects
that had never appealed to her, and sipping warm chamomile tea sweetened with brown
sugar. Nothing soothed her. She began to notice, much to her aggravation and confusion,
that when she whispered the word “meaningless,” the headaches would
subside. She found this alarmingly odd and feared she was losing her mind. But the
more she did it, the more it worked. Soon she began chanting the word to herself
before she went to bed every night and discovered that it appeased the pain. She
started to play with it, to spell it out and rhyme it with other words, or to imagine
the letters writing themselves across her ceiling. It amused her that she was going
mad and that nobody noticed.
Grateful as she was to catch up on her sleep, she was left with a horrible feeling
that seemed embedded into her flesh and bones. If everything is meaningless, she
wondered, how does one find meaning? Most women in her social circle seemed to find
it in the hunt for a husband and plans for a family, but Maria shuddered at the
thought. When she looked around her at the older generation, all she saw was pampered
ladies who hardly ever saw their husband or children, and who kept busy with art
or jewelry design classes, or fancy luncheons and other obligations that just seemed
silly to her. Even their philanthropic projects looked like more creative and amusing
ways to spend money, not unlike their shopping trips to New York City every spring
There was only one person she knew who might understand.
His name was Leonardo Delfino.
Leonardo was a strange boy she had known all of her life. They had birthdays exactly
two days apart, and although he was three years older, their families celebrated
them together. Their mothers had been best friends since they were schoolgirls and
through the children had developed an even stronger bond. Year after year, their
families came together in one place or another to enjoy pony rides or carnivals.
Once the candles had been blown out, the cake cut and distributed, the opulent presents
opened, she and Leonardo would huddle together like two shell-shocked refugees.
They often escaped to one of the many empty, if well-appointed rooms, their only
desire to get away from the noise and unsolicited attention of distant relatives
and their fathers’ business associates.
Like her, Leonardo was an only child, which was unusual in a country where couples
had many children. But the better families, and families didn’t get any better
than Leonardo’s, often stopped at one. Maria’s mother did everything
Leonardo’s mother did, even if it meant leaving the family without a male
heir. Leonardo’s family owned land, lots of land all over Cuba. Hundreds of
farmers depended on them. They grew everything of worth on the island: coffee,
sugar cane, pineapples. Unlike Maria’s family, whose fortune was relatively
new, Leonardo’s family always had money and were used to it. Maria’s
parents worshipped Leonardo’s parents’ money and social ease. Maria
was attracted to Leonardo for his sweet nature. The boy was so withdrawn that he
made Maria appear gregarious.
Although he could have been spoiled and arrogant like the other rich boys and girls
they knew, Leonardo was shy and humble, almost ashamed of his aristocratic background.
But what really stole her heart was that he was constantly teased and tormented
by other children. He was born with a great big shock of white hair sprouting from
his widow’s peak. He had a beautiful, angelic face but that shock of white,
like a crescent moon in the center of his head, gave him an ancient, almost demonic
look. He was constantly under attack. Classmates called him ugly names. They accused
him of dying his hair, of being “like a girl.”
The boy did not know how to defend himself because unlike the other burly, vicious
boys, he lacked the killer instinct. Instead of fighting, he would run away, and
he didn’t run very well, so they always caught him. One time a group of children
tied him to a tree and left him crying until Maria found him and untied him.
His parents seemed oblivious to their son’s suffering. But Maria, who was
loved by everyone, and had never known a day of unhappiness in her life, made Leonardo
her best friend. She would invite him to her house to play. He liked to do the things
she enjoyed. They read together, often lying on adjacent sofas, not speaking for
hours, both lost in a book and happy to be in each other’s company. Or, if
they were feeling more energetic, they dressed up in costumes. Leonardo liked to
dress up like a girl and insisted that Maria dress like a boy; sometimes they both
dressed like girls and he let her pour the tea while he pretended to cool himself
with a feathered fan.
Her parents, if they were home, stayed downstairs while they played. The only people
who saw them were the servants, who shook their heads and clacked their tongues
disapprovingly. But they never said a word. More could not be expected of spoiled,
When Leonardo was 13 years old he had been sent away, unexpectedly and without notice,
to a military academy. Maria did not get a chance to say goodbye to him and missed
him terribly. She wrote to him often, but the letters from him were infrequent and
as time went by they stopped altogether. Over the years, she thought about him often.
From her mother, she heard that he had graduated from the Academy and taken a trip
to Spain. She thought he was just on vacation, but it would be several years before
she saw him again.
“Leonardo ha regresado,” her mother said during a rare occasion
when she joined her parents for Sunday breakfast. Leonardo has returned.
“He’s in Havana?” Maria asked, unable to hide the excitement she
“Yes, and his parents are mortified,” her mother said.
“If that young man had any sense,” her father added, “he would
have stayed away. Eyes that don’t see, heart that don’t feel.”
“He has taken his own apartment in Vedado,” her mother continued as
if her husband hadn’t spoken at all. “Why he would do that I have no
idea. He has three lovely houses to choose from and he’s living down there.
But of course, as I always suspected, he’s living a life of absolute degeneracy,
if you know what I mean.”
“What did they expect?” her father said, “sending a boy like that
to Europe. They can expect no less.”
“He now calls himself only Delfino,” her mother said, “even though
he has turned his back on his parent’s business and is determined to drag
their name through the mud. He’s sells ladies’ hats that he designs
himself. I hear they’re quite chic.”
Maria continued to move the food about on her plate, but she was no longer listening.
She had heard enough. She couldn’t wait until breakfast was over. She had
to see Leonardo Delfino.
She just had to.
Standing outside of the shop, Maria could see that Leonardo was an undisputed success.
It was on one of the most elegant blocks in Havana. His customers, no doubt, were
the rich wives of the men who, when they were children, had made him so miserable.
She approached the door with some trepidation, not sure what kind of welcome to
expect from her childhood friend. Her anxiety vanished the moment he saw her. His
eyes grew wide as he ran to embrace her.
He was tall and thin now, and his face was no longer pale but had burnt into a dark
deep tan. He was dressed in black slacks and a black silk shirt and the shock of
white that had been a curse during his childhood was now an elegant asset. With
a few words he turned his customer over to an assistant and whisked Maria into the
back of the store. He led her into a small sitting room. Three of the walls were
shelved and on the shelves rested dozens of beautiful hats; on the fourth wall were
photographs of Delfino and famous clients. There he was with Tongolele, the singing
legend, and Maria Felix, Mexico’s biggest movie star, and the singer Sarita
Montiel, Spain’s national treasure, as well as other elegant women she did
not recognize but who looked extremely important. Next to the photographs hung a
large oval mirror.
In the center of the room were two French antique chairs and a round coffee table.
He led her to a chair and sat across from her. He lit a cigarette and offered her
one. She declined.
They talked about everything, as comfortably as if no time had passed since they
had last seen each other. She did not mention the unanswered letters, the years
of wondering. He was with her now. Looking into his eyes, hearing his voice, that
was all that mattered.
He told her about a man he had met while living in Madrid who had taught him about
“Well, you’re certainly doing well,” she said.
“Success runs in the family,” he responded.
There was a brief silence and then she heard herself ask the question she had told
herself not to ask.
“Is it true, what they say.”
He smiled gently.
“That I am a flamboyant homosexual?”
She nodded, blushing. He took a deep breath.
“It’s none of my business,” she said quickly, regretting her intrusion.
“I will say this,” he said, waving his cigarette, “on the rare
occasion when I succumb to my carnal desires, yes, it is with a man.”
Her face was on fire. What could she say now?
“Is there someone special?” She asked, trying for a sophistication that
felt disingenuous. Her mind was racing. She wondered how his parents must feel,
never to see a grandchild, an heir. But wasn’t she in fact considering the
Delfino sucked on his cigarette and, with a mouth full of smoke, said, “Darling,
they’re all special.” Laughing, he waved his hand to disperse the smoke.
“Let’s talk about you, I’m sick of me, is there someone special?”
He sat quietly while she revealed her secret.
“A nun?” he whispered seriously when she was finished.
“A nun,” she repeated and tried to smile, but tears were welling up
in her eyes. He smiled back, his own eyes sparkling. “Well, why not? Considering
the genetic pool of savages you get to choose your husband from, I can’t say
I blame you for wanting to remain celibate. My advice, and I assume that’s
why you’re here, is go live with the sisters. And if you don’t like
it, you can always leave, you can always try something else. The worst that could
happen is that you’ll learn something.”
He stood up and paced around the small room. She remained seated, quiet, wondering
if this visit had been a mistake. Now someone knew.
“Try it,” he said. “I’m all for trying new things, and if
it doesn’t work out, you can come work for me.”
“No darling, modeling them; you are gorgeous.”
And with that he took a plumed hat off a shelf and placed it firmly on her head.
He took her hand and brought her to her feet. Then he took another hat and set it
on his own head and turned her towards the mirror.
Leonardo wrapped an arm gently around her shoulders. She looked at their image in
the mirror and their eyes met and he smiled sadly and it was as if they were children
again. Except for one significant exception: he had experienced so much, she
had experienced nothing.
Maria Quintana spent the weekend of her graduation from Sacred Heart High School
dancing until dawn with every boy who asked her. There were parties twice a day
for two days, the last one of which was celebrating her eighteenth birthday. Leonardo
Delfino was invited, but he declined. In his stead, the hat she had tried on at
his shop arrived by special messenger.
She played along with the girls, showed off her brand new dresses, and much was
made of her new hat.
She made silly, giggling promises to several ardent suitors. An heiress always has
plenty of young men around who are ready to drop to one knee and offer her the world
and Maria was no exception. But she already owned the world, or as much of it as
anyone could possibly want; she didn’t need a man to provide for her.
The following morning, a clear, cloudless Monday, she had awakened feeling fresh
and determined. She had dressed in the pale pink linen dress her mother had bought
for her on one of her trips. She had walked the familiar hallways of the palatial
house, seen herself reflected in the hallway mirrors, the polished marble floors,
the abundant crystal vases, and taken her place at the breakfast table. Then gently
but firmly, she had announced her decision.
They objected, but she was determined. They offered her complete freedom, her own
apartment, cars, servants. She declined.
“This is not the sort of decision una señorita makes abruptly,”
her father said. “Think about it a bit longer, take a trip and see the world
before making such an enormous resolution.”
Maria remained firm.
“We can go together,” her mother said in the gayest tone Maria had ever
heard. “Italy! We’ll see the Vatican in Rome, perhaps that will satisfy
this sudden need for religion, and while we’re there, the Spring collections
But Maria could not be swayed. She also could not give them a good reason. As the
weeks passed, their loving patience, their paternal indulgence for their only daughter
diminished and finally vanished altogether.
“You’re throwing your life away,” her father shouted.
But shouts did not intimidate her.
“This is what I wish to do with my life,” she said. “If I cannot
have your support, I will settle for your respect.”
He had no answer for this and retreated into his study to weep unobserved. Maria
could hear his suffering through the thick wooden door and it was at this moment,
just when she was about run to him, throw open those doors, put her arms around
him and kiss his tear-stained face that she felt God enter her heart. It was as
if the marble floor had vanished beneath her feet and she was suspended in midair.
Although all windows were closed and the draperies drawn, she felt the warmth of
the sun on her face. She stood there a long time and would have remained there forever.
Such was her joy.
Her father eventually emerged from his study, clear eyed and as stoic as ever. But
her mother was inconsolable and relentless.
“I know you better than anyone, Maria, better than you know yourself. I remember
clearly how many times I had to plead, bargain, and finally force you to attend
mass. This does not feel to me like a calling, it’s just a rebellion. You
may as well have declared that you are becoming a prostitute and joining a brothel!
It’s just not done. What will I tell people?”
Maria said nothing. While her mother watched she calmly picked out her smallest
valise and dropped a few items into it: a toothbrush, a hair comb, a plain brown
skirt, and a blue cotton blouse.
“That’s all you’re taking? Out of all the wonderful things you
have? At least take some decent shoes!”
Maria zipped her valise and walked out of her bedroom. Her mother followed down
the long hallway, down the stairs, through the sitting room, the anteroom, the living
room, the foyer, the veranda, out the front door and to the waiting car.
“No,” her mother screamed and grabbed her hand, knocking the valise
to the ground. Maria’s tears matched her mother’s. She looked back to
the house where her father stood at the doorway.
“Help me, Father,” Maria said. But he didn’t come running as she’d
hoped; instead he lifted a hand and waved goodbye. It was a small, simple gesture.
Maria stopped struggling against and wrapped her arms around her mother. Her mother
returned the embrace and they held on so tight that for a moment Maria felt they
would crush each other and fall to the ground in pieces.
Her mother let go first and took a step back. Maria picked up her valise and opened
the car door.
“After one night in that dimly lit, horribly decorated cell,” her mother
said, “you’ll come running.”
Maria was aware of the pain she had caused. She rode in her father’s car for
the last time, and entered the convent. The instant she sat alone in the dimly lit,
horribly decorated cell, she knew she was ready for a life of poverty, obedience,
and chastity. That very same night, the word Sor, archaic for Sister, was placed
in front of her name.
The next day her headaches had disappeared forever.
For months after, she received long impassioned letters from her mother luring her
with everything that she was missing. They contained detailed descriptions of the
new yacht, or of someone’s fancy wedding. She included photographs of newborn
babies and the latest Paris fashions. It saddened her that after all these years
her mother had never known her at all.
Beautiful young men, terrified that an enormous fortune was slipping through their
fingers, sent large bouquets of roses, the engraved cards bearing their names stuck
among the leaves and thorns. She kept the roses at the altar in the basement chapel
as an offering to Jesus Christ until they dried up and turned a deeper color.
She hardly noticed when the flowers stopped coming.
Delfino sent her a beautiful rosary made of rosewood, and its fragrance always reminded
her that somewhere in the world she had a true friend. She prayed for him every
day, hoping that God, who only saw good in people, would one day cast a loving glance
in his direction.
Although the convent was in the center of the city, as time passed the distances
between her old life and the new, the past and the present became longer and longer
until her former life became a delicate, transparent, almost invisible impression,
like the scent left behind by a lace-trimmed handkerchief as it drops slowly to
Years had passed before she realized how long it had been since anyone had come
to see her or had sent her anything.
Sometimes she wondered how often her mother or her father glided silently past the
convent door in one of their shiny and air-conditioned cars and if they said a prayer
or sent a curse or if they even gave her a second thought anymore. It was not the
kind of musings she allowed herself very often, but she was made of flesh and blood,
maybe more so than most people.
Then came the night when she answered an insistent knocking at the convent’s
door. It had been years since anyone had knocked and it had been forever since anyone
had knocked so late in the night. She was going to ignore it but was compelled and
curious. She opened the door a crack and it was flung open by an unseen hand; the
force of it almost knocked her off her feet.
Before her stood two travelers, a short, horribly fat woman and, a few steps behind,
a beautiful young girl.
—From Midnight Rumba (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform,
Cuban Heel Press, April 2013); reprinted here by author’s permission
first novel, Tomorrow They Will Kiss (Back Bay Books, 2006), was an Edmund
White Debut Fiction Award finalist and a Latino Book Award finalist. His follow-up
novel, Midnight Rumba, received a starred Kirkus review, earned top honors
at the prestigious New England Book Festival and the Latino International Book Awards,
and won the coveted Beverly Hills Book Award for best fiction.
His shorter works have been published in ZYZZYVA, Slow Trains, The Caribbean Writer,
Platte Valley Review, and KYSO Flash, among others. His nonfiction has
appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Advocate, and Out Traveler
He earned a BFA degree from the California Institute of the Arts and a Creative
Writing MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles. He has taught writing for U.C.L.A.
Extension and Mt. San Jacinto College.
Mr. Santiago is the founder of the Idyllwild Authors Series, and a two-time PEN
Center U.S.A. Fellow (2004 and 2008). His many personal appearances include CBS
News, NPR’s All Things Considered, New York Book Festival, Miami
Book Fair International, Tucson Festival of Books, West Hollywood Book Fair, and
Los Angeles Times Festival Of Books.