Santa y Teresa: A Walking Dialogue between two Cuban Characters

This video essay invites us to place side by side characters who lived only four years apart in Cuba: Teresa (1979), who continued to struggle against patriarchal norms in a post-Código-de-Familia Havana, and Santa (1983), who divides her time between agricultural and party tasks, keeping watch over dissident writer during a nearby international Foro por la paz. Whilst Farrell suggests that the latter picks up where the former left off, for me the montage is messier, opening up contrasts as well as continuities. These are useful in pushing us to articulate the women’s different positions vis-à-vis the ideological, symbolic, and physical centres of power of their societies.

Teresa walks through the crowd, away from her husband and the machista double standards and burdens that persist despite the recent passing of legislation designed to spread household and child-rearing labour equally between men and women. Just as her destination and future remain open, uncertain, the significance of her hair covering, it seems to me, remains ambivalent. On the one hand, in the iconic final freeze-frame, Teresa’s hair is hidden by a stark white kerchief, removing from sight a symbol of her femininity and sexuality and so indicating a rejection of the male gaze. On the other hand, such kerchiefs are most present in the film in the scenes at the factory and in the locker room, where they become associated with Revolutionary ideals of collective labour, lucha (struggle), and self-sacrifice. Whilst these connotations imbue the kerchief with a different set of restrictions and demands, they also reinforce the alignment of Teresa’s individual struggle with the onward march of the Revolution.

For Santa, depicted in a remote, unspecified location in Oriente in 1983, socially isolated and deprived of her family, the potentially restrictive connotations of the kerchief that were latent in Retrato come more clearly to the fore. Although the setting in the ideologically overdetermined east, and in an agricultural community, might have encouraged us to place Santa in a collective context, the opening scene rather shows the solitary position she occupies within Revolutionary society. The colours of her kerchief, combined with her other clothes, evoke the Cuban flag; but her journey is a solitary one, reinforced by the fact that the few people she passes seem oblivious to her existence. Farrell astutely observes that the character’s reticence forces the viewer to search her face and appearance for clues of her emotions and evolution. As she frees herself of party lines and prejudices and grows closer to Andrés, her hair becomes unruly, her kerchiefs disappear. But they return in the crucial scenes of Andrés departure – where she perches precariously on a rock – and the ending – where she shovels shit from one wall to another.

The final shot of Teresa, for all its ambivalence, framed the protagonist walking with the crowds around and behind her, aligning her personal struggle with the ongoing work of a Revolutionary collective. Four years later, the final images of the kerchiefed Santa, working alone in a rural setting, indicate that sometimes, and in some places, slogans of self-sacrifice and struggle do not always serve to propel you forward into an unknown future, but can rather function to keep you trapped in a futile loop.