In Cuba, even the toughest and roughest men will go weak at the knees before an irate mother. Both mothers and motherhoods are venerated, Mother’s Day is a big deal. Woe betide you if you don’t wish any matriarch “felicidades” in the office on the Monday morning after the big day.
While dedicating a special day to mothers may go back to ancient Greece with Rhea or Cybele in Rome, a more modern origin comes from the United States where Ann Jarvis founded Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in five cities to treat wounds, feed and clothe both Union and Confederate soldiers with neutrality. After the death of her own mother in 1905, Anna Jarvis began an aggressive campaign to establish a National Mother’s Day, which became nationally recognized in 1914.
The first town in Cuba that celebrated Mother’s Day was Santiago de las Vegas, located approximately thirty kilometers southwest of Central Havana. In 1920, a group of young intellectuals warmly welcomed the idea suggested by their colleague Francisco Montoto—teacher, journalist, violinist and writer—to commemorate the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.
The first Mother’s Day celebration was held in the People’s Theatre with performances from several artists. As was the custom then in the United States, those who wore a red carnation were accompanied by their mothers, and those whose mothers had passed away wore a white carnation on the lapel of their suits or the buttonhole of their guayaberas. This tribute was so successful that it made the headlines of the national daily newspaper El Mundo, which sparked other cities, including Havana, to celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May each year.
By the 1960s, Cubans were celebrating Mother’s Day with gifts and greeting cards and the addition of a new ingredient—a cake. Even with the increased hardship of the national economy during the Período Especial when a bar of soap was a luxury, Cuban daughters and sons still gave their mothers greeting cards and cakes. The government even used some of the flour from the country’s emergency food reserve to make these cakes available at modest prices.
Mother’s Day in Cuba has become such a family commemoration that it not only honors the women who have done their utmost to care, educate and protect their children, but the tribute has also been extended to aunts, cousins, teachers, friends, and neighbors. To this day, nothing is more touching than a child giving his mother a handmade card and paper flowers.