The Lives Grandfather Saved (Or Tried to Save)

Grandfather Alberto was no less formidable as a friend than as an enemy: no man could desire a better friend nor fear a more relentless foe. But “true” enemies are not uncommon in the world: the maintenance of an enmity, even a lifelong one, requires only consistency of purpose and will not suffer by a certain (and almost necessary) detachment, whereas friendship, if it is to be lasting, demands our constant attention and cannot endure without the sacrifice at times of our own interests or even of our safety. An enemy may imperil our life; but it is only for the sake of a friend that we will willingly risk it. Such, at least, is the ideal of friendship, which as all ideals is rarely aspired to and more rarely attained. Yet grandfather, for all his life, exemplified that ideal. It did not cost him his life, which it very well could have done; but the results were not always those which he hoped for. Still, he always had the consolation that he had acted in accordance with his own highest expectations of himself. Not to defile our own self-image is a necessary condition of happiness in life. Grandfather, consequently, was never bitter or tormented by regrets, though his life was tragic in many respects, as any life that is deprived of its moorings precisely when the harbor is in sight. At the same time he was fortunate because his life was fully realized in his country, and even if he had been able to spend his last years there he would only have enjoyed the fruits of his accomplishments, but not added substantially to them.

Grandfather’s political career spanned 40 years (1917-1958), or two-thirds the history of the Cuban Republic. Besides his honesty which was so punctilious that it made him a byword for incorruptible in his day, the other constant in his years in politics was his willingness to risk his neck to save the lives of both his politically-compromised friends and political opponents. An objection might be raised that a “relentless foe,” as I have already said he was, does not go out of his way to save an enemy, especially one who fully deserves whatever is coming to him. A political opponent, however, may also have been a friend of one’s youth, the friend of a friend, or at least a familiar contemporary. It is one thing to desire to see an enemy defeated and quite another to insist upon his utter annihilation. For grandfather, the greatest defeat an enemy could sustain was to seek his help in his greatest hour of need (something which he himself would never have done if put in his enemy’s place and at his mercy). Magnanimity in such circumstances shows strength, not weakness, and is yet another way to assert one’s superiority over the enemy. Fidel Castro, who has never forgiven a friend much less an enemy, represents the other extreme: magnanimity for him is a sign of weakness because he regards any instance of generosity to an enemy or rival as a capitulation. He is not preoccupied with assuming the superior moral ground because morality for him is simply what is in his own best interest.

It was in the wake of the 1933 Revolution — when Fidel was 7 years old and his worst enemy was still his father — that Grandfather Alberto assumed the role of the “Cuban Pimpernel.” He was then in his mid-thirties and occupied the very coveted position of Director General of Cuba’s 26 customs houses. No office in Cuba, perhaps not even the presidency itself, afforded greater scope for personal enrichment at public expense. But grandfather was an honest man and had been appointed to that office by President Gerardo Machado to combat the endemic corruption that threatened to undermine the country’s credit and good name, which were essential for obtaining the loans from First National City Bank that financed the biggest public works programme ever undertaken and completed by any Cuban administration before or since. As Cuba’s “Anti-Smuggling Czar,” the greatest challenge he faced was from rum-runners during Prohibition, which pitted him against the head of that cartel and most notorious of foreign malefactors, Joseph P. Kennedy (obviously that office was hereditary in his family). But that chapter of grandfather’s biography will wait for another day.

Before Castro outlawed them, revolutions in Cuba were largely encyclical and occurred every 25 years or so, marking the coming of age of each successive generation. There were always causes enough for revolution, though at any other time they would have been overlooked. The 1933 revolution was ostensibly precipitated by President Machado’s ill-considered prolongation of his term of office from four to six years, accomplished by adopting a new Constitution which extended by two years the terms of all elected public officials. Why a man who won a fair election by the greatest plurality in Cuban history and was up to that time the most popular of our presidents would resort to such chicanery when, like FDR. he could have been re-elected indefinitely and died in office, remains one of the great chimeras of Cuban history, the first misstep that led us, inexorably, to the debacle of 1959, because it opened the way for many of the actors that would play a prominent role in the dissolution of the Republic. Grandfather saw it as a mistake from the first, and was one of the organizers of a projected mass rally by 100,000 of Machado’s own supporters in the Liberal Party to plead with him not go through with his plans, when the assassination of Senate President Clemente Vázquez Bello, Machado’s presumed successor, re-affirmed Machado in his determination to remain in office at any cost. The 1933 Revolution involved no battles between revolutionaries and the Army; but was conducted through acts of terrorism by the rebels (mostly university students) and bloody reprisals by the police. The violence on both sides was largely indiscriminate, but it was the government that was blamed by both the populace and the U.S. for it.

Grandfather Alberto’s best friend happened to be the Chief of the National Police, Brigadier Antonio B. Ainciart, and it was by interceding with him that he was able to save the lives of seven of the most notorious bomb-throwers, one of whom would later become president of Cuba and another prime minister: Félix Lancís Sánchez (the prime minister); [José] “Pepín” Gutiérrez; [Juan] “Guancho” de Cárdenas; Arturo Nespereida; [X] San Miguel; and Carlos Prío Socarrás (the future president). If he had not intervened on their behalf, they surely would have been shot “in the act of escaping” after having been allowed, of course, to escape (the infamous ley de fuga). I do not recall exactly the reason that he sought clemency for the seven, since all were undoubtedly guilty of the crimes imputed to them. I am sure that any of the reasons already cited would have sufficed. Some degree of familiarity or even friendship is indeed suggested by the fact that he remembered two of the seven by their nicknames. Naturally, I was most inquisitive about Carlos Prío’s case. Grandfather told me that his mother stormed his office one day and threw herself at his feet and would not be pulled away until he had promised to help save her fugitive son. Grandfather, who lost his own mother in childbirth, would have been especially susceptible to such an appeal. The woman probably stumbled on him by accident after having barged into other offices and grabbed unto other legs without gaining her objective. Grandfather took Prío under his custody to see Police Chief Ainciart, which guaranteed his life if not his freedom. With all the ingenuousness of youth, Prío declared that he was not responsible for the bombing for which he was being sought, but had in fact committed others. One can well imagine grandfather’s reaction to such unexpected candor from one whom he was ready to vouch for. What no one could have imagined, however, was Ainciart’s reaction: he chuckled. Then he took his personal card, signed it and handed it to Prío, and informed him that he had 24 hours to leave the country (grandfather saw to it that he did). What amused Ainciart was that never before had anyone voluntarily confessed to any bombing, not even those caught in the act of placing bombs.

The Revolution of 1933 triumphed exactly as Castro’s Revolution did 25 years later: the U.S. ordered Machado to resign and quit the island under the threat of withdrawing its recognition of his government. It was then that the prey became the predators and the real violence began, and, one might even say, the real revolution. All former Machado officials were on the run for their lives, including grandfather. Naturally, not all were hunted down with the same avidity; in most cases the mob was content to loot their abandoned houses and burn them. It was a different story with the porristas (police and informants), for whom homelessness was not deemed a sufficient punishment. Former Chief of Police Ainciart was their principal quarry. It seemed like everybody in Havana was looking for him, not excluding children. There was no monetary bounty on his head, but it was understood that the biggest hero of the Revolution would be whoever fingered him. To allow his friend Ainciart to escape and go into hiding, Grandfather Alberto performed one of the noblest acts of friendship in unrecorded history. In Spanish, they would call what he did bizarro (reckless bravery). Those who don’t understand the Spanish code of honor might be more inclined to favor its English acceptation (bizarre). Grandfather donned Ainciart’s police chief’s hat and had himself chauffeured around Havana in a patrol car for several hours. He lived to tell the story. Ainciart did not. His covert was located and he shot and killed himself just minutes before his pursuers could apply the ley de fuga to him. Poetic justice was not enough for his enemies, however. They mutilated his body and dragged it through the streets until it was “rescued” by the army. After it was buried, another mob stole his body from Colón Cemetery and strung it from a streetlamp in front of the University of Havana. When the corpse literally exploded under the tropical sun and came crashing to the pavement, it was doused with gasoline and set on fire. (Castro and his henchmen fear that a similar fate awaits their mortal remains and are now routinely cremated and then buried, a practice without precedent among Cubans; but in their case, a necessary precaution. It is well that it should be so since such a spectacle would be used to indict the victims rather than those who inspired such hatred).

The Revolution of 1933 was in many ways the precursor of Castro’s Revolution except that most of its leading protagonists eventually grew up and rejected the ideologies of far right and left which they had once embraced out of ignorance rather than conviction, opting to become part of the political establishment rather than toppling a volatile republic in order to replace it with an institutionalized tyranny.

Grandfather returned to politics in 1936 when he was elected to Congress on the Liberal Party line. By then a General Amnesty had been promulgated for former Machado officials and all but Machado himself had returned safely from exile.


We also have a Cuban Prime Minister in our family, Grandfather Alberto’s first cousin, Angel Solano y García, who served under President Ramón Grau San Martín; and are related more remotely to Major General Mario García Menocal, Cuba’s third president.


Cayetana Levels a Mountain

Our great-great-great-great grandmother, the first Countess de Baynoa, was baptised María de Jesús Rufina Cayetana GARCIA-Barrera y Rodríguez-Vigario, Florencia y Sotolongo (1780-1849). In this formidable string of names she had two very uncommon ones, and it was by the last of these (Cayetana) that she was known all her life. The name suited her as no name ever suited mortal before. No “Cayetana” was ever an ordinary woman. Our Cayetana, in particular, was quite extraordinary, and perhaps even unique. She accomplished what Mohammed could not: she moved a mountain.

Mohammed was not offended by the unruly mountain that refused to heed his command, and as it would not come to him, consented to go to it. Cayetana, however, was not as accommodating or open to being trifled with by inanimate objects. If mountains did not obey her, she obliterated them. And when the mountain that raised itself behind and above her manor house, in Old Havana, stood steadfast and unmovable, blocking the sun and virtually the sky, Cayetana, who had grown tired of living perpetually in its shadow, issued her challenge: “If the mountain will not disappear of its own accord, I will make it disappear.” And so the noble lady did.

Granted, no mountain in Cuba attains the eminence of even the smallest of the Alps much less the Himalayas. In comparison, our Cuban mountains would be considered little better than hillocks: the highest, Pico Turquino, in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, is 6474 ft, and you would have to stack five of those to reach the height of Mount Everest. But this is what makes this story a fact and not a legend. Cayetana’s mountain was probably no more than 200 ft. (somewhat smaller than Guanabacoa’s Loma de la Cruz, Havana’s highest natural elevation). Still, at 200 ft. it was higher than any building in Cuba at the time or in the United States. The task which Cayetana undertook was both formidable and plausible.

At 4:00 AM each morning, for 40 years, Cayetana would rise from bed, grab her broom and ascend the mountain. There she would spend two hours furiously sweeping, retiring only at sunrise lest her milky white complexion take on a plebeian hue. Nothing is known with certainty about her technique but obviously she must have swept the dirt over the mountain top, creating a kind of mound below, which she then spread evenly over the ground.

Her first cousin and husband, the first Count, Francisco José Rufino GARCIA-Barrera y Montero de Espinosa, Florencía y García-Menocal, owned four sugar plantations, two sugar mills and 600 slaves, who could have been assigned to this project and made fast work of it. But either Cayetana would not allow it or the Count did not see the need for it. So she labored alone and relentlessly, wearing out hundreds of straw brooms and ladies’ gloves.

Each year the task got easier because the mountain got smaller. Then one morning, like the 14,600 that preceded it, Cayetana set out on her self-appointed mission and discovered that there was no mountain to climb anymore: the ground was level. It was a moment of personal triumph as few men or women have ever known. In comparison, really, how jejune seems the task of climbing a mountain! A triumph it was to be sure, but also a disruption of her life she could not bear. The next morning the Countess did not rise at her customary hour nor ever again. I see her ghost ascending to heaven atop her spectral mountain.

A mountain is thought by some men to be a fitting monument to commemorate the deeds of other men, even when neither the men nor the deeds are in anyway connected with the mountain. The absence of a mountain is not as impressive as its presence. Nevertheless, the spot where Cayetana’s mountain once stood, if anyone can remember it, should bear her venerable name (which to its shame has not been perpetuated in our family).

Except on the battlefield few men die in the apogée of their glory, though there they are only victorious  over their fellow men, the weakest reeds in Nature; whereas Cayetana vanquished Nature herself, something more substantial than the pyramids and older. She asserted her control over her dominion as powerfully and more definitively than any queen or princess ever did. She did not merely climb a mountain because it was there; she demolished a mountain because she did not like and could not accept the fact that it was there. For her the mountain did not hold out an invitation but a challenge. She accepted that challenge and today there is one less mountain in Cuba.

In the age in which we live, where man’s control over Nature is questioned or even denied, Cayetana may be judged guilty of a crime against Nature (perhaps the only “crime against Nature” left after the Supreme Court had its say). But during her lifetime and for some time thereafter, man’s conquest of the natural world was universally celebrated as the vanguard of progress and civilization. Viewed in that light — and she was as much a creature of her time as we are of ours — Cayetana’s achievement ranks with the construction of the first Cuban railroad (1835) and the Havana Aqueduct (1878), which Cayetana’s own pet project anticipated though we shall not go as far as to suggest that her manic obsession was the inspiration for other great public works in Cuba.

Still, it might be no coincidence that Cayetana’s daughter-in-law, the second Countess, María de las Mercedes de Ziburu y Herrera-Dávila, Bassave y Albear, was a first-cousin (once removed) of Francisco de Albear y Fernández de Lara, the builder of the Havana Aqueduct (later named in his honor), which still supplies water to the capital;  Colón Cemetery, where the city’s dead are still buried; and Havana’s “San Francisco” Wharves, still the hub of what little commerce is left in Cuba. If Brigadier General Albear, of the Royal Corps of Engineers, ever visited the Countess’ house, and it seems very likely that he did, he surely could not have overlooked the pioneer civil engineering project underway there. (This gives me an idea for a future scholarly article: “Cayetana García: the First Female Civil Engineer in the Hispanic World”).

More than 150 years after Cayetana’s death in 1849, her name remains green in the memory of her descendents. I first learned about her in Cuba 50 years ago. My Grandaunts, Hortensia (“Muñeca”) and Ester, the sisters of Grandfather Alberto, were the first to tell me about her. They had heard the story from their grandfather, Francisco GARCIA-Barrera y de Ziburu, who was Cayetana’s grandson.

Cayetana survives in other ways as well. Her headstrong character was inherited by many of the females in our family, some of whom I could well see replicating her feat. This, too, is an assurance to me of the absolute veracity of this story.

Stupidity Also Teaches Its Lessons

Grandfather Alberto was elected to the Cuban House of Representatives in 1936, just three years after he had fled for his life in the wake of the 1933 Revolution. We shall discuss elsewhere his career as a legislator, which culminated in his heroic defense of President Miguel Mariano Gómez, who was impeached on Colonel Batista’s orders that year for exercising his constitutional authority to veto a law. Here, however, I want to recount the most remarkable speech that grandfather ever heard in Congress. No official version exists of it because it was expunged from the Congressional Record, for obvious reasons. Decency and decorum also prevented its publication in contemporary newspapers. Only grandfather’s recollection of it, as reconstructed by me, survives. The name of the senator who delivered the speech to a joint session of Congress escapes me. All that I remember is that grandfather said he was a habitual drunkard, and that when drunk he was the most lucid man that he had ever heard in his life. On this particular day he was very drunk.

Both houses of Congress were convened on that day, declared one of National Mourning, to pay homage to the seven Cuban military aviators and mechanics who were killed on December 12, 1937 while on a good-will mission to Latin America to promote the construction of the Faro Colón (Columbus Lighthouse), in the Dominican Republic. Many eulogies were delivered extolling their heroism and the Pan-American ideal of hemispheric solidarity and unity for which they had supposedly died. Then the drunken senator was recognized, and, amid horrified screams and uproarious laughter, he delivered these remarks:

“Gentlemen, we are gathered here today in solemn session to commemorate stupidity, and what greater example can there be of stupidity in this or any other age than crashing three airplanes into a mountain! Other obstacles might have been unavoidable, but, really, how can anyone be so stupid as to overlook a mountain? Ineptitude does not quite cover it; inexperience is also an inadequate explanation; only stupidity, of the rankest and uncommonest kind, can account for such catastrophe. Let us not blame the mountain, gentlemen, it only did what mountains are supposed to do, which is not to yield the right of way to men in flying machines. To the Colombian people, the owners of the mountain, I extend my apologies for the actions of our hapless fellow citizens. Let us honor them with our silence, for stupidity like theirs has no excuse and deserves no commendation. And to the world, we say: ‘Cubans are not generally a nation of stupid men, though today, in Congress assembled, I’m afraid we have given yet more proof to the contrary.'”

These words were spoken while the flag-draped coffins of the seven airmen lay in state a few feet away in the Capital Rotunda. The senator was wrong in one particular: the three aviators did not exactly crash their planes into a mountain, but, rather, tried to fly through a narrow gap between two mountains and had their wings clipped, one after the other. The fourth pilot (a Dominican) flew over the mountain range and was safe. The names of the three lost planes were: “La Niña,” “La Pinta” and “La Santa María.” It was not a happy omen for the future of Pan-Americanism.

As for the Faro Colón, whose mighty beams can be seen throughout the Caribbean and beyond,  it was completed just in time for the Quincentenary of Columbus’ discovery of America, in 1992. Even 50 years before its light was turned on for the first time, it was an anachronism in the age of radar. And what of the quixotic dream of Hispanic solidarity and union? It was never anything but a chimera. Cubans learned that lesson the hard way after 1959 when our Latin “brothers” showed their solidarity with Fidel Castro, not the Cuban people. That seven Cuban lives were sacrificed in 1937 to promote such rubbish as Pan-Americanism was the real stupidity.

The Most Famous Cuban Duel that Never Was

Duelling was a colonial tradition that did not die with the birth of the Republic. On the contrary, duelling became less aristocratic and more popular. Politicians and journalists were especially attracted to it as yet another means to court publicity. In time even tradesmen resorted to the field of honor to settle real or perceived affronts, or, in the most literal sense, to settle accounts. Of course, duelling etiquette did not allow one to challenge or accept a challenge from a social inferior. This restriction probably saved many rich men from the predations of would-be assassins, while at the same time shielding poor rubes from having to fight duels with one-percenters who excelled in the gentleman’s sport of fencing and nothing else. (Cubans, it might be noted, won all the fencing gold medals at the 1900 and 1904 Olympics, or, rather, one Cuban did, Ramón Fonst. Never before or since has one individual so completely dominated a sport).

Duelling in Cuba was more a matter of swordplay than gunplay, less OK Corral thanScaramouche. Pistols and revolvers were resorted to only when both parties really wanted to kill each other. This was rarely the case. The point of a duel was to make a point, and reconciliation more often than not was its objective and its outcome, for  when both contenders had proved that they were men of honor, there was no longer an obstacle to reconciliation.

In order to draw first blood in a duel but not inflict a mortal or serious injury, you had to be an expert swordsman. It was a prudent policy, by the same token, to avoid duels with those who were not. The inexperienced swordsman was a menace whose technique was borrowed from a butcher’s. Such a neophyte was generally quarantined until he took fencing lessons and learned how to scratch and nick.

The biggest and most magnificent fencing facilities in Cuba, which would not have looked out of place at Versailles, was located in the Capitol building. Senators and Representatives, who enjoyed immunity from prosecution, were especially avid duellists. None was ever killed in a duel, which attests to their expertise and gives credence to the allegation that duelling in Cuba was just another sport, fencing revved up a notch, or bullfighting without the sacrifice of the bull.

Grandfather Alberto participated in a dozen duels. I would actually be able to enumerate each duel in the most minute detail if I had not committed 20 years ago one of the most regrettable mistakes in my experience as a bibliophile when I passed up the opportunity to acquire at what I thought then was an exorbitant price (I would pay many times that sum now) a very rare copy of Cuba’s Anuario de Duelos (Duelling Yearbook), an 800-page tome which chronicled all excursions on the field of honor and their results. This book (sociology in the raw) is not found at any public or university library in the world. It is rarer even than Martí’s first editions, all of which (save one) I have managed to acquire through the years.

Until I can track down another copy (or, more likely, that very copy), I can only relate the particulars of a duel which grandfather was able to avoid. On this occasion (or non-occasion) he was challenged to a duel by an idiot: the kind of menace that would imperil your life, which no man who was not himself an idiot would challenge to or fight in a duel. Getting killed in a duel was not an option for grandfather: he would have left too many widows and orphans. Still, he could not refuse the challenge without discredit to himself, or, worse yet, without polishing the idiot’s apple. What to do? Well, the only way to fight an idiot is to pose as an even bigger idiot. Since he was the one challenged, it was grandfather’s choice of weapons. His opponent naturally expected him to choose swords, as grandfather was an excellent swordsman. He did not.

Instead, he proposed that they fight with knives, naked in a locked room. “This man is a madman,” his opponent yelled when grandfather’s seconds made the proposal and immediately withdrew his challenge. The idiot knew, of course, that if he had agreed to a fight “al cuchillo,” grandfather would not have backed down. This ruse only works when there is no doubt an opponent is willing to carry it to its final consequences if necessary. Such, apparently, was grandfather’s reputation and the value of his word.

Grandfather Alberto’s Brother Manuel (“Macho”)

We who knew Grandfather Alberto in his later years remember him as funny and lots of fun. When he was young, however, he was considered the “sourpuss” of the family: serious, driven, dependable, the bedrock of the family. It was his older brother Manuel García Valdés (“Macho”) who was happy-go-lucky, whimsical, spontaneous and lovable, as all ne’er-do-wells are. Their father “Mipa,” whose personality was closer to that of his younger son’s, adored his namesake Macho; he alone could make him laugh, and transform him, for the moment at least, into an accomplice in his folly. Paternal love in its extremes is rarer than maternal love in its extremes. If his mother had not died in childbirth, it is certain that Grandfather Alberto would have been her favorite, as he was the best reflection of his father. But it was Mipa who raised his sons, and though he was good to all his children, there was never any doubt about which was his favorite.

When Macho needed money, which was frequently, he would wrestle his father to the ground and take it from his pockets. One New Year’s Day, Macho showed up at his father’s house with a huge fish wrapped in newspaper, a gift for Mipa’s santo. (Saint’s Day). His father was extremely pleased. “But wait, papá, you are forgetting something. My name is Manuel, too, and it’s also my santo today.” That fish cost Mipa a hundred pesos. And, naturally, when grandfather stopped by with his gift — a watch, a car, a house, I don’t remember — Mipa’s first words were: “Did you see the big fish that Macho got me!”

Grandfather Alberto’s conversations with his father were often steered by Mipa into that perennial subject: what could grandfather do for his brother? He had always done a lot for him; for that was one way to win his father’s love. It was decided one day by Grandfather and Mipa that Macho’s special attributes, his outsized personality and genial manner, his cockiness and charisma, ideally suited him to be — the proprietor of a circus. As they correctly surmised, Macho jumped at the idea (perhaps literally). So grandfather bought him a circus. The scion of the Counts de Baynoa had found his calling at last as the Cuban Barnum.

The main attraction of the “Manuel García Circus” was its “caballitos,” or merry-go-round. It was customary to charge children a nickel for riding on it. Granduncle Macho would charge them a nickel if they had a nickel, but if they didn’t he would let them ride for free, all day long if they wanted. That he was the most popular man in his neighborhood can hardly be doubted. It was that which gave him satisfaction and fulfillment. Solvency was never a concern for him. Becoming a great success was a responsibility which he gladly delegated to his younger brother and Macho was always grateful to him for having relieved him of it. Macho was content to live his life one day at a time, doing every day nothing more than what that day required, convinced that everything would turn out for the best at the end, as it usually did for him. Until the day that it didn’t.

At age 38, Macho was struck down with appendicitis. Eighty years ago this was a very serious condition with a very high mortality rate. When peritonitis set in death was almost certain. The only hope was an experimental serum that had been developed in the United States and was not available in Cuba. At an astronomical cost, grandfather secured the serum and had it flown to Cuba in a private plane within 24 hours. In fact, he acquired enough serum for two patients, for there was another man in the hospital who was also dying of peritonitis and could not afford the medicine. That man was saved. Macho died
The experimental drug was not penicillin, which was still some years down the road. What it was I do not know, nor whether it contributed in any way to the other man’s survival. Grandfather, at least, seemed to think it did. Real life, unlike the movies, does not guarantee a happy ending. For one thing, God in the movies is a much better actor and infinitely more providential.

Macho’s funeral mass was attended by hundreds of people. The church itself was packed to capacity and the mourners overflowed into its environs. Especially conspicuous were the large numbers of children (not all of them his own). A friend of Grandfather Alberto’s remarked to him that it was his brother who should have been the politician, for he had never seen such a spontaneous (that is, unpaid) demonstration of public mourning.

Many who offered their condolences to Mipa, who was beyond all consolation, told him that he should take comfort in the fact that he had another son who represented his family’s future and his country’s. After a while, he could take no more of this, and turning to grandfather for sympathy, blurted out: “Don’t they understand that he was the son I loved most!” Grandfather replied, “Yes, father, I know.”

For several years after Macho’s death Mipa and grandfather busied themselves tracking down his stray offspring. Macho had been irresistible to women (his type usually is), and with his travelling circus had sown his seed far and wide. But it was girls that they found not the rumored “lost son” that would have gladdened Mipa’s heart in his last day.

Grandfather’s Sisters

Grandfather Alberto had three sisters: Hortensia, Estrella and Ester. They were actually his half-sisters, the daughters of Mipa’s second wife, Angélica Díaz y Pujols. This distinction was irrelevant: they were the only sisters grandfather ever had; and he and his brother Manuel (Macho) were the only brothers that the sisters had (after the death at 12 of Carlos Manuel García y Díaz, the only son of Mipa’s second marriage).

The oldest of Grandfather Alberto’s three sisters was named Hortensia, but she was known her whole life by the nickname of “Muñeca” (Dolly). Tía Muñeca was beautiful on the inside, which is where beauty is eternal. I have never known a person who was so entirely good. Thin as a ruler, rather dessicated, and with wiry white hair that at times stood on end for no other reason than it did, her sweet personality, which combined the innocence of a child with the devotion of the most doting of mothers, was made to win the hearts of children. She did not have any of her own (none of her sisters did), but lavished that untapped maternal love on the children and grandchildren of her brothers. They were her life for all of her life. I do not know if this type of maiden aunt still exists in Cuba or anywhere. I suspect not. This I do know for sure: people like her don’t pass twice through our lives. If being a saint were not such a common (and hence devalued) thing today, I would call her a saint. I am lucky to have known her if only for the first eight years of my life. Indeed, I am lucky to have known all of grandfather’s sisters.

Aunt Ester was the baby of the family. She had more experience of life than did Muñeca, having once been engaged  to an aviator who took off one day into the blue and was never seen again. She was by far the dominant sister, though younger by nearly 20 years than Muñeca and the middle sister Estrella (known as “Bebé”). Of the three Bebé was the only one who married. Her husband, Paco, was a professional (and anonymous) revolutionary in both 1933 and 1959. (Grandfather and he always remained on the best terms at a time in our country’s history — long since past — when family came before politics).

With the benefit of hindsight (or, rather, with fifty years added to my age), it is obvious that each of the three sisters represented a different stage of emotional development: children, of course, could relate best to Tía Muñeca. But the strength of Aunt Ester was reassuring and the serenity of Aunt Bebé was just as comforting. When I say that the happiest days of my life were those I spent in Cuba, it is because of them and my paternal grandfather. That I remember as well as I do those days is no doubt because that period of my life is encapsulated forever by my departure from the island, when I was abruptly but unavoidably separated from the people who loved me and whom I loved. A childhood is generally remembered because it was very happy or because it was very sad. On both counts I remember my childhood perfectly.

My grandaunts were the living repository of our family’s history. My love of history — not only of the history of our family but of the history of our country — was born and nurtured in my grandaunts’ home under their tutelage and among their keepsakes. Still, much was lost of material and sentimental value in the whirlwind of Revolution which my aunts had no duplicates of. One of grandfather’s two residences was looted and set on fire by the rabble (Aunt Lutty remembers a negro absconding with grandfather’s bust of Napoleon); and the other, which was rented, almost suffered the same fate but was saved (the house, not its contents) at the last moment by the harried owner, who presented his property title to the would-be revolutionary arsonists (who would, in short order, confiscate his house and everybody else’s in Cuba). At the vestibule of that second house, so that no one who entered it would be able to miss it, hung a framed photograph of panoramic dimensions showing Grandfather Alberto and President Batista hugging at the ceremony marking the government’s purchase of the Ferrocarriles Occidentales de Cuba in 1954 (formerly a British concern); grandfather had overseen the railroad’s nationalization and had been appointed its first Cuban director. One can well imagine what happened to thatphotograph! Fortunately, it was the only photograph that was lost. Untouched were hundreds more depicting family events which grandfather’s sisters had been given through the years (as all childless aunts are). This “back-up set” survived and was mailed photograph by photograph to our grandfather by his sisters in Cuba.

They also retained some very important reliques of our family’s history that they has inherited from their father Mipa: the vellum book inscribed in gold ink which contained the royal letters patent granting our forebears the titles of Count de Baynoa and Viscount de la Casa García, signed “Yo, El Rey” by Ferdinand VII, in 1820; the ribald diary which their Granduncle Enrique (García y Ziburu) kept during his sojourn to Spain in 1870s, where he exhausted his inheritance in one year, married and abandoned a Spanish woman, and returned to Cuba to live the last 50 years of his life under his older brother Francisco’s roof; and less valuable but no less fascinating to a child, an album which Grandfather Alberto had assembled as a teenager entitled “Alrrededor del Mundo”  (Around the World), issued as a premium by the Susini Tobacco Co., with hundreds of handcolored cards depicting famous landmarks and typical costumes of the different countries (then only fifty as compared to over two hundred today). All these I held in my hands and examined not once but hundreds of times. And yet I wish that I could do so just one more time. The memory of a five year old, even a five year old who could read and write, does not answer the questions of one now fifty years older.

<Muñeca and Ester (and Bebé until she got married) lived together all their lives: the first half with their father and the last half by themselves. For a time in the 1920s it seemed as if their father Mipa, who had twice been widowed, wanted to remarry. His daughters would have none of it: they informed their father that if he brought another woman into their mother’s house, they would take her portrait down from the wall and leave forever. Mipa did not remarry. When he died in 1947, the sisters inherited their father’s savings (Grandfather Alberto did not take his share). The first thing they did was to sell the house and its furnishings, including a mahogony table that could seat 30 and had the family coat-of-arms painted on its underside. With the monies they collected they moved to a suite at the Hotel “Ambos Mundos” (where Hemingway stayed while visiting Cuba till he bought a house and moved there). They gave up cooking, which, incidentally, was not their forté, and ordered all their meals from room service. Their free time was mostly spent napping. Finally, they were living like the descendants of Counts. Life was good, but it was not good for long.

Having exhausted nearly all their funds and with nothing but Mipa’s pension to live on, they rented an apartment in Old Havana. They lived there until 1959 when they moved into a luxurious condo in El Vedado, which had been vacated by a fleeing member of Grandmother Rosa’s family (her niece Cuca, who had received it as a wedding gift from her). It is this condo which I knew as my grandaunts’ home, and which I visited almost every day with my mother and sister. (As a footnote, I also occasionally visited their former apartment in Old Havana, which they transferred to their nephew Orlando, their brother Macho’s son. It was there that I saw and played with Great-Grandfather Mipa’s vast collection of walking sticks carved from the rarest woods in the world. Also lost).

The tumult occasioned by the 1959 Revolution did not only give my grandaunts a new home, but a “daughter” to raise as well. My grandparents’ youngest child Rosita, who was born but three months after the fall of the old regime, remained in Cuba with my aunts for nearly a decade. Her baptisimal name holds a clue to her unusual situation: “Rosa María Colombiana.” The “Colombiana” was in honor of the Republic of Colombia, which had granted Grandfather Alberto diplomatic asylum at its embassy in Havana (located in the ambassador’s own apartment). Otherwise, what another Aunt Ester (China), who was then completing her medical studies at the Sorbonne, had read in the Parisian newspapers the morning of January 1, 1959, would surely have come to past: “Batista’s Ministers Summarily Executed by Victorious Rebels.”

Grandmother Rosa, who left for Colombia shortly after Rosita’s birth to be reunited with grandfather, was afraid that the barbudos might use the baby to detain her or force grandfather’s return to Cuba to face revolutionary “justice.” So she asked Grandfather Alberto’s nephew, Orlando, to register the baby as his daughter; incredibly, on the birth certificate (which I have seen) the mother’s name was left blank as if unknown! Because of this ruse, of course, Grandmother Rosa had no standing to take the baby with her to Colombia. It was agreed that Orlando would do so himself. It took eight years for him to be granted an exit visa. During that time Rosita lived with and was raised by our grandaunts. It was only in 1967 that she was reunited with her parents (one of whom she had never met and the other whom she could not remember) at the home of her sister China.

The loss of Rosita was a terrible blow to Muñeca and Ester. But they still had my sister Barbara and me and our mother, but not for much longer. A year or so later, we, too, were granted permission to leave the country. I would never see my grandaunts again. Muñeca and Bebé died shortly thereafter: Ester, tragically from bone cancer in her early fifties, and Bebé, mercifully, from an embolism while sipping a cup of coffee (a very Cuban way to go). Muñeca, the oldest, lived fifteen more years, alone and nearly blind. She taught me many things, including how to sew (the most useful thing that anybody ever taught me) and how to write letters. Under her direction, I would write a weekly letter to Grandfather Alberto, whom I had not yet met. After I came to the United States, I continued this custom, except that now I was writing to her. I would send her razor blades (it was possible then) and envelopes of Sazón Accent inside my letters. She would enclose in her replies cards from Grandfather Alberto’s old “Alrrededor del Mundo” album (I still have them). Everything else, of course, was stolen by her neighbors, who stalked her like a wounded faun. I don’t even know where she is buried because the deed to the family pantheon at Colón Cemetery was also stolen from her. So she was not able to be reunited with her mother, father and siblings in death, and wherever she is buried is still alone. The world — and certainly our country — is not a safe place for entirely good people.

The Second Count de Baynoa: El Conde Pícaro

In 19th century Cuba gambling was the national pastime. Lottery tickets were sold in fractions of one thousand so even a child could afford to bet a kilo on his favorite number. Cockfighting, Cuba’s indigenous sport, was handicapped the same as horse races and generated an even greater volume of bets. The rich and socially-prominent were naturally the biggest gamblers of all; for not only did they participate in these popular amusements, but had their own exclusive casinos where fortunes were made and lost every night (mostly lost). It was considered “bad form” in those days to retire one’s winnings while the game was still in progress, so everybody in effect played until they had lost everything. The casinos never closed their doors precisely to afford their patrons the opportunity to do precisely that.

The second Count de Baynoa (Cayetana’s son), Manuel GARCIA-Barrera y GARCIA-Barrera, our great-great-great grandfather, was an inveterate gambler. Like many sons of great wealth his only relationship to money was spending it. The II Count, however, was not a complete wastral. His father had purchased for him while he was still a teenager a captain’s commission in the rural cavalry as well as the knight’s cross of the Order of Carlos III. More importantly, his father’s position in society and his own “prospects” saved him from ever hitting bottom, though on occasion he did momentarily touch it. This was such an occasion.

Having lost everything as usual but still wanting to play, the Count decided to liquidate some of his assets on the spot. This was easily done since these casinos attracted speculators of an higher order who were willing to provide ready cash in exchange for a diamond ring, the deed to one’s house, or some portion of a dowry. Technically, these were loans that could be redeemed at a usurious interest rate. The gamblers hoped to reclaim these possessions with their future winnings, but were usually disappointed inn their expectations. If it were possible to gamble away titles of nobility, no doubt many a count or marquess would have staked his birthright for the proverbial bowl of porridge. But the Crown, wisely, had proscribed this practice (though you could still donate your title to the Church, which was permitted to auction it off to the highest bidder).

On that night, the Count decided to pawn his coach; when he lost it, he pawned the horses; and when he lost them, the coachman, which, of course, he also proceeded to lose. What the usurer that lent him the money did not know was that the Count did not own the coach, the horses or the coachman. He was already at the “keeping up appearances” stage of his precipitous decline and had leased all three. Let it be said to his credit — if there is any credit to be salvaged from this affair — that he did not plan this as a swindle. His actions were quite spontaneous and may even have been committed under the delusion that they were in fact his coach, his horses and his slave; for in Cuba, in the 19th century, drinking was the second national pastime.

The next day, now in full possession of himself, the Count informed the carriage’s owner where he could retrieve it, along with the horses and the coachman, as the term of the lease had expired. For a consideration of a thousand sentenes (a French gold coin otherwise known as a “napoleon”), the hapless pawnbroker had subleased the coach-and-four (five, with the coachman)  for the remainder of a one-year contract on which twelve hours still remained.

That night the Count was again at the casino, and when confronted by the irate pawnbroker, who congratulated him on the “fine joke” but demanded his money back, replied: “This is a gambling establishment; you gambled and lost. I’m not getting back the money that I left here last night and neither are you.” And because a Count trumps a pawnbroker, the matter was closed.

Grandfather’s Goddaughter

Like most Cuban politicians, Grandfather Alberto had lost count of how many godchildren he had sponsored. One in particular, however, he never forgot: she had the greatest claim to his love and protection because she was also his daughter. I do not know her name but I do know of her existence. It was confided to me by grandfather himself, and as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, nobody else is aware of it. She was born when grandfather was 17, which would have been in 1915. The baby was adopted by friends of the family, a middle-aged childless couple who raised her as their own. Grandfather was always a part of her life, however. He was officially her “padrino,” which in those days was far more than the ceremonial distinction it is today. Then that honor was normally conferred on a family member, usually a sibling, but not uncommonly a grandparent (e.g., Mipa’s father, Francisco GARCIA y Ziburu, was the godfather of all his grandchildren except the youngest Grand-Aunt Ester, who was born after his passing; Grandfather Alberto (her brother) was her godfather, and she in turn was the godmother and namesake of his daughter Ester (“China”).

When a “stranger” (that is, not a blood relation) was chosen as godparent, he (or she) became a member of the family by adoption, not just the child’s surrogate parent (or parent-in-waiting), but the parents’ compadre or comadre (co-parent). It was highly unusual for a 17-year old boy, who was not related to the family, to become the compadre of a couple in their fifties, and people were not so naive then that this would have passed unnoticed. The goddaughter, of course, never suspected anything. By the time she grew up, her padrino, too, was a middle-aged man. I neglected to ask grandfather if the baby’s mother, too, was her godmother; but I rather suspect not. Any further association with her “disgrace” would only have blighted her prospects for a future marriage and family.

Grandfather, of course, never told his goddaughter his real identity (or should that be her real identity)? That would have been cruel because she loved and cherished the memory of the only parents she had ever known. Such a disclosure would also have been unnecessary because she also loved her padrino, whom she had known all her life and who remained a paternal figure for decades after the death of her “real” father. Even in exile, grandfather continued to see his goddaughter and her family whenever he visited Miami.
Naturally, I wanted to know the name of the secret daughter, but this grandfather would never divulge. If she were alive today, she would be almost 100. It would not be impossible to discover her identity — a review of church records in Cuba would tell us the name of the child for whom grandfather stood as godfather in 1915. But to what purpose and with what end?

I have more than a dozen cousins whom I have not seen in 50 years, that is, since we were children in Cuba. I would have to track them all down before I considered searching for secret cousins who might be upset to learn the circumstances of our consanguinity, or, worst still, couldn’t care less. As I’ve grown older, I’ve lost interest in solving mysteries for the sake of solving mysteries. Most mysteries, I’m convinced, are best left unsolved, since knowledge, not ignorance, is usually the cause of the world’s unhappiness. Nevertheless, if this secret child had been a male — Grandfather Alberto’s only son — I could not have resisted the urge to learn more — all — about him.

The Mother Grandfather Never Knew

Grandfather Alberto was an orphan from birth. His mother died at age 20 while giving birth to him. Unlike his brother Manuel (“Macho”), who was born two years before him, he was never kissed by his mother or held in her arms. There was not even a photograph of her, nor sister or aunt to give him some idea of how she looked. He had to wait for his own daughters to be born to see a glimpse of what she must have looked like. There can be no doubt that her absence from his life must have impacted it in many ways. It did not, however, stop him from being an excellent father to all his children; nor from forming lifelong (if somewhat irregular) attachments to women; nor from being a successful man in every sense of the word. With five daughters and no sons, he received in filial love and devotion many times what he had lost by his mother’s premature death. Still, one cannot diminish the magnitude of that loss. That the scales would be balanced one day cannot be much consolation to a motherless child.

His mother’s name — which is all that we know with certainty about her — was María de Belén Valdés; but even her name poses more questions than it answers. She is listed on grandfather’s birth certificate as an “hija de la Casa de Beneficencia” (a daughter of the Havana Foundling Hospital). Her last name “Valdés” was given to all the children entrusted to its care by gracious concession of Bishop Jerómino Valdés y Sierra, its founder. Bishop Valdés did make one curious stipulation before bequeathing his last name to the orphans: he required that the accent mark on the letter “é” in “Valdés” be omitted in their case. He was not a spelling reformer but wanted to distinguish the oldline Valdés’s from the parvenu Valdés’s. Curiously, slaveholders at the time gave their “wards” their own last names without alteration, I suppose, because their color, not their surnames, distinguished slave from master. The orphans, most of whom were white or white enough to pass for white, were saddled with this orthographical “scarlet letter” to appease the aristocratic Valdés’s (that is, the bishop’s relatives). Of course, once the orphans left the Casa de Beneficencia they assumed of their own accord the accent mark that had been denied them, so there really was no way to distinguish between Valdés’s. Moreover, neither the law nor popular prejudice sanctioned this distinction, and the accent mark was dropped only on the documents of the institution itself.

The State, unlike the Church, gave the orphans the benefit of the doubt. Because their origins were not generally known, and to protect the occasional child who was an orphan but not of “infamous birth” (i.e. illegitimate), all the wards of the Casa de Beneficencia were declared legitimate by royal decree of 19 February 1794. Socially, this put them above the illegitimate children being raised outside the orphanage and opened opportunities for them which were not available to the “base born,” who were barred from holy orders, government service and the professions. At least that was the hope of the enlightened Carlos III, who, by conferring legitimacy on the orphans in effect nullified Bishop Valdés’ orthographical bar sinister. Still, despite this dispensation, the people generally regarded the “hijos de la Casa de Beneficencia” as bastards and were loathe to marry them because of their uncertain origins. The females, in particular, were at a disadvantage in this respect because they did not have dowries entailed on them, though there were charitable societies founded for the expressed purpose of providing some token dowry for orphan girls. Even then their prospects were far from ideal.

Civil authorities did not approve of “unequal marriages,” and parents and other interested parties could petition the courts to prevent them; or, if they had already transpired, request that the Church annul them. “Unequal” did not only mean racial or religious differences but disparities in social position. Unscrupulous noblemen would often seduce girls from the lower classes with the promise of marriage and then successfully petition the authorities to nullify the contract on the grounds that “the seduced maiden who was promised marriage is inferior in status to her suitor, so that greater dishonor would befall his lineage by marrying her than she herself would incur by being unredeemed” (this is the actual language of such a court finding, which further specified that such an invalidation occurred when a “Duke, a Marquis, a Count or Gentleman of known nobility made a promise of marriage to someone who was not his equal, whether because she was of a different or mixed race, or the white daughter of a hangman, a butcher, a tanner, or other infamous laborer”).

Consequently, there were few Cinderella stories in colonial Cuba, and even fewer that had a happy ending (e.g. see Cirilo Villaverde’s classic novel Cecilia Valdés). Our Belén Valdés was the exception. The orphan girl did find her prince and lived happily ever after (though not for long). It was highly unusual and may indeed have been unprecedented for the grandson of a Count and only son of the heir apparent to the title to marry a “daughter of the Havana Foundling Hospital,” as our great-grandfather Manuel GARCIA y Montero (“Mipa”) did. This tells us a great deal about him (alas, not much more about her). He was evidently his own man and a man of modern times, as shown by his rejection of a class system which was then in its death throes and would expire with the end of Spanish rule. (His sons, raised in the Republic, would carry his egalitarianism even farther).

The first Count de Baynoa unconsciously contributed to this evolution towards the extinction of his class. He paid thousands of ounces in gold to the Crown to ennoble his family and also donated thousands more with other nobles to build Havana’s orphan asylum. He had no way of knowing that he was working at cross purposes and for the greater good. The thought would have horrified him.

El Burro de Baynoa

The town of Santa María de Baynoa was founded in 1767 by Manuel GARCIA Barreras on the site of his finca called “Manajay.” In 1820, his grandson Francisco GARCIA-Barrera y Montero de Espinosa was granted the title of Count de Baynoa by Fernando VII primary on the basis of this achievement. In four years, Baynoa will commemorate the 250th anniversary of its founding.

One would think that Manuel GARCIA Barreras and his descendents the Counts de Baynoa would be the centerpiece of Baynoan history. But, no, we are quite forgotten: absentee landlords who last collected their rents 100 years ago and never again concerned themselves with the wellspring of their nobility. Perhaps we deserve our anonymity, but we certainly don’t deserve to lose our preeminence to a donkey. Yet such has been our unlucky fate.

The most famous inhabitant of Baynoa, biped or quadriped, is the “Burro de Baynoa.” No town in Cuba can boast of a more legendary mascot. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Baynoa owes its fame to its burro, not the other way around. As surely as Calabaras County itself became celebrated because of its “Celebrated Jumping Frog” did Baynoa enter the national consciousness thanks to its native donkey. Other nearby towns tried to wrest the burro from her or attempted to rear rival burros without success. Folklore is not something that can be fabricated or improvised: it is a fruit of slow growth which blooms before our eyes without catching our notice till the day when it does, and then it seems as if it had always existed.

The legend of the “Burro de Baynoa” dates to the early 1900s. The most interesting thing about this burro is that he was an ordinary burro. No great feat of strength or of intuition separated him from his race. He was a burro of temperate habits, and never courted the type of cheap fame which some of his kind achieved by guzzling beer from bottles or going door to door begging alms like a capuchin (the monk, not the monkey). The real “Burro de Baynoa” had his pride, and, dare we say, his dignity. What he didn’t have was much of a back story. He was not the “Wandering Burro” as he’s often depicted. He had an owner, the Arenas family, and was its faithful servant. He worked at the railroad depot hauling wood and was seen by thousands of train goers on the way from Havana to Matanzas and back. When they spotted the donkey, they knew that they had arrived at Baynoa, or, in most cases, were that much closer to their destination, since few actually got off there, the coldest spot in all Cuba. (Baynoa holds the record for the lowest temperature ever recorded in Cuba, 6 degrees Celsius/43 Fahrenheit). All that wood the donkey was hauling was used to feed the wood-burning stoves on the trains. So that’s all there is to the story of Baynoa’s famous inhabitant.

How the “Burro de Baynoa” has impacted the lives of the human inhabitants of Baynoa is another story. Baynoa probably has the fewest inhabitants of any town in Cuba. This is not actually the case, but it’s the effect anyway. Most Baynoans, when asked where they are from, will answer “Jaruco,” the “big” town 50km away. If they say “Baynoa,” the long-dead donkey will be trotted out again (do donkeys trot?). The suggestion, of course, is that the townspeople of Santa María de Baynoa are themselves like donkeys, or to make my meaning clearer, like asses. It is no different for counts than it is for commoners, or, rather, it’s much worse: the dignity of the title is demolished at once by its denomination, as if a donkey’s head had been somehow grafted onto the family coat-of-arms. But there’s nothing to be done about it: the donkey that would have been the last straggler in the Count’s retinue now leads the parade. Sic transit gloria mundi.