After many years of dreaming and planning, my husband, his daughter and I fulfilled a wish of longstanding and went to Cuba. We went through the People to People program, on a trip organized by the Cuban Art Space.
Unless one has a special travel license for some professional purpose, these people-to people tours are the only legal way for an “EstadoUnidense” to go to Cuba. So we signed up for the tour.
Our guide in Cuba was the ever-cheerful, patient, and perfectly bilingual Tatiana. On the first day she took us to the Plaza de las Armas in Havana, where we saw El Templete, a neo-classical monument erected in 1828 to mark the spot where Havana, originally called the Villa de San Cristobal, was founded on November 16, 1519.
In front of the Templete is a ceiba tree. This ceiba tree is young, a replacement for the original which died long ago. Legend has it that both the first religious ceremony and first council meeting for Havana took place under the shade of this tree. When fully mature, ceiba treets are massive, with deep ridges on their huge trunks and bearing large pods of seeds covered with silky floss. Ceiba trees were highly revered by the indigenous inhabitants of Cuba, who were all wiped out by genocide and disease when Cuba became a Spanish colony. For the Africans brought here as slaves to replace them, the ceiba tree filled the void left by the absence of their beloved baobabs. People all over the Caribbean and in various parts of South American attribute magical-religious powers to these trees. For example, there is something special about the ceiba tree's bark and the horizontal outreach of its roots that makes it impervious to lightning. Similar trees are planted at important spots all over the country.
Havana residents have a custom of going around the tree three times in silence, touching it, hugging and kissing it. On each turn they let coins fall, gifts to the tree, either as part of a supplication or an expression of gratitude for a boon already granted. When we were there we saw tourists imitating the practice.
The importance of the ceiba tree to the Cuban symbolic life was brought home to me when we met the artist Lester Campo in Las Terrazas, one of Cuba’s largest reforestations projects, now a biosphere reserve. Read more here.
Most of this artist’s paintings are allegorical images of trees, especially ceibas and pine trees (pines are the national tree of Cuba). His paintings of ceibas illuminate the ceiba’s ability to connect the material world of the earth to the spiritual world of the sky.
The reason my husband and I wanted to go to Cuba is that my husband is the great-nephew, and named after, the Venezuelan revolutionary, Carlos Aponte, who fought at the side of Tony Guiteras against the dictatorship in Cuba from 1933 to 1935. Both were eventually cut down by Fulgencio Batista’s forces, when Batista was just a lieutenant working his own way up to dictator.
Today, Guiteras and Aponte are seen as forerunners to Castro and Guevara respectively. Guiteras was part of the 100-day government in 1933, and in that short time put into practice an eight-hour workday, suffrage for women, child labor laws, and (what probably led to his downfall) nationalized the electric plants owned by foreign, especially US, investors. When Guiteras died on May 8th, 1935, he was just 28 years old, and Aponte, 35.
Every school child knows who they are, and when my husband talked to people and told them they were eager to have their picture taken with him or simply to shake his hand. When we asked for help with our research on Aponte’s life in Cuba, museum guides, booksellers, and directors of cultural institutions responded with overwhelming generosity, and we came home weighed down with books and papers.
But nothing showed how important Aponte and Guiteras are to Cubans like the site in Matanzas where they died. They were to rendezvous with the boat the Amelia at El Morillo, an old fort on Matanzas bay, about two hours from Havana. The Amelia was to take them to Mexico where they were going to buy weapons and raise support for their cause. Someone on their side betrayed them to their enemies, and instead of being met by a boat, the 18 revolutionaries were met by a military force of over 300 soldiers coming down the hill, shooting to kill. Somehow 12 of the 18 escaped. The rest struggled along the inlet, trying to get away, but were cut down, including Aponte, who was shot in the chest and the head.
Now El Morillo is a museum dedicated to their goals, their accomplishments, and their sacrifice. They are buried in state, with a Cuban and a Venezuelan flag flanking the twin white sarcophagi. Large paintings of each one in a small room that is lit by sunlight coming through porthole-like windows. The dory that brought the bodies back is preserved in another room, along with rocks that were stained with their blood, the falsified coroners reports that showed them dying of natural causes, and other items. Upstairs were other displays relating to the “prehistory” of the area, including the skeleton of an indigenous child that died of anemia and was lovingly buried with many beautiful shells and beads.
But to us El Morillo hardly seemed like a museum. It was more like a shrine, a grave. The museum guides agreed with us and apologized for making us buy tickets (we had paid for our entry before we told them who we were but refused to take the money back as we wanted to keep our tickets as a souvenir.)
As we walked out of El Morillo and walked back up the hill it was hard to imagine the pitched battle that took place there almost eighty years ago. Now a goat herder let us take pictures of his baby goats, the water of the inlet lapped along next to us soothingly, and a sea breeze wafted away the sting of the heat.
At the top of the hill, just short of the main road, there is a flight of steps that take visitors down to the spot where Aponte and Guiteras actually died. Bronze busts and a plaque quoting Che Guevara, who inaugurated the memorial in 1959, mark the spot. These men died young, they died violently, and they died for an idea. But what meant more to us than anything was the huge, graceful ceiba tree that guarded it all from the top of the steps.