I have always been a dupe for mythology, especially stories about the
Minotaur and the Labyrinth of Crete. And, on my first trip back to my hometown of
Camagüey (pronounced Cam-Agh-Weigh), Cuba, in 36 years, I was finally able to
trace my mythological obsessions to their place of origin. For one thing, I
discovered that Camagüey’s cobblestone streets twist and turn around some of its
plazas like the passages of a maze. Any good maze needs a good thread, however;
otherwise there’s no getting out. In the case of my labyrinthine Camagüey I would
probably still be there at this moment -- at least mentally -- if  my mother, who went
there with me, had not spoken a magical phrase.

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
  First, some history about this provincial
Cuban town.

British travel writer Sarah Cameron says in her guidebook,
Cuba (Chicago,
Passport Books, 1998), that the twisted layout of my hometown’s streets was an
early Camagüeyano strategy for keeping pirates out of the place. In some ways,
the technique stood the test of time in this tradition-steeped city of 350,000, as
Camagüey’s more-central streets do not follow a logical vertical-and-horizontal grid
pattern anywhere. Cameron and other historians tell us that Camagüey’s founding
families actually gave those puzzling turns to their streets as a response to the
threat of pirates in the early days of Spanish colonialism. First, they moved my
hometown from its original seaside location on the northern coast of the region,
near today’s port of Nuevitas,  to its present landlocked site in the heart of the
province. Then, when buccaneers like Henry Morgan and François Gramont
nonetheless found their way inland to resume their raids on the new settlement --
this time with fire, however, for Morgan razed the town to ashes in 1668 -- the
townspeople designed a confusing system of streets to protect the gold, sugar and
leather goods that the buccaneers coveted so much back then.

Today’s Camagüey probably looks much as it did to Henry Morgan from behind his
one-eyed-pirate’s squint three centuries back. Gauzed by the soft, golden breezes
just after dawn, the church bells of La Soledad still call their faithful to the 6 a.m.
Eucharist celebration. This church is one of several in the city whose construction
began in the late 1600s. As the bells toll now, from the Gran Hotel’s eighth floor
panoramic dining room the town looks more like Old Castille than like a region of
the Caribbean; more like Salamanca or Valladolid than like a town in Marxist Cuba.
There’s hardly a modern high-rise in sight. It’s funny, I thought while visiting the city
recently, how time itself seems to be guarding the old city from outsider pirates
even now. Sarah Cameron calls Camagüey “a colonial gem [that] should not be
missed” when visiting Cuba. Similarly, famed City of Havana historian Eusebio Leal
Spengler reports in the preface of McBride and Black’s
Living in Cuba (London,
Scriptum, 1998) that Camagüey contains a large assembly of historical buildings,
second only to the capital’s own impressive collection.

All this is true, and in a way, the architecture of the place confirmed for me what I
had always heard in my family about Camagüeyano pride. In Camagüey, they
invented “attitude.” Plus this is a place where, in the words of Oscar Wilde, life
imitates art. Art is everything. And yes, dear Oscar, Camagüey once knew this. In
its heyday, prosperous Camagüeyanos must have intentionally ordered their
cityscape according to aesthetic forms and patterns sure to keep the generations in
place, in the best sense of these words. For in these wonderful avenues, I saw
during my visit  microcosmic parades of Belle Époque, Greco-Roman, and even Art
Nouveau styles.

I saw the hand of city builders intent, not on driving out invaders, but on keeping
their own people there. No wonder cousins commonly saw fit to marry cousins in
this provincial haven, as my own family’s stories unabashedly confirm. In this
highbrow, closely inbred society, there was no need to look for the beautiful
beyond the city’s own stones. This sort of love for one’s back yard, so to speak,
particularly in these times of global consciousness and pre-constructed
architectural modules, is another one of Camagüey’s most salient and endearing
features. Local history and legends are also part of the city’s many treasures.
Ignacio Agramonte and many other local rebels who fought the Spanish in the 19th
century still shine there, thanks to their timeless acts of valor. Townspeople, in fact,
like to talk about Agramonte’s love-life and compare the letters he wrote to his
beloved Amalia while he was fighting the Spaniards far away from her, to no less
than Napoleon’s correspondence with Josephine.

Another world figure Camagüey cradled in one of its streets is Dr. Carlos Finlay, a
man of science who successfully identified the
aedes Aegypti mosquito in 1898 as
the vector of yellow fever. A graduate of prestigious Jefferson College in
Philadelphia, Finlay struggled long and hard to persuade the scientific community
of his day, both Cuban and North American, of his important discovery. Sad to say,
today’s visitor to the researcher’s hometown will find only a modest bronze plaque
marking his birthplace next to a door on the alley that bears his name right near the
Church of La Soledad.

Other household names that today’s visitor to Camagüey soon learns include that
of the gutsy libertine Dolores Rondón and saintly Father Valencia -- a precursor of
Mother Teresa who devoted his life to helping the city’s leper colony in the early
days of the 1800s. It is interesting to visit the Church of San Lazaro, founded by
Valencia as a chapel, hermitage, and cemetery in 1815 to help those afflicted with
leprosy, and to hear the story of how an albino vulture appeared to the colony after
the Father’s death and helped them (by attracting crowds) to pay the bills of their
foundation, which would have otherwise fallen to ruin. Camagüey is full of these
and other legends.

Seen from up close, of course, Cuba -- and especially Camagüey -- is far from
legend-perfect. Many buildings are missing entire sections of their famous deep-red
rooftiles. The majority of house façades also show signs of the haggardness left on
the place by several decades of scarcity and the exodus of most of the town’s
professional classes. On a deeper level, today’s Camagüeyanos describe present
life itself there with a spontaneous, catch-all phrase, “No es fácil.” In other words,
day-to-day living in contemporary Camagüey is not easy -- it is a maze as well,
given its double-tiered peso/dollar economy and the nightmarish scarcity of staples
like milk, butter or soap in the peso market for the locals. In Miami, travel “experts”
as well as politicos would point this out from varied angles, ranging from the very
emotional to the socio-politically reasonable, and these voices would probably
discourage anyone from venturing to this Cuban province unless it were absolutely
necessary. I was certainly aware of this side of  “the labyrinth” during my journey.
But here’s the paradox: where Camagüey suddenly defies your best voices of
reason and begins to beckon you to indeed go back there and enter it.

The people are almost passionately hospitable; you can touch their welcome in the
very air the moment you come down from the plane. You feel at home there, in
such a secretive and knowing, almost undercover kind of way. The moment people
learn you are from the U.S. their eyes sparkle. As one airport soldier nervously
whispered to me under his breath the night I arrived: “We all have family there [in
the U.S.]. We’re all one people. This . . .,”  he paused a moment, referring to the
division of the Cuban people, “This has to stop.” His skin flushed a bright human
red inside his green, Ministry-of-the-Interior uniform as he spoke these words in
one breathless rush.

Those words hit me that night, especially considering the source. They were, in
fact, still with me on the following afternoon when I asked my mother to show me
the old family house where she and my uncles and aunt had grown up more than
50 years before. By that point in the trip, I think we both felt pretty overwhelmed by
all the contradictory emotions, to say the least. As my mother and I went from one
darkened room to another in that otherwise unassuming house where her paternal
grandparents had lived, she stopped and said to me in a very matter-of-fact sort of
way, “Your great-grandfather, Don Paco, breathed his last breath in this very room.”

Wow. I could feel the weight of my mother’s words. For a flash, they seemed to
float in the air of the dark old room, near the wall closest to the street. And
something about them was as real as that hospitality I had felt the evening before
at the airport. And it occurred to me, “What if my
bisabuelo Don Paco’s final breath
itself is still floating here for me to breathe?” I know it sounds too mystical to our
modern ears, this idea of family connection and presence despite the passage of
time. Yet there’s no other way I can describe what I found when I went back to
Cuba. This was at the center of it, this breath  from an ancestor long ago, somehow
even pointing to a link between that coherent city architecture and my own inner
spaces. Yes, the phrase has to do with things ephemeral, and it issued from my
mother’s poetic, emotionally charged imagination, perhaps not unlike the rebellious
phrase on the lips of the soldier the evening before. Nonetheless, I’m sure there
was something real about that last exhalation breathed by an old man I had never
met -- and I could feel it very much there in that mysterious room.         

And even if I can’t prove its existence beyond my descriptions, I realize that by just
writing about my great-grandfather’s last breath and about the breathless words of
the soldier at the airport the night before, I am at the heart of what I wanted to say
in this essay regarding the convoluted -- but real and familiar -- treasures of Cuba.

Toroazul Painting and Fine Arts
 The Native Breath of Camagüey           
Red sunset in  Old Camagüey, CUBA
19 "   x  25 "
Private collection
Spanish Window ~~ Old Camagüey, CUBA
19 "   x  25 "
Private collection
Church of La Soledad~~ Old
Camagüey, CUBA
19 "   x  25 "
$ 3, 0 0 0
Encanto Cinema~~ Old Camagüey, CUBA
19 "   x  25 "
Private collection
The image in this pastel painting  brings together childhood
memories and family personages like my father ("blind" man
sitting by the column , asking for alms) and my godmother, Fe,
(the woman dressed in black).
The scene is one of my native city's cinemas, where I often
accompanied my aunt to see films like "The Bridge over the River
Kwai,"  Hitchcock's "Vertigo," and Doris Day's "Pillow Talk",  to
name a few.
Other image references in this composition include Saint
Anthony of Padua with the Baby Jesus, a couple of American
marines on a Cuban holiday, and a large canvas of The Fall of
Icarus, central in the design. The symbolism of Icarus has to do
with father-son relationships and perhaps the "flight too near the
sun, wearing wings"  like those of Icarus, son of Daedalus ---
which to me describes my Cuban-born generation's flirting with
Communism and the subsequent fall from grace of that gesture.
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