I couldn’t stop with Ekman’s twigs, of course. What else would the web yield on the subject of La Reunión, the evanescent farm in long-vanished Oriente? A couple of days later, I ventured once again into the digital labyrinth and ended up in a windowless room that belonged to the Gobierno Provincial de Oriente and was devoted to the War of 1895. Its many Legajos y Expedientes — Dockets and Filings? — surveyed and catalogued the world as it existed in Cuba’s easternmost province in the middle of a terrible war and at the end of the nineteenth century. It was a picture of human and material progress, with sections devoted to Instrucción Pública (Public Education), Ferrocarriles (Railways) and Vapores (Steamboats), but it was also a landscape of political violence: Alzamientos (Uprisings), Delitos Políticos (Political Crimes), Ejército Español (Spanish Army) and Cárceles (Prisons).
But I paid attention to all this only later. My eyes went straight to Legajo 740, Expediente 16, which read: “Quejas del cónsul de Francia en Santiago de Cuba por la destrucción de las propiedades del súbdito francés Albert Vidaud por los insurrectos, valoradas las pérdidas en 1035 pesos.” So there he was, my grandmother’s grandfather, Albert Vidaud, a French subject whose properties, worth just over a thousand pesos, had been destroyed by the rebels, upon which the French consul in Santiago de Cuba had lodged an official complaint, sometime in 1896. Thus, with a few clicks on a keyboard, Carmela’s old story of a devastated plantation suddenly appeared, and La Reunión, with its cacao trees and coffee bushes and thickets of eugenias, seemed to materialize onscreen. Like Karen Blixen, who had a farm in Africa, we too perhaps one day could write a nostalgic account of a farm in Cuba that we had once possessed.
But had we? In what must have been less than five seconds, my eyes scrolled down to Legajo 740, Expediente 17, which read: “Protesta del cónsul de Francia en Santiago de Cuba por el incendio de los cafetales ‘Dos Hermanos’ y ‘La Reunión’, propiedad del súbdito francés Carlos Favier y Duverger. Incluye también solicitud de autorización para volver a su finca y recoger el café y cacao que estaba en pié.” Who was this Favier y Duverger, whose two plantations, one of which was La Reunión, had been burned to the ground? Who was this man intent on having his coffee and cacao picked? Who was this specter haunting our lands — or worse, my digital Oriente? Could there be two farms called La Reunión? Had my grandmother not told me the whole truth? Had I misremembered her tale?
Here is a picture taken at La Reunión, or so I thought, circa 1905. Not long ago I asked my mother, Ana María Esteve, to identify the five rather gloomy characters. The two children are María (the saint) and Manuel, nicknamed Manolo, my grandmother’s older siblings. The two women are presumed to be Albert’s unmarried daughters. Sitting by the man with the mustache, her father, Luisa never married because her dowry was not large enough; but according to my mother, the problem was that she had no sex appeal. The younger woman on the right is Josefa Felicia Vidaud. She was devoted to several generations of children — my grandmother (her niece); my mother and my aunt, Josefina; even myself. Fefa, as they called her, might have been a lesbian, or so my mother speculated. But what do we know? What do we know of these distant relatives? What do we know of the past itself, when it is past, and, like that man and those women and children, it too is forever dead?
As soon as I had a chance, I called Ana María, who lives in a tiny little house in Miami Springs, Fla., loves to talk on the phone, and, at the age of 79, has a remarkable memory. She too thought that La Reunión had belonged to her grandfather and been burned down during the war. Perhaps Favier y Duverger — about which there was not a peep on the web besides what was found in the war archives — had later sold it to Vidaud? But Ana María posed yet another logical question. If La Reunión had burned down in 1896, how had Carmela, born in 1904, lived there as a child? A house can of course be rebuilt. But then again, Ana María had never been to La Reunión. In fact, during her youth, every time someone suggested a visit to the old mythical place, her own father, Sebastián, would refuse, saying there was nothing to see there but ruins.
At least we had the eugenia twigs at the Arboretum. But Ana María was doubtful about that too. The label said south of Hongolosongo. The poor little village did exist, and though Ekman had misspelled its name, I’d often heard of it myself. But Ana María didn’t think La Reunión was anywhere near there at all. Short of a séance with Carmela or, equally improbable, a journey to the old provincial archives in Santiago de Cuba, it didn’t seem we’d get anywhere in retrieving La Reunión for us. But I kept googling in search for answers on the tangled web.