XXIII – What I Know

But first, what I don’t know, or what I thought I knew, or what I was about to know but didn’t and still don’t. I thought we might know by now that we’re descendants of José Antonio de Hevia, who in the mid-1780s reconnoitered the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas, and did other nifty things such as naming what came to be known as Galveston after Bernardo de Gálvez, viceroy of New Spain, whom he served. Hevia, also known as Evia, was an important man, no doubt, if you care for such things as the Spanish Empire (nope), exploration (yes), and cartography (oh yes). My genealogist cousins and I thought that our third great-grandmother, Charlotte Caignet Hevia, was probably this illustrious man’s granddaughter. After all, how many Hevias could there have been in New Orleans, where she was born? A cousin’s cousin even sent me an email in which she ventured that, as descendants of the valiant Hevia, we might even qualify as Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution or as members of the Florida Pioneers… But one of my Miami cousins, more cautious and definitely savvier than me in all things arboreal, wanted solid proof, so he contated someone in New Orleans to dig for actual documentation that might corroborate any family claims to late-Spanish imperial connections.

Seek and ye shall find — or not. My cousin’s person in Louisiana readily discovered an entry for Charlotte’s baptism in a tome titled Sacramental Records of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Her name appears as Maria Carlotta Paulina, and her birthdate is given as 18 September 1818, twelve years earlier than what the family tree in Nunú’s notebook states. Her father is Pablo Francisco Caignet, a native of Cap-Français, and this name struck us as peculiar. Why should the man hitherto known to us as François, who was born in a French colony, suddenly appear to have a Spanish name in a city that by 1819, when the christening took place, was already part of the United States? But the real mystery was the identity of Charlotte’s mother, a woman named Josephina Arthemisa Heria. If Heria could easily be resolved as a misspelling of Hevia, we soon discovered that we could not find any other references to any lady in Louisiana or anywhere else named Josephina Arthemisa. In his impressive Familias cubanas, the Conde de Jaruco devotes several pages to the name Hevia in Havana. There it is stated that José Antonio de Hevia, along with two brothers, left their native Galicia and settled in Cuba in last third of the eighteenth century — but, alas, none of their children or grandchildren is named Josephina Arthemisa. The name is also absent from other Louisiana genealogical collections, and searching for her on the web, which I have done compulsively, has yielded nothing. This is all that I know about her: she was a “native and resident of this city,” as her daughter’s baptism record in New Orleans puts it; she married a man named François, or Pablo Francisco, Caignet, whom other records show to have sold a mother and child as slaves in New Orleans itself in 1815; she had five children, and, sadly, she died giving birth to the last two, who were twin girls. After her death, François, or Pablo Francisco, migrated to Cuba with all five children — named María Carlota, Corina Marie Justine, Benjamín, Luisa and Cecilia in Nunú’s notebook — and settled in Oriente in the vicinity of the coffee plantation owned by Adolphe and Adelson Vidaud, two brothers who may have been born in Cuba, or in France, and who eventually married the oldest sisters. Whether Josephina Arthemisa Heria, or Hevia, had any family ties to José Antonio de Hevia, or Evia, is still a matter for further research. But it is her I want to know more about, not the reconnoiterer. If her first daughter was born in 1818, Josephina Arthemisa was probably a child before the Louisiana Purchase, which means, I suppose, she must have been French by birth — or would she have been a subject of Spain, given her apparent Spanish ancestry? Yet, at least for the time being, she remains the first of our first ancestor to have been born in what is now the United States. We are immigrants; we came to this country just a few decades ago. To know that we have deeper roots here than we at first suspected gives our certificates of naturalization and (in my case) citizenship a nifty retroactive patina. That much I know, or think I know.

Esteve, Ana María - NiñaWhat I know for sure is that this little girl pictured here was once upon a time the person who would eventually become my mother. Yes, let’s change the subject by climbing up and down the family tree in remembrance of things past (or not past).  My mother became an American citizen, just like Josephina Arthemisa may have done more than two centuries ago. Like her parents, Sebastián Esteve Marzán and Carmen de Granda Vidaud, Ana María was born in Santiago de Cuba. She may not be a Daughter of the American Revolution (yet), but her hairdo in this picture mimics that of Shirley Temple, the little American star born in Santa Monica, not far where I write this. In this picture, she wears the uniform of the Colegio Jesús María, but a few years later she became a student at the Sagrado Corazón, one of those upscale schools run by the religious congregation founded by St. Madeleine Sophie Barat in Amiens at the turn of the nineteenth century. My grandparents weren’t rich, or so my grandmother used to claim, but they must have felt that their daughter merited a solidly refined upbringing; according to my mother, her own mother cared for that kind of social prestige. I don’t know this for a fact, but those nuns of the Sagrado Corazón, or Sacré-Cœur, charged with educating aristocratic girls in the wake of the French Revolution, sought to preserve the customs and manners of the defunct Ancien Régime. Some of those niceties traveled across the Atlantic and were well and alive in Santiago de Cuba in the late 1940s, when my mother attended the Sagrado Corazón. If a girl ran into the Madre Superiora in a hallway, my mother recalls, she had to curtsy in an act of submission and politesse; the said Madre Superiora, a dark-robed vision, stood for the King of France and the hope of monarchical restoration. That Cuba was a Caribbean island and, at least nominally, a republic appears to have mattered little in the school’s everyday life. Given the absurdity of it all, everyone should have expected the Cuban Revolution, but apparently many did not. When it finally did come, the Religiosas del Sagrado Corazón lost their precious schools. Many, perhaps most, of their alumnae, including my mother, left for exile. Others did stay in Cuba, including Vilma Espín Guillois, who later married Raúl Castro, younger brother of Fidel, along with whom he attended the Jesuit-run Colegio Dolores, Santiago de Cuba’s fancy school for boys, where my father was a student too — but that’s another story, or many stories.

This I know too: the girls who studied at the Sagrado Corazón, in Santiago de Cuba or Havana, would never shed the highly stylized calligraphy their scrupulous nuns has taught them. Many years later, an exile in Puerto Rico, my mother, against her Catholic background, courageously divorced my father (that’s another story, or novel, too). He, in turn, moved to Miami and married another woman, a wonderful person who had not only studied at the Sagrado Corazón, in Havana, but had also in fact been a nun in that order for many years. In the late 1970s, when their marriage took place, people still wrote and received letters. At the time, I was an undergraduate in Washington, D.C., very much an inhabitant of that epistolary culture now vanished. My stepmother sent me a letter, and when I first saw the envelope addressed to me by her in my dorm mailbox, I thought it came from my mother. Uncannily, both of my father’s wives shared the same handwriting.

My mother turned eighty last November, but she still boasts that peculiar calligraphy. In fact, from her little house in Miami Springs, Florida, surrounded by tropical plants, she continues to pen letters, including long missives inserted in Christmas cards. In a sense, the past has not passed. Perhaps she even looks a little like the girl she once was. But I wonder whether those twins, Luisa and Cecilia Caignet Hevia, somehow resembled my mother when they were little children. I wonder what Josephina Arthemisa’s handwriting looked like. Might there be letters somewhere, full of secrets and revelations?

What else do I know? By surfing the web, I have now learned that the Association Mondiale des Anciennes et Anciens du Sacré-Cœur (they must have gone coed) has thirty-nine national chapters. There is one for Cuba and another for Cuba-in-Exile, the only country in the world so strangely duplicated. These things I know, or sort of know, but I don’t know what they mean, or what it may mean that I’m writing them down — someone else’s private memories. Neither do I know what is gained, or lost, by clicking on the little blue rectangle at the bottom of the screen that reads Publish, as I’m about to do. Perhaps a reader somewhere may have some knowledge of the elusive Josephina Arthemisa Hevia from New Orleans and will contact me. Or perhaps this is it: what I know now is all I’ll ever know, and I’ll just have to invent my own stories of little girls and botanists, etc.

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