Afterword: At the Harvard Herbaria

This was written a month ago:

Here I am, in Boston, after a number of years. I’m reading a paper at a conference at Harvard, so even though I’m staying at a hotel on Tremont Street, much of my time is spent across the Charles River in Cambridge. I did my graduate studies at the university, and I know the place as intimately as a student can. But time hasn’t stopped still — not at Harvard. My old haunts are still there, but there are several new modern buildings, and even the old ones have been transformed. The old Fogg Museum, an Italianate structure from the 1920s among whose paintings and sculptures I always felt at home, has been renovated and expanded by Renzo Piano. Gathering items from two other art collections, the place is now known as the Harvard Art Museums. Transparent, grand and intimate, it feels to me like the happiest place on earth. But I digress.

On Thursday — which happened to be St. Patrick’s Day and the conference’s first  — I had to attend an event at a new handsome structure with the rather Hitchcockian name of Northwest Building. I knew it wasn’t far from Richards Hall, the Gropius-designed graduate dorm where I once lived, so I resorted to Google Maps, hardly expecting what I found. Close to the digital marking of the said building, a rectangle popped up on the tiny bright screen elegantly marked as the Harvard University Herbaria. It was located at the northernmost end of Divinity Avenue, a place I was familiar with from my first semester at the university, when, a budding and soon-to-be fading scholar of medieval Spain, I took a course in advanced classical Arabic at the Semitic Museum. But I digress, yet again.

Faithful readers of this blog may recall its origin well over a year ago in yet another act of serendipitous googling. Searching for the coffee and cacao farm in Oriente province where my grandmother had spent her childhood, I had typed in La Reunión and an image come up. It pictured a few modest leaves and twigs collected in those distant hills, purportedly belonging to my second great-grandfather, by E.L. Ekman, a Swedish botanist, in 1916. They were specimens of the Eugenia oxysepala Urb. — tiny and modest, perhaps, but a direct link to a mythical location in the lore of my French-Cuban ancestors. The image, as I now remembered, also showed an oval seal of the Herbarium of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. Did that mean, then, that they were across the river in Boston, where the Arboretum is located — or could they, perhaps, be housed right there on the Harvard campus? Would I be able to find their actual location and perhaps even see them in all their botanical atemporality?

Harvard Herbaria - Red CabinetsI decided to investigate. On Friday just before noon, finding myself again not far from Divinity Avenue, I crossed the threshold of the Harvard Herbaria. At the reception desk, a silver-haired woman greeted me with friendly efficiency and perhaps a measure of curiosity. It didn’t seem they were used to many impromptu visitors. When I awkwardly explained what I wanted, showing her a picture of Ekman’s specimen on my iPhone, she immediately went in search of a curator who might be able to help me. After a few minutes she came back with a dark-haired man. He too turned out to be intelligent and sympathetic and invited me to his office, where he consulted his computer for a few minutes. It indicated the leaves and twigs were housed in the very building we were in. The search then entered the very real world of the actual collections. We climbed stairs and traversed long corridors on several floors, lined with endless rows of enormous, hermetically sealed cabinets, labeled with botanical terms such as Melastomateaceae and Astronidium and geographical appellations such as Mexico and C. Am., South America, Australia, Polynesia… After a couple of false starts, we finally found what we wanted. From a cabinet that read Myrtaceae, Calypranthes and West Indies, the curator extracted a large red file and took it to a table, where he then proceeded to reveal its contents.

Harvard Herbaria - LeavesThere they were, those beautiful leaves and twigs, our precious Eugenias gathered at La Reunión one-hundred years ago, neatly preserved at the Harvard Herbaria, as if waiting for me to show up one cold Friday afternoon in the very late winter of 2016 to see them. And here you can see them, once again in digital form. But I saw the real thing, lovingly cared for by men and women devoted to the arts of botany. And there they must have been too, in the flesh, back in September 1982, when I had just arrived on campus and walked for the first time to my Arabic class, a few hundred feet away in the Semitic Museum. If only I had known of their existence back then, when I was a stranger in a new place, one student among many. I remember my sense of alienation that afternoon. In a small seminar room to which I had finally come after crossing several rooms full of inscriptions and sarcophagi, sitting right across the table from me, there was another student. As we all waited for the professor to arrive, she was speaking with another student. I detected a foreign accent. Not without timidity, I asked her where she was from and she said she was from Cuba. That was the short version of her provenance, as she had previously lived in Mexico, Switzerland and Venezuela, and, as a doctoral student in the history of Islamic architecture, had traveled through much of North Africa and the Middle East… Now that I think about it, my little leaves too, like María Luisa, had probably traveled far and wide. After all, Ekman was Swedish and the specimens in front of me featured, just below the seal of the Harvard Herbaria, a label that read “Musei bot. Stockholm,” a passport stamp of sorts that suggested a Scandinavian sojourn before a transfer back across the Atlantic to the so-called New World.

Harvard Herbaria - BotanistAfter patiently allowing me to take all the pictures of Eugenia oxysepala Urb. that I wanted, the dark-haired botanist asked me if I was interested in seeing what the envelope contained. I was a little surprised, as I hadn’t really paid much attention to the small pocket-like thing, discreetly devoid of colors and words, neatly tucked in the lower right corner of the red file. I said yes, of course. Delicately, he unfolded the fragile white paper thing, revealing a tightly packed collection of tiny desiccated leaves. I don’t know for sure, but they appeared to have remained airless and unseen for many years — modest exiles from the tropics, silently abiding in the company of other such exiles from far-flung provinces of the vegetable kingdom in a well-secured site in these United States. The botanist looked relieved and smiled when I said I wouldn’t run my fingers through them, or throw them in the air, even if such actions appeared tempting. I was overjoyed by the unexpected apparition — my fellow migrants, sad confetti from another world. But all I could do was to take their picture and replant them here on the soil of the digital forest, knowing their story will continue to grow.

XXXVI – All Saints and All Souls

IMG_3718Fifty-two years ago today, on 31 October 1963, my parents and I left Cuba. As I have recounted earlier, it was a long flight from Havana via Gander to Madrid. I may or may not possess real memories of that original European journey, but I do have my mother’s yearly recollection. She and I spoke on the phone just a few minutes ago, and I heard the story once again. The chronicle of departure has by now been sublimated into a few memorable feelings and events: her heartbreak, upon taking off from Santiago de Cuba, at seeing from the plane window the mud-covered province of Oriente, which had just been hit by Flora, a devastating hurricane; my father’s unexplained fall on a sidewalk in Havana just days before we were supposed to leave; a doctor’s refusal to examine him fully when he found out we were worms, as those leaving the country were called; the humiliating searches at the airport; and then the strangeness of a second airport, a nocturnal outpost in a northern latitude where we were kindly served tomato soup; her terror as the plane took off from the Western Hemisphere over the vast Atlantic, sitting in the darkened cabin and seeing my father’s Soviet-made bandage half-dropping from his chin, imagining the worse; and then, after many hours, landing at yet another airport, in the city of our final destination, on the gray cold morning of 1 November 1963 — an airport where there was no one to meet us, a solemn city in a pious country where shops and offices were closed for All Saints’ Day… Yet, despite the terrible loneliness of those first protracted hours of exile, it must be said our lives turned out rather well. We were, we are, the fortunate ones. I have crossed that same ocean many times on various kinds of interesting adventures, and will do so again in just over a month. On one occasion, my mother and I flew together happily from Miami to Madrid, and I followed her with my camera as she retraced her steps back to the old building on the Plaza de la Marina Española that housed the unfriendly pensión, now gone, where we had spent our first few months as refugees. I took pictures as she beheld the ancient black door whose threshold she, now in her late seventies, had last crossed when she was twenty-nine. Not that my parents found any comfort in it, but we were hardly the first souls in our family tree who had gone through the upheaval of migration. My own paternal grandmother was taken as a child to Cuba from her native Marbella; one of my great-grandfathers left Barcelona as a young man to start a new life in Santiago de Cuba; my second great-grandfather, a native of Oviedo, undertook a similar journey as a military doctor in a time of war. And then there were my assorted Cuban Gauls, frequent crossers of the Atlantic, who escaped poverty in Brittany at some point in the eighteenth century; or sailed from France to Saint-Domingue at the height of the Reign of Terror; or returned to cities like Pau and Bordeaux, or spent time in Philadelphia, or returned once again to Santiago de Cuba, or left their native city on the Caribbean Sea for Barcelona and Sitges, or started new families in Brooklyn… We, with our bountiful myths of exile and banishment, are the fortunate ones. Tomorrow, once again, is All Saints’ Day, and then it will be All Souls’ Day — what in the official Christian calendar in Spanish is called, rather narrowly, the Día de los Fieles Difuntos. We are saved, but so many unfortunate souls cast a shadow over our family tree. They are Cecilia and Victoria, and Marie, and Rosalie and Casimir — all, along with other men, women and children, enslaved by our unholy ancestors, deprived even of their stories of migration, relegated to mere signs in my own selfish tale.

XXVIII – Passports and Revolutions

Díaz Montoro, Roberto - PassportAh, the storytelling power of passports! By means of just a few words and images on pages made from mere mortal trees, those tiny prosaic booklets can not only record  the bearer’s origins and displacements — part biography and part travel narrative — but they can also stand, silently, subtly, as documents of political history. Consider my father’s old passport, seen here, issued by Cuba’s Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores on 20 February 1962. I’m seduced by my dad’s black-and-white picture — so young, yet so solemn, possibly overwhelmed by the prospect of having to leave the country where he had comfortably grown up, enjoying a life of privilege, and where his mother, after his only brother’s death, would remain virtually alone. The passport contains a visa issued on 10 May 1962 at the Embassy of Mexico in Havana on behalf of the Colombian Consulate — or, as the visa itself states, “Embajada de México en Cuba Encargada de los Asuntos de Colombia.” By then, I think, all Latin American countries had broken diplomatic relations with Cuba, except for Mexico, which would explain why visas for other parts of the hemisphere had to be processed there. At one point, apparently, we considered going to Colombia, but nowhere in the passport does one find an entry stamp for that country. Call us predictable, but the place we really wanted to go to was the United States — or, more specifically, Puerto Rico, its Spanish-speaking territory, or colony, where my mother’s sister and many of her cousins had already settled. That was the plan when Ana María, my mother, traveled all the way to Havana just five months after our passports’ issuance in order to purchase our one-way airplane tickets for Miami, from where we would then easily reach San Juan. But then politics, our old friend, struck an unimaginable coup de théâtre. When Ana María arrived at the offices of Pan American Airways in the Vedado district, she found a large crowd of people with worried looks on their faces. Oddly, the plane from Miami that was supposed to land that morning in Havana — and then fly back to the U.S., transporting more exiles — had not arrived. No one really knew why. Finally, the manager came out and got up on a desk to make a dramatic announcement: Pan Am had cancelled its flights for the day and, even worse, he suspected Pan Am would no longer fly to Cuba. It was October 1962 and the missile crisis had erupted. Nuclear war did not break out in the Caribbean, but the manager’s prediction turned out to be correct. Pan Am, which had proudly started its operations by flying between Key West and Havana in 1927, never scheduled a flight to Cuba again. As for our own family history, my mother returned to Santiago, where we would remain for yet another year. Circumstances were difficult. My parents had already quit their jobs and we were officially considered gusanos, as the counter-revolutionaries were called.

Díaz Montoro, Roberto - VisasBecause there was no way to fly directly from Cuba to the United States, we went to Spain instead. But making it out of the country wasn’t that easy. Again, my father’s passport tells the next chapter in the story. It holds two visas issued by the Spanish Consulate in Santiago de Cuba, one on 19 April 1963, seen here, and the second one, on 17 October 1963. They are both heavily stamped affairs, reminding me of the Poema del Cid, where documents are said to be “fuertemente sellados.” The first one must have expired before we were able to secure an exit permit form Cuba; the second had to be hastily obtained after the passage of Hurricane Flora through the eastern part of the island. A monster tempest, Flora devastated the province of Oriente, and Fidel Castro decided, as I recounted earlier, that more gusanos needed to leave as soon as possible so that their homes and possessions could go to the hurricane victims. That’s how we ended up leaving Cuba, and that’s how the most remarkable sign in my father’s passport came to appear: a blue oval rubber stamp from the Ministerio del Interior, dated 31 October 1963 at Rancho Boyero, Havana’s airport, proclaiming “Salida.” In my father’s case at least, the stamp sealed his definitive exit from Cuba, as he died in Miami in 1989 without ever going back to Cuba. There are three other stamps in the little bluish-grayish cardboard passport: an entry into Spain at Madrid’s Barajas airport registered by the Comisaría General de Fronteras; an exit from Spain, also at Barajas, several months later; and, finally, an entry into the United States, at San Juan, P.R., sealed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Díaz Esteve, Roberto - Pasaporte CubaA Cuban citizen until 1976, I too once had a passport virtually identical to my father’s, and it bore similar stamps. But I no longer possess that passport, and its absence is yet another sad twist in Cuba’s and the United States’ intertwined political history. It was the mid-1980s and I, a stupidly romantic young man, passionately wanted to return to the stormy Ithaca to which we had said farewell more than twenty years earlier, a forbidden space of which I had no memories, really, to speak of, but which I desired. As a graduate student, collaborating as a researcher and writer for a travel guidebook published by students at my university, I had spent several summers traveling all over Europe and as far east as the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. I had written about the museums and parks of London and Paris; slept in hostels and cheap pensions in a score of Italian and Spanish cities; taken trains and ferries to diacritically seductive destinations such as Zürich and Mariánské Lázně and the Åland Islands. If I had done all that, how come I couldn’t go to Cuba as well? Looking at the maps I collected at countless tourist offices, I yearned to learn the maps of Havana and Santiago de Cuba as minutely as I knew those of European cities. In Paris, I had hungrily bought a travel guidebook to Cuba. Such books were virtually non-existent in the U.S. at the time, so I treasured it. The preface was by Alejo Carpentier, who waxed dreamily in French: “L’île de Cuba est, par son étendue, la plus importante des Antilles. […] Tant à La Havane qu’à Santiago, ou à Sancti-Spiritus, ou dans la ravissante petite cité de Trinidad, on plonge dans un passé fastueux, représenté par des vieux palais, des résidences seigneuriales, des églises, des cathédrales, des ouvrages de fortification”… I soon learned that people born in Cuba could travel there. but they had to do so on a Cuban passport, regardless of their present nationality. But there was a rub. In order to obtain a new passport, you needed to forfeit the old expired one. I mailed my application to Cuban Interests Section at the Embassy of Czechoslovakia in Washington, though my mother (but not my father) kept telling me that it was all a terrible idea. As it turned out, Ana María was right. Ronald Reagan had just launched Radio Martí, and an angry Castro, in retaliation, declared that no Cuban-born person living in the U.S. would be allowed to visit Cuba. And so it was that I lost my first passport even as I gained a new one, issued on 1 April 1986 by an unidentified “autoridad” on behalf of the “Gobierno de la República de Cuba.” The thing expired before I could use it to travel anywhere, even Bulgaria, the only country for which it would have been advantageous to have a Cuban passport instead of an American one. And so it is that, for me, Cuba’s sumptuous past remains a thing for the future — except that I’m no longer as interested as I once was in seeing any of those old palaces and cathedrals. Only the decrepit railways, the first built in Latin America, earlier than anything in Spain, exert for me any kind of attraction.

Gué, Pierre - PassportA side of me still mourns the voluntary loss of my first passport. But God, by which I mean the omniscient Web, bestowed on me something far richer than my own lost little booklet. A few weeks ago, one of my genealogist cousins in Miami found not one, but three passports belonging to the sons of Jean-Baptiste Gué, the architect from Cap-Français killed by a slave in 1794. As patient readers of this blog will recall, Jean-Baptiste was also the father of Anne-Julienne Gué, who at some point after the turn of the nineteenth century married François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, my third great-grandfather, who in turn had migrated from France to Saint-Domingue, along with four of his brothers, at the height of the Revolution’s Reign of Terror… We still don’t know when or where Anne-Julienne and François met, but we know that she was in Philadelphia in 1795, and we also think that her siblings must have left for Bordeaux, perhaps via a port city in the United States, around the same time. Pierre, the first-born son, penned an account of his father’s murder — though, it must be said, the more I think about it, the more I’m persuaded the “Tragique histoire de Jean Baptiste Gué, architecte du Cap Français, par son Fils Pierre Gué” is probably an apocryphal text… In any event, Pierre’s “Passe-port à l’Étranger,” an early example of the genre, is all too real, a lovely document crafted under the signs of Liberté and Égalité, if not Fraternité. With a little effort, one can read that it was issued in Bordeaux “le vingt trois fructidor de l’an neuf de la République, une et indivisible.” That would be 10 September 1801. We also learn that Pierre is twenty-two years old and one meter and seven-hundred-eight millimeters tall, that he has chestnut hair and gray eyes and an ordinary mouth… We also learn, not without a measure of surprise, that he is traveling back across the Atlantic to Cap-Français, “dans sa propriété,” and that he is doing so in connection with the Ministre de la marine et des colonies. But several questions emerge. Why are Pierre and his brothers, Jean-François-Marie and Pierre-Julien, returning to their birthplace, apparently on their own volition? What property could they still possess over there? Had they not relinquished what they owned once the family left Saint-Domingue? Were they not afraid to return to the land where their father had been murdered? Or am I projecting onto the history of Haiti, as the colony would soon be known, the experience of exile and dispossession I associate with the Cuban Revolution? How long will they stay there? We know that Pierre, if perhaps not his brothers, would return to live permanently in France. On at least one genealogical site I have seen, he is listed as the Directeur des Diligences nationales in Bordeaux. My cousin has even found a second passport issued to him, on 9 September 1828, to travel to Amsterdam, via Paris, pour “affaires de commerce.” He is described as a négociant and is accompanied by his nineteen-year-old démoiselle, who we presume is his daughter. Almost three decades after the earlier passport, his eyes are now described as blue and his hair as gray; a bourgeois paterfamilias in his late forties, he now also sports a beard.

One hundred and seventy years and the ocean lie between the French and the Cuban Revolutions, and, as Borges would have it, the story of my father and that of Pierre Gué are now irrecoverable. Yet residues remain. Many years after his death, staying with an old friend of his in Madrid, after several glasses of scotch late into the night, I learned all about my father — but those secrets must be reserved for a Henry James-inflected novella. Even the life and times of Pierre Gué are retrievable, in some fashion, by means of the folios that recorded the milestones of his journey on earth. Indeed, in both my father’s and my their great-granduncle’s cases, republics, weak or strong, created civil codes that allow citizens to live on in the realm of graphic everlastingness. Compare that to the lives of those other transatlantic migrants, the millions of human beings transported from Africa to Cuba or Saint-Domingue without benefit of passports, on whose labor the wealth of nations was built, and who remain for the most part anonymous and unknown to their descendants.

XXV – Miami Time Machine

Miami Palm TreesWhen I visited Berlin last fall, I knew there lived in the city a man surnamed Vidaud, a descendant of Severo Vidaud Caignet who had studied theoretical linguistics at Konstanz and had apparently decided to live his life far from the family on the other side of the Atlantic. But he was probably the only one of these Cuban Gauls in Germany. In Miami, by contrast, where I’m spending a few days, I personally know of hundreds of Vidaud relatives who came here from Santiago de Cuba or Guantanamo, or who are their children and their children’s children. This is, after all, the capital of Cuba-in-Exile, the uncanny and self-possessed nation in which I now realize I mostly grew up even as I spent my childhood and adolescence in Puerto Rico. There were many people of Cuban descent in San Juan in the 1960s and 70s (there are fewer now, I think), but it was nothing like Miami, whose main languages as not only American English but also Cuban Spanish, heard as soon as you landed at the airport, and where bookstores such as La Moderna Poesía, established in Havana sometime in the nineteenth century, seemed to flourish not far from, if not side by side with, Books and Books, an Anglophone reader’s paradise on the corner of Aragon (no accent) and Salzedo (not Salcedo) in the heart of Coral Gables. San Juan was Puerto Rican, an amalgam of different things, but Miami was its own hybrid kind of place, more clearly bilingual and bicultural than any other city in the larger Caribbean. It was and remains, in fact, at least trilingual and certainly multicultural, if one takes into account the large Haitian community that lives here alongside people from everywhere in Latin America and Europe, not to mention other parts of North America. If La Moderna Poesía no longer exists, Books and Books is now an emporium of sorts, with a large bookshop-cum-café on Aragon plus branches all over town, including Miami Beach, and a not insignificant section of Spanish-language books, plus, as I discovered just yesterday, a new and very fine selection of French and Francophone, if not Creole, books. It was at Books and Books where I finally met my two younger Vidaud cousins, who turned out to be as smart and charming in person as their own online personas had led me to believe. Two of us, it must be said, purchased French books. (“Ah, claro, si andabas con los Vidaud,” says my mother.)

Things were slightly different in Miami in the late 1980s, when I lived here for a year. After five years in Cambridge as a graduate student, I somehow became exasperated with its progressive self-referentiality. Most importantly, quite surprisingly, I had grwon extremely curious about the idea of Cuba. It’s a long story not worth recounting here, but the origin of my passion (all spent now) was threefold. It stemmed from my recently acquired love of Cuban fiction (Carpentier, but also Lezama Lima and Cabrera Infante) and a new curiosity for one’s so-called roots (a boring term, pace Mr. Haley and Dr. Gates), plus, first and foremost, a desire to find a spatial grounding for a Cuban material past that I could not tangibly access. For several years I had worked as a researcher and writer for a student travel guidebook and had the good fortune to visit cities all over Europe and beyond. I would arrive in a new town and devour its map — its lay-out, its squares and streets, all those names that at first meant nothing but soon stood for real churches, museums, palaces and castles. I wanted to do the same wih Havana and Santiago de Cuba, to possess those cities like I had Urbino or Uppsala. But traveling to Cuba was impossible. Ronald Reagan was president and Radio Martí had just been created, which prompted Fidel Castro to ban any Cuban-born citizen or resident of the United States from traveling to the island. I had already purchased a Cuban passport —  and turned in my expired one — but I never got to use it. In Cuba’s default, I decided to move to Miami instead, finding refuge in my father and stepmother’s condo on S.W. 122nd Avenue. I soon discovered a city that was far more familiar than I had ever expected. I became fascinated by the fact that streets in Miami had numbers, like many thoroughfares in the Vedado district of Havana, or, in Coral Gables, vaguely Spanish names, almost as if that city were an outpost of Cuba. I taught Spanish language classes at the new FIU and the more venerable University of Miami, and I commuted by bus and rail, occasionally encountering a fellow passenger who would inquire about an address located in her old country: “¿Esta guagua va para Marianao? Ay, me equivoqué. Pensaba que estaba en Cuba.” On weekday mornings when I didn’t have a class, instead of working on my dissertation, I would lie under the sun by the swimming pool and look at the blue sky, not missing austere New England at all, but relishing instead the strange fact that the sky’s inviolate blueness extended across the straits of Florida all the way to forbidden Havana. And then there were the frequent random encounters with family members I hardly knew. One Sunday afternoon at a Lord and Taylor, we ran into Adela de Granda Vidaud, my maternal grandmother’s sister who had been my father’s neighbor in Santiago de Cuba. They had not seen each other in years, as they had lived in different territories of Cuba-in-Exile — far-flung Monterrey, Mexico, in her and her husband’s case — before finally converging in Miami, at a shopping mall yet.

1960 - Bautismo - En El CobreBut that was then and this is now. I don’t seek Cuba anymore. I still come to Miami at least once a year, but I spend most of my time at my mother’s house — a small place, but a true home — with perhaps a quick run to Books and Books. My mother has a tin box full of old photographs with the label “Cuba – Reliquias” on it, and there are more surprises therein than in the rest of the city. Consider this picture taken at my baptism on 15 October 1960 — Teresa de Ávila’s feast — at Cuba’s national shrine in El Cobre, outside of Santiago de Cuba, not far from Río Frío, my maternal grandparents’ farm. Of the eleven people shown here, nine would leave Cuba well before the decade’s end. The only two who remained were my paternal grandmother, Maruja, the second lady from the right, and my grandmother’s aunt, Fefa. That’s Fefa in the middle, the gray-haired woman holding a veiled bundle that is actually my sleeping, newly christened self. I have referred to her, Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, before, but I don’t think I’ve said anything about how much she seems to have loved me, and about how she missed me after we left. She never married and therefore didn’t have a family of her own, living with my grandparents and taking care of my mother and aunt. In fact, she apparently cared for everyone who needed it. In her notebook, Nunú writes about someone from Guantanamo who was gravely ill at a hospital in Santiago de Cuba and how Fefa would bring him oranges everyday. She spoke French, of course, and, I’m told, a little Creole too because of the many Haitian workers in Oriente that she’d be in contact with. She is said to have been an assiduous letter writer, keeping in touch with her cousins, the children of Juana Amelia and María Vidaud Caignet, who lived in Barcelona. She loved the movies and would take my mother to see a varied program of films every Sunday; not surprisingly, she is credited for having fashioned my mother’s Shirley Temple hairdo when she was a little girl. And then Fefa’s world vanished with most everyone who had been a part of it. We all left, and she became an image in a tin box, a story clumsily told.

FefaAnd then there is this, a blurry picture my cousin Mari posted on our secret Facebook group a few months back, when our arboreal adventure began. We don’t know who this young woman is, but we speculate it’s Fefa herself in the first decade of the twentieth century, caring as always for someone else’s children. This time, we think, it’s her nephew, a very stylish Manuel de Granda Vidaud, and her niece, a smiling Carmen de Granda Vidaud — our grandmother, a mere toddler. Who knows, perhaps this gray photograph was taken at La Reunión itself. Quite correctly, Mari noted the resemblance of this young woman to the serious person on the right of the photograph that serves as the blog’s header. That person, according to my mother, is Fefa, with her sister Luisa and their father Alberto Vidaud Caignet. But all this, again, is speculation. For all we know, this happy group may be a bunch of strangers totally unrelated to us. Yet, when the past becomes elusive, as it always does, and when the spaces of your childhood are lost, as it happens to many of us, you’re left with little more than the proverbial power of your imagination, that noble faculty whose figments need not be regarded as mere fiction. Let’s therefore declare this portrait of a lady in white to be Fefa, the caretaker, as lovingly devoted to her children as ever. If we can imagine it, it can then be true. After all, a life alone in Cuba, with all her dear children living abroad, is something Fefa could never have even imagined, and yet it happened.

XXIV – This Blog

Me in Madrid - 1963 - BWNow that I have posted so many pictures of family members when they were children, thereby violating their right to remain invisible figures, it is only fair that I post a photograph of my own younger self. Voilà. That’s me in Madrid in the very late autumn of 1963, the only child of Cuban refugees in the cold European capital ruled by Francisco Franco. A pinkish rubber stamp on the back reveals that the photograph was taken at the Estudio Fotográfico Peñalara, on calle Preciados, 17, whose telephone was 92 55 81. There is also a number that looks like a California zip code: 90647. My mother’s words are there too, a handwritten dedication to my maternal grandparents and great-grandmother back in Cuba: “Para mis abuelos y mi Bisa, con el cariño de Roberto Ignacio. Madrid, Dic. de 1963. A los tres años de edad.” I don’t known whether the picture was sent to the faraway island and recovered when my grandparents went into exile, or whether we kept it and took it with us to Puerto Rico, where we migrated to soon thereafter. The studio’s location on Preciados was not far from where lived, a pensión named La Montañesa on Plaza de la Marina Española. My mother recounts going with me to Galerías Preciados, the department store on that same street and now gone, and running into Sofía de Grecia, the future queen of Spain, who was there shopping for buttons. Sofía was pregnant, as my mother would soon be. What the princess needed buttons for remains a mystery.

I don’t think I have any real memories from the few months we spent in Madrid, except perhaps two vague images that may or may not be actual recollections of the thing itself, but memories of stories I later heard. One concerns our first and only snowfall in the city. It suddenly began to snow — quite softly, as I recall — and my father and another man from Cuba living at our pension went outside to see what the strange powder from heaven was like. They made little snowballs and threw them at the window by which my mother and I were huddled. There are no pictures of any of that. The second memory is of an event that happened many times. It’s cold but there’s a bit of sun, and my father takes me to play in the gardens of the Palacio Real, just a few blocks from our pensión. I am only a little child, so my angle of vision is limited to the grass and the little white fences that divide the garden into smaller plots. Many years later, as a student working on a travel guidebook to Spain, I found myself on that spot, the Jardines de Sabatini, and the little white fences against the grass struck me as familiar objects I had seen before. When I later mentioned this to my father in Miami, he confirmed that, yes, in those few months when we were political refugees in Spain, he would take me every afternoon to play in the royal gardens. Time was regained, if only obliquely and vaguely. I’ve been told that I was mostly an unpleasant child, a veritable Prince-in-Exile who cried loudly and frequently. I disliked the food served in Madrid’s public dining halls for the poor, where we regularly had lunch. A true Cuban, I wanted black beans, but the workers at our dining hall regarded that as nourishment for pigs and told us so, serving garbanzos instead. On one occasion, my mother was served a huge piece of bone in her garbanzos; when she pointed that out, they told her, “Hoy le tocó hueso, señora.” I despised strangers and shut my eyes whenever someone said that I had beautiful eyes. I’m now sorry for my poor parents, who had to go everywhere with me and my crying self.

While in Madrid, my father could not have a job. Taking any kind of employment would have meant that we had decided to remain in Spain and trumped our efforts to secure entry into the United States. Therefore, my parents had little money but much free time in their hands. Every weekday morning my father would visit the very modern building of the U.S. Embassy on calle Serrano to inquire about the status of our Green Card application. He became acquainted with a foreign service employee who had also gone to a Jesuit school, a common life experience that supposedly helped expedite our case. I would be left in my mother’s care all day, a routine that revolved around her searching for a warm place to be. Like in some sad novel by Benito Pérez Galdós, our room in the pensión lacked any form of heat, which sent us out into the city to seek the shelter of well-heated spaces such as department stores and, almost daily, the Museo del Prado. If exile was a long gray cloud that hung over my parents, the Prado must have been my own early silver lining. As my mother recounts in a notebook where she records her memories of leaving Santiago de Cuba and surviving in Madrid, my favorite spot at the Prado was the room in which Las Meninas then hung. At the time, a mirror was placed in front of the painting. My favorite practice was to stand in front of the mirror, with the canvas behind me, and see myself as yet another minuscule figure in that melancholy realm of royals and servants and a sleeping dog. I can’t recall exactly what I saw, but I can imagine myself standing next to the Infanta Margarita, a girl only a few years older than me, a child as quiet and perhaps as unhappy as I must have been far from my grandmothers and great-grandaunt, my own old maids of honor now absent. In truth, I don’t have any real memories of those first visions of the strange canvas full of canvasses, but I have returned to Madrid many times — in fact, it’s the only city I’ve been to at least once in every decade of my life — and many times stood in front of the gray princess, my old playmate. To this day, in my university lectures, there is no subject I relish as much as Velázquez’s artifact of self-regard.

Which brings me to this blog. May I use this blog to reflect for a moment on what this blog is, or is about, or seeks to accomplish? This blog about discovering, mapping and possessing a series of spaces on both sides of the Atlantic: Madrid, for one; but also Barcelona, where some members of the family went to live; Newfoundland, where we spent a few desperate hours; Haiti, where some ancestors fled to and died, at least one of them violently; Philadelphia, the free city in which at least one of them, a young refugee, was married; New Orleans and New York, where some practiced honest crafts while at least one engaged in shameful trades; Puerto Rico, to which we arrived as exiles but where my brother and sister were both born. And it’s about France, of course, the birthplace of many of those ancestors, the land from which they migrated but also the idea, if not the actual place, to which they kept returning for decades. But first and foremost, I suppose, this blog is about reclaiming Cuba, a country to which I have no special desire to return, or even visit, but which I still think is mine. From time to time, I dream of Cuba. Just two nights ago I dreamed I went there without a passport. I sort of just walked in, like people do who cross the border into Tijuana. The landscape was full of royal palms, as if the battered republic had become a lush and endless repetition of its coat of arms. I suppose this particular dream came about because everyone seems to be going to Cuba these days. They can have that pretty island, but can they tell such stories about it as I can? In my dream, if I remember it correctly, people — virtual strangers all of them — knew who I was because they had read this blog.

Me in Madrid - 1963This blog is also a time machine — a failed one, like they all are. It’s about excavating the past and trying to preserve it, which ultimately, pace Proust, can’t be done. It’s a museum of half-truths and yellowed images and defective, if unrelenting, storytelling. The old coffee and cacao plantation called La Reunión, where is it? The many ships that transported these folks back and forth across the Atlantic, aren’t they all sunken by now? The many letters and diaries penned in Cap-Français or Sitges or Bordeaux, can anyone read them? The past has passed. Consider this. Even if we eventually find out where Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne was born — either France or Cuba, a mystery that obsesses my genealogist cousins and me — what would that arduously acquired knowledge really mean? My own links with the ancient white-bearded man are tenuous at best. True, he was my second great-grandfather, but, if my arithmetic is correct, I have thirty-two of those; Adolphe, in turn, must have hundreds, if not thousands, of direct descendants by now. Whatever he was, I am not; or I am not only what he was; nor am I the only one who is some of what he was. Consider this too. Even if we reconstruct his biography profusely and delicately, the man is dead and won’t come back. I can write and you can read about him even as we stare into the looming absoluteness of non-consciousness. And even if those ties that link Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne with this Blogger may be twisted and turned into a string of words and images signifying something, what will they mean when we are all dead, when no one clicks on this link anymore, when the web itself collapses under the burden of its own infinite links?

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.

XXI – The Blogger in San Francisco

SF FernsAs far as I know, there are no Vidauds in the Cool Gray City of Love, but there soon will be at least one. My dear cousin, Jorge Olivares, is leaving Maine in the not-so-distant future and settling in San Francisco to be with his husband, who is a professor here. What a wonderful world we live in. Viewed from the same-sex love angle, there has been unimaginable progress. In most American states, men can marry men, and women women, and that, dear readers, started right here in San Francisco when Gavin Newsom, the courageous and handsome mayor, one fine day decided to allow citizens to wed the men and women they loved even if the couple were two men or two women. Marriage, of course, is hardly a perfect institution, and, as many have argued, it is in many ways a bad way to organize the world. Moreover, much remains to be done in this country and around the world to fight discrimination. But all things considered, this is a step forward. We’re not in Cuba anymore — at least not in the Cuba where Pedro Vidaud grew up, or in the Cuba that persecuted men like Reinaldo Arenas, on whom Jorge has written a flawless book — and that, it must be said, is a very good thing for many of us. Another brilliant thing is San Francisco itself — its lively streets and squares, Victorian houses, impossibly steep hills, colorful cable cars, deep gray fog, brilliant blue skies. And its botany, rich enough to please anyone looking for family tree metaphors, or for those of us who like taking pictures of ferns by classically minded buildings, as I did this morning at the California Academy of Science in Golden Gate Park.

SF - 3Jim and I are fortunate enough to travel to San Francisco once or twice a year. They are usually very quick trips, with hardly any time to see much, including our friends and acquaintances in they, or at Berkeley and Stanford. We used to come mostly for the opera, but most recently it’s been for the ballet and — at least in my case — the Cuban dancers, in whom I see and emblem. Our recent affection for ballet has a Cuban connection. It all started a few years ago, when I wanted to see Carlos Acosta in Swan Lake at Covent Garden. Our man in London dazzled the audience with his vigor and precision. But we were not hooked just yet. It took a trip or two here. Los Angeles is all about film, and opera is not terrible, and the L.A. Phil is arguably the best orchestra in America, but in California, the place for ballet is right here at the War Memorial Opera House in the winter and early spring months. For Jim, a dancer is a dancer is a dancer, but, for me, the San Francisco Ballet is my own private Cuba by the bay. Of the nineteen principal dancers in the company, four hail from Havana: Joan Boada, Taras Domitro, Lorena Feijoo, and Carlos Quenedit. No other nationality, including the United States, is as well represented as tiny Cuba. When I see my Cubans dance — last night it was Quenedit in Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering and Feijoo in Hummingbird, with music by Philip Glass — I am virtually transported to that island, so distant and, at least for me, abstract. These, beloved readers, are the transports of art. In “Noche insular, jardines invisibles,” José Lezama Lima celebrates the pleasures of being born in a splendid place such as Cuba: “La mar violeta añora el nacimiento de los dioses, / ya que nacer es aquí una fiesta innombrable, / un redoble de cortejos y tritones reinando.” Lezama’s verses are gorgeous, but I’m glad it’s all about birth and not the actually living there. Call me prejudiced, but in my mind Cuba, despite its purple sea and majestic tritons, is a better place to be from than to be in, and Lezama’s invisible gardens are all I need. I’d rather have Cuba in these intelligent and lofty dancers at the San Francisco Ballet. In them, Cuba lives charmingly, discreetly, quietly and, better yet, even absently. No Fidel, no Batista, no Platt Amendment, no José Martí — just these bodies that move with utmost elegance, embodying freedom, most obviously the freedom of not living in one’s own oppressive little republic.

It all began, of course, with Alicia Alonso, founder and prima ballerina assoluta (as in “absolute ruler”) of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. It must have been in the late 1970s when she traveled with her company to San Juan, where we lived in Exile and the Blogger was a rather unhappy teenager in a Catholic high school. His parents were by then divorced. There was no question his mother would come, as she was otherwise occupied, but his father was available, except that he was unwilling to see Alicia Alonso dance. She, a traitor to her own class and upbringing, stood for the revolution he despised; she had helped destroy his world and forced him onboard a one-way flight out of Cuba with no return. But the father of this future Blogger was also a fair and gentle man who loved the arts and his children, so he agreed to drive his son to the Teatro de la Universidad. There, the son saw Alicia Alonso dance, but he has no distinct memories of what took place onstage. But he remembers quite vividly how, coming to pick him up after the performance, his father decided that they would both wait to see Alicia Alonso exit the theater. They waited and waited on that hot and humid night until the swan finally came out, half smiling, descending a staircase with the help of others.

Many years later, in the mid- or late 1990s, Alicia Alonso came to Southern California with the Ballet Nacional. My brother, who also lives in L.A., and I drove down to Costa Mesa to see them — or actually, at least in my case, to see her. She could no longer dance, of course, and she, a frail and pale body, now appeared to be completely blind. Proudly smiling, once again assisted by others, she walked down the aisle to her seat just before the performance was about to start. Seeing her not seeing me, I must have felt the presence of Cuba, an absence, really, and therefore a good thing. How lucky to be not there but in Orange County, just a few blocks from the foggy freeway that would take us through the night back home to cool Los Angeles.