XXXV – What Words Are Worth

A few months ago, my cousins and I discovered a new twig in the family tree. Her name alone was interesting. We had never run into it before in our arboreal excursions, and now its newly found consonants and vowels resounded with prestige and drama: Josephina Arthemisa Hevia. We valued her name because she was our direct ancestor, the mother of Charlotte Caignet, our third great-grandmother, who was in turn the wife of Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne. For some time, we had been trying to ascertain the true surname of Charlotte’s mother, as we had seen it listed not only as Hevia, but also as Heria, Herrera and, strangely, even Gloria. But now, by means of Charlotte’s baptismal inscription in the Sacramental Records of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the elusive name assumed a clearer definition. But what’s in a name, after all? What is it worth? “Hevia” was rather enticing because it suggested a possible link with José Antonio de Hevia, a historic personage who explored the Gulf of Mexico and gave Galveston its name in the late eighteenth century. “Josephina” too interested me for two reasons. Forms thereof reappear in the names of other women in the family, including my grandmother’s aunt, Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié (our legendary Fefa), and Josefina Esteve de Granda, my dear aunt and godmother. The spelling itself was seductively interlingual — neither Josefina nor Joséphine, but some hybrid thing, as would befit a person of Spanish descent in a French city such as New Orleans. Yet the true key to the woman’s personality may well be the outlandish Arthemisa. To name one’s child after a Greek goddess struck me at first as a gesture of enlightened classicism, but was Artemis really such a glorious name? There’s nothing wrong with being the goddess of the hunt or, certainly, the protector of young girls. But when one is reminded of some versions of the Actaeon or Adonis myths in which Artemis violently intervenes, one can willfully read in our ancestor’s middle name a latent sense of cruelty.

Hevia, Arthemise - MarieWe searched for Josephina Arthemisa with passion, hoping unashamedly for a mention somewhere of her father’s name, which in the best of cases would confirm our illusions of conquistador grandeur. But, save for the aforementioned baptismal record, Josephina Arthemisa remained firmly concealed from us. One fine day, though, out of the blue, one of my genealogist cousins in Miami posted a sad find — two ancient-looking documents — on our Facebook group. Both manuscripts were written in French, yet they dated from 1816, when Louisiana was already an American state. The first one was drafted on 14 February in “la ville et paroisse de la Nouvelle Orléans, second district sénatorial dans l’État de la Louisiane.” Before Narcisse Broutin, a notary public, there appeared one Jacques Nadaud Courtier, with the purpose of registering the sale of “une négresse nommée Marie, âgée d’environ treize à quatorze ans.” The buyer’s name was Mlle. Arthémise Hevia, our very own Josephina Arthemisa, later described twice as “la demoiselle acquéreuse.” The purchasing lady, we’re told, could from now on enjoy and dispose of the said slave as her possession: “Laquelle esclave est, dès ce jour, en la possession de la demoiselle acquéreuse, qui le reconnaît et l’accepte, sous les garanties ci-dessus exprimées, pour, par elle, en jouir, faire et disposer comme de chose lui appartenant en toute propriété et jouissance á compter de ce jour au moyen des présentes.” The words underscored the material worth of the child: “comme de chose lui appartenant” — like a thing belonging to her… We don’t know anything else about Marie, except that she had already been sold at least once, in December 1815, to the man who now sold her to our ancestor. Having shed the name of Josephina, Arthémise, a slaveowner, also belied the goddess’ status as the protector of girls.

Hevia, Arthémise - SignatureWe don’t know why, but just over six months later, on 2 September 1816, the enslaved girl was sold yet again. Before Philippe Pedesclaux, notary public, there appeared Demoiselle Arthémise Hévia in order to sell “une négresse nommée Marie, âgée de treize à quatorze ans” to a man named Félix James Grenier. The language concluding the sale is eerie not only because of the terrible deed it records, but also because it mirrors the words used in the previous document and surely in many other similar transactions: “Laquelle esclave est, dès ce moment, en la possession du Sieur acquéreur, qui le reconnaît et l’accepte, sous les garanties ci-dessus exprimées, pour par elle en jouir, faire et disposer comme de chose lui appartenant en toute propriété á compter de ce jour au moyen des présentes.” I’d like to think that Arthémise’s sale of Marie meant that the young woman had come to realize the horror of owing another human being, but that is wishful thinking; if that had been the case, she should have simply freed the girl. Moreover, we also know that Arthémise’s husband, François Caignet, was himself a slaveowner and trader, as evidenced in another New Orleans document from 1815, on his sale of a girl named Rosalie, as well as in the mention of his name in books about slavery in Cuba, to which I shall return. There’s also the San Anselmo de los Tiguabos baptismal record of 1849 for a girl named Cecilia; she and her mother, Victoria Carabalí, were “esclavas de D. Pablo Francisco Caignet.” In any event, the fact remains that, as of now, we have little of Arthémise Hevia except her assertively inscribed signature — with a whimsical A and a sensual H, as seen here — on two documents indissolubly bound to the institution of slavery.

In yet another disquieting repetition, both documents pertaining to the sale of Marie allude to their issuance, in New Orleans, “l’année mille huit cent seize, et la quarantième de l’Indépendance Américaine.” Although Louisiana had been part of the United States for just over a decade and the language of the documents is still French, there appears to be a certain pride in being part of a free republic that had reached its fortieth year of independence. Yet the proclamations of liberty and equality at the heart of those documents did not include the likes of Rosalie or Marie. In Cuba also, where Cecilia was born, slavery would be the law of the land for many more years. To this day in both countries — it goes without saying — discrimination against people of African descent is hardly a thing of the past.

HortensiaWhat can I say about these enslaved girls? Can I say anything? Or is it better that I say nothing? Some readers of this blog may recall the controversy last spring surrounding Ben Affleck, who, as a guest of the PBS show, Finding Your Roots, requested that the producers hid the fact that one of his ancestors had been a slaveowner. In his own defense, the actor claimed he was ashamed. But should one be held responsible for our forbearers’ sins and misdeeds? And, if so, should their merits and accomplishments, such as they may have been, be held as a sign of our own worth? My answer to both questions is an emphatic no. We should feel neither pride nor shame. We are who we are and not who they were. But are we? As I weave Cecilia, Marie and Rosalie into my tales of the Cuban Gauls, I realize the deception of my own words. Who am I to tell their stories, or even mention their names? Am I not engaging in yet another act of exploitation by capitalizing, for the sake of my silly little blog, on their value as figures in a shocking tale of bygone horrors? But are their tales even in the past? Consider the image here. A little boy sits on the hood of an American car in front of a house in the Vista Alegre district of Santiago de Cuba. A woman, possessor of a kind smile, holds the boy the ensure nothing bad happens to him while his father’s camera records the scene. Her name, I’m told, is Hortensia. But why should she be holding the boy and not the camera? Did she have a child of her own? A revolution had taken place in the country, but some things appear not to have changed. Perhaps somewhere in the annals of exiled Cuban families there is a picture taken in the early 1960s of a black boy sustained by a white woman’s arm, but I haven’t seen such a picture yet. Slavery may have been abolished in Cuba in 1886, but its legacy of privilege still reigned through the twentieth century, benefitting the descendants of some families and not others. My hope is these words are worth something in the struggle to reverse all that.

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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.