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.
We 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.
We 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.
What 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.