Fifty-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.
Now 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.
This 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?
So on the night of 31 October 1963, after passengers had had their tomato soup and shed some tears over impossible firetrucks, the Cubana de Aviación Bristol Britannia took off from Gander to complete the last leg of its long intercontinental journey. My father and I slept, but my mother spent the night imagining the dangers that lay ahead. More than half a century later, comforted by the soft light of my laptop, I can imagine the dark ocean, invisible and fearsome, over which we flew… It was All Saints Day, when we finally landed in Madrid, a cold and gray city virtually shut down on account of the religious holiday. With the help of an acquaintance that we miraculously ran into at Barajas, we made it to calle Jacometrezo, where the International Rescue Committee was headquartered. They gave us some pesetas, and we, newly minted political refugees, went to the pensión on plaza de la Marina Española where we would live for several months. The next day was All Souls Day, the first full day of our lives as exiles in Franco’s Spain, a nation far more Christian — far less modern — that its former colony in the Caribbean. It was also not a rich country, and we were less rich than most everyone else — but that sad tale of an icy room and garbanzos everyday for lunch is, for now, another story.
My parents had never set foot outside of Cuba, yet they belonged to families whose members had crossed the Atlantic many times. My mother’s paternal grandfather was born in Barcelona, and one of her maternal great-grandfathers hailed from Oviedo — not to mention the tribes of Cuban Gauls and their multiple ports of call. The most recent of those European migrants was María Montoro Céspedes, my paternal grandmother. She was born in Marbella, back then a small Andalusian town from which, on clear days, one could see the coast of Africa. Her father, an artist, migrated to Cuba with his three young daughters sometime in the early twentieth century in search of new seascapes to paint. Indeed, Maruja (as she was known) proudly displayed many of her father’s marinas in her house in Santiago de Cuba. Here is a picture of Maruja taken in 1962, in the elaborate living room of that house, not quite surrounded by the soon-to-be migrants. Her last years — she died in 1965 — must have been difficult and lonely. Her husband, a magistrate, had died over a decade ago, and her other son besides my father, a doctor in Havana, had also passed away prematurely. His three children, my cousins, remained in the faraway capital with their mother, while Maruja’s own two sisters lived in Pinar del Río, as far from Oriente as one could go without leaving Cuba. I’m told she loved her tchotchkes — she was a bit of a hoarder — and her garden. A sensitive soul, she used to take long baths that started well before sunset and ended after night had fallen, as she found the twilight to be overly melancholy. Maruja never returned to Spain, the country where her son, daughter-in-law and grandson were now political refugees, desperately wanting to return to their old New World.
Such stable characters, those migrants like María Montoro who bravely traversed the ocean yet stayed put in one place! By contrast, my second great-granduncle, Pierre Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, also known just as Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait and described in various documents as a “négociant français,” was a shipowner, it seems, who lived in Santiago de Cuba and Bordeaux and appears to have spent much of his life happily on board a merchant vessel. No one in my immediate family has told me anything about him, but his digital afterlife — unlike that of Maruja, nonexistent until now — allows one to construct a rich and venturesome biography. He was the oldest son of Pierre Vidaud du Dognon, No. 10 in Vallantin Dulac’s genealogy, who had been born at the Château de la Dourville in 1767 and migrated to Saint-Domingue with four of his brothers during the Reign of Terror. Like his brother François Vidaud du Dognon No. 11, the priest, Pierre No. 10 eventually returned to France. He had six children, and at least two of them had children of their own — two rich and strong branches whose many leafy twigs, now branches of their own, keep blooming in France and the Americas. In Port-au-Prince, Pierre No. 10 married Marie Henriette Petit, a native of that city. The wedding took place on 22 nivôse VII (though I’m sure it didn’t snow that day in the Caribbean). Pierre returned to France with his wife sometime before 1805, the year when Luce Eugénie Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, their second child, was born. He lived until 1839 and his widow until 1854. The French Revolution must have been a real trial for Pierre, but whatever may have been lost appears to have been recovered. Both husband and wife died at the Château de Laurenzane, in Gradignan, near Bordeaux. How they ended up in that distinguished dwelling is a mystery to me, but it is interesting to read about the place’s “activités viticoles” and learn that a greenhouse designed by Gustave Eiffel was built in the premises.
Our Pierre, the French man of commerce, was born in Port-au-Prince, like his mother, in 1802. His five sisters were born in France, and it is altogether plausible to assume that he spent his childhood in those places where his parents appear to have settled: Aubeville, Pommeret, and Angoulême. But by his early twenties he is back in Saint-Domingue, where, Vallantin Dulac tells us, he married Anne-Joséphine Tardy, the daughter of Anne-Julienne-Aimée Gué and her first husband, Julien Tardy. Why Pierre returned to the Caribbean is yet another mystery. How Anne-Joséphine, born in Santiago de Cuba around 1800, also ended up in Saint-Domingue, which her mother appears to have fled after the murder of her own father, the architect Jean-Baptiste Gué — that too is a mystery. In any event, the young couple would not stay put for long. Their first child — Pierre Paul, who would later become the comte Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, was born in Bordeaux in 1826. But their second and third children were born in Santiago de Cuba, and the fourth in Gradignan; the rest of their nine children were all born in Cuba. One of them, Étienne, migrated to Brooklyn. Most of them eventually settled in France, including Marie Anne Méloë, who married an American and, like Étienne, moved to the United States. Only one child, Émile, was married in Santiago de Cuba and appears to have remained on the island for good.
One of my cousins in Miami has combed the superb digital records of the French Consulate in Santiago de Cuba and found several apparitions of our Pierre. His florid signature is inscribed as that of a witness on various birth and death certificates. Stendhal would famously recommend reading “une page du Code civil chaque jour, avant de commencer à écrire, pour obtenir le degré de sécheresse convenable et se prémunir contre les fausses élégances du beau style romantique” — yet I find much that is inherently romantic in the truly elegant, if dry, pages of those records of the État civil I have read. Consider, for instance, this brief phrase on a birth certificate, following Pierre’s name: “négociant Français, établi à Santiago de Cuba, qui a dit avoir assisté aux derniers moments du défunt”… But my favorite record, seen here, is the birth certificate of Henriette Jeanne Vidaud de Pomerait, Pierre and Anne Joséphine’s fifth child, which I transcribe: “Acte de naissance de Henriette Jeanne, née le dix sept octobre mil huit cent trente quatre, à une heure du matin, fille de Pierre Videau de Pomerait fils, négociant demeurant ci devant à Bordeaux, Département de la Gironde, et de Dame Anne Joséphine Tardy, sa légitime Épouse”… It reads like a little novel in the making — a birth in the middle of the night, a father’s former residence in a city an ocean away, a mother’s legitimate status… And lest there could be any doubt, this: “Le Sexe de l’Enfant a été reconnu être féminin.” Vallantin Dulac tells us Henriette married one Émile Schmitt and would die childless — a twig’s end — in Pau. No year is given for her death.
Around the time of Henriette’s birth, the Almanach du Commerce de Paris, des Départemens de la France et des Principales Villes du Monde, which my cousin has also found online, describes the port of Santiago de Cuba as one of the most beautiful in the Americas, making it clear that its white population is a minority, and listing several “négocians français et étrangers” in the city, including “Videau de Pomeraite.” But that’s not all. In recent times, our Pierre has reappeared in historiographical works about the French community of Santiago de Cuba. A passport of his, issued in Bordeaux in 1825, is discussed in Paul Butel’s “Relations commerciales entre la France et Cuba sous la Restauration: l’example de Bordeaux,” while Agnès Renault, a historian at the Université du Havre, devotes a long footnote to him in D’une île rebelle à une île fidèle: les Français de Santiago de Cuba (1791-1825). Renault’s note is particularly vexing, for some information therein appears to contradict what we think we know of François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, No. 7, our direct ancestor and Pierre’s uncle, so I will return to it in due time. In any event, as my cousin puts it, these are all “small traces” of Pierre, yet they allow us to imagine who he must have been.
But who was he really, this merchant — this, dare I say it, patriarch? What was he like? Although I have no personal memories of María Montoro Céspedes, stories of Maruja are still relatively abundant, and one can have a glimpse of her soul (if such a thing exists) from those narrative capsules about a childhood in Marbella and the melancholy sunsets of Santiago de Cuba. But digital Pierre remains virtually unfathomable. Yet he was a contemporary of Balzac, and one may perhaps be allowed to indulge, at least briefly, in the novelist’s art of physiognomy to build a picture of the man’s character. Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait, you were born in Port-au-Prince, went to live in France as a child, returned to the Caribbean as a young man, married a lady of French descent also born in those parts, had nine children, witnessed several births and deaths, owned ships, crossed the Atlantic many times, achieved what appears to be a measure of prosperity, and then you died in the city of Bordeaux in 1872. Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait, your coat looks so nice and warm, your top hat is most elegant, and your cane — well, sometimes a cane is just a cane. And now, Pierre, your face, your face, that window to your soul. Pierre Vidaud de Pomerait, your face denotes seriousness, solidity, solemnity, but in truth, Pierre, there is only silence. I’m afraid I cannot read you, Pierre, that I can only hope for some letters, perhaps a journal hidden somewhere recounting the reasons why, at some point in your life, you must have cried. Through those inscribed pages, if they exist, we may perhaps begin really to reach you. And even then, I suspect you will remain nothing but an elusive ghost staring at the blue or gray or black waves in the middle of the ocean.
In a sense, the story of distant relations this blog seeks to tell began all by itself in the fall of 1990 in central Maine. I had joined the faculty of Colby College on a one-year appointment as a visiting professor of Spanish. I didn’t know many people in Waterville, the small city where the school is located. Looking back, this was probably a good thing; I needed to concentrate on finishing my doctoral dissertation even as I was teaching a few new courses, including my first literature class ever. One person I did know on campus was Jorge Olivares, who was chair of the department of modern languages and, as it soon became obvious, an admirable colleague. Like me, Jorge was Cuban and came from Oriente — specifically from Guantanamo, just east of Santiago de Cuba.
I had not taken too many of my possessions with me to Maine, as I’d be there just for a few months. But I did have a box of photographs, a few of them quite old. I must have been bored and/or in a procrastinating mood (or perhaps I was a little homesick) on a certain Sunday afternoon early in the semester when I decided to look at my melancholy collection of black-and-white pictures. Discreetly tucked among those images of people and landscapes was a little first communion card, yellowed by time. One side bore a printed Spanish inscription, but the reverse, to my surprise, was delicately handwritten in French. It read, “Souvenir de la 1re Communion de Caroline Rodiles Vidaud, Guantanamo, 16 Août 1903.” I knew the surname Vidaud, of course, but I had no idea who little Caroline might be, or why one of our relatives, as she appeared to be, would be living in a town other than Santiago de Cuba. The next morning after my first class, I placed the card in Jorge’s campus mailbox. As he was from Guantanamo, I thought he would perhaps find it to be an interesting object, if nothing else. Little did I suspect what the old memento would reveal. When I ran into him that afternoon, he told me that Caroline, the mysterious first communicant, was really his great-aunt Carolina. After a couple of phone calls to mothers and grandmothers in warmer latitudes, we confirmed that he and I were indeed related. Carolina was the daughter of Mathilde Vidaud Caignet, who was the sister of Alberto, or Albert, my grandmother’s grandfather. So Jorge and I were second cousins once removed, or something along those lines. If the long reach of the Cuban Gauls extended to northern New England, what other stories could there be?
Here she is now, courtesy of Jorge. The young lady in the middle is sweet Caroline, whose full name was Carolina Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud. She is flanked by her sisters — Matilde on her right and María Magdalena on her left. There were other siblings, including a brother named Jean, who, Jorge tells me, loved to attend funerals in Guantanamo. They all spoke French to each other, except to Fulgencio, yet another brother, who Jorge heard had learned the language but forgotten it. María Magdalena, born in 1889 and known as Nunú, was Jorge’s grandmother. As I have recently learned, she had a notebook in which she recorded personal memories and family stories. I haven’t read it, but if it’s anything like this silly little blog of mine, it’s probably a collection of bottomless communicating vessels, not unlike the worldwide web, this flat yet mysterious labyrinth of interlinked clickable rabbit holes through which one suddenly finds oneself flowing onto distant shores and landing in remote eras, remembering and imagining and writing, happily mixing metaphors, all in the company of strangers who happen to be inhabitants of one’s family tree, dwellers in the same forest of blood ties and in-law relationships. And so it happened that one fine day my own blog popped up on the screen of a lady in Miami, a relative of Jorge though not of mine (but then again, who knows?). She too is interested in genealogy and got in touch with me, generously sharing a series of documents, including slave records pertaining to the “señores Vidaud y Caignet” (more on that soon) and one memorable page from Nunú’s notebook.
Here it is now, the page from Nunú’s notebook, in which she lovingly reminisces about a specific religious experience in her teenage tears, in a style that reminds me of Teresa de Ávila, my favorite literary saint. I’ll simply translate her clear and heartfelt words. It concerns a first communion, but, more importantly, her own faith and practices. “It happened so long ago. I must have been around seventeen. As I looked at a first communion stamp from a cousin of mine in Barcelona, I suddenly felt something rather strange in my heart, a very powerful and yet very sweet sentiment of love for God, which made these French words come to my lips from my heart.” She explains, “Back then I always prayed in French.” And then, through the working of those vessels that flow from heart to lips to hands, she wrote down her prayer, first in French and then in Spanish translation: “Oh, my God, God of Love, let my whole life be a constant act of love and constant submission to your Holy Will.” Her language and religiosity remind me of my own grandmother, Carmela, who often invoked “mon Dieu Tout-Puissant” — nothing less — to speak of, or to, God, and never expressed a wish without punctuating it with a reverent “con la gracia de Dios.” When one of her grandchildren misbehaved, she’d tell the story of how her grandfather, Albert, had taught her all about “Moi-Même,” that inner voice that speaks to you when you have done something wrong. “¿Qué te dice Moi-Même?” — that was the question in the face of misdeeds. I have a hard time relating to Nunú’s and Carmela’s extreme fervor and devout manners, but, it must be said, I envy their resolute certainty. Their faith in God must have been reassuring through their long lives in exile. Both Carmela and Nunú died at the age of 95 in cities far from where they were born, instead of the country where they would surely have spent their entire lives had it not been for the Revolution.
María Magdalena Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud and Carmen Luisa de Granda Vidaud were certainly not the first members of their family to leave Cuba. Nunú herself mentions her cousin, the first communicant in Barcelona, who I suspect was Rafael Calbetó Vidaud, born in Havana, the son of Juana Amelia Vidaud Caignet, sister of María Vidaud Caignet. Like María, Juana Amelia also married a man from Catalonia, Rafael Calbetó y Sambeat, who was Comandante del Presidio de la Habana in the early 1890s and published a report about his work there. They also settled in Spain sometime in the 1890s. (As it happens, a gentleman from Barcelona, Juana Amelia’s grandson, also found my blog and contacted me, providing some lovely photographs and much valuable information, to which I hope to return soon.) María and Juana Amelia must have missed their faraway birthplace, but Nunú and Carmela lost their country. We may soon again have an American embassy in Havana, and that in my book is a good thing. But the happy republic, imperfect as it was, in which those ladies were born and lived and where they expected to die — that world to which they never returned — is gone forever.
And then here is this boy, this unsmiling light-eyed creature, photographed on what appears to be his first communion, sometime in the 1930s. My cousin Mari found the picture and posted it on our secret Facebook group with the question, “¿Quién puede ser este niño?” It didn’t take us long to find out who he was. The photo was dedicated by the child, Totó, to Fefa and Mercedes. We knew Fefa had to be Felicia Vidaud Trutié, my grandmother’s aunt, who never married and, as I recounted earlier, devoted her life to taking care of three generations of children, including me. As for Mercedes, she was a sister of Bebé Vidaud, our family’s first genealogist. To make a long story short — which is, after all, the fate of all ambitious genealogical accounts, which could be endless in a terrifyingly Borgesian way — well, the boy Totó was identified as Pedro Vidaud Gonzales-Rodiles, son of Carolina Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud, the little stamp girl, and her first cousin Pierre Vidaud Trutié. Pierre was in turn Fefa’s brother and my grandmother’s uncle, etc., and had studied engineering at Tulane, a name that my grandmother would pronounce as if it were a French word. Curiously, Jorge’s branch of the Vidauds, the descendants of Mathilde Vidaud Caignet, had joined in holy matrimony with our branch of the Vidauds, the descendants of Albert Vidaud Caignet… What follows I mostly learned from Jorge — though before I read what he wrote, I always suspected a tale of secrecy as well as the nature of the secret. Totó/Pedro lived in Camagüey along with his parents and sister Carlotica, who was probably named after Charlotte Caignet Hevia, her grandmother, wife of Adolphe Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne. Living not far from the city at the Central Manatí, Jorge’s family used to visit them from time to time. Jorge remembers that the children spoke French to each other and possessed such bourgeois accoutrements as tennis racquets and a violin that belonged to the boy, but which had been his father’s own violin. Jorge remembers how the father became infuriated when he and his brother, instead of playing the violin, would play with it. Carlotica grew to be a very religious young woman and, my mother tells me, held an important leadership position in the Juventud Católica Cubana. She never married and remained in Cuba after the Revolution. Jorge tells me she was condemned to prison because of her religious activities, but was allowed to serve her term at home so that she could take care of her mother. Carolina — the little girl whose first communion was celebrated in 1903, just a year after Cuban independence — lived long enough to see the arrival of socialism on the island. She died in Cuba in her eighties, but Carlotica still lives in Camagüey, on calle Libertad, where a neighbor of my mother’s in Miami Springs, Fla., was once a student boarder — but that’s most certainly another story. At the age of ninety-one, Carlotica still teaches French; a relative who saw her not long ago tells me that her students “hang on to her every word.” She also tells me that they toured the Iglesia de la Merced, and that Carlotica, who preserves her sense of humor, warned her that “la colección de mierda de las catacumbas compite con el Louvre.”
Dare I say what I know of Pedro’s story? No one is asking me to, but not to tell would be perpetuating secrecy. Pedro worked for Pan American Airways in Camagüey. Jorge’s brother, Alberto, remembers an occasion in which Pedro took them to the traffic control tower at the airport. Although Camagüey was only Cuba’s third largest city, it had an international airport, and Pan Am itself had been flying to Cuba — the Key West-Havana route — since its inception in 1927. Pedro continued to work for the company in New York City. My grandmother spoke often of him, and I grew up hearing how much she admired Pedro Vidaud, who worked for Pan Am in New York, and was trilingual and ever so intelligent and handsome, tall, with light-colored eyes. What a pity he had decided to remain a bachelor, my grandmother would say from time to time. Ah, Pedro’s ambiguities. For me, it was a good thing to find out recently that he had a longtime companion, as people used to say. The two of them went to live in Chile after Pedro’s retirement, and Pedro died there, far from Cuba and from New York, but close, I hope, to someone he loved. I never met Totó/Pedro, but I wish I had. I hope he was happier in life than he looked on the day of his first communion. I hope this brief communiqué of what little I know of his life works as a kind of séance through which we can reach him wherever his soul is resting now, if such a thing as the soul exists. Or better yet, I hope someday a notebook written by Pedro Vidaud himself resurfaces somewhere in the antipodes — a notebook where he might have told his own story.
How to view that old portrait? How to regard it? Was it even Jean-Baptiste Gué? We know it depicts a figure identified as an architect from Cap-Français. But was this our fourth great-grandfather, the man whose daughter would marry the first Vidaud in Cuba, our François V. du D. de B.? A few days after my post, Mari made an interesting discovery. On a site called “Les colons de Saint-Domingue (1789)” compiled by Oliver Gliech, a historian of Haiti and the French Revolution in Berlin, there’s an entry for our man Gué, and next to his name are the letters “FM,” which stand for “Franc-maçon/Freemason.” Our architect, then, could also very well have been the master of a masonic lodge, thereby increasing the probability that the canvas in Montreal could indeed be the portrait of Jean-Baptiste Gué.
But how to view that old portrait, how to regard the story of slavery that was unfolding even as Malepart de Beaucourt was applying oil on canvas in 1787? Why not simply leave all this behind and move on, like survivors do, often quite literally? The gray Atlantic was one busy waterway, with constant traffic between Europe and the Americas and human migration from one shore to another. Jean-Baptiste was a native of Brittany, but at least four of his seven children, all of whom were born in Saint-Domingue, appear to have left the colony soon after their father’s death, “returning”to France and settling mostly in Bordeaux. Pierre claims to have written his father’s tragic history at his family’s request “afin d’en perpétuer le souvenir parmi nos enfants.” But did he really want the next generation of children to dwell perpetually on that story inscribed with multiple forms of violence and inhumanity? Wouldn’t one want to say good-bye to all that?
For an amateur genealogist such as this Blogger, there is in fact nothing easier than to move on. The past has passed, and the family tree is as vast and rich as the forest primeval. If you feel burdened by the umbrous weight of a certain branch, you look for a lighter twig to behold and hold on to. I shall return to Gué’s children and their lives in France, but let’s, for a moment, contemplate María Vidaud Caignet, the distinguished lady seen here, a picture of sartorial property and domestic sovereignty. She was the sister of Alberto Vidaud, my grandmother’s grandfather, which makes her the great-daughter of our freemason architect of Cap-Français. Born in Santiago de Cuba circa 1850, she married Rafael Llopart i Ferret, who in turn had been born in 1847 in Sitges, then a small village in Catalonia. As a young man, Llopart i Ferret migrated to Cuba, where he became a prosperous businessman. He lived in Guantánamo, serving as mayor in the 1880s and devoting his attention to public health, as the Viquipèdia entry, my source, recounts. It appears he traveled back and forth the Atlantic several times; for instance, he represented the provincial government at the Exposició Universal de Barcelona in 1888. But by 1890, Llopart i Ferret, now a rich indiano, was back for good in Catalonia with his Cuban wife. In Barcelona, he owned a “botiga d’ultramarins i colonials” named — what else? — La Tropical, located on the rambla de Canaletes. At one of his properties in Sitges, the composer Enric Morera i Viura wrote and dedicated to him the opera Empòrium, which premiered at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in 1906. A grand transatlantic life, it seems, that of Llopart i Ferret! But not as long as that of his wife María, who died in January 1944 at the age of 93. Think of this: back in Cuba’s Oriente she lived through the Guerra de los Diez Años against Spain, and then in Spain, she, an octogenarian, survived the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Her obituary in La Vanguardia mentions her burial in the Cementerio del Sudoeste, on Montjuïc; after such a long life, she must have wanted to rest in peace.
My mother tells me that, “back” in Cuba, Fefa — Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, her great-aunt — often talked about her cousins the Lloparts and Vidauds, who lived in Barcelona. She remembered them fondly and had many photographs of them. Perhaps they had even spent time together at La Reunión? One of Fefa’s cousins was Rafael Llopart i Vidaud, the man seen here. He was born in Guantánamo in 1875, so he was an adolescent when his parents, Rafael and María, settled permanently in Catalonia. His Viquipèdia entry describes him as the “fill de l’enriquit indiano sitgetà Rafael Llopart i Ferret.” (Ah, those newly rich indianos whose gawdy architectural tastes changed the face of Sitges and many other coastal towns!) But the younger Rafael had his own remarkable accomplishments. He was one of the founders of Martí, Llopart i Trenchs S.A., a textile manufacturer, and in 1919 he was one of the engines behind the Exposició Nacional de Clavells, the carnation exhibit linked to the Corpus Christi celebration in Sitges. In 1930, Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia de Battenberg visited the exhibition, and Rafael, a gardener and a botanist, deploying carnations he had grown himself, decorated the royal platform with a sign that read “Floreal a Sus Majestades” — an inscription not devoid of a measure of irony for those of us for whom the word “floréal” is first and foremost the name of a springtime month in the calendar of the French Revolution, an event that led, of course, to regal beheadings. But I digress. Rafael’s ascension to everlasting digital glory happened between 1915 to 1916, when he presided over the Futbol Club Barcelona. Indeed, the Barça website describes his appointment as “l’inici d’una etapa de pau i consens al si del Club,” a period of peace and consensus marred only by a refereeing controversy at a game against Real Madrid (really!) during the Campionat d’Espanya. Despite widespread support, Rafael Llopart resigned the presidency. Maybe that’s when the idea of the carnation show came up. I wonder what botanical conversation he and E.L. Ekman might have had if they had ever met.
Carnations, the opera, sportsmanship, a royal encounter — such are the charms of a certain Mediterranean bourgeoisie far removed from the cold and brutal Atlantic. I have no idea what the life of María Vidaud Caignet was like in the metropolis, but there must be letters somewhere that might someday be read in order to recover a sense of her thoughts and affects. Did she think much of the island of Cuba? Did she miss her relatives there and speak fondly of them? Did she ever give a thought to the slaves she must have known as late as the 1880s? And did she know much about the life of her maternal grandfather, one François Caignet, presumably the same François Caignet of Saint-Domingue who, according to the Louisiana Slave Records, in June 1815, in the city of New Orleans, sold a twenty-four-year-old woman named Rosalie as a slave for 500 dollars, and also sold a boy named Casimir, Rosalie’s four-year-old son, as a slave for 550 dollars? Such, I’m afraid, are the awful triangulations of the Atlantic Ocean that suddenly pop up on the well-lit screens of ancestry.com. Knowing this tale of Africa in the Americas, how should we regard María Vidaud Caignet’s lovely portrait? How should I regard a mindless snapshot I have of a little white boy with Martha, his black nanny, taken in Santiago de Cuba circa 1961? When should one declare the past officially dead, or is the past an everlasting thing?