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.

XXXIV – Reading the Leaves

All this — this search so recherché — began eleven months ago with the online vision of a few leaves housed in the Harvard herbarium, sent there from Cuba — specifically, a mythical place called La Reunión — by a Swedish botanist. Since that early-morning apparition on my iPad, the modest specimen has birthed more leaves, veritable folios of the readable paper kind, preserved and transmitted through decades and even centuries. Arboreal excrescences, they are documents of various kinds: lovingly crafted family trees; a marriage certificate from the time of the French Revolution; photographs of children wearing peculiar hats or holding communion candles; ship manifests showing the name of a solitary transatlantic passenger; a newspaper article on the death of a young man; passports bearing mournful stamps; a nonagenarian lady’s memoirs. By means of the web and its real-life ramifications, the lives and times of numerous individuals variously associated with the Vidaud surname — a family of sorts — keep growing and branching out in unsuspected ways. Softly piling upon each other, those old leaves and the stories they tell lead to more old leaves and more stories, and my Vidauds, like any other tribe that ever existed, emerge as manifold twigs on innumerable trees in an endless immeasurable forest.

In the last few weeks, four interesting leaves of paper have come my way via email or through Vidaud Reunion, our secret Facebook group. One of my genealogist cousins in Miami received from Cuba typewritten — yes, typewritten! — copies of two baptism certificates registered in the 1860s at the parish of San Anselmo del Tiguabo, or Tiguabos, a village located somewhere near Guantánamo. And just a few weeks earlier, a cousin’s cousin — also a fine genealogist who, fortunately, has taken an interest in the Vidauds — kindly sent me two other typewritten copies of church documents — a marriage certificate from 1856, and a baptism certificate from 1849 — archived at the same parish of San Anselmo. Surely not coincidentally, all four copies are signed by Father Jean González Romero, of Santa Catalina de Ricci (Guantánamo’s cathedral), and dated April, May or July of this year. I have the impression that the old parish doesn’t exist anymore; perhaps not even the village itself does. But, in the mid-nineteenth century, San Anselmo de los Tiguabos merited an entry in Jacobo de la Pezuela’s Diccionario geográfico, estadístico, histórico de la isla de Cuba, published in Madrid in 1866. We learn that the village boasted “un templo de modesta fábrica, pero con todo lo necesario para el culto,” and that in 1857 it had a population of 155 individuals “de toda clase, edad y sexo.” It must have been near this little village that the brothers Adelson and Adolphe Vidaud de Boischadaigne started their coffee plantation, adjacent to which Paul François Caignet — arguably one the scariest ghosts in our family tree — started one of his own. In her notebook, Nunú writes that Adelson and Adolphe must have arrived in Cuba around 1830 to 1835, while Francisco Caignet, as he is also known, took a more circuitous route. In Santo Domingo — as she calls what I believe must have been Haiti, which then ruled over what is now the Dominican Republic — Francisco had “un cafetal muy bueno, muy grande.” But a slave revolt in 1841 — a questionable date, given that slavery had been abolished on all of Hispaniola — forced him to flee to Louisiana, whence he ended up migrating to Cuba after the death of his wife. He had five children, including Charlotte and Corinne, the oldest sisters, who ended up marrying Adolphe and Adelson. We have found documents that amplify and arguably correct Nunú’s version of Francisco’s migrations and labors; the Louisiana Slave Records show, for instance, that he was in New Orleans as early as 1815, where he sold a twenty-four-year-old woman named Rosalie for 500 dollars.

Vidaud Caignet, Matilde - BaptismAs interesting as it is to have those little papers from Guantánamo, they complicate the story of the children of Adolphe, also known as Pedro Adolfo, and Charlotte, referred to as Carlota María. The baptism certificate seen here belongs to their daughter Matilde Juana Cecilia, born on 27 June 1860. In time, that little newborn girl would become the mother of María Magdalena Gonzales-Rodiles Vidaud, also known as Nunú, whose splendid narrative, written toward the end of her long life in Miami, I just quoted. Matilde was the youngest of the seven Vidaud Caignet siblings, the oldest of whom, Albert or Alberto, was my second great-grandfather. Because I have recounted parts of that old story a few times before, it has acquired the dusty feel of ancient history, but new and contradictory details have now emerged. For one, we always thought that Charlotte was a native of New Orleans, not Santiago de Cuba, while a birth certificate — that of Rafael Calbetó y Vidaud, registered in Havana in 1893 — states that Adolphe, in his turn, was born in Santiago de Cuba, not France… As for Matilde’s paternal grandparents, we always knew that “Francisco” — the elusive François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne, Nº 7, the first of our Cuban Gauls — was French-born, but we have every reason to believe that “Dª Juliana” — Anne-Julienne Gué — was not born in France, but Cap-Français, present-day Cap-Haïtien… Confusion also reigns regarding Matilde’s maternal grandparents; we think that “D. Pablo Francisco Caignet” was born in Saint-Domingue (in Port-au-Prince, according to the family tree in Nunú’s notebook), not France, while “Dª María Paulina Hevia” — also identified as María Carlota or Josephina Arthemisia Caignet! — was supposedly born (and died) in New Orleans, not Santiago de Cuba… Perhaps by “natural de Francia” the priest at San Anselmo de los Tiguabos meant that those persons were French citizens, not natives of France, but, even so, questions would still remain. If all of this sounds unreadable, blame the little sheets of paper, not my über-careful analysis of these matters.

Vidaud Caignet, Mª Fca. Cirila - BaptismAnd then there is the case of the second baptism certificate. Surprisingly, it belongs to a younger girl, born on 9 July 1864, who, to confound us even further, is named María Francisca Cirila, recalling an older sister also named María. The first María eventually moved to Barcelona, where she appears to have had a full and rich life until her death in 1944; as for the second María, we know only that she was born and christened. Yet another mystery are the little girl’s godparents, registered as “D. Francisco Alberto y Dª María Josefa Vidaud.” Who are they? Could they be my second great-grandparents? Alberto Vidaud Caignet appears as José Alberto in the family tree in Nunú’s notebook, but Francisco Alberto is not a name combination I have seen before. As for María Josefa, that name too is difficult to place. Alberto’s wife is named Felicia Trutié, but one of their daughters is Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, our Fefa. But she could not have been born yet, let alone be old enough to be anyone’s godmother in 1864. Then again, perhaps Felicia Trutié’s complete name was also Josefa Felicia, like her daughter? But did women adopt their husband’s surnames in colonial Cuba? Or perhaps — and this is what strikes my cousin in Miami and me as most probable — this María Josefa is an altogether different character: Josefa Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, one of Adelson’s daughters and the future wife of Carlos Lecumberri — that is, the lady inscribed as Madame Carlos de Lecumberri on the faire-part of Pierre Paul Vidaud de Pomerait, comte du Dugnon, who died in Pau in 1907. And now that I think about it, could this Francisco Alberto be Adelson, Adolphe’s elusive brother? Could it be that the original manuscript, probably hard to decipher after more than 150 years of heat and humidity, really reads Francisco Adelson, and that the strange middle name was mistakenly transcribed by the modern copyist, Padre González Romero, when he (or an assistant?) typed this particular little leaf just over a month ago, on 2 July 2015? (I would not fault the good father for any of these minor transcription errors, as he appears to have far more important matters to attend to, such as assisting people in prison and reporting cases of cholera in Guantánamo.) Be that as it may, little María Francisca Cirila, the mystery child, vanishes forever.

Vidaud, Adelson - MarriageOur theory of Adelson’s accidental metamorphosis into Alberto is arguably — though certainly not conclusively — buttressed by the third little paper, which is the marriage certificate of “D. Francisco Adelson Videau” and “Dª María Juliana Caignet.” The wedding took place on 26 May 1856, not at San Anselmo del Tiguabo, but at Santa Catalina de Ricci itself, the cathedral in Guantánamo. As befits what must have been regarded as a more prestigious setting and solemn occasion, the marriage certificate deploys a more ornate lexicon and syntax than the rural baptism records; there is mention of a most illustrious, excellent and reverend archbishop and of the Holy Council of Trent, and there is also a discreet little phrase in Latin. Again, contradictions arise. Both groom are bride are said to be natives of Santiago de Cuba, which may well be the case, except that we thought Adelson’s wife, like her sister, had been born in New Orleans. More importantly, we always knew that her name was Corinne, or Corina Marie Justine, as the family tree in Nunú’s notebook has it, or a variant thereof. Could it be that the original document really reads “María Justina” and that Padre González Romero was a little confused, given that the names of the groom’s and bride’s parents are all mentioned below, and that Adelson’s mother is Juliana — Anne-Julienne, really — Gué? In any event, the fact that Adelson is not simply Adelson, but Francisco Adelson, persuades me to consider that the man listed as Francisco Alberto in María Francisca Cirila Vidaud’s baptism certificate was really named Francisco Adelson…

Cecilia Carabalí - BaptismIf I could speak to my spectral Cuban Gauls, I think I would adopt a histrionic and reproachful tone for the occasion. What a sorry séance that would be. Ah, my ancestors, what a tangled web we weave when we conceive of you as figures that can somehow be regained and understood. You are ciphers, and, in fact, there is much about your ilk that calls for permanent relegation to the the ash heap of history. Who cares about your twisted stories, your labyrinthine nomenclatures, when it appears you lacked the grace to see how blind you were? Read, if you can, this other document. On August 22 of the Year of Our Lord 1849, it reads, the priest in charge of the parish of San Anselmo del Tiguabo, Don Luis Francisco Pérez, anointed with oil and chrism a two-year old girl whom he named Cecilia. We know so little about her. We know that she was born on 19 March 1847 and that her godparents were “D. Alberto Videau” (Adelson, perhaps?) and “Dª Justina Caignet” (Corinne, I presume). Her father’s name is missing, but we know her mother is Victoria Carabalí, an appellation that invokes an origin on the other side of the Atlantic, in West Africa, perhaps present-day Nigeria. We also know that both mother and child were enslaved to one man — “esclavas de D. Pablo Francisco Caignet.” And that, I’m afraid, is all we know. No photographs, no passports, no passenger manifests — nothing much, really, to retrieve the little girl from the reticent surface of a yellowish leaf of paper. If I could speak with you, Cecilia, I don’t know what I would say, except that I feel close to your ghost and that I’m fortunate to have read your one and precious leaf.