News and Facts about Cuba

The Spell of Havana

The Spell of Havana / 14ymedio, José Gabriel Barrenechea
Posted on December 13, 2014

14ymedio, José Gabriel Barrenechea, Havana, 9 December 2014 – One of my
earliest memories is of my young self, singing, Set fire, set fire to
the lock [of hair], while riding in a operated by Havana’s public
transportation system. The other passengers around me laugh and a lady
with sweet and mirthful eyes exclaims again and again, “That little
blonde boy is a hellion!”

Havana at that time to me was that marvelous city which I would enter at
dawn, riding through the tunnel, staying alert so as not to miss the
fire station on Prado Street. Or it was that city which I would exit
generally by , at night, but not before stopping at la Casita de
Martí [José Martí’s Little House]. All of this was in spite of the fact
that my parents and I would go to Havana twice a year, in January and June.

Our agenda for our visits was always the same: the Aquarium and the 26th
Avenue Zoo, with its little lead soldiers at the entrance, its bold
squirrels that seemed not so much wild creatures as denizens of some
tenement on Colón Street, the shit-flinging monkeys, the little
train…and another day, to Lenin Park and the Botanical Garden. We would
cover Old Havana by a route that invariably ended up in The Fort and its
armories – at least until the day I stopped throwing tantrums to avoid
embarking on the little Regla ferry, and then the tour would end with a
slow cruise to park in that so-called “ultramarine town.” Then it was
off to the Coppelia ice cream stand on any given day and later, in the
afternoon, a stroll up and down the Malecón, re-enacting in the capital
that small-town custom of zigzagging along the main street of
Encrucijada. Such was the only way to pass the evenings in some innocent
little town of the interior in those marvelous ‘70s.

Sometimes, in January, there might also be a visit to El Cerro Stadium,
as our friend Ñico Rutina insisted on calling the Latin American
Stadium, for my father and me to watch a baseball game. It didn’t matter
who was playing whom, what my old man cared about (and still does, at
83) was enjoying the game, not being fanatical about a particular team.
Our day trip would then conclude with the aforementioned visits to about
a hundred of my parents’ relatives and close friends. All this to say –
considering that we would alternate our stays among my Aunt Leopoldina’s
house in Párraga; my Aunt Emilia’s house in the Little Cave of San
Miguel de Padrón; or that of my Great Aunt Victoria in La Víbora – it
can be seen that, at least on the east side of the Almendares River,
very little of Havana escaped our routine itineraries for visits and

Already by then, I could not escape the spell of Havana. Where people
talked, walked, looked, breathed, and loved with ease, and “right” was
“rye” [Translator’s Note: Habaneros are known among Cubans elsewhere on
the Island for their rapid speech and lazy pronunciation of consonants].
Where defiant mulattos grew their sideburns long and dressed in the
manner of their great-great-grandfathers, flashy black men in the days
of the fleets. When from time to time could be heard, along some
parallel street, the slow-moving cassock of one of the few remaining
priests on the Island. When the stray cats were fat, not like those puny
ones on Encrucijada Street, and actors in the latest adventure films
might surprise you on any street corner.

“Where will all these memories go when I die?” I ask myself at times,
like the android in Blade Runner. “Will that moment disappear with me
when, for the first time, I watched a ship enter Havana Bay from the
Point, while two other vessels lying at anchor waited their turn?” Or,
fast-forwarding almost 40 years, there is an eternity in which I will
always live in the entire night I spent with Her in a room on L Street,
almost touching the sea, and at times would be surprised by the murmurs
of another woman: Sleeping Havana?

I cannot answer these questions. I only know that upon learning of
Havana having been selected as one of the Seven Wonders Cities of the
World, all those memories have rushed to my throat. In any case
something will remain, as today persists in our culture that spirit of
the Athens of 500 BC, when a boy hand-in-hand with his father, regarded
on a certain clear morning of the splendorous Mediterranean summer the
road to Piraeus.

Because Havana, more than an obvious ruin, is a spirit, a soul, a mature
woman with miles on her but still more beautiful than any 20-year-old. A
certain something will persist when the tyrants and their henchmen no
longer occupy more than a couple lines in the annals of history. A
certain something to which all of us Cubans are joined in greater or
lesser measure, and which provides the measure to explain why we love to
exaggerate, to say that we Cubans “We Cubans are the greatest thing God
ever conceived in this great wide world.”

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Source: The Spell of Havana / 14ymedio, José Gabriel Barrenechea |
Translating Cuba –

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