" My Native Breath  of Camaguey"

I have always been a dupe for mythology, especially stories about the  Minotaur and the Labyrinth of Crete. And, on my first trip back to my hometown of   Camagüey (pronounced Cam-Agh-Weigh), Cuba, in 36 years, I was finally able to trace my mythological obsessions to their place of origin. For one thing, I  discovered that Camagüey’s cobblestone streets twist and turn around some of its plazas like the passages of a maze. Any good maze needs a good thread, however; otherwise there’s no getting out. In the case of my labyrinthine Camagüey I would  probably still be there at this moment -- at least mentally -- if  my mother, who went there with me, had not spoken a magical phrase.

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.   First, some history about this provincial  Cuban town.

British travel writer Sarah Cameron says in her guidebook, Cuba (Chicago, Passport Books, 1998), that the twisted layout of my hometown’s streets was an early Camagüeyano strategy for keeping pirates out of the place. In some ways, the technique stood the test of time in this tradition-steeped city of 350,000, as Camagüey’s more-central streets do not follow a logical vertical-and-horizontal grid pattern anywhere. Cameron and other historians tell us that Camagüey’s founding families actually gave those puzzling turns to their streets as a response to the threat of pirates in the early days of Spanish colonialism. First, they moved my hometown from its original seaside location on the northern coast of the region,near today’s port of Nuevitas,  to its present landlocked site in the heart of the province. Then, when buccaneers like Henry Morgan and François Gramont nonetheless found their way inland to resume their raids on the new settlement -- this time with fire, however, for Morgan razed the town to ashes in 1668 -- the townspeople designed a confusing system of streets to protect the gold, sugar and leather goods that the buccaneers coveted so much back then.

Today’s Camagüey probably looks much as it did to Henry Morgan from behind his one-eyed-pirate’s squint three centuries back. Gauzed by the soft, golden breezes just after dawn, the church bells of La Soledad still call their faithful to the 6 a.m. Eucharist celebration. This church is one of several in the city whose construction began in the late 1600s. As the bells toll now, from the Gran Hotel’s eighth floor panoramic dining room the town looks more like Old Castille than like a region of the Caribbean; more like Salamanca or Valladolid than like a town in Marxist Cuba.  There’s hardly a modern high-rise in sight. It’s funny, I thought while visiting the city recently, how time itself seems to be guarding the old city from outsider pirates even now. Sarah Cameron calls Camagüey “a colonial gem [that] should not be missed” when visiting Cuba. Similarly, famed City of Havana historian Eusebio LealSpengler reports in the preface of McBride and Black’s Living in Cuba (London, Scriptum, 1998) that Camagüey contains a large assembly of historical buildings,  second only to the capital’s own impressive collection.

All this is true, and in a way, the architecture of the place confirmed for me what I had always heard in my family about Camagüeyano pride. In Camagüey, they invented “attitude.” Plus, this is a place where, in the words of Oscar Wilde, life imitates art. Art is everything. And yes, dear Oscar, Camagüey once knew this. In its heyday, prosperous Camagüeyanos must have intentionally ordered their  cityscape according to aesthetic forms and patterns sure to keep the generations in place, in the best sense of these words. For in these wonderful avenues, I saw during my visit  microcosmic parades of Belle Époque, Greco-Roman, and even Art Nouveau styles.

I saw the hand of city builders intent, not on driving out invaders, but on keeping their own people there. No wonder cousins commonly saw fit to marry cousins in this provincial haven, as my own family’s stories unabashedly confirm. In this highbrow, closely inbred society, there was no need to look for the beautiful beyond the city’s own stones. This sort of love for one’s back yard, so to speak, particularly in these times of global consciousness and pre-constructed architectural modules, is another one of Camagüey’s most salient and endearing features. Local history and legends are also part of the city’s many treasures.  Ignacio Agramonte and many other local rebels who fought the Spanish in the 19th century still shine there, thanks to their timeless acts of valor. Townspeople, in fact, like to talk about Agramonte’s love-life and compare the letters he wrote to his beloved Amalia while he was fighting the Spaniards far away from her, to no less than Napoleon’s correspondence with Josephine.

Another world figure Camagüey cradled in one of its streets is Dr. Carlos Finlay, a man of science who successfully identified the aedes Aegypti mosquito in 1898 as the vector of yellow fever. A graduate of prestigious Jefferson College in Philadelphia, Finlay struggled long and hard to persuade the scientific community of his day, both Cuban and North American, of his important discovery. Sad to say, today’s visitor to the researcher’s hometown will find only a modest bronze plaque marking his birthplace next to a door on the alley that bears his name right near the Church of La Soledad.

Other household names that today’s visitor to Camagüey soon learns include that of the gutsy libertine Dolores Rondón and saintly Father Valencia -- a precursor of  Mother Teresa who devoted his life to helping the city’s leper colony in the early days of the 1800s. It is interesting to visit the Church of San Lazaro, founded by Valencia as a chapel, hermitage, and cemetery in 1815 to help those afflicted with leprosy, and to hear the story of how an albino vulture appeared to the colony after the Father’s death and helped them (by attracting crowds) to pay the bills of their foundation, which would have otherwise fallen to ruin. Camagüey is full of these and other legends.

Seen from up close, of course, Cuba -- and especially Camagüey -- is far from legend-perfect. Many buildings are missing entire sections of their famous deep-red rooftiles. The majority of house façades also show signs of the haggardness left on the place by several decades of scarcity and the exodus of most of the town’s professional classes. On a deeper level, today’s Camagüeyanos describe present life itself there with a spontaneous, catch-all phrase, “No es fácil.” In other words, day-to-day living in contemporary Camagüey is not easy -- it is a maze as well, given its double-tiered peso/dollar economy and the nightmarish scarcity of staples like milk, butter or soap in the peso market for the locals. In Miami, travel “experts” as well as politicos would point this out from varied angles, ranging from the very emotional to the socio-politically reasonable, and these voices would probably discourage anyone from venturing to this Cuban province unless it were absolutely necessary. I was certainly aware of this side of  “the labyrinth” during my journey. But here’s the paradox: where Camagüey suddenly defies your best voices of reason and begins to beckon you to indeed go back there and enter it.

The people are almost passionately hospitable; you can touch their welcome in the very air the moment you come down from the plane. You feel at home there, insuch a secretive and knowing, almost undercover kind of way. The moment people learn you are from the U.S. their eyes sparkle. As one airport soldier nervously whispered to me under his breath the night I arrived: “We all have family there [in the U.S.]. We’re all one people. This . . .,”  he paused a moment, referring to the division of the Cuban people, “This has to stop.” His skin flushed a bright human red inside his green, Ministry-of-the-Interior uniform as he spoke these words in one breathless rush.

Those words hit me that night, especially considering the source. They were, in fact, still with me on the following afternoon when I asked my mother to show me the old family house where she and my uncles and aunt had grown up more than 50 years before. By that point in the trip, I think we both felt pretty overwhelmed by all the contradictory emotions, to say the least. As my mother and I went from one darkened room to another in that otherwise unassuming house where her paternal grandparents had lived, she stopped and said to me in a very matter-of-fact sort of way, “Your great-grandfather, Don Paco, breathed his last breath in this very room.”

Wow. I could feel the weight of my mother’s words. For a flash, they seemed to float in the air of the dark old room, near the wall closest to the street. And something about them was as real as that hospitality I had felt the evening before at the airport. And it occurred to me, “What if my bisabuelo Don Paco’s final breath itself is still floating here for me to breathe?” I know it sounds too mystical to our modern ears, this idea of family connection and presence despite the passage of time. Yet there’s no other way I can describe what I found when I went back to Cuba. This was at the center of it, this breath  from an ancestor long ago, somehow even pointing to a link between that coherent city architecture and my own inner spaces. Yes, the phrase has to do with things ephemeral, and it issued from my mother’s poetic, emotionally charged imagination, perhaps not unlike the rebellious phrase on the lips of the soldier the evening before. Nonetheless, I’m sure there was something real about that last exhalation breathed by an old man I had never met -- and I could feel it very much there in that mysterious room.         

And even if I can’t prove its existence beyond my descriptions, I realize that by just writing about my great-grandfather’s last breath and about the breathless words of the soldier at the airport the night before, I am at the heart of what I wanted to say in this essay regarding the convoluted -- but real and familiar -- treasures of Cuba.