An excerpt from
City of Giant Tinajones
by Teresa Bevin
My maternal ancestors were from CamagŁey, but most of their history has been forever lost among generations of hard-working people who had little concern for their lineage. My paternal ancestors in contrast, were keenly aware of theirs. A diary written by my great-great- grandmother Fernanda de Gonzaga during the war for independence was kept in San Venancio as a family relic. Though full of history and the author's own stoic philosophy, its uniqueness was lost to the children who were forced to sit through boring readings when they would rather be throwing mud balls at each other. Aunt Mariana read the diary to Paquito, Augusto and me the summer of 1958. Her voice cracked and she paused to dry her tears when she read Fernanda's account of the death of three of her children from disease and famine while the village was surrounded by the Spaniards.
As a small child I trembled when the diary was taken out of its place of honor in the living room of the house in San Venancio. But I later came to admire the dedication with which those pages were written, amidst fire, blood, and desolation.
Our trips to CamagŁey were always happy times of running among palm trees, wading in ponds, collecting impressive bugs never seen in Havana, and most of all, spending time with my countrified cousins who spoke funny and laughed at my penchant for stepping on cow flops and sitting on ant hills.
The city of CamagŁey itself had a somber air that settled over the mazes of narrow streets and quaint little plazas. Church bells rang seemingly at any time, and women in mourning rushed passed my relative's house covering their head with lacy mantillas.
Now, as I drove past crumbling churches and neglected parks, my memories didn't fit the scenes. Just before noon, silence prevailed through the mazes, and CamagŁey seemed a ghost town.
Leaving the car parked in front of a central hotel, Osvaldo and I walked by city blocks of colonial houses in the final stages of deterioration, about to cave in. The traffic we encountered while we strolled south-west on Cristo Street toward the cemetery, consisted of bicycles and carts pulled by horses or mules. The bikers sped and zig-zagged recklessly, whistling when they approached a pedestrian, who quickly moved out of the way. The stench of sewer and stagnant water seemed to penetrate our pores and hang onto our hair and clothes.
As we approached the white walls of the cemetery, I recalled how my brother Hector and I used to play hide-and-seek among tombstones while Mami and Papi visited our grandparents' gravesites. Hiding behind statues and ornate gates, I read and re-read the historic family names and the mournful messages on black and white marble, and wondered about the remains rotting below, within the moist earth.