Follow the memory drifts of Abu Fofana and Teresa Casas across some key neighbourhoods of Havana…
So that we could mentally stroll through Havana at the end of this drawn out winter, Abu Fofana and I mapped out a city of mutual memory drawn from a Google Earth satellite view along with personal and public photos of Havana.
I left Havana aged seven in 1966. He left it at age 29. I traveled back with my father to the sites of our family history four years ago, the same year that Abu left. He has not returned and has had no reason to travel back to the south Havana neighbourhood in which he lived most of his life. Because I triggered his memory of the city from a novel point of view, he came back to it with me through the process of finding points where our respective urban family histories intersected.
I have shuttled back to Havana often through the research into the generations of ancestors that lived there, attempting to give it form in my imagination. Our collaboration as Accents-market square today was an excuse to ask market visitors: How have you followed your immigrant family history back to a place/time that must be pieced together from faraway?
The following are some points which triggered discussion and memories:
His family’s home base was in the south district and mine was in the west. Our map highlighted, westward (Paseo, Linea) and southward arteries (Calzada del Cerro, 10 de Octubre), important transportation routes and pathways of suburban dispersal over the past two centuries.
Havana’s fortifications, erected between the 17th and 18th centuries, kept the city safe from pirates and invaders. The photocopy of an 1875 map shows the walls still in place; the society contained by the walls had changed little over the course of centuries. The first chapters of my family history are pictured on the map in the group portraits of my great great grandfather and his children. In his inward courtyard-oriented home he sought to preserve the safety and stability of the family during the wars of independence in the last decades of the 19th century. The oil portrait of the veiled woman, my great-grandmother’s grandmother, is seen in the background of a family photograph in the early 1900’s as well as in my father’s dining room with other photographs shortly after the death of my mother eight years ago. The 1880’s oil painting of the family group was recognized by a market visitor–he had just returned from Havana and seen it in the National Gallery.
To escape the “miasma” that brought illness to the congested colonial city the wealthy retreated south along the Calzada del Cerro as it rose to the sea breeze swept hill top settlement of el Cerro. The central church, Jesus del Monte, is a landmark of home for Abu. While having researched the breadth of Havana urban history he is grounded by childhood, education and teaching experience in the locality known as 10 de Octubre. Colegio de los Maristas, a private school run by a religious order before the revolution, like all private institutions became a public educational facility. The rich storehouse of private libraries remained. Abu ascribes his love of books and sensitivity to each neighbourhood’s hidden stories to his contact with the Colegio de Maristas’ book collection. Gradually, he became a connoisseur of tucked away libraries, vestiges of long disappeared teaching institutions and scholars’ lives. Later, as a teacher in the prestigious Instituto Preuniversitario Raul Cepero Bonilla, he taught history by taking students to sites around Havana that maintained the memory of Cuban historical figures.
Among these places of public memory is the Necropolis de Colon or Colon Cemetery. Above right is a photo of a group who, with Abu, is visiting the tomb of a member of the Cuban artistic vanguard now long forgotten by the majority of the population. This photo of intellectual pilgrimage we placed beside a photo of the tomb of my mother’s family and my shot of my father’s disorientation as he tried, unsuccessfully, to find his family’s tomb. Here in the cemetery public and private, pre and post revolutionary histories are searched out and revived by tourists, exiles and residents in a continual search for inspiration and continuity.
In the spirit of Havana drift, market visitor Nicholas Power presented me and Abu with a poem inspired by his translation from Spanish (his fragmentary knowledge of the language gave him an excuse to extemporize on the text with his own sense impressions of the city) of “Aire Turbio” a poem by Juan Alberto Suarez Blanco that he came across in a Havana bookstore.
In a city of sepia tones/ with a sky whose doors are always open/ where the hopes of no one/ turn out the way they imagine/ they still post the old street numbers/ and you drive into your own reflection/ fleeing the serpent with its echo of your needs/ chanting with agonizing menace/ its hymn of revenge
In a city of sepia tones/ with ears full of hope and nostalgia/ disappearing everyone who disembarks/ aunties, old cronies, and eclipsed ones/ where the victory vanishes when the night circles in/ these streets that marked me/ are a ruined empire/ where the ghosts of Borges/ directs my short-sighted search/ and each vacant lot is a grave/ where I can’t see my hands/ and the parables on the billboards/ offer no map to this labyrinth
To read “In Place” my online family history/Havana tribute go to: http://teresa.cce.com/
see previous post: interview with Abu Fofana, Accents