Havana and its Foundational Myths

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The section Concrete has decided to begin with a group of texts referred to Havana architecture with Solomon logic, just by the beginning. We prefer not to go into the richness of architectural styles and city experiences yet without talking first about the foundational myths of this wonderful capital.

Every city has its own myths and legends; however, it’s interesting to see Havana’s uniqueness since the very beginning, which is distinctively marked, not only by its geographic location and its quick urban development, but also by the richness of its social imaginative universe shaped since its genesis.

The inaccuracy of dates, settlements and even the name of our capital have stimulated a number of studies. Still, the collective memory of its inhabitants, the incomplete chronicles and appropriate researches of our first historians have accomplished to authenticate all fables about its origin.

For the experts it’s not a discovery to know that the festivities for the foundation of St. Christopher of Havana, on November 16th 1519, are still taking place on the present times marked more by the people’s tradition than historical accuracy. That’s why it’s essential to translate the shaping of its first imaginative universes, finding a balance between mythology and history analysis.

If we make a thorough investigation about the original location of the villa, we will find that Havana was founded three times, always near the sea or a river. Its first settlement was on a marshy area on the south-western coast of the Island on 1514, nearby the Mayabeque River, probably as a linking point for the conquest of the Continent. On 1519, after Hernan Cortés’ invasion to México, it should be considered the repositioning of the new settlement to the northern coast, nearby the Almendares River’s creek. This new place will benefit from the river and its proximity to Aztec territories, but it will have the inconvenient of not being a fine harbour. So, they moved once again to a third and definitive region in a vast and protected bay known as Puerto de Carenas, where the ships of Sebastián de Ocampo —the first man who circumnavigated the Island— arrived.[1]

It is said that in the place where El Templete is located today a huge silk-cotton tree was used as a natural altar for the first Mass and it witnessed the first town council, gathered in the presence of the legendary conqueror Diego Velázquez.

Probably, the first inhabitants were impressed with the foliage of ancient trees that existed in the forests of the area.[2] Now, what is really interesting is the natural magnificence of the silk-cotton tree and the faith of Havana inhabitants, generation after generation, which has settled a beautiful popular tradition. Every anniversary of the foundation, a pilgrimage of hundreds of silent people walk three times around the tree from right to left very carefully not to trip over its big roots; they throw coins and make a wish, trusting their wishes will come true.

Of course, this custom has been marked by the cultural syncretism that characterizes the shaping process of Cuban identity. Some studies claim that this devotion to the silk-cotton tree is related to different beliefs, among them, the Cuban aborigines’ who danced around it because they thought it was a representation of the Sun god; for Yoruba religion, in the African legends of Iroko[3] and orisha Aggayú Solá, it is considered as the household of all gods; and other comes from a Spanish tradition that consists on getting up early and hearing mass silently on the cathedral, the so called “mute mass”.

Just to examine one of them, we should consider that yorubas identified the silk-cotton tree with the African Iroko, sacred tree and very valued for its majesty. It’s said the lightening never hurts this tree with its fire, believers never step on it without asking for permission and who dares to cut it down will be punished.[4]

Actually, the present silk-cotton tree is receiving offerings and homage for more than five decades, and, according to some estimates, it is the seventh tree that has been planted there. The first one died and to immortalize the emblematic place, the governor, Francisco Cagigal de La Vega, built a three-face column that still has his name, on 1754. It was built with an image of Virgin Pilar in the top and, in its base, two inscriptions referring the foundation of Havana on that point of the coast.[5]

Anyway, it’s important to mention Dr. Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring’s studies -the first historian of the city-, in which he states that the Weapons Plaza, the first in the villa of Havana, was moved at least three times between 1559 y 1577; thus, “it’s impossible to assure that in the exact place where Cagigal built the pillar there be a silk-cotton tree, or that this silk-cotton tree was the one chosen to say the first mass and the first town council”. [6]

On the 19th century, the General of the Army Francisco Dionisio Vives pushed forward the building, in the same place, of a monument of more significance that a simple column: the Templete. On 1828, the building was finished in four months at a cost that doubled the initial budget of 20 000 Cuban pesos. Its neoclassical style had a decisive influence on the architecture of the capital. It was inspired on its homonymous from the Basque city, Guernica. It was structured as a modest replica of the portico of an old temple with a Doric style and double columns with pineapples on its ends, which gives a symbolic meaning by adding a tropical element.[7]

Its interior was decorated with three murals by the French painter Jean Baptiste Vermay, who was the first director of the Fine Arts Academy San Alejandro.[8] One mural represents the first mass ceremony; other, the first town council; and the third shows the authorities and the people that attended to the inauguration of the building.[9] These works, well restored and preserved, are exhibited to all visitants nowadays.

As if mysteries and doubts about the place and time of foundation were not enough, the name of the villa, Saint Christopher of Havana, has also caused debates among different researchers. Some affirm that the name is a tribute to Christopher Columbus and others state that it originates from the date of the settlement, on July 25th that corresponds with this saint in the calendar of Saints. Perhaps, it was moved to November 16th to not interfere in the feast of Saint James, patron saint of Spain. Anyhow, as Dr. Emilio Roig said, the maritime and commercial tendencies of the city and the symbolism of Saint Christopher as a patron saint of sailors and travellers are revealing. On the other hand, the approximations to the origin of “Havana” finally have agreed in the name of the aborigine cacique of the territory, Habaguanex, who welcomed the conquerors with seeds and fruits.[10]

Doubtless, this place, near a generous silk-cotton tree, whether it´s accurate or not, is singular site on love maps of the city. Five hundred years ago a primitive villa was founded and now it covers more than 720 square kilometres and has over two million inhabitants. It owns a beautiful tradition on the imaginative universe of an incredible city; and posses a tropical surrealism that mesmerized its inhabitants and all visitants.

Arlette Castillo Wilson

[1] See: Carlos Venegas Fornias in Plazas de Intramuros, Havana, National Council of Cultural Heritage, 2003, p.12.

[2] The silk-cotton tree is original from tropical America and spread all over Mexico to the Northern South America. Some people call it the  Cuban sequoia, referring to the Sequoia semperivens, known in the United States as Red tree of California, which can be 80 meters high.  The silk-cotton tree reaches half that high on the Cuban fields.

[3] Arabbá is the African deity that gives life to this leafy tree; he is the younger brother of the African Iroko, huge tree with a cylindrical trunk whose wood has a color that goes from yellowish brown to dark brown.

[4] About the magical-religious attributions of the silk-cotton tree on the African religions, see Lydia Cabrera´s El Monte, Havana, CR editions, 1954.

[5] It can be read phrases engraved in the Cagigal Column in the footnote 3 of the text Shaping skylines by Gretel Medina in this section of www.havanaStreetview.com.

[6] Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring, “The silk-cotton tree and the Shrine”, in: Gran Mundo, Havana, on June 1947.  It coincides with Manuel Pérez Beato´s opinion, one of the greatest experts on Havana history, referred to the hypothesis about the foundation of the villa “it is recorded truly, and this deep-rooted tradition comes from the official confirmation, which is given by the edification of a pillar and commemorative inscription and the construction of a shrine, this last inaugurated as a remembrance of the act that supposedly took place on the mentioned date”.

[7] As referred by the architect Felicia Chateloin “The Shrine ends, with that detail, the assimilation of maritime art with particular connotations, providing our neoclassical architecture with a new dimension: tropical”. Felicia Chateloin, Havana of Tacón, Havana, Letras Cubanas publishing house, 1989, pp. 55-56.

[8] Today, the painter´s remains are inside the building.  

[9] According to the Historian and patriot from Las Villas, Antonio Miguel Alcover (1875-1915), in a text published in the magazine Cuba y América in 1899-1902, the presence of Diego Velázquez in Vermay´s paintings, is inaccurate because on 1519 the conqueror should be in Santiago de Cuba. This statement is reaffirmed by Jacobo de la Pezuela and Pedro José Guiteras.

[10] See: Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring, Havana. Historical Notes. Second edition notably increased. Havana, Publishing House of the National Council of Culture, 1963, T. I, pp. 21-25. Quoted in Havana: magic city, by Dr. Félix Julio Alfonso, Ediciones Boloña, 2013, p.17. 

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