05 NICIA, THE GENEROUS WOMAN, SAVES MY LIFE 05b CHE EL GRANDE
05a NICIA, THE GENEROUS WOMAN, SAVES MY LIFE
05b CHE EL GRANDE
Nicia, the female form of Nicolas, is a very old name, used proudly at least since the time of the Romans, and ancient Greeks. In this context, Nicia means victorious army.
Among the Montuno Güajiros, it was the custom to give a child the name of the saint of that day on which she or he was born. Perhaps Nicia was born on some December 6th in the 1930s.
Memory kicks in with images and emotions:
Nicia is no saint. She is beautiful, sensual and experienced. She, that smart woman, has a commercial past. One of my cousins told me her smoothly-shaven, well-trained, xoxa is very adroit, winking lewd invitations to entice visitors and adeptly entertaining them to fullest satisfaction. Now retired from those commercial endeavors, Nicia is in charge of our kitchen and with some assistants, cooks for all at the batey of “La Casa de los Generales.”
Nicia is, as are the women of this time, defined by her present man. Thus, she is known as the, often unfaithful, woman of "Che el Grande." Her “Che” is one of the mayorales, the top-hands or foremen of our lower land, our finca “Entre Ríos” in the foothills of Sierra Maestra
Che el Grande is very tall in this place of short people, well over six feet, a strong man, with a trim figure. He was vain about his strength and unlike most tended to work without a shirt, proudly displaying well defined and large muscles. He was known for his strength which was considerable even in comparison to the strong Güajiros of this place. Once I saw him helping change a tire on a jeep using a fence post as a lever to jack the vehicle up. Later we would find that his courage did not correlate to his size.
For all this, plus the authority and perks of his position, make Che el Grande a man of some importance locally. Strangely because of the time and place, Nicia’s unfaithfulness did not seem to bother him; this is fair since he also often wanders. Thus, they share an open relationship.
That beautiful day in
Montuna women usually speak little to men. They sing more than talk in the melodious
I go to her hurriedly. We stand close. She, that generous former “woman of the life,” whispers to me. I go closer.
We stand on the bare ground under the shade of a large Salvadera tree, a thorny Euphorbia bearing exploding fruit, and exuding lethal poisonous sap. Somehow although we are standing in the open air, there is nobody else near, and our conversation is very private
Nicia's kind voice is low. She is addressing me as a friend in the intimate rather than formal Spanish case. It is not just because she is using the familiar address Güajiros almost always do, it is something else. Her voice and words tell me that in her eyes I am no longer protected by being one of the highly respected family of Los Generales.
Nicia tells me that through an informant the Batista forces have me listed as a rebel sympathizer. Now that I am betrayed, I am helpless, and even more unprotected from the powers that be as she is for the Batista forces rarely kill women. She can stay I must leave.
In memory her words ring:
They have denounced you to the Batista Army!
“!Te va’ a matá si no huyes!”
“They will kill you if you do not flee!”
Then the chill of urgent dangerous reality resolves my doubts, I realize that joining the rebels is my only salvation. Branded as a rebel, because of the help I had given the Castro forces, I am forced, finally to become one.
“!Nicia not tengo armas! !Sin armas no me puedo alzar!”
“Nicia I have no weapons! Without weapons I cannot join the rebels!”
Constantly, in my mind is what had happened when the rebels had come one dark night not too many days ago. They came with my brother Lionel. They were seeking to find guns in our great house, the La Casa de los Generales. I had helped, not knowing that Lionel was there under coercion.
Even now in my old age, the images of those days -vivid and real as if they were from yesterday- come back to me:
The rebels, many so new to rebellion that they have not yet let their beards grow out, appear suddenly out of the darkness. I, the only member of the family in the house, meet my obligation and go out. I walk into the night past the veranda, to meet them under the mango tree of the inner batey.
These rebels were “la gente de,” that is the followers of Lorente. Perhaps, given Lorente’s habits of caution, they were under the command of Ricarte. The rebels ransacked the house, and the rest of the farm buildings of the batey looking for arms. The rebels do not find anything but grandfather’s war machetes and some sabers in the attic beneath the Spanish tiled roof of the main house. They take the ancient weapons and leave, still in the company of my brother, Lionel.
One of the weapons was a paraguayo machete. This paraguayo, a straight, long, narrow, very flexible war sword had been the instrument of one of grandfather’s most noted heroic deeds.
In the vivid family memories and in the graphic histories I later read of the event Grandfather, Calixto Enamorado, is a hero:
It is the siege of the fort complex at Tunas,
Before dawn, Lieutenant Colonel Calixto Enamorado moves his men stealthily to a hundred or so yards from the key Spanish position “la Cuartel de Caballería.” He arrives at the cover of the riverine forest around the arroyo Ahoga Pollos, the stream of the drowned chicken.
There, Grandfather motions his men to silence and the regiment waits. At dawn, at his father’s command, precisely at the Mambí bugles blow signaling the Cuban artillery to open fire.
With deadly precision, the low-slung rifled Krupp cannons of Fred Funston blast holes in the fort’s walls. The dynamite cannon of Juan Portuondo fires, its high arching shells enter through the roof of the fort; each shot exploding with the dreadful force of six pounds of nitro-gelatin inside the enclosed walls of the Cuartel de Caballería.
Smoke is everywhere around the fort. The smaller, flanking Spanish forts, Aragón and Concepción, open fire on the Cuban forces. Portuondo moves the dynamite cannon, and Funston turns his Krupp to blast
Grandfather leads his men through mud and brush and approaches his target below the defender’s Mauser rifle fire. Once near enough, Calixto Enamorado, paraguayo in hand, breaks from the cover to lead his men charging the fortification. His brother, Granduncle “Tío” Carlos, is there also, running forward leading his own men on. Behind them, Mario García Menocal a future president of
The Spanish in this blockhouse and those in all the others are firing desperately with their own Krupp cannon and deadly Mauser rifles. The fighting goes back and forth, some Spanish surrender. The Cuban’s dynamite cannon knocks-out the Spanish defender’s Krupp.
Grandfather reaches this blockhouse and stands to the side and very close to the Spanish rifle slots. There, he is in a blind spot of the fortifications, protected by simple geometry, from the Spanish rifles inside which cannot now aim and shoot at him. The other enemy riflemen in the remaining Spanish forts cannot fire effectively either without risking hitting their own.
With his very long machete paraguayo, curving-in, poking, flexing, cutting and slashing through rifle slots, Grandfather coerces the surrender of the terrified men in this blockhouse.
As the siege goes on, one by one the other Spanish forts fall. Towards the end and near victory, Ángel de la Guardia, is killed. Some say that Ángel was drunk, with both alcohol and the guilt that he carried since he, charged with the protection of the national hero, survived the death of José Martí. Great grandfather, that tough Major General, mourns Ángel like the son which he well may have been.
Time accelerates forward:
However, that much larger war, ended with Cuban independence from
Funston, by dying suddenly in 1917, misses being commander of US forces in WWI. That year again at
Again we return to 1958.
None of those 1958 rebels, nor even I, at the time, knew of the historic importance of that paraguayo. Even then only some, mostly historians, and the few old veterans still alive, know of this matter.
These edged weapons are now useless, for this is 1958, not 1897. This is a much smaller, very different war. Their choice to take these long steel antiques is strange; they are not riding, and when walking they are far too short to wear these very long swords. The rebels go carrying the old weapons. It is far, and the steel is heavy, and yet still they take them. Perhaps, they find these death-dealing blades a kind of consolation prize, or protective talismans.
The rebels leave with these swords, held in the scabbards they had also found and taken. The paraguayo and curved sabers drag. The scabbards score the ground behind them. They walk away, passing outside the fence, but still under the canopy of the very same poisonous salvadera tree. They go south into the dark of night. It is all quite absurd.
05b CHE EL GRANDE
“Che el Grande” had come to our land from the manganese mines of Charco Redondo. Nicia, although from our area, apparently had been “working” there. They apparently had befriended each other, for it seems they left Charco Redondo together.
All the Güajiro workers, especially “Che el Grande,” who Uncle Calixto had left in charge of the batey of the farm, see me with the rebels. None speak to me.
This Che is a lover not a fighter and should, not to be confused with the bloody-minded Ernesto “Che” Guevara. This Che is a man who bides his time, keeps his own council, avoids conflict and tries to seize every opportunity for peaceful advancement. Uncle Marcus is now staying in Bayamo, so Che el Grande often spent his nights in Marcus’s apartment at the Batey.
Che does this principally because two of the three Taína daughters of Tenazas still stay there. This perhaps was an indication that our extended family’s power had waned considerably since these women had been Uncle Marcus’s pair of live-in mountain mistresses. Or perhaps not; Uncle Marcus may have merely passed down Tenaza’s daughters to men of lesser status, as if they were hand-me-down used clothes or more likely he may have let these insatiable sisters live in his apartment as a measure of gratitude and friendship.
This is tradition: Hernán Cortés, married off his Native Meso-American interpreter and most valuable ally the brilliant Doña Marina “La Malinche,” and Great Grandfather Calixto set up Great Grandmother Leonela Enamorado in this way. Or perhaps Uncle Marcos had left them for Nicia or the daughters of Tenaza’s left him when he married, perhaps the sisters services were merely a rural convenience. I do not know, for I try not to pry too much.
Who knows the real reasons for such is the human soul. Uncle Marcus is really fun loving. He lives a wild life, especially after one of his wives had humiliated him by running away with Plácido.
Plácido is a skilled coffee drying expert who works for us in the coffee harvest season. He is a Haitian black, who between working on the plains cutting sugar cane and drying our coffee, is building up his own coffee plantation high up in the Sierra at “Agua Revés.
Plácido is jet black, lanky, thoughtful and slim. He always seems to in a good mood. Marcus is shorter, and far lighter his skin has just a tinge of brown, his hair only slightly wavy, he is still strong but quite stout. Although usually merry, Marcus drinks a lot, a trait perhaps he had acquired while a student at Louisiana State University Baton Rouge.
I doubt that Plácido’s color entered much into the occasion, because when Marcus was studying at LSU in the 1940s, he had successfully proclaimed his right to drink at a segregated black bar. Marcus replied, to those who said he was white, that he was Cuban.
Maybe these events relate more to the time when Marcus came back from town under treatment by Dr. Bueno for a social disease. Perhaps, Marcus objected to rumors about his wife’s preference which somehow related to the customary belief of racial differences in comparative endowment. However, too much of this may be speculation, additional details belong to a different story.
By that time the April 1958 strike had begun, and the Batista forces were busy suppressing it, spilling blood of the innocent and enemy alike. I was very worried and scared, because the Batista forces were always much more interested in body count than in determining the truth.
Confused and very much afraid, my mind raced. I did not like Batista, and I believed in democracy and freedom. However, the light spotter “avioneta” planes, the much heavier bombers and long powerfully armed convoys of Batista soldiers that now so frequently rolled along the El Camino Real filled me with dread. We called these soldiers “casquitos,” the little ones with hard shells, because of their youth and steel-helmet covered heads, but never, never to their faces.
A few days before, I had heard the drone of the coming light plane and watched it, fearful that this avioneta would come far too close. I could see it from the east window of my second story room in the southeast corner of the Casa de Alto, a two-story house on the finca the farm, “Entre Ríos,” which was what we called this lower part of our lands. This house, once a storage barn, was now part residence and part office.
That window in Casa de Alto looked out over the now empty concrete flatness of our numerous secaderos, our coffee-drying aprons. Beyond, I could see the cattle corral, an untended array of one of grandfather’s collections of different fruit trees, a hillside patch of sugarcane for cattle feed, and a gully, with royal palms rising steeply from it drained, the hilltops beyond.
The spotter plane with its deadly .30 caliber belt-fed Browning machine-gun, flew gracefully south, seeking traces of rebels. Its right wing tipped down as it followed the curve of the hills to search among the folds, trees, tall grass, and grazing cattle of our finca's mountainous pastures. That tipping to the right lifted the left wing, exposing the machine gun barrel to my view.
Until then, watching that graceful flying machine was one of the most terrifying experiences of my young life. It seemed that the plane was looking into my room to check on me personally; supernaturally it seemed able to plumb my very thoughts. In my irrational terror, I felt that this sentient airplane did not like my thoughts.
My Uncle Calixto Lionel had told me that the rebels were communists. That made no sense at the time, for I also knew that the official communist party supported Batista and his armies. Moreover, Uncle Calixto was in Bayamo, staying near the Cuartel de Bayamo, the famous Batista army’s fort.
The rebels said they were not communist; Herbert Matthews the famous New York Times reporter had said it, too. Thus, it seemed clear, at that time, that the opposition to Batista was a true case of "Just War", which one of my teachers, Father Pastor Gonzales, explained was a war of good against evil. The rebels were good, democratic, and not communists, and Batista's group was a bunch of corrupt killers.
In retrospect: I was right about Batista's people. They were indeed a bunch of corrupt killers. How wrong my assumptions were about the rebel leadership, would not fully come to me for several years.
As the years passed, I learned that in the
At that time all I had was a terror that shamed my ancestors. Yet it seems that as part of his obligations, Che el Grande had reported on me and my brother to Uncle Calixto Leonel. How this information reached the Batista forces is a matter of conjecture. I certainly can credit Nicia with telling me so swiftly how the news of the Batista forces reactions in my regard. In the fullness of time I would have the opportunity to save Che el Grande from the vengeance of the Castro Rebels, and I would do this rescue gladly, for Nicia and because of my family’s tradition as protectors. After all my grandfather in life was El Babo, he had been the chief, the Cacique, the protector of the area.
Larry Daley, copyright 1996, revised 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006.