Monday, May 22, 2006



In April 1958 when I arrive at the rebel encampment at Arroyón, I am greeted with far more reserve and suspicion than I expect. Unknown to me, the rebel strike has failed. The city rebels of Daniel have been badly blooded, and Castro’s mountain forces are in retreat.

Relief at my escape from the very lethal clutches of Batista’s shadowy spies and minions fades as a different and unexpected fear arises. The rebels are clearly very afraid that they may recruit infiltrators.

The first thing I remember was being asked if I had a weapon.

Opening my backpack, Aunt Rosie’s long barreled .38 Police Special raised interest, and the box of fifty bullets sparked much gladness; I had not known that ammunition was in such short supply. I am interrogated by the then Captain and Lieutenant in charge of the camp, Universo Sánchez, and the “Mexican” which was the name by which Francisco Rodríguez Tamayo was called.

They ask why I want join the rebels. I respond saying frankly and little scared that:

“! Me habían denunciado al ejército!”

“I have been reported as a rebel to the army!”

Then I tell why I know this and how Nicia had helped me.

Continuing I mention democracy and freedom.

Universo and the Mexican mutter between themselves and ask those gathered around about me, an assembled motley crew of mostly new rebels, a few more bearded rebels, and some “civilians” who I do not then realize are part of Castro’s extensive spy and support network.

The “Asturiano,” the proud Spanish mule skinner, speaks up for me:

“! El es buena gente!”

“He is a good person!”

That is enough. The others mutter assent. Then they ask if I would share my bullets.

“! Si! !Yo solo necesito cinco balas!"”

Yes, I only need five cartridges.”

“Why five, not six!” they ask. So I reply that I do not want to leave one under the hammer, in case a shot goes off in a fall. They look at me with respect.

I am in.

It was then that they gave me the .410 bolt action shotgun.

They ask if I needed a hammock and I say:

“No I prefer to sleep on the ground; it is safer.”

They look puzzled.

I do not know if they fed me that day, but I went to sleep early, wrapped in the blanket I had brought.

With the luck of innocents, I had made no mention of knowing René Cuervo. Later that year, I would ask the Mexican about René. The Mexican said, in scary tones:

“! No hablas de eso!

Do not talk about that!”

Forty years later:

I did not, but I thought about it a bit. It was forty years later that I began to learn something more substantial about what happened.

About six or seven years ago, I met Miriam Mata on e-mail. Her father had been a Batista policeman in the town of Guanabacoa. Although apparently innocent of crimes, he was executed in 1959 by the Argentine born rebel Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Miriam was cataloguing the Argentine killer’s crimes, so we started corresponding on the matter.

I tell Miriam that the last time I saw René Cuervo was in a cocal, a coconut grove, on our land about a mile upriver from "Las Bocas." Las Bocas is a confluence of waters, where the usually older, usually peaceful, Río Guamá sedately joins with her younger, bigger, more violent sibling, the Bayamo River.

More memories of life and reading float to the surface of my mind as I dredge from memories the last time I saw René Cuervo.

It is 1957, school is out. We are in an old coconut grove on our family’s land. I am an immature but well educated twenty, trying to forget the terrors of revolutionary violence in Havana. My sisters and cousins here, except for Cali, are at least five years younger. We do not know that these brief days in the summer of 1957, are the last time we are to be on our land as a family.

I am there among cousins and siblings, gathering fallen coconuts. All is peace and happiness. We forget our troubles. Well-educated, we know intellectually of the hopeless death fears and furious revenges of the Ancient Greeks. We are aware of the savage poetics of slow violent death of South American goddess, Canaima, that have plagued our Latin American cultures for millennia. We also are aware of the floods of cruel bloody violence of past Cuban wars and the growing creciente of gore of present circumstances.

So far such sadness has not touched us personally, except for MJ our eldest cousin who is not here and thus we can let ourselves forget his narrow escape from death three long years ago. We are not in Havana or even Bayamo, around here, since the Ros have left their plantation house, there is no TV for many miles. Here we avoid the radio, and no longer receive newspapers and news magazines. We are young, at home in our so seemingly peaceful land; and set disturbing thoughts aside.

Thus, we ignore the growth of the dark barbaric forces of chaos and tyranny. We cling tightly, irrationally, to the thoughts of the refuge of Bayatiquirí, that legendary Taína land of happiness, peace and love. Yet, the horrors of the patient stealthy kills of Canaima were soon to come right to this, their often chosen island playground, in these very mountains, hills, and plains.

For now, we can still pretend that times are good. Finding peace in our illusions, we gaze at the rounded, tree capped, hills, protruding sparsely from the flat lands to the northwest. We note with proprietary satisfaction that these hills near the plains are very low compared to our coffee and forest holdings in the mountain barrier that blocks the southern sky.

Others in the family are already affected. My younger brother Lionel is not here; he always precocious already lives with a woman in our high mountain coffee plantation in Los Números, where the war is closer. Cousin Rafael Garcia Iñiguez, far more sophisticated than us, has already graduated as a Cuban Airforce pilot, and probably patrolling skies above the island in a F-47; the last time we saw Rafaelito was some years ago when he was flying dangerously low up the Bayamo River valley, appearing to our worried eyes to be dodging among the trees. MJ is somewhere in Bayamo or Havana studying.

It is convenient to forget that Castro is in the south on the highest, furthermost mountains with his guerrillas. The attack on the Palace is known to us but that was tumultuous Havana. We do not know that the Guisa area is a re-supply zone for the guerrillas, nor that the Che Guevara is conducting a blood purge weakening the rebels’ forces and aggressiveness; and these last two factors make for relative calm in the Bayamo Valley. Here none of that seems important.

The varied spectrum of our hair shows our mixed origins. There is the jet-black straight hair of my youngest sister Leonor, and light brown of Lucia her elder sibling. Beautiful fair-skinned cousin Madelyne Hatswell has sandy locks. Madelyne’s bratty younger brothers, darker haired Michael, and very blond Gary are also with us in that grove.

Cousin Cali, half brother of the Hatswell kids, is older, sharper featured, and darkly handsome. He, I guess because we had noticed some years back when we male cousins bathed in the river, already had been shaved by Nicia to better enjoy her sophisticated delights. There was some jealousy among us; however, Cali refused to talk about that.

Bucolic beauty surrounds us. In a full blue sky flecked with moving ships of white cloud, the Taíno Sun Lord Guami güey shines intense and yellow-bright, bringing its light and heat to the complex emerald brocade of this florid green land. Multi colors blotch the hide of the lizards, chipojo, guaná and many more that run on ground and the palm trunks. Some of the many birds of Cuba fly by. This semi-wild countryside basks languid in solar heat, lost in the tranquility of satisfied fertility. No storms seem near.

The coconut grove is old. The palms are perhaps thirty or forty feet high, leaning at curving angles to the ground, their palm trunks ring-notched with the scars of fallen fronds. The coconut palms’ canopies far above us give pleasantly moderate shade, with occasional flecks of direct sun light.

Our old, gray donkey Avellana meaning Hazelnut, just stands there, at the northwest edge of the coconut grove Her has sparsely napped hair looks much like the worn pelt on a beloved old teddy bear. She has a single short, black, zebra stripe to the right of her boney shoulder blades. A few flies that having so far escaped the lizards’ fast tongues wing in. Her fuzzy, long ears twitch as she shakes her head to shrug these insects off.

The donkey’s tufted tail is sporadically and languidly lashing away other insects. Her plump haunches, wide belly and only slightly swayed back without patches of white hair over old scars, testified to a life of careful care. These beasts live long. Avellana’s large eyes are not as deep and liquid black as when she was young, many “donkey years” ago. Yet, her now sparser lashes are still languid, and she can still see well.

Avellana was already too old to work, when she had been bought for five dollars about seven years before, to serve our infrequent and undemanding whims of childhood. This was a kind of donkey retirement; this way the burra could live without much work and pass the rest of her life in peace grazing on tall guinea grass, malva and other forbs in our lush pastures.

Avellana wears a jáquima, an ancient Arab style rope bridle. In English, twisting sounds of ancient Arabic or was it Aramaic, we say halter. The jáquima was really just a single rope tied in a certain complex way.

The rope lazo, a lasso, was first placed over her head to loosely drape around the neck of the beast. Then the free end of the lasso was wrapped thrice around her muzzle. A loop, of the rope was, tucked under these muzzle wraps, pulled over her ears and around her head. I still recall the prickly feel and stiffness of the thin, coarse rope.

The loose end of the rope was tugged down through the muzzle wraps, so that it was tight behind her ears. Avellana did not object to the rough rope rubbing across her neck and face. The free end was left as a single guiding line, making a rein long enough so that its knotted end could be used to lash her rump gently to tell her when she was to move.

The end of the untied rein lay on the ground. Avellana was old enough and set in her ways; she did not need to be tethered to something to hold her.

Here seems eternal, in this placid grove we seem to have connections to all portals of history. Such a rope halter might well have been used since Babylonian times; it probably was as unnoticed and as commonplace then, as now, a mere tool of man through ages. One could imagine processions of ancient, now long dead, ghost donkeys stretching back over the millennia and the vastness of continents, beasts of burden, gray, quiet and enduring.

Memories and more memories, drag me back to that grove:

We all wear yarey, fan-palm frond hats. The women wear hats which are as is customary broader, floppier, with wider brims, filigreed edges and ribbons to tie them on. These women’s hats are far more ornate than those boys and men use.

Women cannot run well in their hats since they tend to blow off. Men’s hats with the narrower brims tend to stay on. Women stay better shaded, skin less tanned by the burning sun of the plains of Oriente Province. A least by day to maintain their dignity, women must move more sedately.

To move faster, women run, hip-swinging, slightly knock-kneed, hat in hand.

Young middle class women of this time in Cuba, are respected half-repressed half free, but almost always loved. They do not have the freedoms or the hardships of Güajira women, nor do they yet have the sophisticated wiles and discrete sexual lives of their married elder sisters. They are, at least supposedly, set aside, cocooned, chaperoned and protected from the wiles and wars of predatory men.

We, boys as well as young men, wear machetíns, short pointed machetes, at our sides. They are perhaps phallic emblems of our virility which by custom cannot be physically directed at respectable young women, only at those women whose status allows such.

These cutlasses could provide some protection against less well intended strangers. By law in Cuba, full machetes were sold with cropped tips. Jabbing machetín points can keep the longer full machete at bay, and reach to stab under longer weapon’s slower curving slice.

The portals of history open:

Machetíns are also ancient tools, for Romans had used such short stabbing swords. The Roman gladius hispanus was about two feet long and pointed. The barbarians use the far longer spatha slashing sword.

Luis was the wildest of Juan Ramo’s Taíno sons. My brother, Lionel, once used a machetín to fend off an envious and boastful Luis Ramos. Lionel, unknowingly, repeated the ancient duels between ancient Romans and Barbarians, or the Romanized Iberians and the invading Visigoths, showing once again that the machetín, the gladius, could be more effective than the spatha-like long machete.

Before these nineteenth century Cuban wars, Máximo Gómez had left his native island of “Quisqueya La Bella” or Hispaniola and had lived seeking peace near here in a little hamlet called El Dátil, the place of the date tree. This hamlet was not more than fifteen miles northwest of here, on the Cauto plains just over the horizon near Bayamo. One could almost, but not quite because of the distance and intervening isolated foothills, see the place from this coconut grove.

As a little old man, Gómez was a bad-tempered, strict and skilled guerrilla general. He was a friend of Calixto senior, for over thirty years and his campaign diaries often place him in close proximity to Don Benjamín. El Chino Viejo, as he was called then was once the leader of all Cuban rebels; he, the last of the great Mambí warrior-leaders, died in bed when Cuba was free of Spain.

In the wars of Independence, Mambí General Máximo Gómez Báez, experienced in war in the mountainous Caribbean island of Quisqueya, had taught the lethal advantages of such relatively short swords in mounted combat. Still the short sword was not always an advantage in those battles. Grandfather, on foot, in the battle for Tunas, as I have already mentioned coerced surrender of a fort using a far longer and very flexible paraguayo machete, but that was against a fortified enemy hiding behind rifle slots.

My machetín was given to me by grandmother; I do not know why but it was a most treasured and useful possession. In the 1950s, riveted Bakelite® was the common material for machete handles.

This machetín, this short cutlass, was different. Its hilt had a boss of brass, and was made of leather disks over a steel spike that joined the blade. Its leather scabbard was short too, indicating that the machetín was designed to be used as a weapon, and not a mere mocho, a worn down old work machete.

I know that Grandmother had used the weapon to defend against the majás, the great rainbow boas that came of out the rainforest and pastures to eat her roosting chickens at night. Perhaps it had even been a war weapon in those nineteenth century wars. Some time before illness took her to a rocking chair I had seen her use the machetín. Even in her seventies dressed in solemn black, a nightmare of rage and vengeance, she would rush towards the roosts of the cackling scared chickens, machetín on high screaming a terrifying shrill war cry ready to cut the snakes in half if she could catch them. I now wore the weapon proudly thinking on its unknown, but surely bloody, history.

My mind returns to that coconut grove:

Our clothes are light and worn, t-shirts and jeans for us, floppy loose dresses for our young women kin. The weather is warm, but not overly so; thus, I guess, it is just the beginning of July. The hot August of the plains is yet to come.

The alliance of these bossy young women asks help to gather a few of green coconuts. They talk Cousin Cali, short for Calixto, into helping them collect these fresh coconuts. This is an old grove, the palms are tall, reaching towards the sky. Cali, much lighter and far more agile than I, could climb the highest palms. I could only climb far lower palms.

The young women, we call them “girls,” do not need the green nuts still hanging on the palms for their project. The coconut milk from the green fruit is for refreshment.

What the girls want is the firm white flesh of the mature nuts. They plan to mix the coconut “meat” with brown sugar to make the lumpy, crunchy, very sweet candies we call dulce de coco.

We were too old for such play at being children, yet we did it. Collecting mature fallen coconuts, we search as if for gigantic Easter eggs. The great nuts lay partially hidden among the decaying fallen fronds, sparse weeds, and discarded coconut husks under the high roof of the coco palms tops.

Flecks of lights shine down drifting and dancing brightly among the jumbled detritus on the grove floor. By this moving light, among the deep shade, we find what we seek.

Streaked gray on gray, the oval nuts are as if slightly deflated, slightly larger, American footballs. We roll the nuts over with our booted feet before we lift up our prizes.

We do this to drive away any guabá, the alacrán scorpions, great hairy araña pelu’a tarantulas, or centipedes so commonly found in the damp spot of matted crushed vegetation, where the coconut had fallen from far above. We do not fear them, for the bites these guabá are merely painful, not deadly.

As we lifted up the coconuts, we expose the damp and darker underside, and see the fine line cracks formed by drying that would, if left alone, allow the great seed to sprout. Little pill bugs scurry away, or holding on curled up to rise clinging with their many weak feet to the lifted nut, only to fall off to ground.

The hill behind the grove is still forested, steep and almost cliff-like, part of a low ridge. This ridge is at the end of the immense whale’s back at “Entre Ríos,” dead Grandfather’s more than 1,000-acre farm.

Ghosts of ancestors wander by:

This area of cliffs and rolling hills was a small part of the Marquis de Guisa land grant that Don Benjamín Ramírez had inherited in the early 19th Century. Don Benjamín then had seemingly endless land. Entre Ríos was merely one little section of it.

Grandfather had bought Entre Ríos from Don Benjamín at the beginning of the 20th century. Grandfather was proud and prosperous in his new position as Cuban Consul to Uruguay. He married Rafaela Petronila, one of Don Benjamín’s daughters.

Grandfather had needed Entre Ríos to give him the status of landowner, for Rafaela, his bride, would inherit far vaster lands. He married grandmother by proxy, more of a betrothal than a marriage, for she was then too young. She, madly in love sent him photographs of herself. Grandfather waited, satisfying himself with other women.

In Uruguay in 1906, grandmother would bear her first child of many, for eight would live. The first was Rosita, the most beautiful, Rosita the movie star.

The young couple was a union of first cousins; this was an accepted practice in those rural areas, and even condoned by the rigid Spanish clergy, who at first had resisted it until the force of practicality in these scarcely populated realms intervened.

Aurora Petronila was daughter of Manuela Enamorado, Don Benjamín’s wife. Manuela’s sister, Leonela Enamorado, had birthed Grandfather, during the 1868-1878 Ten Years’ failed independence War, against the Spanish. A love child of Leonela and the great general Calixto García Iñiguez, grandfather was born in the manigua forests of the wilderness

The war lost and her adventures done, Leonela shared the reflected glory of the famous General. After the end of the Ten Years’ War, General Calixto had rebelled again in a disaster called the Guerra Chiquita, the little war. The little war was fought in these very lands, and ended in a straggling march of perhaps half a dozen disillusioned survivors, their clothes ripped off by thorns and branches, their limp yuans dangling in naked defeat, on the banks of this very river. Calixto was held imprisoned in Spain and then held under watch for total of eighteen years.

Leonela had married a certain Spaniard by the name of Pérez. She settled down with him in Manzanillo and gave birth to another child, Eduardo Pérez. We called him “Tío Eduardo.”

Tío Eduardo was a rake, and a philanderer, even by Cuban standards. He had sired a number of children, including a daughter also called Leonela. One of Eduardo’s granddaughters, breathtakingly beautiful Leonela González became a classical dancer in the Cuban National Ballet.

Before the 1895-1898 War of Cuban Independence grandfather, of course, was named Calixto after his father. The young man grew up in the city of Manzanillo on the bay of Guacanayabo, lost from this coconut grove, beyond its sunsets to the west. He was educated in the de la Guardia academy there.

Calixto, the younger, was 20 in 1895 when he joined in the last war of Cuban independence, in a place near the mountains somewhat west of this coconut grove. The next day, Batista’s father Belisario also joined these Mambí fighters. Grandfather would become general like his father; Belisario would not advance to officer.

The war of 1895 was fought mainly on Cuban plains, since the Cuban Mambí were far more successful in this conflict than they had been in Ten Year War. At this time the Spanish forces learned to fear the complexity and abundance of ambush sites of this range. In this war, these Sierra Maestra Mountains were soon safe from Spanish.

Grandfather’s land was in the northern foothills at the place where the Sierra Maestra protruded most deeply into the Cauto River plains. This area had long been family refuge in times of war. This coconut grove was almost at the western hills’ northernmost limit. Yet to the east beyond the Guisa River and west of the Contramaestre, other hills extended miles further north of the town Guisa.

Going to our north, the ridge, the backbone of our farm, came to die, plunging beneath the ground, in deep lava edged pools at the confluence of the Guamá and Bayamo rivers. In modern times these rivers gave this piece of land its name “Entre Ríos” means between rivers, a Spanish name between Taíno waters. And that is what Grandfather called his hacienda.

Back to 1957

At the time of my part in this account, Taíno descendents, the Ramos, still lived there, at Las Bocas, the joining of the river mouths. They lived in a batey of tree-shaded bohíos, just where the waters met, and a mile or so north of this coconut grove. They too had a coconut grove, which was even older than this one.

We, prosperous, well-traveled and well-educated, tied proudly close to the war honors of our rebel Spanish side, denied our links to these peoples who called Grandfather, El Babo or the chief. Only the children of Grandfather’s eldest son, born out of wedlock, addressed Juan Ramos, with the title of “Tío” or uncle.

We did not know our origins well then; school was out for summer, so resting from our studies and not yet having to make a living, we peacefully played at working. We occasionally looked to the west and south, beyond the tree-screened high bank at the curving power of the now crystal-clear, but still fast running Bayamo River.

Beyond the river, the large boulder field and the much more extensive flat alluvial deposits gave testimony of the Bayamo torrent’s power. The river came to full strength to become a vast raging brown, boulder rolling, killing, flood in the time of heavy rains. We called these floods crecientes. We, and all who lived by that river, feared them.

We were carrying un-husked coconuts, surprisingly light for their size, and loading them into large panniers woven of yarey palm fronds. We called these panniers serones. And one of these serones was slung across the back of endlessly patient Avellana.

It was easy work; we were in the shade of the palms’ fronds; and it did not take many coconuts to fill the serones. We were bantering with each other in the light rivalry of siblings and cousins who cared for each other. We were having fun.

Suddenly he appeared, as if from nowhere, on foot,at the edge of the raised riverbank. He was coming from the river’s edge, moving south and upriver. He had crossed the riverside fence by slipping easily between the barbwire strands.

Then I saw René Cuervo for the last time:

René Cuervo was slight, and short; his brown hair combed slicked back and darkened with Vaseline. Despite the river crossings of his journey, his starched and pleated guayabera and pants were well pressed and clean. How these clothes defied the mud-smears of his journey is a secret only a successful, woman hunting, Montuno dandy could know.

Apparently unarmed and unburdened, he gave us a brief salutation. We returned his greeting with the warmth of family, and yet he did not stop as was customary in that sparsely populated area.

René just continued walking rapidly past the large, high, straight gray trunk of the jobo, hog-plum tree. Beneath the high canopy of that tree, he opened and closed a gate behind him, and disappeared up a pasture trail towards the southern mountains.

We of the family try to control of our beasts’ fate by fences. Good barbwire fences kept the pastures in good shape by helping limiting the grazing and allowing the grass to re-sprout and grow. By separating the animals, these fences also stopped the mules from attacking and killing foals. In addition these fences discouraged our massive Brown Swiss breeding bull from finding other bulls to fight with, or finding cows belonging to other owners and thus wastefully expending his expensive sperm.

These fences also stopped cows from straying keeping them from wandering near the dangers of the fast waters of the Bayamo River. We were told by our elders to keep the gates near the rivers closed, since cows drown far easier than horses, because water enters through the cows’ anuses even when they are swimming. Especially here near the river, we were careful to close all gates behind us.

Across the gulf of years, I cannot remember some details. Was René wearing a hat, or was the gate wooden, or was it simply was collapsible device made of barb wire strung between movable poles. However, I do remember he closed the gate, since René Cuervo like us, was trained in county manners. Neither of us knew that simple gate would divide the last semblance of Bayatiquirí from the spreading shadows of the land of Canaima. René was going to unknowing betrayal and death. A tale of his last days would take long to uncover, but now I know enough to tell of it in the next chapter.

Larry Daley copyright@1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006.


Post a Comment

<< Home