Santiago de Cuba: 500 years of storing memories

Somebody once asked me how I would define Santiago de Cuba. Not wanting to answer with a glib phrase, I examined my own personal experience with the city and ended up saying: “It’s a city that’s hard to conquer.”

Later on I thought that my words were rather contradictory because I have always found Santiago to be incredibly friendly. Nonetheless, it appears that subconsciously I was referring to two specific matters: the first is associated with its geography, the high temperatures, the scorching sun that seems to mercilessly penetrate deeper than the layers of skin. The second reason was always a premonition that on any of the many visits I had made I would begin to discover, and which is connected to a more private and secretive city that is hidden behind the one we can perceive with our eyes.

I am certainly convinced though that Santiago de Cuba has a unique soul that has been created by and has grown up under the influence of an accumulation of memories and this immediately infects all who come into contact with the city.

It is July 2015 and Santiago de Cuba is getting ready to celebrate five hundred years since it was founded. The founders were headed by Diego Velazquez but many other actors participated in this event, such as Hernán Cortés, Bartolomé de las Casas, Antón de Alaminos and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, all of whom played an important role in the conquest of the entire American continent. Besides being Cuba’s first capital, for a long time Santiago also represented the departure point for other places in the Caribbean and on the American continent, transforming itself into the base for fresh conquests.

As a child I used to hear (and I think this is true) that things happen in Santiago in a completely different way than in Havana. In the street, people come up to you as if they knew you all your life. Strangers talk to each other in a manner that is quite uncommon in other parts of Cuba.

When I was only about eight or nine years old, my parents decided to fulfill a vow to the Nuestra Señora de la Caridad del Cobre Sanctuary a few kilometers away from Santiago. Just my luck, it was Carnival time. My parents took me to see a festivity that was unlike any other I had known in Havana. The experience was so powerful and genuine that the images recorded in my brain have never been erased despite all the years that have gone by since then. It’s as if the city is seasoned with too much pepper: nothing can extinguish that intensity and fire.

That night full of happy delights was the first time I had seen a conga. Its rhythms seep into your very marrow and it affects the most impermeable of individuals. I identify this as my first contact with the profound city in whose veins many of our most beautiful forms of expression have been synthesized and from whence they erupt.

When you talk about the Santiago congas, you are talking about a culminating moment in Cuban identity, a point where the feelings of a people are laid out naked and transparent like nowhere else. In this Heroic City (as is is also known given its active involvement in Cuban independence wars) congas are born in the neighborhoods and they spread everywhere with the breath of their inhabitants..

This scenario, which I, like many other Cubans and foreigners, have learned to recognize as an essential place, has become what it is today from processes—often painful and even violent—contained in these five centuries that are soon going to be the object of celebrations.

The people of Santiago are the product of mestizaje or interbreeding, derived from diverse origins including the native peoples who were almost wiped out by the Conquistadors, the Spanish colonizers, and the African slaves, members of the Lucumi, Congo, Mino, Carabali, Mandinga and other ethnic groups. Surrounded by this exuberant nature where the Sierra Maestra Mountains form a striking background, different cultures, ethnic groups and religions have come together. And so the people, their culture, their customs and habits, their architecture have come to be formed.

Santiago de Cuba with its Morro Fortress, its splendid bay, Enramadas and Padre Pico Streets, the Casa de la Trova, Cuba’s first cathedral, Céspedes Park and so many other emblematic sites, and especially with the capacity its people have for welcoming all visitors, is getting ready to commemorate five centuries of existence.

By Ricardo Alberto Pérez, La

July 27, 2015

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