100% Habanera

El Morro at the entrance to Havana Bay

Rebeca Monzo, 27 June 2019  — I am 100% Habanera. I was born in the Reina Clinic in Central Havana but I only stayed there for a couple of days. I went home to the Los Pinos, which in those days was an attractive and friendly neighborhood with a pleasant micro-climate that encouraged the growth of wonderful trees and ornamental plants.

The neighborhood had many charming wood frame houses, known as bungalows, as well as beautiful residences made of “brick, cement and sand.” That is how the singer José Antonio Méndez, a neighbor and family friend, described the area, which had originally been populated mostly by Americans and Spaniards.

I grew up in a very loving environment. Aunt Concha, in whose house we lived, was the principal at Public School #31 for many years. She was a great teacher and educator, known far beyond the boundaries of our neighborhood.

Years later, when I was about to turn nine and my sister twelve, we moved to the most beautiful “hurricane-proof” farmhouse which my aunt had built on the outskirts of Los Pinos in Calzada de Aldabo, an area where years later a modern community of the same name was developed.

Our farmhouse was surrounded by fruit trees that completely covered the extensive two-acre property.

On one side of our house was the very beautiful, elegant residence where Mr. Cordova, the Argentinian ambassador to Cuba, lived with his large family, which formed a lovely friendship with my own.

This beautiful residence had charming gardens and two pools, a big one for adults and another one for children. In the gardens there were fountains and gazebos where beautiful parties and meetings took place, with live music provided by the once famous Spanish orchestra Los Chaveles de España.

The grounds of that mansion adjoined our property. My sister, my cousin Ignacito and I spent a lot of time with the ambassador’s younger sons, Nabor and Lucón, as well as with their huge, skinny dog, Naguel, who was always following us around or playing with our pets. I have always been and still am very fond of animals. In that house I spent a wonderful childhood.

My Aunt Concha was a good, generous woman but also an authoritarian who, as head of the household, was always in command. Her sister Maria, my grandmother, was an exceptional human being who also lived with us. Though married, she was separated from my grandfather José, who often visited us, bringing toys he had made himself. He was a famous artist and sign painter in Old Havana.

Once again my aunt decided we should move, this time to the center of Los Pinos, to the stunning and enormous “Villa Concha,” where my mother and her sisters had lived when they were single but which had been unoccupied for several years.

My cousin and I were very sad to leave the “little farm,” as we called it. We were also leaving behind our Argentinian friends, with whom we had played games and shared secrets, climbed trees and ran through the fields, picking and eating the mangoes, plums, cashews, blackberries and all the delicious fruits that they produced. It was in that same landscape, when the house was under construction, that I saw for the first and only time in my life a beautiful wild boar, live and firsthand, which vanished once the house was built.

Our new home, whose facade to this day retains the name “Villa Concha” in bas relief, was comfortable and spacious. There were six bedrooms, two baths, two dining rooms, a large living room, a big kitchen with an adjoining pantry room, a charming patio with two mango bushes, and garages. The front of the house faced the sacristy of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. On one side was an extremely beautiful house where an American family, the Damers, lived. On the other side lived a Spanish family, the Besteiros, who were wonderful neighbors.

This beautiful home still exists and is in perfect condition because it was and still is owned by the family. The other houses that Aunt Concha rented out at very low rates were lost after 1959 along with two hardware stores and two dry cleaners, both family businesses.

At Los Pinos we had many good friends — cultured, educated people, almost all of them professionals — with who we always maintained excellent relationships. Another aunt, who was married and had a son, lived across the street in a charming bungalow that is still there. Other family members lived only a few blocks away, with the rest of the family in Vedado or Alturas de Biltmore, now known as Flores.

On Sundays everyone came to Villa Concha. Given the number of people, all of them family members, it felt like a party. This became a tradition, gathering together to enjoy a delicious arroz con pollo that my mother used to make. She would garnish it with green peas, pimentos and asparagus tips, to be accompanied by cold beer for the adults and Coca Cola for the kids, the muchachitos, as they called us.

In Los Pinos there was a recreation center, where dances and other events were held, called Casas de las Americas (of which only the slab remains). There were also two cinemas: the modern little Darna and the big, traditional Gallizo. It was there, as a child, that I first saw my first 3D film, The Mummy. When you got your ticket, they gave you a pair of white cardboard glasses with plastic lenses — one red and the other green — which allowed you to see the 3D effects.

Something else I really enjoyed about my lovely city was going with my mother to “Havana,” which is how people used to refer to downtown, where the famous stores and businesses were. We would take a stroll along Galiano, San Rafael and Neptuno streets, each with countless and beautiful establishments. The most famous of those streets were also where the department stores were — El Encanto, Fin de Siglo and La Epoca being the most splendid. Galiano was also the site of the famous Ten Cents store, with is fabulous club sandwich and chocolate shakes.

Something else I used to enjoy doing was strolling through Central Havana and admiring the beautiful neon signs around Fraternity Park and Central Park. The one that impressed me the most, and that I can still see in my mind, was for Jantzen swimwear. It featured a pretty woman in a black swimsuit climbing the stairs of a diving board, throwing herself into the water and creating a big splash. It was spectacular. There were many others, which were also very beautiful.

I can also recall those weekend strolls through Old Havana, when we went to cinemas, restaurants and cafes, then walked — as we still do today — to Maestranza Park to sit on a bench facing the Bay and wait for the nine o’clock gun.

I remember the nights when vehicles with enormous round brushes would drive through the streets, scrubbing them. I also remember the buses were always clean because, at the end of each route, they would scour them inside and out before sending them out again. That is why you could take the bus even when you were at your most impeccably elegant.

In my family all the women were either teachers or educators. I received my teaching certificate at a very young age. I had needed a special waiver to enter the program because I did not meet the minimum age requirement. I started working right after graduation in spite of my mother’s objections. I remember telling her, “I didn’t get my diploma just to frame it; I got it so I could use it.”

After the abrupt changes of 1959, I lost my job as a substitute teacher at High School #10 in Puentes Grandes because the regular teacher returned to her old job. To keep myself occupied, I began studying French. It was at this point that a friend asked me to help her organize an event that was to take place at the Ministry of Foreign Trade, where I eventually worked for fifteen years. While there, I was chosen to be a Miss Carnival in 1963.

In 1968 I went to work in Paris as a diplomat. Upon my return, I worked at the UNESCO office in Havana, which was under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1986 I quit work and retired to become an independent artist and member of the Association of Cuban Artisans, which I remain to this day.

I have traveled to many different countries as an artist and craftswoman. I have received numerous offers to stay in some of those countries but I have always returned home. Havana is where all the memories and beautiful reminders of my family are and I have never been able to give those up.

I love this city, where I was born and grew up, but I regret and am very saddened to see the deterioration, filth, neglect, disorder and bad behavior to which it has been subjected over these past sixty years.