Canary Islanders in Cuba, Islanders Two Ways / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mara and Daniel Delisau

Building of the ‘Leonor Pérez’ Canarian Association of Cuba ‘Leonor Pérez’ in Old Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata and Daniel Delisau, Havana/Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 20 February 2017 — The players arrange their dominoes on the table. Outside, the sun still floods the wide entryway on Monserrate Street in Old Havana and time seems to have stopped. The scene occurs at the Canary Island Association of Cuba, a community that languishes between nostalgia and lack of resources.

People from the Canary Island migrated to Cuba for decades. In 1862 there were 48,192 Canary Islanders in Cuba, 41.5% of the total Spaniards in the country. The flow continued, with highs and lows, and between 1898 and 1932, another 70,000 Canary Islanders arrived.

The descendants of those travelers maintain some of their customs and gather at the Association that bears the name of Jose Marti’s mother, Leonor Perez.

In the main building, there’s a cultural folk night every Thursday, with typical dances and songs although the average age of the regulars is over 60 and the younger ones rarely come, says an employee of the place. “They are older people, most of them with economic needs,” she explains to 14ymedio. “They need food and basic products like vitamins, disposable diapers, bedsore creams, wheelchairs or walkers. But we are less and less able to help them, because they’ve cut off a lot of the aid to us,” she adds.

The descendants of canaries in Cuba maintain some of their customs and gather at the Association that bears the name of the mother of José Martí, Leonor Pérez

“When they are helpless we have to send them to the Church, because this Association is going through a bad time. We can barely help them and we also have to prepare the activities we hold here,” she confessed. “This building consumes a tremendous amount of resources and keeping the doors open every day is a heroic task.”

Upstairs, sales of food and drink try to raise some cash. Coffee, soft drinks, chicken and garbanzo Milanese, says the menu board. But the food service isn’t enough to stop the institution’s decline. A deterioration hardly noticeable to the newcomer, dazzled by the majesty of the interior and the recently painted façade.

The Association has around 47,000 members throughout the country, and those who are able pay 12 Cuban pesos a month in dues. This money is barely enough to run the building, a few yards from the most luxurious hotels in Havana’s historic center, nor to maintain the association’s 14 houses across the country.

In mid-2014, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the government of the Canary Islands sent three grants worth 16,000, 9,000 and 6,000 euros for the Association, intended for a day care center for the elderly, the purchase of medications, and repairs and improvements to the Guines headquarters. But the resources were quickly depleted due to high demand, according to internal sources.

The president of the Association, Carmelo Gonzalez Acosta, traveled to the Canaries this January to remind its public administration of the need to maintain the aid and interviewed the Deputy Minister of Foreign Action, Pedro Rodríguez Zaragoza, with a view to “recovering the support of the Community Administration toward those who have Canary Island blood in their veins,” reported local media.

The Association has around 47,000 members throughout the country, and those who are able pay 12 Cuban pesos a month in dues. That money is barely enough to keep the property running

The Cuban authorities also asked the Canary Island government to help them by sending a stone mill to supply Canary descendants with gofio (flour made from roasted grains), the Cuban consul in the Canary Islands, Ulises Barquin, explained recently in an interview.

The official explained that the gofio disappeared “at the end of the 1980s with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which was the main supplier of wheat,” but now they want to restart the production because “it goes far beyond the food aspect… it has an enormous symbolic value.”

The mill sounds like a distant promise to those who spend their hours in the spacious facility in Monserrate Street. “Before, you could come here and eat very cheaply, but we’ve lost a lot of options,” complains an old man. “Now they don’t sell custard and rice pudding for us, which I can’t eat any more because my sugar is through the roof.”

Paco, a Cuban son of the Canaries, feels grateful for being able to count on a place to “meet friends and have a good time.” His two sons emigrated to get Spanish nationality and now the old man waits to “have a place in the Canary Island vault in Havana’s Columbus Cemetery,” because his family “doesn’t have a proper tomb.”

A woman walks through the wide gate and asks the receptionist if there will be a feast for Easter. Her name is María Antonia Hernández, she is 56 years old and she is the granddaughter of a Canary Islander who came to the Island at the beginning of the 20th century. “He came looking for a better life and ended up owning a bodega in San Antonio de los Baños,” says the woman. “A short time later he married a woman from Pinar del Rio and they had eight children.”

“The behavior, the character and the way of being of the Cubans is very linked to the Canary Islands” …at present there are at least 650,000 Canary Islanders and their descendants” in Cuba

Roberto Domínguez, author of the book Ariguanabo: History, Music and Poetry, says that “the behavior, the character and the way of being of Cubans is very linked to the Canary Islands.” He calculates that at present in Cuba “there are at least 650,000 Canary Islanders of their descendants.

When she was a child and was annoyed by something, Maria Antonia Hernandez’s mother repeated with a sneer that she was acting like an “islander” like her grandfather. Although Cuba is also subject to “the damn circumstances of water everywhere,” according to the poet and playwright Virgilio Pinera, Cubans rarely self-define as islanders. In the popular language “islander” is reserved for those from the Canary Islands.

“We are the few who called them by their place of origin, because the rest of the Spaniards call them Galicians,” reflects the granddaughter of the old man. “He had a lot of friends who came from villages close to his and he loved to eat ropa vieja, but with garbanzos,” she recalls.

Hernandez tried to obtain Spanish nationality through the Law of Historical Memory, popularly known as the Law of Grandchildren, but failed to complete the paperwork with all the required documents. “My grandfather came to this country with just his clothes and always gave very little importance to the papers,” she laments.

Failure to obtain a European Community Passport has meant a severe economic blow for her. Earlier this month the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation announced the subsistence allowances for 2017, support that would have been very welcome to María Antonia Hernandez, who is retired with the equivalent of 10 euros per month.

As of January 2015, 119,662 Spaniards resided in Cuba, the vast majority of  them Cubans who obtained Spanish nationality through the law of grandchildren

Others have been luckier than this descendant of a Canary Islander. According to Cuba’s National Statistics Institute (INE), as of January 2015, 119,662 Spaniards resided in Cuba, the vast majority of them Cubans who obtained Spanish nationality through the law of grandchildren. In 2014 alone, some 5,618 nationals received their European Community passport through that route.

Maria Antonia’s grandfather was never able to return to his homeland. “He died a few days after the events of the Port of Mariel,” the migratory crisis that led thousands of Cubans to escape the island in 1980 and that came to be known in the United States as the Mariel Boatlift. “He would not have believed that the country he had come to would have turned out like this.”

“The bodega was nationalized and suffered directly from the shortage of things that he liked most: tobacco, gofio and sardines,” recalls Maria Antonia. As an inheritance he left her an old mahogany wardrobe and a three-string guitar that he played in country parties.

From Island to Island

José Luis Mosqueda is president of the Association of Cuban Residents in Gran Canaria, the second largest of the Canary Islands. The entity “was created six years ago and is meant to bring together the majority of Cubans” who reside on that other island, he comments to 14ymedio.

The group has 112 members and the last public event they celebrated was for the anniversary of José Martí, when they took flowers to a bust of him in Telde. “The mother of José Martí was from Tenerife, but her ancestors, the grandparents, were from San Mateo, in Gran Canaria,” Mosqueda proudly remarks.

Consul Ulises Barquín estimates that there are some 22,700 Cubans spread over the seven islands that make up the archipelago, “although 25 to 30% of them are not physically here” because “they left with the economic crisis or they repatriated themselves after Cuba changed its controls on travel and migration, in January 2013, eliminating the requirement for an exit permit to leave the country.

The tourists enter to take photos and eat in the cafeteria of the ‘Leonor Pérez’ Canarian Association of Cuba in Old Havana. (14ymedio)

“In actual numbers, we are around 15-16,000 Cubans living in the Canary Islands, with Tenerife having the most,” and 95% of them are regularized, says the consul.

Mosqueda emigrated to Gran Canaria 26 years ago. His sister is married to “a Canarian of those who went to Cuba to avoid military service during the Spanish Civil War,” he says. In 1961 they decided to return and soon the brother joined them.

When he arrived he began to work “in a company that polishes parquet and granite, with a friend of the family.” Later, he became independent and created “a building and renovation business,” he adds. He then set up an aluminum workshop where he has been working for 15 years.

The association that he leads, Mosqueda says, brings together those who “continue to believe that they are really Cuban and still love Cuba.”