Cuba: The Old Guard

Masonic Lodge, corner General Navas and San José. (

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 10 April 2022 — Memory is made of places, paths and faces. We go through them again and again, while the rum is spent and the tobacco is burned; taking advantage of the conversation with a stranger, during dreams and obsessions. The one who remembers knows that the world — his world — is constantly eroding into oblivion, and that every gesture or word we said, over time, gives way and withers. Smells that disappear, faces of people — often near and dear — that are no more than yellowish shadows, voices.

However, there is always something that resists loss. Each has his own: a phrase that serves as a code of honor; the last words of an uncle or a grandfather; a kiss; the taste of guarapo that we drank, when we were young, and that we never tasted again. Things so alive and so ours that we preserve them as a talisman.

If you ask me, the place is always the same: the veteran temple of the Freemasons, in my town, a collapsing mansion that I can see if I close my eyes. Rampant, solid, gritty, giving no respite to the cyclones that have wanted to knock it down.

When I was a child, my grandfather gave me his father’s Masonic jewels — a builder’s apron and a necklace with the silver square — I already had the pipe the old man had smoked all his life, some photos and a touchstone: being the great-grandson of a high-caliber Mason allowed me to play in the lodge gardens, browse among the columns and play dominoes with the elders.

To get to the temple I just had to open the door of my house and cross the street. There, a brotherhood of gentlemen in guayaberas was waiting for me, of musty and correct speech, who had organized the game of dominoes as a series of pitched battles. They allowed me to use their canes as magic wands, read leaning against the walls, and run around the corridors.

On Friday nights, some young people would come and lock themselves in a room that I thought was sacred, because they had never allowed me to enter. I saw everything from afar: the silence, the tranquility and the impeccable dress — inconceivable today, between poverty and carelessness — then, a complicit tobacco in the armchairs, a coffee perhaps.

The next day I peppered one of my gray-haired, smoking friends with questions. The old man explained to me as best he could — I was eleven or twelve years old — that free men of good will met in that place, that they were forbidden to talk about religion and politics, and that everything that was done and said within those walls was secret, so the order had been preserved for centuries by discretion and honor.

Then he led me to a wall full of portraits. They were old photos, moldy, pressed together. He pointed to the center of the wall and told me: that’s your great-grandfather. There he was, in a suit and with glasses very similar to the ones I’m wearing, smiling. They are the old guard — he continued — the teachers of forever, those who were here from the time of the mambises until we fell into disgrace.

They were the ones who had painted the constellations on the ceiling of the loggia, the ones who had commissioned the dark varnished seats and chairs. They had bought the encyclopedias that had survived the dust in a mighty wooden bookcase, next to the broken clock. The hands of those noble ghosts grasped the swords — lion-knobbed, flaming and solemn — that I played with.

To me they were gentlemen. People from another time. And although I never became a Mason, that mythology of honor and tradition, the value of a man’s word, the sense of homeland and duty, I learned from them, from the peculiar history of Freemasonry in Cuba. The bond I have with the Freemasons, familiar and remote, still makes me proud.

I don’t have to remind anyone that almost all of our founding fathers were members of the order; nor that much of the progress of small towns during the republic is due to them — music bands, asylums, charities — everyone knows that Machado was expelled from the lodge for being unworthy and murderous, and that they were persecuted again and again after 1959, like the priests in their parishes and the nuns in their convents.

With pain, those old men tell me that they have to open the minute books — documents prohibited for the uninitiated — so that the police can review them. Not to mention the countless infiltrators they are forced to tolerate, most of them unscrupulous and disrespectful young people, who will never understand the meaning of decency.

But I don’t want to embitter this page or the reader: there have always been informers and poor devils, and even those who pay them are disgusted. Let them fix them as they can with their conscience and with history.

I like to remember that the imprint of these ancient Cubans is there, available and alive. That behind this island of survival and impudence they want to turn us into, there is a lineage of calm gentlemen who play with their grandchildren and give them books as gifts. A family that is not yet crushed by exiles, prisons and boarding schools in the countryside. A fondness for our essentials — food, tobacco, Sunday afternoons — and the hope of its return.

It is a legacy of the old guard, the country that we yearn for with memory. We may have lost it, but we never forget it.


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