The history of a family, or even a country, can be told through a few photographs

A blurry photo of the then eight-year-old author holding a Zenit camera / Photo courtesy of the author

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 2 June 2024 — I open the package with the photos and papers that I brought from my country and start organizing them on the coffee table. From the bottom I take out the map of Cuba that Alexander von Humboldt created in 1827 though the brittle sheet of paper on which it is printed dates from 1930.

On top, a photo of a vigilant me when I was eight or nine years old, snapping a photo with a Zenit camera, whose click I can hear across time without effort. I am in my grandmother’s house. I am wearing a jacket that I really liked and a sweater. Except for the bamboo wallhanging behind me, everything is out of focus. I begin to lay out the other cards, like a game of solitaire.

A photo of my grandfather M., sometime in his thirties. Dressed in a jacket and tie. I have his eyebrows and his jaw. His face is a little asymmetrical, like mine. The photo paper has been nibbled by a termite. In the subsequent image he is next to two women, smiling. One is my grandmother C., whose smile is more of a grimace. Judging by the planks and the floor, they are in my old house, which to them, as newlyweds, is very new.

There are other people in the background: a laughing child who is too tall. There is a hand on his head that doesn’t seem to belong to anyone. Some fingers, also without an owner, hold a cigar. Here my grandfather is dressed in a jacket that I tried on once and that is now stored in a remote wardrobe, trying not to become trash. I think everyone is happy, or pretending very convincingly to be happy. On the back, a cross and the number three.

My great-grandfather J. is holding my father in his arms. Black and white. They are in the same hallway as the previous photo, almost at the entrance to the parlor, as though that void in the building were the ideal place to take photographs. The old man has strong features that I will inherit. A belt and a white shirt. He is smiling, however. He has glasses. On the back side, the number 68.

A time when Cuba was laughing. The fat cows before they were plunged into “indigence,” a word that hits me like a blow to the head

The entryway of the house. In the background my grandfather M. is holding, I believe, his American bicycle. My grandmother C., with the bitter face of her later years that I can barely remember. Her tied-up face, as they often described it, leans on a railing. An iron screen, blue plastic blinds, the door that was separated from the threshold by a hook. On the back, the number four and a date: August 28, 1987. A time when Cuba was laughing. The fat cows before they were plunged into “indigence.” The word hits me like a blow to the head right before the thieves take everything.

The maternal line begins. My great-great-grandfather, whose name I do not know. Wrinkled, patriarchal, in a white shirt. He looks towards the margins of the photo like he is exhausted. Or maybe I am misinterpreting his posture and he is just playing dominoes. The image is printed on thin paper. On the front side someone has written in pencil, “For M,” his daughter, my great-grandmother. I have no other photos of the old man, no other evidence of his time on earth, and the handwritten inscription moves me.

A note written on 3 June 1944 reads, “Marry and you will know what flowers are!” It is a wedding greeting to my great-grandmother written by her brother, JF. Three days later, thousands of Allied soldiers crossed the English Channel and landed in Normandy. I wonder if Rommel or Montgomery or Churchill were ever topics of conversation at the family dinner table. Or if any of my relatives considered – as many Cubans did – going to Europe to fight against Hitler, as they now do for Putin.

Three days later, thousands of Allied soldiers crossed the English Channel and landed in Normandy

My grandfather P. laughs uncontrollably. He has lifted his foot onto a table and is wearing glasses. He assumes a rock-and-roll pose. The room where he is sitting is not just humble. It is dilapidated. Though the household is poor, he wears a shirt, a sweater, a watch and light socks.

In the next photo there is a drastic change. He was forced into military service, I estimate, around 1965. I know that they took him to Pinar del Río where he befriended Silvio Rodríguez. He is standing in front of the Capitolio in Havana. He looks at the camera, a picture of seriousness, with his hand on his waist and his back rigid.

Now he is shaving a man. My grandfather P. shares his name and profession with his father. Stools and sinks. A curious observer watches, or rather inspects, his work. Maybe the man is his next customer. I do not know why but there is a certain tenderness to this photo. It is taken from a corner, as though the photographer did not want to be seen. Was my great-grandfather the man holding the camera?

My grandfather P. and my grandmother I., recently married. Her dress is clearly homemade. His pants are shabby. The photo is taken in my town. The number 830 is on the back. They appear again in another photo, this one taken in Havana. The same shirt, the same dress, their eyes squinting in the sun. It is the late 1960s and the city already looks rundown. Balconies and rags, a battered car. I dare not call my grandmother to ask her the date.

A big Christmas tree and, beside it, my grandfather. This would be 1951 or 1952. Though there is an atmosphere of festivity and abundance, the house is modest. A haphazardly hung light bulb gives it away. The child’s gaze has a wonderful glow. His face, very similar to my cousin’s.

Forty years later, the expression is still the same but not the face. The hair coming out of the ears, the poorly cut suit, are those of a drunk. There was neither shame nor pride in it back then, when people first realized the magnitude of what was lost. On the back of the photo there is an amber stain that matches the silhouette of my grandfather. It is his double, his ghost.

There was neither shame nor pride in it back then, when people first realized the magnitude of what was lost

I have many other photos that have nothing to do with my family, at least not directly, but I carry them with me. It is what I like to call the Alavarez’ saga/escape. I have no idea what connection the Alvarezes had to my family. The father, in a military uniform, with a pencil-tip mustache, boots and a riding crop, was the chief of police in my town.

A baseball team sponsored by José L. Piedra cigars, one of which I smoked on the terrace of Ernest Hemingway’s house in Havana. The park as it looked in 1925, in the direction of my old house, with just a few bushes that are now trees several decades old. The Royal Bank of Canada, awnings, a rural guardsman. The parish, a boulevard.

A very elegant photo of Joaquín Álvarez, the last in the saga, in a suit. I see him boarding a plane, doing acrobatics while riding a horse and saying goodbye from a train – hands behind his back and well-groomed. On the back, a dedication: “To my unforgettable Mariita, a token of love and affection from her J. August 1924.” I have often imagined that unknown girl. A hundred years have passed. I do not know why she never received this photo, which now belongs to me.


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