Thursday, July 4, 2013

Cayetana Levels a Mountain

Our great-great-great-great grandmother, the first Countess de Baynoa, was baptised María de Jesús Rufina Cayetana GARCIA-Barrera y Rodríguez-Vigario, Florencia y Sotolongo (1780-1849). In this formidable string of names she had two very uncommon ones, and it was by the last of these (Cayetana) that she was known all her life. The name suited her as no name ever suited mortal before. No "Cayetana" was ever an ordinary woman. Our Cayetana, in particular, was quite extraordinary, and perhaps even unique. She accomplished what Mohammed could not: she moved a mountain.

Mohammed was not offended by the unruly mountain that refused to heed his command, and as it would not come to him, consented to go to it. Cayetana, however, was not as accommodating or open to being trifled with by inanimate objects. If mountains did not obey her, she obliterated them. And when the mountain that raised itself behind and above her manor house, in Old Havana, stood steadfast and unmovable, blocking the sun and virtually the sky, Cayetana, who had grown tired of living perpetually in its shadow, issued her challenge: "If the mountain will not disappear of its own accord, I will make it disappear." And so the noble lady did.

Granted, no mountain in Cuba attains the eminence of even the smallest of the Alps much less the Himalayas. In comparison, our Cuban mountains would be considered little better than hillocks: the highest, Pico Turquino, in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, is 6474 ft, and you would have to stack five of those to reach the height of Mount Everest. But this is what makes this story a fact and not a legend. Cayetana's mountain was probably no more than 200 ft. (somewhat smaller than Guanabacoa's Loma de la Cruz, Havana's highest natural elevation). Still, at 200 ft. it was higher than any building in Cuba at the time or in the United States. The task which Cayetana undertook was both formidable and plausible.

At 4:00 AM each morning, for 40 years, Cayetana would rise from bed, grab her broom and ascend the mountain. There she would spend two hours furiously sweeping, retiring only at sunrise lest her milky white complexion take on a plebeian hue. Nothing is known with certainty about her technique but obviously she must have swept the dirt over the mountain top, creating a kind of mound below, which she then spread evenly over the ground.

Her first cousin and husband, the first Count, Francisco José Rufino GARCIA-Barrera y Montero de Espinosa, Florencía y García-Menocal, owned four sugar plantations, two sugar mills and 600 slaves, who could have been assigned to this project and made fast work of it. But either Cayetana would not allow it or the Count did not see the need for it. So she labored alone and relentlessly, wearing out hundreds of straw brooms and ladies' gloves.

Each year the task got easier because the mountain got smaller. Then one morning, like the 14,600 that preceded it, Cayetana set out on her self-appointed mission and discovered that there was no mountain to climb anymore: the ground was level. It was a moment of personal triumph as few men or women have ever known. In comparison, really, how jejune seems the task of climbing a mountain! A triumph it was to be sure, but also a disruption of her life she could not bear. The next morning the Countess did not rise at her customary hour nor ever again. I see her ghost ascending to heaven atop her spectral mountain.

A mountain is thought by some men to be a fitting monument to commemorate the deeds of other men, even when neither the men nor the deeds are in anyway connected with the mountain. The absence of a mountain is not as impressive as its presence. Nevertheless, the spot where Cayetana's mountain once stood, if anyone can remember it, should bear her venerable name (which to its shame has not been perpetuated in our family).

Except on the battlefield few men die in the apogée of their glory, though there they are only victorious over their fellow men, the weakest reeds in Nature; whereas Cayetana vanquished Nature herself, something more substantial than the pyramids and older. She asserted her control over her dominion as powerfully and more definitively than any queen or princess ever did. She did not merely climb a mountain because it was there; she demolished a mountain because she did not like and could not accept the fact that it was there. For her the mountain did not hold out an invitation but a challenge. She accepted that challenge and today there is one less mountain in Cuba.

In the age in which we live, where man's control over Nature is questioned or even denied, Cayetana may be judged guilty of a crime against Nature (perhaps the only "crime against Nature" left after the Supreme Court had its say). But during her lifetime and for some time thereafter, man's conquest of the natural world was universally celebrated as the vanguard of progress and civilization. Viewed in that light — and she was as much a creature of her time as we are of ours — Cayetana's achievement ranks with the construction of the first Cuban railroad (1835) and the Havana Aqueduct (1878), which Cayetana's own pet project anticipated though we shall not go as far as to suggest that her manic obsession was the inspiration for other great public works in Cuba.

Still, it might be no coincidence that Cayetana's daughter-in-law, the second Countess, María de las Mercedes de Ziburu y Herrera-Dávila, Bassave y Albear, was a first-cousin (once removed) of Francisco de Albear y Fernández de Lara, the builder of the Havana Aqueduct (later named in his honor), which still supplies water to the capital; Colón Cemetery, where the city's dead are still buried; and Havana's "San Francisco" Wharves, still the hub of what little commerce is left in Cuba. If Brigadier General Albear, of the Royal Corps of Engineers, ever visited the Countess' house, and it seems very likely that he did, he surely could not have overlooked the pioneer civil engineering project underway there. (This gives me an idea for a future scholarly article: "Cayetana García: the First Female Civil Engineer in the Hispanic World").

More than 150 years after Cayetana's death in 1849, her name remains green in the memory of her descendents. I first learned about her in Cuba 50 years ago. My Grandaunts, Hortensia ("Muñeca") and Ester, the sisters of Grandfather Alberto, were the first to tell me about her. They had heard the story from their grandfather, Francisco GARCIA-Barrera y de Ziburu, who was Cayetana's grandson.

Cayetana survives in other ways as well. Her headstrong character was inherited by many of the females in our family, some of whom I could well see replicating her feat. This, too, is an assurance to me of the absolute veracity of this story.

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