Monday, August 19, 2013

El Burro de Baynoa

The town of Santa María de Baynoa was founded in 1767 by Manuel GARCIA Barreras on the site of his finca called "Manajay." In 1820, his grandson Francisco GARCIA-Barrera y Montero de Espinosa was granted the title of Count de Baynoa by Fernando VII primarily on the basis of this achievement. In four years, Baynoa will commemorate the 250th anniversary of its founding.

One would think that Manuel GARCIA Barreras and his descendants the Counts de Baynoa would be the centerpiece of Baynoan history. But, no, we are quite forgotten: absentee landlords who last collected their rents 100 years ago and never again concerned themselves with the wellspring of their nobility. Perhaps we deserve our anonymity, but we certainly don't deserve to lose our preeminence to a donkey. Yet such has been our unlucky fate.

The coat of arms of the Garcías granted to the Condes de Baynoa consists of a red field on which a silver heron is about to take flight. The association of the heron (or garza) to the surname García is mock etymological; there is no derivation of García from garza, nor, for that matter, does the surname Garza itself derive from the identically named bird.  Nevertheless, by its presence on our family escutcheon, the heron is the symbol of our family, or by rights should be, anyway. It is not, however, the heron which is associated with Baynoa and by extension our family.

The most famous inhabitant of Baynoa, biped or quadriped, is the "Burro de Baynoa." No town in Cuba can boast of a more legendary mascot. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Baynoa owes its fame to its burro, not the other way around. As surely as Calabaras County itself became celebrated because of its "Celebrated Jumping Frog" did Baynoa enter the national consciousness thanks to its native donkey. Other nearby towns tried to wrest the burro from her or attempted to rear rival burros without success. Folklore is not something that can be fabricated or improvised: it is a fruit of slow growth which blooms before our eyes without catching our notice till the day when it does, and then it seems as if it had always existed.

The legend of the "Burro de Baynoa" dates to the early 1900s. The most interesting thing about this burro is that he was an ordinary burro. No great feat of strength or of intuition separated him from his race. He was a burro of temperate habits, and never courted the type of cheap fame which some of his kind achieved by guzzling beer from bottles or going door to door begging alms like a capuchin (the monk, not the monkey). The real "Burro de Baynoa" had his pride, and, dare we say, his dignity. What he didn't have was much of a back story. He was not the "Wandering Burro" as he's often depicted. He had an owner, the Arenas family, and was its faithful servant. He worked at the railroad depot hauling wood and was seen by thousands of train goers on the way from Havana to Matanzas and back. When they spotted the donkey, they knew that they had arrived at Baynoa, or, in most cases, were that much closer to their destination, since few actually got off there, the coldest spot in all Cuba. (Baynoa holds the record for the lowest temperature ever recorded in Cuba, 6 degrees Celsius). All that wood the donkey was hauling was used to feed the wood-burning stoves on the trains. So that's all there is to the story of Baynoa's famous inhabitant.

How the "Burro de Baynoa" has impacted the lives of the human inhabitants of Baynoa is another story. Baynoa probably has the fewest inhabitants of any town in Cuba. This is not actually the case, but it's the effect anyway. Most Baynoans, when asked where they are from, will answer "Jaruco," the "big" town 50km away. If they say "Baynoa," the long-dead donkey will be trotted out again (do donkeys trot?). The suggestion, of course, is that the townspeople of Santa María de Baynoa are themselves like donkeys, or to make my meaning clearer, like asses. It is no different for counts than it is for commoners, or, rather, it's much worse: the dignity of the title is demolished at once by its denomination, as if a donkey's head had been somehow grafted onto the family coat-of-arms, stomping and drowning the silver heron. But there's nothing to be done about it: the donkey that would have been the last straggler in the Count's retinue now leads the parade. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The Mother Grandfather Never Knew

Grandfather Alberto was an orphan from birth. His mother died at age 20 while giving birth to him. Unlike his brother Manuel ("Macho"), who was born two years before him, he was never kissed by his mother or held in her arms. There was not even a photograph of her, nor sister or aunt to give him some idea of how she looked. He had to wait for his own daughters to be born to see a glimpse of what she must have looked like. There can be no doubt that her absence from his life must have impacted it in many ways. It did not, however, stop him from being an excellent father to all his children; nor from forming lifelong (if somewhat irregular) attachments to women; nor from being a successful man in every sense of the word. With five daughters and no sons, he received in filial love and devotion many times what he had lost by his mother's premature death. Still, one cannot diminish the magnitude of that loss. That the scales would be balanced one day cannot be much consolation to a motherless child.

His mother's name — which is all that we know with certainty about her — was María de Belén Valdés; but even her name poses more questions than it answers. She is listed on grandfather's birth certificate as an "hija de la Casa de Beneficencia" (a daughter of the Havana Foundling Hospital). Her last name "Valdés" was given to all the children entrusted to its care by gracious concession of Bishop Jerómino Valdés y Sierra, its founder. Bishop Valdés did make one curious stipulation before bequeathing his last name to the orphans: he required that the accent mark on the letter "é" in "Valdés" be omitted in their case. He was not a spelling reformer but wanted to distinguish the oldline Valdés's from the parvenu Valdés's. Curiously, slaveholders at the time gave their "wards" their own last names without alteration, I suppose, because their color, not their surnames, distinguished slave from master. The orphans, most of whom were white or white enough to pass for white, were saddled with this orthographical "scarlet letter" to appease the aristocratic Valdés's (that is, the bishop's relatives). Of course, once the orphans left the Casa de Beneficencia they assumed of their own accord the accent mark that had been denied them, so there really was no way to distinguish between Valdés's. Moreover, neither the law nor popular prejudice sanctioned this distinction, and the accent mark was dropped only on the documents of the institution itself.

The State, unlike the Church, gave the orphans the benefit of the doubt. Because their origins were not generally known, and to protect the occasional child who was an orphan but not of "infamous birth" (i.e. illegitimate), all the wards of the Casa de Beneficencia were declared legitimate by royal decree of 19 February 1794. Socially, this put them above the illegitimate children being raised outside the orphanage and opened opportunities for them which were not available to the "base born," who were barred from holy orders, government service and the professions. At least that was the hope of the enlightened Carlos III, who, by conferring legitimacy on the orphans in effect nullified Bishop Valdés' orthographical bar sinister. Still, despite this dispensation, the people generally regarded the "hijos de la Casa de Beneficencia" as bastards and were loathe to marry them because of their uncertain origins. The females, in particular, were at a disadvantage in this respect because they did not have dowries entailed on them, though there were charitable societies founded for the expressed purpose of providing some token dowry for orphan girls. Even then their prospects were far from ideal.

Civil authorities did not approve of "unequal marriages," and parents and other interested parties could petition the courts to prevent them; or, if they had already transpired, request that the Church annul them. "Unequal" did not only mean racial or religious differences but disparities in social position. Unscrupulous noblemen would often seduce girls from the lower classes with the promise of marriage and then successfully petition the authorities to nullify the contract on the grounds that "the seduced maiden who was promised marriage is inferior in status to her suitor, so that greater dishonor would befall his lineage by marrying her than she herself would incur by being unredeemed" (this is the actual language of such a court finding, which further specified that such an invalidation occurred when a "Duke, a Marquis, a Count or Gentleman of known nobility made a promise of marriage to someone who was not his equal, whether because she was of a different or mixed race, or the white daughter of a hangman, a butcher, a tanner, or other infamous laborer").

Consequently, there were few Cinderella stories in colonial Cuba, and even fewer that had a happy ending (e.g. see Cirilo Villaverde's classic novel Cecilia Valdés). Our Belén Valdés was the exception. The orphan girl did find her prince and lived happily ever after (though not for long). It was highly unusual and may indeed have been unprecedented for the grandson of a Count and only son of the heir apparent to the title to marry a "daughter of the Havana Foundling Hospital," as our great-grandfather Manuel GARCIA y Montero ("Mipa") did. This tells us a great deal about him (alas, not much more about her). He was evidently his own man and a man of modern times, as shown by his rejection of a class system which was then in its death throes and would expire with the end of Spanish rule. (His sons, raised in the Republic, would carry his egalitarianism even farther).

The first Count de Baynoa unconsciously contributed to this evolution towards the extinction of his class. He paid thousands of ounces in gold to the Crown to ennoble his family and also donated thousands more with other nobles to build Havana's orphan asylum. He had no way of knowing that he was working at cross purposes and for the greater good. The thought would have horrified him.

Grandfather's Goddaughter

Like most Cuban politicians, Grandfather Alberto had lost count of how many godchildren he had sponsored. One in particular, however, he never forgot: she had the greatest claim to his love and protection because she was also his daughter. I do not know her name but I do know of her existence. It was confided to me by grandfather himself, and as far as I've been able to ascertain, nobody else is aware of it. She was born when grandfather was 17, which would have been in 1915. The baby was adopted by friends of the family, a middle-aged childless couple who raised her as their own. Grandfather was always a part of her life, however. He was officially her "padrino," which in those days was far more than the ceremonial distinction it is today. Then that honor was normally conferred on a family member, usually a sibling, but not uncommonly a grandparent (e.g., Mipa's father, Francisco GARCIA y Ziburu, was the godfather of all his grandchildren except the youngest Grand-Aunt Ester, who was born after his passing; Grandfather Alberto (her brother) was her godfather, and she in turn was the godmother and namesake of his daughter Ester ("China").

When a "stranger" (that is, not a blood relation) was chosen as godparent, he (or she) became a member of the family by adoption, not just the child's surrogate parent (or parent-in-waiting), but the parents' compadre or comadre (co-parent). It was highly unusual for a 17-year old boy, who was not related to the family, to become the compadre of a couple in their fifties, and people were not so naive then that this would have passed unnoticed. The goddaughter, of course, never suspected anything. By the time she grew up, her padrino, too, was a middle-aged man. I neglected to ask grandfather if the baby's mother, too, was her godmother; but I rather suspect not. Any further association with her "disgrace" would only have blighted her prospects for a future marriage and family.

Grandfather, of course, never told his goddaughter his real identity (or should that be her real identity)? That would have been cruel because she loved and cherished the memory of the only parents she had ever known. Such a disclosure would also have been unnecessary because she also loved her padrino, whom she had known all her life and who remained a paternal figure for decades after the death of her "real" father. Even in exile, grandfather continued to see his goddaughter and her family whenever he visited Miami.
Naturally, I wanted to know the name of the secret daughter, but this grandfather would never divulge. If she were alive today, she would be almost 100. It would not be impossible to discover her identity — a review of church records in Cuba would tell us the name of the child for whom grandfather stood as godfather in 1915. But to what purpose and with what end?

I have more than a dozen cousins whom I have not seen in 50 years, that is, since we were children in Cuba. I would have to track them all down before I considered searching for secret cousins who might be upset to learn the circumstances of our consanguinity, or, worst still, couldn't care less. As I've grown older, I've lost interest in solving mysteries for the sake of solving mysteries. Most mysteries, I'm convinced, are best left unsolved, since knowledge, not ignorance, is usually the cause of the world's unhappiness. Nevertheless, if this secret child had been a male — Grandfather Alberto's only son — I could not have resisted the urge to learn more — all — about him.