Monday, August 19, 2013

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.

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