EL MAMBI EN LA MANIGUA
© 2010 by Lili Bernard
My father’s father, José Rodríguez Figueroa, was Afro-Cuban. He was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1868, almost two decades before slavery ended in Cuba. On his birth certificate appear the words, “Pardo Libre,” which mean, “free black man of mixed descent.”
My abuelo (grandfather) José was a published author, poet, pastor, painter, multi-linguist and Mambí. The Mambíses were the insurgent Cuban soldiers who fought against the Spaniards in Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain. My abuelo served as a war correspondent. His publications are housed in Cuba’s national libraries. The journal my grandfather is holding in this painting contains excerpts of his actual publications and touches on the story of his mother Clemencia’s tragic death. Clemencia was part Siboney (indigenous Cuban). She died a victim of the war.
The painting I made of my grandfather (above), reenacts the moment when my grandfather received notice of his mother’s tragic passing. The painting is called, El Mambí en La Manigua. The poignant story of my great-grandmother’s demise, along with an artifact of her death, was featured in the National Museum of Cuba.
Clemencia’s husband (my Abuelo’s father) was an Afro-Cuban who was documented as a “free black man.” Clemencia gave birth to my grandfather José in 1868, almost two decades before slavery ended in Cuba. My abuleo inherited his “free” status from his father. On my abuelo’s birth certificate appear the words, “Pardo Libre,” which means, “free black man of mixed descent.”
In this painting, I tried to reenact the moment when my Abuelo received notice of his mother’s tragic passing. The first part of the text, which appears in the painting, sets up the circumstances and the historic events, during the time in which my grandfather’s mother perished. In those notes, my Abuelo references the Mambi newspaper (El Cubano Libre) for which he wrote, as a war correspondent. The translation (from Spanish to English) is as follows:
“The newspaper ‘EL Cubano Libre,’ founded ten months ago upon orders of General Antonio Maceo Grajales, was created with the purpose of informing about the struggles in the jungle of the Mambises, who are fighting for Cuba’s liberation from Spanish dominion.
February 17, 1896 – Governor Valeriano Weyler has barricaded the city of Santiago de Cuba, isolating it from all its resources and reconcentrating all of its inhabitants. Those living outside the fortified areas are allowed eight days to move to the city, occupied by the Spanish troops. After such time, any person caught outside the designated area shall be considered a traitor and shall be executed. I have received news that my dear starving mother, Clemencia Figueroa, of Siboney blood, has escaped with her two grandchildren, Zoilo and his sister, and is heading towards the hills of the Cobre, in search of my whereabouts. My heart is bleeding in pain. Dear God, Divine Creator, all powerful and merciful; I humbly ask you on my bended knees: please send your Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to protect my dear mother in these times of tribulation. Glory be forever to your existence and your power! Glory Hallelujah, Amen!”
My Abuelo was gifted at writing acrostic poetry. The last part of the text in the painting is a poem which my grandfather wrote in the memory of his dear mother, several years later. In the painting, I substituted the year in which my great-grandmother died (1886) for the year in which my grandfather later wrote the poem (1915). In the poem, my Abuelo used the letters of his mother’s name (Clemencia Figueroa) with which to begin each sentence of the poem. To the right is the actual poem, as it appeared in a publication.
In the translation to English, the acrostics and the rhyming are naturally lost. However, my sister Georgina, translated our Abuelo’s poem in poetic verse, below.
“Clemencia Figueroa, my dear mother!
Filled with sadness, memories of your unspeakable death
Return to me in this month of June.
To die , , , and not to behold you in your ill fate!
You, who wished to behold in your ill fate!
Wretched misfortune . . . never to know for sure,
The place of your grave, nor the sad date
Of such a dreadful event, so to fill this sad verse,
Withering like a flower, that I dedicate to you.
Your end was a tragic one, result of the war
That drove onward our Cuba, our beloved nation!
In your mission to find me, graying on the rough terrain,
Tending to your two grandchildren, but lo, your eternal departure
To the Empire of the One who encompasses all.
Santiago de Cuba, June 28, 1915
The story of my great-grandmother’s passing is as follows. Starved and emaciated, my great-grandmother escaped the concentration camp in Santiago de Cuba in which she and some of her family members were being detained. In the concentration camps, there prevailed hunger, starvation and disease. My visabuela (great-grandmother) absconded with her two of her young grandchildren who were also being incarcerated, a boy named Zoilo and his little sister. Zoilo was about nine. He and his sister were my father’s first cousins. With her two young grandchildren in hand, my great-grandmother set out to find her son (my father’s father, José Rodriguez Figueroa) and nutrition for her starved grandchildren. Had they been caught by the Spaniards, outside of the concentration camp walls, they would have been automatically executed. It was written in the law. The children accompanied their grandmother into the Sierra Maestra Mountains, where they combed the sweltering jungles in search of my grandfather. My Abuelo José was a Mambi, a soldier in the insurgent Cuban army, who fought guerilla warfare against the Spanish in the jungles (“la manigua”) of the Sierra Maestra Mountains. My Abuelo’s task was war correspondence, recording what he saw in the midst of battle, for publishing in the rebel newspaper (“El Cubano Libre”). He and his Mambí war correspondent cohorts physically printed the paper in a press hidden within a cave in the jungle mountains. Zoilo recounted to my father (his first cousin) that, during their search for my Abuelo, they stopped at La Catedral Del Cobre, which is nestled in the Sierra Maestra foothills. Inside of the cathedral was (and still is) enshrined the statue of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (the Blessed Mother), Cuba’s patron Saint. In the Afro-Cuban religion known as Santeria, Caridad (nicknamed Cachita) is syncretized with the Orisha (Yoruba deity) Oshun, which Cubans pronounce, “Ochun.”
Hanging on to hope, Clemencia who was a devout Catholic, knocked on the doors of the sacred cathedral. She asked the priest if she could pray to the statue of Caridad, and begged the priest for sustenance so that she could feed her hungry grandchildren and herself. Offering them no mercy or assistance, the priest turned away the starving trio. Shortly thereafter, weakened by malnutrition, Clemencia stumbled and tumbled down the steep mountainside of the Cobre to her death. Zoilo remembered how his Abuela’s eyes rolled up in her head, as he watched her plummet to her death. He and his sister recovered their Abuela’s tattered, characteristically Siboney sandal which had loosened itself from Clemencia’s foot early in her fall. The children hung the sandal from a tree, so that upon return with an adult, they would be able to identify the site where their grandmother had perished. In my imagination, I see the tree from which they hung the sandle as a sacred Ceiba Tree in full bloom. The sandal was the artifact which was displayed with my great-grandmother’s story in the National Museum of Cuba.
Below is a photograph which was taken around the end of the 19th century, of an indigenous Cuban family. I imagine that my great-grandmother Clemencia may have worn a long white dress, during her demise. Her dress, however, would have probably been tattered or worn, as a result of life in the concentration camp from which she escaped. My father remembers having grown up with a photograph of his grandmother Clemencia. In the picture, she was wearing a white dress and her hair was in two long braids. The picture has since been lost.
In my painting I made the soldier in the front of the line a Siboney, representative of Cuba’s first people, her native people. My father shared with me that his father was so disgusted at having learned that the priest had turned away his starving mother and cousins, that he thereupon renounced the Catholic faith in which he grew up. He thereafter considered himself a protestant. After the war, he matriculated into God’s Bible School in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was ordained a minister. He returned to the Caribbean and charismatically preached the Gospel as a missionary in Kingston, Jamaica, where he met my Jamaican grandmother Harriet and fathered my father’s older siblings.
My father was the first of his siblings to be born in Cuba, where his parents later started their own church. The church was located in their house and served the poor Black community in which I was later born. The struggles of my native and afro-Cuban ancestors in the fight for their freedom from centuries of cruel Spanish dominion directly influenced my own upbringing. My grandfather provided to my father, a first hand testimony of the struggle in which he played an integral role. These survival instincts that my father inherited from his father, fortified my father in the sacrifices and risks that he and my mother necessarily took in getting us out of the island of Cuba, in the mid 1960’s, under turbulent circumstance. We were forced to leave the island with nothing but the clothes on our backs.
I feel as if the spirit of my father’s grandmother Clemencia was with us, as we fought though our own poverty and our own hunger. Several hundreds of thousands of Cubans (including my great-grandmother Clemencia) perished of starvation and disease in Governor Valeriano Weyler’s “re-concentration” camps, during Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain. Weyler’s re-concentration camps served multiple purposes for the Spaniards. It separated regular civilians from the insurgents (the Mambises), so that the Mambises could be more easily targeted. It was also an attempt to deprive the Mambises from necessary resources. Ultimately, it extinguished mass populations of Cuban natives and other oppressed Cubans who may have risen up to join the resistance with the valiant Mambises.
Weyler (right) was born in Spain to a German military doctor and a Spanish woman. Some historians claim that Weyler’s reconcentration policy in Cuba provided the plan for Adolph Hitler’s concentration camps in Europe.
Weyler’s reconcentration plan failed to hinder the Mambises in their excellent guerilla tactics. The Mambises were a colorful group of insurgents, comprised of mostly Afro-Cuban, along with Indigenous Cubans, Cubans of Spanish Heritage and Asian-Cubans. They were led by Dominican-born General Máximo Gomez, who had left the Spanish army to join the cause of the insurgents’. Second in command, under Gomez, was Antonio Maceo Grajales (b1848-d1896, pictured to the right) who founded the Cubano Libre (insurgent newspaper) for which my grandfather was a war correspondent.
Maceo, an Afro-Cuban, was born in Santiago de Cuba and was the son of a mulatto Venezuelan man and an Afro-Cuban woman. Maceo was known as the “Bronze Titan.”
Antonio Maceo is considered to have been one of the most outstanding leaders in guerilla warfare in all of Latin American History. Maceo’s most notable campaign was his invasion of western Cuba.
Traveling on horseback with a band of Mambises who were mostly Afro-Cubans, Maceo (left) and his troops covered over 1,000 miles in 92 days, during which time they successfully fought off over 27 separate attacks by the Spaniards. On December 7, 1896, during an attempt to rejoin Gomez, Maceo was shot and killed. It took 27 bullets to kill General Maceo. Maceo was quoted in saying, “My duties to country and to my own political convictions are above all human effort; with these I shall reach the pedestal of freedom or I shall perish fighting for my country’s redemption.” His image appears in the Cuban five peso bills. I also noticed Maceo’s face on several patriotic billboards in Santiago de Cuba, during my homecoming in 2002.
Below is a picture I snapped of my brother José, during our homecoming, in front of one such billboard. Maceo is the one in the billboard dressed in yellow to the far left. In the middle of the city of Santiago is a brilliant, giant statue of Maceo on horse back, with twenty-three stylized machetes, piercing the ground in front of him. I was always stricken by the image of the statue, whenever I passed it, during our homecoming. It made me think of my father’s father. The machete was the main weapon employed by the poor mambises. Lyrics in many Cuban songs reference “El Mambi con el machete en la mano.” (“The Mambi with the machete in hand.”) In my painting, I made two of the mambises holding machetes, one on horseback in the field and the other (the Asian one) on foot in the jungle.
My favorite picture of Mambises is the one below, of the Mambises barbecuing in the jungle. I like this photograph in particular, because it shows the ethnic mix of the Mambises, who fought together, side by side, for the liberation of Cuba. It is evident from the facial features that many of these Mambises pictured are indigenous Cubans, as was my great-grandmother, Clemencia, in part.
My grandfather, being of mixed afro-indigenous heritage himself, represented the rainbow of ethnic groups of which the Mambises were comprised.
Mambises were characteristically clad in white and wore straw hats, often with a Cuban flag, pinned in the middle of the front flap. Some wore red bandanas tied around their necks. The Mambises, were mostly very poor men, their uniforms, sometimes tattered.
In my painting, I made my grandfather’s clothes torn, revealing a cut on his flesh. I did this to symbolize the very dangerous element of my grandfather’s work, as a war correspondent. He is said to have been injured on the battlefield. I also did this as a remembrance of the blood which was shed in the war. I believe that my ancestors who were oppressed for hundreds of years under Spain’s rule rejoice in the efforts and accomplishments of my Abuelo and his fellow Mambises.
My grandfather continued to proudly don a Mambi-style hat throughout his life. To the right is a picture of my Abuelo at the age of 72 in the year 1940, wearing a classic Mambi-style straw hat. My Abuelo’s role, as a war correspondent, in Cuba’s war of Independence from Spain was a very important one. With his pencil, for a sword, my Abuelo, in the midst of battle, with bullets whizzing by him, contributed to the recorded history of Cuba’s liberation from Spain. My Abuelo’s books and articles are housed in Cuba’s national libraries.
Though I never met my grandfather (he died before I was born), I feel as though I’ve know him. In many ways, I am what I am because of him. My grandfather’s strong will and character contributed to the molding of the personality of his only son (my father), as did my father’s strong will and character influence my personality. From my multi-talented Abuelo, I inherited gifts of painting, writing and speaking in many languages. Most importantly, I inherited from my Abuelo a love of Christ and a passion for telling the history of my ancestors, whom I eulogize in my paintings.
I understand the pride which my Abuelo felt as he wore his veteran’s medal, even after the war, on occasion. I am proud myself, that my own grandfather played a role in my birth country’s liberation from centuries of cruel dominion. I realize that I am the hope and dream come true of my grandfather and of all my ancestors. It is therefore that I pay homage to them in my art. Below right, is a picture of my Abuelo José in 1943 at the age of 75, arm in arm with his wife (my Abuela Harriet who was from Jamaica) and his five children. That’s my father, their only son, on the far left. On his lapel, my Abuelo is wearing the veteran’s medal which he was awarded for his service in Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain.
The medal is on display in my parents home in Spain. Below is a close-up of the medallion of the medal. It hangs from a miniature Cuban flag and reads, “La Patria a Sus Libertadores” (“The Motherland to Her Liberators”).
Below is a picture of my dear Dad, José Rodríguez Bernard. It was taken when my parents came to visit me in Los Angeles, in February of 2007.