Monday, February 12, 2018

Stones and Bones 5 - Necropolis de Cristobal Colon

The Necropolis de Cristobal Colon is located in Havana, Cuba and is one of the oldest cemeteries in the country. The graveyard is known more commonly as Colon Cemetery. There are so many burials here, around 800,000, it literally appears to be a sea of monuments. Some beautiful and some in disrepair. There are many historical figures honored in the memorials, but there are also legendary characters, one of which is a well known figure in Santeria.

The Colon Cemetery was named for Christopher Columbus and was established in 1876. Calixto Arellano de Loira y Cardoso, a Spanish architect who attended Madrid’s Royal Academy of Arts of San Fernando, designed and built the cemetery. The front entrance is framed by a Byzatine-Romanesque gateway, which is known as the Puerta de la Paz. The 1868 cholera outbreak in Cuba drove the need to build a newer and larger Graveyard. The design reflects inspiration from city design with rectangular streets featuring distinct sections for different social statuses reflecting the poor, the wealthy, victims of epidemics, military members, politicians, organizations, religious groups and orders. There are 500 major mausoleums, countless marble statues and lots of religious iconography. And although there are 800,000 graves, there have been 1 million burials here. This means that some remains were boxed up and taken elsewhere to make room for new burials.

The various memorials are literally a history of Cuba. Some look abandoned and are in poor condition because family members escaped during Spanish domination or during Communist dictatorship of the island. This is a record of who was here and how things have changed. Other burials belong to famous and important people to the story of Cuba. After entering through the Puerta de la Paz, visitors will see a circular medallion with a bronze face. This marks the final resting place of General Maximo Gomez. He was a Major General in Cuba's Ten Years' War, which was fought from 1868 to 1878 against Spain. He was also Cuba's military commander during the War of Independence from 1895 to 1898. He gave the Cuban Mambises their most feared tactic: The "Machete Charge." He was offered the presidency eventually and would have won unchallenged, but he hated politics and was Dominican so he felt as though it would not be proper. He died in 1905. His image appears on the Cuban 10 peso bill.

Ironically, the architect who designed this final resting place, Calixto Arellano de Loira y Cardoso, actually ended up dying before the graveyard was completed and became Colón’s first occupant.
Colon Cemetery also has a 75-foot high monument to the firefighters who lost their lives in the great fire of May 17, 1890. It wasn't the actual fire that ended up killing 27 firemen, but rather an explosion caused by gunpowder. Baseball is a popular sport in Cuba, so the cemetery has two monuments to baseball players from the Cuban League. The first was erected in 1942 and the second in 1951 for members of the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame. At one time, the bodies of sailors who died on the United States Navy battleship Maine in 1898, were interred in the Colon Cemetery. In December 1899, the bodies were disinterred and brought back to the United States for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. The entrance to the underground ossuary has the mausoleum of the Anglo-American Welfare Association snd three British Commonwealth servicemen qre buried here: a Canadian Army officer of World War I, and a Royal Engineers officer and Royal Canadian Navy seaman of World War II.

Candelaria Figueredo was born in 1852 in Bayamo, Cuba. She was the daughter of Pedro Figueredo y Cisneros, who was a Cuban nationalist revolutionary, and she learned to become a Cuban patriot and revolutionist from him. She would join the struggle in October of 1868 when she was only 16 years old. She carried the independent Cuban flag into the Battle of Bayamo, her home town. The flag was a new design and she climbed atop a white horse. She made the ride safely, but eventually Bayamo was recaptured by the Spanish. She and her family went on the run and lived as fugitives. The Spanish finally caught up to Candelaria and two of her siblings and imprisoned them in the Fortress of Zaragoza in Manzanillo. The Spanish offered them two choices: leave Cuba or face being sent to the island of Bioko off of Africa. They decided to sail to New York and even though a hurricane was bearing down on them, Candelaria begged the captain to power through the storm because "I prefer a thousand times to be food for the sharks than that of the Spaniards." She ended up in Key West and was reunited with her mother and other siblings. She asked where her beloved father was and she was told that the Spaniards killed him. Candelaria fell into a depression and became quite ill. She recovered and married a fellow Cuban exile in 1877. In 1901, they moved back to Cuba and they both watched with pride, the raising of the Cuban flag over the Castillo del Morro. When she died in 1914, she was buried with full military honors at Colon Cemetery. Her coffin was draped by the flag that she had carried into Bayamo was she was sixteen.

Scientist Carlos Finlay was born in 1833. His main area of expertise was in epidemiology. This led him to becoming a pioneer in the research of yellow fever, determining that it was transmitted through mosquitoes. This theory of mosquito as vector was presented at the 1881 International Sanitary Conference. As people began to embrace this theory, the recommendation to control the mosquito population began to spread. The Walter Reed Commission confirmed this theory in 1900 and although Dr. Reed received much of the credit in history books for "beating" yellow fever, he made it a point to credit Dr. Finlay with the discovery of the yellow fever vector. Dr. Finlay died in 1915 from a stroke. He was honored with a Google Doodle in 2013 to commemorate his 180th birthday. Alejo Carpentier was a novelist born in 1904 in Lausanne, Switzerland. His family moved to Havana and he grew up there, which led him to strongly identify as Cuban throughout his life. He greatly influenced Latin American literature during its famous "boom" period. Some of this was Surrealist theory with which he was quite taken. Although he died in Paris in 1980, he was buried in Colon Cemetery.

Alberto Yarini y Ponce de León was born in 1882 into an elite family of Matanzas sugar plantation owners. He was sent to America to be educated and became bilingual. Rather than using his education to do well in Cuba when he returned, he became a racketeer and a pimp. This was during the Cuban War of Independence against Spain. He imported prostitutes from France and worked out of San Isidro, a barrio and red light district in Old Havana. Alberto was killed on November 21, 1910, when a rival pimp named Louis Lotot and his gang opened fire on him. Some consider him the Prince of Old Havana. William Alexander Morgan was an American citizen who fought in the Cuban Revolution, leading a band of rebels against the Cuban army. This helped create a way for Fidel Castro's forces to secure victory. When Morgan was asked why he was helping Castro to throw out the dictator Fulgencio Batiste, he said, "I am here because I believe that the most important thing for free men to do is to protect the freedom of others. I am here so that my son, when he is grown, will not have to fight or die in a land not his own, because one man or group of men try to take his liberty from him. I am here because I believe that free men should take up arms and stand together and fight and destroy the groups and forces that want to take the rights of people away." Obviously, as we all know now and as Morgan eventually learned, Castro was not anti-communist and was planning on setting up his own dictatorship. Morgan later gave up on the revolution and began counterrevolutionary activities. He was arrested for this on October 16, 1960. He was tried and on March 11, 1961, Morgan was executed by firing squad with Fidel and Raul Castro in attendance.

One of the most well known graves belongs to La Milagrosa, which translates to "the miraculous one." Señora Amelia Goyri was laid to rest at Colon Cemetery in 1901. She died in childbirth and even more tragic was the fact that her baby had passed away as well. It was decided to bury them together. Stories vary as to whether the baby was placed at Amelia's side or at her feet in the coffin, but the prevailing legend claims that the grave was exhumed several years later and not only was Amelia barely decayed, her baby was wrapped in her arms. She became a saint like figure in Cuba and thousands of people visit her grave - that is marked with a marble memorial featuring a woman with a large cross and a baby in her arms - every year. They follow a tradition started by her husband. He would visit the grave several times a day and bring her flowers. He would knock with one of four iron rings on the vault door when he was ready to leave and then walk backwards away from her grave, so he could see her for as long as possible. Now visitors do the same and her vault is covered in flowers. These people believe that by doing this, La Milagrosa will solve their problems or fulfill their dreams.

Another well known female figure buried here is Leocadia Pérez Herrero. She was a black Havana medium known for her great acts of charity among the poor in the early 20th century. Her grave is marked with a representation of a mythical Santería priest called Hermano José. She claimed that he guided her in her spirituality and her good deeds. She always kept a painting of Hermano José in her house, so when she died, it seemed only fitting to have the painting buried with her. Practitioners of Santeria venerate Hermano José and when they visit Leocadia's grave to ask for favors, they leave behind offerings that include flowers, glasses of rum, half-smoked cigars or sacrificed chickens.This causes us to wonder, what exactly is Santeria?

Santeria is Spanish for “The Way of the Saints.” and is also known as La Regla de Ocha or “The Order of the Orishas.” The religion was brought to Cuba by the people of the Yoruban nations in West Africa. It would later spread throughout Latin America and the United States. It is similar to Voodoo in that it meshes the beliefs of the tribal groups in Africa with Roman Catholicism. For Santeria, it is blending the deities of the Yoruba people with Catholicism. These deities are referred to as orishas. Practitioners describe themselves as Catholic and attend Catholic masses, but they also continue to practice their African-based religion. They set up a Lucumí temple-house in which to practice, either in their own homes or in the home of a religious elder. They have no problem keeping a statue of a Catholic saint like the Virgin of Charity on a Lucumí altar. Two of the most popular Orishas in Cuba are Changó or Oshún. Chango is usually connected with Saint Barbara or Saint Jerome and is considered one of the most powerful rulers in Yoruba Land. He is considered an angry saint and manifests in the persona of various other Orisha. He is represented by thunder, lightning, virility and dance. He is the most feared. Oshun is the favorite wife of Chango and seems to be his opposite as she is very beautiful and represents sweetness and love. But don't be fooled. She uses her womanly ways to conquer her enemies. She's syncretized with the Virgin of Caridad de Cobre, who is the patroness of Cuba. Caution should be used as she can be vindictive when crossed.

Practitioners of Santería work on the development of personal relationships through divination, sacrifice, initiation, and mediumship and are rewarded by the orisha deities with protection, wisdom, and success. Access to the orishas can be achieved through various types of divination. One such way is for a babalawo, who is known as a “father of the mystery,” to interpret the fall of consecrated palm nuts as a response to a seeker’s question. Some kind of sacrifice, usually animal, is usually recommended to please the orishas and these offerings range from simple presentations before home altars to elaborate feasts in the orishas’ honour. When a priest or oracle determines that one particular orisha has claimed a devotee as its follower, preparations are made for an irrevocable initiation of the devotee into that orisha’s mysteries. In the crowning ceremony, the symbols of the patron orisha are placed on the head of the devotee, and he or she may enter a ceremonial trance and become a medium for that orisha. Drum dances, called bembés, are then organized and it is during these that an initiated devotee may lose consciousness and manifest that of their orisha patron. The orishas interact with their followers through the bodies of mediums.

There is a dark side to Santeria that is known as Palo Mayombe. People who practice this are called Palero. The differences between Palo Mayombe and Santeria is the religion of Santeria uses the forces of light while Paleros use forces of darkness. This black magic is thought to be very strong. Palo Mayombe has its own priesthood and set of rules and regulations and practitioners of Santeria avoid it. Paleros do not advertise their powers and will only perform spiritual work for an individual by referral and this power is so strong that they claim they can make a man of little means become a powerful world figure in a relatively short period of time. It is also believed that a Palero can bring death to an individual within 24 hours.  Palero can make and break you by saying just a few incantations and by performing a few minor rituals. So messing with them is not a good idea.

The main chapel is found in the center of Colon Cemetery and is beautiful being loosely modeled after the Florence Cathedral, "Il Duomo." The architecture and history represented here are remarkable. Colon Cemetery easily can be considered a world-class cemetery. And this was just a bit about the stones and bones found here.

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