The beauty behind the surface: A modest attempt to celebrate Havana´s 500th birthday

The countdown was finally over this November. The restlessness that had been invading the city over the last three years turned into amazement, for this November, Havana´s 500 anniversary brought up for many, a celebration never seen before. As it is the Cuban style, there were no limits for the party. The city was brought to life and a 14 minutes’ firework show was the perfect closure for all the curious eyes that from different areas were eager to witness the opening of a new era for the city of marvels.

Countless activities overlapped all over Havana, everyone felt the urge to honor the city that owns a part of our hearts and history. Needless to say that music and dance were everywhere, as fashion collections, works of art and new products lines were being launched. New hotels were open, buildings were painted and even some of the ruins of our centuries-old Havana were brought back to life. Never has the city seemed so colorful, so amazing, so flirty to the eyes of the visitors. It seems like nobody wanted to miss the chance to be part of it. And of course, we do not want to miss that chance either. While thinking what else to say? What has not been said, I of course set my eyes on the famous landmarks that we all love. I thought to write about the wonders of the Capitol, the Great Theater Alicia Alonso or about Obispo street and its colors.

However, maybe by chance or maybe by destiny, one of those days when one just wonders around I found myself in front of La Merced Church (Iglesia de la Merced), and I could not help to feel the enchantment of a place that was left behind the renovation trend, and hence a place that has not been in the news or allusions for quite a while, and that yet seems to have so much to tell.

As I entered that church (which I honestly had not seen before) I realized that in a moment when everyone is highlighting the astonishing beauty of the famous and touristic landmarks, it was almost a commitment to mirror a different side of Havana, one that lies silent, right there, where everyone sees and nobody observes, just awaiting to be discovered.

So, for this very modest attempt of justice I decided to brought a little bit of the history of three places that nobody talks much about anymore, La Merced Church, of course, El Palacio de Aldama and Reina (Queen) Street.

La Iglesia de la Merced

There is not a better witness of history and time than a church. Built between 1865 and 1867, La Iglesia de la Merced remains one of the most impotent baroque constructions in the city. From the architectural and aesthetical point of view the most interesting part are the façade and the ceilings, which are decorated by outstanding mural paintings. However, for these artistic untrained eyes, just looking for some stories behind the surface, the most fascinating part, was the calm reigning inside. As amazing as it seems in the loud and hectic Havana, there is still a spot where peacefulness seems to be the rule. Because of that almost magic feeling and also because the real faith of people can be appreciated there without being a show, I believe the first words in this text should go to La Merced, as well as a very modest invitation to try to find it next time you pass by the city.

Palacio de Aldama (Aldama´s Palace)

Another astonishing and sadly forgotten place is El Palacio de Aldama. Just in front of the old Marte Square, today the American Fraternity Park, lays this silent witness of the love of Cubans for their freedom. According to the records of the city, Don Domingo Aldama ordered the construction of this house for his heirs. El Palacio de Aldama, as we call it now, was finished in 1840, and originally displayed all the required architectural standards appropriate for one of the wealthiest Cuban – Spanish families at the time. But once again, what makes this building beautiful goes far beyond the mere aesthetical fact, what is really unique about this place is that in a time were Havana was not really involved in the independence war of Cuba, the owners of this house sacrifice it along with all their properties to fight for what they believe was the right of Cuba to be free. The Aldamas clear position against colonization costed them not only the house, but also the exile. Never again the Aldamas returned to this property, which after having being partially destroyed by the pro Spain fighters was sold and turned into a tobacco factory (La Corona) and later on remodeled and used for the most diverse purposes including offices, trading area and even a bank. Of course, this is just a fragment of the stories told but a place that today is just a vague memory to some and a blank space in the memory of most people walking and even living around but completely ignoring it.

Calle Reina (The Queen´s Avenue)

The final words here go to one of my favorite streets in the city:  La Calle Reina. I can just not help the amazement for this street. Maybe it is just that I walk it every day on the way to Barclay, or maybe it is that I wonder what are the stories held by those buildings that extend both sides Reina for about 10 blocks; and that to me, look like a real architecture museum. Certainly, Reina is one of the most fascinating areas of Havana, and yet, most people seem to walk and pass by without noticing the charm. Without taking a minute to think about the inscriptions on the doorways floors, that come to evoke a long time gone past, or about the columns that granted our city the nickname of the City of Columns.  Whatever the reasons are for people not to notice it, the thing is that since 1844, the Cuban street that honors Elizabeth the II has remained another silent and forgotten witness of the aging process of Havana.

The true history of a city is not in the books, it is in the buildings and its ruins, and in the people and their beliefs and common lives. As I said, this is just a very simple attempt to direct some of the lights to the common places that nobody notices anymore, as they are just there, without glamour or fireworks, but with a great deal of meaning. When I think in my students, this is the part of Cuba I want them to take with them. Not only the language, not only the beauty but also a little bit of the essence that makes Havana the greatest scenario for a singular learning experience.