When Havana’s Walls Came Tumbling Down: The City of Cirilo Villaverde

Diana Alvarez-Amell

Seton Hall University


A cursory internet search under the heading “Havana” brings up a rather lengthy list of books and movies with titles that include the name of the Cuban capital. It is not just part of the expected tourist guides or limited to the titles of the odd crime or romance novel. In both English and Spanish, there is in fact a plethora of popular novels, thrillers, memoirs of exiles and new tourists, along with histories, coffee table books of photography of its landmark buildings, interiors and styles. Its name appears in the titles of scholarly books about baseball, architecture and popular culture. The use of the name extends also to restaurants and popular eateries. The recent ruins in the city have been also the backdrop for fashion and artistic photo shoot spreads. Furthermore, these ruins also figure in American and foreign movies. In Strawberries and Chocolate (1994) one of the most popular films to come out of Cuba, the characters mourn its current collapse. Before these gloomy circumstances, Havana had become the celebrated literary topos in Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s fiction, where the capital city is a beautifully complex erotic setting.

If Havana is a cultural theme and a popular commodity as the flurry of publications and media would seem to suggest, it contradicts Alejo Carpentier’s well-known and now outdated, assertion that the cities of the New World lacked the fictional densities of European capitals. The Cuban novelist argued in Tientos y diferencias that setting a novel in one of the Latin American cities did not evoke in the reader’s mind associations as did the names of European cities. The mythologies concerning Havana along with its current ruins seems a far cry from this writer’s seemingly self-imposed predicament.  It is interesting to note that Carpentier himself published a striking eulogy of the city’s architecture in La ciudad de las columnas.

It goes without saying that Havana did not lack literature before Carpentier. In fact, the process of its mythologization started in Cuba much earlier. The third largest city in the New World in the eighteenth century, Havana was by then “una ciudad letrada,” a city of arts and letters.  Its rise to economic opulence during the nineteenth century is in large measure chronicled in the fiction of Cirilo Villaverde, Cuba’s most important novelist of that century. In 1761 José Martín Félix Arrate y Acosta’s Llave del Nuevo Mundo, antemural de las Indias Occidentales: La Habana descripta had praised its streets, narrow but filled with bustling stores stocked with all sorts of luxurious goods. Villaverde recalls this fact in La Habana en 1841 where he states that just as France is Paris, Havana is Cuba (Bueno 167.) The city’s predominance in the national consciousness is still echoed in the popular saying that Cuba is Havana and the rest is landscape (Cuba es La Habana y lo demás es paisaje.)

Havana lacked and still does the opulent religious architecture that dots the cities and towns in other places. While its modest churches could easily be outdone in any Mexican town, it is also worthy to point out that Havana lacked a significant indigenous population who would need to be impressed by Christian religious fervor (Moreno Fraginals 133.) It owed its colonial existence to maritime commerce. Indeed Havana’s geographical accessibility was the catalyst for an event that altered its urban layout and economic history. It is properly commemorated in a Cuban expression still in use “la hora de los mameyes.”  It referred originally to the British invasion at the end of the eighteenth century (Estrada, 54.) “Mameyes” the brightly colored tropical fruit was the more fanciful Cuban term for what Americans called more prosaically though more accurately “the red coats.” Two opposing currents rise from this brief British occupation. On the one hand, as Moreno Fraginals has argued, Cuba acquires from the British the most modern commercial skills of the times. On the other, after this military defeat, the Spaniards learned the hard way the disadvantages of Havana’s magnificent harbor and easy access to the Gulf Stream. On reacquiring the island at the end of the Seven Year war, they buttressed the fortifications of the city. The construction of the city’s walls had been concluded, but the British had managed to breach an opening through La Cabaña. Havana, when returned to Spain, had the largest fortification and the most number of military fortifications in the Western Hemisphere (Scarpaci, Segre and Coyula 18.)

As it happened to other cities in the Americas not central to the initial development of the Spanish empire Havana had humble beginnings with changes in the place of its initial settlement and its name until its foundation was settled in its current place in view of the commercial advantages of its harbor which served as a trading and service outpost for the shipping traffic between the rest of Latin American and Spain. In other words, while it owes its existence to the fluid and the transient, to the notion of exchange, a characteristic of urban spaces, there was also the colonial political will to encase and materialize. The city was transformed by the need to solidify through walls and fortification built with the purpose to contain and protect its protean urban life.

Villaverde’s fiction explores the tensions between the solid as embodied by the rigidity of the city walls and those of the churches and the initial Spartan insides of colonial homes, with the fluidity of characters whose fortunes rise or fall within an urban setting where livelihood depends on trade and exchange of services.  The transplanted urban notions that constructed fortifications and walls clashed in his fiction with the fluidity of his characters that trod the city streets of Havana. His characters are mostly engaged in trade or are servants and slaves. They are defined by the fluidity of their openness to the possibility of self transformation and social ascent as well as by their own most of the time unruly passions. Villaverde’s Havana is a commercial city where a poor immigrant works his way up the social ladder or a biracial descendent of slaves tries to fool the racial barriers. It is a space of conflict between the strictures of a social hierarchical value system that jousts colliding with the inchoate social aspirations of individuals. These characters seek to overcome their social status of poor immigrants and slaves by reshaping and transforming themselves within the horse-trading of a metropolis that lives off the exchange of goods and services.

Villaverde’s best and only well-known novel Cecilia Valdés begins, as do several of his other works, in the heart of Old Havana and ends the incestuous love triangle tragically in an open space of the city. Ominously the crime of passion is committed in front of a church’s façade and its conspirator, the passionate Cecilia is locked up.  Although the denunciation of slavery, a later addition to the final version of the novel, has been the main focus of critical interest, the streets and buildings of colonial Havana play, in fact, a crucial role in the novel’s plot and in the development of its conceptual structure. The Cuban journalist Lolo de la Torriente noted the importance of Havana in this novel though she used it to draw a socialist critique of the society. In his fiction Villaverde reformulates the Romantic city and nature dichotomy. The awesome power of nature is not celebrated on the whole in his work. Instead his natural spaces are dominated by the social which is many times contaminated by human cruelty, more prominently in the description found in Cecilia Valdés of the barbaric treatment of slaves in the sugar mills. These became the main source of national wealth precisely during the author’s lifetime.  The power of the sea, which appears in lesser known short novels such as La joven de la flecha de oro and El penitente, is not the expression of the Romantic sublime. Villaverde’s sea is the utilitarian space of military exploits and maritime trade. In Villaverde’s fiction the sea is not the celebrated Romantic topoi of personal freedom but a space dominated by naval and mercantile activity.  El penitente’s narrative of the doomed Romantic love triangle has as a historical backdrop the naval exploits and misfortunes of Bernardo de Gálvez. The Spanish governor of Cuba fought against the British and suffered a naval set back because of a storm at sea. The young and ultimately tragic heroine of La joven de la flecha de oro views the busy maritime activity of the Havana harbor from the vantage point of her balcony. The open space both of sea and land is dominated by commercial activity.  

Urban spaces figure prominently in many of his plots of forbidden or impossible love. Villaverde published what later critics have called “minor” literary mostly during his stay in the island between 1837 and 1848, since he lived a great deal of his lifetime as a political exile in the United States. Critics on the whole have not been kind to his literary production with the exception of the longer final version of Cecilia Valdés. One critic, Manuel de la Cruz, dismissed his other novels as “literary exercises” (Nunn 259.)  Of Dos amores published in 1843 and one of his most accomplished short novels, another critic while acknowledging that Celeste, the protagonist, was a well-drawn out character, dismissed its plot as trite and contrived (Nunn 260). In Villaverde’s thematic preference for love versus familiar or social constraints – true, a rather predictable literary conflict of the Romantic period-- the city exerts an equally important function and not just because it is the space where these passions are experienced by his characters.  In his fiction the city--–what happens inside or outside the city’s walls, within the house and in public spaces-- is a setting intrinsic and necessary to the plots’ development. In the short novel El penitente parallels are established not only between city and countryside as in Cecilia Valdés, but also between the city walls, its open urban spaces and the enclosure of the home as is also the case in Dos amores, More pointedly in La joven de la flecha de oro, the growth of the city outside the walls (“extramuros”) is chronicled in the increasing fortunes of Paulina’s family who moves to a more luxurious house outside the city walls with a view to the harbor.

Dos amores is a tale of love set exclusively in the streets of nineteenth century Havana. Unlike the tragic conclusion in most of his other works, it has a conventional happy ending. Two young people see each other, meet, fall in love and eventually marry and live happily ever after. However, as is also the case in several of his novels, Dos amores starts with the city streets as its protagonist. Thought the plot contains the narrative artifices, the twists and the turns, common in Romantic’s romances where fainting spells due to hyper sensibility and betrayals abound, Villaverde’s characters nonetheless are poised in a tense balance between upholding their avowed beliefs in social conventions while breaking them most of the time to further their goals of saving themselves from unwanted consequences or simply achieving their desires.  The virginal and dutiful young Celeste meets with the stranger on the dark rooftop of a house late at night. The young lover Teodoro Weber though pleased that Celeste had readily accepted to see him, nonetheless becomes suspicious at the ease of her female approachability. Weber is filled with passion for the young Celeste, but this passion is equally tempered by a calculated social constraint of conventional expectations about a young girl’s behavior.  Alongside conventional literary topoi of the Romantic period that shape many of Villaverde’s romances, there is in his novels psychological perspicuity. In fact, this acuity of vision concerning human motives may be easily overlooked in his fiction, which owes so much to easily recognizable Romantic narrative strategies. The Romantic artifices in Villaverde’s dramatic plots are peopled with characters created with keen insight into human psychology. His characters seem to be invariably divided by their overt stated intentions based on a conventional code of morality and their actual actions. The professed conventional piety of their beliefs is most of the time discarded in their final calculation about what is best for them. The bottom line supersedes all other social notions and strictures. Furthermore in his romances, his male villains –typically middle-aged ambitious immigrants engaged successfully in trade-- view the fair maiden whose hands they seek to obtain in marriage as another business transaction. Such is the case of don Juan Eguilux in El penitente, don Simón in La joven… and don Camilo in Dos amores.

The development of the plot in Dos amores would be possible only in an urban space of a metropolis such as was Havana, a city founded on commerce, a city of tradesmen, of comings and goings not only around the city, but of characters who travel outside the country, as does Teodoro Weber, Celeste’s suitor. Celeste’s father owns a cloth store. Her lover is a lawyer. These are city folks whose livelihood are a result and depend on the urban space.  Many of his other characters are also immigrants. The fathers of both lovers Teodoro and Celeste come from elsewhere, hers from Spain and his from Germany.  Celeste’s rejected suitor is a poor Spanish immigrant who as a sales clerk aspires to own the shop as well as her and has appropriated the appellation of “don.” Leonardo Gamboa’s father in Cecilia Valdés was also a poor Spanish immigrant who through hard work and a good marriage had come up in the world. He sought to crown his social achievement in Cuba by buying a title of nobility from Spain. Villaverde’s Havana is a city of flux and social and economic aspirations.  The opening sentence in Dos amores creates a chiaroscuro contrast between the sunlight that falls on the city’s towers at dawn and the shadows that still engulf its narrow side streets. Both are intercepted by the “pregón,” the street vendors’ hawking of goods and services, an itinerant commercial activity that lasted well into the twentieth century in Havana.  The rigidity of the official public stones contrasts with the vocal fluidity of the sound of trade in an urban space eerily ambiguous by the distortions of light and shadows, of what can be seen and what is obscured, of what can be sold and bought: “a la hora en que el sol alumbra solamente las torres de la ciudad, y la sombra de las casas cubre las calles traviesas; en que empieza a oírse en ellas el pregón de los vendedores ambulantes y el ruido de los carruajes…”) 

In Villaverde’s fiction, there is a constant repositioning between the professed propriety of civility and religious piety and the fluctuations of the economic and social status of the characters where the urban space of the dwellings has a symbiotic symbolism with his characters. In El penitente, the status of social pariah, the Indian servant, is signaled by the character’s hut on the outskirts of the city. The breakdown of social mores has a refuge in the city’s periphery. In an emblematic moment in Dos amores the “beata”, the prudish old maid who spies on the young lovers who meet illicitly in a nocturnal rendezvous, literally falls on her head and almost loses her life as she tumbles down the dark staircase that leads up to the “azotea” where the lovers are meeting. This type of Havana rooftop is a transitional space that bridges the private and the public spheres.  It is a space that allows for the opening of social interaction between two young people who have seen each other from afar. The flat rooftops of Havana create a semipublic space that supersedes the enclosure of the cloistered home of the three sisters whose excessive religious fervor is no match for youthful passion. The “azotea” also strips the walls of the house of the privacy of a domestic space by opening it to the public gaze.

The plot of Dos amores deals in fact with commerce. Celeste’s father recently widowed and left in charge of his three young daughters faces financial ruin. It is insinuated that he had speculated with supply and demand and now was so far in debt that he was facing bankruptcy. So the plot of this apparent romance hinges on the politics of business. The language of commerce spills over to the description of domestic and emotional intimacy. The father’s machinations have to do with money: in an attempt to save his home from his creditor’s reach he signs a false sale contract and enters into a secret agreement with the ambitious store clerk who under the guise of friendship seeks to strip him ultimately of his house and daughter. The greedy don Clemente’s desires are expressed in the language of wealth acquisition. He confesses outright to himself that he wants both the store and the lady in equal measure. About Celeste, the perfidious store clerk muses that she was “a treasure of incalculable worth.” (“la mujer con quien quería casarse era un tesoro de inestimable precio”)  While this is an expression of commercial value the archaic concept of walls has not been discarded either. Recognizing he might not be the young woman’s first choice in marriage, he is confident of his ability to acquire her. Though she might initially oppose the match, don Clemente says to himself, “las mujeres no son las mejores fortalezas para defender una plaza” (“women are not the best fortifications to defend an outpost.”)

These city dwellers are at the crux of a conundrum as is Havana’s contradictory urban space. The city is a military fortress open for business. Its inhabitants wheel and deal while still clinging to transposed and seemingly inoperable social rules of conduct and interaction with which they equivocate and ultimately discard.  The up to then dutiful Celeste takes charge when the authorities come knocking at their door to drag her father to debtor’s jail. Celeste pushes him under her little sister’s bed, calculating that the sheriff would not dare trespass that part of the house. Her father Rafael Pérez the shopkeeper who faces financial ruin leaves his house disguised as a woman to evade the authorities under Celeste’s cunning suggestion, but not before voicing ardent protestations about his honor.  His protestations go unheeded.  His eldest daughter is also the one who convinces her father to hide in the prudes’ house. They steal into the night, her father outfitted in women’s clothing to evade vigilance. The honest burgher goes rogue without disavowing the prevailing social code.

George Simmel analyzed the effect of urban spaces on social interaction in several essays. In Metropolis and Mental Life and The Sociology of Space Simmel argued that urban culture radically transformed the perception of the self and others as well as altered social conceptions. It was decisive, according to Simmel, that city life has transformed the struggle with nature for livelihood into an inter human struggle for gain. In an urban space human beings compete with each other not with nature and therefore the element of calculation pervades human interaction. This shifts the emphasis on the concept of quantity, on the how much.  Simmel pointed out in Metropolis and Mental Life that “The metropolis has always been the seat of the money economy” (Simmel 150) As such, calculation of gain and loss acquires ascendency in all spheres of life.

The actions of Villaverde’s characters especially in Dos amores show that calculation of gain and loss dominates their urban social interaction. His characters constantly speculate on the bottom line: the young man after saving the lovely Celeste from a Romantic fainting spell, leaves her abruptly, figuring that his mysterious disappearance would peak her interest: “deseando herir su imaginación…poco le importaban los ofrecimientos de amistad del padre.”(67). Celeste’s father after pulling the wily Weber from the sidewalk and into his home, decided happily that he had thus repaid his debt of gratitude: “el padre había abonado la cuenta de su deuda de gratitud” (71). As the scene shows, these characters are exercising the personal freedom and confirming the impersonality of urban exchange. The city is a place where strangers meet and disappear.  As Simmel had noted individual freedom and impersonality were the two results of living in an urban space.

Havana’s insertion into modernity was set in motion by its service economy within a colonial political system. The latter became inoperative given the city’s economic rise in the nineteenth century. Havana’s urban design since the nineteenth century incorporated elements of the international vanguard ((Scarpaci, Segre and Coyula 316). The transformation of its space had political significance as it has been pointed out:  “The rise and fall of the walled city marked both Havana’s urban growth and its political challenge to Spain... ((Scarpaci, Segre and Coyula 3)   Therein lays the Havana’s odd architectural juxtaposition of city walls –an ancient urban concept—and the store front. The walls were first constructed to protect the city from pirates who sacked it later to protect the enterprises of a bourgeoning commercial hub. But they could contain the city’s commercial activities only for a short while. The walls were completed in the eighteenth century. By the next century the growing city had exceeded their limits:  They began to be torn down in 1863, during Villaverde’s lifetime, and the demolition continued into the twentieth century. Small remnants of these walls are still standing. Villaverde’s fiction participates in the same national aspiration towards modernity that transformed the city’s architecture during his lifetime. Although tall – they measured 10 meters-- these walls would be as ineffectual as the inherited social code of which they were in a sense its urban manifestation. In stark contrast to contemporary media that represents its decadence in the later part of the twentieth century, Villaverde’s nineteenth century fiction celebrated Havana’s growth into an economic prosperity that outgrew the containment of its walls.


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