By Dmitri Prieto
Not long ago, I watched an interview by Havana Times writer Alfredo Prieto with US historian Louis A. Perez Jr. who specializes in the subject of US influence on the development of Cuban nationality. Perez’s thick book entitled On becoming Cuban was recently translated into Spanish and published in Cuba, with the first printing selling out quickly.
As I was listening to the interview I couldn’t help but think about the town of Hershey, located a mere 2 km from my home. The town is famous for its old sugar mill, for its ties to the famous chocolate brand and, more than anything, for being the midpoint of the only electric railway in Cuba.
The “Hershey Train,” an unmistakable part of Cuban patrimony, runs between the cities of Havana and Matanzas, stopping at several remote towns surrounding the nation’s capital.
To ride in the train’s slow but welcoming wagons between the hills and sugarcane fields is an unforgettable experience; a journey that requires a dose of patience and one that is often repeated by numerous workers and other Cubans in the course of their daily “struggles.” If you, dear reader, ever visit Cuba I highly recommend a ride on the Hershey Train.
Cuban historian Amarilys Ribot has written a recently published a book in staunch defense of Hershey’s place in the history of Havana. What follows is taken from her book, entitled Hershey, and from conversations with my friend Amarilys and other Hershey residents, and from my own experiences.
Hershey is the last “model town” in Cuba. It has a twin town in Pennsylvania also founded and conceived by US businessman Milton S. Hershey. When walking through the town of Hershey (Province of La Habana, Cuba) and admiring the homes -their green roofs with chimneys, and unique windows-, the urban design, dense vegetation and green spaces, one can’t help but get the impression that their walking through Hershey Chocolate Town (Pennsylvania, USA).
It’s as if they transported a piece of the United States to the Municipality of Santa Cruz del Norte in the Province of La Habana.
But make no mistake; this is Cuban land, inhabited by Cubans (from diverse backgrounds from Jamaica to Czechoslovakia). It even officially changed its name to Camilo Cienfuegos, although everyone knows and calls it by its old name, Hershey, which is also the name of the local train station.
It is also called El Central, the Spanish word for sugar mill, and the chimneys of Hershey’s old mill can still be seen jutting out over the landscape. Hershey’s company required the best quality sugar possible and so he built a town in this beautiful setting located on a hill top with views of the Caribbean ocean and just a few meters from the Santa Cruz River and several springs which now form part of the beautiful park called Jardines de Hershey (Hershey’s Gardens).
For some reason I am always filled with sadness when I pass through Hershey: the mill closed down several years ago after changes were made to the Cuban sugar industry. The shutdown did not lead to unemployment as the sugar company and workers moved over to agriculture, but all the old traditions and experiences inexorably passed into the realm of memory.
We who know Cuba realize the strong association sugar production has on the island, connected to a different way of seeing and feeling the world, a unique spirituality and disposition towards history, nature and destiny. In Hershey, all of these associations have turned into history’s pastureland.
To be continued…