HAVANA TIMES — Fredrika Bremer was an outstanding Swedish writer and feminist activist who visited “our” city in the mid-19th century. Touched by the romantic wave, she was confronted with the stale values of her society and therefore went traveling around the world alone.
Not a mere spectator, she craved for transformations that would subvert unjust political orders. Her weapons were literature and a sketchbook.
I don’t know what specifically brought her to Cuba, but the sight of this Caribbean and slave-labor based island immensely impacted her romantic Scandinavian sensibility.
Fredrika sent letters to her sister describing the colonial architecture, the coffee and sugarcane plantations, the plants and animals she’d never seen, as well as the gatherings of the wealthy and the suffering of the slaves.
What particularly caught her attention was how religion was practiced here. Concerning that issue, I found some of her notes that aroused my curiosity.
Havana, April 15, 1851
Today is Holy Thursday, a grand celebration for the Catholic Church, and in the morning I visited a couple of churches in the city. In them were large gatherings. The ladies, dressed in clothes for dancing, were kneeling on magnificent carpets, wearing silk suits and satin shoes, jewelry, gold ornaments and flowers, with their necks and arms in the air. And everywhere women were covered with sheer black lace mantillas while waving their brightly colored fans […]
Near them the gentlemen remained standing for people to examine them with their monocles. It was truly beautiful, seeing these females of all colors — since among them were mulatto women who were was also well-dressed and possessing splendid figures — all of them kneeling in a group in the church’s nave […]
But the inability to think seriously about anything other than vanity and frivolity was disturbing, especially on a day like this, the Day of Communion, which is a solemn occasion, tranquil, without vanity, the occasion on which began the loftiest and most sacrosanct life of humanity.
Wearing ballroom gowns, white, brown and black ladies, accompanied by their gentlemen, filled the square starting early in the afternoon, promenading at their pleasure while chatting and laughing. The mulatto women were characterized especially by their ostentation, the bright flowers and ornaments they wore on their heads and necks, while swaying their hips in their marked peacock style. […]
Thousands of people celebrated merrily in the square and in the streets, especially the blacks, who were dressed in all the colors of the rainbow. It was a brilliant show, but one couldn’t imagine anything less appropriate for the occasion. Not a breath of seriousness seemed to touch the crowd. It was clear through this procession that religion has died in Cuba!
It seems that with respect to “our” religion, the Swedish writer was “lost in a field of lettuce,” as we say. She didn’t even assume that stance so typical of European Enlightenment that reduces others to a lower stage in the evolutionary process. No – Bremer applied a radical formula: If you’re not like me, you don’t exist.
We all have areas of light and areas of shadow. It’s not easy to transfer the bars that are imposed on one’s own culture, nonetheless she tried to.
I recommend her Cartas desde Cuba (Letters from Cuba), published a little more than 10 years ago by the Fundacion Fernando Ortiz (a copy of this book can be found at the St. John Lateran Convent’s library, in the Vedado district).