Catalonian Influences in the Caribbean

Waves over Havana’s Malecon Seawall.  Photo: Caridad
Waves over Havana’s Malecon Seawall. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 14 (IPS) – Even without meaning to highlight it, the opening of the cultural program “Catalonian Influences in the Caribbean” evoked the various periods in which Spain too was a country of emigrants.

For reasons of an economic, political or other nature, the richly endowed American possessions of the Spanish crown – or the newly independent republics, depending on the historical moment – once represented the dream of a better life for many Spaniards.  Refugees of wars and dictatorships hoped they would find their second homeland in this new world.

With the aim of recovering and strengthening the cultural and emotional bonds between Catalonia and Spanish-speaking Caribbean nations, the program “Catalonian Influences in the Caribbean” was organized by the Casa América Cataluña, considered to be the first institution of its type in the world.

The very origin of that institution was based in nostalgia, because it was started by emigrants who returned to the peninsula after the loss of the former colonies – particularly the last two, Cuba and Puerto Rico.  In Barcelona they first founded the Club Americano, in 1911, the predecessor of the Casa América Cataluña.

According to Marta Nin, the deputy director of the Casa América Cataluña (CAC), this was a meeting place for “those who felt nostalgia for life on the new continent – for the coffee, the soil, the music and the conversations they would never again enjoy.” It was a place where they could stave off these yearnings.

CAC is now a non-profit organization that works to spread Latin American culture in Catalonia, as well as that of Catalonia throughout Latin America.  The program “began its tour in the Dominican Republic with an exhibit of the work of Catalonian-born photographer Wifredo García Doménech.”

The program then traveled to Puerto Rico, where renowned Spanish cellist, director and composer Pablo Casals resided in 1956, and where the annual Casals Festivals have been organized ever since 1957.  Organized with the collaboration of the Pablo Casals Foundation and the University of San Juan, the exhibit “Pau Casals and Life in Exile” was dedicated to his memory.

Cuba Was the Last Stop

Cuba was the last stop on this journey to the Americans, though the closing of the event will be held in Catalonia in 2010.  At that time, many of the peninsula’s traditions and customs that continue to flourish in the Caribbean will be presented.

Upon arriving on Cuban soil, “Influences” had the cities of Havana and Matanzas as its backdrop. In Matanzas, large religious celebrations were held dedicated to the Virgin of Montserrat, the patron of Catalonia, on which is based certain lasting traditions such as the “Colla of Montserrat,” the theme of a film that was also presented.

Casa America Catalonia works to strengthen cultural and emotional bonds between Catalonia and Spanish-speaking Caribbean nations.
Casa America Catalonia works to strengthen cultural and emotional bonds between Catalonia and Spanish-speaking Caribbean nations.

The “Colla” comes from an ancient pagan ritual related to agriculture, although this time it involved a large choir of men carrying enormous kitchen utensils (ladles, forks, knives, skillets and pans) as they sang entertaining songs.  In 1895, the last procession under Spanish rule was organized in Matanzas (though the festivities were reintroduced in 1902, until their permanent ending in 1925).

The attendance of these events in Cuba by Josep Lluís Carod-Rovira, the vice-president of the Generalitat de Cataluña; Marta Nin and Joseph Baragalló, director of the Ramón Llul Institute, one of the driving forces behind the program, confirmed the importance that has been placed on this cultural exchange.

In his introductory remarks, Carod-Rovira referred to “Catalonian Influences in the Caribbean” as a true success, as he went to retrace the saga of his compatriots on the island.

Inaugurated for the occasion was the exhibit “Barcelona-Havana: The Modernist Mirror.” Featuring the artistry of Catalonian photographer Pilar Aymerich, this was described as a valuable work in which the artist’s lens brought to light the influence of Catalonian modernism on Cuban architecture as well as decorative art, as reflected in furniture design and funerary sculpture.

It was not a random choice, because – according to specialists – the greatest developments associated with cemeteries coincided with the expansion of Modernism in Catalonia.  In relation to Cuba, it was even disclosed that some of the sculptures that adorn the vaults of both Havana’s Colon Cemetery and the Montjuïc Cemetery, in Barcelona, bear the signatures of the same sculptors.

Recognized Cuban architect Daniel Taboada also referred to this theme in his presentation “Catalonian Architecture in Cuba,” delivered at the Casa de las Américas.  The lecturer referred particularly to construction elements that Catalonian workers brought with them and that were used in reflecting the nouveau art style, another heir of Catalonian modernism.

Also presented was the book “La saga de los catalanes en Cuba” (The saga of Catalans in Cuba), by Joan María Ferrán.  With a foreword by Catalonian architect Isabel Segura, the book contains information spanning from the arrival of that group in Cuba prior to 1780 to the revival of Catalan migration at the beginning of the 20th century.

In addition to deepening the understanding of the participation of Catalans in Cuban industrial, commercial and agricultural development, Ferrán documents the regional publications and associations that were created during that period.  These efforts contributed to the development of the community from a cultural and intellectual point of view, and helped to provide the historical record of one of the groups from which the Cuban nationality was forged.

In accordance with the information provided by Ferrán, less than a hundred native-born Catalans live in Cuba today, with an average age of more than 75.  However, 19th century Cuba was – for very diverse reasons – the “golden age” of Catalan emigration.

This same researcher asserts that between 1780 and 1830 some 50,000 people emigrated from that region to Cuba, with many others coming to the island at the beginning of the 20th century in search of fortune or to evade military service and the war.

A Major Force in Cuba’s Exports

The Catalans came late, but they took very good advantage of their arrival. Around 1830, “Catalan emigration to Cuba began to convert into an economic, social and even political force of clear importance in national life,” contends writer and journalist Leonardo Padura in his article “La aventura americana” (The American adventure), originally published in the Cuban newspaper “Juventud Rebelde.”

“All economic strata seemed interested in those Spaniards who, from trade with the colony, provided the lungs for the air needed for Catalonia to make the leap to industrialization; at the same time they revived the mercantile life of the island,” noted the journalist.

In this way, Catalans practically directed trade from Cuba around 1850.  Not only did they hand down into history famous names – such as Partagás (perhaps the best known Catalan connected to the tobacco industry), Facundo Bacardí (the father of Bacardí rum, whose legend endures even today), and Martí Torrens (whose fortune had a great deal to do with the profitable African slave trade) – but they also left us the legacy of today’s García Lorca Theater.

There were also Catalans recognized for their connection with other important areas of life – individuals like Mariano Cubí Soler, founder of the “Revista Bimestre de Cuba” magazine; and teacher Juan Olivella Salas, co-founder along with Cubí of the Buenavista school.

According to the article by Padura, “The economic surge of this emigration allowed them, by 1840, to even found what would become the first regional association of Spaniards in Cuba: La Sociedad de Beneficencia de Naturales de Cataluña.  Its presidency would be passed along to the most noted individuals of this nationality, and the association would physically construct new institutions – first a hospital, where one could die in peace, and later a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Moreneta, where one could cry from their nostalgia.”

In fact, authorization to create La Sociedad de Beneficencia de Naturales was not granted until April 10, 1841.  Its first or general meeting was held on August 1 that same year at #2 Lamparilla Street, almost at the corner of Mercaderes Street.

Catalans also settled in Santiago de Cuba, where they created social organizations such as that city’s affiliate to the Sociedad de Beneficencia de Naturales de Cataluña, the Association of Catalonian Youth and its choir.

A good part of those Catalans who emigrated -the most successful- returned back home with their fortunes and contributed to the development of their native country. In this process, “throughout the 19th century, Cuba was becoming filled with Catalonian traces and Catalonia was becoming transformed by Cuban money and customs.”

Perhaps among the saddest memories retained by Cubans of Catalans is that of the figure José Gener y Batet. This wealthy coffee plantation owner, as the head of the court organized by the colonial administration, was one of those responsible for the execution of the eight Cuban medical students in 1871.

Notwithstanding, there were also others who fought for the independence of the island.  Among them was José Miró Argenter, possibly the most recognized of all, who reached the rank of general and was head of the general staff under Antonio Maceo.

The head and tail of the same coin – the need to emigrate in search of a better life – the presence of Catalans was unavoidably felt in Cuban society and culture, an influence that lasts as one of the diverse components of that thick and rich “ajiaco” (stew) that forms its nationality.

A Havana Times translation of the original article published in Spanish by IPS.

2 thoughts on “Catalonian Influences in the Caribbean

  • Don’t forget Pau Casal’s mother was Puerto Rican.

  • I am looking for any information of the Chapel of Montserrat that was torn down by Batista in 1950’s for Marti’s monument

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