Odd Facts about the Town of Bejucal

By Maya Quiroga

The Bejucal train station. Photo: Luis Rondón
The Bejucal train station. Photo: Luis Rondón

HAVANA TIMES — Far from the walled city of Havana, from the new neighborhoods outside of the city and on the outskirts, the town of San Felipe y Santiago de Bejucal was founded in 1714: the first vassal city in Havana and in Cuba. This is what architect Horaldo Rene Gutierrez Maidata claims, a keen researcher about the artistic values in this primitive town.

Located today in the province of Mayabeque, that estate had its own municipal bylaws (legal measures) since the 19th century. Thanks to the development of the railway, the settlement grew, in an orderly fashion, towards the south. From this moment onward, houses were built in the neoclassical style which then came to substitute buildings in the central area.

Were there cooperatives in Bejucal?

Today, when we talk about non-agricultural cooperatives here in Cuba, I suggest you learn a historic curiosity that Gutierrez Maidata brought to light during a Workshop on Vernacular Architecture.

After Havana was taken by the English in 1762, the working class who worked in tobacco farming emigrated towards Tampa and Key West, in the US, where later they contributed with their funds to the Cuban Revolutionary Party’s cause, founded by Jose Marti, Cuba’s National Hero.

Bejucal from one of the surrounding hills. Photo: Luis Rondón
Bejucal from one of the surrounding hills. Photo: Luis Rondón

When the war of 1895 ended, a large number of tobacco farmers came back to Bejucal and brought some elements of urban and cultural life from these US towns back with them. Beforehand, in 1890, the Department of Builders, Carpenters and Painters was founded in this one-horse town. Between 1901 and 1906, the Society of Manufacturing, Union and Progress remained active. In 1902, the workers’ future society was born.

One of these small cooperatives was the House-Building Association, where members paid the treasurer a monthly sum, which contributed to building simple but fully functional social homes, which are still standing a century after having been built.

The architect told us how many houses were built in the so-called working class neighborhood, located in the northeast of Bejucal. These homes were defined by their wooden frame, floor made out of the same material (except the hall and the kitchen) and a tiled roof. These humble homes had a solid entrance hall at the front, kitchen, dining room, two bedrooms and a sanitary latrine at the back.

Later (1922), the La Crecherie society was created which depended on the Town Hall’s support and was responsible for building grooved wooden houses with ridged roofs and greater hermeticism. The Manufacturing Social Work Cooperative was created in 1927.

It was a distinctive feature, highlights Gutierrez Maidata, that among the principles and values promoted by these old cooperatives, was the social etiquette among neighbors, the participation of all of its members, equal conditions as well as respect for the land’s set of laws, both urban and rural.

People in the Bejucal park. Photo: Luis Rondón
People in the Bejucal park. Photo: Luis Rondón

“Many of these homes were transformed after the 1940 tornado that struck Bejucal. Today, they can’t be saved and it’s very sad when in Cuba we have a problem with national of low cost housing which could be labeled critical,” warns the architect, who is worried about what he has coined “the money route: the kitsch route.”

He uses this expression to refer to the new wealthy, who with money in their hand and without a proper assessment, renovate their houses not knowing a single thing about the history, architectural style and most suitable materials for every building.

The aforementioned models of cooperatives serve to stir up a curiosity and an interest in a greater study and systematization of the same. Who knows whether one day non-agricultural, profitable and efficient cooperatives will once again take Bejucal, committed to building affordable housing.