This is the story of a copious family.
Ninety-seven years ago, on the largest island of the Antilles, Maria Rodriguez Pombo married Jacobo Varela. At 16 years old, Maria had returned from Spain to her native Cuba to finalize the marriage her parents had arranged for her with a man they know from Coruña.
Maria and Jacobo had met previously in Spain. Jacobo was a good man, and he was the owner of a ranch and a bakery in Quemado de Güines, a municipality in Villa Clara’s province in Cuba. Their union was favorable and fruitful, together they had 10 kids (in order): Joseito, Segundo, Tercero (deceased), América Emilia, Carmen (Carmita), Jacobo (Jacobito), María (Mari), Rafaela Nicolasa (Fela), Marta and Aleida.
While Jacobo tended the land he owned in Quemado de Guines, Maria and their nine children lived at her father’s ranch in Escandon, a town five hours away on horseback. Although it was uncommon for women to work outside the household, Maria always found a way to make ends meet. She never stopped seeking new opportunities to generate profit for her family.
With the help of America, the eldest of the girls, she would take care of the younger children. Joseito and Segundo, the eldest of the boys, worked at the town’s general store or on odd jobs. Jacobito, the youngest of the boys, was just six years old when he started helping Maria chop lumber to make coal to sell at the neighboring town.
Aside from her duties as the matriarch, Maria was well known in town for her cooking. In Escandon, the factory owners and workers would line up outside her home with plantain leaves as dishes just to get a taste of her meals. She could not imagine then that her life and that of the children was radically going to change.
A few years later, the Cuban government decreed that: all those with Spanish citizenship who had not yet been naturalized into Cubans were denied ownership of their land and properties, effective immediately. Maria and the children lived at her father’s ranch; he was one of those Spanish without citizenship the law referred to. It was time for all of them to reunite with Jacobo once more in Quemado de Güines.
To their misfortune, Jacobo’s ranch suffered the same fate, and the entire family, except for America, moved to Havana.
Many years later, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, during a conversation between Maria’s eldest granddaughter and her great-great-granddaughter (both who bear her name), her granddaughter would remember Maria as a stubby, round, sweet woman. She always lulled her grandchildren and great-grandchildren to sleep on her lap on the house’s porch where three generations would survive her in the future. I’m getting ahead of myself, though—back to our story.
In 1939, the Varela family found themselves at the Curacao neighborhood in the city of Havana. Soon after, they built a small wooden house where they all lived in Alturas de Belen.
To help the family, Joseito, Segundo, and Jacobito all worked, while the girls helped Maria in the home. In the house’s front area, Jacobo built an enormous garden to feed the family; it was envied by the entire neighborhood.
One day, a man named Rafael Ángel Salas Cañizares decided he wanted to build a house on the land where the Varelas lived.
Maria was home when a grotesque, round man appeared at her doorstep.
“Ma’am, you and all who live here must vacate this home immediately. Salas Cañizares wishes to build his home here.”
Salas Cañizares was the chief of the national police in the City of Havana during Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship. He was known for his acts of brutal repression against revolutionaries and government opposition and as a cold-blooded murderer.
Maria knew all these details about Cañizares, but at that moment, all she could think of was defending her family.
“Mire, señor, you can tell that Salas Cañizares that I’m very sorry, but my family needs a place to live. We are very poor and have nowhere to go. We just can’t.”
The man stared at her “I am Salas Cañizares.”
Maria swallowed heavily. Her hands were cold and sweaty. Every inch of her body wished that she could suddenly vanish. But, alas, at that moment, some sort of higher power gifted the murderer an ounce of kindness.
“Alright,” said Cañizares. “I understand that you are very poor and can’t leave here, but this is where I wish to build my home. I’ve been told that you are an excellent cook. I’ll make you a deal: you will cook for my workers, and in return for your labor, I will build you a house where you can live with your family.”
And so, the foundation of the Varelas’ multi-generational home was built.
It was in that home that Maria Rodriguez Pombo and Jacobo Varela lived until the rest of their days, lulling their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to sleep on their laps while they sang lullabies.
It is where we gather the thread to weave the rest of this story.
This story is part of a series dedicated to the matriarchs of my family.