Cuba's Mantanzas gets some respect

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Finally, Cuba's Matanzas gets some respect


McClatchy Newspapers

"Matanzas: The Cuba Nobody Knows" by Miguel A. Bretos; Florida (317 pages, $27.50)

If life were more poetic and considerate of the merits of alliteration, the famous sign in Key West would boast: "90 Miles to Matanzas."

Surely, the barrel-like marker for the southernmost point of the continental United States - "90 Miles to Cuba" - would be more specific if the reference point on the other side of the Florida Straits were Havana. But the closest Cuban city to the Florida peninsula is Matanzas, and despite its storied history, cultural pedigree and host of unheralded charms, this Rodney Dangerfield of a place gets no respect.

Stuck in the shadow of the neighboring capital, breezy Matanzas, a mid-point for tourists on the way to world-famous Varadero beach, more often than not is overlooked. But historian Miguel A. Bretos - a native "matancero," former professor at Florida International University and retired Smithsonian scholar - remedies the neglect in his insightful "Matanzas: The Cuba Nobody Knows".

"Matanzas is Cuba in microcosm," Bretos writes. "Many of the forces that have made the country what it is, from colonial contraband to sugar monoculture to modern Santeria, are found there in sharp relief and, I may add, in living color."

Exiled at 18 in 1961, Bretos writes from a unique mix of memory, personal and family experience and meticulous research that begins with the native "Tainos" and colonial times. He ends the account at the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 but wisely includes observations and experiences from a return trip to the island in 2003. His research took him to key archives in Seville, Spain, and Washington, D.C., to the University of Matanzas and the University of Miami's Cuban Heritage Collection.

Equally important to the flow of a narrative heavy with historical data is Bretos' well-pointed wit. He populates his story with family characters such as Tia Niquita, renowned for her quilts, and an uncle who settled in Omaha and raised offspring who are now bona fide deer-hunting Americans.

One of the book's most fascinating chapters chronicles the key role "matanceros" played in the development of Cuban music.

Matanzas (literally "slaughters") is the birthplace of the traditional romantic "danzon" - once the official national dance - and the sensual rhythmic "guaguanco," a product of the city's preeminence as a hub of Afro-Cuban culture.

But that's not all.

"Matanzas has produced a rich literature and has been called - among many other things - 'the City of Poets,'" Bretos writes. "Modern Cuban art and Cuban baseball began there."

The city also was home to the country's first building wired for electricity, the first electric street cars and Cuba's first public library.

No wonder Matanzas was nicknamed "the Athens of Cuba" after a spirited debate among 19th century city leaders who also considered "the Venice of Cuba" (some argued that the San Juan River's course through the city reminded them of the Grand Canal), "the Naples of the Americas" (someone else thought the city looked like Naples) and "the Tyre of the Western Seas" (because Matanzas was shaping up to be a flourishing commercial center).

Bretos believes that the Athens inspiration may have come to Matanzas via its connection to Boston, which had been called "the American Athens" for decades. "Matanceros" engaged in heavy commercial trading with Bostonians, exporting sugar and importing hard granite cobblestones to pave the streets.

The Boston connection is one of many interesting facets Bretos unearths about the relationship of Matanzas to the United States and Europe.

Who knew that in 1853 Sen. William Rufus King of Alabama, who had run on Franklin Piere's Democratic ticket, was sworn in as the 13th U.S. vice president at the Matanzas sugar mill where he was convalescing from tuberculosis? King claimed to have become ill while on a diplomatic mission to France. He traveled to Cuba after his doctor advised him to seek treatment in a warmer climate.

After he was sworn in, "he returned home right away, but death caught up with him at his Alabama plantation one month later," Bretos writes. "The only vice president sworn in abroad turned out also to be the shortest-serving."

In another revelatory passage, Bretos notes that the world knows about the Moncada attack in Oriente province that made Fidel Castro famous, but few have heard of the attack on the Goicuria Barracks in Matanzas on April 29, 1956. That event caught the young Bretos on a Sunday outing to mass at the cathedral with his Aunt Nena.

He remembers the scene vividly: the staccato gun fire, the military fighter that roared by, the news that all the rebels had been killed, the photographs of the colonel in charge who smiled proudly over the corpses and of a prisoner being shot in cold blood, the latter image published in the Spanish edition of Life.

"That day," Bretos writes, "the Cuban Revolution began for me and Matanzas."

Long before I read his book, Bretos shared with me some of these stories because I also was born in Matanzas. Among so many who prefer to claim a stake in Havana, we proud "matanceros" in exile sometimes feel subversive, and whenever Bretos and I ran into each other at a cultural event, we shared a sense of complicity.

Bretos, who suffers from Parkinson's (with typical humor he calls it "Dr. Parkinson's damned disease"), warns that his historical account is not complete. The history of post-Revolution Matanzas, he says, also merits research and analyses. With this book, Bretos has not only conferred on his beloved Matanzas its rightful place in history but he has provided students and fans of Cuban history with a significant launching point into the future.

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