sabato 6 luglio 2024

Chapter 10 Nieves Herrera (English)


Nieves Herrera became pregnant in her twenties, a few months after her arrival in Cuba. When Angel learned that his wife was expecting a child, he hurried to Havana in search of an assistant to start the project that had been on his mind for some time. He returned from Havana happy and when he got home, he said to his wife, “A Catalan, a certain Mariano Defaus Moragas, has accepted my proposal. He knows a lot about grain seeds and with his help, I see myself capable of transforming the farm. I want our son, at birth, to see wheat fields and not tobacco fields.”

And I, I'm going to make porridge with ground wheat for the baby and bread soup for us, like the ones my mother used to prepare for me,” said Nieves, smiling.

Nieves immediately liked Mariano, and although he was a man of few words, she was comfortable by his side. He reminded her of one of her brothers, Rafael, the most shy and reserved of her siblings. Little by little, Mariano gained confidence in Nieves’ presence and became more communicative, telling her anecdotes of his childhood in Malgrat. But above all, she discovered Mariano's qualities when her son, Angel, was born. Mariano was affectionate with the newborn from the beginning.

Holding him in my arms and playing with the little one reminds me of the times I spent with my siblings. I was the oldest of the children. I left home when I was seventeen, Maria was fifteen, Juan was thirteen, Isidro was eleven, Francisco was nine, the little ones, Rosa and Luisa were three and five years old. It's been eight years but I still miss them a lot.”

Why did you leave your village so young?” asked Nieves.

Mariano was speechless, and immediately thought about the promise he had made to Mr. Sarrá. but Nieves encouraged him, and while rocking the child he confessed that he was a deserter. 

Nieves listened to his misadventures open-mouthed. “I miss my mother and siblings very much, and I have only been in Cuba for a short time. But you, who have been away from your family for eight years, how can you bear it?” Nieve asked.

“My mother writes a letter to me every two weeks.”

“And do you also write to her as often?

Not every fortnight, but I do write her at least once a month. I never fail.”

I'd like to correspond with my mother, too, but I barely know how to write and she can't read. However, when our son was born, my husband wrote a letter to my mother, or rather to the priest of the church where she usually goes to Mass, so that he could read it to her. The priest still reads the letters that Angel is sending to my mother, but he answers him very briefly.

I can teach you how to write.” Mariano said.

I know how to write my name and little else.”

Did you go to school?”

No, but the organist from the parish taught me to sing the alphabet and made me write the letters and my name on a small blackboard in the sacristy while I waited for my mother to finish confession. Since my little brother Rafael died, my mother has knelt every two or three days in front of the confessional. The priest's words soothed her sorrow, but she had come up with sins for him to listen to her confessions.”

I think it's funny that she made up sins. Strange as it may seem, it was very helpful for her. When she came out of the confessional, she no longer spoke to me about Rafael and smiled as she whispered to me the list of her venial, forgivable, sins.” Nieves added.

Do you know what the invented sins were?”

Well, the usual ones. Things like: lies, envy, jealousy, and lack of patience. And then she came up with more bizarre ones like putting a chopped lizard on her cantankerous mother-in-law's plate, making fun of a neighbor she didn't like by throwing full urinals in her garden, slapping an arrogant lady who walked into the store, touching everything and buying nothing, putting a cockroach in my father's face when he napped too long, tying us disobedient children with a rope in a tree . . . and many more things that I don't remember.”

What variety! Your mother had a great imagination! Was she the one who chose your name?”

Well, yes, she called me Nieves, because when I was born, she saw my skin so white that she immediately thought of the story of Snow White.” Nieves stopped for a few seconds and then continued to say, “I also loved that story, especially the final part, which I am going to recite to you, because I know it by heart:

Snow White bit into the apple and collapsed. The dwarves, alerted by the animals of the forest, arrived at the cabin as the evil queen fled. With great sadness, Snow White was placed in a glass coffin. Everyone hoped that the beautiful young woman would wake up one day. Luckily a handsome prince who was crossing the forest on his horse saw the beautiful young woman in the glass coffin and, amazed by her beauty, gave her a kiss and the young woman woke up when the spell had been broken. Snow White and the prince married and lived happily ever after.

That story, in Catalan, is called Blancaneus. My mother also told my little sister this story!” 

Mariano was silent for a moment and a smile crossed his face, "Angel is the prince who took you to the New World!"

"What nonsense, I don't believe in princes! I was doing very well in Lavapiés with my family. Angel didn't break any spell.”

"Don't be angry, woman, I was joking," Mariano replied.

I don't fantasize like my mother. I'm more realistic and I am more like my father. On the other hand, in addition to accusing herself of venial sins, she likes to invent stories, observing and listening to the people on the street. Her stories were sometimes born out of her grandmother's stories, but most of the time it was pure imagination.”

Well, your mother has good character, from what you say.  She found a way to recover after losing a son. I don't know if my mother would have been able to recover from such a misfortune.” 

Everyone shakes off the pain as best they can. I tend to throw myself into work, so I don't get depressed,” Nieves replied.

When Rafael died, were you working?

Yes. Until I was ten years old, I took care of my four little brothers. I am also the oldest, but very soon I had to go to help my parents with the pottery by molding, painting, and selling pots. My sister, the one who is a year younger than me, then took care of the little ones.”

Would you like to be a potter?”

Yes, very much! In the pottery I met Angel. One day he came in to buy a pitcher, then he came back the next day, and the next. He courted me for several months. At Christmas, he asked my father for my hand in marriage. He agreed because Angel assured him of a good future for me. We lived for a year in a little house he bought, very close to my parents' house, until he received the telegram with the bad news and we had to embark for Cuba. I haven't fired a piece of clay since.”

In my village there are also quite a few potters, in Catalan ollers. I lived in Carrer de Els Ollers, but my parents were farmers, not potters.”

When the cultivation of grain has started, Angel has promised me that we will build a kiln next to the mansion; and if you want, I can teach you how to moldl pieces with the wheel and how to fire pitchers, pots, jugs, plates, tiles and everything you want.”

Angel and Mariano worked tirelessly for two years. They had many problems and unforeseen events; however, together they found solutions for everything, and discovered that Angel's project was not as far-fetched as it seemed. During the first year, they reorganized the farm, bought animals and tools for tilling and sowing the land as well as for sowing and harvesting crops, planted trees, and built a mill to grind wheat and an oven to make bread. They looked for buyers in the surrounding area, especially in Havana where the sale of flour was assured because of the many Europeans who were there. Bread was the first food that Spaniards, French, and Portuguese missed when they arrived in Cuba.  

Nieves was a cheerful and jovial young woman. She loved her husband, and at first, she was fine with everything he decided. However, she reluctantly accepted the obligation to leave her city and her family, as she had dreamed of a quiet life in the Madrid neighborhood of Lavapiés. When they arrived in Cuba, she had to adapt to so many new things that she no longer thought about the suffering she felt at first because she was away from her parents and siblings. She became Mrs. Hernandez, but she remained the simple girl from Lavapiés. Two women helped her in the kitchen and with cleaning. With her helpers, Nieves began to make loaves of bread for all the staff of the hacienda.

After Mariano arrived at the Esperanza farm, he wrote fewer letters to his mother; but when he saw that a month had passed since the last one, he started to write to her. It often happened that he would start a letter and then leave it halfway through for the next day. Although he sat down every night to finish the letter, he could hardly write anything before he fell asleep. He didn't like to write short letters to his mother, but he consoled himself with the thought that it was better to write short letters than to stop writing. One night, after a difficult day, in which one of the workers injured his foot with the plow and Mariano had to take him to the medical clinic in Pinar del Rio to stop the bleeding, he was not sleepy and began to write a long letter to his mother. Adrenaline flowed through his blood while he was writing about the poor man who screamed in pain because the wound was very deep and they had to amputate his foot.  

Las Ovas October 20, 1881

Dear Mother,

I hope that when you read this letter everyone is well. I too, thank God, am in good health.

As I told you in the last letter, now, in addition to continuing to be a partner of the three shopkeepers, I am working on a farm that is near Pinar del Río. I was hired to lead the planting of cereal grains. Don't think that I have to till the land - I have to lead a staff of day laborers. It's not easy to lead so many men and women. Most of them are black, but they're not slaves. Angel, my boss, gave them freedom a long time ago. I also keep track of everything, because he doesn't know anything about accounting. My job is more about coordination than physical work, and so far, everything is going well.

Angel and Nieves, his wife, are very kind to me. I live in a little white house next to the mansion. Angel's parents were very rich. They had tobacco plantations, but since he went to study in Madrid, where he met Nieves, he has not wanted to deal with tobacco. We have divided the property into small fields in which we grow cereal grains on a rotational basis. He learned about rotation in Europe, he says, and he is absolutely right. The land is impoverished by always planting the same crops and you have to change every four years. It's a job that I like a lot, because Angel has given me carte blanche to renew the crops.

Nieves is from Madrid and misses Spain like I do. We often talk about our country. She is twenty-three years old and has a very lively little son. I usually play with him after dinner and I think of my younger brothers and sisters.

The climate is similar to that of Havana, but thank God there is a constant breeze and it is not so suffocating. We eat very well. We have a garden in which we have planted eggplants, carrots, peppers, lettuce and tomatoes. Sometimes I prepare an "escalivada" like the ones you made. While I savor it, I think of you all sitting at the kitchen table.

I would like to go back to Malgrat. I will do it as soon as I can - maybe in a couple of years I will embark. Now that the war is over, everything will be easier. But as you will understand, I can't leave such a good job right now. I have to seize the moment. I'm sending you a picture I took in Havana. I always think of you. Tell my father and brothers and sisters I am thinking of them.

I'm homesick for Malgrat, for our home and for all of you. I don't know what it would take to spend some time with all of you.

A hug from your child who loves you.

Mariano Defaus Moragas

In the second year, they built a kiln not only for the clay pots, but also for making tiles and bricks. The men were busy fetching the clay and firewood and tending the fire while the women molded and fired the pieces. They built new stables, demolished the barracks and built little houses for the day laborers, and planted corn and potatoes in addition to wheat. And when they began to obtain the fruits of that intense work, Angel Hernández fell ill.

Mariano, I'm dying, promise me that you're going to take care of my wife and my little son,” Angel told him.

The doctor has said that you are going to be cured, that your disease does not have to be fatal, and it is known that in the United States they are taking a vaccine,” Mariano told him encouragingly. 

Mariano, I studied medicine in Europe. Although I have not practiced since, I know that many diseases, especially those brought by the Spaniards to Cuba, are deadly, and smallpox is one of them.”

Don't be so pessimistic!”

The smallpox vaccine is not yet available in Cuba. They are experimenting with it, so let's not fool ourselves,” Angel replied.

Hope is the last to die, that's why your ancestors gave this name (Esperanza) to the farm, right?”

Nieves was very distressed by her husband's illness, and she could not imagine a life without him by her side. She was very busy with the newborn and let Mariano, the only one of her collaborators who had suffered smallpox as a child, stay at her husband's bedside.

The U.S. vaccine never arrived and Angel died in early 1884, six months before the production and distribution of the smallpox vaccine by the General Vaccine Center of Cuba. On the farm, smallpox also killed a foreman, four day laborers, a cook, and a handful of children.

Angel's death was a hard blow for Nieves and also for Mariano. They were both very affected, but after two weeks that were eternal for them, Nieves turned a corner and said to Mariano, "It doesn't help us to be crying and despairing, we have to carry out Angel's project. I have to do it for my son.”

I will help you. I will not abandon you. But the neighbors of the farm and the acquaintances of Pinar del Río will begin to murmur about our situation: a widow and the partner of the deceased husband living under the same roof.”

I've never cared what people say; but if you agree, in ten months we can get married so no one will gossip.”

Mariano was speechless, he didn't expect Nieves to propose marriage. He blushed and said, “I would give my life for you and the little one. If you think it's the best thing for you and for the farm, I agree with your idea.”

We'll have a simple wedding and you're not obligated to sleep with me.”

Nieves, I love you like a sister. My intention is to protect you and your son and carry out your husband's project.”

In the early fall of 1884 Mariano and Nieves Herrera were married. Nieves went to see Mosén Lluís, a Catalan priest from the Church of the Consolacion del Sur in Pinar del Rio, who had known her husband's family well, to ask him to officiate the wedding. They invited all the workers and some friends to the wedding. The three shopkeepers closed their shop of L'Avana for the first time and arrived at the estate two days before the wedding. Miguel and the captain, who had disembarked in Havana a few days earlier, also appeared. María Plana and Ramón Valls, her husband, arrived with a cart full of beef and bull meat, the best of their farm, and they left it in the kitchen for the banquet’s barbecue. A few hours before the wedding, Isabel also arrived. Olivia and Felipe appeared as the ceremony was beginning. Mariano and Nieves were happy that they had gathered all their friends from the New World. They only lacked their families from Malgrat and Madrid. The salaried staff of the estate put on the best clothes they had to attend the ceremony, but many had to stay outside as the chapel could no longer fit any more people. Tables and chairs were set up in the garden of the estate for the banquet. They began by roasting lots of meat, fish, vegetables, corn tassels and bananas, baked dozens of loaves of bread, cooked numerous pots of beans, chickpeas and rice, cut slices of cheese and ham, and pieces of tropical fruit that they served on clay trays. When the guests arrived, they uncorked bottles of wine and rum for everyone. The three shopkeepers did not stop drinking and playing pranks on the guests, making great revelry. The day laborers enlivened the party with Cuban songs and dances and for the first time since the plague had entered, good humor reigned again on the Esperanza farm.


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