Personalities of my city
Francisco Rodríguez. Native of Coruña, Spain. History does not allow us to be precise about his date of birth nor when he arrived at our city, much less when and where he died, but from generation to generation a legend has been transmitted about a man who was a self-styled missionary and preached on street corners, until in 1896-1897 when his sermons became offensive, the citizens protested and the town council decided to expel him from Baracoa.
It is said that whilst standing on the wharf, moments before boarding the boat which would take him into exile from our city, he said ‘In Baracoa many good plans will be made, many good ideas will be generated, but all of them will wear away, nothing will be achieved’, which pronouncement was thenceforth referred to as the famous Curse of the Pelú.
Magdalena Menasse Rovenskaya. Born Easter 1911 in Liberia, she was to transcend her natural, matrimonial and artistic identities to become known simply as La Rusa.
The proletarian violence of St Petersburg in 1917 dictated her future. Her father Alexander, soldier and aide to the Russian Czar, was executed, as were many members of her aristocratic family when the revolution destroyed the old regime.
Only Magdalena and Anna, her mother, managed to escape, finding refuge in the mountainous Caucasus. She was 6 years old when she fled the revolution. In 1924 she arrived at Constantinople (Istanbul), where she met Albert Menasse, Russian diplomat in Turkey, with whom she began a journey through Java, Italy, France and finally Cuba, the land of her legend.
They were married in Paris. Albert became a jewel-dealer; she, as ‘Mima Rovenskaya’ worked as a dancer, pianist and singer, performing at important venues such as the Paris Opera, the Milan Opera, in Las Palmas and in Madrid. Upon the death of his father, Albert took over his father’s business in the Caribbean area and he and his wife travelled to Havana where Magdalena got to know the Acera del Louvre and the Cuban intellectuals of the epoch. She gave successful concerts, but these were times of economic crisis. Baracoa, although it was remote, attracted the couple because there was good business to be done there due to the banana boom and the commercial activities of American companies. There, Alberto Menasse joined the Respectable Masonic Lodge of the Workers of Oriente, becoming its Venerable Master. He opened a jewellery business, tannery, bar-restaurant and bought several farms. Magdalena joined him later.
Baracoa exercised its witchcraft over this elegant woman and in return the attractive blonde bewitched the population. She put down roots and in 1944 she obtained Cuban citizenship.
Four years later the couple gave up their other business activities, and using space previously occupied only by prickly pears and sea grapes, right in front of the Atlantic Ocean, they built a hotel. It was completed in 1953 and they called it Miramar. The life of the city soon came to centre on it and it was extensively used by businessmen, Americans based at the Guantanamo base and in Nicaro and even by Errol Flynn.
In the register of guests of the Hotel La Rusa, as the people called it, appear the names of Fidel, Celia and Antonio Núñez Jiménez (29th January1960), but they are not the only personalities: in the space allocated to 25th March are the signatures of Ernesto Che Guevara, Raúl, Vilma Espin y Aleida March.
Her own prosperity did not blind La Rusa to the fate of the people. She felt for the struggling people around her and identified with the youthful movement which attempted from 1953 onwards to combat the tyranny of Fulgencio Batista. She helped them with money and medicines and thus paradoxically became involved in a revolutionary process of the same stamp as that which she so precipitately fled at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Magdalena, Mima, La Rusa… her name marks a period of the history of the First Settlement of the Island of Cuba, where she inscribed her name as one of the most universal women of Baracoa.
Oscar Montero Gonzáles was born in the neighbourhood of La Playa, Baracoa, on 8th September 1924, son of Ciro and Ambrosina. He owes his nickname to a doll from the tailor’s ‘House of Memories’ which attracted and delighted everyone and a friend (Pedro Limia, a singer) called him Cayamba because it was so pleasant to be in his company. He was a solderer at the Omnibus Company but his transcendent qualities were his charisma and his self-taught talents as a singer. It was as the latter that he earned the affection, respect and admiration of his people. Cayamba shared the stage with the likes of Pablo Milanes, Silvio Rodríguez, Leo Brouwer, Félix Varela, Sara González, Vicente Feliú, Pacho Alonso, Cándido Fabre, Tony Cortes, Aurora Basnuevo and other important Cuban cultural personalities. He is considered Baracoa’s greatest singer. His guitar case alone hinted at his personality, because written on it were verses and reflections about popular philosophy such as:
It is easier to punish, than to pardon
I only take criticism from he who is capable of convincing me in practical terms
And above all the one which immortalized him:
THE GUERRILLA TROUBADOUR, THE SINGER WITH THE UGLIEST VOICE IN THE WORLD, as he used to call himself.
He died on 5th September 1991, but the sound of his guitar and percussion still echo through the streets of my city, as does the voice of the singer which we do not agree to have been the ugliest in the world.