Cuba, Between History and Legend

Isn’t It Romantic? The door of the beauty parlor swung open and the client flew in, a big, red bow falling over her left shoulder, her straw hat over the right. Lolita’s tomb!” rearranged her bow and hat. At that very instant, Titico, formally known as Robertico de la Cerda del Corral, dropped his scissors, put his pinkish palms flat up against his cheeks, and let out a high-pitched little scream like no other ever heard at “Titico’s Salon of Beauty for High Class Ladies, Est’d 1863”, namely Camagüey’s pre-eminent and rumor mill. As soon as he screamed, Titico stopped working on his other client, a snooty-looking lady from Havana. Titico cried out, “No! I don’t believe it! When? Where? How?! Are they sure she’s dead? I mean, this is Camagüey, and sometimes it’s hard to tell … “ “I’m telling you, Titico, they found it! accurately, the peanut-vendor found it.” Or, more beauty parlor “Titico, honey! They found She then immediately and instinctively


Cuba, Between History and Legend

“The peanut-vendor found a lost tomb? Girl, you finally lost your marbles! And no less than Lolita’s tomb. Of all the dead people in Camagüey the peanut-vendor was able to go and find the one tomb that the whole town has been looking for. No way!” “Titico, I’m telling you, the peanut-vendor went today to have a smoke, like he does every morning after he’s done with all that singing that ‘He’s going, he’s going, the peanut-vendor is going!’. Well, this morning he finally went. To the cemetery. And there, among all those dead people, as big as life, was a sign!” “A sign from God!” gasped Titico. “Well, not exactly,” indicated the messenger. More likely from some guy or other that Lolita turned down during her ‘long career’ before she got small pox …” sniffed the messenger. “E pluribus unum … ‘Among many, one’,” solemnly declared Titico, who pretended to be a Latin-speaking cosmetician and who never missed High Mass at Our


Cuba, Between History and Legend

Lady of Mercy, where all the ladies of high society worshipped and most of his clients came from. It did not matter to the hairdresser that his erudite E pluribus unum did not appear anywhere in the Mass. At this point the client whose mane Titico was curling lifted her aristocratic head and commented, “A dead woman, a sign, E pluribus unum, not to mention the peanut-vendor and the measles… Titico, you have not introduced me to this very interesting young lady so overflowing with news…” “My apologies, Countess!” the hairdresser groveled

before the lady occupying the barber’s chair like Queen Isabella on the throne. “Countess, permit me to introduce to you Señorita Agustina Perpetua Angustias Dolores de Cangas de Lamar y Torreón de Arteaga y Ponce del Carrasco y Lazo de la Vega del Tejar y del Pozo,” managing to get it all out just before he finally ran out of breath. “But they all call me Bon-Bón at the Casino Español!” cheerfully piped in the beautiful Camagüeyan lady,


Cuba, Between History and Legend

sending the other lady a bright and grinning smile, full of teeth. (“Well, that’s a relief …” herself.) “And you would be …?” Bon-Bón then added, her eyelids already beginning to droop with hauteur. Noticing this, Titico jumped in and, in an experienced manner, and taking an even deeper breath, he announced that the lady on the barber’s throne was a new client, a most distinguished lady from Havana, who has recently married a Camagüeyan count. Titico had the truly district honor to introduce to Bon-Bón Señora Caridad de las Mercedes del Carmen del Boniato y Peñalver de Cárdenas del Calzado y Agravida de Los Lazos, Countess of (and here Titico did have to take a second breath) de las Cabezas del Regino y Orbachea de Izarregui y Sarriegui, managing to get all this out just before he finally collapsed. muttered the countess to


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“But at the Club, they all call me Kikí,” interjected the gorgeous Habanera, the newly revealed Countess Kikí. (“God be praised …” whispered , Bon-Bón looking off to the side.) Then turning to the subject at hand, Titico turned to BonBón and asked her with great insistence, “But tell me, darling, about Lolita, how ever did the peanut-vendor find her?” “It’s like this, the peanut-vendor knew of this little plot of land at the cemetery that he had believed for years to be unused. Well, for the last twenty years or so he has gone there just to lie down and have a smoke every morning after his rounds. This morning, though, he goes to the same little plot and—wham! He sees this sign, painted white like a corpse, with black letters of death all over it, and Lolita’s name and surname, and a poem written on the sign!” concluded Bon-Bón. “A poem for the dead!” cried out the countess Kikí.

“Now, this is the Camagüey I came here to experience!


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And what did this poem say, Señorita Bon-Bón ? I’m a great lover of literature, you know! Especially when they write it to dead people …” Upon hearing Kiki’s innocent question, Bon-Bón lit up like a Christmas tree. This was the moment she had been waiting for since she burst into Titico’s temple of beauty. Quite slowly, Bon-Bón moved to the center of the beauty parlor; once there, she stood perfectly still; then she and finally linked her hands below her ample bosom;

raised her head as if she were addressing the Royal Box at the Teatro Principal. She then began reciting with little talent but great pomposity the poem she had made sure she committed to memory before leaving the peanutvendor back at the cemetery and taking off for Titico’s beauty parlor and rumor mill. Bon-Bón commenced, affecting a phony Spanish accent and making a lot of sounds that no one who spoke Cuban Spanish ever made. Here lies Dolores Rondón, Her life now come to an end.


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Draw nigh, oh man, and ponder (peering at her audience) The earthly pursuits, to wit: Pride and Vanity, (she lifted one index finger; then, the other) Wealth and Power. (ditto for the movements) At this Titico and Kikí looked at each other, knowingly, and nodded their heads smugly, in agreement. Bon-Bón resumed her oratory: To naught each one shall come. And immortalized will only be The evil that is rejected And the good that in fact is done! Bon-Bón immediately closed her recitation with a slight step back and a curtsy. She adopted a downcast and tragic look, now pondering the verities she had just prophesied and then steadied herself by resting one of her well-manicured hands on a cabinet full of curlers. Immediately, encores and kudos from her audience of two. Titico even fell to his knees before our Camagüeyan


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Melponene, offering her a bouquet of roses in the form of a feather duster from the shop.

The Tomb of Dolores Rondón, Camagüey/ La tumba de Dolores Rondón,

“How wonderful!

How marvelous!”

cried out the

countess Kikí. “The folly of love! The tragedy of passion! A love so strong that it overcomes death and separation— not to mention small pox! My breast could beat with such a love! But just don’t tell my husband … he would only take advantage …”


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“Me, too! Me, too!” chirped in Bon-Bón. single, of course, I need to meet one …”

“I know I could

be loved by a man just as passionate! But, first, being

“Ladies! Ladies! Of course, we can all feel that love and inspire such passion—we’re Cubans!” added in an nationalistically Titico. And then he whispered

enigmatic tone, “On this island, the Tropics weave their magic spell …” he trailed off, mysteriously, never quite explaining exactly how the Tropics weave that spell or what they could do for Cubans and their love life. Suddenly, out of the blue, but returning them all to reality, this observation from Kikí, “It must have been a very big sign, don’t you think? I mean, for God’s sake, all those words!” deduced the lover of fine writing. “Well, I’m sure she deserved every last one of them,” put in Titico, diplomatically. pursed their lips. The women agreed—and then

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Then the Habanera, the “foreigner”, blasphemed, “But what does it matter, anyway? Rondón?” Titico and Bon-Bón were stunned, stupefied. “Oh, my Who was this Dolores

dear! In her day Lolita Rondón was one of the most beautiful people in Camaguey!” remarked Bon-Bón, still in awe. “And are there many of those?” asked dryly the countess from Havana. “One or two,” came back the opening salvo from BonBón, her eyes narrowing. Titico, perceiving this impending civil war between the Capital and the provinces, jumped in, cleared this throat, and explained. “In her day, Lolita Rondón was indeed the most gorgeous woman in Camagüey, already a land of beautiful women,” and here he threw a smile at Bon-Bón. “She was shapely and had large, green eyes, and long black hair, very straight, which always surprised me because, you know … Lolita had a touch of the tar brush, if you know what I mean …” said the hairdresser, who

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was himself a light-skinned mulatto.

“When Lolita had

money and was ‘somebody’ in this town, she was my client and, believe you me, her hair was as naturally straight as the Empress of China’s.” “Indian blood!” Bón. “But,” Titico continued, “in her final days she ended up at El Carmen Hospital, that last stop for the poorest of the poor,” the hairdresser indicated by way of explanation to the Habanera. “And that’s where the poor thing died.” “They say she was then buried in a pauper’s grave. They even took her to the cemetery in the Owl Cart,” Bon-Bón whispered conspiratorially, leaning forward, as if this aspect of Lolita’s death and burial was too awful to even be said out loud. “The Owl Cart?” said Kikí, now more perplexed than ever, as any “foreigner” to Camagüey would have been. “What, in Heaven’s name, is that?” came back in unison from Kikí and Bon-

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“It’s about the worst thing that can happen to you in Camagüey!” childhood in sighed the Titico, slums remembering looking his own very and down,

melancholic, while pulling gray hairs out of a black brush full of dandruff. “It’s for the poorest of the poor. It’s an old hearse pulled by this old nag that’s on her last leg. That’s how they buried poor Lolita Rondón, or at least that’s what they say,” he concluded in a quiet, tinny voice, looking like a sad and lost little boy. “Well, true, but it’s not all bad, her end, I mean,” said Bon-Bón, trying to lighten the mood. “She did get to meet up with an old flame towards the end, didn’t she?” “While riding in the Owl Cart or once she was dropped off at the cemetery?” asked Kikí, now really more confused than ever. “No! At the hospital for poor people, at El Carmen!”

corrected Titico, making a distinction without much of a difference.

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“In a hospital ward! How splendid! Like in The Lady of the Camellias!” remarked Kikí, undeterred in her romanticism and now showing off her love of great drama. “As Fate would have it,” philosophized Titico, “an old beau, one Juan Francisco de Moya y Escobar, barber and phlebotomist, was making a few extra pesos at El Carmen Hospital drawing blood, when one day, during his rounds, he walks innocently into Infectious Diseases while Who carrying a huge jar of African leeches and—boom! course, she didn’t look the same.” “Who would?” chanted in unison Bon-Bón and the

do you think he runs into if it isn’t Lolita Rondón! But, of

countess, looking at the gilded mirror and then fixing their hair in perfect synchronicity. “Well,” Bon-Bón picked up the tale at this point, “Moya

had carried a torch for Lolita forever. Some claimed he was still in love with her even after she got small pox, which, according to what they say, is what landed her in the hospital in the first place.”

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“Oh, yes, small pox! Dr. Finlay! The vaccine! The cows! Why, I remember that in Havana, we …” the countess began to retell, dreamily, yet another tale of her youth. The fact that Dr. Finlay’s research involved yellow fever and not small pox did not deter her in the least. This new tale, though, was something that immediately sent Titico and Bon-Bón into such convulsive fits of coughing in a desperate attempt to stop the story that one would have thought that they both belonged at El Carmen, anything to prevent his Habanera from drifting off into her own novel. “Moya had known la Rondón all his life,” explained Titico, desperately trying to get them back on subject. Bon-Bón nodded in confirmation. “When they were young—but before she hit it big and became my client—Lolita lived on Céspedes Street and Moya had this little barber shop somewhere around the corner. I, being a hairdresser, and Moya, being a barber, we knew each other but only slightly. Well, Lolita’s father also had a shop on that street, something to do with cloth, or rope, or something that he sold to the Spanish military. Her father loved her

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tremendously and he would spoil Lolita rotten but he never officially recognized her as his daughter. Despite that, Lolita was very popular around the neighborhood, especially when she sang and—oh my!—how she loved to sing! Moya, working nearby, would drop whatever he was doing, whether in his official capacity as a barber or as a phlebotomist, and would run around the corner to hear Lolita sing, just to sit there and listen to her siren’s song.” “Ah! The Song of Love! Why, I remember that when I was young, back in Havana …” the countess was off and running again. However, once again she was soon reduced to silence by Bon-Bón’s chronic and incurable coughing fits, obviously an infectious disease Bon-Bón had caught from Titico. Picking up the thread from Titico, Bon-Bón continued, “And a siren is all she ever was with poor Moya. He would send her love notes; he’d send her flowers; he’d send her gifts; and nothing. Lolita was as cold as a glass of guarapo; she was holding out for bigger game.”

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“And she got it!” Titico took over the story now; his favorite part.

this was

For the Habanera it was like being in

an operating room and in the presence of two prominent surgeons, watching them take turns while doing an autopsy of poor Lolita’s life. “Yes, one day she finally hit the jackpot!” Titico was so excited over this part of the story that he had started to jump up and down, clapping his hands with tiny, little claps. “The man she met was to die for, just to die for!” The two women lowered their heads and exchanged a knowing glance. But Titico was not to be stopped. He continued

rapturously, “He was handsome, and rich, and an officer, and white! And so rich! Lolita’s life changed, I mean, it changed completely! Now she was married to a Spanish officer and every day it was an endless series of parties, and balls, and high society, and the Casino Español, and parades, and even those festivities that celebrated the restoration of the King in Spain! Oh, the glamour of it all!” Titico then finally landed. The two women were not saying anything. They were just staring at him, fixedly, a certain coolness now descending like a glaze over their eyes.

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Titico became more subdued with his storytelling from that point on. “Of course, not all was happiness with that man … of course. One day husband and wife decided to take a trip back to Spain, where the husband was from, since he had just made Captain. Well, during what was supposed to have been the trip of a lifetime, the Captain up and dies on poor Lolita! And soon after that came the worst part: Prince Charming had left her penniless, He had actually gambled away all absolutely ruined! Español! Men!” These memories were just all too much for him. Titico took an old rinse pan with some dirty water in it and, looking disgusted, threw the water down the drain. remembering … how men can be. Bon-Bón saw her chance to regain the spotlight and grabbed it. “Lolita then came back to Cuba, now a penniless widow, and eventually, she turned up again in Camagüey. From then on began what they call ‘the Lost He then sat down and sighed again, this time deeply,

their money during those nights of glamour at the Casino

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Years of Lolita Rondón’ because, incredible as it may seem in such a small town, no one has ever found out what happened to her between the time when she came back to town and when she got small pox and ended up at El Carmen. Some wagging tongues say (but not us, of course!) that during those years Lolita had to rely on ‘the kindness of strangers’.” “In that case, what landed her at El Carmen wasn’t small pox, honey …” Titico observed from experience, putting away the rinse pan. “Be that as it may, at the end of her days, “ continued Bon-Bón, “there she was, and there was Moya again, ever faithfully in love, right by her side. Loyal to the end!”

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From the “Caprices”, by Francisco de Goya (18th c.)/ De los “Caprichos”, por Francisco de Goya (s. 18)

“Oh! Camagüeyan men can be so romantic!” exclaimed the lady from Havana, now married to a Camagüeyan count. Why do you suppose that is, Bon-Bón?” “Personally, I think it’s from drinking all that rain water from the ‘tinajones’,” observed the single Señorita Bon-

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Bón. To which Titico retorted, “Personally, I think it’s from wearing pants so tight that they squeeze their …” “Titico! You hush, now!” severe while giggling hairdresser with her fan. Bon-Bón then added, “Well, I have to run. Titico, I adore you!” Then to Kikí, “Countess, it has been a pleasure and an honor. I will look for you at the Casino Español. And welcome to our Camagüey, warts and all! Love, death, tombs, and poems. And now Dolores Rondón. I’m sure Who knows, maybe it was she will become legendary! Bon-Bón tried to appear very and tapping the naughty

Moya who wrote that sign, don’t you think?” Titico agreed, “It was obviously someone who knew her and who loved her, ‘warts and all’.” “Abur, abur!” cried out Bon-Bón, as she jetted out the

door of the beauty parlor (and rumor mill) the same way she had come in, then running across Avellaneda Street, trying to catch up with someone she knew to rehash all over again the latest on Dolores Rondón. She had completely forgotten about her hair appointment at

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Titico’s. Before she left, though, she looked at Titico, then at the countess, and then back at Titico. understood perfectly. back at her. “What a positively charming young lady …” casually, looking up at Kikí said Titico Next time, Bon-Bón wanted the

really juicy details about that countess Kikí. Titico winked

Titico in the mirror as he was

finishing her last curl, staring at him as if she were asking him for something. Titico quickly sized her up: he figured that she would probably be a good-paying client and that, after all, she would be living in Camagüey from now on. So, he decided to “initiate” her. Titico very quietly leaned forward pretending absolute confidentiality, finally hissing, “Yes, very charming, of course … and yet, about ten years ago, there was a rumor going around town that …” and just like that—just like that!—they had moved on from the life of Dolores Rondón.

In 1933, a marble monument, though of modest proportions, was set up at the expense of the city government of Camagüey to replace the old painted sign that had first appeared in 1887 carrying la Rondón’s

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However, before then, whenever the sign had The

shown a need for restoration, the repair would be done overnight, mysteriously, and by unseen hands. main cemetery of Camagüey. marble document may still be seen to this day in the On the eve of the Communist take-over in 1959, virtually all Camagüeyans knew the poem by heart—and loved it. Some among the older generation to this day still remember the verses perfectly. For them, Dolores Rondón and her tragic story of love personified Camagüey. Bon-Bón had proven to be an unwittingly accurate prophetess: become a legend. Lolita had indeed

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Notes Warning to the reader: the author of this collection is a native Camagüeyan. Here follows, therefore, some guidance: regarding the Church of Our Lady of Mercy, see “The Hardest Thing” in this collection. Céspedes and Avellaneda Streets are major streets in the historical center of Camagüey. Regarding El Carmen Hospital, see “Heaven-sent” in this collection. The Teatro Principal was among the main theaters in Camagüey, where great performances such as opera, city-wide events, etc., were held. Tinajones were very large clay pots where rainwater was collected for drinking and other household uses. This was done almost exclusively in Camagüey and, therefore, the tinajones became the very symbol of Camagüey. “¡Abur, abur!” is “Camagüeyan” for “Bye-bye!” All translations from the original Spanish or into English are by this author. The theme of this most famous Camagüeyan poem is an ancient and venerable one: the “vanitas vanitatis et omnia vanitas” of Classical antiquity, dating back at least to the Old Testament and the Book of Ecclesiastes. In Spanish literature, all the great poets have felt obliged to pay homage to it. Among them are two of this author’s favorites: Pedro Calderón de la Barca (“These that were showy and joyful/When at morn they first awoke,/at eventide vain pity shall be/Asleep in the bosom of the cold night…) and Luis de Góngora y Argote (“Learn, oh blossoms, from me/The changes from day to day,/Yesterday a wonder was I,/Today, would that a shadow I’d be”), both major luminaries of Spain’s “Golden Age”. Lolita’s father was a Spaniard, one Vicente Rams. The name of Lolita’s mother has been lost to History and there is only speculation as to who she might have been. As Lolita did not carry her father’s name, it is assumed that she was illegitimate. The Casino Español and colonial politics: a very exclusive club in Camagüey, which, during the 1800’s, was patronized especially by sympathizers of Spain’s continuing domination of Cuba. Its patrons, therefore, were mostly Royalists and not Cuban nationalists. Politically, Dolores Rondón may well have been on the side of continuing Spanish domination of Cuba and not in favor of Cuban independence. Her father was Spanish and he had regular business dealings with the Spanish military, one of his clients. In addition, Lolita herself married a Spanish officer (“Captain”, legend says). Finally, Lolita, as a Royalist, reputedly celebrated the restoration of the Spanish monarchy under Amadeo I of Savoy, in 1870, in Madrid. To Cubans of the Republican period (1902-1959), however, Lolita’s political inclinations certainly took a back seat to her dramatic life of passion and death.

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History records that in 1863 Camagüey was ravaged by a small pox epidemic. This is about the time when Lolita was said to have been seen at the El Carmen Hospital. This poses a problem of chronology for the historian. How could she have been enjoying her best days in 1870 when she celebrated King Amadeo’s coronation as well as the restoration of the Spanish monarchy but seven years earlier be dying, a penniless widow, in a Camagüeyan hospital? Regardless, for the legend this apparent contradiction poses no problem whatsoever. There are many sites on the Internet with additional information (and some speculation) on Dolores Rondón and her legend. A good and established source is Dr. Abel Marrero Camponioni’s essay in www.camagueycuba.org. * * *