Many years ago, even before I started my own blog, I wrote a series of vignettes called “Estampas habaneras” (in Spanish) for my friend Alexis Romay’s blog.
I’ve thought of using the same concept, now in English, to take my readers for a virtual tour of Havana. Virtual it has to be, anyway, because of the pandemic. Ni modo.
Let’s start with the Havana cemetery that appears, quite prominently, in many of my books. (I hadn’t realized it until a friend mentioned it, then I was like “Coño, that’s true.” But it wasn’t intentional!)
It snuck into my writing at the end of Death Comes in through the Kitchen (Soho Crime, 2018) where is thusly described:
The Colón Cemetery is the final home for over one million quiet residents. Founded in 1876 at El Vedado’s heart, it has retained the neighborhood’s elegant and expansive feel with its sprawling layout, tree-lined avenues, and discreet side streets. The necropolis stretches for one hundred and forty acres of chapels, mausoleums, graves, urns, and vaults.
And it so happens that the “queen of bones” of my most recent mystery, Queen of Bones (Soho Crime, 2019), is Oyá, a Santería deity considered the gatekeeper of cemeteries. The cemetery as such is, in a way, a character in the story, and the setting where several important scenes take place.
The Colón Cemetery’s main entrance was a Romanesque triple arch. Juan had to tiptoe around a string of Santería offerings: flowers, rotten bananas, eggs with names written on them, coins, an ear of corn and even a dead chicken with a red ribbon tied around its feet, feathers strewn all over. He shook his head. The deities his grandmother worshiped had always struck him as suspicious. (…) He stood among the elaborate tombs and statues of angels, engulfed by an ocean of marble, blistering white in the sunlight.
Such fixation (obsession?) may be due to a family connection with the necropolis. It comes via Eugenio Rayneri, my maternal grandfather’s uncle. He built its magnificent entrance and is buried there, of course.
When I went to Havana last year, the first place my mother took me was to the cemetery. Here we are, in an almendrón. She looks at the car like she doesn’t really trust or like it…
Facts about the Colón cemetery:
- It has over 800,000 graves and over 1 million interments
- It was built between 1871 and 1934
- It measures 620 by 800 meters (122.5 acres).
- The layout resembled El Vedado (the neighborhood where it is located) with numbered and lettered streets.
- It’s one of the few quiet public places in Havana. No loud music!
- OK, i made the last one up. But I believe it’s true!
And here is amazing video of the cemetery from Vic Stefanu channel.