November 16, 1519: Havana’s birth

Havana, November 15, 2010. Hundreds of people wait at the door of the former Palace of the Captains General, today Museum of the City, for a curious procession to begin. The motley crowd is composed of smiling youths and solemn elderly people, couples with their children and grandparents with their grandchildren, lovers and lonely hearts. Many are wearing their everyday clothes; others, their Sunday best and even new clothes for the occasion.

It’s 6 o’clock and the chimes of the bells from the Castillo de La Real Fuerza announce that the ceremony is about to start. Preceded by children from nearby schools who carry the silver maces that once belonged to the council of Havana, and accompanied by a group of his collaborators, Eusebio Leal Spengler, Historian of the City of Havana, exits the Palace of the Captains General. Someone cries: “Here comes Leal!” and the people who have been waiting hours for this moment quickly join the procession and walk across Plaza de Armas to the Templete.

The Templete is a small neo-classical building constructed in the early 19th century to commemorate the first mass and council held in the town of San Cristóbal de La Habana (the fifth one founded by the Spanish) on November 16, 1519.

Although Leal’s words are always received with pleasure, the crowd seems to be impatient. The historian, who for many years has headed the procession, has sensed this and is brief. He reminds his listeners that the actual founding of what is now the capital of the Republic of Cuba took place in 1514 to the south of the island in Batabanó. Commenting on the fact that Havana will commemorate its half millennium in a few years, Leal said: “I sincerely hope that all of us may be here in 2019 to celebrate Havana’s 500th anniversary. But now let us rejoice that we are here today celebrating the relocation of that initial camp to the south which was transformed into a town and became San Cristóbal de La Habana.”

He also commented on the custom of walking three times around the ceiba tree that is planted at the entrance of the Templete: “Someone asked me once to explain why we walk around the ceiba, as if poetry, which is the spice of life, could be explained. Yes, it is essential that we walk around the tree and, in that spiral, ask time to stretch out its hand…and know that the future can be only approached from the past.”

At the mere mention of the ceiba, which recalls the tree that existed back in the 16th century and under whose shade the first mass was held, a stir took hold of the long line of people, sensing that the time was near for the procession round the tree to begin. Indeed, a few minutes later, Leal himself walked three times round the tree throwing a coin on every turn. Then, the historian invited the public to follow suit and the ritual began and continued all night and into the morning of the 16th.

Although according to tradition, waiting in line must be done in absolute silence and is not wholesome to make known what you are going to ask the tree for, it is almost impossible for a Cuban to keep quiet so long, and pretty soon you can hear absolute strangers telling each other their reasons for coming this night to Old Havana: cures for illnesses, happy endings to unrequited loves, prosperity for newly started businesses, the solution to lengthy immigration procedures, success in infertility treatments, good results in university entrance examinations, finding prince charming…. Those with a more pragmatic approach to life simply ask what the Spaniards sum up as “health and wealth.”

The details of the ritual have never been really established. No one can say for sure if you only ask for one wish or a different one with every turn; if you throw a coin every time you go round the tree or only one coin or several at the end. The two currencies in Cuba also pose new concerns. What will be most effective, an offering in the domestic currency or in convertible pesos? Others are suspicious about the destination of the money left under the tree or inserted in the tree trunk and the well-known answer is that it is used for social works in Old Havana.

So, amidst, conversations, questions and suspicions, the hours go by and with the break of day, the line begins to grow with workers before they head off to their jobs in schools, banks, stores, offices…. They also wish to dedicate some time and make a wish at the ceiba of good fortune.


  • Cine Pobre: Cuba’s hippest & retro film festival is back

    Cine Pobre: Cuba’s hippest & retro film festival is back  LH 5

    After a two-year break, Cuba’s ‘poor man’s’ film festival is back. Founded by Cuban filmmaker Humberto Solas, the festival is traditionally held in the sleepy fishing village of Gibrara that wakes up …

    July 26, 1953: Attack on Moncada Barracks

    July 26, 1953: Attack on Moncada Barracks  LH 5

    On July 26, 1953 a group of young men and two women led by Fidel Castro attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba while another group attacked the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Barracks in the cit …

    International Workers’ Day

    International Workers’ Day  LH 5

    Hundreds of thousands of Cubans filed through Havana’s Revolution Square on Wednesday, May 1, 2013 in a May Day parade that paid tribute to Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader…A sea of workers, many we …

    Paco De Lucía at the 2013 Leo Brouwer Chamber Music Festival

    Paco De Lucía at the 2013 Leo Brouwer Chamber Music Festival  LH 5

    We cannot thank Leo Brower enough for his contribution to Cuban culture. Not only for his work—possibly the most extensive and solid of all time of any Cuban composer—but also for the time he has devo …

    Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope

    Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope  LH 5

    The Terry Fox Marathon of Hope takes place in Havana and all across the country, starting at 9am. This has the greatest participation of any country in the world with up to 2.3 million people running, …

    Balletomania at the International Ballet Festival

    Balletomania at the International Ballet Festival  LH 5

    Blind but beady-eyed, beaky-nosed, old, imposing and profoundly glamorous, Alicia Alonso stands in a single spotlight at the front of the dress circle of the Gran Teatro de La Habana, bathed in waves …

    III Harley Davidson Rally (Encuentro Harlista!)

    III Harley Davidson Rally (Encuentro Harlista!)  LH 5

    This past weekend, I was thrust into one of Cuba’s most prismatic and emblematic subcultures and scenes: I rode along on the country’s first Harley rally, when over 50 riders made their way to Varader …

    VII Jornada Cubana contra la Homofobia (IDAHO)

    VII Jornada Cubana contra la Homofobia (IDAHO)  LH 5

    From May 5 to May 24, Cuba will celebrate the 7th Jornada Cubana contra la Homofobia in Havana, Granma and other locations in Cuba. The two-week event included symposiums, lectures, films, art exhibit …

    2012 Arte y Moda Fashion show: Extreme style

    2012 Arte y Moda Fashion show: Extreme style  LH 5

    Habaneros are a special lot. Guilty of multiple crimes of fashion and poor taste from the yonky to the most outrageous lycra outfits and ridiculously short skirts, they manage even in the midst of eco …

    Highlights of the 2012 Havana Art Biennial

    Highlights of the 2012 Havana Art Biennial  LH 5

    The 11th Havana Biennial is already under way and for those of us who have attended its exhibitions, installations and performances so far, it is a time of evocation and strong emotions triggered by t …

    1 of 8 pages »