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I asked Behar and my other companions from the Jewish community if the damage was something new. They told me it looked visibly worse now but the defacement wasn’t unheard of. Nor is it exclusive to Jewish cemeteries. For instance, they mentioned that some desecration has taken place at the Cementerio Colón, the main graveyard in Havana, located in the Vedado neighborhood and built in 1876. But the acts of vandalism there are minor. More cases occur in Chinese cemeteries. In any case, they agreed that the Jewish tombstones have suffered substantially in recent times.
I inquired into the cause and received three explanations:
The first is the popular suspicion that Jews bury their dead with jewelry. Castro’s revolution organized nationwide education programs that have paid off. The percentage of illiteracy is minuscule compared with other Latin American countries. Equally, state-run efforts to eliminate poverty, in cities as well as in the countryside, have been effective. Still, the country’s economy is in shambles. It once survived as part of its loyalty to the Soviet Union and is now dependant on Venezuelan oil and other products delivered by Venezuela out of political empathy. In other words, searching for treasures in tombs, especially in Jewish ones, isn’t accidental.
The second explanation is far less believable. Since Raul Castro took over the reign of the government from his ailing brother, Fidel, private enterprise has tentatively emerged on the island, with restaurants opening up, real estate being sold, the construction industry widening and so on. Marble is a commodity with market value. The challenge with this explanation is that, as far as I could assess, the tombstones, while broken, are not missing any marble.
The third explanation — and unquestionably the most worrisome — has to do with religious practices in Guanabacoa. In the 1920s, the town had several Jewish garment businesses, including Sedanita, owned by an American Jew from the Lower East Side. But the town is best known for Santería, a syncretic Caribbean belief that combines West African elements with Christian motifs. Less well known is another religion with African roots that took hold in Cuba; it’s called Regla de Palo Monte, or simply Palo Monte.
One of the rituals of Palo Monte requires the use of bones from nonbaptized people. These bones come from Jewish and Chinese graveyards. The Jewish bones are the only ones used to ward off the evil eye.
This last explanation left me stunned. I asked Behar if the Cuban government does anything to stop the practitioners of Palo Monte. She said they are part of a colonial-era religion with a growing number of adepts in the country, and the authorities are unlikely to undermine it since it plays a central role in the nation’s collective identity. But should that collective identity be built on dishonoring the dead of other faiths, in this case the Jews?
While my entire stay in Guanabacoa lasted no more than a couple of hours, I have dreamed of it repeatedly. The feeling I have is of disbelief, not to say disquiet. Tolerant as one should be of other people’s cultural practices, I cannot — will not — appease my indignation.
The dead are our past. Our foundation.
Ilan Stavans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org