While traveling in Cuba, it seems we can be more closely connected to the past than we are at home. Perhaps it is the absence of instant communication or the stimulation of our senses but the sights and sounds of Cuba are most invigorating. We can learn a great deal about our own heritage by seeing how certain townships in Cuba evolved. When we trace the meager beginnings of what are now prominent Cuban communities, it makes us aware of qualities like neighborhood and community spirit that seem blurred in today’s fast paced, technology-driven socio-economic environment.
Not so in Cuba! Despite the poverty and a restrictive government, Cubans stand united in their commitment to each other, their communities and their faith. What might be taken for granted in other lands bears surprising importance in Cuba. Cubans embrace their cultural diversity and adversity with good nature. The rely upon themselves to entertain each other, share their faith and celebrate the life experience. Those are a few reasons that the average life expectancy rate in Cuba is one of the longest on the planet. What Cubans lack in tangible goods, they compensate for with ingenuity, pride, respect for each other and reverence, admirable qualities by any standard.
One day, Cuba may change. Rumors are that change is in the wind. Certainly, economics will play a large part in any transition. But, if you want to see history as it unfolded and experience the magic of Cuba, People to People tours offer enriching opportunities to meet, listen and talk with energetic and enthusiastic people of Cuba and see history from Cuba’s point of view.
One of Cuba’s most historic towns is Santa Clara. The city was founded in 1689 by 37 frustrated residents of San Juan de los Remedios and 138 members of various families owning and working land around Carmen’s Hill in central Cuba. Some residents of San Juan de los Remedios had become frustrated by numerous pirate invasions in their seaport town and opted to move inland. Santa Clara is 67 kilometers from the Caribbean Sea and 101 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean. It is squarely in the center of Cuba’s most central province, Villa Clara. Today, the population is in excess of 220,000, ranking Santa Clara the fifth largest city in Cuba.
But, there’s a lot more to the Santa Clara story. When the 175 founders of Santa Clara met on Carmen’s Hill, a mass was performed after which the residents of the new town planted a Tamarind tree on the hill. The setting is now called Loma Del Carmen and features a beautiful second generation church and a monument celebrating the christening of the new village. The monument sports a fourth generation Tamarind tree that reminds all of the humble beginnings of this town that achieved uncommon prosperity.
Santa Clara has undergone several name changes over time. First known as Cayo Nuevo, then Dos Cayos, Villa Nueva de Santa Clara, then Pablo Nuevo de Anton Diaz, Villa Clara and finally Santa Clara, the town’s frequent name changes do not reflect the stability of the community.
The town which resides a short distance from Carmen’s Hill and lies in the plain followed the prevailing Spanish colonial design scheme that exists in many Cuban cities. The squared town layout featured a central plaza around which all key buildings were constructed and where residences expanded into streets filtering to the center. Over time, Santa Clara developed several sub-plazas or parques but Parque Vidal (originally Plaza Mayor) remains at the center of the city today. And, what a center it is!
The first major building competed on the square was the Cabildo or City Council and sat near the quiet palm tree church. Cabildo was improved and replaced with a large brick building in 1725. The council building remained the center of Parque Vidal until 1923 when it was demolished in favor of a new church and allowed for the expansion of the parque. Traditionalists opposed the tear down but an aggressive mayor was not to be denied.
During the 19th century, Santa Clara enjoyed a boom and grew to be the largest city in the province, more than doubling the size of the original town of San Juan de los Remedios. Due to its central location, Santa Clara grew as an important transportation hub between Havana and the southern tier. It also served as a central hub for communications.
The city has two iconic figures. Marta Abreu de Estévez, also aptly known as the “Benefactress of Santa Clara,” was the daughter of a founding father. Her incomparable generosity to community was unprecedented and probably remains unparalleled in the island nation.
Her accomplishments were many. Her life was spent dedicated to the growth of Santa Clara and the well-being of the residents. Her husband, Luis Estevez, was chosen Vice President to the New Republic of Cuba after the Spanish American War when Cuba gained its independence. Marta Abreu’s generosity is in plain view today. She funded an electric plant, numerous schools in the district, an asylum for the sick, public laundry stations, a fire station, the train station near Carmen Hill and most spectacularly the “Teatro La Caridad.”
The impressive Teatro was named in honor of Cuba’s patron saint, La Virgin de la Caridad, Our Lady of Charity. The theater rest majestically on Parque Vidal and is a constant reminder of the generosity of Santa Clara’s renowned Benefactress, who designed the building, paid for its construction and insisted that all proceeds from the theater be used to support two schools for the poor that Marta created. The schools still reside behind the theater.
Marta’s generosity toward Santa Clara was not finished. She eventually donated her palatial estate to the city, who used it as the Provincial Government Palace for years. Today, it serves as the Public Library and is named in her honor, Biblioteca Marti. Like her theater, the stunning example of Neo Classical architecture rests comfortably on Parque Vidal, in the thick of it all, where Marta wanted to be.
Santa Clara is also well-known as the final battle site of the Revolution of 1959. The battle of Santa Clara was waged in late 1958 and led by Ernesto Che Guevara and his compatriot Carmilo Cienfuegos. It was this victory that catapulted Fidel Castro to power.
After his death during a failed attack in Bolivia in 1967, Guevara was buried in Santa Clara and a mausoleum in his honor was erected. Tourists can spend days in Santa Clara and still feel there is more to see.