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Cuban Family Stories

By Margarita Engle

In one version, the man who kidnapped my great-grandfather for ransom was a famous bandit.  He waited until the rest of the family was away from the farm, enjoying a week at the beach.  On another day, the tale is told as if the ransom note threatened all of my great-grandparents' 14 children.  My ancestor, being a man of modest means, refused to pay. In this version, he is quoted explaining that he had so many children he would never be able to ransom them all.  How could he possibly be expected to choose, saving some of his children, while abandoning the rest to a kidnapper's revenge?  Wasn't it better to wait and see if the threat was a bluff?
 
In all versions of this family legend, the famous kidnapper was caught and imprisoned.  At this point in the story, a famous poet heard about the adventure, and set himself the task of writing a rhymed ballad for my great-grandmother, along with one for each of her fourteen children.  My grandmother's verse praised her beauty, calling her a Rose of Bourbon.
 
I am never sure of the exact date, but all of this happened at the beginning of the twentieth century, a few years after Cuba's third and final struggle for independence from Spain, the war known in the U.S. as the "Spanish-American War."  My grandmother was one of the youngest in her family, so she would have been a child at the time of the notorious kidnapper's threat.  Hopefully, she would have been old enough to enjoy the verse written in her honor, and young enough to trust her father's courage.  I like to imagine that she must have been amused by his refusal to pay any part of the ransom, unless it could be done properly, paid in full.
 
There is another variant of this tale, one in which the famous bandit waited until my great-grandfather had passed away from a chronic stomach ailment.  On the day of the funeral, the kidnapper assumed the role of a cattle rustler.  By the time the family had returned from town, every cow on the farm was tied to a tree, ready to be herded away and sold, traded, or slaughtered for a tidy profit.
 
Even though this last version involves my great-grandfather's death and his family's grief, I find it the most plausible, and in some ways, the most merciful.  I can picture the tropical countryside, green and luxuriant, because by then, the island's vegetation would have recovered from the scorched earth campaigns of Cuban rebels and Imperial Spanish troops.  Memories of the war that ended in 1898 would be history, not daily life. 
 
 
 
Margarita Engle is a botanist and the Cuban-American author of books about the island, most recently The Poet Slave of Cuba, a Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (Henry Holt & Co., 2006).  Short works appear in journals such as Atlanta Review, Caribbean Writer, Hawai'i Pacific Review, Nimrod, and VerbSap.  Recent honors include the Americas Award, an International Reading Association Award, and a Pushcart Prize nomination.  Margarita lives in central California, where she enjoys hiking and helping her husband with his volunteer work for wilderness search-and-rescue dog training programs.

Photo "Going Home" courtesy of Gabor Kovacs, Budapest, Hungary.


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