Into the Sunset
Narciso González de Mesa had a rich life in the waning years of Spanish power. His son and grandchildren had to seek reinvention in the empire’s ashes.
In the United States talking about the republic’s decline is a popular pastime.
I suspect the current funk stems from a deeply rooted predisposition, sown by doomsday-obsessed Christianity, irrigated by the burden of exceptionalism and let loose by the sputtering of a once invincible prosperity engine.
Since the thrill of being a newly minted American hasn’t worn off, I find the angst overblown. Superpowers suffer from hiccups. But it’s true that all empires fall — with weighty consequences for their citizens.
The rich hide behind their walls while the poor become desperate. Established families, riveted by insecurity, crumble and scatter, while the ambitious see their opportunities narrow, even if the downfall does make for interesting times.
In our own family one doesn’t have to go back too far to see what an imperial debacle means for the common people.
In April 1917, Narciso González y Moinelo, a middle-aged pharmacist from Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, took his family aboard the Manuel Calvo, a steamship bound for Cuba.
Narciso was following in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, who sought in the former Spanish colonies the opportunity they lacked at home.
The Spain they fled had nothing left of its former might. The nation had transformed the face of the Earth by bringing America into the Western fold and dominated European battlefields for six generations. Now it was about to reach the blood-soaked nadir of a long decline — the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.
The rot had set in the late 16th century, but only became apparent to the military-minded Spaniards after the French routed their famed tercios at the battle of Rocroi, in the Flanders, in the mid-1600s.
A brief renaissance in the late 18th century — during which Spain helped the birthing of the United States by waging victorious war against Britain — ended with humiliating defeat at Trafalgar, Napoleon’s occupation of Spain, and the emancipation of the mainland Spanish American colonies. The fallen superpower was further humiliated by the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the upstart United States in 1898.
By the 20th century, political life teetered between dictatorship and anarchy. The bulk of the population was backward and illiterate. Spain was a “a cloud of dust left behind by a great people in its gallop through the path history,” wrote José Ortega y Gasset, a liberal Spanish philosopher.
Ortega y Gasset alleged that historical circumstances an integral part of one’s personality — and dictated one’s choice of destinies. Spaniards of his era must have looked longingly at the circumstances of their 16th century ancestors.
Many migrants to the Americas came from the impoverished peasantry. Not Narciso, the scion of a proud military family who had a degree in chemistry from the prestigious Central University of Madrid.
After graduating, Narciso settled in the Canary Islands, where his late father, the peripatetic Don Narciso González de Mesa, had held a high-ranking military post and established important connections. The young Narciso married Maria del Pino González de Ara y Calzadilla, a Canarian woman whose lineage stretched well beyond the Spanish conquest of the Atlantic archipelago, all the way back to the Visigothic takeover of Roman Spain.
The Canaries were an interesting backwater. Settled by the Spanish kingdom of Castile in the late 15th century, they were Spain’s first overseas possession and served as a springboard for the conquest of America. Just like they’d later do in Mexico and Peru, Castilians mixed their blood with the native Guanches, a mysterious people of North African stock. Trade on wine and sugar cane at one point drew immigrants from Britain, Italy and Portugal, but the islands remained a remote, stagnant outpost of Hispanic civilization off of Africa.
Narciso, the newcomer, undertook various enterprises, including a pharmacy in Guimar, a small town in the eastern side of Tenerife where his son, my grandfather Carmelo González y González de Ara, was born. He also actively participated in the local chamber of commerce and was in charge of the first natural gas meters installed in the island. Nothing seemed to bring him fortune. Eventually, some catalyst — apparently a dispute with a business partner — prompted him to leave for Cuba, his departure chronicled in the local papers.
Something else distinguished Narciso from the multitude of Spanish migrants sailing westward: he had actually been born in Cuba, which just a few years before been a rich overseas province of Spain. Now, under U.S. tutelage, it had blossomed into a bustling country full of promise.
Narciso’s father and namesake, Narciso González de Mesa, first arrived in Cuba as an 18 year old on Dec. 6, 1863. The son of a decorated Spanish Army comandante, he was a fresh graduate of the school of the Army Administrative Corps in Madrid. His military record states that he was 5' 4", disciplined, and very well read. “Instruccion: mucha,” a hand-written note added to the report says.
His brother Natalio also followed the military path trod by their father and enrolled in the infantry and came to Cuba at around the same time. The González brothers were part of a military build-up in the Caribbean resulting from the brief re-annexation by Spain of the eastern half of Santo Domingo.
Narciso was posted there briefly, but came back to Cuba after the army retreated.
Tensions ran high in Cuba, and that meant Narciso would soon be back.
The Creole aristocracy, grown astoundingly rich on the sugar trade and in awe of the United States, became increasingly estranged from stagnant Madrid. Local grandees resented the heavy hand of the Spaniards, who denied Cubans parliamentary representation and press freedom. Taxes were enormous — they paid for the huge army Spain fielded there in order to keep black slaves in submission and white pretensions in check.
In 1868, the war began. Creole planters in eastern and central Cuba freed their slaves and declared a Cuban republic. Among them was General Ángel del Castillo Agramonte, whose granddaughter Elva del Castillo y Vidal would, many decades later, marry Narciso’s grandson Carmelo.
Narciso was sent back to Cuba in 1870, to Puerto Príncipe, the epicenter of the rebellion; so was his brother Natalio. Narciso was in charge of administering the artillery’s treasury, as well as the livestock that fed the army.
Our two abuelos — the middle-class, bureaucratic Spanish officer with literary dreams and the aristocratic, violent principeño rebel — didn’t cross paths, for Ángel had been killed in battle the previous year.
But ironically, the house where Ángel was born — a big mansion with black and white tile floors near Puerto Príncipe’s main square — became during the war the regional headquarters for the Spanish military effort. The young officer must have set foot in there a few times.
In Puerto Príncipe Narciso saved some time for poetry. He evoked his home country and his parents.
Los recuerdos de las madres
Y de hijos que son buenos,
Cruzan el ancho Océano
En los alisios eternos;
El corazón dulcifican,
Dejan el pecho sereno,
Y si el llanto nos acude
Dan las lágrimas consuelo.
Yo sé lo hermoso que llega
A nuestra España un recuerdo!
Tengo allí prendas del alma,
Aunque aquí también las tengo;
Mas en noche silenciosa
El euro, la brisa, el cierzo,
Estoy seguro que llegan
Como fieles mensageros,
Y en la frente de mi padre,
Veterano casi ciego,
y de una anciana en los labios les dejan, cual mio, un beso.
¡Cuánto vale, cuánto vale
De un corazón el recuerdo!
Eventually the war ground down to a stalemate. Narciso was dispatched to various postings, including administering the military hospital in Matanzas, which got him in trouble. Accused of fraud in the handling of the institution’s monies, he was held for several months at the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña pending an investigation. He was found innocent, according to army records.
From his temporary confinement he could see the city that would become the focal point of his career, not only as an officer, but as a poet and a playwright.
Havana had long been the naval hub of the Spanish commonwealth. After Haiti’s independence it became an immensely rich center of commerce, fueled by Cuba’s newfound role as the world’s main purveyor of sugar.
Dazzling apartment buildings, rambunctious cafes and theaters, proud palaces and huge fortresses — they all heralded Spanish grandeur, as if the Golden Age had never ended.
It was an expensive city. Land-owning Creoles lived in charmed idleness, attended by retinues of slaves, while commerce and menial labor were in the hands of fresh-of-the-boat immigrants from Catalonia and Galicia.
Some soldiers deserted to join the throngs of immigrant shopkeepers and farm workers out to make a buck. Officers found themselves in a difficult position, for they were expected to be part of polite society, which was hard to do on a government salary.
Yet they played the part. Many married into Creole families, including Narciso: in the 1870s he tied the knot with Maria del Rosario Moinelo y Domínguez, a woman from the rich sugar cane growing region of Matanzas. She came from a family of intellectuals (her father Néstor ran a prominent school in Matanzas, a city known as the “Athens of Cuba” due to the number of theaters and schools it harbored) and descended from Spanish Florida pioneers.
Narciso soon connected with the intellectual scene of Havana. The young Spaniard fell in with the smart crowd that surrounded Don Nicolas Azcárate, a prominent Creole lawyer.
They’d meet for conversaciones literarias at the lawyer’s house. In 1884, Narciso dedicated a book of poems to Azcárate, thanking him for his hospitality. He also excuses himself for the sloppiness of his work, highlighting that it was written over the course of several years and “late at night, the only time that I can profit from to devote myself to my poetic inclinations.” That’s why the collection was titled “Veladas,” or “soirées.”
Azcárate and his circle of wealthy Cubans and prominent, liberal Spaniards also created a cultural club — the Nuevo Liceo de La Habana. For its events, the club rented out the Albisu theater, a large venue popular with zarzuela-addicted Spanish immigrants. It bordered Havana’s Central Park. Today the site is occupied by the imposing Centro Asturiano.
El Museo, a literary weekly, unctuously describes a Friday night there (Feb 8. 1884).
“A triple row of luxurious private coaches was parked on the square awaiting the end of the show, proof that those in attendance at the Nuevo Liceo are the most select elite of Havana… for their displays of luxury, as well as for their distinction, elegance, intelligence and beauty…”
The evening’s program included J’attends encore, a tune by Italian composer Tito Mattei and sung by Juana Spencer de Delorme, an amateur singer from a wealthy Havana family. Aurelio Ceruelos, a Spanish pianist who later gained some fame in New York, played Anton Rubinstein’s Valse-Caprice.
Narciso’s work was represented too that night. El Museo writes that a romantic monologue recited by Dolores Rosainz, Ilusiones al Viento, was a successful performance for the actress and also for the author, “Mr. González Mesa, whom the public drove onto stage” with applause.
Azcárate and his friends didn’t spend all their energy on culture: they also had strong views on Cuba’s political future.
Azcárate was a fierce abolitionist who had long advocated not only for the liberation of slaves, but also for greater Cuban self-determination. He once represented the island in a failed bid for more freedom before the Spanish parliament.
Although his vocal opinions landed him in hot water with the colonial government, he was never for outright independence. He wanted autonomy for the island, a status similar to that of Canada under the U.K. at the time.
Azcárate is also remembered for being a mentor to Jose Marti, the tireless apostle of Cuban independence. When Azcárate died in 1894, Marti wrote an elegy that nevertheless criticized his mentor’s moderation.
“The friend, the journalist, the organizer, has passed. In the confines of a Spanish job dies a Cuban whose natural majesty came to appear as meek and obscure, due to the fruitless attempt of adjusting his prodigious and rebellious character to that of a rapacious, despotic and treacherous nation.”
By his associations and some of his work— he wrote admiringly of Napoleon Bonaparte, a slayer of anciens régimes — we surmise that Narciso had liberal leanings.
He had a liberal family background as well, as his father had taken arms in the Carlist civil wars against supporters of Don Carlos, an arch-conservative pretender to the throne.
So it’s interesting to ponder what Narciso thought about Cuba’s quest for independence.
Narciso must have considered the island an integral part of Spain, the country he swore to protect. At the same time, he must’ve been frustrated by the obstinacy of his own government, which denied Cubans the same freedoms it granted Peninsular Spaniards.
One clue comes from the late Ana Luisa Queral, a great-grand-daughter of Narciso’s brother, Natalio.
In a dramatized account that draws from the stories of Ana Carolina González, Natalio’s daughter, she portrays the officer, on his return to Spain in the 1880s, as defending the ideas of the Cuban rebels.
Natalio tells fellow officers that the rebels, who had just lost the first round of the independence war against Spain, are fighting against the past and defending their democratic idea with commendable vehemence.
While he is duty-bound to defend the established order, risking his life in Cuba — just as his own father had done in Morocco — Natalio says that the struggle against the Cuban rebels “will be tough, and might be lost, if it’s augmented by the inflexibility” of Spanish rule.
One thing is certain: Narciso González de Mesa loved Cuba and wrote extensively about the island, which he described as bathed in “oceans of light” and teeming with life, a land of “enchantment and love.”
Tierra de luz y placeres,
Donde mi alma gozar pudo :
De las Antillas princesa,
El Atlántico te besa,
Yo, te saludo.
In that same 1882 poem he ponders immortality, literary and otherwise, as he writes about his only son, the future pharmacist.
Dónde irán de mis canciones
Los acentos, dónde irán?
¿ Dónde irán,
Si las bebo en tus ambientes,
Y tus brisas sonrientes
Me las vienen á inspirar ?
¿ Dónde irán
Las canciones que mi hijo,
Que lo es tuyo, ha de guardar?
Narciso left Cuba in 1898, just a few months before the U.S. took it over. He had been appointed subintendente militar, or chief of army logistics, for the Canary Islands. He had become a widower at some undetermined point in time, and he remarried in Tenerife, but died of leukemia just a few months later.
His literary career, which spanned several plays, two poetry books and even a couple of military treatises, was soon forgotten by history.
Narciso’s work nevertheless remains in the care of the National Library of Spain, where some of it is available in digital form, as well as various U.S. university libraries and the Hispanic Society of America, in New York. My dear friend Aníbal Sabater once tracked down an actual hard copy for me in an ancient Madrid bookstore.
That constitutes, if not the glory he perhaps dreamed of, a certain form of immortality, for his scattered descendants can get a glimpse of his thinking.
Natalio, Narciso’s brother, also felt drawn to Cuba, where he settled after retiring from the Army in the early 1890’s. He had married a young woman from Puerto Príncipe, Carolina de las Nieves Hurtado de Mendoza, and they had many children.
An anecdote told to me by Natalio’s great-grandson, Al Fernández of South Florida, shows how the final days of the Spanish empire impacted the calculations of traditional Spanish families.
Natalio, a relatively well-off man, gathered his teenage children to tell them that, given that Spain’s future was so uncertain, instead of leaving them an inheritance he would pay for their studies abroad, for a profession could set them up anywhere. A couple of these kids settled in the southern U.S. Another son studied medicine in Spain and came back to Cuba.
As for Natalio himself, after the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American war he decided to return to Spain. But he died of a heart attack at a restaurant in Madrid while house-hunting, and his widow remained with her family in the young republic.
Years later, when Narciso González y Moinelo returned to his native island, Cuba was in the midst of the so-called “Dance of the Millions,” a period of unprecedented prosperity ushered by World War I’s buoyant impact on sugar prices.
The pharmacist and his family settled in the Cerro neighborhood south of downtown Havana, where he taught at the university and wrote academic treatises.
At one point, though, he also lived in Puerto Príncipe, which after independence the local liberal elite, fed up with all things Spanish, re-baptized with the indigenous name of Camaguey.
There he was the principal of the public high school; it is said that he was the creator of the school’s collection of desiccated animals, which still adorned the biology labs in the 1950’s.
Narciso died suddenly in Havana, of a heart attack, sometime in the late 1920’s. His death, in the midst of an acute political and economic crisis — the Depression was just starting, and Cuba was fighting off a tyrant — drove the family into economic chaos; Narciso’s male children dropped out of school in order to help raise their younger sisters.
I got to meet only one of his progeny— my great-aunt Pinito, who left for Miami, like most of the Cuban middle class, after the 1959 revolution. For my grandfather Carmelo, who upon his father’s death had to abandon his studies at Cuba’s National Fine Arts School, passed away years before I was born.
When he died in the early 1960’s one of his children, also named Carmelo, was in prison for fighting against Communism.
The other was Ángel Narciso, my father, an electrical engineering student at the University of Havana. Despite being offered by the revolutionary government a scholarship in Moscow, he had already chosen the path of exile, a fate not uncommon among the ruins of a culture that not so long ago fancied itself the center of the world.
Hombres de todo mar y toda tierra: the convoluted story of a Spanish American family