As I walked the streets of Havana, the city where I was born, ghosts whispered by with their satchels of memories and sighs, breathing color and light back into my crystallized exile memories. When the stories began I filled journals with fantastic narratives, randomly absorbed from the fine dust on the streets, and as probable as a shower of sardines.
Hatuey, a mighty cacique of the Taino people, witnessed first hand the cruelty of the Spanish Conquistadors in Hispanola. In an effort to save his brothers and sisters he rowed across the Windward Passage and on a moonlight night he gathered his Cuban cousins on the shore of a lake to warn them of the coming plague. He described the ill treatment of his people at the hands of the gold crazed Spaniards, eloquently argued against the notion that they were gods, his proof being that he had seen one of their party drown as a normal man would. He reasoned that they were men, but men that had been driven crazy by the god of gold. In conclusion he suggested that the only way to be rid of the Spanish curse was to get rid of their gold. They danced all night in a great circle, threw their gold into the basket at Hatuey’s feet and then as the sun was rising they dropped the basket into a lake.
Hatuey’s eloquent speech would have fallen into the realm of tall tale had it not been faithfully recorded by Padre Bartolome De las Casas, the first advocate for the indigenous people of the new world. His speech, eye-witness accounts and other depositions formed the core of a legal brief sent to Charles V petitioning for humane treatment of the Tainos. Unfortunately De las Casas’s humanity did not extend to Africans. He argued that they should be imported to perform the arduous labors that were killing the Tainos. It’s hard to believe that the humanity of a Dominican priest was somehow implicated in the beginnings of the most inhumane institution ever conceived.
Not long after the speech Hatuey was captured and tied up to a pole to be burned. As he waited he was approached by a priest with an open bible promising entry into heaven if he acknowledged Christ as his savior . After being informed that Spaniards also went to heaven, he nodded at the man with the torch and famously said, “Light the fire.” With those words, a Cacique of the Tainos, a people wiped out a mere fifty years after they first greeted the Spaniard’s with open hands, became a saint to the legions of subsequent home grown revolutionaries also willing to go up in flames for their island. Today Hatuey’s noble profile graces the label of a popular malt drink, ‘Malta Hatuey.’ If I told you that his fiery martyrdom had been rewarded by a place in the icy coolers of the finer bodegas in New York you would say that I was writing fiction, perhaps telling a lie. What would you think if I told you that it not only rains sardines, but also lizards, toads and sometimes even small rodents?