Cuban-born writer Mayra Montero highlights the feats of the famous historian of Havana after receiving the news of his death. Read the original piece in Spanish at El Nuevo Día.
The city’s historian, Eusebio Leal Spengler, has just died in Havana.
One of the most brilliant and indefatigable men I have ever met. The dazzling speaker, who was not only the top expert of Havana, of every corner, of each museum, of each cemetery, and its complete history, but also a great admirer and connoisseur of the colonial cities of the Caribbean. He loved Old San Juan, which he visited several times, and where he established a coconspirator friendship with Ricardo Alegría, as they visited and praised one another, and they recounted their worries in the always uphill defense of cultural patrimony.
He was host to kings, princes and sheiks, and heads of state from all continents, including the relaxed tour he offered Barack Obama on his visit to Cuba. I always told mutual friends that Eusebio Leal, with his elegant prose and perfect diction, was much more spectacular in what he said than in what he wrote.
However, I read all his books as they were published. Only one, I don’t know why, I left on the back burner and just read it a few months ago. It is titled “Fiñes,” the name by which children were vulgarly called in the Cuba of yesteryears. In the first half of the 20th century and until the sixties and seventies, there was talk of “fines,” perhaps equivalent to our expression “chamaquitos” [in Puerto Rico].
In this book, made up of stories from his childhood, I found a brutal anecdote, which nevertheless he wrote with certain humor. He had a puppy that he adored, but was annoying for the neighbors, so his parents decided one day to get rid of it. The young Eusebio Leal spent weeks looking for him in the places where he was told that they had seen him, among them the famous “Quinta de los Molinos,” which was the residence of the captains-general and, in the times of Eusebio’s dog, I don’t know whether it was a museum. Ten years later, my parents also handed over my beloved dog to assassins who claimed to have released him at the Quinta de los Molinos, and for weeks, at the age of eleven, I walked up and down that place looking for him. He never appeared. That story upset me. Perhaps it was less upsetting than for little Eusebio, but I promised myself to write to tell him about this experience we shared almost in exact detail, the same trauma, with the Quinta de los Molinos between us. I didn’t, and now I regret it.
When they called me this morning to give me the news, apart from the wave of sadness, I kept wondering where so much knowledge, so much enthusiasm, so much intuition goes when the brain is shipwrecked. Eusebio Leal Spengler knew the history of all the streets, all the monuments, and all the people who had made them possible. He knew the Colón Cemetery in Havana, as if all his life he had been an outstanding dead man strolling among the lingering dead of eternity. His wisdom went beyond his hometown, he was an expert in the history of other Cuban cities and almost all Latin American cities.
If they had him speak about the United States, he was able to give long lectures on Philadelphia or New York. About Madrid he knew a world. And about Mexico City as well, because I know that he was driving crazy the cultural attachés of the Cuban Embassy there, asking them to take him from one place to another so he could examine exhibitions, historical buildings, tombs of one famed person or another.
I was 15 years old when I met him. He was only 25, but he was already leading impressive guided tours of Havana’s museums. Once, while in the Napoleonic Museum, apparently engrossed in speaking about history of some pieces of furniture, he turned to me abruptly and exclaimed: “Those earrings are certainly museum-worthy.” They were a gift that my dying grandmother had given me for my fifteenth birthday and they didn’t match at all my poor clothes from those years of hardship.
Decades later, when we coincided as jury members of the Casa de las Américas Prize in Cuba, I told him about that meeting and he said he did not remember it, but that this way of interrupting a conversation to notice and remark on an antique was typical of him.
In an article published two years ago in the Smithsonian Magazine, he was called “the man who saved Havana.”
He was honored countless times, from China to Peru. And until his corpse, still warm, does not turn cold, Havana is not going to believe it. They will only assimilate his death after many days, when they finally do not see passing by the white guayabera that contained an intelligent and pure chest, and a heart as timeless as an hourglass.
[Obituary translated by Ivette Romero. For the original article (in Spanish), see https://www.elnuevodia.com/entretenimiento/cultura/notas/mayra-montero-recuerda-su-encuentro-con-eusebio-leal/