Sancti Spiritus, a City Remembered

Sitting in the doorway of his home, Abelardo Bernal can assume from the indiscreet sound of camera shutters and whispered English that his photo is being taken by tourists. He senses that his gangly, old-fashioned bearing, and the building where he lives—rebuilt over and over in the same spot since the mid-19th century—have an appealing effect on the knots of strangers that roam the narrow streets of the city’s old district. He can even guess at their disconcerted expressions, but it’s just a guess: Abelardo has completely lost his sense of sight.

“I haven’t been able to see anything for almost 20 years now, so I can’t talk about the Sancti Spíritus of today; I can only talk about the Sancti Spíritus that I remember,” he says with the serenity of a man who has learned to deal with his blindness. “And you know what? Living in nostalgia has its charms.”

At the age of 94, this one-time pharmacist, book-seller, and retail worker adjusts to a routine imposed by circumstance: he wakes up early (“even though I don’t work, I can’t change my body’s habits”); allows himself to be guided in his daily domestic tasks by his only daughter, “who no longer has the health to be my personal guide”; and settles into a rocking chair right in the doorway of his home, where he is a bystander to the modernization of his town: “Yes, my town, because Sancti Spíritus is not a city; it is more like a village.”

He says “village” affectionately, a careful selection of words that takes the middle ground between criticism and praise; it is a word that, in short, expresses the essence of a region that tends toward minimalism.

More than a few experts and ordinary citizens have used the term rural to describe this city, which became the provincial capital after a territorial reorganization in 1976 but which, nevertheless, still depends to some extent on neighboring Santa Clara, an urban hub that discreetly refuses to concede its jurisdictional supremacy as the center of Cuba.

Translated into the popular vernacular, all of this means that Sancti Spíritus, Cuba’s so-called “fourth villa” [referring to its founding by Spanish colonialists] can sometimes be a traditional and conservative place, something that the locals accept with a certain degree of resignation, and which Abelardo Bernal defends, even vehemently: “But there’s nothing wrong with that, you shouldn’t take it the wrong way; it means that we live peacefully here on our shore.”

“Do you see those Europeans who are snapping photos of me as if I were an antique?” he asks. “Well, afterward they all go to their countries, where they struggle with stress, the disease of people who never have enough time, and I stay here, laughing my head off just thinking about how I must look in their photos.”

Increasingly immersed in his daydreams, Abelardo closely follows all of the construction activities that are taking place to mark his city’s 500th anniversary; he can hear the machinery being used just two blocks away from his home to rebuild Serafín Sánchez park from the ground up, and the cheerful din of work crews painting building facades and fixing roofs. He can hear it all, but in his mind he sees the Sancti Spíritus of yesteryear, frozen in time with his last visual images.

“And now that’s enough; I’m not the historian or mayor of this town, you know,” he murmurs as he stands up, leaning on a cane that seems to be an extension of his body. He feels his way along the thick masonry walls and closes the door behind him, leaving as far behind him as he can the restoration rush and the impertinence of an interview that has stirred his memories.

Outside, on the eve of a half-century of existence, the city endures.

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