This Thanksgiving theme article was published last year. It was well received by some readers, so I though it is worth sharing again this year.
Happy Thanksgiving today to all the American readers. Canadians celebrated 7 weeks earlier!
SHIN SPLINTS 2014
Conquistador – by Doug Logan
Thanksgiving is about family. I have spend the past day or so thinking about mine and feeling gratitude that all appear in good health, absorbed in fulfilling endeavors and optimistic about their future.
I recently re-read some of the history of my family, particularly that of my maternal, Cuban side. I focused on the many tracts written about my great-great grandfather, Don Antonio Gonzalez de Mendoza y Bonilla, who was born in 1828 and died in 1906. I have the good fortune of possessing several of his obituaries, written in newspapers in both Havana and Miami, as well as an abstract of a lengthy lecture about his life delivered to the Havana Bar Association in 1942. Let me share some of that history with you.
He was born to a wealthy family in Havana and little is known of his youth. He graduated with an undergraduate degree in Law in 1853, and earned a Doctor of Laws degree in 1856 [as some do these days, he took his “junior year abroad” at the University of Madrid]. Upon graduation, he applied for a Professorship and publicly endowed Chair at the University of Havana. After a vigorous competitive examination, he received the appointment and he lectured on Penal and Mercantile Law for ten years.
My youngest son, Philip, has been teaching courses in Film at Sam Houston University in Huntsville, TX, after completing his Masters in Fine Arts [MFA] at California Institute of the Arts. And, as many of you know, I am teaching classes in Sports Management at NYU. I cannot help but believe our ancestral Professor is looking kindly on us.
Mendoza is known for three things in Cuban history. Two of these occurred in the same year, 1879. He was a political Independent who refused to join either the Conservative or Liberal Party. He ran for Councilman, was elected Mayor of the City of Havana by the Council, and was inaugurated on January 1st, 1879.
In the same year, Mendoza and his wife Dona “Chea” Pedroso, inherited from her wealthy father, the Santa Gertrudis Sugar Mill, which included 300 slaves. Throughout his lifetime, Don Antonio had been outspoken about his abhorrence of slavery and had formed an Association called “The Society Against Slave Trade”. Through Deed Number 241, on the 11th day of September, 1879, Mendoza freed the 300 slaves. The deed states it “…is done with the sole purpose of benefitting the said slaves [and]…recognizing all their rights and returning them to the condition which, by their own nature, they are entitled.”
It took a great deal of courage for him to perform this emancipating act. His actions were not very popular with the landed, slave-owning gentry and probably led to his resignation as Mayor in 1881. But what a legacy he has left for his descendants! I know for me, whenever the issue of race has reared its ugly head during my life, I think of my forbearer and the stance he took and the price he paid.
In 1899, after the country had won its independence [subject to substantial and continuous intervention by the US] the first Judicial System was organized. At the age of 71, Mendoza was appointed the first Chief Justice of the Cuban Supreme Court. He served only a short time and resigned after objecting to interference by the US Military Governor, General Leonard Wood.
When I think of mortality and aging I am heartened by the fact that Mendoza took the top judicial job in his country when he was the same age as I am. And this was in an era of erratic medicine, questionable nutrition and no life-prolonging medications.
Some of the richest prose appears in the obituaries.
In a piece in La Discussion Newspaper, on January 15, 1906, Eduardo Dolz eulogizes Mendoza by saying:
“It can be said that his was a personality and a countenance naturally aristocratic, distinguished, elegant and most gentle. A handsome gentleman to his last days, when not even the weight of time was able to bend down or even slightly stoop, the natural elegance and uprightness of his posture, an accurate sign of his inner uprightness and moral rectitude.”
“He founded a great family; he made that family into one of the most honorable and distinguished in the country. His children are, all, well educated, sober, serious, hard-working, respectable and respected. They are all their own masters capable of conducting their own lives honorably as citizens and as human beings.”
Dolz talked about the fact that the entire family lived together in the same house on Amargura Street; sons and daughters with their respective spouses and forty five grandchildren. There was an army of servants; six cooks, twenty nannies, ten coachmen and pages and a warehouse of supplies.
“Two tables are set each noon and each evening, one for the children and one for the adults an hour later. The rite of passage of a child from the “little table” to the “big table” is fraught with significance, announcing, within the family, that one of its members has come of age, and forecasting the introduction of that member to public or social life.”
There are a few introductory sentences to the obituary in El Figaro, written by Justo de Lara, which resonate with me.
“Tall and straight, with military countenance, serene gaze and very kindly face, in spite of the gentleman’s gravity of mien, Don Antonio Gonzalez de Mendoza, whether on horseback or on foot, was a commanding figure. His rides and walks through the streets of our city constituted a vespertine ritual, which made him the most memorable character of those peaceful, lingering and luminous Havana afternoons.”
‘He went about his promenades by himself, most of the time, impeccably dressed with that natural dignity, which is solemn, and yet, at the same time, jovial. To the last, his walk was firm and manly. His stride was always the saunter of the conquistador.”
Whether you sit at your “little table” or your “big table”, I wish you all great bounty and a joyous Thanksgiving.
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