A guest post by Asombra:
La Marquesa de La Habana
Marquesa (marquise) is a title of nobility which ranks between a countess and a duchess. There were actually nobles in Cuba, whose titles came from the Spanish crown, some of which were rather poetic (like el Conde de Pozos Dulces). The popular street character known as La Marquesa de La Habana, however, was something else. I’d heard of her before as the female counterpart of the contemporary and much more famous Havana “character” the Caballero de París (Gentleman of Paris), but I knew little else. Recently, I happened to come across more detailed information, which led me to online sources here and here.
Her real name was Isabel Veitia (or Veitía). Reportedly, she once worked as a cook for the very aristocratic María Luisa Gómez-Mena y Villa, Condesa de Revilla de Camargo (a countess whose Havana mansion wound up, of course, confiscated by the “revolution”). That could have given her the idea to adopt the persona of “la marquesa” later on. Apparently, she had a disabled husband and a daughter with special needs, meaning she had to bring home the bacon, and evidently becoming “la marquesa” did the trick.
She was short and slight, ever smiling, with dainty mannerisms like constantly fanning herself, and gotten up in a distinctive ensemble: a small purple hat with a little tulle veil, an old mantilla (shawl) over a ladylike dress, a shiny black purse, and eye-catching gold shoes. She had a regular route, including dropping by an insurance firm which paid her to go get café con leche and buttered bread for the staff, strategic stops at select movie theaters and popular gathering places, and strolling through Havana’s Central Park, where tourists with cameras were likely to go for a photo-op. La marquesa was happy to oblige, for a fee, but she wouldn’t take coins: “Billetes, sólo billetes! Yo soy una marquesa! Mi condición no me permite aceptar monedas” (Bills, only bills! I am a marquise! My status doesn’t allow me to accept coins). Her disarming delivery worked like a charm.
Her heyday, like that of the Caballero de París, was during Cuba’s Golden Age, the 1950s, although both of them lived well into the Castro era (she is said to have died in the late 1970s). It is not clear if she was mildly demented, harmlessly delusional or, more likely, a creative and clever panhandler. Unlike the courtly Caballero, who was a Spanish immigrant, la marquesa was quite black. The significance of that, to me, is the contrast she provides to the current gaggle of coarse and cartoonish photo-op magnets in Havana, the garishly grotesque Mammy brigade. The marquesa at least posed as an upper-class lady, not some heavy-handed and demeaning throwback to colonial slavery days.
Alas, in a way, this is a fitting metaphor for a formerly grand lady indeed, Havana, now a mostly pestilent and crumbling ruin reduced to serving as a perversely picturesque backdrop for amoral, hypocritical tourists and cretinous foreign celebrities. I’m pretty sure that la marquesa was happier in the “bad old days” than she would be now in Cuba, where being a fine lady is definitely not the order of the day, degeneracy rules, and the ruling class has no class at all.