They say that in Trinidad the romantic spirit of the first half of the 19th century has transcended eras, like Virginia Woolf’s intrepid Orlando. The tourists who used to come to this part of south-central Cuba —or those who still sneak in despite the quarantines and the prices of flights— were seeking that foregone era that still lingers.
In November 2021, this community will host the Ibero-American Seminar on Architecture and Construction with Earth (SIACOT 20).
But that romanticism doesn’t end at the limits of the historic center. It continues towards the Valle de los Ingenios, in a community named after a Christian saint and a pagan spirit. You turn to the right at a point on the road to Sancti Spíritus and begin to feel that time slows down: from the potholes challenging the bus tires, to the idle sugar cane fields, to the marabou undergrowth.
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We’ve arrived at San Pedro, a town that could also be called Parsimony.
There, at the end of a rough embankment, about twenty of us get off the bus. In November 2021, this community will host the Ibero-American Seminar on Architecture and Construction with Earth (SIACOT 20). San Pedro will awaken for tourism.
Farming has not been on people’s mind for a long time, but anyone you ask knows exactly how to build a house from the earth.
About 1500 inhabitants live in the town, spread over about 190 blocks. At first glance, it’s a place like any other. It has a park where you can sit and cool off from the heat, a community center to host any event of public interest, a little school, a picnic area … The unpaved roads highlight the rural essence of the town. Humility is palpable, first, in the neglected appearance of the residents, descendants of European settlers and freed Africans; and then in the lime that whitens the walls of the houses and in the recently cut wooden electric poles.
But what really sets San Pedro apart is its heritage. The time-stop effect has been so strong that genuine forms of architecture and artisanship are preserved there. Farming has not been on people’s mind for a long time, but anyone you ask knows exactly how to build a house from the earth. There, in that compact mass of clay, grass, and wood that supports each house, lives the spirit of the community.
What about San Pedro’s clay houses?
The first thing to know about architecture in Trinidad is that it has a vernacular foundation. Even the great 19th century mansions —symbols of the romantic period with Spanish Mudejar influences — were, first and foremost, local solutions to construction needs that fully conformed to the Cuban national identity.
Masonry in Trinidad replaced clay when the city was urbanized under the influence of the sugar boom that took place between 1820 and shortly after 1850. San Pedro, unlike Trinidad itself, remained stuck in that era. Since the first-known settlers in the 19th century, its inhabitants were already building their houses the way they still do today.
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According to research by architect Nancy Benítez Vázquez, the clay construction system —‘embarro’ or ‘embarrado,’ which has different names in different regions— has undergone little change despite having endured for centuries.
The one-level houses are small and are built with structures of struts and posts. These structures are dug in the ground as supports for the wood-and-tile roof, and have wood frames and clay walls. The types of wood used most often tend to be the strongest, with local names that are difficult to remember: yuraguana, cuyá, mangle, guarate.
‘Embarro’ is a mixture of sand and clay that allows for plasticity and works as a glue when wet. It is earth mixed with grass and water, which “after being kneaded enough, will provide a compact mass (…) which will be placed inside the structure like a ‘box’ until it covers the entire framework,” says Benítez Vázquez.
The description is difficult to understand, but Irma Polo Sámara, a clay restoration technician with more than 20 years of experience, makes it easier. At midday, she leaves her house to find out what commotion has disturbed the characteristic calm of San Pedro. She approaches our group dressed as is customary in these parts: a heat-resistant tank top, stretched lycra, and stone-worn flip-flops.
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Irma studied at the School for Restoration Trades to obtain her degree, but her father had already taught her what she knows, from a very young age, when she and her siblings had to build their own house: “we’re from the countryside, here what’s abundant is earth and grass, and that’s enough,” she was told many times.
“That’s not difficult, chico,” she tells me.
“It’s difficult to understand when you read it in a document without knowing anything about it.”
“I’ll explain: the first thing is to collect the earth and make a ‘pisa,’ that is, a mixture, which is the same as cement, but made of earth, water and grass. Later the mojones are made with earth and grass.”
“The mojones?” I ask mischievously, because in Cuba that word usually refers to pieces of poop. It’s a term that’s both unpleasant and comical.
“Yes, a mojón,” she emphasizes. “The word isn’t pretty, but that’s the one. That’s how we call them.”
“It’s like a brick that’s made with that material mixture, round in shape, which is placed inside the ‘cujes’ (wood that serves as a support), with which the walls are raised. Finally they’re plastered with ‘fino’ (a softer mixture of earth), filled with tiny bits of grass. Here we add more grass so that the wall doesn’t crack when it dries. Then it’s painted.”
… it also opens a path to future construction solutions at a time when the island is dealing with the deterioration of the housing stock…
Uruguayan architect Rosario Etchebarne told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo that clay architecture tries to “re-adopt cultural patterns from before, but from a contemporary perspective,” which allows “incorporating environmentally friendly technology in homes.” She is a member of the Red Iberoamericana Proterra, an organization that promotes the advantages of these construction techniques: the earth as a harmless and recyclable material, its affordability, its architectural functionality, durability, and environmental value.
The Proterra network will sponsor the event that promises to speed up the San Pedro clocks forever.
When in Rome…
In the afternoon, with an unusually scorching heat for January, we went out for a walk down several of the narrow streets of San Pedro. An assessment was made of construction deficiencies, since the Office of the Conservator of the City of Trinidad and the Valle de los Ingenios maintains a program of subsidies for the repair of clay houses for people in need. Everyone knows about this program, so when they see the architects and engineers measuring, calculating, scoring … they know that something good is going to happen.
Unielvys Socarrás, a beneficiary of the program, stands to the side of the doorway of his house. He’s a blond man tanned by the sun from fishing, a man of few —very few— words, who agreed to document his satisfaction with the enthusiasm of a child: just a few days ago he finished repairing his clay house with his own hands, and with the help of some bricklayers that he hired with the funds from the Office.
We keep going, this time in search of resolving more personal matters. As we’re in the countryside, we assume that agricultural products are easier to find. And cheaper. But in San Pedro the word ‘crisis’ was understood before anywhere else in Cuba. “It’s the drought, it’s awful,” Juana Sábana Rodríguez, a 74-year-old woman, warns me, after she agrees to let me use her bathroom.
Juana is also the intangible heritage of the town, and long ago she dropped her first name and is simply called Nena, la sampedrera, the one who fed the fairgrounds workers, the one who made coal to sell, and guano brooms, and planted onion, yucca, and banana in the 1970s and returned home riding in a cart. “But the drought is bad, hijo,” she reiterates. “What’s left here is to produce coal, and fishing.”
We left empty-handed. There wasn’t much to buy.
“Nena, what do you do on a normal day here in San Pedro?”
“I drink rum, look for bread. Sell brooms and brushes. Every day we get up early, queue for the bus or the bread line, we go to work or school, we go back to buy a snack and go home at the end of the day. And I’ll tell you something, we need recreation options, especially for youth.”
The matter of recreation has been a flash point for many rural towns that have waited for years for government organization projects to revive entertainment. This community in the municipality of Trinidad, whose main city is a benchmark for the leisure industry, has seen many of its festivals disappear. The pandemic does not help.
“Here the parrandas were as good as the ones in Remedios or Guayos, but imagine, with the Special Period, many of those things were lost,” laments Juan Raúl Socarras Medina, representative of the Popular Council and part of the cultural revival project offered by the SIACOT event. The good news, so far, is that San Pedro intends to rise like a phoenix, a plan that will hopefully take shape when more than a hundred specialists attend the workshops of the international event next November.
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The former festivities were founded on religious concepts. The town obtained its status as a settlement when an old hermitage was consecrated with the statue of the patron saint. Almost two centuries later, the figure is still intact, guarded over by a family, and fuels the popular commemorations on May 3rd, the beginning of spring, known as La Cruz de Mayo, and on June 29th, procession day. Some beer, music, and a makeshift fairground — that’s enough for them.
The former festivities were founded on religious concepts. The town obtained its status as a settlement when an old hermitage was consecrated with the statue of the patron saint. Almost two centuries later, the figure is still intact, guarded over by a local family.
“I inherited San Pedro from my father, who died when he was 99 years old.” This is how Imelda Calderón welcomed me, the woman who guards the effigy and is indebted to a tradition that her family has taken on for several generations. “My family is like this house: strong and resistant,” she declares, pointing to the earthen walls of a building that seems, at times, tired.
“People come here from all over the Valley, from Trinidad, from Sancti Spíritus, and even from Ciego de Ávila. But with the pandemic it hasn’t been possible to celebrate more, although it’s a great tradition. And this lady standing before you is the one who helps with everything — the dances, the animal feed, and even the PNR. I’m looking forward to celebrating again!” says Nena.
“Are people here very religious?” I ask.
“Yes, but not as much as before. For example, people no longer meet at the Casa de San Pedro like years before. At the parrandas, yes, of course. The thing is that people practice several religions. I’m a Catholic, for example, and I believe in everything, mostly in the patron saint of the town.”
“This is the people’s house, the one that welcomes everyone. When there’s a cyclone, this place fills up. We endured Irma, María, these clay houses hold up very well. And people feel protected by the saint and we like to help people, visitors, neighbors, everyone,” Imelda says, and this time she holds tight to her grandson’s hand, like the hand of a clock that doesn’t want to stop.