As you wander around Old Havana, all of which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, you’ll come across several bronze statues. Some statues are of well-known personalities like John Lennon and Ernest Hemingway. Others are mysterious characters known only to a few but with fascinating back stories.
Why are these statues there? Who created them and why? And what is their connection to Havana? Read on!
Hemingway lived in Cuba on and off for over 30 years. In 1940, he purchased a country home outside Havana he named Finca Vigia which is a museum today.
He wrote two of his most popular books while in Cuba; “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Papa liked his Cuban rum. He drank it all over Havana, but he had two favorite bars; La Bodeguita del Medio where he enjoyed his mojito and El Floridita, a popular bar established in 1817. The owner of El Floridita, Constantino Ribalaigua, named a version of the popular daiquiri after him, The Papa Doble or Hemingway Daiquiri, less sugar and twice the rum.
When Hemingway stayed in Old Havana, he occupied room 511 in the Hotel Ambos Mundos. Today room 511 is a museum charging a $5.00 admission.
Hemingway would write in the mornings then head out to El Floridita almost daily where he spent hours downing daiquiris-the record was 17 daiquiris in one day. He had a favorite spot at the bar, at the left end near the door. A life size statue of Hemingway, created by Cuban artist, Jose Villa, now stands in that exact location and is a favorite photo opportunity for visitors.
El Caballero de Paris (The Parisian Gentleman)
In Havana in the 1950s, 60s and 70s residents were familiar with the sight of a thin, bearded man with long, wavy hair dressed in black and wearing a cape. He spoke in the old, formal Spanish of Cervantes, seemed to be very well-read, and would make little drawings to give as gifts to the occasional passerby.
He slept in the local parks and ate from donations from compassionate restaurateurs and Havana residents. “He never used vulgar words, could talk on any topic and never begged,” said one Havana resident who met him frequently in the 1970s.
The legend is that he lost his mind after being jailed for a crime he did not commit. After his release…he began to roam the streets of Havana, becoming increasingly irrational.
He was never dangerous and over the years he became a beloved symbol of Havana.
His real name was Jose Maria Lopez Lledin. El Caballero was born in Lugo, Spain, and is said to have emigrated to Cuba at about age 14. He worked at the odd jobs traditionally held by immigrants.
The legend is that he lost his mind after being jailed for a crime he did not commit. After his release from jail, he began to roam the streets of Havana, becoming increasingly irrational.
In 1977, he was admitted into Mazora Hospital, Havana’s hospital for the insane. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he died there 8 years later.
But Havana was not ready to let him go. In 2001, as part of Old Havana’s colonial restoration, Havana’s official historian, the late Dr. Eusebio Leal had El Caballero’s bones exhumed and placed inside the San Francisco Church, one of the Spaniard’s favorite haunts.
Today his statue, created by Cuban sculptor Jose Villa, stands right outside the church. Passersby stroke his beard and index finger for good luck.
In the picturesque neighborhood of Loma del Angel by the door of the Santo Angel Custodio church stands the bronze statue of a beautiful woman holding a fan and dressed in nineteenth century period clothing.
The woman is Cecilia Valdez, the fictional protagonist of the Great Cuban Novel, Cecilia Valdez or La Loma del Angel.
Written by Cirilo Villaverde, the novel was first published in 1839 and has never been out of print.
The novel tells the story of a beautiful mixed-race woman who wishes to marry a white man and thus climb the strict social hierarchy ladder prevalent in the Havana of the 1800s. Her intended’s family is opposed to the union and plots to prevent it to disastrous results. One of the most important scenes in the book takes place on the very spot where the statue stands.
The book is an entertaining novel but also a harsh critique of slavery and race relations in Cuba during that time.
The statue was commissioned by the late Dr. Eusebio Leal, official historian of the city of Havana and was created by Cuban artist, Erig Rebull. Nearby there is a bust of writer Cirilio Villaverde who looks over his creation.
These statues are placed in some of Old Havana’s most interesting locations. Visit them all and you”ll get a good feel for what Havana was like in different periods from the late 1800s to present day.