December 30, 2018

Mariana, María and Antonio Maceo

[What follows is a fictional account of one of the greatest chapters in Cuban history. It was created for a writing class at the California Institute of Integral Studies about ten years ago. Although it is a true story, some of the facts have been pulled out of thin air. Essentially that’s all that the Cuban rebels had in the mid-19th century. All dates given are as accurate as history allows.]

In his battles against the Spanish Empire, Cuban leader Antonio Maceo suffered 24 battle wounds, some of them nearly fatal. But this is not a story about him, although he features prominently in it. This is the story of how his mother, Mariana Grajales, and his wife, María Cabrales saved his life repeatedly during the Ten-Year War (1868-78).
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When María Josefa Eufemia Cabrales
y Fernández was born in San Luis, Oriente Province (March 20, 1842) the idea of a free Cuba was growing quietly among the black and white people of Oriente Province.
The following year Marcos Maceo and Mariana Grajales y Cuello entered into a common law marriage. Their first son, Antonio, was born two years later.
The Maceo family ran a couple of farms and generally stayed out of the way of politics and controversies. But Antonio had a natural curiosity and an easy ability with people, and there was no way to escape fate.
On February 16, 1866, just less than two years before Cuba’s first war for independence began, Antonio Maceo married María Cabrales. They moved into a house in the Maceo family farm (La Esperanza), and their first daughter was born in November of that year.
Like many free black Cubans, the Maceo family lived what we’d now call a multi-racial existence, with black and white friends and the bonds that came from opposing the Spanish Empire and dreaming of a free Cuba, where Cubans could decide their fate and finally eliminate the imposed racism of an aging empire.
The war began with the Grito de Yara (Cry of Yara – on October 10 1868), in which Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and other landowners in Oriente Province freed their slaves and declared their freedom from Spain.
The first clash with Spanish troops came two days later, at Yara. The rebels were victorious, and that night they had dinner at the Maceo home in Mujabuabo. The family was all there, including María and her newborn daughter, Maceo’s mother (Mariana Grajales) and father (Marcos), five brothers, two sisters and various children.  
Before most of the Maceo men left with the rebels to fight for Cuban independence, Mariana spoke; “Everyone, parents and children, kneel before Christ, the first liberal man who came to the world, and swear to free the country or die for her.”
In A History of Cuba and its relations with The United States, Volume 2, historian Philip S. Foner wrote: “Indeed, as a passionate patriot and foe of the Spaniards, this Negro woman, Mariana Grajales, one of the outstanding women in Cuba’s revolutionary history, swayed her entire family to the cause of independence.”
As the rebels rode away, Mariana looked at her daughter in law María, who held her newborn baby as her husband faded into the distance with the other black and white Cubans. The women shared a sad look. “I’m not as tough as her,” thought María.
The Spanish Captain General (a combined military/civil title for the ultimate ruler of the country in the absence of the Spanish king or queen) was surprised that the Cubans were able to put up such a good fight.
The Cubans were unstoppable, even with limited weapons, untrained soldiers and a largely inexperienced leadership. Once the rebels began to distinguish themselves, the Captain General began to pay close attention to the insurrection.
One man in particular had begun to stand out on the battlefield because of his courage, intelligence, and knowledge of the terrain. As a result, Antonio Maceo’s family had to leave their property and join the war effort. The youngest brother, Rafael, became the first casualty. He was captured and quickly executed.
María and Mariana soon found themselves in the roles of impromptu nurses and doctors and all around medical troubleshooters in the battlefield. As soon as the rebels could assemble a hospital, both women were among the most principal members.
Mariana stood apart as being particularly tough and solid, and María maintained as best she could, holding in her emotions and getting the job done.
On May 22, 1869, Antonio Maceo received his first of 24 wounds. María and Mariana were surprised to see him, but they nursed him back to health and he returned to action within a week. Maceo and Maria’s two daughters died a few weeks later of cholera. The long war was just beginning.
The Maceo brothers received their share of wounds during the first five years of the war, and many would joke that Antonio’s heroism was due to the fact that he could spend time with his wife when wounded. It wasn’t a particularly good joke.
One rainy afternoon there were many more wounded and dying coming in to the makeshift hospital than they could care for. One of the young wives could not easily accept her role as nurse. “He was just alive,” she cried. “He was just alive…” Frozen from the sight of a dead young man in front of her, another woman cried that she knew the deceased.
María approached the group. “This one’s already dead. That one needs your help, now.” The woman hesitates. “I know this man… I know this man…”  She’s frozen. Mariana steps in. “There’s no time for tears here. If you skirts can’t handle it get out and let the rest of us do our jobs.” She turned towards her daughter in law María, who was already attending to the wounded soldier. “That’s my girl,” she thought secretly.
The war got rougher, and many rebels died. The hospital had to be moved frequently, as the Spanish Empire was not about to easily let go of her one remaining foothold in the new world.
María and Mariana were proudest of their men when they were freeing slaves.  They heard the stories from the wounded soldiers they helped heal.
Being a free slave in Cuba wasn’t an easy life. Their choices were to join the rebels in battle, or to run and hide in the hills. Many slaves had never held a weapon in their hands before. Many of the women served in hospitals, others were runners, or carriers, able to blend into a city or town, bring or pick up rebel news, and move on. Those who were captured in this capacity were tortured, raped and killed.
The war didn’t get any easier for María, who felt that she could not handle things as well as her tough mother in law.  But everyone else seemed to think that she handled things well enough. She could be counted on to do the things that today a trained and well-equipped professional would do. And the few times when she had to pick up a rifle and fight for her wounded, she did that too, quite well.
It is said that on more than one occasion the women treated the very Spanish soldiers they had fired at in battle.
But it was Mariana’s name that was becoming legendary, although few outside the rebel circles could identify her. She was often described as the mother of the bravest soldiers the island had yet produced.
After her husband (Marcos Maceo) was killed in battle (his dying words to his son Antonio were: “I hope I’ve been good to Mariana…”) her bravery and devotion became legendary.  Historian Philip Foner, in his book, Antonio Maceo, describes the scene of Marcos’ funeral; "Mariana Grajales, living incarnation of Cuban patriotism, cried out to the youngest of her sons, still a little boy: 'and you, stand up tall; it is already time that you should fight for your country.'"
On August 6, 1877, Antonio Maceo received his most serious wound in the war so far. His close friend and doctor, Félix Figueredo, did not expect him to survive. General Gómez asked for volunteers to take care of Maceo. Antonio’s brother, José, and Dr. Figueredo were the first to volunteer, and soon they picked about a dozen others from a much larger share of volunteers. Their mission was to move Maceo to safety and guard him during the recovery period.  The first task was to stabilize him on a stretcher and move him away from the battle.
Within a few days, María joined the small band of rebels, and at about that time pursuit from the Spaniards began.
The word had spread among the Spanish troops that Maceo had been killed in battle. But eventually they learned from a re-captured slave that he was being treated in the hills. The Captain General ordered that Maceo’s death was the highest priority, and his capture, if possible, would be the second priority.
A frantic search began, with Spanish troops forming small bands of soldiers that could move easily through the hills and mountainous terrain of Oriente Province. They were so close during those hot days of mid-August that the rebels were unable to start fires for cooking, and could not trust anyone they met, as Spanish spies had been promised gold and other rewards for Maceo’s death.
On various occasions María and Chucha, an ex-slave who had known the Maceos since before the war, had to carry Maceo’s stretcher while José and Felix fought off the enemy hand to hand, preventing them from firing the weapons that would warn others.  Sometimes bullets would whiz by, and other times the hand-to-hand combat came close enough to touch.
On August 13 Dr. Figueredo wrote to General Gómez that in spite of his earlier estimate that Maceo could not survive, he now appeared to be out of serious danger. That was a completely medical assessment, not a military one.
The Spaniards were closing in, even as the rebels went deeper into the woods, or higher into the mountains. “We could hear them breathing,” wrote Figueredo. Maceo was still on a stretcher, and had to be carefully moved by two people, generally María and one of the other freed slaves.
On one sunny morning Chucha gave everyone a hug, said goodbye and left the camp. It didn’t take long before a Spanish guard stopped her. She pretended to have been frightened by the rebels and gave false information which would lead them away. It was a dangerous move; if the Spaniards had not believed her, they may have killed her on the spot, or they might have brought her with them to make sure she was telling the truth. She was lucky, and they let her go.
They must have believed her, because for the next few days the rebels were able to enjoy the kind of peace and quiet, they hadn’t seen in a while. Some of the locals brought them cooked meat, bread and beans, and news that Captain General Martínez Campos himself had ordered a column of 3,000 men to surround the area. They wouldn’t be able to stay there much longer. The locals promised not to disclose Maceo’s location.
María cried in secret. There was no way they could outdistance a mobile army of 3,000 men.
The siege began within a week, and for a two-week period the chase was relentless, as a small group of soldiers that included 2 women (María and an ex-slave girl liberated by Maceo) fought a running battle that almost devastated them. Some historians, Foner included, have referred to this as one of the greatest moments in Cuban history.
At the end of this period, it was María and the ex-slave girl who suggested a Cuban version of the “Kansas City Shuffle.” Dressed in the rags of slave women, they ran towards the Spanish forces and warned them of “wild rebels” in the area. They described larger forces than were actually there and suggested a direction they might take.  This was a similar “story” to what Chucha had done a few weeks earlier, but the troops were different. The women were escorted off the hills to the edge of town and released.
On September 27, less than two months after receiving his terrible wounds, Maceo was able to mount his horse (Guajamón) and gallop away in a "cloud of dust and smoke."
Three days later he was safe in San Miguel with María, Marianna, his brother, and other members of his escort. It was one of the few dinners they were able to have together in about a decade.

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