By: Pedro Pérez Rivero
As we are preparing for the celebration of the half millennium of the township of San Cristóbal de La Habana, the oldest images we usually remember are related to the historic center, declared a World Heritage Site in 1982. However, it is fair to recognize the existence of another colonial Havana, outside the wall that protected the city from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
One of the first extramural settlements was that of Guadalupe, built around a hermitage from 1716 dedicated to this Catholic saint. Therefore, that rural village can be considered within Havana’s founding historicity. Even more if you take into account that it was the intramural neighbors’ main food supplier, since it had abundant farming sites; hence its later name of Los Sitios (The Sites).
The numerous vegetable gardens were tended to mostly by free blacks, even those who arrived in the same process of colonization and not in the forced condition of slavery, or slaves who had been set free; among them those of the Quisis ethnic group, who built their rustic houses with cuaba wood. A curiosity about these trees, then abundant in the area, is their resistance to fire, because although they catch fire they do not get to become ashes.
This progressive widening of the outside wall started adding new neighbors to the humblest social origins, even grand gentlemen who decided to build their residences in an area less congested than San Cristóbal and at the same time close enough to it. Some of these buildings are still standing, such as the one built at the end of the 18th century on Salud Street, where the House of Chinese Arts and Traditions has been for decades; another mansion was built at No. 11 Sitios Street, in 1849, today the locality’s house of culture. But the one with the greatest presence is, of course, the double mansion in the Plaza de Marte, known as Palacio Aldama (1844), the most important architectural exponent of the neoclassical style in Cuba.
With the appearance of the people’s councils of People’s Power’s public administration, since 1990 the once popular neighborhood of Los Sitios is recognized as one of the five belonging to the Centro Habana municipality, delimited by Zanja, Monte and Belascoaín streets. It has, in a totally urbanized area, a population of close to 32,000 inhabitants,1 with a predominance of senior citizens.
A very distinctive feature of the territory is having historically been a refuge for emigrants, which is of great importance in the Cuban ethnic composition. Since the end of the colonial period and in the first decades of the last century there were population groups of Chinese, Arabs and Italians, architects of a commercial boom in different branches, who were leaders in the retail sector thanks to the waves of emigrants from Spain, mainly from Galicia. Even today, many people living in other Havana municipalities usually say: “I’m going to Havana,” pointing out that they are heading to the capital’s largest commercial area.
The profuse miscegenation did not take long in coming to this city enclave, which after 1959 incorporated, as few Havana territories, an immigration flow with a wide representation from Holguín, Guantánamo and Santiago de Cuba, just to mention the three eastern provinces most present in the neighborhood. Other settlements correspond to the Rastafarian Afro-Caribbean2 cultural side, sometimes enlarged by transit communities. Each region has been incorporating religious and festive traditions, today already established in Los Sitios, among which the “bembé asao” and others of Haitian origin stand out.
And then there’s Chinatown, an urban gem of Havana’s identity embedded in Los Sitios, with its many contributions to Cuban culinary tastes, and more recently another benefit must be added, nothing less than health, since the Agustín Rizo Cuban School of Wushu is located here and has systematized throughout the city the practice of tai chi and other therapeutic exercises of Asian origin.
Perhaps the most curious of the cultural institutions of this unique environment is the Águila de Oro movie theater, the only one standing out of several which maintained programming for the enjoyment of immigrants, especially from the Cantonese region, whose language was spoken in most of the screened movies; also the Shanghai theater, closed after the triumph of the Revolution due to the pornographic shows it presented, is often mentioned in novels published throughout the last century.
Among the patrimonial sources of this territory, Las Bolleras street dance group, founded in 1937, stands out. This group, only of women dancers, set out to pay tribute to the famous Lucumi vendors of bread rolls and fritters in colonial Havana. Its songs constitute a special variant of the typical Havana street vendors’ cries, under the guidance of a main character: La Clarina, initially assumed by notable Cuban folkloric music singer Nieves Fresneda. Its founder was María Carballo, one of many famous rumba dancers in the neighborhood.
The revival of the Quisicuaba Crusade Kardecian Spiritism Association (1939) has been of benefit for the neighborhood. The relationship between tradition and modernity is reflected in the non-profit or proselytizing actions of the project that emanates from it –today directed by doctor and anthropologist Enrique Alemán Gutiérrez–, which are based on a deep respect for diversity, a factor of barrio wealth. By the way, the heritage value of the objects of Yoruba worship, among other elements displayed in the building, allowed Quisicuaba’s headquarters to be declared an ethnographic museum in July 2015.
It is worth closing this brief characterization with another well-known element, indispensable to understand Havana’s daily life throughout the past century and up to the present: its tenement houses.3 In one of these places, in No. 17 Sitios Street, playwright Abraham Rodríguez resided when in 1976 he created his most recognized work: Andoba, premiered at the Mella Theater a year later. In short, to talk about the genuine, deep and beloved Havana, we must not forget one of its oldest and most emblematic neighborhoods: Los Sitios.
1 The statistical data correspond to the 2013 population and housing census.
2 These demographic data come from diagnostic studies carried out between 2007 and 2015 by the Provincial Department of Culture in Centro Habana.
3 This term has become generalized in Havana’s popular speech when referring to the city’s buildings from the 18th century, overcrowded by an increasing population of very humble social origin, and later the mansions turned into tenement houses.