The Pearl of the South
I was sitting with my Australian friends at a sidewalk table in front of the Café Teatro Terry on the north end of Parque Martí in Cienfuegos, Cuba when I felt a light touch on my arm. I turned to see an adorable brown girl dressed in a burgundy and white elementary school uniform extending a beautiful dark rose colored hibiscus flower. She stood there smiling shyly and looking directly at me with her big brown eyes.
To say that I was astonished by this simple generous gesture is an understatement. Of the eight people at the table, why did she pick me for such generosity? Was she partial to my American accent or was it because I was female and the only one in my group who was brown like her?
I was truly moved by her kindness. It occurred to me that perhaps she expected a tip. But then I remembered that I was in Cienfuegos not Havana or Santiago de Cuba and an inner voice whispered that perhaps she had no ulterior motive. With emotions swelling in my chest, I took the flower and managed to say something that I hope sounded like “gracias”. At my request she posed for a photo that will forever remind me of the warmth that I felt from the people of Cuba during the short time I spent in the country.
Even at eight or nine years old, that little girl perhaps knew the significance of the hibiscus in the history of Cienfuegos, located in the center-south of Cuba. Nearly 200 years ago, a point under an old hibiscus tree was selected by a surveyor as the starting point for the layout of the town. Today the large open space known as Parque José Martí, formerly called the Plaza de Armas among other names, is the historic center of the city and is marked by a kilometer zero round ground plaque in the center of the square. Standing tall in the heart of park is a marble statue of José Martí, a Cuban national hero, poet, journalist, teacher, and the park’s namesake.
Positioned throughout the park are Italian marble busts of other prominent Cienfuegueros including Antonio Hurtado del Valle, a revolutionary and journalist known as one of the poets of war; Clotilde del Carmen Rodriguez, a Patriot and Poetess who designed the flag of Cienfuegos; Alfredo Mendez Aguirre, an eminent surgeon who introduced preoperative anesthesia and other scientific advances; Ramon Maria de Labra, a prolific writer and slave abolitionist; and others.
At the western entrance to the park is the Arc de Triomphe, thought to be the only arch of triumph in Cuba. The opposite entrance to the park is guarded by a pair of marble lions, the first of the many sculptures in the park.
The park is beautifully landscaped with shrubs, beds of colorful annuals and benches, along with a lovely fountain and domed gazebo.
Parque Martí is flanked on all sides by very well preserved buildings including the Teatro Tomás Terry on the north end of the historic park. The theatre is one of the most impressive buildings in Cienfuegos. It was commissioned by the sons of the industrialist and former mayor of Cienfuegos, Tomás Terry, to honor their father.
Terry arrived in
Cienfuegos as a poor Venezuelan emigrant but became rich by trading in
sugar and slaves. A Carrara marble statue of Terry stands in the
theatre’s lobby. The theatre can seat up to 950 people and contains many
of the original Cuban hardwood carved seats. On the ceiling are
classical reliefs and nymphs by Camilo Salya. The Cuban National Ballet
and Opera still perform there. I attended a free musical performance at
the theatre during my visit.