Grajales, Mariana (1808–1893)

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Grajales, Mariana (1808–1893)

Afro-Cuban revolutionary who championed rights of both slaves and free blacks during her nation's struggle against Spanish rule and is universally regarded by Cubans as "Madre de la Patria" (Mother of the Nation). Name variations: Mariana Grajales de Maceo; Mariana Grajales y Cuello. Born in Santiago de Cuba, on June 26, 1808; died in exile in Kingston, Jamaica, on November 28, 1893; daughter of José Grajales and Teresa Grajales; married Fructuoso Regüeyferos y Hecheverria; married Marcos Maceo; children: (first marriage) four; (second marriage) nine, including General Antonio Maceo Grajales (1845–1896), the Cuban revolution's "Titan of Bronze."

Throughout the 19th century, sugar dominated the economic life of the Spanish colony of Cuba and its entire social and moral climate as well. As Spain's most prosperous possession in the New World, after the loss of its vast colonial empire in the early 1820s, Cuba experienced an economic boom based on sugar production. To meet the expanding world demand for the commodity, between 1800 and 1865 the Spanish permitted the transport of at least a half-million African slaves to the island. By 1817, the combined black population of Cuba, consisting of slaves and free blacks, was tallied at 54% of the total island population of 630,980. The numerical preponderance of blacks struck fear into the island's rulers as well as their royal lords and masters in faraway Madrid.

White dread of black slave revolts had been a fact of life in the Caribbean since the early 1790s, when Haiti rose up in a bloody insurrection that ended French rule in that part of the island of Santo Domingo. On Cuba, these fears were certainly not without justification, for in 1812 a revolt led by a free black, José Antonio Aponte, "the Cuban Spartacus," was bloodily suppressed. Spanish rule was likely strengthened because of white anxiety, and in 1823 the Spanish Minister Calatrava could boast that the "fear that Cubans have of their blacks is Spain's greatest security in guaranteeing her domination of the island."

It was into this troubled racial situation that Mariana Grajales was born in the eastern Cuban port city of Santiago on June 26, 1808. Her parents, free blacks José and Teresa Grajales , had been among the flood of immigrants who had entered Cuba from strife-torn Santo Domingo during the years 1790 through 1804. Like many mulattoes in Santiago, the Grajales quickly took advantage of the relatively benign racial environment in the city to establish themselves economically.

By example, Mariana's parents taught her the virtues of honesty, thrift, and hard work. But daily life in a bustling port city also revealed the world's injustices. Day after day, Mariana saw human suffering that was inherent in a social order based on slavery. Slave ships in the harbor meant that gangs of bozales, newly arrived African men, women and children, would customarily be marched naked through the streets of Santiago. Many of the bozales died, and when their bodies were hastily and inadequately buried, Mariana and other citizens of Santiago had little choice but to endure the "insupportable stench" caused by their rotting corpses. On other occasions, Mariana watched the wretched cimarrones, runaway slaves who had been recaptured, as they gathered around the tiny windows of their prison cells to try to gulp fresh air.

Mariana Grajales' parents could not afford tuition for her to attend school (free blacks were restricted to a primary education, but only if they could afford it), and it is not known if she ever learned to read and write. The events of her later life, however, make it clear that this young girl was an astute observer of human nature from her earliest years, distinguishing between good and evil, right and wrong. As a member of a racial group that was uneasily suspended between the privileged white elite and an increasingly oppressed caste of slaves, Mariana became sensitized to the inhumanities of not only enslavement, but also to the more subtle but nevertheless all-pervasive attitudes of racism on virtually a daily basis.

In 1831, when she was 23, Mariana married Fructuoso Regüeyferos, a man from a similar background. Nine years later, her husband died, and she was forced to move back to her parents' home with her four young boys. Soon, however, she met and became the common-law wife of Marcos Maceo, a Venezuelan immigrant and widower with six children (the couple would legally marry in July 1851). The new and expanded family moved to "La Esperanza" ("Hope"), Maceo's farm in the Majaguabo district of San Luis municipio, north of Santiago. Maceo owned another nearby farm, Las Delicias, and clearly intended to make both properties flourish.

By the time of her second marriage, Mariana Grajales had become an outspoken opponent of slavery, espousing abolitionist sentiments that were common among free blacks and mulattoes. At first, Marcos showed little interest in supporting her beliefs. Indeed, in Venezuela he had been a loyal member of the Royal forces that had fought a losing battle against Simon Bolivar and the armies of independence. After he arrived in Cuba in the 1820s, Marcos swore off war and politics to devote his considerable energies to agricultural and commercial pursuits.

A series of dramatic events in 1843, however, helped to bring Marcos Maceo's beliefs more in line with those of his wife. A major slave revolt in Matanzas province brought savage reprisals from the authorities. Responding to slaveholder panic, Captain-General Leopoldo O'Donnell took measures to crush the spirit of black rebellion once and for all. Convinced he was surrounded by abolitionist conspiracies, he set up a military commission to restore order among the nonwhite Cuban population. Seventy-eight "plotters" were discovered, justifying the unleashing of a reign of terror. The "Conspiracy of the Staircase," named for the scaffold resembling a stairway on which the alleged rebels were flogged to death, was only the most horrific aspect of repressive measures that now convulsed Cuba. On the flimsiest of evidence, more than 1,000 free blacks were thrown into prison, where many hundreds died of disease, torture, and neglect.

Though the terrors did not directly affect the Maceo family, it convinced both Mariana and Marcos that free blacks would never enjoy a guarantee of human rights as long as Cuba was under Spanish rule. Ever fearful of uprisings, the authorities increased their repressions. By the mid-1840s, a series of draconian laws gave slave-owners broad powers to prevent contacts between free blacks, virtually all of whom were now assumed to harbor dangerous abolitionist views. Local authorities were required to deport those free blacks who had moved to Cuba from other countries. This measure presented an immediate threat to Venezuela-born Marcos Maceo, who only avoided deportation by persuading a sympathetic local notary to prepare an affidavit declaring him a native of Santiago de Cuba.

Although the Maceo family remained untouched by the persecutions of the 1840s, they knew only too well that whatever liberties they enjoyed could be arbitrarily taken from them at any time. As free blacks, they were members of a stigmatized group that was under constant surveillance by police and informers. Free blacks who in the opinion of the authorities behaved in what was deemed to be an offensive manner, or displayed "lack of respect," could be fined or punished in other, more drastic ways. Although repressive measures grew dramatically worse in the 1840s, the harsh regime in Cuba in fact dated from a Royal Order of May 29, 1825, a document that would serve as the island colony's de facto constitution until the end of the Spanish regime in 1898. In the 1840s, Cuba was declared to be "a besieged fortress," thus allowing the chief governing official, the captain-general, to govern arbitrarily as if a state of war were the norm. All aspects of public and private life were placed under the scrutiny of military authorities. A harsh system of censorship served to muzzle the press, ban public meetings, and outlaw usage of the "inciting words": slavery and independence. Public mention of any type of political reform measure was illegal and severely punishable.

In June 1845, Mariana gave birth to a son, Antonio de la Caridad Maceo. Along with four sons she brought into her second marriage, she would give birth to eight additional children, bringing the total to thirteen; the last, Marcos, arrived in 1860, when she was 52. As a result of the hard work of both Mariana and Marcos, they and their large family prospered from the produce of their farms at Las Delicias and La Esperanza. Mariana and her children could be found at either farm, enjoying the bounty which included not only bananas and plantains, but fruit orchards and an herb garden that provided items useful for both food and medicinal purposes. Mariana was affectionate and fair with her family, imposing on them a few basic rules which included showing respect to one's parents, adhering to a reasonable curfew, and, above all, paying strict attention to duty.

This near-idyllic phase of the Maceos' life would be shattered as a result of dramatic changes that began in the 1850s. In 1852–1853, a great epidemic decimated one tenth of Cuba's population, killing at least 70,000 slaves. Then, hopes for political and social reform waxed and waned. Expectations were raised by the appearance on the island of Captain-General Juan de la Pezuela, whose abolitionist sympathies made him take serious steps to halt the importation of slaves into Cuba (treaties signed by Spain and Great Britain in 1817 and 1835 banning the slave trade were never effectively enforced). But the hopes of Cuba's black population and their white liberal supporters were dashed when strong pressure from the slave-owning elite ended this experiment. A world economic depression that began in 1857 diminished the demand

for Cuban exports, bringing about much suffering and triggering serious social unrest. Now, the only path to significant change appeared to be revolution.

In the 1860s many of the white Creole elite in eastern Cuba began to seriously organize revolutionary groups that stood a chance of bringing about a break with Spain. Masonic lodges were formed in the major towns and cities of that part of the island, including Santiago. One of the key leaders in Santiago was a close friend of the Maceo family, the prosperous lawyer Don Ascencio. One day in September 1868, with some hesitation, Marcos Maceo told Mariana that he had been asked to lead the revolutionary forces in the Majaguabo district. Ascencio had made the request, and he had accepted. With the long-desired uprising against the hated Spanish regime about to break out, Marcos feared that his wife might disapprove. After all, neither of them were young, both were in their 60s. To his immense relief, Mariana had no reservations about risking their lives or possessions in order to rid Cuba of the corrupt, ruthless Spanish rulers. Later that same day, when most of her large family had gathered together at the farm, Mariana commanded all of them to solemnly swear "by the blood of the crucified Christ, that you will fight to liberate your country, fight tirelessly, until you see her independent, or until you die achieving it!"

While Marcos and his sons enlisted friends and neighbors for the revolutionary forces, Mariana and several of her daughters-in-law remained behind at Las Delicias, helping to turn that isolated farm into a formidable military encampment and depot. One evening soon after the revolt began, Mariana and the other women were startled by a loud voice calling on them to open the door. Spanish authorities had warned villagers about "bandits" on the loose, so the women were relieved to see Marcos. Behind him was a contingent of about 400 guerrilla fighters now loyal to Marcos and sons Antonio and Miguel. Overwhelmed, Mariana went into the house and returned with her crucifix. The men kneeled while she made them swear "before Christ, who was the first liberal man to appear on earth," that they would all fight to free the nation or give their lives for it. As the men departed, seven of the Maceo boys left with them.

Within months, Mariana Grajales received word that Justo, one of her eldest sons, had been ambushed and shot. Soon after, she learned that her husband Marcos was fatally wounded while fighting under his son Antonio's command. According to Antonio, who cradled his dying father in his arms, Marcos Maceo's last words were: "I've done what Mariana wanted." As the war dragged on, the revolutionary forces eluded capture by living in the jungle. Despite her age, Mariana joined the rebels under Antonio's command, sharing with them their hardships. Whether addressing one of her own sons or another injured soldier, Mariana urged them: "Get well so you can go out and get another!"

Determined to crush the Cuban mambis (insurgents), the Spanish troops pursued the rebels into the jungle. Mariana and many women soldaderas refused to abandon their men, accompanying them ever deeper into the bush. In September 1871, during one of the bitter battles, Antonio Maceo's unit was surprised by Spanish forces. While engaging in hand-to-hand combat, Antonio was seriously wounded, but he and his fellow rebels were able to halt the enemy assault. While the battle raged around her, 63-year-old Grajales lay quietly crouched in a shallow foxhole. As stories of the courage of Mariana's remarkable family spread throughout Cuba, the Spaniards simply spoke of them as "the terrible Maceos."

Antonio Maceo was quickly promoted to the rank of brigadier general and became a living legend to all Cuban revolutionaries (after his death in battle in 1896, he would be known as the revolution's "Titan of Bronze"), but he was particularly revered by the black and mulatto soldiers. His fame was shared with a mother who was regarded as being equally fearless. To Cuba's rebels, Mariana Grajales became known simply as "the woman who doesn't cry."

Watching young men die in agony after a battle affected Mariana deeply, but she refused to succumb to despair lest it weaken revolutionary morale. In April 1874, after the bloody battle of Cascorro, the usual trickle of wounded and dying men made their way to the nearby rebel encampment. Among the severely wounded, Mariana quickly recognized her son Miguel, whose head wound was obviously mortal. She glanced at her nearby youngest son, 14-year-old Marcos, telling him in a clear voice audible to all in the camp: "And you, stand up straight; now it's time for you to go on campaign." For the cause to succeed, she said, "one son must replace another."

Mariana Grajales and her family fought for not only a Cuba free of Spanish rule but one in which slavery and racism were things of the past. Even among the rebels, racism was by no means extinct. When it was assumed that the post of commander of Oriente province would go to the universally admired Antonio, a Creole was chosen to fill the slot. Maceo had been unfairly accused of desiring the creation of a Black Republic after the end of Spanish rule. Although deeply offended by the racist snub, in his letter of protest Maceo noted that he would continue to fight to bring about a free Cuba. A year later, in August 1877, Maceo was severely wounded by a Spanish attack that left him with eight bullet wounds, five of them in his chest. But Maceo and a dozen or so guerrillas, including his mother, eluded the enemy in the bush, and he was able to make a complete recovery.

Led by an Antonio Maceo whose forces still included his surviving brothers and his mother, the rebels won a dramatic victory in February 1878 over the Spanish at San Quintin, annihilating the enemy and seizing large amounts of much-needed supplies. But this victory proved to be illusory. Ten years of warfare had exhausted both sides, and the rebel leadership decided to make peace. The Spanish regime adopted conciliatory tactics that proved to be highly attractive to war-weary Cubans. Only Antonio and his followers—a minority within revolutionary ranks—wanted to continue the struggle. The stubborn Maceo was finally persuaded to leave Cuba, and after first sending his mother and other family members into exile in Kingston, Jamaica, he joined them there in May 1878. Soon, however, he was off again to start organizing a new rebellion against the Spanish.

Although the Maceos had alienated many members of the Cuban exile community, they soon settled into a new life in Kingston. But by 1880, two of Mariana's sons, José and Rafael, were again in Spanish prisons after having been involved in another unsuccessful Cuban uprising. Rafael died in prison, and, when it became clear from a letter from José that he too would likely not survive his incarceration, Mariana took a remarkable step. In September 1884, she visited the Spanish consul in Kingston to beg for her son's freedom, assuring him that her sons now desired to live in peace with Spain.

Mariana Grajales' swallowed pride was soon redeemed when she received word that José had been able to escape from prison. After following a circuitous route, he was reunited with his mother in January 1885. A year later, Antonio returned to Kingston to visit a now increasingly frail Mariana. Her revolutionary spirit, however, remained as unquenchable as ever. In her final years, Grajales retained the belief that Cuba would one day be free. Although the Spanish had abolished slavery in stages between 1880 and 1886, they would not grant full legal equality to black Cubans until 1893, the year of her death.

In the last phase of Mariana Grajales' life, she became a living legend to all who were willing to offer their lives for Cuba's freedom. José Marti, who visited her in Kingston in 1891 and again shortly before her death, wrote that when he talked of Cuban freedom her tired eyes began to sparkle once more: "She caressed my face and looked on me like a son." The revered woman with the wrinkled face reminisced about the years in which her family had sacrificed so much while fighting for their nation's independence. With pride, she told Marti of one of her sons, who, "although bleeding from every part of his body," had nevertheless been able to lift himself up and, with only ten others, was able to find the strength to fend off 200 of the enemy. Sensing the almost mystical power this frail old woman was still able to exert over a people yearning for freedom, José Marti penned an epitaph that caught the essence of the Mother of the Cuban Nation: "And if one trembled when he came face to face with the enemy of his country, he saw the mother of Maceo, white kerchief on her head, and he ceased trembling!" Mariana Grajales has been honored by Cuba in many ways, including two postage stamps issued on March 8, 1969, and on November 27, 1993.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia