The Latin American Stadium, on the Hill. Photo: José Tito Meriño / Tribuna de La Habana / Archive.
The historian Jacobo de la Pezuela said that the Cerro could not unite with the body of Havana, because "they are still separated by large unpopulated spaces." That was in 1863. Then, what is today a populous neighborhood had only three streets: the road that bears the name of the town, Buenos Aires and Tulipán, where the residence of the Count of Peñalver was erected, resting place, for long periods, of Bishop Espada.
It was in the nineteenth century the business and diplomatic district par excellence; today's Miramar, we would say. Eliza McHarton Ripley, an American who lived in Cuba between 1865 and 1875 and who would publish a delicious memoir about her stay on the island (From flag to flag, New York, 1889), wanted, while making the pertinent arrangements to buy a sugar mill, to settle in the Hill, where "the streets were wider and the houses had room to breathe." He was looking for a small house, but in the neighborhood all seemed so from the street, to extend later, towards the bottom, in an indefinite, almost unlimited number of rooms. He finally found one that more or less suited him and notes in his book that the location of the house was its greatest attraction. Eliza lived directly opposite the English consul, a stone's throw from the German consul, at the turn of the Russian representative, while merchants and businessmen settled nearby, which was a pleasant company for her.
Already in the twentieth century, the US embassy was located for many years in that neighborhood, in the Quinta de Echarte (Santa Catalina, number 4).
The origins of the Cerro are located at the dawn of the nineteenth century, when a hacienda was established there that ended up giving its name to the place.
In 1807 a wooden church was built, and when the building became unusable, in 1843, it was replaced by another of masonry, dedicated to San Salvador, because it was sponsored by Don Salvador de Muro, Marquis of Someruelos, then governor of the Island.
The first houses were built by the wealthiest inhabitants of Havana, on one side and the other of the road that connected the capital with Marianao and Vuelta Abajo. Some spent the hottest months there; others inhabited them throughout the year, moving to Havana only for their occupations and business.
The dwellings were generally single-storey; They were a derivation of the Creole house, with marble floors and high struts, surrounded by large gardens and with a large portal that extended along the sides. You entered the spacious room and then came the parlor, which overlooked directly to the large central courtyard. On both sides of this were the rooms, which communicated with each other and opened onto the gallery that surrounded it.
In the background were the dining room, the kitchen and the rooms of the servitude, with access in turn to another courtyard smaller than the previous one, and also the bathroom and the sanitary services, although in some of these houses there was in the garden a small pavilion, round or octagonal shape, with shutters, and occupied almost its entire area by a swimming pool that was used for the usual baths.
With two floors, however, it is the fifth of the Counts of Santovenia, built between 1832 and 1841 on the Calzada del Cerro y Patria, a true Trianon not only for its neoclassical, Italianate style, but for its exquisite refinement. Its front façade is 40 meters long and its reception room is 16 meters wide by six meters deep. In that house stayed the Archduke Alexius, son of Alexander II, Tsar of Russia and also the princes of the House of Orleans, two of whom would be kings of France with the names of Louis Philippe and Charles X.
The Counts of Santovenia, after living the house for years, put it up for sale. It was acquired by the executors of the will of another wealthy lady, in order to install a nursing home there. Attended by the Sisters of Charity, this one is really called Susana Benítez, which is the name of the benefactor, but we all know it as Santovenia.
Among many others in the Hill, very valuable is the house of the counts of Fernandina, smaller, but as luxurious as the previous one; less solemn and more graceful. It was built in 1819 by the first count, and his successor was determined to enlarge it. The third count married the Havanan Serafina Montalvo and settled in Paris, where the lady entered the crazy and excessive desire to compete in jewelry and dresses, horses and carriages, nothing less than with the Empress Eugenia de Montijo, wife of Napoleon III, with no other consequence than to lead to the ruin of the Fernandina, who lost their fortune and with it the palace of the Hill. By the way, Napoleon III fell madly in love with Serafina. One night, when she entered the Tuileries, the emperor, begging for love, threw himself desperately at her feet. The chronicler does not know the end of that story.
A rope lift
El Cerro, that aristocratic neighborhood, had, however, a great drawback: there passed the Royal Ditch, a polluting focus that caused the richest families to abandon it and the fabulous mansions were occupied by charitable or health institutions, schools, offices, industries, shops or became tenement houses.
The house of the Fernandina housed the Cuban Association, a clinic of some renown in its time, before becoming a tenancy house. The house of the Marquis of Pinar del Río belongs to the Santovenia asylum. Leonor Herrera's farm was, with the name of Covadonga, the health home of the Asturian Center. That of the Count of O'Reilly, that of the Association of Dependents of Commerce of Havana, founded on April 11, 1880.
For the area of land where it settled, Covadonga (Salvador Allende hospital) was one of the largest health centers in Cuba, surpassed only by the Calixto García hospital. Dependent, however, it surpassed Covadonga by the number of its pavilions (25) and, therefore, its capacity to enter. It had 74,468 associates in 1957.
It was in Dependents (hospital 10 de Octubre) where, in 1907, a heart suture was performed for the first time in Cuba, and for the second time in America. Dr. Bernardo Moas, the clinic's first surgeon, performed it on a patient who survived the operation 18 days, which was considered a success given the state of medicine and the resources available to the center. Moas' behavior was highly praised at the time by doctors Carlos J. Finlay and Joaquín Albarrán, two glories of Cuban medicine. A ward of that hospital bears the name of Moas.
It was also in Dependents where the first painless delivery service that existed in Cuba functioned in 1958. It was introduced by Dr. José Ramón Fernández, gynecologist and midwife surgeon, after a study trip that took him to the US and the main European capitals.
Not all the hospitals in the neighborhood were of the size of Covadonga and Dedependents. There were small ones, such as the La Bondad clinic, at number 1 263 of the Calzada and which was considered the dean of the country's health homes. It lacked an elevator and used a rudimentary device to move seriously ill, fractured, operated or recently born patients between one floor and another of the institution. It was placed in a drawer that a man made go up or down thanks to a thick rope.
In the Cerro was born the poet Gustavo Sánchez Galarraga. Also the stellar dancer Sonia Calero. And the painter René Portocarrero, the creator of the Floras and the Interiors of the Hill, so sought after today by collectors. In the Cerro was born Kid Chocolate, one of the greats of boxing in the world. In the public school number 37 of that neighborhood the poet Rubén Martínez Villena did primary studies.
There operated the factory of the defendant Bocoy rum and the establishment where the magazines Selecciones and Lifewere printed in Spanish, then distributed throughout Latin America. At the time of its inauguration, in 1946, the current Latin American Stadium was the fifth world facility of its kind by number of capacities; hence it was called the Colossus of the Hill.
During the nineteenth century, José Martí settled on the Hill, on Tulipán Street, and, on the corner of Texas, the scientist Álvaro Reynoso, author, in 1862, of the still valid Essay on the cultivation of sugar cane. There José de la Luz y Caballero had his school El Salvador; La Caridad, a society of instruction and recreation, met; and also the so-called Assembly of the Hill that, as the maximum representation of the Cuban nation, aimed to assume the leadership of a country intervened by the United States and promote the creation of a national State.
In El Cerro, in the clinic of Fortún Souza, the poet García Lorca, visiting in the spring of 1930, was operated on a cyst in the buttock – which he called "my ruby". In the Cuban Association, first, and then in the Legal Charity Center, both in that neighborhood, Ricardo Núñez Portuondo, an eminent figure of Cuban surgery, operated until almost the end of his days.
In Santa Rosa, between Cruz del Padre and Infanta, Alfredo González Suazo, who inherited from his father, famous baseball umpire, the nickname of Sirique, a peña that Sunday to Sunday brought together for years the most famous troubadours.
The first Cuban telenovela, Historia de tres hermanas, broadcast by CMQ, took place in El Cerro, in the days of the War of Independence.