The city is no longer the same. Inland, far from the sea, modern neighborhoods rise; now the avenues are embellished with other posters; new shops and restaurants crown the historical center. A neighbor of Santiago who returns to the city after some years might feel like an intruding visitor in his own land. Perhaps he will find his favorite bar turned into a dwelling, or discover that the movie theater where he dated his girlfriend has been closed.
But if he stops for a second and closes his eyes he will see that in fact everything remains the same. The sun warms the skin with the same force as before, the smell of ripe mangoes floods the markets. Everywhere you perceive the joyful rumor of people climbing Heredia Street, going across the city along Aguilera Street or strolling down Enramadas. No matter what their destination may be, they all have crossed the same spot.
It’s not true that all roads lead to Rome; at least in Santiago de Cuba they all lead to Céspedes Park. Many stories and legends link the neighbors of Santiago to this place that for 500 years has sheltered the natives of the city.
The history of Céspedes Park goes back as far as 1515, when the village was founded. Following the urban regulations of the Spanish monarchy for the building of cities, a space was destined for the park. In those days it was only an extensive terrace surrounded by rudimentary constructions like the Government House, the church and dwellings of the Spaniards who had embarked upon the conquest of America. With the passing of years the Park has become known as former Arms Square, then Major Square and Constitution Square.
Protected by the old city, Céspedes Park is surrounded by the Town Hall, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago de Cuba, and the home of Diego Velázquez, all of which preserve their original architecture. To the south, beyond the dark red of the French tiles, is the bay that witnessed the flourishing of the village.
Leafy, one-hundred-year old trees make the Park a welcoming place, quiet in spite of the activity that vibrates in it all day long. In its benches, the neighbors of Santiago find a special place to rest, share the company of others or flirt.
During July, the Park vibrates even more strongly, since it becomes the scene for the celebration of the Feast of Fire and the carnival. Hundreds of persons cross it dancing at the rhythm of Santiago’s conga, or dance and sing at the foot of the monument in tribute to Carlos Manuel de Céspedes.
This splendorous display of the region’s traditions makes the Park a place of obliged visit for foreigners, who may find Santiago’s most peculiar faces in it.
The village approaches its half a century of existence. After so many years, it has grown and new squares have been built, but Céspedes Park still is, and for a long time will remain the heart of the city.