Guanabacoa is one of the most interesting and picturesque quarters on the outskirts of Havana city. With customs and traditions of its own, it maintains its characteristics and distinguishes itself from the other areas because of its rich history, its continued religiosity, and other manifestations of African heritage, and for some colonial architectural monuments.
Half way through the XVI century the Spanish Crown issued dispositions to end serfdom for the Indios. Since then many settled in what today is Guanabacoa, thus it also became known as the village of the Indios. There are many hypotheses regarding the origin of the name of this village: one affirms that Guanabacoa means high area, and another that in the aboriginal language it means place of many waters. The latter is the most accepted since the area is effectively characterised by numerous water sources, of which the region is rich.
Guanabacoa village was officially founded on 12 June 1554, but the following year something very important for its inhabitants took place. Jacques de Sores, the famous pirate that plundered the Caribbean Seas, sacked and conquered the city of San Cristobal of Havana. The Governor, Don Gonzalo Pérez, ordered a retreat and he, the members of his council, and many authorities escaped to the village of Guanabacoa. They stayed there for six months during which the council met and issued the decrees of that period. It is for this reason that the saying “to put Havana in Guanabacoa” became popular. Even though it is absurd to think that the most eminent San Cristobal of Havana can enter into a small village, like Guanabacoa was at the time, it is true that for six months Havana was in Guanabacoa. Since then, when something big is trying to be put somewhere small, or when too lofty goals are being sought, popular tradition preserved the saying that one cannot “put Havana in Guanabacoa” or that someone wanted to “put Havana in Guanabacoa”.
On 14 August 1743, King Fillip V, upon the request of the nobility, and both civil and ecclesiastic authorities, issued the decree with which Guanabacoa obtained the title of city – with the name Asunción de Guanabacoa. From then on, it has been called Guanabacoa the beautiful, with its guano walls. It was there that in great pomp the feast of the Assumption or of the protective deity took place, one of the most famous and attended popular feasts in Cuba.
In Havana in 1762 there was another important event that would influence Guanabacoa: it was taken by the English. Faced with the clumsiness of the official forces, militias and volunteers showed their valour. They were led by creoles like José Antonio Gómez y Bullones and the legendary Pepe Antonio from Guanabacoa, who was its mayor. Since then another popular name for Guanabacoa became “the city of Pepe Antonio”.
Near Guanabacoa many sugar factories were set up, which is why numerous blacks lived there, first as slaves then as freemen. This explains the endurance of religions and other manifestations of African origin that denote it: Santeria, Palomonte, and the Secret Society Abakuá are still present. Therefore the saying “see Guanabacoa looking for a babalawo (a Yoruba priest)” is still very popular. What’s more, Guanabacoa has a valid cultural heritage: it was the cradle of musicians, writers, storytellers, and its famous Artistic and Literary High School was visited by José Martí. Among the best-known artists born in Guanabacoa are: Rita Montaner, a singer and actress that the public renamed “The Only One”; Ignacio Villa, “Snow Ball”, an eccentric singer and composer; and the most famous Cuban musician Ernesto Lecuona. Today these cultural traditions are kept alive in the prestige of the “Guillermo Tomás” Music Conservatory and in its museum that is visited by Cubans and foreigners for the annual international Wemilere Festival of African Roots.