Jun 30, 2016

Our Very Rich Relations


This essay won’t embarrass anyone now living because our very rich relations had no children, and I will be telling you why.

The first of the Maryland Prats, Benito and Mariana — and their brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and aunts and uncles — would be characterized by both American and Cuban standards of the mid-20th Century to be squarely in the middle class. They ranged from professionals — doctors, lawyers, engineers, college professors, schoolteachers — to businessmen, gentlemen ranchers and shopkeepers.  But one of Mariana’s aunts married well, as the saying goes. She was of the landed gentry and expected to marry well, but, still, she married very very well.
Angela Rodriguez de las Casas and her husband
Federico Castellanos y Batista

Araceli de las Casas second oldest daughter, Angela Rodriguez de las Casas (1889-1974) and her husband, Federico Castellanos y Batista, were our rich relations. Federico owned a huge cattle and horse ranch south of Camaguey called San Cayetano. He bred purebred cebú — zebu, or humped —cattle and Arabian race horses on the ranch.  He showed and raced the horses in both Cuba and the U.S. He owned both rural and city real estate — many city parcels with rental houses and office buildings — in and around Camaguey, and in the 1950s had a multi-million dollar portfolio in stocks and bonds.

San Cayetano had a gatekeeper’s house at the entrance with an impressive driveway climbing past manicured lawns to a colonial-style ranch house at the top of the rise. Numerous outbuildings included guest cottages, stables, tack rooms, and greenhouses full of orchids. Corrals were numerous, as were pastures and potreros — horse paddocks — on the property.

President Lyndon Johnson
in the 1960s
After Communism settled on Cuba in the early 1960s, the liberated San Cayetano became Fidel Castro’s home-away-from-home when he visited Camaguey. It became one of Castro’s hunting lodges where he entertained foreign dignitaries such as Felipe Gonzales, the Spanish Prime Minister, in 1986. Even today in 2016, its locked gates are guarded by the Cuban military.

In Federico Castellanos’ day he also entertained visiting dignitaries there, many from northeast Texas, who came to inspect his horses and cattle and to enter into lucrative breeding arrangements. In the 1950s Lyndon B. Johnson — then a U.S. Senator from Texas, a cattle rancher,  and destined to be President of the United States in in the 1960s — spent a few days in San Cayetano. He was interested in Federico’s purebred horses and cattle. Mariana was summoned from town to translate for Senator Johnson. Elia Maria and Ofelia, who also went to school in Canada, also performed periodic translating duties for Federico.

A central courtyard at No. 160 Libertad Avenue today
Today the house houses a government agency that maintains its public
rooms very well. More photos at the end of this essay.
The Castellanos had a city house, a mansion, in Camaguey’s tony Caridad neighborhood at No. 160 Libertad Avenue. Relatively new, it was built in the classic colonial style with an imposing façade, impeccably appointed rooms opening to multiple central courtyards with fountains and lushly planted and shaded with trees. Staff quarters and the kitchen opened to still another courtyard in the rear. The master bedroom and its sitting rooms were centrally air conditioned in the 1950s, a very refined luxury for those days.

The Castellanos name and wealth goes back centuries in colonial Camaguey. Like most landed gentry that favored the rebels during Cuba’s long wars against Spain’s domination of Cuba, the Castellanos lost much land and wealth. Camagueyan farmers and ranchers like the Castellanos lost all income when Spanish General Weyler herded workers from their farms and ranches, along with rural subsistence farmers — more than 300,000 of them — into garrisoned towns to deprive the rebels of food and assistance. The famine and pestilence this caused throughout Cuba  even in Spanish-held cities, killing thousands — did not seem to bother distant Spain. The colonial government did not confiscate San Cateyano and other rural property as they had no value without ranch hands, but they did confiscate all Castellanos city property including the large and stately Castellanos mausoleum in Camaguey’s cemetery. All property was returned in 1898 at the end of the war, and the Castellanos clan quickly rebuilt their wealth.

Federico and Angela
Early in their marriage
Despite their great wealth, they were not aloof. Angela Rodriguez was very warm and loving with her family and kind and pleasant with her staff and when out in public. Federico Castellanos was likewise. Family did not need to be invited to visit them at their city house when they were in town, or at San Cayetano when they were there. Since there were no telephone lines out to San Cayetano, you could not call to inquire or even announce yourself, you just went. The Martinez Rodriguez children all remember spending many day visits and overnights at San Cayetano, riding horses over the vast estate, enjoying lunch al fresco in the garden, and watching the day-to-day workings of the great ranch. Castellanos relations report the same memories of San Cateyano.

In the early 1950s Federico subdivided one of his rural properties just west of Camaguey on the Carretera Central — Cuba’s main east-west highway — into Camaguey’s first American-style suburban housing subdivision, the Reparto Retiro. He extended city water and sewer lines out to the reparto and put in a grid of paved streets with sidewalks. Federico’s and Angela’s wedding gift to Benito and Mariana in 1951 was a lot in Reparto Retiro where they built their house at 55 Honduras Street. And Angela’s greenhouse orchids festooned not only Benito and Mariana’s wedding, but her sisters Elia Maria’s and Ofelia’s weddings and the weddings of many of Angela’s and Federico’s other nieces and nephews.

They each had a town car, the latest model large American sedan — their last automobiles in Camaguey were Cadillacs — and chauffeurs, who drove them wherever they need to go. When they traveled to Havana or to the U.S., a hired car and driver met them at the airport and was at their beck and call for the duration of their stay.

Angela Rodriguez at San Cayetano
Where did Mariana’s aunt Angela shop? Camaguey’s shopping scene was limited for persons of wealth. So, there were trips to Havana; before World War II by train — first class, of course — then as air travel developed, day trips to Havana by air. And then there were week-long trips to New York, Dallas, and other large American cities which included shopping.

But by the 1950’s she would think nothing of taking the morning Pan Am flight to Miami, where a hired car was waiting to whisk her into town to department stores like Burdines or Jordan Marsh, or the boutiques in downtown Miami and on Miami Beach. She often took a niece with her, for companionship and in case she needed help with English. (She went to finishing school in New York as a girl, but her command of English could be limiting.) They would return to Camaguey on the late afternoon or on the evening flight. Her nieces the Martínez sisters, Mariana, Elia Maria, Ofelia and Natalia, remember the trips fondly. Aunt Angela would call the day before. “Are you free tomorrow? Would you care to come with me to Miami? It’s just for the day.” And, of course, they would say yes.

Pan American Airways’ Douglas DC-7C
You have to remember that back then at the dawn of aviation, all air travel was expensive luxury travel. Angela and her guest would be driven just minutes before flight time to the small passenger terminal at the airport (there was no need for large spaces; there were no crowds). She paid cash for her tickets and got her boarding pass while her driver handed in their luggage. (For day trips the luggage would just be their parcels on their return.) Baggage tags in hand, they simply walked a few feet out of the building and through a genuine gate in a low chain-link fence out to the tarmac and up the portable stairs to the propeller-driven airliner. If it was raining the gate agent trotted beside them holding an oversize umbrella. No airport security and their lines back then. And no crowds, because the biggest of the aircraft of the era only had 64 seats.  By the way, Miami’s airport back then was smaller than Camaguey’s!

Unfortunately, all was not plum cakes and roses with regards their marriage. Federico liked the ladies, and his wealth let him have whatever he wanted. His philandering, and the mistress he kept in Camaguey, were open secrets. His distinctive car, with the uniformed chauffeur leaning against it waiting, was frequently seen parked on the street in a working class neighborhood in Camaguey at one of his rental houses where he kept his mistress.  Angela surely knew. But it was never discussed openly by the family and Angela never considered leaving him despite the abundance of evidence.

A young Angela Rodriguez
The close-knit medical community in the small city of Camaguey knew something about Federico Castellanos and Angela Rodriguez from backroom clinical talk that doctors and nurses everywhere have among themselves. It seems that early in their marriage Federico neglected to let Angela know about a venereal disease he had picked up in one of his dalliances. It was syphilis in the telling I heard. The story reports that her infection progressed to the point where the damage it caused before it was treated left her barren. Or maybe it was he who could no longer father children, as no illegitimate heirs came out of the woodwork on his death.

But lore on the Castellanos side of the family tells that there was one illegitimate child early on in Federico’s life. He may have fathered a child while he was boarding at a boy’s prep school in Worcester Massachusetts in 1910 — he surely a teenager. The child was put up for adoption and hush money was paid to quiet the scandal.

“There was a sadness to her,” recalled many who knew Angela Rodriguez. The regret both had that they did not have children was not a secret. Both of them doted on their nieces, nephews and grands, I’m sure, to compensate. If you were family and in a pinch and needed a small loan, or had a friend who needed work or needed a low price on a house to rent, you went to Federico.

Compensating for not being able to have children could also be attributed to Angela's extensive china and bisque doll collection. Family reports a huge room in their city house devoted to these dolls, most around two feet tall, but some smaller. They were dressed in sumptuous clothing, some in contemporary styles, and many in the styles of different eras. Matching hats, purses, and scaled down furniture abounded. It was a museum of dolls. 

The New Everglades Hotel, Miami
Except for the stocks and bonds of U.S. companies, Federico’s and Angela’s wealth was appropriated like every other Cuban’s wealth when Cuba converted its economy to Communism in the early 1960s. When he and Angela fled Cuba in 1959 they moved into a penthouse suite at the New Everglades Hotel overlooking Biscayne Bay in Miami to wait out the coup.

There had been coups before in Cuba and after a while things always calmed down and everything returned to normal. All Cubans that had fled to Miami were sure that the United States of America would not let Fidel Castro’s anti-U.S. government last too long. So Federico Castellanos and his wife Angela Rodriguez waited in their luxury hotel in Miami for the Castro government to fall. Federico read the newspapers every day for news and waited.  

Savings Passbook from The First National Bank of Miami, Florida
If they were emptying their Cuban bank accounts this deposit
would not have been a round number. They were just being pru-
dent while believing that the nightmare would be over soon and
they would be back at their beloved San Cayetano.
Shortly after his arrival, he wrote a check for $300,000 (more than two million dollars in today’s money) against his Cuban checking account for some just-in-case money, and put it in a savings account in a Miami bank. Then they waited some more. Shortly afterwards, the Cuban government blocked bank accounts so this withdrawal proved prescient.

In 1962, Federico managed to send for his mistress in Camaguey and get her to Miami. Being an otherwise honorable man, he had surely once upon a time told her that he would always take care of her.  Now he was in Miami the U.S. embargo meant that he could no longer get money to her in Camaguey. I have it on good authority from somebody visiting at the Everglades Hotel the day Angela found out that “that woman” was now in Miami. Angela was seething and did not hesitate to loudly tell Federico that under no circumstances could that woman set foot in their hotel.

Angela’s niece Elia Maria Martinez at San Cayetano
She is on one of the ranch’s Arabians
In May, 1963 Federico called his lawyer to his penthouse suite and signed a new Last Will and Testament in two parts, one Cuba-legal for his Cuban property, prepared and witnessed by a certified Cuban Notary Lawyer who now lived in Miami; and the other Florida-legal for just his U.S. properties (stocks, bonds, and bank accounts), prepared and witnessed by the same lawyer, who was also a U.S. lawyer and a Florida Notary. With that Florida will, he wanted to make sure his wife and nephew would be provided for should he die before he could return to Cuba. He died fifteen months later, in 1964.

He died convinced that his Cuban wealth and property would soon be returned to his executor to distribute as he desired. Little did he, and virtually all the other Cubans then in Miami, know what history had in mind for the mid-century self-exiled Cubans. His 1963 Cuban Last Will and Testament has never been filed in the Camaguey courts, and it remains to this day a Testamento Abierto — an un-probated will. I have no idea where the original is, but I have a copy.

Having no children of his own to inherit, here is what he willed: Angela was to have the use of their Camaguey city house and the San Cayetano house and their contents, and all the town automobiles, for the rest of her life. Also half of his financial instruments were hers as her “widow’s quota,” and that care must be taken to ensure that all jewelry that he gave her remain hers forever. (A Widow’s Quota is a Spanish inheritance device that ensures that a widow is not disinherited.) Various nieces, nephews and relatives from his side of the family were to receive a lot of city land, or the house they lived in that he owned, or a sum of money (e.g. $50,000 – some $375,000 in today’s dollars). To a long list of more distant relatives he left $1000 ($7750 today).

It is apparent that their wealth was tied up in Cuba, because Federico’s Florida will, after expenses, left Angela only $219,761.70 in cash, stocks and bonds. That sum is nothing to sneeze at, but it was not anywhere near the many millions of dollars in stocks, bonds, and cash-producing properties he owned. What did she own in her name? Beside a sixth of the Songorrongo ranch (which see), not much beside her closets full of clothes and jewelry she left behind in Cuba.

An entrance at the San Cayetano Farms complex
This one is to the “Rescate de Sanguily” Livestock
Genetics Company, photographed in 2016
Federico may have had his failings, but he had a charitable heart. The rest of his Cuban will concerns itself with setting up the Federico Castellanos Batista Foundation. The foundation would be endowed with all his remaining wealth and properties immediately, and the houses and furnishings that Angela had the right to use would revert to the Foundation on her death. The foundation was to be based in San Cayetano and it was to dedicate itself to the education poor rural boys, preferably those who lived near San Cayetano, training them to become farmers and ranchers. The initial number of students was to be 40.

Unfortunately, his surprisingly generous philanthropy was colored by the racial prejudices of his time. Not only could the students only be boys, not girls, but they could only be white boys. Don’t believe any Cuban who tells you that there was no racial discrimination in Cuba, or that there is none today. While there was little overt segregation like in the American South, racism lurked under the genteel politeness of Cuba’s upper classes.  And it appears that in the 53 years since Federico had his lawyer write those words, there has been less progress against racial discrimination in Cuba than in the United States. 

But I don’t want to end this essay on such a sour note. I would rather conclude by celebrating what appears to be our ancestor’s deathbed redemption. Federico Castellanos was a kind and generous — but flawed — man (aren’t we all to some extent or other?) who loved his wife and who came to regret the selfishness that caused them to be without children. This was his attempt to atone.


Page from the Camaguey edition of the
1944 Social Directory “Mundo Elegante”

by Mario R. Silva Llopis showing photos of the 
Castellanos residences, three of their house 
in town and one of San Cayetano.
Click on image to enlarge, then click again.
(Courtesy of The Hotel Camaguey Blog)
Postscript: Shortly after Federico Castellanos’ death, his wife Angela Rodriguez left their penthouse suite at the Everglades Hotel to live more modestly with one of Federico’s nephews now in Miami. The Cuban “situation” was not going to be resolved any time soon, and finances had to be conserved. She suffered a stroke in 1969 and came to live with her sister Elia (Mariana’s mother) at the somewhat shabby Bradley Boulevard Apartments in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The stroke physically weakened her but did not significantly incapacitate her, and she reigned from her easy chair at her sister’s apartment for many years. She died in 1974. She was 84. Her last will and testament was very simple: Her remaining funds were to be divided into four parts and given to her three living sisters Elia, Margarita, and Maria Luisa and the fourth part to the two children of her deceased brother Gaspar. Her niece Mariana was the executor. Of her portion of their wealth there was not much left: they each got $18,350.64. Eyebrows were raised —Angela had been quite frugal after his death — but that was all that Mariana found in her accounts.

Angela Rodriguez in her easy chair
at the Bradley Boulevard Apartment in Chevy Chase
Angela also left a Testamento Abierto for her Cuban property. It was signed in Montgomery County, Maryland, in 1970. Her sixth of Songorrongo was to be divided equally among her three living sisters. Financial property (I'm assuming that this was her widow's quota from Federico's will) was to be divided in four equal parts with the three of the four parts going to her three living sisters and the fourth equally divided among the living children of her deceased brother Gaspar.

Angela was my godmother, and godmother to a number of other children in the Prats-Martinez-Rodriguez clan. Likewise a number Maryland Prats relations called Federico their godfather. We still miss them.

A breezeway at No. 160 Libertad Avenue in 2016

This photograph of Elia Maria Martínez
in her wedding gown was taken in
one of the public rooms at No. 160
Libertad Street
This photograph of Mariana Martínez
in her wedding gown was taken in
one of the public rooms at No. 160
Libertad Street

Original 1940s tile work in one of the bathrooms
at No. 160 Libertad Street
The façade, cream-colored, of No. 160 Libertad Street
PDF: Letter from Probate Attorney to Mariana Prats in 1976 Notice the nice words on the last paragraph, which begins on page one.