Mar 5, 2017

“And We? ... What Are ‘We’?”

They met at Christmas chorus practice at the church. She sang, he played the organ. They both lived nearby, Mariana Martínez on Republica Street with her parents, and Benito Prats in view of the church at his parents’ house on Avellaneda Street. It was in 1948. She just turned 22 a few days earlier, he was 30. The chorus rehearsed twice a week in the evening for Sunday High Mass at the Church of the Sacred Heart on the narrow San Francisco Plaza (today the Plaza of Youth) in Camaguey. After a while, he asked her out to the movies.

Mariana Martinez Rodriguez
They needed a chaperone.  Miss Martinez Rodriguez was the eldest daughter of, by all accounts, a very progressive family. She had just returned from college — not finishing school — in Canada and had a full-time job as secretary to the branch manager at the Royal Bank of Canada, one of the highest positions for employed women in Camaguey at the time. Her father, Joaquin Ventura Martinez, was the lawyer that had helped a group of women to charter a women-owned and operated tennis club. Her aunt, Celita Rodriguez, had been a president of the club and she had just made member. Her grandmother, Araceli de las Casas, had owned and single-handedly operated not one but three large cattle ranches until her death in 1934. And, rare for a woman at that time in Camaguey, Mariana had a driver’s license and would occasionally head out to Songorrongo, the family ranch, by herself after work when her family was spending time there. But conservative society still considered her a girl, and to go to the movies with a boy she needed a chaperone. Old customs die hard.

Benito H. Prats MD
Let’s pause to give you a picture of the 31 year old “boy.” He was Doctor Benito Prats Respall, a gastroenterologist in private practice with his office at his grandmother’s house a block up the street from his parents’, a brass plaque beside the door with his name and specialty, and a nurse-receptionist just inside the door. He was also an excellent piano player, and was a founder of both the Cineclub and the Concerts Association. The former imported “art”movies like those of the French director François Truffaut or Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, and showed them in a rented theater, followed by a discussion. The latter sold subscriptions to hire world-class classical music performers like the violinist Jascha Heifetz and the pianist and composer Vladimir Horowitz who would not otherwise consider performing in such a small city like Camaguey. 
So off they went on their date, with Elia Maria, Mariana’s sister, in tow. They probably saw the latest Hollywood movie. The drama “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” starring Humphrey Bogart came out in 1948, or maybe it was the comedy “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.”  Surrounded by music at the chorus rehearsal, maybe they continued the theme and went to a musical like Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade” starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire.

These dates continued: movies, concerts, lectures, restaurant and night club dinners, the bowling alley, carriage rides through the Casino Campestre (Camaguey’s immense urban park), moonlight walks through Camaguey’s many plazas. But always with one of Mariana’s sisters, Elia Maria or Ofelia, or Benito’s sister Olga or his cousin Bertha Respall, in the third seat.  

Two of the chaperones
Elia Maria and Ofelia Martínez
A year later they were still dating, and by then, for at least one of the chaperones, the dates had long stopped being fun. Elia Maria says that she started resenting having her evenings interrupted by her chaperoning duties. Mariana would ask her at the last minute, she would say she was busy, Mariana would appeal to her parents, and there she was, in the back of the car, sulking. 

And then there were the phone calls. Benito and Mariana tying up the phone for hours, it seemed, cooing at each other. “Mariana! Get off the phone!” When Benito left town on business to Havana, or for longer trips for his continuing education in Havana, New Orleans, or Philadelphia, there would be a letter arriving for Mariana almost every day, reports Elia Maria. And Mariana, hunched over the desk in the bedroom she shared with Elia Maria and Ofelia, writing and perfuming letters back to him.  

No chaperone was required, of course, when Benito was invited to dinner by Mariana’s parents, and vice versa when Mariana dined at the Prats. When they visited each other’s houses they were never to sit on the same couch, or, heaven forbid, left alone for even a minute. Like I said, it was an aging custom then, but the custom was enforced by both families.

Benito and Mariana in Songorrongo
Their chaperone, Elia Maria,
on her horse named Mambí
Benito was invited to the Martínez' ranch, Songorrongo, often. There he first rode a horse. He told of his first horse ride with Mariana and her sisters. They took a picnic out to a shaded riverbank some distance from the ranch. His horse knew its rider was not experienced and would veer under trees to see if a branch would knock Benito off. He kept his saddle but did a lot of dodging. His fellow riders were in stitches laughing. On the ride back, when his horse spied the ranch house in the distance, it broke into a gallop with Benito holding on for dear life. He was saddle-sore for a week!

They had their song. “Damisela Encantadora” (“Enchanting Damsel”), a popular standard originally written in 1933 for musical theater by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. This fast waltz would be periodically revived by one popular music band or another, a record would be pressed, and radio stations would play it. (More in  the accompanying article about this song.) In the lyrics the protagonist longs for the charming damsel and says he would die of love if she would just give him a glance and allow him to kiss her.  Benito would play it on the piano whenever he got the chance and Mariana would sing along. (Their delight with this song continued all their lives. He would be noodling at the piano and break into “Damisela Encantadora” and Mariana would chime in from the next room and come over to sit with him and sing the chorus from memory. We moved his piano into their nursing home and even there, when he played their song, the now mute Mariana would come to the piano and sing the occasional word at the proper time.)

Mariana, photographed by Benito
And then there was the other song, the song that Mariana was caught singing to Benito over the phone one afternoon before supper, when she thought she was alone behind a closed door. Accompanying herself on her guitar, she had to raise her voice so Benito could hear her with the telephone receiver set down on the table — no speakerphones back then. It was “Amorcito Corazón” (“Sweetest Sweetheart”) from the 1948 movie musical “Nosotros los Pobres” (“We the Poor”) starring Pedro Infante and Blanca Estela Pavón, icons of Mexican cinema's Golden Age, who sing this song to each other in the movie. The lyrics were a bit risque, especially for that time in Camaguey:

♪ Sweetest sweetheart / I am tempted by the kiss / offered in the heat / of our great love, my love. // I want to be one / one with you / and I want to see you loving, / for my dreams. 

Her sister Natalia overheard her singing through the door and motioned others to come closer. Her brother Venturita confirms this story. Eventually everyone was at the door, including Rosa Muños, the cook.

“Amorcito Corazon”
Clip from the film Nosotros los Pobres.
At this point in the film it is Pedro Infante who sings it.
Directed by Ismael Rodríguez, screenplay and lyrics
by Pedro de Urdimalas, music by Manuel Esperón
♪ In the sweet sensation / of a nibbled kiss, I want / sweetest sweetheart / to tell you of my passion for you. // Partners through good and bad / without regrets as years go by / sweetest sweetheart / you'd be my love. 

She finishes with a guitar flourish and her unexpected audience bursts into applause.  Mortified, Mariana pushes through the crowd and rushes to her room, slamming the door. She refused to come out for dinner and did not speak to her siblings for a week.

As the courtship continued, Elia Maria had another complaint. Another societal custom was getting in her way because of Mariana. She had fallen in love with a young engineer, Manuel Lopez, and they wanted to get married. But they would have to wait until her elder sister married. Anyone who knows Elia Maria would know that she did not suffer quietly.

Mariana was also wondering when this courtship would progress to the next step. They had a great time on their dates. There was genuine fondness between them. There were expressions of love in their phone calls, correspondence, and whispers during their chaperoned dates. But the weeks and months continued with no talk of marriage. They were certainly an item, and more and more Benito would use the pronouns “us” and “we” to refer to them both. “We like that a lot!” “Mariana, why don’t we go there tomorrow?” “That horror movie really scared us!” Mariana noticed.

One day Benito was going on about something or other, dropping plenty of we’s into the conversation, when Mariana snapped. Gesturing back and forth between them she asked, “and we? ... what are ‘we’?”  (“y nosotros, ¿qué somos?”

All his life Benito was never known for snap decisions. That’s why Mariana was such a good partner and why their marriage worked so well. She was in charge of his decisions. He would deliberate and discuss and deliberate and discuss some more. He knew what the decision should be, but it was she that gave him the nudge, more often than not, to make it. In their twilight years when Mariana was no longer capable, one decision that should have been made sooner rather than later, cataract surgery for Benito, took eight years to schedule and the delay created complications with his eyesight. The “what are ‘we’” nudge was her first of many.

And it worked! Within days he spoke to her parents and then asked for her hand in marriage. She immediately accepted.  The wedding was set for June 9, 1951. Until then, the chaperones would still be on duty.

Benito H. Prats and Mariana G. Martinez, husband and wife, June 9, 1951.