Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Eusebio Leal: the Historian

August, 1st, 2020

Eusebio Leal Spengler, the man who saved Havana, died at age 77 due to pancreatic cancer.  Leal has been -for more than half a century, well known as the Historian of the City of Havana and well respected in Cuba and around the world for his indefatigable work.  Eusebio Leal rebuilt palaces, fortresses, houses and squares, while at the Head of the office of the Historian and following UNESCO recognition of Old Havana as World Heritage site (1982).  The Historian managed donations and built a self-sufficient project sustained mainly with income raised through its own chain of renovated hotels. Most importantly, the Historian office provided needed social support and social work to the neighbours of Old Havana.  

Every morning people could see Leal walking through Old Havana something he did for decades. The Historian saw himself as a “guardian of memory,” and often expressed concern about those who loving decadent Old Havana forgot the many losses to time and change, losses he mourned dearly. The Historian knew he would never have enough time to achieve his entire goal -he would need many lives, he often said, to complete the work that kept him awake at night.  However, despite his concern and the size of the work Leal never gave up and instead tried with all his strength proving much could be achieved.  

The Historian rescued Havana through hard work, inexhaustible effort, and vision. He enlisted the support of anyone willing to bring to life his goal of restoring Havana to its original beauty. Since the 1960s, Leal dressed in grey a color he chose to facilitate communication with the men who helped him turn the old Palace of the Captain-Generals into the Museum of the City (of Havana). Men who were in jail but volunteered to work with him.  Leal was appointed Director of this Museum in 1967 and after his mentor, Emilio Roig de Leushenring, retired.

The Historian preferred blue for special occasions. Then, his passionate and knowledgeable speech would touch kings, popes, presidents, ministers, scholars and, very importantly, the many regular people who came in touch with him.  Leal guided Prince Charles, visiting from England, and King Felipe and Queen Letizia visiting from Spain.  His friendship and admiration for Fidel and Raul Castro and many Cuban political figures no doubt helped Leal achieve his dream. he was also a deputy to the National Assembly (Cuban Parliament) and was always open about his catholic faith, even at times where religion was strongly challenged.

Leal Spengler, born September 11th, 1942, was the son of poor farmers, the grandson of patriots and the great-grandson of immigrants of French and German background who arrived in Cuba from Haiti. He completed grade 5 when his mother sent him to an Asturian merchant she knew to complete an apprenticeship with him who failed to turn Leal into a merchant but succeeded in instill in him a strong faith and a wish of becoming a priest. Leal did not become a priest, he later said, because he could not remain celibate: “I loved women too much.” He married a few times and had five children, two of them living in Spain.  “Homeland and faith” his motto, insatiable reader from infancy and a regular reader of the Bible. I want to be remembered, he said, as a “Cuban devoted to his dream, a dream he was able to carry out mainly at the expense of wounds and indignities, sacrificing his private life.” Cubans knew Leal and his work through “Andar La Habana” (Walking Havana) a television program he did for years teaching Cubans to know and love their capital. Leal was the recipient of international recognition for his work, the last Order of Charles III from the King of Spain in November 2019 and Doctor Honoris Cause from Pontificia Universidad Lateranense (Pontificia Lateran University) on that same month and year.

See also: 

The Man Who Saved Havana, Smithsonian: