THE LEGEND OF DOLORES RONDÓN
A poem, in the guise of an epitaph, appeared in Camagüey’s cemetery early in 1883. It was painted in black on small piece of whitewashed wood staked over a 20 year old, previously unmarked grave.
Aquí Dolores Rondón
Finalizó su carrera.
Ven mortal y considera
Las Grandezas cuales son:
El orgullo y presunción,
La opulencia y el poder.
Todo llega a fenecer
Pues solo se inmortaliza
El mal que se economiza
Y el bien que se puede hacer.
Here Dolores Rondón
Concluded her career.
Approach, mortal, and consider
The earthly desires which are:
Pride and vanity,
Opulence and power.
All of them come to a close
For only immortalized is
The wrong that is minimized
And the good that can be achieved.
Camagüey was at that time a small town in the central plains of Cuba, four days by steamship and then railroad from the capital, longer on horseback. The population then was no more than 35,000 souls. The war for independence from Spain was still raging and once-prosperous Camagüey was in economic ruin.
In the days after the epitaph’s appearance, not many people took notice. But as the months and the years passed, curiosity over the poem increased, especially when anonymous hands periodically repainted and re-stenciled the weathered wooden board.
Who was Dolores Rondón? Who was the author of the poem that memorialized a loved one by censuring her life in such an unkind way? Searching the back issues of newspapers yielded only commentaries ruminating on the poem, not facts.
In 1933, the mayor of Camagüey, Mr. Pedro Garcia Hagrenot, ordered the erection of a small marble monument to replace the wooden board. His action saved for posterity what had by then become a significant piece of the city’s lore. You can see it yourself today in the northern part of the first section of the cemetery.
Dr. Abel Marrero Companioni researched public records and interviewed people from that era that were still alive. In 1958 he published an essay on Dolores Rondón and her epitaph. He notes that this historical mystery has spawned a number of legends but that his version is the definitive one. This English-language account is an expanded translation of his work.
Camagüey, at that time of Dolores Rondón’s birth in 1811, was a significant and prosperous Spanish city. Known as Puerto Príncipe back then, it was the center of commerce for a large number of sugar plantations and cattle ranches. Honey and beeswax as well as tobacco were also cultivated and exported. The royal supreme court of the Spanish West Indies, La Real Audiencia, was located at Camagüey, not Havana; because it was safer from sacking by pirates and the English there. In 1836 he first railroad in all of Spain and its dominions was constructed connecting from Camagüey to the ocean, a distance of some 50 miles.
Dolores’ birth date is not known. What is known is that she was born in a house on what was then Hospital Street, now known as Céspedes Street, between Cristo and Beltran. She was the daughter of a Catalán immigrant named Vicente Rams, owner of a fabric and rope shop near Maceo Plaza on what is now named Independencia Street. The establishment was called “Versalles.”
Her mother’s name is also not known, but we assume her last name was Rondón, as illegitimate children were typically named after their mothers back then. Dolores’ birth cannot be found in the records of any of the churches in the city, nor in the civil records.
Lolita, as she was called, was a precocious child, clever, full of grace and mischievousness; the joy of the neighborhood. From the beginning at the local school she demonstrated her intelligence. Her Catalán roots gave her a good voice and she liked to sing. She blossomed under the economic assistance of her father.
Near Lolita’s home there was a barbershop owned by a young man pompously named Juan Francisco de Moya y Escobar. He possessed some education and was not only a barber, but also a healer in the homeopathic system and a certified Phlebotomist. In other words, he was authorized to extract molars, apply leaches, practice bloodletting, and conduct scarifications (the making of small cuts in the skin for curative purposes). He would hear Lolita singing every day, due to the proximity of their homes, and was taken with and enchanted by her. Flattering compliments, written notes, and birthday presents were lavished on Lolita by Mr. de Moya as she was growing up.
Lolita grew and matured into a total beauty. A true criolla (American born with European blood), she was composed of a mixture of light-skinned mulatto and a very arrogant and good-looking Catalán. Her skin was olive-colored, but light; her eyes were light green and expressive; her hair black, lustrous, straight and long; all this completed a curvaceous, elegant, and graceful body, poised and self-assured. As she came of age, the barber’s love blossomed; but his letters, poems, and gifts were received with indifference, then contempt, and his advances rebuffed.
No details are known about the romance and subsequent marriage of Lolita to a Spanish military officer. But the assumption is that her father’s Spanish roots and commercial relations as rope supplier to the garrison in the city created the opportunity.
When she married, she left her neighborhood on Hospital Street and moved with her new husband to a large home on the elegant San Francisco Plaza. She lived a life of parties, dances, and distinguished acquaintances. She attended balls at the Casino Español where Spanish officers, plantation owners, and government functionaries mingled with their wives and relations. She was also known to participate in public festivities on the military parade grounds such as those for the restoration of the monarchy. She was present at the great feast commemorating the coronation (in Spain) of King Amadeo de Saboya.
Some reports say that on a trip they both took to Spain, her husband, now a Capitan, died. Other reports say that he died in Camagüey.
A widow now, not much is known of her for many years. What is known is that she descended into poverty and is next found in a bed at the El Carmen Hospital suffering from smallpox during the epidemic that attacked the city in 1863. It was there at her bedside that Dolores’ eternal sweetheart Juan de Moya was found filling in as her nurse, father, and brother; and tending to her with curatives and potions as a mother would have.
It cannot be verified whether, in her slow fall into misery, she ran into Juan de Moya or even whether they lived together or married. It’s all a secret now. All that is known is that he, her discarded sweetheart, was the only and last protector of that wretched and pretty neighbor who once lived a few doors down from him on Hospital Street.
On her death, it is said, she was carried to the cemetery in a dilapidated funeral carriage pulled by a broken-down horse and buried, unmarked, in the paupers' field. Seeing an owl was considered a bad omen and the townsfolk had a name for that carriage. It was called “the owl cart.” It was to be avoided.
The only memorial he could afford he himself composed and painted neatly on a piece of wood. His composition is much admired to this day, not only for its philosophical content and its poetic beauty, but for Juan de Moya’s ability to reduce the history of the love of his life to ten compact lines of rhyme and meter, in which he describes her defects to all who pass by, and concludes by reminding the reader of “the goodness that can be achieved.”
—Abel Marrero C.
Camaguey, June 4, 1958
Translated and updated by José J. Prats
December 21, 2002
1987 Kodacolor II photograph by Benito H. Prats