Casa Julita, which bears the name of its current owner Julia Castañeda, sits on a quiet residential block in Vedado. In between telenovelas and phone conversations with relatives in Camagüey, Julia attends to her guests who hail from all over the world, communicating with simple phrases and hand signs, unless they have the ability to decipher her clipped Cuban Spanish. But the house’s current iteration as the site of a thriving private business is only the most recent in a long — and quintessentially Cuban — history of family ties and political upheaval.
The house dates to the early 20th century — Havana was expanding rapidly and Vedado was a neighborhood of upper class families and stately, pillared mansions. The Campa-Candia family were from this strata — a family of lawyers and other professionals with ties to government and businesses, they owned several properties in and around Havana. This was where the family lived full time, and employed a small crew of servants, drivers, and other assistants.
When the Revolution took over, much of the Campa-Candia family fled for the US (ultimately ending up in Iowa), due to ties to the previous government, and the clear perils of being associated with the former ruling class during the tumultuous years of the early 1960s. The only member of the household who stayed at the house in Havana was Rosita, the matriarch of the family, who decided she was too old to leave Havana after calling it home for so ong, even if it meant living away from family and enduring the uncertain future that the Revolution had ushered in.
As time passed, Rosita formed part of a dwindling sector of Cubans who held fast to their upper class roots in a society that was demanding egalitarianism and communal participation. She, along with her well known friend and contemporary Dulce Maria Loynaz, who lived around the corner, participated with ambivalence in the new system, and mostly kept to themselves.
As the Campa-Candia family established itself in the US, they supported Rosita, but as she aged she was in need of assistance, employing a woman named Ramona to help her around the house. Ramona was originally from Camagüey, the daughter of a destitute sugar cane cutter who had died young. Her mother had brought her along witht he rest of her siblings to the working class neighborhood of Marianao in Havana in the mid-50s just before the Revolution. Ramona’s youngest sister was Julita.
As Rosita aged, Ramona became her full time nurse, and as she needed more assistance and life became harder in the 1990s, Julia began helping at the house as well. When Rosita passed away, the Campa-Candia family arranged for the house to be transferred to the Ramona’s name, along with the family mausoleum in Colón Cemetery.
Although homes were all technically still owned by the government at this time, Ramona, the daughter of an illiterate peasant, had become the official resident, with the blessing of the previous owners. Indeed, in the late 1990s, when Cuba first began allowing private homes to rent rooms to foreign visitors, it was the Campa-Candia family that finance the necessary repairs and licensing process required to start renting, and kept the house from falling into further disrepair.
Soon after, in 2003, I (Brian, founder of Bridges Cuba) was placed with Ramona and Julia as an exchange student on a semester abroad program. I lived there for several months, and returned frequently over the ensuing years to visit, always staying with the sisters. At that time, their guests were mostly intrepid Europeans and Latin Americans, enjoying the edgy and relatively inexpensive early years of tourism on the island. Today, after putting up a page on Airbnb, many of Julia’s clients are from the US.
The Campa Candia family is still in touch with Julia, though visits are less frequent these days. A few years ago, Ramona passed on, and another sister, Hildelisa, who had moved back to Camagüey, came to accompany Julia at the house. Many houses in the neighborhood changed hands over the decades following the Revolution, wiping a way the past and starting anew. At Casa Julita, she and her sister still display Rosita and her family’s belongings, in deference to the once rightful owners — portraits, antique chests, china, and a somewhat out of place plaque with a map of Iowa.
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