Gonzalo F. Córdova, Humanist of the Year 2012
Good evening to Mr. Rafael Martínez Margarida, chairman of the board of directors, members of the board, Mr. Juan Manuel González Lamela, executive director of the Puerto Rican Endowment for the Humanities, Mr. Luis Agrait, director of the History Department at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus, and friends.
I never thought I would be granted this cultural award, which was first given in 1979 to Concha Meléndez and later to ten colleagues in the University of Puerto Rico History Department, and I am immensely grateful.
One of the history professors from my days among the pines and snow of St. Francis College opined that “a change of geography does not change the ills of the soul.” I believe he was partly right, but we cannot doubt that the geographic environment, depending on the sensibility of the person, greatly influences the formation of a human being, just like the people who are around us.
Although I was born in the Dr. Pila Clinic in Ponce, I was baptized and took my first communion in the San Blas and Candelaria Parish in Coamo, the same place where my parents were married. The origin of Coamo dates to 1579 and it was designated a villa in 1778. The construction of the elegant church was completed in 1784. It has a bell tower with five bells and a large wooden altar in the classic style, created by an unknown artist and painted to imitate marble. From the 19th century to the 1920s, some of the pews belonged to certain families in the town and were for their particular use.
As a child, they took me to mass and I usually sat on the steps that led from the sacristy to the altar with its painting of Christ by Juan Ríos Rey. From there, I observed the rites. My attention was also drawn to the other altar which, instead of having carved images, displayed a painting whose principal figure was a blonde woman who slept surrounded by smoky flames. It was the altar of souls in purgatory. When I learned to read, I saw that it had been donated by Mrs. Dolores Santiago, daughter of the wealthy Clotilde Santiago, and had been painted by one Francisco Oller. I had no idea then who that painter was, but my attention was drawn to this canvas commissioned by Doña Lola.
The church had an organ and a choir in which there was a soprano whose voice could be heard throughout the church without any amplification. In the choir there were several veterans from the time in which José I. Quintón directed it and at Christmas time they traditionally sang his carols. For a boy, it was very theatrical in the best sense, and I believe these Sunday masses were my first humanities experiences.
It is said that an individual is formed in the first 10 years of life. In my case, I spent almost all of them in Coamo, although the first year, due to my father’s work, we lived on at the Constancia Mill in Toa Baja, of which I remember nothing, and the third year I spent at the Fajardo Mill, of which I have memories. Of my fourth year, however, I have unforgettable memories because we lived in the Hayales coffee plantation in the heights of Coamo, which was owned by my Santini grandparents. Now, I think it was like we had been transported to the late 19th century. There, I could experiment with the study of the past. For example, the beauty of the coffee farm, the platform where the coffee beans were dried, the fish in the river, the breakfasts of peacock eggs, the flight of the hawks and the mysterious call of the Puerto Rican vireo. Unfortunately, I also learned about the shocking poverty of the rural people. I was fascinated to see them put the harnesses on the farm’s seven mules every day. I even learned their names. Walking around the farm, I noticed the store, the ruins of a bakery that had operated until the 1930s and the cockpit that had existed there.
On the estate, we lived in a spacious, unpainted wood house, like all the houses on the Coamo coffee plantations, that had been built in 1914 and had all the conveniences except electricity. From there we went down to the town to live with my grandparents. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather Santini, who took me to see them weigh the livestock. I played in front of the corral, where I found two structures that were called “the obelisks.” Later, I learned that the obelisks marked the site of the battle of August 9, 1898, in the Spanish-American War. Some Spanish soldiers are buried in the municipal cemetery. My interest in history was taking root even though I didn’t have the slightest idea it was happening.
My grandparents’ house had a large yard surrounded by a wall to protect the residence from fires, and a crowing rooster with elegant plumage lived there. My grandmother had planted a pine in the garden and decorated it with colored lights at Christmas. Because she had studied at a Catholic high school for girls in Ohio, Santa Claus coexisted happily with the baby Jesus and the Three Kings and we also celebrated Thanksgiving with turkey and cranberry sauce. In the living room was a Mason & Hamil piano on which my Aunt Matilde, a student of Cecilia Talavera, played Chopin. This music interested me and I took some piano lessons. The interest did not last long, but my love for classical music did. Euterpe, the muse of music, began to draw me in.
My first grades of elementary school were with the nuns of the Holy Trinity at the Our Lady of Valvanera School, founded in 1929. There, I found the celebrated chapel built in 1685 and the painting of Valvanera painted in San Juan in the late 17th century. The bell came from Barcelona in the late 19th century. The school had an auditorium, formerly the town’s hospital, where a variety of events were presented to enrich the culture of the community. The children played happily in the nearby yard without knowing that we were on top of a rich archaeological site, the settlement’s cemetery until the middle of the 19th century.
The casino, established in 1882, had a high-quality library. The children of members were allowed to look through huge encyclopedias from the middle of the 19th century, but the most important holding was a collection of the Diary of the Spanish Cortes up to 1898. A love for books was acquired through entertaining my curiosity. Many parties for children, including Halloween, were also held in the casino.
To avoid the Coamo summers, the families that were able would go to Aibonito or Barranquitas. I remember the home of Ramiro Lázaro, and the basement where he kept his collections. Among other things, he had some candelabrum of his uncle, Cipriano Castro, president of Venezuela, who died in San Juan, and part of the skull of the person who died in the last duel in Puerto Rico. But not all the time was spent far from San Juan. My grandmother Córdova and children lived on Robles Street at Stop 19 in Santurce, parallel to Canals Street along with many family members from the paternal side who came from Manatí and Vega Baja. The Córdovas were avid readers. I remember that one day I discovered some huge illustrated works by Thiers about the French Revolution and Napoleon. They were the remains of the great library that my great-grandfather Gonzalo had formed in Jayuya and Utuado, where he practiced medicine and where he was active in Republican Autonomist politics and the Masons. It was in that library where his cousin, Félix Córdova Dávila, read formative books.
My Uncle Fernando studied medicine at Georgetown and collected opera records. One day, I remember he put on a recording of Rigoletto. In those years, they took me to the museum at Muñoz Rivera Park, to the Capitol, to El Morro, to the San Juan cemetery and to the Central High School museum, where I learned who Antonio Paoli was. The humanities continued to be strengthened.
Fourth and fifth grade I studied in Ponce after we moved there. For a long time, I had been given books as gifts. I also inherited from a cousin a collection of children’s books from Argentina. I was interested in the stories of the great explorers, conquerors and liberators. The big house of my great aunt Consuelo Córdova de Sifre in Condado also was a source of inspiration, especially the living room, dining room and library, because they appeared to be part of a Spanish Renaissance castle like the ones in the Spanish movies produced by Cifesa. I was fascinated by a large collection of ivory pieces that she had carefully collected. What my aunt Consuelo treasured most was a painting of Calvary by her grandfather Dávila from Vega Baja that the family had since the 17th century. The library was very special because she tried to recreate her father’s library. The monumental history of Spain was told in 29 illustrated volumes by Modesto Lafuente and other bound collections. I entertained myself paging through these books.
We moved to Santurce as I began sixth grade. We went to a matinee at the Tapia Theater to see the operetta La del Soto del Parral. There I experienced a kind of enchantment because I was captivated by the magic of lyrical theater. That year, I attended the San Jorge Academy and my teacher was Mrs. González, who also taught world history. This class crystallized my interest in the discipline. My first research was an album about Egypt. This modest work opened my eyes to the colossal art of the pharaohs that I was finally able to see in person as an adult. I should note that four years earlier, Mrs. González had had a student in her history class by the name of Fernando Picó.
The next three grades I studied across from the ruins of Caparra at the San José Academy. Consuelo, my father’s sister, invited me to an unforgettable Don Juan Tenorio with the great actor Alejandro Ulloa. She also took me, for the first time, to the Casals Festival, where I heard Victoria de los ángeles. In those years, my father took me to see Carmen at the University of Puerto Rico Theater. He had given me a modest collection of 45 RPM records that I enjoyed very much. Among them were recordings by Caruso and others by Miguel Fleta, who was famous for being the first singer of the Nessun Dorma, which he performed in the Tapia Theater in 1929.
My maternal grandmother, Antonia, put a lot of importance on education, because her father had been a teacher, as well as a farmer. My great-grandfather, Antonio Colón, had spent a summer in the early 20th century at Cornell University to improve his understanding of English. He believed that being monolingual was a sign of cultural backwardness that condemned the country to economic underdevelopment. As a native of Barranquitas of that era, he was also an ardent supporter of Muñoz. My grandmother also took me to New York for two summers to attend a camp in Connecticut. My great uncle Luis greeted us in the city, where he had lived since 1919 and worked as a dentist. He loved classical music and took us to a concert by Renata Tebaldi with the New York Philharmonic. He had heard Caruso, Claudia Muzio and Toscanini directing La Scala Orchestra, among others. He told me about Pavlova and the works of Shakespeare presented by the British company Old Vic. I will never forget his stories.
After getting rid of his 45 RPM records, my father had acquired a record player for 33 RPM records. And little by little, he developed the interest, or vice, of collecting opera and symphony music records to excess, something that continues today with more than four thousand compact discs. There is no end to obtaining recordings of the great singers, especially in the opera, of the first fifty years of the past century. I cannot forget how in the final season of the opera in 1958 I debuted as an extra in various roles. I was a soldier accompanying the tenor and the soprano to the guillotine in Andrea Chenier. The tenor deserved it, because he let loose several clinkers in the final duet. It was my debut and farewell.
Finally, I entered San Ignacio High School. There, because it was thought I had a voice, I was part of the first choir established by Father Juan Montalvo. One night in San José Plaza I heard my first concert by the Puerto Rico Symphonic Orchestra and I became fond of going to some of the Casals Festival concerts. Over the years, I heard the great soloists who visited and I attended the cultural activities sponsored by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. At the Tapia, I enjoyed the acting of the legendary Boris Karloff in Arsenic and Old Lace. Music, the theater and literature were already an integral part of my life.
When I graduated from San Ignacio, my father offered me a car if I would stay and study at the Rio Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico. I dreamed of going to the Metropolitan Opera, so I decided not to accept the car and go north to study. My father advised me to study business in a small college and then go on to law school. At the time, that advice seemed reasonable and with the $60 my grandmother Santini gave me I bought an FM radio so I could listen to the Saturday broadcasts from the Metropolitan, which were no longer available on the island as they were in the 1930s. I religiously listened to the twenty operas of the season. The dream was becoming a reality. I went to Manhattan every time I had time off. I saw memorable performances by stars of the era such as Milanov, Tebaldi, Price, Nilsson, Corelli and others. Those were the glory days of the company before moving to the Lincoln Center in 1966.
The four years at St. Francis did not turn out the way my father hoped. I had not inherited the business genes of my grandfather Santini and I found the business classes to be impossible. History was what interested me. The law was still in the future. When the time arrived, I discovered that it bored me even more than business. I never imagined that my future would be in teaching, like my maternal grandmother’s father. But I had to continue studying. I chose a master in Latin American Studies directed by William Manger at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., a city where several relatives had studied. Upon graduating with my bachelor degree, I asked my father for a graduation gift. He laconically stated that I “had not graduated from anything.” Years later, he was asked if he was the author of the book on Santiago Iglesias. He answered, with certain pride, that no, that Gonzalo Córdova was his son. However, I was not left without a gift because my great aunt Margarita Santini and her daughters gave me the work by Cruz Monclova on the history of Puerto Rico in the 19thcentury.
I had decided to pursue a doctoral degree in History, and to graduate from the masters program I had to write a thesis. My director was Luis Aguilar León, a professor of Latin American history. He had written a book on Marxism in that field that included writing by Santiago Iglesias. He suggested choosing this figure as a topic of my thesis because the proletariat had been forgotten in Puerto Rican historiography. This advice set me on a fortunate route. I began my research by returning to the island in October of 1966. My great aunt Margarita Santini kept the library of her husband, Rafael Rivera Zayas, a graduate of Georgetown Law School, who had been a socialist representative during the coalition. There I found the autobiography of Iglesias and other important books. It also included handwritten letters from Muñoz Rivera to his cousin, Rivera Zayas. These are now preserved in the Muñoz Marín Foundation. My respected aunt called Igualdad Iglesias to ask if she could help me. Doña Igualdad received me most kindly, guided me, and gave me access to her archives. Much of my research was done in the Puerto Rican collection at the University of Puerto Rico. I began to explore new and fascinating historical frontiers.
When studying the history of Puerto Rico, especially when one researches carefully, one quickly realizes that we are not an invisible or immature nation. That is because the roots of the island are deep and energetic. The responsibility of the historian is to scrutinize the existing documentation to try to come as close as possible to the historical truth. My interest in writing a biography is not merely to narrate the life of a forefather. The task begins with conscientiously analyzing the evolution of our people. In this way, I can clarify our history even more, not just to understand it, but to avoid the errors of the past and put us on a road to a future of dignity.
One cool night in November, my father told me that in addition to research, I had to work. I knew that the San Juan campus of Inter-American University had recently established a History Department. One fine day, I presented myself at the department and met Gustavo Mellander. When I explained my situation to him, he assigned me two classes in Fajardo. Later, Mellander was named academic dean and offered me a contract as an instructor in 1967. Thus began my career as a professor and historian.
In the next two years, I was sent to Europe in charge of study trips by students. The visits to Europe strengthened my interest in the humanities. My experiences up until then had taught me the humanities are enjoyed, appreciated, lived and produce an infinite number of unexpected, sometimes inexplicable and even contradictory emotions. The humanities create ties between us, strengthening the culture and guiding us toward the common good. I learned that the humanities transcend borders and that’s why they should be free of partisanship.
Upon returning to Georgetown to pursue my doctoral degree, the first thing I did was to obtain a student season ticket for the National Symphony Orchestra. I remember the glorious night when Leopold Stokowski, at age 89, directed the orchestra like the musical wizard he was. In the Kennedy Center and at Wolftrap, I witnessed countless functions that had a great impact on me. I will never forget the celebrated Ingrid Bergman in a comedy by Bernard Shaw. If we are still affected by seeing the movies she made, I can tell you that in person she was captivating. She had the legendary aura that many said Sarah Bernhardt had.
In that period, three professors were instrumental in my formation. First, my mentor Aguilar León, who led me to admire the work of Justo Sierra, The Political Evolution of the Mexican People, and to analyze the revolutionary developments and deepen my philosophical thinking about Latin America. Donald Penn, former director of the History Department, helped me clarify the historical problems of the French Revolution and Napoleon. No less important was Walter Wilkinson, dean of the department, who gave courses on the Renaissance. My previous travels to Italy helped me learn more about this period in which the humanities flourished and influenced the development of Western civilization.
Once I completed the graduate courses and passed the comprehensive exams, I returned to my teaching and my research for the doctoral thesis. Igualdad Iglesias had introduced me to historian Pilar Barbosa, with whom I maintained a close friendship until her death in 1996 at age 98. Nobody knew the political history of Puerto Rico better than Doña Pilar, an ability she inherited. We spoke regularly by telephone and I learned a lot that had not been written in books through collaborating with her on some special projects, such as the biography of Sánchez Morales.
Then I met Arturo Santana, director of the History Department at the Rio Piedras campus. First he offered me some classes on U.S. history and later he invited me to join the department full-time. For three decades I enjoyed teaching, the exchange of ideas with colleagues in the department on the campus and the other university work. I feel honored to have been part of the History Department and have been a professor on the humanities faculty at Rio Piedras. All of these years, I remained active in research, not only for my interest in it, but also to continue broadening my knowledge. There are many people who have given me a helping hand in this role, both in the Center for Historical Research and at the Puerto Rican Collection. To all, I will be forever grateful.
Similarly, I am grateful to historian Ramón Rivera Bermúdez of Coamo, who submitted my name for consideration as a member of the Puerto Rican Academy of History to Aurelio Tió in 1992. Luis Díaz Soler, later the 2000 Humanist of the Year, wrote the response to my induction paper. In a regular meeting of the academy, Ricardo Alegría nominated me, to my surprise, as treasurer, and I was accepted. In 1993, I was appointed to the board of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and for eight years I worked with humanists of such stature as Enrique Laguerre, Ismael Rodríguez Bou, Osiris Delgado and Luis González Vales. I learned so much about cultural issues from all of them. The vice chairman position became vacant in 1995, and the respected Don Enrique submitted my name and I was accepted. I never imagined that this distinction would bring even more important responsibilities in the future. I never imagined I would be named chairman of the Board.
However, Governor Pedro Rosselló did just that in October of 1998. All of the members of the board gave me their cooperation to enable me to carry out my responsibilities to the institution and to the Fine Arts Center. There were days when the chairmanship felt like the tormenting hair shirt the Christian hermits used to atone for their worldly sins and earn eternal life. Don Enrique always insisted that among Puerto Ricans, there were more things that united us than separated us. And that is so. Over time, we saw that the humanities have much to do with these ties.
From Machu Picchu to Samarkand, I have tried to learn and understand the varied legacy of the creative humanities. An unforgettable experience occurred in Munich in July, 1988, when fifteen operas by Richard Strauss and his main ballet, The Legend of Joseph, were presented. My uncle Fernando, a devoted admirer of Strauss, organized a lyrical pilgrimage that was an unforgettable experience. We went on to the lyrical sanctuary of Bayreuth, which any fan of Wagner should visit, at least once in life. The work to hear should be Parsifal, which was composed for the special acoustics of the theater. Fortunately, I could get a ticket and fulfill a dream.
After I retired, I planned a trip to South America with the main purpose of visiting the famed Colon Theater in Buenos Aires. The date selected gave me the opportunity to attend The Valkyrie. Arriving in Chile in July of 2005, I went to the Municipal Theater and saw Maximiano Valdés direct Lohengrin. I could not believe my luck with two Wagner operas in a row. I had heard the master Valdés directing our symphony several times and I knew his great talent. The performance of the musical drama was impressive. The musical quality of Lohengrin was superior to that of The Valkyrie. Such are the happy surprises in the world of opera. On another occasion (2007), I was talking with Alfredo Torres at his La Tertulia bookstore when my esteemed colleague Víctor Castro told me he had an extra ticket to the four operas of The Ring of the Nibelung at Bayreuth. Castro had waited fourteen years for the tickets.Apparently the gods of Valhalla had finally taken pity on this admirer of the revered master. I accepted the dream ticket and the four performances were unforgettable and did not seem long to me. That year, I took part in the commemoration of the bicentennial of the birth of the composer by donating to our symphonic orchestra four tubas from the Metropolitan Opera orchestra.
After happily choosing retirement, I dusted off the planned biography of Rafael Martínez Nadal that had been sleeping the sleep of the just. In my better judgment, I never should have agreed to write the biography because it is a very extensive topic and there was no archive, as was the case with Iglesias. Enrique Bravo had begun the work in 1982. Zoraida Fonalledas, granddaughter of Martínez Nadal, approached me and asked me to lead the research and supervise the project. I enthusiastically accepted without hesitation because the character is extremely interesting and I admired him for personal and ideological reasons. Professor Nilsa Rivera Colón worked diligently and effectively to put together ten boxes of photocopies, mostly newspapers. Bravo died and I inherited the job of writing the work, as nothing had been written to that point.
I planned nine chapters and began, in 1987 and 1988, with the first phase, up to 1924. I was not satisfied with the documentation, however. I gathered information that filled four more boxes and increased the number of chapters to fifteen. Still unsure, I began to scrutinize four newspapers, day by day, from 1932 to 1941. The newspapers were: La Correspondencia de Puerto Rico, El Imparcial, La Democracia and El País. When I finished, I had ten thousand additional photocopies. Now I feel I understand quite well what happened in that tumultuous decade about which there is much to write. With divine help, I hope to finish the seven hundred pages this biography will take.
After the 2008 elections, I was asked if I was interested in joining a board in the cultural sphere. I said I was busy with research, but as they insisted, I agreed to be a member of the board of the Corporation for the Musical Arts (CAM for its Spanish acronym). Later, they called and said they had good news and bad news: the good news was that I was part of the board and the bad news was that I was the chairman. I accepted, thinking I would be able to form an excellent board to resolve the challenges we would face. I was able to get help from Nydia Font (Julliard School of Music), Sylvia Lamoutte (New England Conservatory of Music) and Carmen Ana Culpeper (former secretary of the Treasury and former executive director of the telephone company). With these three very special ladies, success was ensured. Later, lawyer Juan José Forastieri joined the group and provided his solid understanding of legal and financial matters.
When we began our work, the CAM had a budget of $6.3 million. We later discovered that the deficit was $6.2 million. Thanks to Governor Luis Fortuño, the debt was paid and the budget was increased to $7.5 million in el 2010, $8.4 million in 2012 and finally $9.1 million with the new administration. Austerity measures were instituted, reforms were made and the corporation was stabilized, thanks to the knowledge of administration of cultural entities of Melissa Santana, who was hired as executive director. In that era, Valdés was the titular director of the Symphonic Orchestra. Without a pay increase, he jointly assumed direction of the Casals Festival and the Inter-American Festival and perfected the musical quality of the orchestra. With great imagination, he expanded the repertoire of the three institutions while staying within the available budget. I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with the maestro Valdés in those memorable years.
I never imagined I would have the satisfaction of chairing the board of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and the CAM, two of the most important cultural boards in our country, in addition to helping support and spread the music of the great composers and singers, thus contributing to improving the quality of life of our people.
In November of 2011, I had the good fortune of accompanying the maestro, in a personal capacity, when he was invited by his Holiness Benedict XVI to offer a concert at the Vatican with the Asturias Symphony Orchestra, of which he is a former director. The return to Rome gave me the chance to refresh my cultural experiences of the site. It was the city that inspired Puccini’s Tosca, which is my favorite opera of his. Nor can we forget that the great city inspired Wagner to compose Rienzi, his first successful opera. In the original version, he included a 40-minute pantomime ballet that narrated the history of Rome. The statue carved between the stairs of the Campidoglio, a marvelous piece of architecture, is the site where Rienzi met his abrupt and bloody end.
I took advantage of the trip to spend a week in Naples and find important historic and artistic sites. Almost everyone passes by on the road to Pompeii, Amalfi or Capri, but not all stop to get to know the city that inspired Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. The Bourbon monarchs do not have a great reputation in history. The kings of this family, which ruled in Naples during the 18th and 19th centuries, have a bad reputation for their political acts. Their cultural legacy, however, is outstanding, in part because they inherited the great art collections of their Farnese ancestors, including the famed palazzo where the second act of Tosca is set. Few visit the three palaces, the Royal, the Capodimonte and the Caserta, with its magnificent theater. Some music lovers do not fail to visit the beautiful San Carlo Theater (1737), located alongside the Royal Palace. It was here that Rossini won international fame and fortune during his stay in the Naples court while the king harshly repressed liberalism. The Bourbon legacy is truly extraordinary and worthy of verse.
From this quasi-biographical account, you will have noticed that my road to the humanities began as a child, due to the experiences I was fortunate to have and the people who guided me without meaning to put me on that road. My path gained speed during adolescence, took off definitively during my college years and was honed in my professional career both in teaching and in my participation in cultural affairs. I have received great satisfaction without seeking it and I am extremely happy that the Puerto Rican Endowment for the Humanities has honored me as the 2012 Humanist of the Year. I deeply thank the members of the Endowment’s board of directors for this honor that has been given me. It is the best birthday present I could receive. Again, I thank my family members, friends and colleagues who have helped me over the years, some of whom are present.
Good night to all.
Author: Gonzalo Córdova
Published: April 28, 2015.
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