April 10, 2001

Archivist preserves Cuba history in longhand

With no money or equipment available to him, Zerquera, 74, has been hand-copying historical documents from the city archives for nearly 60 years.

By Kevin Sullivan. Washington Post Foreign Service. The Washington Post. Tuesday, April 10, 2001; Page A13

TRINIDAD, Cuba - For 56 years, Carlos Zerquera has preserved Trinidad's history with his only tools: a pen, a steady hand and the patience of a redwood tree.

Working in a straight-backed chair at a tiny desk in his bedroom, Zerquera, the city historian, has been copying -- in longhand -- a trove of historical documents here in one of Cuba's oldest cities. With little more than his pen, he is racing against tropical humidity, insects and time, which are destroying birth, death, land and commercial records dating to 1585 -- an intimate timeline of Cuba unmatched anywhere else.

To preserve that history, Zerquera, 74, began hand-copying countless thousands of records in 1945. Over the years as technology changed much of the world, and archives and libraries turned to microfilm and digital scanners, time has stood still here. Zerquera works now just as he did at the end of World War II, with virtually no money or equipment. He simply makes do, in an economy that still operates as if it were at war. At times he has copied records onto sheets of brown wrapping paper.

"We are used to struggling with few means," said Zerquera, whose bright eyes jump out from a face under thinning gray hair. "We need the means, but the heart helps."

Making do is the national industry here; Cuba makes do as Detroit makes cars. It has to. Its already poor economy was cut by 40 percent when its patron, the Soviet Union, collapsed and the billions flowing from Moscow every year stopped cold. And for four decades, Cuba has been squeezed by a U.S. economic embargo, which not only prohibits American companies from doing business with Cuba, but also threatens to punish some third country companies that do.

Most residents of Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida, operate in a time warp. Although a tourism-fueled dollar economy has brought shiny new goods to a select few, the refrigerators, washing machines and Buicks used by most Cubans are nearly a half-century old. To keep them going -- to keep everything going -- Cubans have learned to innovate and improvise, to make one plus nothing equal two.

Children playing pickup baseball in a concrete plaza near the oceanfront Malecon boulevard see bases where others see only rocks. Their tattered ball is held together with a thick layer of masking tape. Some of the busiest vendors on Havana's bustling streets refill disposable cigarette lighters. An old bicycle inner tube, worn and popped, is cut up to make a customized rubber gasket for a coffee pot that has been brewing for generations.

"Our survival instinct has made us very creative," said Amelia Rodriguez, a psychologist who lives in Havana.

The government has tried to harness resourcefulness into an alternative power source, forming the National Association of Innovators and Streamliners in 1976. It offers cash payments for the best ideas -- to the workers in a canning factory who figured out how to transform reject cans into toy trucks for day-care centers, to a family that turned its home into a mini-foundry to mold spare parts to keep a bus running.

Recently the government has turned more attention to preservation and is more receptive to international attention to the plight of its decaying archives. A few weeks ago, a team of American librarians went to Havana to train Cubans on new digital scanning techniques that can transfer information from decaying documents onto computer disks.

The hope is that one day scholars will have access not only to a treasure of historical data from Spanish settlements here almost 500 years ago but to more recent information about the extent of Soviet influence in Cuba.

Princeton University professor Stanley N. Katz is helping coordinate a Ford Foundation-funded meeting of librarians and archivists from the United States and Latin America in June in Havana. The participants will map out a national plan to address Cuba's library and archive needs. Katz said there is "tremendous interest" in preserving Cuba's records and making them more accessible.

In Trinidad, on the coast about 170 miles southeast of Havana, Zerquera lives, as he always has, in the details of history, delighting in little glimpses of the past he comes across, like Don Jose selling a house to Don Carlos in 1745 or a Spanish cargo ship's log from the 1600s. The oldest document Zerquera has come across in Trinidad is the record of the baptism of little Ana de la Cerda on April 14, 1585.

"To know who you are, you must know who you were. It's the seed of who you will become," he said. "It is impossible for us to be an educated nation without preserving the story of our past."

Zerquera spoke on an antique bench beneath the high cathedral ceilings of the front room of his family home. The house, which dates to 1808, is such a showpiece of colonial architecture that when Zerquera leaves his front door open, tourists wander in thinking the place is a museum. On several occasions, he has had to shoo wayward tourists out of his bedroom.

Trinidad's entire historical center, with its narrow cobblestone streets and single-story adobe houses with red-tile roofs, has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Cars are banned in the city center, which makes it as quiet as it might have been centuries ago. Pedestrians walking the centuries-old sun-baked streets clearly hear chirping birds and guitarists strumming folk songs in restaurants.

Zerquera does most of his work in his bedroom near a window that opens onto a street near Trinidad's main square. While his primary and most reliable tool is his pen, he sometimes taps at the ancient and rusted Remington typewriter from the 1940s on a tiny table near the foot of his bed. There are no replacement ribbons to be found, so he extends the life of his by dabbing it with ink.

At night, because there are only a couple of small lamps in his bedroom, he works at a small kitchen table beneath a single light bulb, next to his 1954 General Electric refrigerator with faded and chipped blue paint.

For his efforts, the government pays Zerquera $14 a month -- a princely salary in a land where the average monthly wage is $10.

Every day, Zerquera walks the 50 yards or so from his house to the small building that houses the municipal archives, which he oversees. There, thousands of documents sit in tattered brown folders on metal shelves in the main room. Many of the city's oldest records are kept in two darkened rooms cooled and dried by two small air conditioners.

The government, using growing revenue from tourism, recently provided those air conditioners and a single personal computer, the first tiny signs of modernity that may someday make preservation easier. Zerquera said a single computer is barely a start against the vast number of documents remaining to be preserved -- a task that will take another lifetime, or longer.

"I will continue this as long as my health lets me," he said. "The only limitation is my age."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company


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