Gonzalez de Mendoza

Justo de Lara

Habana.  El Figaro (Newspaper), January 1906

Tall and straight, with military countenance, serene gaze and very kindly face, in spite of the gentleman’s gravity of main, Don Antonio Gonzalez de Mendoza, whether on horseback on foot, was a commanding figure.  His rides and walks through the streets of our city constituted a vesper tine ritual, which made him the most memorable character of those peaceful, lingering and luminous Havana afternoons.  Everyone recognized him and everyone lifted his hat to him as if saluting the Chief of State.  Any foreigner who recently arrived in the City might not know him, and even this was rare, would stare at him and murmur, “that must be somebody”.  And, it was not because he was surrounded by an entourage, but because he carried his very self, in that invisible halo that surrounds some men, the very emblem of his importance. 


            He went about his promenades by himself, most of the time, impeccably dressed, with the natural dignity, which is solemn, and yet, at the same time jovial.  The very image of the stately grandfather, he was occasionally accompanied by one or two of his granddaughters.  To the last, his walk was firm and manly.  If he was, perchance, sick, as his friends would comment in private, it was never noticeable.  Mendoza would have never yielded to the sad display of the old man’s anguished struggle with the ravages of time.  His stride was always the saunter of the conquistador.  One afternoon the streets of the city remarked upon his curious absence, only to learn a little later that his promenading lord had fallen gravely ill.


            His duel with death would be spirited, awesome, succinct, like his duels with mortal men had been, with silent weapons, both in his youth and in his senectude.  He fell like the centenary oak, with a clean and sweeping break, never bent by time, never defeated.  He was among those few who do not know how to sound retreat, nor how to lower their heads before the enemy.  He was the worthy heir, both in name and in deeds, of that Don Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, who, in the fullness of is sixty four years and in the presence of the King, fought and disarmed Don Diego de Leiva and threw his dagger over the balcony in gesture of defiance.  And then, retreated into exile, his head high, his heart at peace, to recount in his soul the memorable and heroic actions of the siege of Granada.


            If he had lived in the times of Charles V, Don Antonio would have been like Don Diego.


            Ambassador, stalwart of the crown, almost invincible.  In Cuba, and in our time, he could be what he was:  prestigious barrister of unimpeachable character and broad learning, irreproachable gentleman, respected patriarch.  He did not leave behind literary works because his time was consumed by the innumerable duties stemming from his profession and from the management of his vast holdings, as well as those of others.  But his taste in all the arts was exquisite and well founded; his professional judgment as an attorney was quick and true.  As in the 16th Century, he would have worn well La Tizona at his waist and the Cross of the Comendador on his chest.  And this without detriment to his affability and humor for the manly and wholesome smile was a frequent adornment to his face without ever clashing with his sober and elegant mien.


            The witty pun with which he spiced his always-proper conversation, again, resembles the playful and classic pen of Don Diego, to who was, by some, attributed to the authorship of the picaresque Lazarillo.  Life was not for Don Antonio Gonzalez de Mendoza a constant and monotonous funeral march, something that afflicts other men of much lesser culture, sobriety and esteem.


            Had he been the founder of a lineage in medieval times, he could not have found a better symbol of his life to impress upon his crest than a Toledo Sword.  The sword signifies integrity and flexibility.  The sword can be tolerant and arrogant, forgiving and implacable, a sign of goodness and also of action because it is, at the same time, steel and cross.  Badly forged it is of no use, as useless as the soul that is not tempered.  Morally, the sword represents the will, the steel of the soul.  And thus was Mendoza, of a character cast in steel.  Talent, no matter how great, and his was, is useless without a steel will like his.  There will be no success for the enterprising man should he not resolve to fix his sights upon his goal, as he did, and advance without hesitations, as he did, to walk the straight and narrow path.


            Mendoza is an admirable example of what steel can accomplish, even in a milieu as hostile as ours is to the great achievements of character.  The distinctive trait of our society since the very times when he was beginning his career has been its instability and uncertainty.  Long revolutions and wars, wild swings of national fortune have made almost impossible the establishment of anything stable.  Many families were wealthy one day, only to find themselves in poverty the following day.  Immense wealth, considered one day as inexhaustible has vanished like a puff of smoke.  Gargantuan efforts have been made to no avail.  But Mendoza could see unto his very death that his achievements were solid and well founded.  His large family gathered round him, unified together, compact under his patriarchal roof.  His professional endeavors have found successors to carry them on.  His wealth remains, as does his house, and in it’s bosom, the lingering legacy of his virtues.


            What better lifework can a man leave behind to the world?  Mankind does not easily forgive those who dare to scale the heights, leaving behind the throngs of the defeated.


            Yet, Mendoza was able to soar to the heights like a majestic eagle while, at the same time, earning the respect of all.  Before him, the wicked did not dare open their slandering mouth.  And, calumny his its evil face in shame.  Even the great of the world tipped their hats and cleared a path for him.  Who was this man who achieved such success, one might ask?  He was not a political chieftain, he was not the inspiring embodiment of some popular feeling, he was not the leader of a turbulent and clamoring democracy, he was not the leader of a strong and tyrannical oligarchy.  His hands did not hold the reins of political power, nor the levers and intrigues of government.  He did not wield the power of public opinion to fabricate credentials or build patriotic images.  Who was this man, then?  A strong will within the soul of an honest man.  He, alone and by himself was a social force.  He had valiantly conquered his place in the world, and for him, as for every man, that conquest was right.


            He never took a position, for or against, any of the big or small parties and groups that have dominated political and public opinion in Cuba.  A consensus of all parties and groups elected him Mayor of Havana at the end of the First War of Independence in 1878.  In that office he distinguished himself mainly for his fairness and honesty, the two great altars of his life.  The first Interventionist Government appointed him ChiefJustice of the Supreme Court.  But, his most beautiful deed took place in 1879 when he gave the most eloquent witness to the depths of his moral and humanitarian convictions.  The great majority of Cuban society was then in favor of slavery.  The great capitals had been amassed at the expense of the pain and blood of the black slaves.  Everyone, from the proud colonial authorities, to even many that helped forge the dream of Cuban independence, had bee accomplices to that terrible infamy which still hangs like a curse over this nation.  The revolution of 1868 failed in it’s attempt to proclaim the equality of all men before the law.  Mendoza, on the other hand, inherited a large number of slaves and freed them immediately.  He raised himself proudly above an era corrupted by this crime.  He followed the judgment of his conscience with his actions, and walked the narrow path defined for him by the pristine lens of his moral convictions.


            This noble and generous patriarch may truly rest in peace.  During his life, and at the time of his passing, he received the homage of the mighty and the opulent, but his finest moment was reserved for that final hour.  When, alone with his conscience, in that trance of agony in which remembrances of things past are summoned for a last fleeting glance and memory soars for the last time over the landscape of our life, like the final blazing of a dying fire, he must have heard that voice more dear than all the passing wealth and greatness of the world.  The voice of the poor, the gratitude of the humble, the blessing of the meek, the gentle balm of goodness lived, and the softly playing of that melody of Love on the well tempered lyre of the soul at the very moment when it breaks and we begin our walk through the valley of the shadows.