By Margarita Alarcón Perea
Fifty years ago today, Havana’s foremost department store burned to the ground. In what was later proven to have been one of the first major acts of sabotage against the newly installed revolutionary regime. Fe del Valle, was caught in the flames while trying to salvage property from the place, she was the only mortal victim on that fateful day where terrorist attacks were planned as a preamble to the Bay of Pigs invasion to be launched 72 hours later.
The name of the department store was EL ENCANTO, the enchantment. I can still remember my mother walking me through Bloomingdales and Saks Fifth Avenue as a child and young adolescent and explaining how back in the day, at El Encanto, things would be sent in from Paris and Rome first before reaching Saks and Bloomies. Havana was a type of litmus test to fashion and trends, and El Encanto was the place where the market was best served.
I know the material for her wedding dress was bought there, with her savings. I still have pieces of the silk and satin ivory white cloth with tulips embroidered against the grain of the cloth on either side. My son has worn jump-suits inherited from his Godmothers father –yes, such was the quality of things purchased there- where the label is still clear as day, in off white, linen, embroidered on the cloth in black or red lettering El Encanto in a face type that today resembles a Brush Script MT.
I always wondered how a government or people against a government would find purpose in burning down a department store of all things. It just didn’t make any sense to me. I asked my mom once and she said: “it was a way of lessoning our spirits, of destroying what we held dear. They were trying to take away vestiges of class, of aspirations; trying to ruin the dream that was the island and that we hoped it would continue to be.” She would tear up when she spoke of the department store of her youth and wedding plans so I rarely touched the subject. I fed on Bloomingdales and Saks and tried to imagine what something like that would have looked like under the Havana sun.
So, today, fifty years after my mothers childhood girlish dream was burned to the ground and Fe del Valle left a family behind and the country was about to be hit straight on with a full fledge war, I still ask myself, was it worth it?