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Reading: Mapping Colonial Havana: La Condesa de Merlin’s Voyage of Return


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Research Article

Mapping Colonial Havana: La Condesa de Merlin’s Voyage of Return


Adriana Mendez Rodenas

School of Languages, Literatures & Cultures, University of Missouri, US
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In this essay, I return to the Spanish edition of Merlin’s Viaje a la Habana (1844), reading it with fresh eyes not only as a poetic homage to the city of Havana, but also as a foundational work in the Cuban literary tradition. Merlin’s Viaje a la Habana is emblematic of nineteenth-century literary and visual cartographies that mapped colonial Havana in a romantic mode. During her two-month stay (June–July, 1840), Merlin’s sentimental return to her native city is tinged with remembrance and renewal of lost family ties. While an accent on affect and the poetry of place haunts every episode in the travelogue, the text unfolds as a literary map of nineteenth-century Havana that sheds light on an early, formative stage in the formation of Cuban national identity. I examine Merlin’s literary mapping of colonial Havana through various spatial tropes: sublime tropics (the topography of the port), the contrast between public and private spaces, and the effect of surveillance in the city. Lastly, I look at how Merlin’s travelogue constructs a social history of colonial Havana at a threshold moment not only in her life story—the eve of her final farewell—but also of the nation.

How to Cite: Mendez Rodenas, A., 2021. Mapping Colonial Havana: La Condesa de Merlin’s Voyage of Return. Karib – Nordic Journal for Caribbean Studies, 6(1), p.10. DOI:
  Published on 23 Jul 2021
 Accepted on 16 Jun 2021            Submitted on 13 Mar 2020

                                             Para Raquel, quien nos acompañó al Château de Dissay

“The city of dreams has turned into the city of oblivion. Havana has not evolved: it has merely crumbled.”



The appearance of Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo’s Viaje a la Habana (1844) was greeted in the Havana press of the period as an editorial sensation. Two brief notes in the Faro Industrial de La Habana give notice of the new book and of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda’s brief biographical sketch.1 Relating the author’s return to her native city after thirty-six years of residence in Paris, Viaje a la Habana (1844), published in Madrid the same year as La Havane, the three-volume French original, created a stir amidst Havana’s intellectual circles. Félix Tanco, one of the most ardent members of Domingo del Monte’s tertulia, lambasted Merlin for writing an imaginative geography of the city, accusing the author of providing a distorted view of colonial Havana, based on, but not limited to, toponymical and other factual errors (Tanco, 4–5, 11). In the charged prose of Refutacion a un folleto intitulado Viage a la Habana, the Matanzas writer struck Merlin down with an epithet that has been applied to her works ever since: the glib accusation that Merlin merely saw Havana “with Parisian eyes.”2

In this essay, I return to Merlin’s travelogue, reading it with fresh eyes not only as a poetic homage to the city of Havana, but also as a foundational work in the Cuban literary tradition. Extracted from the longer French original, the abridged Spanish edition was not only familiar to her criollo peers on the island, but it also recorded the voyage of initiation of a traveler who sought to re-discover the sights and sounds of a city left behind in early adolescence. Merlin’s Viaje a la Habana is emblematic of nineteenth-century literary and visual cartographies that mapped colonial Havana in a romantic mode. During her two-month stay (June–July, 1840), Merlin’s sentimental return to her native city is tinged with remembrance and renewal of lost family ties. While an accent on affect and the poetry of place haunts every episode in the travelogue, the text unfolds as a literary map of nineteenth-century Havana that sheds light on an early, formative stage in the formation of Cuban national identity. In what follows, I examine Merlin’s literary mapping of colonial Havana through various spatial tropes: sublime tropics (the topography of the port), the contrast between public and private spaces, the gendered city, and movement and transit through alamedas and open cityscapes. These various spatial practices culminate in the paseo en quitrín, a typically habanero spatial practice that gives a glimpse of the social history of colonial Havana.3 This last, pivotal scene, in turn, coincides with a threshold moment not only in Merlin’s life story—the eve of her final farewell—but also signals the construction of a discourse on Cubanhood that counterpoints home and departure, belonging (pertenencia) and exile, a discourse that was to find its echo in many pages of contemporary Cuban literature.

Madame Merlin’s “lost steps” set the tone for her voyage of return in 1840. The eldest daughter of Joaquín Santa Cruz and Teresa Montalvo, members of the sugar plantocracy, her parents left her behind in Havana to attend pressing criollo interests in Madrid. As third Count of Jaruco, Santa Cruz was aligned with Francisco Arango y Parreño and other members of the creole Enlightenment who negotiated trade concessions with the Spanish Court. Growing up under the tender but overly solicitous care of her maternal great-grandmother, Luisa Herrera y Chacón, reverentially addressed as “Mamita” in her early memoirs, Mercedes grew into a precocious yet sheltered child. In 1797, Joaquín Santa Cruz returned to Cuba as leader of a scientific commission to explore the area around Guantánamo for various modernizing projects, including building a canal and improving roads (Levi Marrero 255). Upon his return to Havana, the stern Count cloistered Mercedes inside the Convent of Santa Clara, but she managed to escape despite the vigilant eyes of the abbess, her paternal great-aunt. In April 1802, when she was twelve years old, she accompanied her father back to Spain, what prompted a childhood memoir, Mes douze premières années [Mis doce primeros años] (1831). In Madrid, Mercedes reunited with her mother and her two siblings. During Joseph Bonaparte’s occupation, in October 1809, she married Antoine Christophe Merlin, a French count serving under Napoleon. Upon the defeat of the French, her flight over the Pyrenees to Paris is narrated in Souvenirs et Mémoires (1836). In Paris, she was the center of a lively salon which gathered leading artistic and literary personalities. After the death of her husband, in 1839, Mercedes returned to Cuba to settle accounts with her brother, Francisco Javier, who had inherited the family fortune as well as the title of Count of Jaruco. After a two-month stay in Cuba, Merlin returned to France and remained at her daughter’s residence, the Château de Dissay, until her death in March, 1852.

Merlin’s family romance has broader implications for Cuban literature and culture. Her return journey prefigures the many secular pilgrimages undertaken by Cuban émigrés and exiles, at various historical junctures, and particularly after 1959. Cuban critics of all persuasions have dubbed her “a Havana writer of French expression” due to her impassioned defense of her adopted motherland and its language.4 But she belongs squarely within a long-standing tradition of transnational Cuban literature, a constant from the nineteenth century to our own day.

Havana at mid-nineteenth century

When she stepped off the boat aptly named the Christophe Colomb, the city that greeted Madame la Comtesse Merlin in June, 1840 was different than the one she had left behind nearly forty years ago. Havana during the 1840s showed traces of the old colonial city, divided by murallas or ramparts into two parts. The colonial core, or intramuros, dotted by convents, churches, and located near the commercial activity of the port, was also the seat of the Spanish Captain Generalcy, the symbolic and spatial heart of the colony. The creole aristocracy, as well as Spanish merchants, the military, and other elites, remained safely ensconced within the city walls. The Alameda de Paula, depicted in Frédéric Mialhe’s Isla de Cuba Pintoresca, pulsated with a vibrant street life near the port (fig. 2., Cueto 28).5 Eroding the pristine image presented by nineteenth-century artists, colonial Havana had a darker side. Geographers note how horse-drawn carriages, overcrowding, and the lack of proper hygiene turned the city core into a high-risk zone. The exclusionary policies of Spanish colonial administration dictated the exclusion of marginal populations, as drilled by the nightly ritual of the cañonazo or cannon-firing ceremony which shut city gates to keep out the undesirables.

By the 1840s, the shortage of land as well as the commercial boom brought by the sugar industry pushed the city further west. Beyond the walls, the district of extramuros was on the brink of expansion, with a new commercial area, and a high concentration of Afro-descendants and other marginal elements kept out of the central district.

Because the walls were by 1740 obsolete as a military defense, as early as 1807, colonial administration endeavored to unite the two parts of the city. In the late eighteenth century, the Marqués de la Torre launched the first part of this unification effort, enforcing the prohibition against buildings made out of guano, thus eliminating the many bohíos which composed the early Havana cityscape. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the walled enclave served as a permeable temporal and spatial divide but one nevertheless constrained by a rigid racial hierarchy. This is best seen in Cirilo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés (1882), the literary pillar of Cuban nationality (García 88). Set in Havana between 1836–1832 (Luis 114), Villaverde’s novel begins when the peninsular father, Cándido Gamboa, crosses into extramuros to visit his recently-born, illegitimate daughter Cecilia, tearing her away from Rosario, her mother, and putting her under the care of her maternal grandmother, where the lighter-skinned mulata would be raised out of view of his legitimate family.

Closer to the time of la Condesa’s visit, Captain General Miguel Tacón (1823–1832), eager to maintain Spanish hold on its principal colony in the Antilles, launched an ambitious program of urban reform. Turning away from an image of the city as a military bastion, he embraced two new models—Baron Haussman’s revamping of Paris as well as Pierre L’Enfant’s well-ordered grid of Washington, D.C.—that would transform Havana into a modern city. Tacón’s signature contribution was a wide boulevard extending west of the city which he named for his own prosperity as the Paseo de Tacón. Leading directly into extramuros, the new boulevard provided relief and a greener space within the crowded intramuros.

Tacón’s modernization plan implied as well breaking down the walls. By 1828, colonial administration viewed the two parts of the city as one. One year before Merlin’s arrival in 1839, colonial administrators had issued a proposal to sell portions of the wall. Although the walls were not permanently demolished until later in the century (1863–1875), their gradual disappearance signaled the transformation of the city of Havana into a modern city. At the time of Merlin’s visit, topographical maps, like Rafael Rodríguez, Plano topográfico de los barrios extamuros de la ciudad de La Habana, 1841 (rpt. García, 94–95), spanned both areas of the city, testifying to the legal and spatial unification of Havana. Besides official mapping efforts, “Havana residents embraced the production of a new topography, moving through its spaces and politically imagining the city through cultural forms and expressions” (García 97).

Read as a literary map, Mercedes Merlin’s Viaje a la Habana is aligned with this “new topography” and the mid nineteenth century’s re-envisioning of the city. The immense wealth generated by the sugar industry, along with the commercial boom that closely followed the growth of the industry, led to the crystallization of the image of Havana, an image sustained by its shadow underside, the illegal slave trade conducted under the vigilant eyes of the Spanish Captain General and the military. Along with its landscape, neoclassical architecture, and rich literary and visual culture, Havana’s identity as an “Antillean metropolis” was consolidated at mid nineteenth century. Merlin’s Viaje a la Habana adds another layer to this process of identity-formation, tracing an alternative cartography that ushers the emergence of Cuban nationalist sentiment.6

Merlin and the Origins of Cuban Literature

Written from the margins of Cuban literature, Viaje a la Habana is stitched as a complex textual quilt. Composed in epistolary format, it combines both personal observations and literary sources. Due to her gender and the fact that she resided abroad, Merlin did not participate in Domingo del Monte’s tertulia, the literary salon in Havana where the first works of Cuban literature saw the light. The irony was that it was Tacón who most severely repressed this budding group of Cuban intellectuals. Not only had he suppressed the Academia Cubana de Literatura in 1835, Del Monte’s effort “to promote a national culture,” but he had also exiled José Antonio Saco, an early and outspoken critic of the slave trade (Luis 28–29).

As the first efforts to forge a national literature, the Countess relied on these Enlightened criollos to provide valuable source material for her letters. That Del Monte and his circle were aware of their compatriot’s literary output is proved by the reviews of Merlin’s works published in the Havana press of the period.7 At least three of the letters are loose adaptations of previous sources: Cirilo Villaverde’s Excursion a Vuelta Abajo (1838–1839; 1891) provided the tale of “Los guagiros” included in Letter VI, while Victoriano Betancourt and Ramón de Palma’s local color sketches spruced up her narrative with topics as varied as funeral wakes, country dances, and courtship practices amidst Spaniards and creole elites, topics rendered in Letters VIII and IX of Viaje a la Habana.8

In his Refutación, Félix Tanco criticizes Merlin for unabashedly “borrowing” these early works of Cuban literature (29). The writers of the Del Monte circle—with the exception of Villaverde—turned their eyes to the countryside, where the most blatant excesses of the slavery system were committed, as primary setting for their anti-slavery works. As Merlin’s visit was circumscribed to the urban context and her immediate family circle, she turned to her peers for rural vignettes and a description of folkways and customs. Although Merlin saw the countryside through others’ eyes, her views of Havana were uniquely her own. This contradiction can best be explained in light of the island’s divide between urban and rural economies. Architect Roberto Segre points to a dichotomy underlying the construction of nineteenth-century Cuba: on the one hand, an urban economy controlled by peninsular interests; on the other, the rural areas, where criollo hacendados sought to expand the sugar and tobacco industries (“Havana, from Tacón to Forestier” 194). Seen in this light, the combination of original and “borrowed” letters in Viaje a la Habana reflects the urban/rural split prevalent at mid nineteenth-century.

Merlin’s contribution to Cuban literature lies in her cartography of Havana, a literary mapping that provides an intimate view of the colonial city. Seen in the context of the period, Merlin’s Viaje a la Habana is emblematic of nineteenth-century Romantic cartographies that captured the moment when Havana began to be transformed into a modern city. Here I compare her literary sketches with the picturesque views provided by two European lithographers established in Havana: the Basque Víctor Landaluze and the French Frédéric Mialhe. It was this trio of talented artists and writers, either foreign-born or foreign-bred, who were among the first to picture Havana at this crucial stage. Art historian Narciso Menocal notes the importance of “the work of European lithographers arriving during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, especially since they looked at Cuban subjects from a fresh perspective, with eyes that were discovering the tropics” (189).9 The counterpoint between Merlin’s travelogue and Miahle’s and Landaluze’s exploration constitutes a set of “representational spaces” that reveal how habaneros lived their city at a pivotal moment in time, filtered through the lens of verbal and visual art.10

Whereas Mialhe drew attention to the city’s main thoroughfares—his lithographs of la Alameda de Paula and the Paseo de Isabel II (Cueto 28, 48, 92)—, Landaluze focused his gaze on urban scenes featuring the everyday, from commercial transactions to fleeting erotic encounters, including major celebrations of Afro-Cuban culture like the Día de Reyes. Mialhe’s Isla de Cuba Pintoresca (1839–1842) was particularly influential in providing a visual imprint of Havana that catered to a national audience eager to rediscover itself as well as to an international public prone to seek new urban spaces (Cueto 2–3, 25).11 The juxtaposition of Landaluze and Mialhe’s sketches with Merlin’s poetic accounts of Havana streets and scenes testifies that this surplus of images promoted the search for national identity in nineteenth century Cuba (Menocal 187; Scarpaci and Portela 11).12 Though aligned with their cosmopolitan vision, Merlin’s tour of Havana supersedes the picturesque aesthetics of her contemporaries by combining an intimate view of the city with a diverse set of spatial practices.

Sublime Tropics

Dedicated to her daughter, Madame Gentien de Dissay, whom she left behind at her château near Poitiers, the opening letters of Viaje a la Habana present the reader with a sublime view of the tropics. A trope common to late eighteenth and nineteenth century travel writing, and emblematized in Alexander von Humboldt’s rhetoric of nature, the New World sublime captures the awe felt by foreign travelers before the spectacle of tropical nature. Expressed in different registers both by the type of traveler, site seen, and even gender, it implies a certain distance from the object viewed as well a sense of awe and wonder, what prompts an awareness of the limits of language in conveying the range of emotions elicited by a natural site.13

Sitting alone at the prow of the ship, Merlin conveys to her reader a particularly rich experience of the sublime as she glimpses the coast of Havana from afar. Intent on capturing the surrounding seascape, her gaze absorbs the grandeur of the natural elements: “Estoy encantada! desde esta mañana respiro el aire tibio y amoroso de los Trópicos …. El sol, las estrellas, la bóveda etérea, todo me parece mas grande, más diafano, mas espléndido!” [I am enchanted! As of this morning, I breathe the warm and affectionate air of the Tropics …. The sun, the stars, the ethereal dome—everything appears bigger, more diaphanous, more splendid!].14 At the same time, she is aware of the limits of vision in capturing the sublimity of the scene: “Mi vista no alcanza á abarcarlo, á gozarlo todo ….” [My sight is not able to encompass it, to rejoice in it all], what not even the presence of dolphins and “pearlescent” fishes can temper. After night-fall, as the ship moves closer to harbor, Merlin greets her island in an incantation and celebration of national origins: “Salud, isla encantadora y virginal! Salud, hermosa patria mia!” (2). [Hail, enchanting and virginal isle! Hail, my beautiful homeland!].

At night-fall, the chiaroscuro of the nocturnal sublime frames the first glimpse of Havana from afar. Here the Countess places herself as a spectator, not only of the cityscape ahead, but also of the tumult of emotions elicited by the proximity of her birthplace. Fragmented into multiple mirrors, Mercedes writes herself as a narrator wrested by “el extásis embriagador y divino” (2–3) [an intoxicating and divine ecstasy], as she contemplates, in religious rapture, the Cuban coastline. More than any other scene, this approach to the island figures the Kantean sublime as a deeply subjective and transcendental experience (Lowe 183). Its visual analogue is Mialhe’s “Vista del fondo de la bahía de La Habana:” which pictures a ship sitting astride the bay of Havana in the thick of night (fig. 12, Mialhe, Viaje pintoresco; Cueto. 93). [Image 1-Vista del fondo de la bahía de La Habana].

Image 1 

Vista del fondo de la Bahía de La Habana. Frédéric Mialhe, Viaje pintoresco alrededor de la Isla de Cuba 1847–1848.

In the interminable forty-eight hour before reaching shore, Countess Merlin engages in one of the most important of map-making activities: el bojeo por la costa, the meticulous measurement of coastline, latitude, and longitude with which geographers survey the ragged outlines of an island. Varones ilustres (Enlightenment explorers) like Alexander von Humboldt had traced the contours of an archipelago poetically named Jardines y Jardinillos de la Reina off the coast of Camagüey, describing the islets in excessive prose sprinkled with precise numerical data.15 But, instead of geographical facts and figures, the womanly practice of bojeo becomes less a scientific method than a mnemonic device. Imbued by the urge to remember, to recall and recognize, visual exploration is tinged by affect and metonymy: the only names that figure in this sentimental journey are the towns of Santa Cruz y Jaruco, sites recognized due to their association with her immediate family circle (5). In contrast with Mialhe’s “Segunda vista tomada desde Casa Blanca,” with its static coastline and row of ships lining the harbor, Merlin’s gaze marks the liminal boundary between coast and city with her own lineage and class (fig. 5, Mialhe, Viaje Pintoresco…, Cueto 82). [Image 2-Segunda vista tomada desde Casa Blanca]. This rite of possession anticipates, in turn, her more intense look at urban topography, where she appropriates her native city as her own.

Image 2 

Segunda vista tomada desde Casa Blanca. Frédéric Mialhe, Viaje pintoresco alrededor de la Isla de Cuba.

Public and Private Spaces

Merlin’s romantic cartography evidences a tension between public and private spheres. As her tour of Havana unfolds, the letters that describe the monumentality of Spanish public buildings and fortresses contrast with those dedicated to her immediate family circle. Sallying out at high noon on June 7, 1840, Merlin’s encompasses the iconic view of Havana that has enthralled visitors and travelers alike: the forts and bastions erected to protect the city and that stand as signs of Spanish imperial power. Mialhe in Viaje pintoresco alrededor de Isla de Cuba (1847–1848) depicts a similar view in “Morro y Entrada del Puerto de La Habana” [Morro Castle and Entrance to the Port of Havana], accenting sails and steamships floating towards the harbor, with a view of El Morro in the background (Fig. 1, Cueto 73, 77). [Image 3-Morro and Entrance to the Port of Havana]. It is this iconography that determined how the city was viewed during the eighteenth-century: the site where la flota landed en route to Seville’s Casa de Contratación; the King’s title of “llave del Nuevo Mundo y antemural de las Indias Occidentales” [Key to the Indies], with its accompanying coat of arms, sealed its fate as a bastion of Spain’s overseas empire and major commercial hub (Scarpaci, et al. Havana … 16–18; Lobo Montalvo, 46–48). Merlin praises the military prowess that resulted in the impressive system of fortresses that gird the port: the iconic Morro Castle and la Punta fort are described as “guardianes avanzados é inexpugnables coronados de cañones.”[two advanced and impregnable guardians, crowned with cannons]. These fortresses, along with el Morro’s famed “twelve apostles” or cannons, testify to the fact that Havana was “the most heavily fortified city in the Americas” (Scarpaci et al., Havana … 18). As daughter of Havana, Merlin notes how the massive constructions serve to ensure the safety of its residents and earn the city its fame as the safest of all Spanish overseas dominions (6–7–31). While seemingly praising Spanish colonial legacy, Merlin’s travelogue unsettles what would otherwise appear as a strictly pro-colonial view.

Image 3 

Frédéric Miahle and Bernando May, Morro y Entrada del Puerto de La Habana. Album Pintoresco de la Isla de Cuba, II (c. 1855).

Shifting her earlier pose of observer, Merlin now situates herself as “female discoverer,” appropriating Columbus’ Diary and its epic narrative of conquest and dominion for her own purposes. Her stop inside the cathedral of Havana elicits an elusive response to Spanish heritage and legacy. Before the crypt of Columbus, she muses: “Cuba no tiene historia, no tiene escudo de armas; no tiene mas que un árbol gigantesco y las cenizas de Colon ….”(30). [Cuba has no history, it has no coat of arms; it has nothing but a giant tree and the ashes of Columbus.] This erasure of the past angered many of her contemporaries, particularly Félix Tanco, who rebuked the Countess for so lightly dismissing the island’s past.16

Merlin tempers her earlier statement with a reference to the ceiba planted next to El Templete. An iconic site also captured in Mialhe’s Isla de Cuba Pintoresca (fig. 53, Cueto 66–67), El Templete was a small temple built in Greco-Roman style to commemorate the founding of Havana, the city’s first Mass in 1519, and the first meeting of the cabildo or town council (Lobo Montalvo 40). Whereas Mialhe’s lithograph visually accents the proximity between El Templete and the Plaza de Armas, reinforcing the connection between the commemorative site and the Spanish Captain General’s near-absolute authority, Merlin’s juxtaposition is more puzzling. Did she mean to erase Cuba’s history, as Tanco’s acerbic comments suggest? Or was her enigmatic statement meant as a strategy to subvert the island’s colonial history? If, on the one hand, Merlin appears to deny the weight of the past, on the other, she affirms “la poesía de lo presente” (32) [the poetry of the present], a tactic that allows her to turn her gaze to the everyday and the customs and habits of the habaneros.

Aligned with Tacón’s program of reform, Merlin’s literary cartography has a modern ring, as her tour illustrates the city’s shifting borders, the expansion of extramuros into a “new social space” (García 84). First she notes the transformation of urban habitat, as marginal extramuros neighborhoods—“los arrabales de la Luz y de Jesús María” [the suburbs of la Luz and of Jesus y María]—shed thatched-roofed bohíos for the “quintas elegantes” [elegant villas] of their new dwellers (7). This change was due to colonial ordinances that prohibited the use of fire-prone dwellings made out of guano (García 87 111–112; Scarpaci et al., Havana… 30).17 The barrios’ brightly-colored houses and surrounding greenery strike the visitor as a space in bloom: “Parecen un ramillete de flores en medio de un parterre” (7) [They seem to be a cluster of wildflowers in the middle of a garden bed]—a metaphor meant to heighten their picturesque effect. More significantly, the popular barrios lining the outskirts of the city are gradually blurring urban borders: “Pero hé aquí, hija mia, que la ciudad empieza ya á confundirse con los barrios….” (8) [But, my daughter, I find that the city begins to be confused with its neighborhoods.] (Merlin, Voyage…, Letter II). Responding to the call for a “a new topography” that united both sections of the city (García 97, 103), Merlin argues in favor of incorporating previously marginal sectors into a unified urban grid (30). This new topography would grant “derecho de ciudadanía à los deliciosos arrabales que se agrupan à su derredor” such as the barrios of “Jesús del Monte, Jesús María, y La Salud” (30) [the right of citizenship to the delicious suburbs which cluster around its perimeter] (Merlin, Voyage…, Letter V). As the largest barrios of extramuros (García 97), her mention of Jesús María and La Salud is a tacit acknowledgement of the city’s multi-racial profile. Indeed, Merlin’s call for demolishing the murallas altogether (30) anticipates the task accomplished toward the later part of the century (1863–1875), “the unification of the two Havanas into one single modern body” (García 116).

Merlin’s astute observations regarding the porous borders between urban and suburban environments signal an important topographical shift. The travelogue depicts public/private spheres not as a strict divide, but as heterogenous spaces that allow a wide range of urban activities, as we shall see in the closing chapters depicting paseos and promenades. The image of Havana shifts from “a colonial outpost designed to increase wealth from Spain” (García 96), as it was throughout the eighteenth-century, to the site of a distinct creole culture, refined by European habits and sensibility. As “one of the largest and most sumptuous theaters anywhere,” the famed Tacón Theater boasted two thousand seats; its scale and grandeur, illustrated in Mialhe’s Isla de Cuba Pintoresca, compares favorably with similar theaters in Europe (fig. 41, Cueto 1, 56, 59), [Image 4-Tacón Theater]:

Este teatro es rico y elegante á la vez …. Solo los primeros teatros de las grandes capitales de Europa pueden igualar al de la Habana en la belleza de las decoraciones, en el lujo del alumbrado, y en la elegancia de los espectadores, que llevan todos guante amarillo y pantalon blanco. (27).

This theater is both rich and elegant at once …. Only the first theaters of the great capitals of Europe can equal that of Havana in the beauty of the decorations, in the luxury of the lighting, and in the elegance of the spectators, who all wear yellow gloves and white trousers. (Merlin’s Voyage…, Letter IV).

Image 4 

Teatro de Tacón. Frédéric Mialhe, Viaje pintoresco alrededor de la Isla de Cuba 1847–1848.

Merlin voices the aspiration of Havana’s elites to reach the same “civilized” status as the great capitals of Europe. Cultural institutions such as the Teatro de Tacón mark an important shift in Havana’s urban history. Its grand opening on carnival night, February 18, 1838, featured an elaborate masked ball (Chateloin 196). The Countess also exalts the operas performed at the famed Tacón theater (27). The wealth and leisure generated by the sugar industry promoted Havana’s nineteenth-century architecture and lettered culture (García 96; Scarpaci, Plazas and Barrios, 65) For colonial administration, new edifices like the monumental theater meant that they no longer need to look across the Atlantic “to chart … a space of civilization” (García 101); likewise, for the creole elite, it marked a recognition that a distinct, and profoundly Cuban, urban culture had already arrived. In short, the Teatro Tacón became a symbol of urban sophistication, leisure, and access to culture, although marked by clear class and racial boundaries (Chateloin 197, 200).

Merlin’s depiction of the private sphere of the home reveals a similar drive to define national identity, in the midst of daily rhythms and domestic environments regulated by class, race, and gender. Welcomed into her uncle Juan Montalvo y O’Farrill’s family home, Merlin depicts the domus criollo as a kind of “golden age”: “La vida doméstica parece renovar los encantos de la edad de oro” (16).18 [Domestic life in Havana seems to rekindle the charms of the Golden Age] (Merlin, Voyage…, Letter III). A self-made ethnographer, Merlin describes the customs and mores of the creole aristocracy, from banquets to funeral wakes. A climactic point of the narrative, the scene of the banquet allegorizes Cuban national identity. From Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda’s Sab (1841) to José Lezama Lima’s Paradiso (1966), the banquet—its baroque excess, proliferation of fruits, listing of native dishes and delicacies—has condensed the essence of Cubanness. Despite the European opulence of their tables, Merlin affirms the criollos’ preference for their own cuisine, expressing child-like delight at the cornucopia of tropical fruits offered to her (14).

Besides the harmony that perfumes the Montalvo mansion, Merlin’s view of domestic interiors depicts an important stage of Cuban national identity. In a reflection on colonial hybridity, the habaneros are described as a cross between Spanish “gravity” and creole “indolence” (15); they compose a unique yet amalgamated social group, “la raza actual de los españoles habaneros” (17) [the current race of Spanish habaneros] [Merlin, Voyage…, Letter III]. This classification hints of the gap between criollos and peninsulares that was to widen as the century progressed, and mirrors as well her capsule description of Havana as a city caught between the Middle Ages and modernity (12). Notwithstanding the acuity of her observations, Merlin restricts the nucleus of an emerging national subject to the close-knit circle of the white creole aristocracy. Although her ethnographic portrait of the habaneros exoticizes as well as idealizes her peers on the island, Merlin’s portrayal of domestic interiors accents the hybridity that permeates Havana, reflected in its distinct architecture as well as in the private lives of its citizens.

The Gendered City

In a subsequent passage, the picture of domestic bliss observed inside the Montalvo mansion is extended to every household. Havana is metaphorically embodied in what Swedish traveler Fredrika Bremer called “the inner life of the home,” a gesture of appropriation that enhances the visitor’s sense of belonging, a crucial first step in the process of deciphering and reimagining the colonial city:

Ella es, ella, con sus balcones, sus tiendas y sus azoteas, con sus preciosas casas bajas de la clase media, casas de grandes puertas cocheras, de inmensas ventanas enrejadas; las puertas y ventanas, todo está aquí abierto; se puede penetrar con una mirada hasta las intimidades de la vida doméstica, desde el patio regado y cubierto de flores hasta el aposento de la niña … (8).

It is she, with her balconies, her awnings, her rooftops, with her beautiful low houses of the middle class, houses with great doors, of immense barred windows; doors and windows—everything is open here; one can pierce with a glance even the intimacies of domestic life, from the washed patios covered with flowers to the child’s bedchamber …. (Merlin, Voyage…, Letter II).

This characterization of Havana as a city that lends itself to be viewed from the outside in reinforces Merlin’s porous narrative persona as both outsider and insider. However, a subsequent passage upsets the earlier idyllic image of the Montalvo household, shifting instead to a somber view of domestic interiors. During a daily walk by a neighboring portal, Merlin positions herself as a voyeur whose gaze attends to women’s lived experience within the domestic realm.19 Merlin witnesses the devoted interaction between a young neighbor who languishes from an unknown illness, and the domestic slave who tends to her with absolute devotion (“parecia no vivir sino de la vida de su ama” [46]) [she seemed unable to live unless through her mistress’ life]. When the young woman fails to arrive at the reja at the appointed hour, this interruption of daily routine warns of her impending fate. In a scene bathed in romantic pathos, we witness a scene where the father desperately wrings his hands and weeps, while the young slave flings herself on the floor in a paroxysm of grief (46). The physicality of the black woman’s reaction underscores how “social practice presupposes the use of the body” (Lefebvre 40). The bodies of the white and the black woman appear only fleetingly behind the iron gate, pointing to their shared domestic enclosure. The aura of mystery that surrounds the scene suggests that, despite their different subject positions, both women experience a kind of social death. By her “penetrating” gaze into the interior of the home, Merlin effectively embodies Havana through the lives of its hidden female citizens.

Farewell to Havana

Historians recognize the extent of Merlin’s contribution to the Havana cityscape: “the Countess, like many of the affluent who resided within the intramuros, had a clear vision of the areas where urban development should take place” (García 107). As we saw, Havana in the 1840s was a city built on the wealth of the sugar barons, whose mansions, like her uncle Montalvo’s family home, lined the plazas. Yet mid-nineteenth-century also saw the rise of a free black urban population.20 As depicted in Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés, the real-life character of the tailor Uribe represents this growing black middle class which was rapidly acquiring wealth and status. Because the ascendancy of black criollos posed a threat to “the social order that had been so carefully instituted in the Havana of Miguel Tacón,” certain areas of the city were limited to specific populations (García 110, 112).

Spatial and racial exclusion is amply recorded in the Viaje…, when the Countess recounts her attendance at a concert of military music at the Plaza de Armas, and notes that the intramuros area is frequented mostly by the white population: “Allí se reune la poblacion blanca de todas clases” (23) [There the white population of all classes gathers], whereas nearby streets are peopled mostly by African descendants.21 [Image 5-“Soldado y mulata; La bollera.” Landaluze]. Much like Víctor Landaluze’s pictorial sketches, Merlin depicts free women of color as central figures roaming—and, in a real sense, controlling—the urban domain: “las negras, oh! de ellas solamente es la calle” (22).22 [But the black women, oh! theirs alone is the street]. (Merlin, Letter II, Voyage…).

Image 5 

“Soldado y mulata; La bollera.” Víctor Patricio Landaluze. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, La Habana.

Ironically, this population of free black criollos soon became the target of administrative control.23 Already under Tacón’s administration, decrees were issued to regulate citizen behavior, such as a nightly curfew and a “cuerpo de serenos (nightwatchman corps)” (García 105). The demographic shift taking place in Havana eventually pushed colonial administration to usher a new set of regulations, the Bando de gobernación y policía de la isla de Cuba. Issued two years after Merlin’s visit, in 1842, under Captain General Gerónimo Valdés, the Bando meant to foster modern measures of public order and also regulate “the private lives of Cubans” (García 110). Hints of this Foucaultian push to surveillance appear throughout Merlin’s journey, as in her passing mention of the famed Tacón jail (7).24 Her aunt María Antonia, while admitting that, indeed, the crime rate has risen in Havana, reassures her by noting the “carácter aventurero y caballeresco” (19) [a certain adventurous and chivalric character; Merlin, Voyage…, Letter III] of bandits in the countryside.

It is in this context that we next examine the climactic scenes of Merlin’s Romantic cartography. Her descriptions of a long-standing ritual, the daily paseo en quitrín, a promenade through main boulevards in a big-wheeled carriage invented for the Havana elite, are surely the apex of the narrative, the moment where the traveler’s spatial practices are most dramatically displayed. The daily movement and transit of Havana elites is immortalized in Frédéric Mialhe’s “El quitrín,” the most famous lithograph in Viaje pintoresco alrededor de la isla de Cuba, 1847–1848 (fig. 13, Cueto 73, 93–94) which depicts three young women of the aristocracy riding a carriage, with a black calèche driver in front. [Image 6—El quitrín]. By 1846, there were over two thousand five hundred carriages in Havana, each measuring twelve to fourteen meters long, counting the space needed between one vehicle and the other as well as the horse which dragged it along (Chateloin 95). Both the length and increase of the quitrines and volantas made these means of transport difficult to navigate, particularly in the congested intramuros area (Chateloin 95). Mialhe’s romanticized yet static image as well as Merlin’s riveting account suppress the regulations imposed on the traffic and circulation of carriages through the crowded space of the paseo (García 113).

Image 6 

Frédéric Mialhe’s “El quitrín,” Viaje pintoresco alrededor de la isla de Cuba, 1847–1848.

With these facts and figures in mind, we return to Merlin’s memoir to see how it depicts the many-layered codes implicit in the Havana ritual. It is interesting to note that the first mention of the Paseo de Tacón and the afternoon promenade is juxtaposed with an anecdote about a condemned criminal who seeks sanctuary inside a church (19). The reference to these policing activities, which Tía María Antonia recounts to an ingenuous Condesa, functions as background to the orchestrated movement of the Havana elite in these deliciously anachronistic “technologies of travel.”

A daily social ritual for all habaneros, the paseo en quitrín acquired symbolic valence not only as a status symbol of opulence but also as icon of an emerging national identity.25 The afternoon paseo held special significance for women as the only opportunity to step out of their domestic confines. Hence, it “contributed to a distinctively gendered, spatially defined, and class-specific use of space in nineteenth-century Havana” (Scarpaci et al., Havana… 33). This gender differentiation is beautifully illustrated in Merlin’s climactic scene of a ride through the Paseo de Tacón. While the men, ensconced inside the carriages, smoke incessantly, the women, “recostadas voluptuosamente en sus quitrines, gozaban desdeñosamente de la dulzura del aire y de la hermosura de la naturaleza” (22), [reclining voluptously in their quitrines, reveled haughtily in the sweetness of the air and of the beauty of nature], (Merlin, Voyage…, Letter III), an ekphrastic description of Mialhe’s lithograph.

Yet this placid scene cannot completely suppress the narrator’s awareness of racial hierarchy and the constraints imposed by the slavery system. Although the longer French original elaborates Merlin’s position vis-à-vis the slavery debate in Cuba, Viaje a la Habana unequivocally declares what sustains the deep structure of Cuban society: “No hay pueblo en La Habana: no hay mas que amos y esclavos” (29). [Havana does not have a people: there are naught but masters and slaves] (Merlin, Voyage…, Letter V). Seen in this light, the quintessential Havana ritual complicates the view of race relations in nineteenth-century Havana. In Mialhe’s lithograph, the figure of the calesero, the black calèche driver who conducted the creole aristocracy through the streets of Havana dressed in European garb, appears as icon of the series of “folk characters” that supply “a corpus of national imagery” (Menocal 187) for the construction of a budding sense of Cuban identity. In this final scene, Merlin reproduces a dialogue that would typically take place between a white creole woman and her calesero during the paseo, as she performs a gendered spatial practice that permitted white creole women to buy goods from peninsular shop-keepers lined along the streets. Confined to the interior of the carriage, the creole woman doggedly insists to the calesero what direction he should take (99). When the carriage stops at the designated store, a voice inside the carriage orders the driver to stand still: [“’no te muevas, Juan, no te muevas por nadie’” (99). [Stop right there, Juan, don’t move under any circumstance]. The scene accents the passivity imposed on the slave who has no other choice but to obey his mistress’ orders (99). It is clear that the woman’s subservient position due to her sex is compensated by her dominion over the slave, who, in turn, occupies the lowest rung in the racial hierarchy. The scene acquires broader implications when projected to the city as a whole: “la Habana egerce una especie de despotismo” (99) [Havana casts a riveting spell on the visitor]. In an ironic nod to the reader, those familiar with the French edition of La Havane would have known her Lettre XX, a scathing though ironic critique of the Spanish Captain Generalcy, which denounced the governing institution’s near-absolute powers (poderes omnímodos). In this light, the wry comment about the city’s hypnotic effect functions as an allegory of the Cuban colonial condition, for it suggests that the despotic power that Spain imposed on her colonies mirrors the mistress’ hold on her slave. Although Merlin does not address the issue of political control in the Spanish edition, her sketches move beyond picturesque aesthetics to reveal not only the city’s varied urban landscape, but also its underside.26

The last letter of Viaje a la Habana resumes el paseo en quitrín, while gathering the topography of the city into one comprehensive view. For the stroll in a carriage includes nearly all aspects of urban life, from the private to the public: the sallying out of the volantas at six o’clock, the bustling commercial activity, men congregating in balconies, the hushed tone of matronly conversations, culminating in the seductive art of the abanico. Comparing the “quitrín” to a Venetian gondola as it traverses through the cityscape, the Countess reminds her readers that they are not in Europe, but, rather, “bajo el cielo de las Antillas en medio de las costumbres criollas” (99) [under the Caribbean sky and in the midst of creole customs]. In short, the memorable paseo en quitrín provides a social history of nineteenth-century Havana, while also serving as Merlin’s farewell to her (lost) city. The nocturnal ambience reinforces the poignancy of the scene, for Merlin’s departure coincides with the first spark of nationalist sentiment: “entonces es cuando aquí comenzamos á vivir no para los negocios ni para el comercio, no para la vanidad y para el público, sino para nosotros mismos, para nuestras afecciones y para nuestros placeres” (100). [This is when we begin to live neither for business nor commerce, nor for vanity nor the public good, but for ourselves, for our affective ties and for our pleasures]. Merlin’s literary remapping of Havana turns the city into an intimate space for an “imagined community” and emerging nation.

Merlin’s literary cartography registers an imprint of the city of Havana suspended in time, an antidote to Antonio José Ponte’s underground city in “Un arte de hacer ruinas” as well as to a faded architecture now on the brink of destruction. Merlin’s final farewell links her to the many writers, artists, and thinkers who, as Gómez de Avellaneda notes in her prologue to Viaje a la Habana (xxxi), have had to dream the city beyond insular borders.


1[Anonymous], “Viage a la Habana por la Sra. Condesa de Merlin,” Faro Industrial de la Habana, April 10, 12, and 14, 1844. Along with the announcement of its publication and favorable reception in Europe, the anonymous source takes a laissez-faire approach as to its contents: “Tal como la obra es la ofrecemos al público, dejando á cada lector se forme el juicio que le plazca” [We offer the work just as it is, letting each reader form his own judgement]. (April, 10, 1844, Faro Industrial). Although side-stepping the book’s importance, the author goes on to note that it merited a special price: “tres pesetas sencillas; es decir, el precio que la obra tiene de costo en la Peninsula” [three simple pesetas; that is, the same price as sold in Spain]. Original spelling and punctuation. 

2“’La Sra. de Merlin … ha visto á la isla de Cuba con ojos parisienses, y no ha querido comprender que la Habana no es Paris.’” [Madame Merlin has seen the island of Cuba with Parisian eyes, and has not quite understood that Havana is not Paris]. Tanco, Refutación, 55. Veráfilo’s pamphlet appeared in thirteen subsequent installments in the Diario de La Habana (April 22–May 4, 1844). For further discussion, see Méndez Rodenas, Gender and Nationalism, 94–96, 295–296. 

3I follow Henri Lefebvre’s definition of “spatial practice” as the daily routines of a society that determine its social use and assimilation of lived space. It also implies “the decipherment of its space” (38). 

4Bueno’s argument is neatly summed up in his title: “Una escritora habanera de expresión francesa,” De Merlin a Carpentier. For a discussion of bilingualism in Merlin’s text, see Díaz, Unhomely Rooms, 93–94. 

5The Alameda de Paula is pictured in fig. 11 of Mialhe’s Viaje Pintoresco alrededor de la isla de Cuba (1847–1848) (Cueto 92–93). Its proximity to the bay made it not so popular as a site of recreation for the Cuban aristocracy (Chateloin 116). 

6For this entire section, I have relied on following sources: Chateloin, pp. 26–27, 32–37, 95–96, 102–103, 108–110; García, 83–89, 94–101, 131–132; Scarpaci et al., Havana…, 27–29, 32–37; Segre, “Havana, from Tacón to Forestier,” 193; Scarpaci, Plazas and Barrios, 62–67. For a list of public works implemented under Tacón, see Chateloin, 209–212; Scarpaci et al., Havana…, 38–39. Scarpaci also provided valuable personal communication about the cañonazo. 

7For the connections between Merlin and the Del Monte circle, see my Gender and Nationalism, 105–141. 

8Merlin, Viaje, 33, 55, 65. I have retained the original spelling of the 1844 edition in the 2008 edition used here. 

9Commenting on José María Heredia’s memorable verses in “Oda al Niágara,” where the poet glimpses his beloved palm trees behind the tumult of waters, Menocal notes that “before Cubans explored their landscape in painting, foreigners worked first at representing it, … mainly in lithography” (191). 

10“Representational spaces: space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of ‘inhabitants’ … and also of … artists … who describe [said space].” (Lefebrve 39; author’s emphasis). 

11“Mialhe published his first original view of Havana and Matanzas” in the periodical magazine, El Plantel, and the international success of Isla […] made it “one of the most outstanding enterprises of its kind … in Cuba.” (Cueto 2–3). 

12“In Cuban art, … establishing a national imagery through a search for the characteristic and exploring national identity were the major issues.” Menocal, 187. 

13Adapting classical Burkean and Kantean definitions of the sublime to the American South, John W. Lowe has coined the term “tropical sublime” to suggest the mixture of awe and fear experienced by travelers who traverse Florida rivers and swamps for the first time (181). The term is not entirely applicable to Merlin’s writings, as she approached the shores of Cuba not as a foreigner, but as a native who views a landscape left behind at youth. The element of “terror” implied in classical definitions of the sublime is also absent here. I concur with Lowe in that “[a]we, inexpressibility, and immensity are all seminal traits of the sublime” (193). 

14Anne Marie Pearson de Andrés, Voyage to Havana. M.F.A. Thesis in Literary Translation, University of Iowa, 2020. Translation of Letter I, Viaje a la Habana, 2008 edition. Subsequent translations of Letters II, III, IV and V are from this same manuscript source and are included in the text. 

15For a comparison of Humboldt and Mercedes Merlin’s different approaches to Cuban landscape, see my Gender and Nationalism, 47, 53–54. See also “Humboldt’s Landscapes: Connecting Then and Now,” in Scarpaci and Portela, 35–47. 

16“[S]eñora condesa, … tened presente a Colon cuando os vega á las mientes [sic] decir que Cuba no tiene historia. Si no la tiene es … porque se empeñan en desfigurarla los mismos que deberian tener mas gloria en presenterla hermosa como su clima, esplendente como su naturaleza envidiable y pura! (Tanco, Refutación 38). 

[Madame, … keep Columbus in mind when it occurs to you to say that Cuba has no history. If she does not have it, … it is because the same individuals distort it who should present her in all her glory, like her glorious climate, as splendid as her enviable and pure nature!]

17For illustrations of bohíos and the stone-built houses that replaced them, see Lobo Montalvo, 42–45. 

18Dating from 1780, Juan Montalvo’s house is the Casa de Mateo Pedroso, located between Peña Pobre and Cuarteles (Lobo Montalvo, 100; illustrations 101–103). 

19For Lefebvre, “spatial practice is lived directly …”; his tripartite division of space includes lived experience as an integral part of spatial practice (34, 39–40). 

20“As the number of Africans and their descendants increased as the institution of slavery declined, the proportional number of the free black population in the urban areas also increased” (García 110). 

21Instead of an actual concert, Merlin may have attended the weekly retreta or military march played at the Plaza de Armas (Chateloin, 36). Tanco y Bosmeniel faults her for this error, and goes on to explain how the ritual also fulfilled a political purpose: the ruling Captain General wanted to show that military marches were up to par with the Spanish army’s regulatory function of keeping order and the public peace (Refutación, 16). 

22Los cubanos pintados por sí mismos (1852) and Tipos y costumbres de la Isla de Cuba (La Habana:Miguel Villa, 1881). 

23“Control of changing demographics on the island … in Havana specifically became one of the ordinances’ primary goals. … [A]t this earlier juncture officials channeled concern with the island’s changing demographics into a concern with black criollos who were either born free or manumitted” (García 113). 

24According to Chateloin, “su fachada negaba su función” [its façade negated its [regulatory] function] (93); see also 159–165. 

25“[E]l tener un carruaje se hizo indispensable para todas las familias acomodadas. La volanta y el quitrín hacen su aparición a principios del siglo XIX y se generalizan en la tercera década como un producto genuinamente cubano….” (Chateloin 34). [It became indispensable for all wealthy families to own a carriage. Appearing in the early nineteenth-century, the volanta and the quitrín gained popularity during the third decade as a genuinely Cuban product]. 

26Here I follow García’s argument about the effect of surveillance measures in the city (108–117). 


I want to thank Joseph L. Scarpaci for his close reading of an earlier version of this essay. A geographer’s outlook, along with his extensive editorial commentary and valuable bibliographic suggestions, have greatly improved this essay, written as a tribute to a city we both treasure.

Competing Interests

The author has no competing interests to declare.


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