Water from the tinajon (earthenware clay pot), to stay in Camagüey
BY YANAIS VEGA BACALLAO, PHOTOS: RODOLFO BLANCO CUÉ AND JOSÉ (TITO) MERIÑO
“If you drink water from the tinajon in Camagüey, you will stay”, is one of the most representative legends of this city located 570 kilometers to the east of Havana, and whose origin is the notable presence in this area of that reddish and pot-bellied container.
A close relative of the Andalusian pot or aljibe (cistern), and reason for the city’s name as city of the tinajons, historians point out that this characteristic container proliferated in the town due to the abundance of clay found by the Spanish immigrants when they settled there.
In this city, whose historic sector’s oldest segment has been a World Cultural Heritage Site since 2008, the tubby Camagüey tinajon, in addition to being a symbol of the area, is an object that has created legends over the centuries, part of the local idiosyncrasy.
According to several historians, this article was first seen here in the former Villa de Santa María del Puerto del Príncipe, today Camagüey, at the start of the 17th century, imported from distant Spain by the colonizers of the island of Cuba, particularly by those who came from the south of that European nation —under the conquest and influence of the Arabs for centuries—; however, its oldest description dates back to 1760.
Used to store grains, oil and wine, the container quickly became popular in the typical Camagüey patios and gardens due to its use for storing rainwater, since clay, an abundant raw material in this area, kept the precious liquid cool like no other material.
Once the spring rains started, and as water was a scarce resource here due to the province’s mainly dry soils, water was collected by means of the systems of canals hanging from the red clay roofs, first made of wood and eventually of metal.
Although between 1863 and 1866 Camagüey was not the only place producing tinajons, as there were other potters in Sancti Spíritus and Santiago de Cuba, there was no productive center similar to Camagüey, according to Spanish writer and historian Jacobo de la Pezuela y Lobo in his Geographic, statistical and historical dictionary of the island of Cuba. Havana intellectual Antonio Bachiller y Morales also wrote in his memoirs about the pot-bellied vessel during his visit to the town in 1838:
“The water is collected in beautiful pots placed in the patios, due to their great capacity, four or six of them will contain the amount of water of a cistern”.
By the middle of that same century, the existence of tinajons in local homes was already considered excessive, and their manufacture gradually stopped, since by in 1900 there were over 16,000 units in Villa de Puerto Príncipe, data obtained through an inventory carried out by the American authorities that occupied the island after the end of the Cuban war against Spain.
Another prophecy about this container is a little more romantic, since it promises that a young man who drinks water from the tinajon will fall in love with a Camagüey woman and stay forever in this area.
There is an anecdote that includes the tinajon, specifically one from 1875 during the Ten Years War against the Spanish metropolis when a Cuban soldier of the Liberation Army hid inside one of those containers.
The brave mambi was fleeing from law enforcement, victim of an informer, while in spite of the repressive situation he visited his sick son near the landmark Plaza San Juan de Dios.
It could well be said that the city of Camagüey is one of those so-called “mothers of illusion”, given the numerous legends that were born here.
There are many other interesting stories that are ingrained in the popular imagination, and maintain today the same novelty and ingenuity of their origins.
In any case, there rests Camaguey’s immovable tinajon, unchanged since its conception: large belly, with delimited geometric lines and notable crest, almond-shaped, always with the gape present, a gape that crosses the threshold of centuries, offering cool water to anyone passing through these lands, perhaps with the hidden intention of conquering one more inhabitant.
So, knowing all this, with an invitation to the city in hand... would you drink water from the tinajon?