José Abreu was only 7, but almost half a century later he still vividly remembers the day Cuba's landmark deparment store burned down -- its flames engulfing an emblem of an era that faded soon after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.
'I was playing in the porch of my house when this lady came down the street screaming, `El Encanto burned down, El Encanto burned down,' '' said Abreu, now head of Miami-Dade's Aviation Department.
The intentional fire that gutted the high-end department store on April 13, 1961, served as prelude for Castro's declaration three days later that his revolution was socialist and four days later for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs exile invasion.
Though Castro's squelching of the invasion ensured his revolution's enduring survival, it is the destruction of El Encanto, founded in 1888, that in the minds of some exiles marked the true end of the pre-Castro era when Cuba was a friend of the United States and a destination for American tourists and Hollywood stars.
''The Cuba of yesteryear died with El Encanto,'' said Visitación Argudín Noya, 95, who was in Havana when fire destroyed the store. ``Slowly at first, but more rapidly later, things began to change after Fidel Castro seized power -- even El Encanto was not the same as before.''
Interviews with former customers and employees reveal a depth of attachment to the department store frequented by pre-Castro society and foreign visitors in search of the latest international fashions.
''Even back then when I was a kid, hearing about the end of El Encanto was like losing a major national monument,'' Abreu recalled during a recent interview. He left Cuba when he was 13, flying to Spain, where he stayed in a camp for unaccompanied children. He traveled to South Florida in 1968, landing at Miami International Airport where he now has an office.
When former employees talk about the old Havana department store they sound as if they are describing an enchanted place, a tribute to a name that means enchantment in Spanish.
''El Encanto offered the latest fashions in the world,'' recalled Alberto Suárez, El Encanto's in-house fashion designer known as Manet.
''Celebrities from Hollywood, Paris and Buenos Aires came to shop at the store,'' said Argudín Noya, who worked in women's clothing.
''The wives of presidents, the people who ran businesses, the owners of sugar mills, they all went to El Encanto,'' said Xiomara López, 85, who worked for 19 years at the store.
To many exiles, the store at the Old Havana corner of Galiano and San Rafael streets -- the heart of the Cuban capital's commercial district in pre-Castro times -- evokes memories not only of a famous department store, but an era, a metaphor for the good times when international celebrities flocked to Havana for the casinos and the resorts.
Tyrone Power was a client, as were other Hollywood stars like Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Errol Flynn.
''For employees and customers, seeing a famous person in the store was routine,'' said Darío Miyares, executive director of the Association of Former El Encanto Employees.
Argudín Noya said that soon after Castro seized power, the store gave the impression of operating normally. But gradually some employees embraced the revolution and some even showed up for work wearing guerrilla fatigues. ''Depuración'' or ''ideological cleansing'' committees were set up to weed out employees who were not enthusiastic about the revolution, said Argudín Noya.