Like many teenage girls in Cuba, Lydia Hortensia de Castroverde yearned to be a quinceañera — to one day dress like a princess, enter a banquet hall full of family and friends on her father’s arm to dance a waltz, then blow out the candles on a spectacular cake. In effect, flying out as a butterfly from a cocoon. A beautiful human spring.
On Christmas’ Eve 1957, at age 14, she verbalized her dream to her parents: “ Mami, papi, I want a quince party.”
It was a difficult time to host a society event in Havana as political upheaval loomed and a revolution was brewing. A month earlier, Havana had been shaken by simultaneous bombings. A rebel leader named Fidel Castro had taken up arms against Fulgencio Batista’s government. No longer could people feel safe on the streets.
“ Papi at first refused to throw my party because he feared someone could bomb the event,” recalls Castroverde. “But Mami insisted, ‘our only daughter wants a quinceañera party.’ ”
In the end, Castroverde got her wish.
This weekend at the annual Cuba Nostalgia festival in West Miami-Dade, the glorious quince Castroverde’s parents threw for her — and preserved in photographs in a large pink album and in 17 minutes of film — will be shown and showcased at the MiamiHerald/elNuevoHerald exhibit. Castroverde will also be there Saturday from 11 to 8 p.m. to tell how her mother, Hortensia, a well-known opera singer, pulled off a quince in tumultuous times.
It proved to be one of the last. large-scale quince parties in an elegant, pre-Castro Cuba.
“My mother was a force of nature,’’ Castroverde recalls. “I’m telling my quince story to pay homage to her for giving me a party I remembered the rest of my life.”
Castroverde said her mother ignored the threats and hired security and set out to make her quince an affair to remember. She ordered more than 350 invitations, with a dance card for each girl — a small cardboard folded in the center and wrapped by a fine cord for young men to sign. The invitations were distributed in person, not via the postal service.
They announced that Plácido de Castroverde and Hortensia Santos had the pleasure of inviting guests to their daughter’s quince on June 20, 1958, at the glorious Havana Hilton grand ballroom a few hours after sunset. Entertainment would be provided by two famous orchestras at the time, Los Violines de Pego and Barbarito Diez’s band. Girls were requested to wear long dresses; boys dinner jackets.
“That party was like a fairy tale, like when Disney made fantasy movies. And I was a princess,” said Castroverde, 69, who splits her time between Miami and Marco Island. “Now, it’s a bittersweet memory of glorious times in Cuba.”
Flanked by her parents and dance partner, the quinceañera girl welcomed each of the guests with a kiss at the hall’s entrance. Her dress was made by a renowned fashion designer using silver-colored French chiffon draped in waves lifted by pink flower bouquets. It was the same design of the doll that adorned the birthday cake – made in the form of a huge bow — and surrounded by 14 other figurines representing her court of girls.
The party began with a waltz specially composed for the occasion and sang by her mother Hortensia, a coloratura soprano.
“That’s what I remember the most today, making my entrance with my father to dance the waltz and my mother on stage singing to me,” said Castroverde, her voice cracking with emotion. “I must have looked startled, seeing all those people looking at me, because my father whispered to me: ‘smile.’ ”
After a few rounds, her father ceded the honored quinceañera to her dance partner, Carlos Torres de Navarra. They were immediately joined by 14 young couples who performed a choreography by Gustavo Roig, son of the famed composer and founder of the Cuba National Opera, Gonzalo Roig. The youngsters had been rehearsing for more than two months at the Vedado Tennis Club party hall.
Among those at the party 56 years ago was Marta Sánchez-Arcilla, daughter of Cuban playwright and Ambassador José Sánchez-Arcilla. She was Castroverde’s schoolmate at Merici Academy, a school run by Ursuline nuns in Havana’s upscale Biltmore neighborhood.
“The party was very much in the Spanish tradition, very classy and delicate. At that time, there was none of that coming out with little crowns on the girl’s head while sitting on a throne, as they do today,” said Sánchez-Arcilla, who didn’t get to celebrate her own quince due to threats to her family.
At Castroverde’s party, the stroke of midnight marked the time to blow out the birthday candles. The guests surrounded the young girl and toasted for her new maturity.
Today, Castroverde recalls the photographer kept her busy. “I had to pose so much I didn’t even get to taste my cake.” Then, they brought out her special present: a $3,800 diamond bracelet bought at the Cuervo y Sobrinos jewelry store with contributions from all the guests. The dancing lasted until the early hours of the morning.
In the following days, the quinceañera crafted an album reflecting the memories of her party, including the clips of several newspapers which featured her quince in the society pages, as well as a letter she wrote about her experience. As Castro was taking power, her mother whisked the photo album and film footage to a safe place overseas.
“Years will go by,” Castroverde wrote in her album, “but the memorable night of my quince birthday will forever remain deep in my heart.”
Note to readers: Daniel Shoer Roth will appear at the MiamiHerald/elNuevoHerald’s Cuba Nostalgia exhibit on Sunday from 2 p.m. until the fair’s closure.