The Story of Cuba's Unfortunate Boot
The first commercial flight between the U.S. and Cuba in over 50 years took off this week from Ft. Lauderdale. A cause for celebration, for sure. It landed, not in the island's famed capital Havana, but in Santa Clara, the unofficial home to the revolutionaries who have defined the nation since 1959.
In the final days of December 1958, Che Guevara, Camillo Cienfugos, and other revolutionary forces took the historic city in the Battle of Santa Clara. Within hours, on January 1, 1959, Cuba’s embattled dictator, Fulgencio Batista, fled to the Dominican Republic, leaving Fidel Castro’s forces in power to start the new year. One of the oldest university towns in Cuba, Santa Clara, now often known as the ‘City of Heroic Guerrillas’ or more precisely, the 'City of Che,' has long had a rich cultural and ideological history.
Visitors on this week's first flight surely took in the Che Guevara Mausoleum and Memorial, as well as the Tren Blindado, the monument to Che’s forces, who attacked and derailed an armored train that was bound for Havana stocked with reinforcements for Batista. And they must have had a walk through the city’s main square, Parque Vidal, where one can still see rebel-inflicted bullet holes in the upper floors of the Santa Clara Libre Hotel.
Yet, with all of this cultural and revolutionary imagery, a conspicuous statue at the northern end of Parque Vidal has become an oddly recognizable symbol of the city. El Nino De La Bota, or The Boy with the Boot, is endearing and curious, easily engaging anyone wandering this bustling city square. Standing, dignified and almost expressionless, he holds one puncture-filled boot high in the air, as water gracefully cascades out of it’s sole.
Interestingly, the fountain arrived to Santa Clara in 1927 from New York City, and is one of many 'Unfortunate Boot' statues throughout the United States, and the world. This compelling young boy can be found in Stockholm, Toronto, Caracas, New Orleans, El Paso, and Hershey, PA, to name just a few. My favorite of the 'Unfortunate Boot' sightings stands proudly in Houlton, Maine, the northernmost terminus of the east coast's largest highway, Interstate-95.
The company that specialized in casting these 'boys' was the JL Mott Company, started by Jordan Lawrence Mott, whose father, Jacob, gave us Manhattan's Mott Street and the neighborhood of Mott Haven in the Bronx, where the company began. Known for the finest quality iron & porcelain products like sinks, bathtubs, stoves, and yard ornamentations, JL Mott was commissioned to provide the centerpiece fountain for 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. (Marcel Duchamp even used a Mott urinal, selecting it from their high-end 5th Avenue showroom, as what has been called the first example of readymade art, when his work, 'Fountain,' was presented in 1917.)
So, why was The Boy such a popular choice for the fountains of a century ago? What meaning does he hold for the many towns who have embraced him?
Some legends depict him as a fireman in the making, a helpful young boy who sought to do anything he could to join the 'bucket brigade,' attempting to use his boot to extinguish fires when there weren't enough buckets to go around. Other stories trace his roots back to Europe, sometimes revealing him to be a real life 19th Century newsboy in Italy or Germany.
Although the meaning of The Boy is still far from clear in Cuba, they seem to officially subscribe to the most commonly held tale throughout the States: that he was a Civil War drummer boy who delivered water to wounded soldiers on the battlefield. To most Cubans, the American Civil War likely holds little significance. But, one could see how universal ideologies, like freedom and justice, could be extracted from the messages of the Union cause, and it makes one consider how much American influence there may have been on the Cuba of the 1920s. After all, these were high times in Cuba, with sugar exports bringing wealth to the Cuban elite, and prohibition in America bringing mobsters, politicians, and nightlife to the island, America's so-called playground.
It is hard to say what the first residents of Santa Clara thought about their 'Unfortunate Boot' but we do know that local official, Colonel Francisco Lopez Leiva, chose the boot from a JL Mott catalogue and that it was well received when it was installed. We also know that Lopez was an outspoken advocate for the recently installed aqueduct, finally bringing much needed clean water to Santa Clara. Like many famed fountains, this boy simply could have been a celebration newly found fresh water.
I like to think that the people of Santa Clara love The Boy with the Boot because he's an everyman, with an open ended story. He represents so many universal truths. He conveys hardship, perseverance, and pride. He's innocent and whimsical, not knowing what the future holds, but ready to step forward, whether it be with one boot or two.
A local newspaper in Santa Clara recently said The Boy was a "symbol of love and respect felt by inhabitants," representative of "cultural values, traditions, and history." Sometimes it can be hard to decipher the specifics of values & traditions but it feels comforting to know that town's throughout the world all look to the boy for their own universal truths. Cuba isn't so disconnected from the rest of us after all.