Today a national monument, the cemetery was laid out between 1871 and 1886 in 16 rectangular blocks, like a Roman military camp, divided by social status. Nobles competed to build the most elaborate tombs, with social standing dictating the size and location of plots.
Famous criollo patricians, colonial aristocrats, and war heroes such as Máximo Gómez are buried here alongside noted intellectuals and politicians. The list goes on and on: José Raúl Capablanca, the world chess champion 1921-1927 (his tomb is guarded by a marble queen chess piece); Alejo Carpentier, Cuba’s most revered contemporary novelist; Celia Sánchez, Haydee Santamaría, and a plethora of other revolutionaries killed for the cause, and even some of the Revolution’s enemies. The Galería Tobias is one of several underground galleries; this one is 100 meters long and contains 256 niches containing human remains.
The major tombs line Avenida Cristóbal Colón, the main avenue, which leads south from the gate to an ocher-colored, octagonal neo-Byzantine church, the Capilla Central, containing a fresco of the Last Judgment.
The most visited grave is the flower-bedecked tomb of Amelia Goyri de Hoz, revered as La Milagrosa (The Miraculous One, Calles 3 y F) and to whom the superstitious ascribe miraculous healings. According to legend, she died during childbirth in 1901 and was buried with her stillborn child at her feet. When her sarcophagus was later opened, the baby was supposedly cradled in her arms. Ever since, believers have paid homage by knocking three times on the tombstone with one of its brass rings, before touching the tomb and requesting a favor (one must not turn one’s back on the tomb when departing). Many childless women pray here in hopes of a pregnancy.
The Chinese built their own cemetery immediately southwest of Cementerio Colón, on the west side of Avenida 26 (e/ 28 y 33, tel. 07/831-1645, daily 8am-4pm, free). Beyond the circular gateway, traditional lions stand guard over burial chapels with upward-curving roofs.
Galería 23 y 12
The northwest corner of Calles 23 and 12, one block north of Cementerio Colón, marks the spot where, on April 16, 1961, Castro announced (on the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion) that Cuba was henceforth socialist. The anniversary of the declaration of socialism is marked each April 16. A bronze basrelief shows Fidel surrounded by soldiers, rifles held aloft. It honors citizens killed in the U.S.-sponsored strike on the airfield at Marianao that was a prelude to the invasion. It repeats his words:
“This is the socialist and democratic revolution of the humble, with the humble, for the humble.”
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Cuba.