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Preamble to the Legend of the White Vulture
By Margarita Cabrera Zaldivar


Legend—a marvelous word for stories that express tradition idealized and made romantic through the fog of memory. A word that brings alive in the present the unforgettable accounts of yesteryear as it recounts the history of a people . . .

Legend—tradition that becomes rooted in you because it is part of the common soul. You, legend, you pick up the heartbeat of the community and use it to transmit history back to them through fantasy. You embellish history by clothing it with fictional accoutrements in order to make it resonate in the people's soul. You beautify the everyday events of life's past, surrounding them with a brilliant halo of wonder. You praise the heroes and become a fountain of inspiration for poets. You, at the end, become a rich inheritance of fertile doctrine.

Every community has it legends. When they are collected and extolled by the pens of great writers, they come to occupy a place of honor in the literature of the their people. This is the case of the beautiful Camagüeyan legend The White Vulture. This version is the popular telling that touched the heart of nineteenth century society in Puerto Príncipe, as Camaguey was called then. It was written by the great Spanish poet Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, [a native of Camagüey.]


¡Leyenda! vocablo maravilloso que expresas tradición, pero tradición bella e idealizada por la niebla del recuerdo, que haces vivir en el presente los inolvidables relatos del ayer al hablarnos de los sucesos pasados de un pueblo . . .

¡Leyenda! tradición que llevas arraigada en si como parte de tu ser el alma popular; tú recoges las palpitaciones de los pueblos y las trasmites alteradas por la fantasía; tú suples a la historia vistiendo con el ropaje de lo novelesco los acontecimientos, que hacen vibrar el alma del pueblo; tú embelleces los sucesos cotidianos dé la vida rodeándolos con la deslumbrante aureola de lo maravilloso. Tú enalteces a los héroes y eres fuente de inspiración de los poetas; tú, en fin, eres rico caudal de enseñanzas fecundas.

Cada pueblo tiene sus leyendas. Cuando ellas son recogidas y enaltecidas por las plumas de los grandes escritores, pasan a ocupar un puesto de honor en la Literatura de ese pueblo. Tal es el caso de la bella leyenda camagueyana El Aura Blanca, inspirada en un acontecimiento popular. que conmovió a 1a sociedad principeña en el siglo pasado y que por estar ya escrita por la gran poetisa Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda transcribimos a continuación.

This is what the Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, has to say about Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda:


GERTRUDIS GÓMEZ DE AVELLANEDA. 1814-73, Spanish poet, b. Cuba. She went to Spain in 1836. Her passionate and poignant verses reflecting an unhappy love affair won her a high place among Spanish romantic poets. She also wrote problem novels, such as the antislavery El Mulato Sab (1841), and dramas on historical and religious subjects, including Alfonso Munio (1844), Saúl (1849), and Baltasar (1858).


Camagüey is known as the City of Legends, and The White Vulture is arguably its most famous legend. This native son would like to retell this story to his children and others of the Cuban Diaspora that are no longer fluent in the native tongue. My translation of de Avellaneda's story follows. The preamble translated above was published in 1944 in Camagüey by her teacher Dr. Angela Pérez de la Lama in the El Camagüey Legendario collection.

The Camagüey of Avellaneda's time, the early nineteenth century, was a significant city located at the confluence of the Tínima and Hatibonico rivers in the central plains of Cuba, in the province of the same name. Founded in 1514 as Puerto Príncipe, it was the center of commerce for number of sugar plantations and cattle ranches. Honey and beeswax as well as tobacco were also cultivated and exported. The Royal Supreme Court of the Spanish Antilles, La Real Audiencia, was moved in 1800 to Camagüey, not Havana, because it was safer from sacking by pirates and the English there.

The White Vulture
(El Aura Blanca)
By Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda
Translated by José J. Prats


In the land, loved by me, irrigated by the shady Tínima river with its crystal-clear sounds, in those fertile plains that define the center of the Queen of the Antilles, and where the noble city of Puerto Príncipe is situated, where heaven was pleased to make my homeland, there lived in those days a venerable priest of the Franciscan Order known to all as Father Valencia due to the fact that he had been born on the banks of the Turia river [in Valencia, Spain.]

That man possessed the affection of all in the land, and no one, truthfully, was more fair. In the many years he had been there, there never passed, without a doubt, a day in which he failed to scatter, by the fist-full, his assistance and blessings among the residents.

If there was a disturbance of domestic peace and harmony in whatever family, there appeared —as if he had been brought by the hand of God himself— the honorable Padre Valencia with his learned counsel, fatherly admonitions and affectionate requests spoken in that voice full of love. Tranquility and harmony returned without delay.

If opposing interests or contrary opinions raised bitter enmity between some neighbors, threatening imminent animosity and revenge, the peaceable Father Valencia presented himself as mediator in the dispute. As if by magic, the powerful influence of his evangelical spirit, reconciling and loving, soon controlled the passionate anger and found the middle ground.

If scandalous disturbances caused by some public sin aroused god-fearing consciences to the point of endangering the well being of the community, Father Valencia quickly found gentle and ingenious means to communicate with the person causing the damage. Before too much time passed, the contact with that pure existence that was Father Valencia converted licentiousness into exercises of austere penitence.

If some irredeemable loss or severe misfortune occurred to noble or commoner, to rich or poor, Father Valencia never tarried to go and mix his tears with theirs. And the balm of his consoling words effectively healed the cruel wounds in their hearts.

In a word, that man and humble friar had become the manifest providence of all the people. No anguish, public or private, went without the looking for and the finding of resolution; or at the very least the lessening of the pain through the immense tenderness of his Christian charity.

There existed, however, a terrible plague whose very sad spectacle was in plain view with every footstep taken. Something that this simple man could not himself remedy.

Lepers loitered on the streets, their persons corrupted with pestilent ulcers. They asked, for the love of God, for alms. But no person, no matter how merciful they were, could tender it without looking away from the repugnant appearance. Those wretched beings, a danger to the public health, multiplied from day to day even though they were perishing in great numbers, piling up in filthy ignored hovels. Medical science could not provide any relief, and their religion—the same as yours or mine—did not, even during their last moments, provide any spiritual assistance.

[Leprosy was an incurable contagious disease. The only recourse was to isolate the sufferers and make their existence as comfortable as possible. A cure for leprosy was not discovered until the 1900's.]

Only Father Valencia would find and frequent those shelters of misery, those focal points of infection. He made his pleasure the arduous process of aiding of the disgustingly ill. But he fully understood that his own selflessness was not sufficient to provide all of the help and comfort needed by so many.

This discouraging truth dispirited him to no end, until he awoke one day suddenly illuminated with divine inspiration. He threw a beggar's bag over his shoulder and set out crisscrossing the city going door-to-door asking for small coins towards the founding of a great hospital for the incurable.

Anyone would laugh at the likelihood of such a preposterous undertaking. Imagine collecting sufficient funds to construct, set up, and endow an asylum of such importance simply by asking for charity on the streets; and in a city where there were but a few substantial estates? His hope was truthfully absurd when seen in the light of common sense. But Father Valencia's faith made it feasible, and eventually, what he envisioned came to pass.

Some years were sufficient to raise from cement a vast and handsome building, which in his memory blessed and will eternally bless that ancient city in Camagüey. In it were gathered, to general applause, hundreds of the sick of both sexes. They found themselves in that secluded and healthy refuge, which was managed directly by the honorable founder. It had every comfort and allowed every pleasure compatible with their circumstances.

Every day the heavenly blessings that constantly accompanied the admirable Franciscan friar continued to rain on that model hospital while he remained in charge, and it made Puerto Príncipe proud. But that inevitable moment arrived when the priest was called from his unfortunate lepers to happier regions where the reward for his heroic virtues awaited him. Not much time passed until his passing was painfully felt. Despite the commitments of all those good and generous inhabitants of the country, the decline of that essential institution could not be slowed. The problem was especially felt in the areas where elephantiasis and similar infirmities had had decades to frighteningly propagate.

But the gravest difficulties really started in the year when, due to fateful circumstances that won't be detailed here, there occurred shortages and great poverty in the central province of the island of Cuba. You would see bands of starving beggars on the streets, and this was requiring more and more contributions from the classes with means, who themselves were affected by the crisis that was crossing the country. They could barely cope with the incessant requests for charity to calm the hunger of the indigent multitude, and as you could guess, the leper's asylum regrettably fell into profound penury.

Used to the abundance and gifts that their benevolent founder had given them, the recipients hurt with the deprivations that were being imposed on them. The deprivations increased day by day until they could see the day where there would be no choice but to abandon the hospital under whose roof they were awaiting the end of their miserable existence. In terrible anguish, they gathered in tears around the modest tomb which held the ashes of their unforgettable benefactor and earnestly invoked his blessed spirit in heaven —there being no doubt as to his current residence— to help them.

The difficulties, nevertheless, grew. The hospital's administration had run out of resources despite their zeal and intelligence. They knew of no means left to totally prevent the failure to sustain the numerous patients. The bitterness of their patient's lot increased, and their complaints and lamentations increased with it.

One morning came when, nearing twelve, none of the poor lepers had been able to break their fast. Sitting in the grass in what was left of the gardens of the establishment, they remembered with tears those old times when musical flocks of brightly—colored tropical birds came every morning to trees and bushes in their garden to gather the abundant leftovers from their breakfast. Oh! —they said— now the only birds that come are carnivorous vultures waiting to glut on our cadavers.

I remember that these birds filled me with superstitious dread when I was a girl [says the author]. And, in fact, the residents could see multitudes of these foul birds in funeral colors, crossing and re-crossing the garden with slow and caution passes.

The vulture, also known as the great Cuban condor, is without doubt dear readers, as many of you know, one of the rare exceptions among the many handsome families of indigenous birds. Their heads are of a vivid red, with crusty growths covered with scabby calcifications. Their curved beak and their sharp claws, stained the color of blood, emit, like the rest of their body, the fetidness of putrid flesh, which is their habitual nourishment. Their wings are a dull greenish black color and, as they beat the air, create a sinister rustle that seems to mark a slow funereal beat.

What happened on this day we are discussing, however, is that while the residents of the hospital contemplated with disgust that dismal cortege that accompanied their solitude and made it all the sadder; there suddenly appeared within the dark troop, an unknown bird the same size and form as the vultures, but contrasting from them in an astonishing way. The head was the white of the swan. The feet and beak were the pink of the rose. In addition it had, instead of the taciturn eyes of the breed from which it took its form, the sweet and melancholy eyes of the ringdove.

Surprised by the sight of such a novel and unexpected apparition, the lepers got closer to it, full of curiosity. And —strangely!— the flock of black vultures took off, like they were scared; but the white vulture, rather than fleeing, allowed itself to be gently taken. And it even appeared to yearn, with the tender fluttering of its wings, the touch of the ulcerated hands that imprisoned it.

The next day the touching news was all over Puerto Príncipe. It was reported that the soul of Father Valencia, repeatedly invoked through the anguish of his poor children the lepers, had descended to them in the form of an extraordinary bird that everyone was calling the white vulture.

The novelty of this development awoke the population's interest, and a public viewing was arranged, with an entrance charge. The number of people that attended was such that in a few days a considerable sum was collected, sufficient to cover the urgent needs of the St. Lazarus Hospital.

But this is not the end of the story. The white vulture, in a golden cage, was taken on tour through many towns on the island, eliciting animated curiosity from all. It awoke voluntary contributions in favor of the establishment, and slowly, surely and happily, all of the residents' problems were resolved and they entered into a renewed period of prosperity and comfort.

According to common belief, in this manner the charitable founder conveyed, in spite of his death, continuing support for his charges. They in turn, celebrated in the appearance of the white vulture a visible miracle that proved the heavenly sanctity of that benevolent soul.

What came of that miraculous bird at the end if its mission? No one has been able to tell me with certainty, even though I have repeatedly inquired. But if these untidy pages are some day read by my beloved countrymen, not one of them will deny my testimony as to what really occurred. Among my legends, I wish to consign both a respectful homage to the venerable religious man who many times blessed my first years on this earth, as well as an indelible memorial to the handsome country in which my crib was rocked.


En el suelo, para mí querido, que riega el umbroso Tínima con sus cristales sonoros; en aquellas fértiles llanuras que señalan el centro de la Antilla reina, y en la que se asienta la noble ciudad de Puerto Príncipe, que plugo al cielo destinarme por patria, vivía en los ya remotos tiempos de mi infancia un venerable religioso de la orden de San Francisco, a quien el vulgo llamaba comúnmente Padre Valencia por la circunstancia de saberse había nacido a las orillas del Turia.

Gozaba aquel varón de general cariño en el país, y nada, a la verdad, era más justo; pues en los muchos años que había pasado en él, no hubo, sin duda, un día siquiera en que no derramase a manos llenas sus servicios y bendiciones entre sus moradores.

Si se alteraban en alguna familia la paz y concordia doméstica, allí aparecía, como llevado por la mano de Dios, el respetado Padre Valencia, y los sabios consejos, las paternales exhortaciones, las afectuosas súplicas pronunciadas por aquella voz llena de dulzura, restablecían sin tardanza la tranquilidad y la armonía.

Si opuestos intereses o encontradas opiniones suscitaban enemistades sangrientas entre algunos vecinos, amagando rencores y venganzas, el pacífico Padre Valencia se presentaba al punto como mediador en la contienda, y la poderosa influencia de aquel espíritu evangélico, conciliador y amoroso, dominaba, como por encanto, las iracundas pasiones, y hacía encontrar medios de transacción y avenencia.

Si escandalosos desórdenes de algún pecado público sublevaban las conciencias timoratas, poniendo acaso en peligro la conservación de las buenas costumbres, el Padre Valencia hallaba pronto delicados e ingeniosos medios de ponerse en amistosa comunicación con el causante del daño, y jamás pasaba mucho tiempo sin que, al contacto de aquella vida purísima, se viese trocado el libertinaje en ejercicio de austera penitencia.

Si ocurría en nobles o plebeyos, en ricos o pobres, alguna pérdida irremediable, algún infortunio acerbo, nunca dilataba el padre Valencia el ir a mezclar sus lágrimas con las que derramaban los pacientes, y el bálsamo de sus palabras consoladoras cicatrizaban eficazmente las heridas crueles del corazón.

En una palabra, aquel hombre y humilde fraile había llegado a ser la visible providencia de todo el pueblo, donde ningún conflicto, público o privado, dejaba de buscar y de encontrar remedio, o alivio por lo menos, en la inmensa ternura de su caridad cristiana.

Existía empero, una plaga terrible, cuyo tristísimo espectáculo se presentaba a cada paso a su vista, sin que alcanzase el santo varón medios de remediarla.

Los leprosos vagaban por las calles, cuyo ambiente corrompían con la pestilencia de sus llagas, pidiendo por amor a Dios una limosna, que ni aun las personas más piadosas podían tenderles sin apartar sus ojos del repugnante aspecto. Aquellos infelices seres, peligrosos para la salud pública, se multiplicaban de día en día a pesar de perecer en gran número hacinados en inmundos e ignorados tugurios, a los que la ciencia médica no llegaba nunca para proporcionarles algún alivio, y ni aun la misma religión acudía siempre para ofrecerles, en sus últimos momentos, auxilios espirituales.




Solo el padre Valencia descubría y frecuentaba tales receptáculos de miseria, tales focos de infección, haciendo sus delicias de la difícil asistencia de enfermos tan asquerosos; pero bien comprendía que no bastaba toda su abnegación personal para asegurarles los recursos y consuelos de que tanto necesitaban.

Afligíale no poco esta desalentadora idea, hasta que amaneció un día en el cual, iluminado de súbito por la divina inspiración, se echó a los hombros una jaba de pordiosero y comenzó a recorrer la ciudad pidiendo de puerta en puerta una pequeña moneda para la fundación de un grande hospital de lazarinos.

Cualquiera podría reírse de empresa tan descabellada en apariencia: ¿cómo imaginar posible la reunión de fondos suficientes para construir, establecer y conservar un asilo de tal importancia, con el solo recurso de la cuestación pública, en una ciudad donde son poco numerosos los pingües caudales? La esperanza era verdaderamente absurda según las probabilidades del juicio humano; pero para la fe del padre Valencia se presentó realizable, y se realizó en efecto.

Algunos años le bastaron para levantar desde el cimiento vasto y hermoso edificio que hace y hará eternamente bendecir su memoria a la ciudad del antiguo Camagüey, y en el cual fueron acogidos, con general aplauso, centenares de enfermos de ambos sexos que hallaron en aquel aislado y saludable albergue, bajo la inmediata dirección del digno fundador, todas las comodidades y aun todos los goces compatibles con su situación.

Las bendiciones del cielo que acompañaban constantemente al admirable franciscano, hicieron prosperar cada día más, mientras él estuvo a su frente, aquel hospital modelo del que se enorgullecía Puerto Príncipe; pero llegó al cabo el inevitable momento de ser llamado el padre de los míseros leprosos a las regiones felices, donde le aguardaba el premio de sus heroicas virtudes y no pasó mucho tiempo sin que se sintiese dolorosamente su falta, a pesar del empeño con que todos los buenos y generosos vecinos del país procuraron impedir la decadencia de aquella institución necesaria, más que en ninguna parte, en un suelo donde la elefancia y sus semejantes han tenido épocas de propagación espantosa.

Pero cuando verdaderamente empezaron las graves dificultades fue al llegar el año en que, por concurso fatal de circunstancias que no es del caso detallar, hubo grandísima escasez y carestía en toda la provincia central de la Isla de Cuba. Viéronse entonces bandadas famélicas de mendigos popular por las calles, poniendo en contribución indispensable a las clases acomodadas, que, afectadas también por la crisis que atravesaba el país, apenas podían con los incesantes recursos de la limosna aplacar el hambre de la indigente muchedumbre, y, como puede adivinarse, el asilo de los leprosos se resintió profundamente del estado general de penuria.

Habituados a la abundancia y al regalo que había sabido proporcionarles el próvido fundador, sobrellevaban mal los acogidos a tantas privaciones como entonces fue preciso imponerles, y que iban aumentándose de día en día hasta el punto de hacerles temer verse en la triste necesidad de abandonar el techo hospitalario bajo el cual habían esperado terminar descansadamente su desgraciada existencia. En tan terrible conflicto, acudían llorosos al modesto sepulcro que guardaba entre ellos las cenizas de su inolvidable bienhechor, invocando fervorosamente a su bienaventurado espíritu para que los socorriese desde el cielo donde no dudaban habitase.

Crecían, sin embargo, los apuros; la administración del hospital había agotado todos los recursos de su celo y de su inteligencia y no sabía ya de qué medios valerse para que no faltase totalmente el sustento a los numerosos enfermos, cuyas quejas y lamentaciones acrecentaban las amarguras de sus ánimos en medio de tan insuperables dificultades.

Hubo una mañana en que, cerca de las doce, aún no habían podido desayunarse los pobres lazarinos, quienes, echados tristemente sobre la yerba que crecía en el ya arrasado huerto del establecimiento, recordaban con lágrimas aquellos tiempos pasados en que tropas canoras de los vistosos pájaros tropicales venían cada mañana a sus plantas para recoger las abundantes sobras del pan de su desayuno. ¡Ay! —decían— ahora no acuden sino carnívoras auras como esperando nuestros cadáveres para saciarse con ellos.

Y, en efecto, veíanse recorriendo el huerto, con lentos y con cautelosos pasos multitud de aquellas aves pestíferas, de fúnebre color, que recuerdo me causaban, cuando niña, pavura supersticiosa.

El aura, o gran buitre cubano, es indudablemente, queridos lectores, como acaso lo sabréis, una de las raras excepciones que se conocen entre las variadas familias de hermosas aves indígenas. Su cabeza, de un rojo amoratado, presenta excrecencias costrosas por las cuales ha merecido se le designe con la calificación de tiñosa; su corvo pico y sus afiladas garras, teñidas de color sanguinolento, exhalan como todo su cuerpo la fetidez de las carnes corrompidas, que son su habitual pasto; y sus alas de un color negro verdoso y deslustrado, forman al batir el aire, cierto rumor siniestro que parece marcar un compás fúnebre.

Sucedió, empero, que el día a que nos referimos, y mientras los acogidos del hospital contemplaban con disgusto aquel lúgubre cortejo, que los acompañaba en su soledad, como para hacérsela más triste, apareció de repente entre la obscura bandada, una ave desconocida del mismo tamaño y de la misma forma que las auras, pero contrastando con ellas de una manera asombrosa. Blanca cual el cisne, ostentaba en su cabeza, como en sus pies y en su pico, el color esmaltado de la rosa, teniendo, además, en vez de los huraños ojos de la familia a que parecía pertenecer por su figura, los dulces y melancólicos de la paloma torcaz.

Sorprendidos los leprosos a vista de tan nueva y súbita aparición, se acercaron a ella llenos de curiosidad, y ¡cosa rara! la tropa de negras auras levantó al punto el vuelo, como espantada; pero el aura blanca, lejos de huir, se dejó coger mansamente, y aún pareció querer acariciar con su suave aleteo, las llagadas manos que la aprisionaban.

Al día siguiente corría por Puerto Príncipe el conmovedor relato. Decíase que el alma del padre Valencia, tantas veces invocado en medio de crecientes angustias por sus pobres hijos los lazarinos, había bajado a ellos en forma de un ave extraordinaria a la que todos convenían en llamar aura blanca.

La novedad del suceso despertó de tal manera el interés general, que hubo de hacerse la exhibición pública del ave, poniendo precio a la entrada; fue tan grande la afluencia de gente, que en pocos días se recaudó considerable suma, suficiente para subvertir a las urgentes necesidades del hospital de San Lázaro.

Pero no quedó en esto. El aura blanca, paseada en una jaula dorada por muchos de los pueblos de la isla, y excitando en todos curiosidad vivísima, los puso en contribución voluntaria a favor del establecimiento, proporcionándole salir al cabo felizmente de todos sus apuros y entrar en un nuevo período de prosperidad y holgura.

De este modo, según la vulgar creencia, el caritativo fundador proveyó, aún después de muerto, al sostenimiento de sus acogidos, quienes celebraron en la aparición del aura blanca visible milagro, comprobador de la santidad y eterna bienaventuranza de aquella alma bienhechora.

¿Qué se hizo el ave milagrosa terminada su misión? Nadie ha podido decírmelo con certeza, por más que he procurado indagarlo; pero si estas desaliñadas páginas son algún día leídas por mis amados compatriotas, ninguno de ellos negará su testimonio a la verdad del hecho, que he querido consignar entre mis leyendas como homenaje de respeto a la memoria del venerable religioso que tantas veces me bendijo en mis primeros años, y como recuerdo indeleble del hermoso país en que se meció mi cuna.

Margarita Cabrera completes her reprint of Avellaneda's legend with the following paragraph.

"What came of that miraculous bird," asked Avellaneda? It continued to be exhibited throughout the island —we can add— and was raffled off, passing through many hands until the learned naturalist from Matanzas, Don Francisco Ximeno sold it to the Matanzas Provincial Institute in 1884. Since that time it can be found at the Museum of Natural History of said city.


¿Qué se hizo el ave milagrosa, pregunta la Avellaneda? Fue exhibida por la Isla, podemos añadir nosotros, y luego rifada, pasando por diversas manos de afortunados propietarios basta que el sabio naturalista matancero Don Francisco Ximeno la vendió al Instituto Provincial de Matanzas en el año, 1884; desde entonces se conserva en el Museo de Historia Natural de dicho Centro.

Once leprosy, elephantiasis and similar diseases were controlled and cured in the 1940's and 50's, Father Valencia's St. Lazarus Hospital needed a new purpose. It was converted into an old folks home. It remains standing to this day, in use for a charitable purpose its founder would no doubt approve.