(Chicago) The Fraser Fir isn't native to Cuba, and neither is the Scottish Pine. The evergreen trees we're used to are hard to find in the tropics. But for decades, Habaneros found a way to get their hands on real North American Christmas trees - thanks in large part to my great-grandfather, Thomas D. Crews.
I'm not talking about my maternal great-grandfather (the man behind my famous frijoles negros and the face of Old Havana Foods). This is the one-of-a-kind story of my paternal great-grandpa, who was born and raised in Georgia.
As an American expatriate living in Havana, Crews was the first to import evergreens from the United States, when Christmas trees became fashionable in Cuba during the 1940's. Relatives say he'd harvest evergreens from the upper Midwest and bring them down by railroad car to ship across to Havana.
But exactly how he came to live in Cuba is a story all by itself. And it's an interesting piece of history. Born in Stockton, Georgia, Thomas D. Crews had a sense of adventure. Which probably helps explain how his life took a dramatic turn in 1898. He met a charming young Cuban woman in Jacksonville, Florida, just before the start of the Spanish-American war. Her name was Sophia Carrera. Carrera was in Florida with mother and brother, a prominent doctor who treated Cuban insurrectionists (drawing the wrath of the Spanish army). Fearing for his safety, the family found temporary refuge in Florida.
That's when my great-grandfather met Carrera and fell in love, courting the young woman during her stay in the U.S. It wasn't long before he made the decision to follow her back to the island.
But first, in an impressive display of devotion, my great-grandfather enlisted in the U.S. Army to help win Cuba's freedom from Spain. He served as a military telegraph operator, stationed mostly in Puerto Rico, until the war was over. Afterwards, Crews landed in Cuba to marry his fiancé and begin a new life.
Thomas D. Crews and Sophia Carrera were soon married and had three children (one of them, my paternal grandfather, Joseph Crews). He fathered my Cuban-born dad, Julio Crews, a talented abstract painter (see JulioCrews.com) who now lives in Houston, Texas.
And that brings me to the end of the story. Here in Chicago, people always ask me about my last name. Knowing that I'm fluent in Spanish and of Latino descent, they wonder why I don't spell my last name, "Cruz?" Some wonder if my family anglicized our last name after emigrating to the United States in 1961.
For those demanding to know the true story, I tell them about my fearless "red-neck" great-grandfather from Georgia, who fell in love with a Cuban woman and followed his heart to Havana.
And along the way, he earned a curious foot note to history, as the man who helped bring the Christmas tree to Cuba.