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How I Discovered an Ancestor Who Fought For Cuba's Freedom

How I Discovered That I Have a Prominent Ancestor Who Fought For Cuban Freedom

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Image Source: Lizet Rodriguez

Li with her grandfather Ernesto.

How far back can you trace your roots? Most people only know about their great-grandparents, and that's pretty much it. I, too, only knew my ancestry as far back as two generations, but recently, I made an incredible discovery: I'm related to a prominent individual who not only dedicated his life to fighting for Cuba's freedom from Spain during the end of the 19th to the early 20th centuries, but he was also friends with the poet-philosopher José Martí, a national hero for the vital role he played in liberating Cuba.

My exciting family discovery came one afternoon while I was creating my family tree. I had recently moved to Miami from Santo Domingo, and to celebrate my arrival, my family organized a reunion. You may be wondering why I decided to grab a notebook and start writing down names, dates, and anecdotes instead of enjoying the conversations, the hugs, and the cafecito, but it felt urgent and necessary to recover the lost time and assemble our family history book.

It was the first time in several years I had seen my whole family together. Somehow, my curiosity gave way to a steady stream of questions that I'd been delayed from asking for years while I sat in the middle of both my maternal grandparents, sharing memories and laughs. I didn't want to take that time for granted, so I lobbed a ton of questions their way and scribbled down every detail in my notebook.

It was official: I started my family tree. At some point, I asked my grandpa Ernesto, "How far back can you trace your ancestors?" He immediately replied: "Until my great-great-grandfather Manuel Deulofeu Leonard."

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Image Source: Javier Valdivia

Li doing research at home.

Several years back, in the Dominican Republic, grandpa Ernesto appeared at my door with an old newspaper clipping, which profiled María Deulofeu Cuervo, a Cuban journalist and pioneer feminist. "She was my great-grandmother," he said.

Manuel Deulofeu, who was María's father, had a rich history as well. According to my grandpa, he became friends with José Martí while residing in Key West, FL.

Surprised and excited by the idea that one of my relatives rubbed shoulders with one of Cuba's leading heroes and best-known intellectuals inspired frantic online research. I also got a DNA test — I mostly descend from Europe — but the platform allows me to store and continually expand my findings.

In further research, I found out that Manuel Deulofeu Leonard was born in Havana sometime between 1830 and 1840. At some point in his life, he spoke out against the Spanish government. Marked for execution, in 1886, he fled the country with his wife, Bonifacia Cuervo, and their daughter to settle in Key West. Once established in the Florida Keys, he turned his home into a safe refuge for compatriots who also had to flee their native land. He supplied medicine, clothes, food, and even weapons for future expeditions. He actively cultivated a good samaritan reputation and slowly became a well-known figure in the community and got involved in politics.

He was a rebel, a revolutionary, and ultimately an immigrant, like myself. I was excited to learn that we also share a passion for writing. He published three books — I found one of them online — where he recounted the historical events he experienced firsthand in Key West and Tampa. José Martí, of course, figured centrally in his work.

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Image Source: Li Misol

Screenshot of Li's family tree.

Deulofeu dedicated many pages to Martí's bold efforts to advance Cuba's freedom. Martí also lavished praise on Deulofeu in an article titled "In the Workshops" ("En los Talleres"), which was published in Patria Newspaper on May 7, 1892. "Deulofeu spoke full of Creole fire, with his soul rich in goodness," Martí wrote.

Deulofeu was also quite religious. In consulting The Encyclopedia of World Methodism, I discovered that my ancestor was "one of the first national preachers of the Methodist Church in Cuba." Apparently, Cuban pastor Enrique B. Someillan converted Deulofeu to Methodism. Eventually, he earned a license to preach and was ordained by Bishop W.W. Duncan in Key West. He was assigned to congregations in Tampa and Cuba.

After the war, Deulofeu was appointed to a church in Cuba's Cienfuegos and later San Juan de Los Yeras, where he fell ill with cancer. "His illness was a continual testimony to his faith, as he had his bed placed by a window where he gave out tracts and quietly preached to the passers-by who would gather around his window," according to an original news clip I found in The Encyclopedia of World Methodism. He died in 1911.

Discovering these rich historical details about Manuel Deulofeu's life inspires great pride in my family, especially for my grandfather Ernesto. Learning about our familial past gives us resilience for the future. If he achieved all that in a challenging time, in a foreign country, coming from very humble origins, and with everything against him, can't we manifest our loftiest goals and dreams?

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Image Source: Javier Valdivia

Li and historian Tom Hambright at the Key West Library.

To learn more about Deulofeu, I recently visited Key West — and the experience was transformative. On Angela Street, where he's believed to have once lived, I took a picture with my son. We also went hunting for other meaningful historical sites. Along the way, we visited the Key West Branch of the Monroe County Library, where I found relevant books and records to build on my discoveries.

During my time there, I couldn't help marveling that I was actually walking in my ancestor's tracks, the place he loved, where he suffered, fathered children, adopted a new faith, helped others, and felt all the wonderful mess of emotions that I feel.

For me, my ancestry is a map — a route back to my identity, to the love I feel for my country of origin, a place I'll always belong.

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