CHC presents Emilia, a documentary about the woman who sewed the first Cuban flag

By Barbara Gutierrez

CHC presents Emilia, a documentary about the woman who sewed the first Cuban flag

By Barbara Gutierrez
The film launches the 2019 film series for the UM Libraries Cuban Heritage Collection.

Her story is seldom told. Yet in the annals of Cuban history, she is seen both as an activist and the island’s own Betsy Ross.

Emilia Teurbe Tolón is credited with embroidering the first Cuban flag in 1850. She was also the first woman to be deported from the island because of her affiliation to the Cuban struggle against Spanish rule.

“She was a woman who was ahead of her time,” said Luis Perez Tolón, the film’s producer and director, who is one of her descendants.

Her unique story is the topic of a documentary that will launch the 2019 film series by UM Libraries Cuban Heritage Collection (CHC) in a special screening at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 17, 2019 at the Shalala Student Center.  

The screening will be followed by a conversation between Perez Tolón and Lillian Manzor, UM associate professor and chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures.

CHC director Elizabeth “Liz” Cerejido said the film is a vivid example of the Collection’s curated approach to programming, as the film’s focus on the central role women have played throughout Cuba’s history helps contextualize the gender-related themes explored in the CHC’s current exhibition about representations of women in the artists’ book collection.

“With Emilia, we launch our first film series that will include documentaries that focus on a range of issues and from an interdisciplinary perspective pertinent to Cuba and Cuban diasporic studies,” she said. 

Emilia’s story is told by Cuban-born Perez Tolón, who narrates the video. For him Emilia is a personal journey, and a search for ancestral roots.

“I grew up hearing stories about my grandfather’s great aunt Emilia who sewed the first Cuban flag,” he said. Even though Emilia’s face graced a Cuban postage stamp, he lacked details of her life.

It was not until 2010 when her remains were found buried in a cemetery in Madrid, Spain and returned to the island that he was able to trace her life story. Perez Tolón visited Cuba, Spain, and New York to piece together Emilia’s life.

Born in Matanzas, Emilia married a well-known poet and journalist Miguel Teurbe Tolón  who was a nationalist and freemason whose writings put him at odds with the Spanish rulers.

He left Cuba for exile in New York City. Emilia was deported in 1850 for conspiring against Spanish rule. She joined her husband in New York City where they continued their efforts to free their country from Spanish rule alongside other exiles.

It was there that she embroidered the red, white and blue flag with the lone star that was recognized as the official flag in 1869.

Perez Tolón, a respected producer who worked for many years at Discovery Latin America, said that Emilia’s contribution went beyond embroidering the Cuban flag. She was also a great philanthropist.

“She left all her wealth for the education of poor children,” he said.