Emilia Casanova was born in Cuba in 1832. She was born into a wealthy Spanish family. Her father was named Inocencio and was one of Cuba’s wealthiest sugar plantation owners. The Casanova family used enslaved people to work on their plantation.
Emilia grew up in a conservative household, but she did not conform to rules. Cuba was a Spanish colony and Emilia’s Spanish family benefited from colonial rule. However, Emilia agreed with the Cuban revolutionaries who wanted Cubans to rule their own country. She believed that Cuba should be independent and was not afraid to speak out about her beliefs. During one dinner with Spanish leaders, she boldly raised a glass and said, “to the freedom of the world and to the independence of Cuba.”
In 1852, Inocencio took Emilia and two of her brothers on a trip to the United States, where she met Cuban exiles. They had been outspoken about their desire for an independent Cuba and fled to the United States because they feared the Spanish rulers would punish them for their beliefs. Exiles like these continued their work for Cuban independence in the United States. When Emilia met these revolutionaries, it further confirmed her beliefs in an independent Cuba.
Emilia wanted to stay in New York to study English, but her mother asked her to return home after three months. Emilia wanted to help the Cuban independence movement. So Cuban exiles gave her documents that promoted a revolution, which she smuggled into Cuba. Emilia and her brothers distributed the documents in Cuba to inspire more Cubans to support independence.
Emilia continued to speak out against Spanish rulers in Cuba. Her parents were worried that it would get the family arrested. And they decided it would be safer for them to leave Cuba. Emilia and her family moved to the United States in 1854, when she was 19 years old. She arrived in New York Harbor with her mother and twelve younger siblings. The family settled in Philadelphia.
Not long after she arrived in Philadelphia, Emilia married the famous novelist Cirilo Villaverde. Cirilio was two decades older than Emilia. She gave birth to their son, Narciso, in 1859.
Emilia, Cirilo, and their son moved to New York when her family returned to Cuba. Emilia reconnected with the Cuban exiles she met during earlier visits and became an active member of their community. She organized meetings at her home and provided an important gathering place for supporters of Cuban independence.
Unrest among the Cuban people and support for Cuban independence grew in the mid-19th century when the Spanish Empire was in decline. In 1866, the Spanish government increased taxes and made it illegal for Cuban reformers to meet in the hopes of suppressing the independence movement.
Tensions led to the outbreak of the Ten Years’ War for Cuban independence in 1868. Cuban revolutionaries declared independence and wrote a new constitution. The constitution ended slavery and aimed to annex Cuba to the United States.
“People are anxious to serve me, bring me the paper, especially where there is news of Cuba. This is all great praise, but for someone else: not me.”
In New York, the Villaverdes were excited about these developments and wanted to support the Cuban revolutionaries. Emilia established La Liga de Hijas de Cuba (the League of Daughters of Cuba) to mobilize women in New York. The organization raised money for the rebels and their families.
Emilia then discovered that her father was taken by the Spanish as a political prisoner in Cuba. Inocencio Casanova was a naturalized American citizen who owned property in the United States. Emilia wrote to the Secretary of State and then traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with government officials. She met with members of Congress and even spoke with President Ulysses S. Grant in the White House. President Grant was very impressed with her and helped secure her father’s release from prison.
In 1871, Cuban exiles in New York learned that the Spanish had imprisoned Cuban medical school students. The Spanish rulers accused the young men of damaging the grave of the editor of a pro-Spanish newspaper. They had no evidence to support the charges. Emilia returned to Washington, D.C. to ask the government to free the students and bring them to the United States. Despite her efforts, the eight students were executed days later.
The following year, Emilia made another trip to the U.S. capital to pressure Congress to condemn the Spanish treatment of the Cuban people. Emilia was disappointed that the American government continued to support Spanish colonial rule instead of helping Cuba become independent. She provided evidence that showed that the United States opposed efforts to end slavery in Cuba from the 1820s through the 1850s, a time when slavery was also still legal in the United States. Slavery in Cuba kept the prices of goods imported from Cuba to remain low. Evidence confirmed that the United States government opposed earlier Cuban revolutions because they feared a revolution would end slavery on the island.
Emilia promoted the idea that the United States should support other places attempting to free themselves from colonial rule because America was established this way. However, her powerful arguments and evidence did not sway Congress. It was economically advantageous for the government to support a Spanish-controlled Cuba.
Emilia and her husband Cirilo continued to work together during the war to support the Cuban rebels. They smuggled weapons and ammunition into the country.
In 1873, one of the ships that they had helped to purchase was captured by the Spanish. The Spanish imprisoned the crew and executed many of them. Since the ship had sailed under an American flag, the U.S. government was outraged. Tensions were so high that a war between the United States and Spain seemed unavoidable. However, officials eventually figured out that the ship was illegally smuggling guns into Cuba and flying the American flag. This ended the crisis.
Throughout the Ten Years’ War, the home of the Villaverdes in Manhattan was an important gathering place for the Cuban exile community. During the 1873 crisis, a New York Times reporter visited the home and found many supporters of Cuban independence meeting there. Emilia had become a leader in the Cuban independence movement in New York.
The Ten Years’ War ended in 1878. An increasing lack of resources and infighting among leadership weakened the position of the Cuban rebels. They signed a peace treaty with Spain, confirming that Cuba would remain under Spanish rule. Emilia, her husband, and other Cuban exiles continued to support the fight for Cuban independence.
In 1894, Cirilo Villaverde died in New York. Emilia returned to Cuba with his body for the first time in decades to fulfill her husband’s wish to be buried in their home country. She immediately returned to New York City after the burial. The following year, Cubans once again started a war for independence against Spain, and Emilia helped raise funds to support them.
Emilia Casanova de Villaverde died in New York on March 4, 1897. The next year, the United States joined the Cuban war for independence. This war became known as the Spanish-American War and ended in American victory after just one year. After the war, the United States and Spain agreed that Cuba would become independent with American protection. The United States also annexed Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam from Spain.