Nicolás Guillén: 1902-1989: Writer, journalist, social activist
When Nicolás Guillén passed away in 1989, many Cubans felt that they had lost a voice in the fight for freedom. Over his illustrious career as a political journalist and revolutionary poet, he spoke out against everything from racism against blacks in Cuba to oppression stemming both from the Cuban government and the United States attempted occupation of the country. By the end of his career, he was known as the national poet of Cuba and a social activist without comparison.
Cuban Racism Influenced Early Work
Nicolás Guillén was born on July 10, 1902, in the eastern Cuban town of Camaguey, in the same year that the Republic of Cuba was created. Guillén was the sixth child born to mother, Argelia Batista y Arrieta, and father, Nicolás Guillén y Urra. Guillén, a mulatto, was raised in a middle-class home by parents who were of mixed African and Spanish heritage. However, Guillén's childhood was marred by the death of his father, a journalist and Liberal senator, who was assassinated by government forces during the Civil War of 1917. As he and his siblings attended schools, Guillén faced racism in Cuba that was strikingly similar to that faced by black children in the American south during the first half of the twentieth century. Guillén found expression for his feelings and observations about racism in writing. While he was attending high school in Camaguey, Guillén was already writing poetry about the social problems that he saw in his community. By the time he was seventeen, his poetry was being published in the Camaguey Grafico. After graduating from high school in 1920, Guillén enrolled at the University of Havana. He planned to study law but left school after a year.
Like his father Guillén sought a career as a journalist, but his talents also encompassed other forms of writing, such as poetry and essays. After he left the university, Guillén began writing for various Cuban newspapers and magazines. He also founded a literary magazine, Lis, during this same period. Guillén's writings embraced several different topics, with social protest, folklore, Cuban-African dance rhythm, revolution, and military epics all emerging from his pen. His first collection of poems, Cerebro y Corazón, which he had written between 1922 and 1929 would not be published until 1977. But some of Guillén's early work was being published in the Sunday supplement of Havana's paper, Diario de la Marina. The Ideales de una Raza was the one page of the paper that was devoted to social issues, and it was in this section that in April of 1929, Guillén published El Camino de Harlem, an article that was deeply critical of the treatment that black Cubans were receiving and that condemned racial divisions in Cuban society. His second article on the theme of racial injustice, La Conquista del Banco, was published the following month. Another similar article, El Blanco: he ahi el problema, followed in June of 1929, and then, in January of 1930, the fourth of Guillén's articles calling attention to racism in Cuba was published.
At a Glance . . .
Born on July 10, 1902, in Camaguey, Cuba; died on July 16, 1989. Education: Attended University of Havana.
Career: Author and journalist, 1929-1989.
Like the first three articles, Rosendo Ruíz blames blacks for their apathy in the face of injustice. His interview with Ruíz pointed to the neglect that this Cuban musician had faced from critics and the neglect that Cuba's authentic cultural traditions were facing from an apathetic public. However, something even more meaningful emerged from the interview with Ruíz. As an important influence on Guillén's work, Ruíz employed a distinct musical rhythm, the son, in his compositions that, according to Keith Ellis, in his essay, "Nicolás Guillén and Langston Hughes," would become "the featured genre of the interview." The first traces of the son, in Guillén's work would appear the following year when Guillén's first book of poetry was published. That same year, in February of 1930, Guillén would meet Langston Hughes when Hughes visited Cuba. In his book on Guillén's poetry, Nicolás Guillén: Popular Poet of the Caribbean, Ian Smart suggests that Guillén's meeting with Hughes, "the mulatto who declared himself the black man's poet," would inspire Guillén's "artistic advance." The two men became lifelong friends, with Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance also becoming significant influences in Guillén's poetry. Ruíz's rhythm and Hughes example combined to give Guillén's poetry a new direction that would lead to greater critical success.
Work Changed by Political Climate
With Guillén's second book of poetry, Motivos de son, he achieved a critical success that immediately brought a level of acclaim to the young poet. Guillén was introducing his audience to a new form of poetry. Guillén used his African and Spanish heritage by combining African Creole dialects and language structures with more formal Spanish poetic traditions. The result was an original poetic genre that captured the feel of black life in Cuba. Motivos de son also officially introduced the son to audiences of Guillén's work. The son is a sensual African-Cuban dance rhythm that portrays the feeling of black life in Cuba. The son evokes images through poetry that capture what ordinary words cannot. And yet, not everyone was enthusiastic about Guillén's work. There were some readers who thought that he was revealing too much of the slums and the squalor in which many of Cuba's black population lived. Such criticisms would not change the focus on Guillén's work. Instead, it would become clear in later works that Guillén's efforts to use poetry to call attention to the injustices and inequities of black life would prove to be an effective way to call attention to the need for change.
As he had done in his earlier articles for Diario de la Marina, Guillén used poetry as a way to give voice to his political activism and as a way to highlight Cuba's racial composition. His second book, Songoro cosongo: Poemas mulatos, emphasized the importance of the mulatto culture in Cuba, while it condemned the tragedy of racism and the marginalization of blacks. The revolution of 1933 that deposed Cuba's dictator, Antonio Machado, led to a greater United States presence in Cuba. Guillén responded to these changes in the political climate with poetry that embraced a more general social protest, rather than the racism of his earlier work. In 1934 he published West Indies, Ltd.: Poemas, a collection of poems that attacked American and Cuban imperialism and lamented the conditions in which the poor must live. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1937, a war of oppression and fascism, Guillén traveled to Spain to report on it for Mediodie magazine. He also used his time there to participate in the anti-fascist Second International Congress for Writers for the Defense of Culture, where he condemned fascism. His time on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War inspired a long narrative epic poem, España: Poema en cuatro angustias y una esperanza, that chronicled that war. Along with covering the war in 1937, Guillén joined the Cuban Communist Party and published Cantos para soldados y sones para turistas, a poem that denounced the growing military presence in Cuba and that contrasted the living conditions of the poor with the richness of the ways in which Cuba courted tourists.
For much of the next twenty years, Guillén lived outside Cuba, although he did return occasionally. He campaigned for mayor of Camaguey in 1940 but lost that election, and in 1948, he campaigned for the senate of the Cuban Communist Party, but he also lost. He kept writing, and in 1948, Guillén published his first English-language collection of poetry, Cuba-Libre, which was co-edited and translated by Langston Hughes. Much of Guillén's time in exile was spent in Europe and South America, where he lectured and continued to write. However, he was also a correspondent for several Cuban journals, submitting articles that would later be published in a collection titled, Prosa de prisa: 1929-1972. During this period, he was opposed to the regime of Cuba's leader, Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar, which Guillén thought oppressive. During Batista's rule, Guillén was arrested several times, and in 1953, Batista refused to permit Guillén's return to Cuba after a trip to Chile. Guillén was finally able to return to Cuba in 1958. In a collection of his poems published that year, La paloma de vuelo popular: Elagias, Guillén praises Fidel Castro and voices approval for revolution as a means of change and as a way to expel a corrupt government. After Castro's successful revolution, Castro gave Guillén two important assignments: to design a new cultural policy and to establish the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. Guillén accomplished both these responsibilities, and in 1961, he became president of the Union of Writers and Artists, a position that he would hold for the next twenty-five years.
Became the National Poet of Cuba
With his return to Cuba, Guillén became Cuba's poet laureate of the new revolution. He would celebrate Castro's victory in a new collection of poems, Tengo, which praised the heroes of the revolution and depicted the battles against Batista. Guillén also noted the American embarrassment at the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Even with the success of the Cuban revolution, Guillén did not cease his efforts to expose the injustices of the world. The poems of his 1967 collection, El gran zoo still focus the reader on such topics as imperialism, but now he also includes musing on love and nature. In his 1967 collection, Guillén also moved away from the rhythms of his earlier poetry to use free verse to capture his thoughts. Over the next decade and a half, Guillén continued to write, publishing several more collections of poetry. His last collection, Sol de domingo, was published in 1982.
In her study of how culture, language, and poetry intersect in Guillén's work, Self and Society in the Poetry of Nicolás Guillén, author Lorna Williams maintained that Guillén's work was important in pointing to the need for social change in Cuba. She reiterated that "the referential nature of Guillén's verse meant that his poetry readily became a vehicle for diagnosing the ills of society." Williams noted of Guillén's choice of topics, that "The divided self of the Afro-Cuban, the irresponsibility of national leaders, militarism, and American domination of Latin America were all seen by Guillén as fitting themes of poetry." Guillén did not simply use the inequities of racism and cultural oppression as topics for his poetry; he used them to try and create change where he saw the need for transformation. Williams suggests that "Ethical engagement with his fellow men led Guillén to give his verses a particular form of expression." This form of expression engaged his readers in a dialogue, in which they were forced to acknowledge the injustices of which he wrote and the need for change. In the months before his death, Guillén was in ill health. One of his legs had to be amputated the month before his death, and he had been suffering from Parkinson's disease for some time. Guillén died on July 16, 1989. He was 87 years old.
At the time of his death, Guillén was mourned as the National Poet of Cuba. Among the many obituaries that praised Guillén, Richard Gott, writing for The Guardian of London, praised Guillén for creating "an atmosphere in which black people as a whole become fully integrated into Cuban society." Gott also reminded his readers that Guillén "was instrumental in putting black culture on the political agenda." More importantly, as Gott suggested, is the legacy that Guillén has left: "Guillén forced Cuba's intelligensia, so involved historically with Paris, Barcelona and New York, to search inwards for their inspiration, to examine the reality of the island on which they found themselves."
Gott's observations were similar to those expressed in other obituary notices. Still another writer for The Guardian, Jean Stubbs labeled Guillén as "a major export of Black poetry in the Spanish-speaking world." Stubbs suggested that, "Guillén reaffirmed Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean culture" in his poetry. Guillén, according to Stubbs, "did much to build up the arts in Cuba and develop its profile abroad." Following his death, Guillén's body lay in state in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution. He lay at the foot of a monument honoring Jose Marti, a famous Cuban poet of the previous century. Castro had awarded Guillén with the Cuban Order of Jose Marti in September of 1981, and so Guillén's position at the foot of this monument seemed particularly poignant. In 2002 cities in Spain and South America honored the centennial of Guillén's birth with celebrations. Conferences honoring his work were held at the University of Castilla La Mancha in Ciudad Real, Spain, while symposiums on his poetry were held in Mar del Plata, Argentina and Santiago, Chile. These celebrations coincided with the release of new editions of Guillén's work. The efforts of the centennial organizers and the re-release of his works will help ensure that Guillén's legacy lives on long after his death.
El Camino de Harlem, 1929.
La Conquista del Banco, 1929.
El Blanco: he ahi el problema, 1929.
Rosendo Ruíz, 1930.
Motivos de son, 1930.
Songoro cosongo: Poemas mulatos, 1931.
West Indies, Ltd., 1934.
Cantos para soldados y sones para turistas, 1937.
España: Poema en cuatro angustias y una esperanza, 1937.
Cuba Libre: Poems by Nicolás Guillén, 1948.
La paloma de vuelo popular: Elegias, 1958.
Prosa de prisa: 1929-1972, 1975.
Cerebro y corazón, 1977.
Sol de domingo, 1982.
Between Race and Empire, Temple University Press, 1998.
Nicolás Guillén: Popular Poet of the Caribbean, University of Missouri Press, 1990.
Self and Society in the Poetry of Nicolás Guillén, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
Guardian, July 18, 1989.
—Sheri Elaine Metzger
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