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Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Color Purple has been celebrated as a modern literary classic and was made into a film and theatrical musical. She has written several other novels and numerous short stories, essays, and poetry, including “The Story of Why I Am Here: Or, a Woman Connects Oppressions” in the June 1994 Monthly Review.

This article is adapted from her introduction to Nancy Stout’s One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press.

Nothing makes me more hopeful than discovering another human being to admire. My wonder at the life of Celia Sánchez, a revolutionary Cuban woman virtually unknown to Americans, has left me almost speechless. In hindsight, loving and admiring her was bound to happen, once I knew her story. Like Frida Kahlo, Zora Neale Hurston, Rosa Luxemburg, Agnes Smedley, Fannie Lou Hamer, Josephine Baker, Harriet Tubman, or Aung San Suu Kyi, Celia Sánchez was that extraordinary expression of life that can, every so often, give humanity a very good name.

A third of a century ago I saw a photograph of Celia taken twenty years before, just after she and her fellow revolutionaries became the official Cuban government. She was in the uniform of the Cuban rebel army, thin as a rail, her dark hair cut very short. Her face was gray and drawn, and she was (I believe) smoking a cigarette. Knowing her life story now more fully, I realize that lung cancer would contribute to her early death, which came close to the time I saw that picture.

I sat down to read One Day in December with little notion that it would affect me so deeply. I read it through, then immediately turned to the first page and read the entire more than four-hundred-page manuscript again. I had the sensation I experienced the first time I saw a Frida Kahlo painting, probably the self-portrait of Frida wearing the necklace of thorns with a dead hummingbird attached: I knew life for women, and for a certain kind of creative rebel, whether female or male, a suffering, creative, and utterly devoted-to-life rebel, would never be the same. This book about Celia Sánchez produces a sensation like that. Filled with amazing revelations and documentations of a revolutionary woman whose life seems to me exactly the medicina our desperately flailing societies and countries are crying for. A clear vision of what balanced female leadership can be; and, even more to the point, what a truly egalitarian revolutionary leadership of female and male partners might look like.

Yes, the male we’re talking about here is el Jefe, Fidel Castro. Revealed in this book to be brave and conscientious, also at times almost comically naïve, but unfaltering in his devotion and service to the people of Cuba. The most telling aspect of this was his adoption, along with Celia, of numerous Cuban children, many of whom had lost their parents during the Revolution. Not only did the two adopt these children but, during long years of assassination attempts and other social and political dramas of the most hair-raising sort, they managed to raise them.

Amazingly, Fidel and Celia worked together long before they ever met (sending each other covert messages detailing the work to be done); when they did meet they remained for the most part inseparable until the day of her death. But were they lovers? This is the question that, while Celia lived, obsessed Cubans and non-Cubans alike. Reading this book one sees something so fascinating, so precious, so good for us, that the question loses all meaning. We, in most of our relationships with one another, are headed somewhere else (other, for instance, than conventional marriage—very good news in my opinion) and these two offer a model of a revolutionary partnership that thrived. What they did in moments of privacy is, as this biography sees things, chiefly their own affair. But the question, in subtler forms, is considered. Whether, or to what extent, they were lovers, they were beloveds. Soul mates, compañeros, buddies, who reveled in each other and, together, devoted their lives to the cause of freeing the Cuban people from a brutal dictatorship and its legacy; while envisioning and working toward the creation of The New Person (sometimes referred to as “The New Man”) and The New Society.

For much of the world Cuba already represents the future, if in fact there’s one to be had. It has taught the world, especially the poor and First World–dominated countries, what it means to bear, over decades, the brunt of implacable, unrelenting, and lethal hatred. Coming unfortunately, in Cuba’s case, from its nearest neighbor, the United States. And shown how, even so, to move steadily forward guided by one’s own understanding of one’s needs.

The people in this book who were tortured, assassinated, disappeared, left me yearning for and missing them. For instance, Frank País—a young schoolteacher of twenty who was the other comandante, Fidel’s partner in guiding the overthrow of the dictator, and Celia’s primary contact in the early days of the Revolution—was murdered by Batista’s police a month after his younger brother, Josué, had been killed by them. Their mother, Rosário, who claimed their bodies, is now gone too, yet I am still able, as I experience their story, to feel some of her agony. And that of two indomitable rebel women, Clodomira and Lydia, tortured sadistically before they died in the custody of the police. Much of the world continues to grieve the loss to humanity of Ché Guevara, assassinated so young and with so much still to offer, but he is far from the only astonishing person who is missing, and played a role in Celia’s Revolution and her story.

Cuba has suffered so much I sometimes think of it as the country whose greatest wealth is the people’s collective experience of deeply shared emotion. All those who struggled so bravely and died, sometimes horribly, were passionately loved and appreciated by the revolutionaries they left behind, and strengthened. I believe it is the glue of this mutually lived history, and the hope of creating a free and healthy Cuba that, even today, holds the country together. In this book we see some of the cost of seeking to live one’s own way, charting and being drawn by one’s own destiny. These fallen heroes, women and men, young and old, many of them revealed for the first time in this book, are cause to mourn.

But just as much, and also as revealed in this book, cause to celebrate, or simply to admire.

Reading this story we see precisely why Fidel Castro adored Celia Sánchez and why Ché and Celia were good friends. All three of these revolutionaries were persons of the highest moral character and integrity; deeply human also in their transgressions and imperfections, they were equals of the fiercest sort. There was also a price on all their heads.

We see something else as well: that the women of Cuba were full participants in the Revolution, combatants, covert operatives, and even co-instigators. It was in fact Celia and Haydée Santamaría who, early on and with other women, took up arms to fight the dictatorship. Celia, the daughter of a doctor, who frequently helped her father in his attendance to the poor, a society girl and high-school beauty queen, this woman who wore red lipstick, wide skirts, high heels (and would wear high heels with her rebel army uniform when she felt like it) took to the mountains of eastern Cuba with Fidel, Ché, and other revolutionaries no less brave but far less known, and placed her life against the killing machine of wealth, corruption, and depravity that so insulted and wounded her beloved country.

I love this book. Biographer Nancy Stout is to be congratulated for her insightful, mature, and sometimes droll exploration of a profoundly liberated, adventuresome, and driven personality. I love the life of Celia Sánchez, a life that was singular, sui generis, and true to its time of revolution and change in Cuban society, but also archetypal in its impact and relevance to all times of social struggle and revolt, including this one, in which Cuba’s archenemy, the government of the United States, is also experiencing transformation. To fight the demons that have overtaken us, and to lead the world back to its senses, such an intrepid woman warrior would have to exist: a Durga, a Kali. A Celia.

Knowing her as well as I now believe I do, I ask myself: Did we meet? I remember visiting Cuba for the first time in 1978. Celia would have been very ill by then; she died in 1980. I do recall a visit to the Federation of Cuban Women and if I’m not mistaken I met Vilma Espín, another remarkable revolutionary, and perhaps Haydée Santamaría, whom I surely had “met” in the story of the torture and murder of her brother Abel, one of those captured after the attack on the Moncada garrison in 1953. I remember Haydée especially for her reply to the guard who brought her one of her brother’s eyes: if he would not talk, nor can I.

I longed to learn the story of these women, so beloved of each other, so trusted and so true. Now I’ve learned part of it. This story will no doubt be another medicine for our time: how to be completely trustworthy in times of battle; how to set out together, as women, to change the world, with men (happily) beside us or without them.

I wrote the poem below during the Arab Spring, when the people of Egypt rose up to begin the necessary change of their own corrupt society. It is dedicated to the Egyptian people. It seeks to speak to Cubans as well, and their country rich in martyrs.

Our Martyrs

When the people
have won a victory
whether small
or large
do you ever wonder
at that moment
where the martyrs
might be?
They who sacrificed
themselves
to bring to life
something unknown
though nonetheless more precious
than their blood.
I like to think of them
hovering over us
wherever we have gathered
to weep and to rejoice;
smiling and laughing,
actually slapping each other’s palms
in glee.
Their blood has dried
and become rose petals.
What you feel brushing your cheek
is not only your tears
but these.
Martyrs never regret
what they have done
having done it.
Amazing too
they never frown.
It is all so mysterious
the way they remain
above us
beside us
within us;
how they beam
a human sunrise
and are so proud.

Celia, too, was a martyr, though she lived nearly sixty years and died of natural causes, if cancer can be called natural. I believe, though, that the deeply harrowing and stressful work she did as a revolutionary, including protecting Fidel, whom she loved, and whom she understood to be Cuba’s rightful and destined leader, a leader always under attack, consumed her. Weighing on her also was the grief she had to repress when personal losses and tragedies intervened, in order to fulfill her duties to the Revolution and the country.

She always recalled their life up in the mountains. There, despite all kinds of hardship, they’d joined with families and clergy to witness marriages and baptisms, planted flowers, and conveyed battle news via radio broadcasts of music. In the steamiest days of August, they’d celebrated their leader’s birthday and their confidence of imminent victory with a party and ice cream cake.

May the example of Celia Sánchez’s extraordinary life strengthen and encourage us. She kept records of virtually everything those around her did during the Revolution. In a way it is through this selfless wisdom, her caring about future rebels she saw coming to the place Cuba pioneered, that we most clearly see her.

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