Merry monarchs

By F.S.J. Ledgister

Cuban Fiestas, by Roberto González Echevarría
(Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0300-1670-61, 339 pp)

Carnaval, by Victor Patricio Landaluze

Carnaval, by Victor Patricio Landaluze (1828-1889)

If there is one thing that can be safely said about Caribbean people, it’s that we know how to have fun. But then, given our history, we have to. Not so much because we’re the happy-go-lucky people of the tourist brochures, television advertisements, and web sites, but because of the need to relieve the pain that history seems to keep wanting to inflict on us. This is as true of Cuba as of everywhere else in the region. In the West Indies, we enjoy ourselves at fetes; in Cuba and the other hispanophone countries of the region, it is the fiesta where our Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters suspend the normal rules.

Roberto González Echevarría has given us, in just over three hundred pages, an extended meditation on the fiesta, read as broadly as possible, in literature, art, baseball, and film, as a central and defining element in the culture of Cuba, which is the real subject of the book. It is a culture he is not shy of seeing as shaped by both its black and white citizens, a good thing for a white Cuban scholar. A culture, furthermore with its roots in the pre-Columbian past, since González Echevarría begins with the areítos, the communal dances of the aboriginal Tainos which were held not so much to celebrate as to remember. (On the batey — which was not, as it is in the present day Dominican Republic, a company town, but the village square — the place where the Taino community realised its collective existence.)

Areíto was also the name of the Cuban-American intellectual group led by Lourdes Casal (and the journal they published) that sought a dialogue with the government of Fidel Castro in the 1970s. González Echevarría was a member of that group, and he regrets his association with it today. Indeed, his hatred for Castro is something of a blemish on what is, otherwise, an extraordinarily worthwhile and valuable examination of Cuban culture through the lens of the fiesta. Castro inflicted on him personally the apparently dreadful injury of a gift of Havana cigars (which González Echevarría passed on to Harold Bloom, since he’d given up smoking). That sort of thing is clearly unforgivable. González Echevarría spends the conclusion of the book anticipating the fiesta that he foresees erupting in both Miami and Cuba when el barbudo dies, with an excessive, almost bloodthirsty, eagerness. One of the less endearing qualities of this book is the author’s desire to define Castro as un-Cuban — humourless, a bad dancer, a so-so baseball player — making the reader wonder how, if Fidel is so inadequate, he has managed to be the dominant figure in his country for over half a century.

Anti-Castro hostility aside, Cuban Fiestas goes deep into Cuban literature, examining the fiesta as a trope in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Cuban writing, including the great nineteenth-century costumbrista novel Cecilia Valdés (1882) by Cirilo Villaverde, and novels by Alejo Carpentier. (In the process, González Echevarría reveals that he, like myself, finds strange the translation of the title El siglo de las luces — literally “the age of enlightenment” — as Explosion in a Cathedral). Fiestas are central in these novels, in particular the role of Afro-Cubans in such celebrations as the Día de Reyes, Three Kings Day, or the Feast of the Epiphany, on which, in the epoch of slavery, slaves would receive a monetary present or aguinaldo. Nor are Cuba’s major writers of fiction the only literary sources to which González Echevarría turns in his examination of the fiesta as a central element of the island’s culture. The work of the anthropologist Fernando Ortiz and of historians such as Manuel Moreno Fraginals also plays an important part.

Because the author is a literary scholar, he focuses on the fiesta primarily in literature and the arts, though he provides a personal testimony — paradoxically, a literary genre fostered in Cuba by the Revolution — which he weaves with some deftness into the text. That personal account, including his own meeting with Fidel Castro and his return as an adult to his boyhood home, provides an intriguing and valuable context to the book.

González Echevarría, early on, makes a statement about the nature of collective celebration in Cuba that is worth quoting:

In Cuba, owing to its history, the African component adds a particular factor to the fiesta for two concomitant reasons. The first is that the African populations in Cuba remade their festive traditions by drawing from non-Western beliefs and practices, which have not been altered by rationality in the European sense. Moreover, because Africans in Cuba had to remake their cultures ad hoc, far from their origins, and blending their beliefs, habits, and languages of multiple ethnic groups, their fiestas have a warranted aura of newness; they have a freshness that brings them closer to the fundamental elements of the ritual. The second has to do with class stratification. The African element in Cuba always comes from below in the social scale and enters the general population through music and dancing, while at the same time influencing deep religious beliefs. The African presence in Cuba works from the bottom up. This means that the Cuban fiesta has a world-upside-down cast from the start, from the moment music and dance enter into it, which is immediately.

This is an important point. Cuba’s festive culture, its culture in general, is an Afro-Latin one. Celebrations, the public, collective ones on which González Echevarría focuses, draw on Cuba’s history as a place where Africa, Europe, and modern North America have intersected. The representation of the fiesta in literature, beginning in the nineteenth century, involves describing that intersection at the individual and social level, with race and class playing their roles and the various kinds of celebration being means of showing what those roles were and how free and slave — in Cecilia Valdés — and white, black, and mulatto, all interact with each other, both as individuals and as categories.

To get to Villaverde’s novel, or to Anselmo Suárez y Romero’s Francisco: el ingenio o las delicias del campo (“Francisco: The Sugar Mill or the Delights of the Countryside”), González Echevarría also provides us with accounts of the Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) feasts at his childhood home in Sagua la Grande in central Cuba, and his uncle Eduardo’s mouthwatering recipe for cooking “A Notorious Member of the Cuban family, ‘el pernil’ [leg of pork].” Like all Cuban recipes, it is, of course, short on spiciness, but that should not be held against it. The recipe is provided in the context of Cuban émigré life in the United States, together with an anecdote that would not have disgraced a novel of magical realism.

González Echevarría also looks at the fiesta through the eyes of artists who worked in Cuba in the nineteenth century and who recorded Afro-Cuban rituals, in particular the Día de Reyes in Havana. The Epiphany festival in Cuba, by the nineteenth century, had become a particularly Africanised event, acknowledged, as González Echavarría points out, in the twentieth century by the anthropologist Ortiz in a celebrated essay on La antigua fiesta afrocubana del “Día de Reyes”. Of course, as every child in the Spanish-speaking world knows, one of the three Reyes Magos is black, but in Cuba, Epiphany involved a blending of Christian tradition and African practices through celebrations carried out by ethnic societies or cabildos, each of which elected its own king. These celebrations were in the twentieth century to be incorporated into the carnival. In the nineteenth they were recorded by the artists Frédéric Mialhe and Victor Patricio Landaluze (whose painting of a celebration of a Día de Reyes in Havana is featured on the dust jacket). Carnival was to be recorded by such later Cuban artists as Wilfredo Lam, by far the most significant visual artist to come out of Cuba in the twentieth century, and — more importantly from González Echevarría’s perspective — René Portocarrero, whose work dealt more directly with Cuba’s carnivals and the carnivalesque.

From art, and his own experiences as a Cuban émigré returning to his homeland in the 1970s, González Echevarría turns to the fiesta in twentieth-century Cuban literature, which he blends, unsurprisingly with twentieth-century Cuban life proper. This includes works by Carpentier, Ortiz (an anthropologist rather than a writer of plays, fiction, or poetry), and the Cuban musical theatre or zarzuela. This last is exemplified by productions of Cecilia Valdés by composer Gonzalo Roig and writers Agustín Rodrígues and José Sánchez-Arcilla, and of María la O, based on another novel by Villaverde, with music by Ernesto Lecuona and script by Gustavo Sánchez Galarraga. Like Cecilia Valdés, it also has a mulata protagonist. Indeed, mulatas seem to abound in Cuban texts as the Eves, or perhaps the Liliths, to white Cuban Adams. The fiesta appears in in the works of Carpentier, both in novels with a contemporary setting like ¡Écue-Yamba-O! and in historical novels like El siglo de las luces. “Carpentier,” González Echevarría notes, “continues to place the Fiesta del Día de Reyes at the core of Cuban culture.” Another writer, Jorge Mañach, in his focus on Cuban joking — choteo — deals with another aspect of Cuban festive culture as central as the fiesta.

González Echevarría pays due attention to the Orígenes group associated with the writer José Lezama Lima, one of the most important literary figures in twentieth-century Cuba. He focuses on Lezama’s novel Paradiso, published in 1966. “Fiestas,” says González Echevarría, “are a crucial component of Lezama’s poetic universe.” An important one is the six-course dinner in chapter seven (which is referenced, famously, in the 1993 film Fresa y chocolate), the eating of which is “a poetic metabolic process” of incorporation rather than consumption. Lezama also deals with fiestas in his poem “El coche musical” (“The musical chariot”) published in 1960, which is about carnival.

The fiesta is more central to another novel of the 1960s, Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Tres Tristes Tigres (“Three Sad Tigers”, as González points out, taken from the opening of a well-known trabalenguas or tongue-twister; in the version I learned, “treinta y tres tristes tigres tragaban trigo en un trigal” — “thirty-three sad tigers swallowed wheat in a wheat field,” which sounds odd in English, but trying to say it rapidly in Spanish will get the student into serious difficulties). Here, the nightclub floorshow is the fiesta. The fiesta and the Revolution play central roles, González Echevarría notes, in Severo Sarduy’s 1967 satirical novel De donde son los cantantes (“Where the singers come from”), which parallels the history of Cuba and the Cuban Revolution. And fiestas are also a theme in Daína Chaviano’s El hombre, la hembra, y el hambre (“The man, the female, and the hunger”) which focuses on jineterismo, the revived prostitution of the “special period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

González Echevarría devotes another chapter to a very different kind of fiesta, the Cuban national sport of beísbol. The game, he points out, “established itself in Cuba in the mid-1860s when other components of Cuban culture were also maturing.” That is, along with literature and music. Unlike those, baseball was an exotic import, but it “drew into its sphere both literature and music.” Baseball entered Cuba well before the American invasion at the time of the War of Independence in the 1890s (the Spanish-American War to Americans), and it was given depth by both domestic leagues and the playing of Cubans in the American leagues, Major, Minor, and Negro, in the early twentieth century.

Baseball in Cuba, though not itself a fortuitous development, produced a “fortuitous and unique” coming together of the elements of politics, music, literature, and dance in a way that could not have happened anywhere else. It produced a type of fiesta that reinforced Cuban identity by reinforcing group solidarity and producing heroes for the nation. The story that González Echevarría tells us in greatest detail is that of the Sugar Kings of the AAA Florida International League and their history in the late 1950s, which brought them close to the Major League in parallel with the events of the Cuban Revolution.

After baseball, he turns to film and the ways in which life and fiestas are depicted in films made in and about Cuba. He begins with a disquisition about his own experience of watching films as a boy and young man in Sagua la Grande and Havana in the 1950s, before turning to Cuba’s own early film industry, which was, in the 1930s, based on the zarzuela. Two early Cuban films, El romance del palmar (“Love story of the palm grove”) made in 1938, and María la O, made in 1948, used Cuban musicians, composers, and actors, a Havana setting, and the theme of the fiesta — in the former film, the night club; in the latter, the Día de Reyes and the formal ball. He also considers American films set in Havana, including films with Cuban actors such as Desi Arnaz, and major Hollywood productions such as The Godfather II. The topic of the fiesta is, of course, dealt with in The Mambo Kings (1991), based on the novel by Cuban émigré Oscar Hijuelos.

Cuban film since the Revolution, González Echevarría argues, has been mostly propagandistic under the aegis of the Cuban Institute for Cinematographic Art and Industry, ICAIC. This body has sought to counter the influence of Hollywood with its own productions. Of those productions, González Echevarría declares:

The recurrence of the fiesta as a topic in Cuban films and on films about Cuba is largely due to the influence of literature and theatre on film, which makes for the continuity of, among other elements, the “Cecilia plot,” which seems to have become the core story of Cuban culture, sort of our Caribbean Carmen. But the persistence of the topic is also determined by the impact of American movies about the island, in which Cuba appears as the ideal site for celebrations and leisure, a vacation spot suitable for the relaxation of morals.

It is worth nothing that in Bizet’s opera, Carmen first appears on stage singing a Habanera, a “Havana song.” González Echevarría characterises ICAIC’s films as bookish, influenced by literature — not only Memorias del subdesarrollo (“Memories of Underdevelopment”), the 1967 film directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea which he considers the best of the post-revolutionary Cuban films. Memorias started a trend of novel- and short-story–based films that has tied Cuban film and literature together, with films seeking “to reach the deepest strain of Cuban culture through their plots.” This, at the same time, has allowed Cuban films to avoid becoming mere propaganda and tedious socialist realism. One film, La ultima cena (“The last supper”), draws not on prose fiction but on historiography, since the story comes from El ingenio (“The sugar mill”), by the historian Manuel Moreno Fraginals. This film draws not on carnival or on the Día de Reyes, but on an event in eighteenth-century history which involved a re-enactment of the Last Supper.

Another film, El otro Francisco (“The other Francisco”), based on the novel Francisco by the nineteenth-century novelist Anselmo Suárez y Romero, also deals with the theme of slavery. This theme, notes González Echevarría, inevitably produced a Cecilia, loosely based on Villaverde’s novel. While these films use the fiesta, another, La bella del Alhambra, based on a novel by Miguel Barnet, “incorporates the fiesta into its very conception and composition.” The documentary film Conducta impropia (“Improper conduct”), made by émigré filmmakers Néstor Almendros and Orlando Jiménez Leal, deals with the mass incarceration of homosexuals in the 1960s. Its inclusion here is odd, given that it contains hardly any festive elements, and González Echevarría appears to drag it in only to be able to condemn Fidel Castro for hypocrisy (lying about not having killed or tortured prisoners) and homophobia, and the filmmakers themselves for “suggesting that all Cubans share the guilt of the culture’s deep homophobia.” The fact that Western norms were homophobic in the 1960s and 1970s is conveniently ignored by the author.

Conducta impropia generated a response from within Cuba: Gutíerrez Alea’s Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), with its gay protagonist and its festive theme of the “almuerzo lezamiano” (the Lezamian lunch), which is at its core. González Echevarría condemns the film as propaganda for the regime and the director as lacking integrity, even though he also points out its festive nature, which is “like a well-wrought urn.”

The problem for our author is that, in spite of the evocation of the fiesta in literature, in art, in baseball, and in film, he cannot see Cuba itself as festive as long as Castro mocks him by remaining alive. This rancour spoils what is, in many ways, an excellent contribution to Caribbean cultural studies.


The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2011

F.S.J. Ledgister is a British-born Jamaican. He teaches political science at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, and has published work on Caribbean political development and political thought.