Lessons of the Early Republic
and the Transcendence of
the Myth of Martí
IN THE OPENING SCENE of director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s 1966 Cuban film, Death of a Bureaucrat, mourners stand at the grave of Franciso J. Pérez, an “exemplary worker” whose death serves to parody the life of Cuba’s working class in the twentieth century. Standing under a blazing sun in Havana’s Cemetery of Columbus, once the burial site of presidents, sugar barons, and socialites, his eulogizer narrates scenes from Pérez’s life. “Paco,” as his friends called him, had been a longtime supporter of labor rights and the cause of national liberation since the 1920s. The owner of a marble-working shop prior to the triumph of the 1959 Revolution led by Fidel Castro, Paco became the principal sculptor of busts of José Martí when, after 1959, these busts (both in reality and in the movie) suddenly proliferated all over the island. Working tirelessly to surpass state-ordered production goals, Paco sculpted bust after bust with his own hands so as to fill shrine after shrine. Eventually, he became “obsessed with the idea that for the next year, the production goals should allow every Cuban family to have a patriotic shrine in their own house.” And so Paco invented what would become his greatest work: a machine that could mass-produce busts of José Martí with “great speed.”
Sadly, however, just as Paco’s machine was rapidly producing busts of Martí, it got stuck. Hoping to fix it, Paco climbed to the top of the machine’s mixing vat of mortar. Reaching inside with a tool in his hand, Paco suddenly fell helplessly into the machine. Within seconds, the machine had transformed Paco from a vibrant and “exemplary worker” into nothing more than a mortar bust of himself. His fellow workers used the bust of Paco-Martí to crown his grave.