Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Between Racism and Patriotism in Fin De Siècle Cuba: Ricardo Batrell's Creative Resistance

Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Between Racism and Patriotism in Fin De Siècle Cuba: Ricardo Batrell's Creative Resistance

Article excerpt

It would seem that the words of a nineteenth-century Paraguayan President, Carlos Antonio López, resounded all the way up to Cuba and reached the ears of Ricardo Batrell a few decades later. In the 1860s the president urged his son, "Nunca olvide usted que la pluma es siempre más sabia y siempre resuelve mejor los problemas que la espada. Así pues, úsela con bravura pues con ella jamás le faltará la razón."1 Although Batrell could wield a machete with deadly force, he certainly recognized the power of the pen. After fighting in the 1895 war for independence he realized that in order to be an active player in Cuban society he would need to learn to read and write. And so in 1906 he locked himself in a room for half a year and taught himself these essential skills, "I weighed all of the sacrifices and hardships that I had endured in the war, and I realized that in order to be truly respected in our society, it was imperative that I learn to read and write" (202). He would go on to write letters, political pamphlets, as well as a book length project, Para la historia: apuntes autobiográficos de la vida de Ricardo Batrell Oviedo (1912).

His writings revolve around the issue of the lack of racial equality in a nation self-defined by equality. Although little is known about the impact and reception of his work amongst his contemporaries, it is clear that his voice made a big enough splash to ripple itself into the twenty-first century. The recent publication of an English translation of Para la historia by Mark Sanders, A Black Soldier's Story: The Narrative of Ricardo Batrell and the Cuban War of Independence (2010) in itself attests to its resonance. However, Sanders was certainly not the first to be intrigued by Batrell's words. Historians (Pérez, Ferrer, Helg) have benefited from the insights Batrell's work shines on the social milieu during the war for independence. Although his diary-like entries found in Para la historia include mundane details about specific battles, soldiers, events with precise dates, and in some instances, even time, Batrell is not often referenced in order to reconstruct specific historical events. When cited, his voice is used to elucidate the social and cultural dynamic during the war. In this sense, his writings have proved particularly useful, as they provide historians a seldom heard perspective from the fin de siècle textual corpus, that of the Afro-Latin American.

Recognizing the contributions Batrell has been able to offer historians, it is surprising that literary critics have paid little attention to Batrell's work. In fact, Sanders' introduction to his translation is the only analysis that focuses on the literary or rhetorical aspects of Batrell's writings. We can speculate about the reasons for this lack of attention to Batrell's work. Perhaps the most obvious can be chalked up to a lack of access. Batrell's letters and political pamphlets are housed in the Archivo Nacional in La Habana, Cuba, and before Sanders' translation, only a handful of copies of Para la historia were available.2 Indeed, this study is bound by such limitations; aside from select citations in other articles from Batrell's letters and pamphlets, I am only able to directly reference Para la historia. Another factor owing to the minimal criticism about Batrell's work is the generic ambiguity. A quick comparative glance at the English and Spanish titles of Para la historia: apuntes autobiográficos de la vida de Ricardo Batrell Oviedo and A Black Soldier's Story hints at this indecision. The use of the descriptor "story" in the English translation as opposed to "history" and "autobiography" in the Spanish are indicative of the multiple lenses from which the text can be read.

While the ambiguity of genre can surely be interpreted as a detractor for literary critics, it is precisely the hybrid nature of Para la historia that sustains the inquiry of my paper. On the one hand, recognition of Batrell's narration as a historically relevant and pertinent work allows me to make connections with various social, cultural, and political happenings. …

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