Magazine article Monthly Review

Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution

Magazine article Monthly Review

Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution

Article excerpt

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 mediana 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]efe, 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. …

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