TENGO by Nicolás Guillén

I Have                                                                      


When I see myself, touch myself

me, Juan with Nothing only yesterday,

and today, Juan with Everything,

and today with everything,

turning my head, looking,

I see myself and touch myself

and I ask how has this come to be.


I have, let’s see

I have the pleasure of walking through my country,

master of all there is in it,

looking, close up at what before

I  didn’t have nor could have.

I can say zafra,

I can say mountain,

I can say city,

and army

already mine forever and yours, ours,

a broad brilliance

of beam, star, bloom.


I have, let’s see,

I have the pleasure of going

me, farmer, worker, a ordinary person,

I have the pleasure of going

( here’s an example)

to a bank and speaking with the manager

not in English,

not with  sir,

only saying to him  compañero like we say Spanish.


I have, let’s see

being black

no one detaining me

at the door of a dance hall or a bar.

or even in the lobby of a hotel

shouting at me that there isn’t a room,

a little room nor a huge room,

a tiny room where I might rest.


I have, let’s see,

no rural police

that can grab me, lock me in a jail,

nor uproot me and throw me off my land

in the middle of the highway.

I have as I have the land, the sea,

no club,

no high life,

no tennis and no yacht,

Just beach on beach, and  wave on wave,

huge, blue, open democratic:

finally, the sea.

I have, let’s see,

already learned to read,

to count,

already learned  to write

and think

and  laugh.

I  have  since I  have

where I work

and  make

what  I need to eat.

I  have , let’s see,

I have what I had to have.


(translated by Steven Woodruff)


Nicolás Guillén was a black Cuban poet from Camagüey. He wrote poems in an honest style with easy references to creole speech and dialect. Following Castro’s takeover in 1959 he became the poetic voice of the revolution. He died in 1989. Tengo, probably his most famous poem, tells the story of Cuba’s new man, suddenly able to read and elevated by his new standing in a changed society. The poem is from a collection of the same name written in 1964. Guillén was himself an exile in Spain during the Bastista years and returned after the revolution. Ironically, the repression that has come to characterize Cuba under Castro makes these words newly relevant.  The English words in italics appear in the poem but are pronounced with the idiosycracies of Cuban Spanish. Zafra refers to the Cuban cane harvest and compañero became the standard greeting among Cubans following the revolution. The word dance hall is un dancing in the original.

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