“TENGO”: Travelling Cuba with a Revolutionary Poet

By Steven Woodruff

When I started seeing Nicolás Guillén’s books of poetry in the open-air book stalls of La Havana I had never heard of him, and knew nothing of his famous poem, Tengo. Shortly after the revolution Guillén, who is black and was born in Cuba’s central provincial capital, Camagüey, returned to Cuba from Spain and became the poetic voice of the revolution. His path was not unlike that of the Cuban revolutionary, José Martí, who had also been a globetrotting exile, poet and journalist. Guillén surveyed the Cuban scene with poems in a simple, straight-forward language. He knew he was writing for a whole population that was just learning to read as the result of government led literacy campaigns. The popularity of his poems rode the wave of that new movement. Much of his poetry was heavily inflected with a creole patois associated with an Afro-Cuban underclass. He also experimented with verse set to music and strived to create a kind of unified popular verse that took into account everyone who had fetched up on Cuba’s shores and their social histories.

No one doubts that Tengo is his best known and most appreciated poem. It was written in 1972 and was part of a collection of the same name. It became the poetic anthem of the Cuban Revolution. Everyone learns to recite at least some portions of it and it has a kind of popular place in contemporary Cuban literature, not unlike American poems such as Longfellow’s The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere or the anthologized poems by Frost and Sandburg that have become part of high school English classes.

Guillén in a woodcut portrait  from his collection titled Palma Sola

Guillén in a woodcut portrait from his collection titled Palma Sola

In Tengo, Juan, a Cuban everyman and narrator of the poem, realizes that the Cuban revolution has redrawn the world. He has suddenly emerged, as if from a cocoon, into a new landscape, and reasons his way toward his new destiny. He is his own man, master of what he surveys. Suddenly he can go anywhere, do anything. He now has everything he has always needed but never had. There are no references to the dictator Batista, or panegyrics for Castro. It is not a political poem in that sense. We come to understand his personal amazement and feel that he is living in a kind of altered state, full of wonder and deep satisfaction in being reborn. He touches himself and examines himself, looking for an affirmation that what has happened is real.

It is a terrifically moving poem, and, even with minimal Spanish, you can feel the power of its language . Martin Luther King and Guillén knew of each other. They led parallel lives as part of the social struggle that characterized the ’60s. The first time I came across the poem was from a reprinted version of the original collection, which I bought at an outdoor book stall near Havana’s famous Yara Theater on La Rampa. Just across the street is the former Havana Hilton Hotel, now the Habana Libre. Castro and his guerrillas took over the hotel during the first months following the revolution and lived there, trashing the place before moving into government buildings around the city. I eventually bought most of Guillén’s books in reprints from La Habana sidewalk vendors. Most are paperbacks, though some were published in flimsy, hardback versions.

On an early trip I bought from a vendor on the Plaza de Armas in Habana Vieja an old black and white photo originally taken by the Information Ministry archive. It showed Fidel Castro, President Osvaldo Dorticós, Camilo Cienfuegos and Guillén all standing together on a dais on the Plaza de la Revolución in La Habana. Book vendors commonly traded in the remnants of family albums and black and white photos that had been taken from scrapbooks. They were an emotional reminder of families who fled the island at the revolution and left behind much of their personal history. Many of the prints were pasted into scrapbooks and belonged to families who had fled the island when the revolution rolled into town. There was something touching and also disturbing about these photos. There were wedding pictures, pictures of family vacations, graduations and outdoor parties at the beach. The families had disappeared, strangers now lived in those exiles’ houses. The photo albums ended up on the street and became a source of interest for foreigners who were swept up into a kind of Cuban revolution anthropology. Eventually  I  came across and bought a small black and white photo of Guillén. I found another very large but damaged print of him sitting in his study in his home in Camagüey. It had been taken by Cartier-Bresson and had his stamp on the lower corner. It was torn and badly creased.

I realized how effectively the Cuban embargo had blacked out much that was interesting, worthwhile, and important. I resented the fact that the U.S. Government had so effectively accomplished these things and so, in spite of the travel restrictions, I began to make regular trips there, sneaking in so to speak, through Mexico and Panama over a period of about seven years.  Increasingly, life on the island seemed to labor on against a punishing backdrop of inequality, political disconnect, and shortages of almost everything. The only thing in unlimited supply was the ever present music and a vibrant social life on the street which swept everyone along on its vibrant tide. Once I made contact with a family, a proprietor, or established a friendship my visits there seemed to take on a life of their own. You could make plans, but more often than not it proved nearly impossible to keep them.

The promise and wonder of Guillén’s poem has in large part ceased to exist. One can only imagine he would be terribly dispirited to see the post-Soviet era Cuba. The political and economic forces at work during the last twenty years have visited a new, cruel, tiered society on Cubans. The Juan of his poem is no longer the master of all he surveys. He is, in fact, master of almost nothing. Most Cubans have a precarious foothold on their lives. The government periodically changes the rules about what currency is in or out, or what private business models are allowable or now forbidden, or who may obtain visas to travel outside the country. The regularity of the rule changes keeps everyone confused and always playing catch-up. While some made out handily in the transfer of property when the revolution came, others were ghettoized in miserable situations.

I have met and stayed with families who managed to hang onto spacious properties. That bit of good fortune allowed them to enter into the lucrative casa particular business when tourism was revived 1989. These families were able to rent their properties like small one or two room hotels and have been part of the Cuban tourist scene since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many in the cities suffered along with nothing, stacked up like sardines in single, high-ceilinged rooms, with jury-rigged mezzanine sleeping platforms, and a shower and toilet run on carted water bucketed out of rusting fifty-five gallon drums. Freakish tangles of electrical wires ran everywhere, jury rigged to rob power from any available line. In an attempt to keep the cities from overflowing the government restricted free movement. In order to move around families had to resettle via apartment swaps.

Those who worked in tourist establishments, like hotels and private restaurants called paladars and had access to tourists and their dollars. They were at an advantage to those who didn’t. They joined a better-off group of folks in the newly created class of the dollar economy while most had to slug it out in the Cuban peso economy with the equivalent of barely twenty four dollars a month standard income, and a food ration book which granted access to the state’s marvelously empty stores. Even the renowned Cuban doctors hardly made anything. Routinely, they found themselves shipped away to Venezuela, Angola or international disaster zones as part of government arranged Cuban relief programs. In spite of their excellence,  like all other Cubans, they lived on meager wages.

Cubans with relatives abroad were well subsidized. The remittance economy provided the single biggest source of cash flowing into the island. Prostitution came back with a vengeance as women in the twenty-something crowd proceeded to work the streets for sex encounters with tourists as their ticket to prosperity. Guillén would have been hard pressed to recognize the world of Tengo in current-day Cuba. But the revolution did bring many favorable social, intellectual, and political improvements, as well as a wholesale shift in Cuban life. In the ’60s the literacy brigades fanned out over the country and quickly created a reading nation. It was one of the revolution’s most precious achievements. To a large extent, it created Guillén’s new audience. They were able to see themselves in his poetry. By the time he died in 1989 the revolution’s successes had begun to sour.

One of the anecdotes I had heard about life in the post-soviet Cuba of the ’90s—Castro had floridly labeled it The Special Period in Time of Peace—concerned a woman who walked into one of the flagship hotels in Varadero’s tourist only reserve and shouted out the verses of Tengo in the hotel lobby. The poem makes references to Cuba’s yacht and tennis clubs, as well as highlife supper clubs and similar places where the clueless rich partied on at the close of the Batista era. There is also a telling verse in Tengo about not being able to be turned away from a hotel for want of the availability of a small room. Now that the revolution had spread its equality to all parts of the island, nowhere was off limits. She didn’t make it through the poem before security personnel removed her but her statement didn’t fall on deaf ears. Look, she seemed to be saying, all this time, all this revolution and here we are, right back where we started. You had to admire her moxie, and also the final irony of the whole business.

I visited Camagüey in central Cuba several times and with each visit spent some time in Guillén’s home. It’s now a museum and cultural center. Writers, musicians and artists gather there to rehearse and perform. It is a creative hub for Camagüey, an original provincial capital, which retains much of its historic ambience. It is a different sort of place from Havana, where the hustle is always on. Camagüey is like a calm oasis by comparison. It had been a center of an earlier Cuban revolution, an agrarian one, headed by Ignacio Agramonte, a wealthy landowner and rancher, who surrendered his slaves and was part of a bloody revolt there in the mid-1800s. At the end of it, he was dead, killed in a skirmish much like José Martí would be thirty years later. The Agramonte name is everywhere in Camagüey and shared liberally among a large black population descended from a community that Ignacio Agramonte had, at one time, owned.

There is still a strong racist undercurrent in Cuba. Afro-Cubans have moved up the ladder but there is a ceiling, especially at the top of the political class. During my stay in Camagüey I became friends with a local black artist, Rosendo Agramonte, and bought some of his exceptional landscape paintings. I got to know him and his sister (who worked for one of the government tourist organizations) and stayed with the family on several occasions. They lived in one of the poor repartos or barrios of Camagüey. A portion of the house had clay floors. The toilet and shower were outdoors on the edge of a small enclosure where they raised chickens. Rosendo had interesting friends: a talkative philosopher, a basketball playing buddy who dressed in hip hop garb, and some Rastafarians who dressed in white. His girlfriend was studying medicine. They were serious outsiders, Afrocentric, and outspoken.

On a couple of occasions when Rosendo came by my casa particular in town the landlady wouldn’t let him in the vestibule of the house. She could be quite rude. When he tried to tell her that he was an artist and painted for a living she would shrug and make a face. Rosendo would say repeatedly, “pintor independiente”, but she couldn’t get it through her head that he too was navigating his own course as an entrepreneur in the new Cuba. She would make a face, and rub her fingers back and forth across her forearm. He was black, she said. I should find myself some better friends. Later, Rosendo would comment on the encounters by saying. ”mucho racismo, mucho racismo”. He was clearly fed up by it all.

The Agramonte home is now a museum near the central plaza. There I met Leonel Acosta, a violinmaker, who had an exhibit of his handmade violins on display in the museum. They were all strung with picture wire because strings were expensive and unavailable in Cuba. They arrive as donations in personal luggage via tourists and as gifts from concerned musicians in other parts of the world. A year later I returned with suitcase full and gave them to him. He was stunned and promised to make an instrument for me one day. I did the same on later trips for others around the island and for the National Symphony and the resident orchestra that plays for the Cuban National Ballet at the Gran Teatro. The musicians there were all quietly appreciative. But that is how it goes in Cuba. People sometimes seem to be waiting to be rescued by unexpected benevolence. They are like Tengo’s Juan, reaping the benefits from chance encounters that reorganize their lives.

Nicolás Guillén in a post revolutionary photograph collected in Cuba

Nicolás Guillén in a post revolutionary photograph collected in Cuba

Having finally met Guillén and seen the provincial capital where he grew up I continued to try and imagine the story the Information Ministry photograph was telling. It was probably taken in 1959 either for the worker’s holiday on May 1st or perhaps for the first July 26th celebration commemorating the failed Moncada Barracks attack that kicked off Cuba’s revolution. All four in the photograph had endured periods in exile during the Fulgencio Batista era. Both Cienfuegos and Guillén were from poor backgrounds, Guillén, from Camagüey and Cienfuegos from an immigrant Spanish family from the La Habana suburbs. His family had been anarchists in Spain. Dorticós and Castro were both from educated, wealthy, landowning families. They were students together at the Havana University Law School in the ’40s and were baptized early in the often violent civil resistance movement.

The photograph is remarkable for the clarity with which it captures each man. Guillén on the far right is the only one looking at the camera. He was a populist poet, whose direct appeal to Cuba’s new class of literate blacks was just beginning to take off. He was their social and artistic voice. His glaring presence reaches beyond the celebratory moment.

A 1959 portrait of the Cuban Revolution

A 1959 portrait of the Cuban Revolution

After twenty years in exile, Guillén had returned to Cuba in 1959 as a fierce partisan for the revolution, and remained there until his death. In the photograph you get a sense of his profound purpose and commitment. But there, in the shadow of Fidel’s arm, which lies across Guillén’s chest, there is a sense that Castro would eventually darken the optimism of Tengo’s brave new world. The literary censorship and eventual imprisonment of writers such as Reinaldo Arenas and others prior to the Mariel exodus would prove the point that only certain kinds of writing were going to be good for Cuba.

Standing stiffly on the other side of Fidel Castro is Dorticós, distant and uncomfortable in his suit and heavy, black framed glasses. He has no idea how to play to the crowd. His wave seems apologetic. He was a bureaucrat who had been an architect of the new Cuban constitution and had drafted much of the Revolution’s agrarian reform legislation. Sandwiched between Castro and Cienfuegos, Dorticós looks almost comically formal and out of place.

On Fidel’s right is Camilo Cienfuegos. Of all the first rank revolutionaries, he was the most genuine but also the most naïve. He could have been the “hombre sincero” of Jose Marti’s Guantanamera verses. Cienfuegos and his small plane disappeared mysteriously in October of 1959 on a routine flight returning from Camagüey. He had been sent there by Castro to arrest Huber Matos, the revolutionary commander in Camagüey who had been accused of counter-revolutionary activities. The plane was never found but there is at least one account of a meeting in Varadero at a small airport where both Cienfuegos and his plane had been identified. That informant testified that Cienfuegos had been shot due to his reluctance to carry out the arrest orders against his friend, Matos. In the
photograph, he is laughing and looking away over his shoulder. Cienfuegos was probably the best liked of the Sierra Maestra revolutionaries. He had a salt of the earth personality and an incorruptible sense of honesty that set him apart from Castro and Che Guevara.   Looking at the photo you see a man who may not have understood that his style and popularity might be a threat to the expansive political ambitions of Guevara and Castro.

Fidel is the unquestioned focus of the photograph. The handwritten notation on the back of the photograph says simply: Cmdte Fidel Castro. The others are not even mentioned. He is dressed in his fatigues, pistol strapped to his waist, and sporting the trademark beret and beard, the whole revolutionary nine yards. He seems to own the moment, looking beyond the camera and the crowd as if admiring his own future in a timeless, all-purpose photo op. In the early ’50s before he was imprisoned on the Isle of Pines he gave a fiery speech at his trial saying that history would absolve him for his  violent campaign to remake Cuba. In his four hour rebuke of the Batista regime he invoked Martí as the intellectual author of the Castro revolution. “La historia me absolverá”, Castro had shouted as he wagged his finger at the court. Seven years later, under a sunny, cloudless Havana sky, it was hard to argue with his prediction or the way things had turned out.

In his era, Guillén was something of a novelty. Cuba’s literary world had been intellectual and white. Guillén was a proud, home-grown Afro-Cuban. When I showed my photographs to some of my older Cuban friends in the U.S., many were shocked. “Everybody is black”, they would say in disbelief! The white middle class began to leave in droves even before the revolution. The mass exodus continued through the chaos of the Mariel boatlift after which stricter embargo provisions were put in place by both the U.S. and Cuba. As a result of the policies of the revolution the black underclass had moved up and had come to occupy a more prominent and equal position in society. The view from the street now looked very different. Afro-Cubans were finally being given a chance to participate. Guillén made his iconic poem for them!

Tengo/ in Spanish    Guillén’s poem

3 responses to ““TENGO”: Travelling Cuba with a Revolutionary Poet

  1. Love it. You have a grasp on Cuba, it’s history, slow crawl into the 21st century and its byzantine machinations (which was always the case, except the new god is Money) that few NorteAmericanos possess. Hat’s off my friend. —Rafa


  2. Very nice account of your travels to cuba and the ever-changing political climate. Let’s see what this new period brings. Thanks for introducing me to “tengo.” I didn’t know about that poem before.


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