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Heberto Padilla, criollismo, costumbrismo, literary movements, Prague Spring

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The Cuban people began articulating nationalist ideas in literature, art, and music during the 19th century. European colonists in Cuba did not develop an independent culture earlier because the island was only a shipping and military outpost and not a great administrative or mining center while part of the Spanish Empire. Early Cuban authors of importance, such as 19th century writers Maria de las Mercedes Santa Cruz y Montalvo, better known as La Condesa de Merlin, and Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, lived and wrote in Spain rather than in their homeland. The influences of the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the American Revolution (1775-1783) awoke Cubans to the possibilities of social and economic change, and stimulated intellectuals to become involved in nationalist and independence movements.

Romanticism, an artistic and literary movement stressing freedom of expression and a reliance on imagination, first appeared in Cuba in the early 19th century with the early poetry of Jose Maria de Heredia. Cuban romanticism was the genesis of national patriotism, but Spain’s repression of free speech and artistic expression forced nationalistic romanticism to focus on the beauty of nature and the spirituality of the people rather than on political freedoms. Later in his career Heredia joined the Parnassian school, a reaction against romanticism. Artists of this school focused on technical perfection and an impersonal attitude in their art. Heredia’s poetry straddled these two literary movements. Many artists and thinkers of the romantic period were influenced by Father Felix Varela y Morales, a professor at the Seminary of San Carlos in Havana. Originally a supporter of Spain’s constitutional monarchy and limited self-government in the colonies, he later became an advocate of complete independence from Spain.

Submovements within romanticism were introduced by writers such as Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes (known as Placido) and Juan Francisco Manzano, a former slave. They illustrated the unique facets of Cuban national characteristics through submovements within romanticism such as costumbrismo, an art form that satirized social types within Cuban society, particularly the mulattoes. Other social types were portrayed in criollismo and siboneyismo, which dealt with the daily lives of Creoles and Native Americans, respectively.

In the last half of the 19th century, a second period of romanticism began as artists were seized by the idea of Cuban independence from Spain. Writing moved from caricatures of Cuban society, nature, and regional language styles to elegant writing and literary imaging. Cuban romanticism differed from European romanticism in several important aspects. It emphasized racial complexity rather than the exaltation of upper-class individualism. Cuban romanticism expressed a positive attitude toward life, whereas European romanticism often exhibited heavy undertones of melancholy and a fascination with self-destructive tendencies. While contemporary European artists often dealt with the subject of nature and the simplicity of rural life, the hope of national sovereignty remained the central theme running through Cuba’s romantic movement.

Modernism coincided with romanticism at the end of the 19th century and ultimately replaced it in the 20th century. Modernism is an artistic movement characterized by a concentration on art for art’s sake, or by emphasis on the beauty of structure in language and art. Cuban modernism was short-lived and pertained to only a few artists, including writer and revolutionary Jose Marti, the father of Cuban independence, and poet Julian del Casal. Cuban modernism gained influence at the same time that U.S. citizens were investing in Cuba, which opened Cuban writers to increased contact with foreign literature. This was a period when calls for political, economic, and cultural change appeared in all literary genres. This era gave way to postmodernism within the first decade of independence.

Postmodernism emerged in 1909, just after the first democratically elected presidential term ended with U.S. military occupation. Corruption, economic ineffectiveness, and full dependence upon the United States undermined the ability of any government to control state matters peacefully. People of different political persuasions agreed that the renovation of past ideas about independence and sovereignty was necessary. Many postmodernists advocated specific political resolutions to Cuba’s postindependence confusion, and some sought authentic cultural expression in a blend of African and Spanish language and visual design.

In 1923 leftist activists began organizing against government corruption. Broader democratic participation and social justice for all Cubans were demanded by protest groups, such as the University Student Union, the First National Congress of Students, the First National Women’s Congress, the Protest of the Thirteen, the Grupo Minorista, and the Universidad Popular Jose Marti. The Grupo Minorista, an informal association of writers and artists, was the forerunner of the literary vanguard movement that unified between 1927 and 1933 against President Gerardo Machado’s illegitimate government. As a movement, Cuban vanguardism brushed aside established styles through disruptive or unconventional techniques. Vanguardists were characterized by a mixture of modern artistic movements. The political nature of their movement was, however, the tool of their destruction. Between 1934 and 1958, vanguardism dissolved into various political factions as former allies became bitter enemies over a variety of political issues affecting Cuba’s future.

Following the 1959 revolution, Cuba’s artistic freedom came to an end. The new government selected writers and artists to publish and create as long as they did not obviously criticize the government. Government efforts to control artistic expression isolated Cuban artists and thinkers from the bold, antiestablishment artistic movements in the United States and Europe. People such as writer Juan Marinello spent their energies running literary organizations supportive of socialist ideals rather than creating. A number of Cuba’s liberals and progressives, such as painter Jorge Camacho, went into exile in protest. Camacho and other Cuban painters went to France in 1959 on a grant from the Cuban government. Camacho became disillusioned with the Cuban Revolution when Castro supported the Soviet Union’s crackdown on Czechoslovakia in 1968 following Czechoslovakia’s Communist government’s experimentation with reforms (Prague Spring). Even Communist novelist Alejo Carpentier published his prorevolutionary pieces from Paris. Occasional purges of artists occurred, the most famous case being that of Heberto Padilla, a poet who won a prize in 1968 for his collected poetry entitled Fuera del juego. He was forced to leave Cuba in 1969 for the suggestions in those poems that the revolution limited human freedom. Entire colonies of Cuban artists live in exile, particularly in Mexico, Spain, and the United States, because their work criticized the revolution.

New generations of Cuban artists born after 1959 began to present mature works in the 1980s. After 1975 some leniency allowed artists and writers to take up nonrevolutionary themes, as long as the government did not come under criticism. Young writers and artists did not showcase overt political critiques, but looked inward to describe the psychological anguish of a revolution in crisis. The Novisimos, as the writers of the 1990s were known, distanced themselves from the revolution and often parodied communist lifestyles.

Only a few intrepid intellectuals have dared to direct their accusations at the government. Exile was the only alternative for dissenters, and some people chose to leave Cuba rather than limit the expression of their frustration. Poet Maria Elena Cruz Varela, who pointed out that Castro’s restrictions made Cubans all the more vulnerable to capitalist influences, was forced to eat the paper upon which her poems were written in a public act of repudiation. She was also imprisoned for two years for sedition between 1992 and 1994.



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