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Antes que anochezca, Jose Maria Heredia, Gertrudis Gomez, Nicolas Guillen, Reinaldo Arenas

In the last decades of the 19th century, two great romantic poets, Manuel de Zequeira y Arango and Manuel Justo Rubalcava, explored Cuba’s natural beauty. Romanticism stimulated thinking about national independence. Writers such as Jose Maria Heredia, Jose Jacinto Milanes, Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, Cirilo Villaverde, Joaquin Lorenzo Luaces, Juan Clemente Zenea, and Jose Antonio Saco lived in exile because of their militancy in favor of independence. All created visions of an independent nation and sovereign people in their works, although each came from different perspectives. Both Heredia and Avellaneda attacked the institution of slavery and proposed that the success of an independent Cuba rested on educating women and former slaves. Villaverde depicted the vanity and social climbing intentions of the mulatto population. Saco insisted that Afro-Cubans had to be held at the base of the social ladder because he believed they were not capable of governing or participating in the functions of an ordered society.

From 1880 to 1910 the modernist movement was led by writers Jose Marti, Julian del Casal, Juana Borrero, and Jose Manuel Poveda. Originally a romantic poet, Marti is said to have initiated modernism in Cuba with his 1882 collection of poetry entitled Ismaelillo. His work presented nationalist ideals like that of his romantic contemporaries, but he surpassed their arguments with a sentimental power expressed through artistic reference to colors, the physical senses, and emotion. Besides his poetry, Marti was a journalist who wrote for Latin American newspapers. He was also one of the most articulate organizers for Cuban independence from Spain.

Particularly dynamic were writers from eastern Cuba who were completely disenchanted with Havana’s mediocre political society and uninspiring, self-serving writers. In 1913 a group of writers in Oriente province issued a manifesto announcing their determination to bring life to the nationalist spirit that represented the passion of the Cuban people and their rejection of the sterile, formal, and dogmatic sentimentality they felt characterized Havana’s literary leadership. Most notable among the Oriente dissenters were Jose Manuel Poveda, Regino E. Boti, Agustin Acosta, Medardo Vitier, Hilarion Cabrisas, and Miguel Carrion.

The avant-garde movement began in 1923 with the formation of El Grupo Minorista, a group of young intellectuals who published their ideas in the magazine La Revista de Avance, first published in 1927. In 1944 the poet Jose Lezama Lima founded Origenes, one of the most important literary and artistic magazines in Cuba and the Americas. It presented developing art in Europe and the Americas, and it conducted a dialogue among artists about artistic expression. Origenes placed Cuban artists among the world’s most renowned writers, painters, philosophers, and composers. It also drew Cuban attention away from its own situation and struck a connection with the rest of the art world.

After the 1959 revolution, the Lunes de Revolucion was the main publication for emerging writers. Criticizing previous generations for their middle- and upper-class affiliations, it invited writers and artists to introduce new themes, such as race and class divisions. The publication presented art and literature that reflected the social, economic, and political realities of life. At the same time, the editors rejected any suggestion that they were socialists or political activists of any bent.

After 1961 the revolution’s leadership was more secure, but the test of whether Castro could implement profound reforms was in question. Censorship curtailed artistic expression and supported prorevolutionary works. Writers who remained in Cuba faced government intolerance of any nonrevolutionary or counterrevolutionary ideas in literature. Nicolas Guillen, a well-known black poet, channeled his talents toward promoting greater revolutionary ideals such as racial and social integration.

Many leading writers in Cuba left for exile so that they could develop their thoughts freely. Among those who left were novelist, film critic, and essayist Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who went to London in 1965 and consistently published works critical of the revolution. Reinaldo Arenas worked at Cuba’s Jose Marti National Library and the Casa de las Americas, the nation’s most recognized publishing house, while he wrote poetry and novels. In 1980 he left Cuba and settled in New York City. His last book, Antes que anochezca (1993, translation Before Night Falls, 1993) is an autobiography that unmasks the revolution’s treatment of homosexuals and critical intellectuals. Cuban writers who chose exile had to overcome the difficulties of expressing themselves in foreign cultures and languages.

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