Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution
by Alice Walker
Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Color Purple has been celebrated as a modern literary classic and was made into a film and theatrical musical. ...
This article is adapted from her introduction to Nancy Stout’s One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press
The people in this book who were tortured, assassinated, disappeared, left me yearning for and missing them. For instance, Frank País—a young schoolteacher of twenty who was the other comandante, Fidel’s partner in guiding the overthrow of the dictator, and Celia’s primary contact in the early days of the Revolution—was murdered by Batista’s police a month after his younger brother, Josué, had been killed by them. Their mother, Rosário, who claimed their bodies, is now gone too, yet I am still able, as I experience their story, to feel some of her agony. And that of two indomitable rebel women, Clodomira and Lydia, tortured sadistically before they died in the custody of the police. Much of the world continues to grieve the loss to humanity of Ché Guevara, assassinated so young and with so much still to offer, but he is far from the only astonishing person who is missing, and played a role in Celia’s Revolution and her story.
Cuba has suffered so much I sometimes think of it as the country whose greatest wealth is the people’s collective experience of deeply shared emotion. All those who struggled so bravely and died, sometimes horribly, were passionately loved and appreciated by the revolutionaries they left behind, and strengthened. I believe it is the glue of this mutually lived history, and the hope of creating a free and healthy Cuba that, even today, holds the country together. In this book we see some of the cost of seeking to live one’s own way, charting and being drawn by one’s own destiny. These fallen heroes, women and men, young and old, many of them revealed for the first time in this book, are cause to mourn.
But just as much, and also as revealed in this book, cause to celebrate, or simply to admire.
Reading this story we see precisely why Fidel Castro adored Celia Sánchez and why Ché and Celia were good friends. All three of these revolutionaries were persons of the highest moral character and integrity; deeply human also in their transgressions and imperfections, they were equals of the fiercest sort. There was also a price on all their heads.
We see something else as well: that the women of Cuba were full participants in the Revolution, combatants, covert operatives, and even co-instigators. It was in fact Celia and Haydée Santamaría who, early on and with other women, took up arms to fight the dictatorship. Celia, the daughter of a doctor, who frequently helped her father in his attendance to the poor, a society girl and high-school beauty queen, this woman who wore red lipstick, wide skirts, high heels (and would wear high heels with her rebel army uniform when she felt like it) took to the mountains of eastern Cuba with Fidel, Ché, and other revolutionaries no less brave but far less known, and placed her life against the killing machine of wealth, corruption, and depravity that so insulted and wounded her beloved country.
I love this book. Biographer Nancy Stout is to be congratulated for her insightful, mature, and sometimes droll exploration of a profoundly liberated, adventuresome, and driven personality. I love the life of Celia Sánchez, a life that was singular, sui generis, and true to its time of revolution and change in Cuban society, but also archetypal in its impact and relevance to all times of social struggle and revolt, including this one, in which Cuba’s archenemy, the government of the United States, is also experiencing transformation. To fight the demons that have overtaken us, and to lead the world back to its senses, such an intrepid woman warrior would have to exist: a Durga, a Kali. A Celia.
Knowing her as well as I now believe I do, I ask myself: Did we meet? I remember visiting Cuba for the first time in 1978. Celia would have been very ill by then; she died in 1980. I do recall a visit to the Federation of Cuban Women and if I’m not mistaken I met Vilma Espín, another remarkable revolutionary, and perhaps Haydée Santamaría, whom I surely had “met” in the story of the torture and murder of her brother Abel, one of those captured after the attack on the Moncada garrison in 1953. I remember Haydée especially for her reply to the guard who brought her one of her brother’s eyes: if he would not talk, nor can I.
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