The Islands of Cuba: New York and Miguel Barnet’s La vida real

Any schema that seeks to oppose “Cuban identity” to “American identity” is false; as early as the middle of the nineteenth century, Cuban identity was shaped, nourished and colored by American identity, which was a consubstantial part of Cuban identity, one of its fundamental elements.
-José Manuel Prieto(1)





Regina Galasso, CUNY

I. Introduction

     In late 2009, during a lecture at The City University of New York, Dr. Eduardo Torres Cuevas, Director of José Martí National Library of Cuba, first addressed the audience by highlighting Cubans’ familiarity with New York City and the city’s integral role with regard to the Cuban condition, Cubanness, or cubanidad. He stated that New York was a mandatory visit for nineteenth-century Cuban intellectuals, and when speaking about Cuban literature, art, and music in general, he shared, “we [Cubans] can feel the presence of New York.” His amicable introduction and his readiness to underline the dependency of Cuban culture on New York were a reminder of the existence of Cuban literary and cultural production in the city, dating back to the earlynineteenth century. Authors like Félix Varela (1788-1853), José María Heredia (1803-1839), and Cirilo Villaverde (1812-94), followed by Miguel Teurbe Tolón y de la Guardia (1820-57), Juan Clemente Zenea (1832-71), and Pedro Santacilia (1834-1910) all consider New York a site from which they were able to develop their art and mature as writers.(2) Their literary descendents, and more contemporary examples for whom New York has played a fundamental role, include Nicolás Guillén (1902-89), Eugenio Florit (1903-99), Lourdes Casal (1938-81), Reinaldo Arenas (1943-90), Lourdes Gil (1951), and José Manuel Prieto (1962).(3) The characteristics and tendencies of these writers are varied, as are their reasons for traveling to New York; however, their disparities help to clarify that Cuba’s link to New York is long-standing, rather than a recent trend.
     The most prominent name associated with Cubans in New York belongs to the latter half of the nineteenth century: José Martí (1853-1895). “Foundational figure” and “literary patriarch” are terms the poet and literary critic Dionisio Cañas uses to describe Martí in the context of not only Cuban writing but also Hispanic literature in New York (687). Martí arrived on January 3, 1880 and remained in the city for about 15 years as a “professor, journalist, children’s writer, consul, clerk, translator, and political ideologue of Cuban Independence” (Cañas 687).(4) The many hats he wore demonstrate the active literary life Martí enjoyed while living in New York hinting at the larger networks of the city’s Spanish-language culture at the time. Martí’s relationship with New York is celebrated through his writings as well as the bronze equestrian statue of him that stands at the north entrance to Central Park at Avenue of the Americas.(5) Miguel Barnet (1940) also paid homage to Martí’s New York experience with his fourth testimonial novel La vida real (1986).(6)
     Thanks to the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Barnet spent nearly a year during the mid eighties in New York conducting research for La vida real. He examined printed sources such as Gráfico and the New York-daily newspapers La Prensa and El Diario de Nueva York,(7) and interviewed anonymous immigrants, mostly from Casa de las Américas, whose voices he would unite to shape the narrator-protagonist Julián Mesa. In La vida real, Julián, a Cuban-born resident of New York, recounts his life beginning in the 1930s with his early childhood years in the Cuban countryside, followed by his move and time in Havana during the 1940s, and finally his arrival in New York before the Revolution. Rather than losing touch with Cuba, Julián struggles to keep Cuba alive through language, newspapers, social clubs, radio, and letters. La vida real also highlights the Spanish-language communities in New York and acknowledges the important events that took place in this city which are fundamental to the history of Cuba.
     When Barnet publicly revealed that La vida real is a tribute to Martí, his words did nothing more than verify what the novel already implies. First, the very name of the narrator-protagonist Julián Mesa alludes to the nineteenth-century author’s full name: José Julián Martí Pérez. Next, it’s not only the name that he shares with him, but also a deep feeling of nostalgia. Nostalgia plagues the final and longest section of the novel titled “La emigración” that opens with the epigraph “No hay casa en tierra ajena” (208), a quote from Martí written “durante su dramática experiencia personal” as explained by Barnet (Introducción 7). This epigraph, besides directly recalling Martí’s New York, connects Julián to the larger tracks of Cuban culture and history and communicates the permanent longing for the homeland that Julián, Martí, and other Cubans have experienced.
     Despite Barnet’s eminent place as a writer, his tribute to a widely-studied author like Martí, and the visible presence that Cubans have had in the New York area, La vida real has not been widely recognized for its treatment of Cuba beyond Cuba, or even on a purely literary level, for its vivid descriptions of New York Hispanic culture.(8) In this article, I discuss Julián as a spokesperson for a broader recognition of the importance of New York for Cuba and especially for the events leading up to 1959 as way to feel close to Cuba. I situate La vida real among Barnet’s other testimonial novels revealing how this title, while completing a chapter of Cuban national history, begins a new one about the scarcely documented history of Hispanic New York. Further, I argue that La vida real overlaps Cuban history and culture with that of New York, challenging the location and limits of each, and should therefore be read as part of the vast corpus of Hispanic writing in New York.(9)
     Barnet’s testimonial novels (10) --Biografía de un cimarrón (1966), La canción de Rachel (1969), Gallego (1983), and La vida real (1986) (11)--all deal with migration. The first three novels address migration to Cuba from Africa, Eastern Europe (although Rachel was born in Cuba, she is the child of German and Hungarian emigrants), and Spain respectively, while La vida real presents a character thatmoves away from Cuba; however, all contribute to a broader understanding of cubanidad. In particular, Elzbieta Sklodowska explains that La vida real, “adds a few more chapters to his [Barnet’s] narrative synthesis of the last hundred years of Cuban political and cultural history, covering the era of Batista rule and particularly the problem of Cuban immigration to the United States” (Miguel Barnet 64). Further, La vida real stands out in his series of testimonial novels for taking Cuba outside of Cuba: the majority of the book happens off the Caribbean island and testifies to the existence of an active Cuban community beyond its geographic borders. This departure from the island, however, does not distance La vida real from Barnet’s compendium of marginal Cuban identities. The totality of his project is articulated in his discussion of testimonial novels in general: “[e]l superobjetivo del gestor de la novela-testimonio es más funcional, más práctico. Debe servir como eslabón de una larga cadena en la tradición de su país. Debe contribuir a articular la memoria colectiva, el nosotros y no el yo” (La novela testimonio 142). Therefore none of these novels exists in isolation; they are all connected and all respond to voids in Cuban history and culture.
     As La vida real links Julián to a diverse community of Cubans and other Hispanics with a visible presence and long-established history in the city, this gesture takes Barnet’s testimonial novel project a step further, it adds another layer of distinction by pushing Barnet into the same marginality as his main character. In other words, in Barnet’s “Cuban” novels, the characters are singular examples of members of a peripheral population because of their race, gender, or class, whose stories become more visible thanks to an author who lives and writes in Spanish in Havana. On the other hand, in Barnet’s “New York” novel, he and his subject both belong to an overlooked Spanish-language culture and history of New York.

II. Writing from New York

     Besides paying homage to Martí, José Manuel Prieto proposes that Barnet used La vida real to settle conclusively his misunderstood alliance to Oscar Lewis (1914-70), American anthropologist and author of La vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty(1965) (xvi). In a 1981 interview, five years prior to the publication of La vida real, Barnet was inching away from Lewis by describing how the two authors work differently. For Barnet, Lewis’s process is “I write what you tell me and in the way you tell me,” while Barnet, on the other hand, invites and relies on auctorial imagination and creativity (“Documentary” 25). Since, La vida and La vida real both encompass the culture of New York’s El Barrio, the parodic relationship between the two texts is clearly denoted in their titles. Barnet’s addition of “real” to “la vida” questions Lewis’s methods, parts from them, and claims to exhibit a more truthful account of the same environment while relying on imaginative modes.
     In addition to responding to larger critical notions about Barnet’s testimonial ways of writing, La vida real joins other examples of Cuban writing that problematize the relationship between place, production, and national literature. In particular, the work of nineteenth-century Cuban writers also struggles to gain critical attention that does not rely on standardized notions of national literatures. In his study “Los Filibusteros: Cuban Writers in the United States and Deterritorialized Print Culture” on the newspaper publications of Cuban writers in New York and New Orleans during the 1840s and 1850s, Rodrigo J. Lazo has noted that these authors’ contributions to Cuban national literature have been emphasized, thus de-emphasizing their participation in the U.S. publishing arena. At the same time, these very writers have been marked as the precursors of Latino writing by scholars such as Kirsten Silva Gruesz (Lazo 89). While Lazo does not deny that “these texts and their writers could be viewed in relation to national and ethnic literary study,” he argues that their historical context and theoretical starting point encourage a reading “without integrating them into models that rest on the nation or contemporary ethnic labels” (89). My broader objective here is not to compare nineteenth-century Cuban New York writing to a twentieth-century example like La vida real; it is to show the continuity of Cuban writing in New York and, more importantly, to illustrate the critical treatment that La vida real shares with other texts. Barnet’s recognition as a Cuban writer with a novelistic project invested in developing a fuller understanding of Cuban history, associates La vida real with Cuban national literature in the same way that the authors mentioned by Lazo are emphasized in the Cuban context. At the same time, if La vida real does at all pierce the U.S. context, it does not do so as an early example of U.S.-based Latino literature, but rather as an immigrant novel, thus stressing its foreignness.
     In terms of U.S. Hispanic immigrant literature, Nicolás Kanellos lists five common categorical characteristics:
1) la descripción de la metropolí […]; 2) la descripción de la vejaciones y las tribulaciones de los inmigrantes, especialmente cuando llegan a los Estados Unidos […]; 3) el conflicto entre las culturas anglosajona e hispana; 4) la resistencia a la asimilación y la correspondiente promoción del nacionalismo […]; 5) el conflicto entre las clases sociales (xxxiii-xxxiv).
     The divisions, oppositions, contradictions, and comparisons that immigrant writing exhibit are not absent in La vida real but their presence should not readily force the novel into a restricted category thus limiting its possible readings. Luis Íñigo Madrigal outlines the spatial and temporal divisions of the novel and provides an interpretation of Julián’s comparison of Cuba and New York. Madrigal claims that for Julián “el ahora de ‘allá’ es superior a su ‘entonces’ y el ‘entonces’ de ‘aquí’ lo es a su ‘ahora’” (149). In doing so, Madrigal’s discussion of the novel upholds divisions not only spatially and temporally, but also psychologically. For Madrigal, Julián’s determination to feel close to Cuba and to be part of Cuba while living in New York represents a detachment from the New York community and a seclusion that leads to an experience understood by others who live in “tierra ajena” (156). Even though Madrigal’s reading of Julián’s lack of active engagement as a New Yorker is correct, the way in which he frames the totality of Julián’s experience simplifies his personal story. Madrigal suggests that the major changes occur once a national border is crossed, not accounting for the hardships or the alienation from which Julián suffers on his journey from the countryside to and in Havana. On the contrary, Ana García Chichester observes that Julián does not need to abandon the island of Cuba in order to be a victim of discrimination: “Mesa recalls his childhood and youth in Cuba, a country that treated him as an exile already, as a marginal being” (Cuban Ethnographer 97). Therefore, accepting a definite Cuba-New York divide reduces La vida real to an uneasy dichotomy, particularly considering the aim of Barnet’s testimonial project as explained by García Chichester: “Llenar los vacíos de la historia cubana y, de esta manera, contribuir al entendimiento de la identidad nacional” (La intención 144). Then, the objective of La vida real is not be to uphold strict boundaries, but instead to show their fluidity, or that aquí es parte de allá y entonces es parte de ahora.(12)
     Although La vida real does adhere to some traits of immigrant writing outlined by Kanellos, it is more successful in its attempt to defy them or at least to expand the diversity among them, in an effort to share an alternative story as told from an overlooked perspective. When Barnet was gathering information and writing La vida real, Cuba was a focal point within the larger framework of literature published in the U.S. mostly due to the rise of Cuban-American literature. Gustavo Pérez Firmat explains:

Since its emergence in the 1980s, Cuban-American literature has occupied an ambiguous place within the canon of imaginative writing by U.S. Latinos. As the only segment of this canon produced by political exiles and their children, this literature exhibits a nostalgic streak not shared--at least, not in the same degree--by Chicano, Dominican American, or U.S. Puerto Rican writers (16).

     Pérez Firmat extracts Cuban-American literature from the vast bibliography of U.S. Latino writing by underlining its connection with political exile. In a review of La vida real, Françoise Pérus discusses the novel with regard to Cuban political exiles: “muy probablemente, otros podrán leer en filigrana, como inter-discurso de Julián Mesa, muchos lugares comunes y muchas respuestas anticipadas--o no--a los espejismos de los ‘marielitos’ reales o virtuales” (165). La vida real responds to the political affiliations of this particular population, while upholding the nostalgic streak shared by other Cuban literatures associated with the U.S., and also breaks with U.S. Latino texts by presenting the story of a Cuban who comes to the U.S. prior to 1959 “en busca de un medio de vida mejor” (Introducción 7).
     La vida real is at odds with Cuban-Americanness. For Julián there is no hyphenated existence: “Cuando me preguntan: ‘Cuban-American?’Yo digo: ‘No, only Cuban” (213). Julián’s rejection of Cuban-Americanness comes from his inability to pledge any kind of allegiance to the U.S. not because he is outrightly opposed to the U.S., but because he cannot surrender his Cuban roots--“Lo de uno es lo de uno. Las raíces del cubano son muy hondas” (351). It is also necessary to consider the fact that Julián had difficulties securing a job in Havana and when he and his travel companion Miguelito had exhausted all possibilities, they planned their trip north with the hope of finding greater opportunities. In sum, Julián left Cuba as a young man with a past stricken with tremendous hardship: hunger, back-breaking work, little to nil formal education, deadly and immensely destructive fires, jail time, failed amorous relationships, a miscarried child, a deceased lover, and countless unstable jobs. Leaving Cuba was a chance to re-reinvent himself that was fueled by his “espíritu de trotamundos” (16) that he attributes to watching circus performers as a young boy in the Cuban countryside and his own involvement in the circus as an adolescent. I use “re-reinvent” himself because his first attempt at doing so was when he reached Havana: “Se había cumplido un sueño mío y empezaba para mí una vida nueva” (93). Julián’s aspiration to reinvent himself in Cuba also criticizes the typical characteristics of U.S. immigrant writing which present the chance for reinvention as something that is only sought once a national border is crossed.
     All this is to say that explicit political motives do not drive Julián to the U.S. In fact, the young Julián does not appear to be openly political. While in Havana he does witness some political manifestations like the one that occurred on the day Fulgencio Batista (1901-73) won the presidential election (October 10, 1940), but he does not seek active participation in them for he literally stumbles upon them:

Yo quería ver la capital, sobre todo en un día como ese, 10 de octubre y con la toma de posesión de un nuevo presidente. Y así como estaba de entripado cogí Muralla arriba sin rumbo fijo. Vine a parar al Parque Central pero el tumulto y el vocerío me llevaron hasta las puertas del Palacio Presidencial, entre aquel molete de gentes apiñadas allí, bajo el aguacero. (94-95; my emphasis)

     Julián was passively thrown into the celebration surrounding Batista’s inauguration, and observed the spectacle before him. The Julián of Havana, although physically present at his swearing-in ceremony, does not critique the rise of Batista to his power; instead he observes that “la gente celebraba la elección de Batista” (95). The use of the third person “la gente” emphasizes Julián’s role as a spectator at that moment.
     Any direct comment that he makes about politics with regard to the time he lived in Cuba comes from the New York Julián. In New York his political sensibilities awaken as a result of access to newspapers, social clubs, and other politically active New Yorkers. It is the older Julián, the one who gives the biographical account, who is sympathetic to the Revolution, praises it, and believes that it has made positive changes for Cuba even though he has never experienced life in Cuba with the Castro government in power. Julián, when he left Cuba, was a guajiro who was down on his luck and imagined a better life for himself elsewhere. Julián’s later political statements are to be understood as gestures that bring him closer to Cuba. And while his desire to return to Cuba grows, his motivation to act decreases: “Me hago la idea de que como en el fondo soy guajiro, tanta agitación así ya no me nace” (296). Presenting Julián as a non-political exile who develops a favorable opinion of revolutionary Cuba, however, does serve a purpose in that it secures the position of La vida real as a novel about a different, not often seen, side of the complex politics of Cubans in the U.S. in literary works.(13)
     In Barnet’s introduction to La vida real, he observes a void in the corpus of U.S. Hispanic immigrant writing:

Todas las vidas humanas son importantes. Sin embargo, ciertas vidas acusan rasgos más sobresalientes que otras. La vida de los emigrados hispanos en Nueva York es una de ellas. No he conocido hasta ahora una sola obra que muestre el sentimiento de dolor y de insatisfacción del emigrado cubano en tierras del Norte. Patrones de cultura demasiado abstractos y modos de vida estereotipados han sido, lamentablemente, los indicadores más comunes para describir la vida de los emigrados hispanos en general. (Introducción 5)

     Barnet recognizes that cubanos in the U.S. context are part of a population of hispanos with multinational origins. Therefore in response to immigrant literature, La vida real strives to make up for an absence in this genre and presents an alternative to the widespread ways of depicting the Hispanic experience in New York. Julián’s repeated references to Martí and other Cubans expose the long presence of Cubans in New York in such a way that Julián claims parts of New York for Cuba. Julián, suffering from a bad case of nostalgia and the painful realization that he will never again live in Cuba--“Voy a morirme aquí porque ya estoy muy viejo para iniciar una vida nueva” (213-14)--searches New York to find Cuba and that is his contribution to his country’s history and culture. Juliánis not an exile but rather a Cuban, due to a series of personal circumstances, living in New York. La vida real not only reveals a marginalized figure within Cuban culture and history, but also the novel itself presents a peripheral perspective within U.S. Hispanic literature.
     Upon Julián’s inebriated arrival in New York, he comments that “Manhattan era una cocuyera” (221). The comparison of the city to a glowworm in the pitch-black nights of the Cuban countryside where Julián spent his childhood is an attempt to articulate his awe upon seeing the unfamiliar site for the first time and to insist on a parallel or continuity. This way of registering New York, however, is not just an immediate reaction to a new place; it stays with him over the years he spends in the city. In the novel’s closing scene, Julián stares at the snow falling on the streets of New York and compares it to shaved coconut revealing that the passage of time does nothing to erase his Cuban-coated visions of New York. These two images help support the novel’s aim to treat New York as an extension of Cuba by not allowing for a psychological distance between Julián and Cuba--“Por eso hoy me siento tan cubano a pesar de la distancia” (132). Through Julián, Barnet not only adds another emigrant character to his testimonial novel series and close a gap in Cuban political and cultural history, but he is also able to talk about Manhattan as another island of Cuba.

III. Nueva York (14)

     Julián’s sentiment of proximity to Cuba never diminishes despite the obstacles that time and distance propose: “a mí me parece que no he salido nunca de Cuba” (318). Although Julián’s words are not to be taken literally, the strong presence of Cuba both in his imagination and in tangible, historical terms, throws into question the importance of being on or off the island of Cuba for Cuban identity, history, and culture at large.(15)
     Besides being overwhelmed by what he sees, upon his arrival, Julián is also amazed by what he hears in New York City. One of the first things he notices while walking down Sixth Avenue is the Spanish language: “Me llamó mucha la atención ver como en un grupo de gentes cualquiera había alguien que hablaba español” (223). The notable usage of the Spanish language along with the fact that Julián already had a contact from Cuba--José Díaz, an emigrant of an older generation--in the city, lessen the degree to which the transition into New York City life could be problematic. Therefore, language, one of the possible tribulations of the immigrant experience, has not obstructed Julián’s move to New York. He also regularly reads and collects Spanish-language newspapers from New York (La Prensa and El Imparcial) and Cuban national publications (Bohemia), a habit he did not have while living in Havana. Furthermore, Julián names the outlets, such as Casa de las Américas, in New York where he can find expressions of Cuban nationality. Moving to New York, in his early thirties, has not forced Julián to resign his mother tongue--“Ya aquí casi todos hablan español. Yo siento muy orgulloso de ser cubano, y hablo mi idioma para que me oigan” (232)--and although he cannot touch, see, or smell the island of Cuba, his example shows that New York, as a Spanish-speaking city, is part of Cuba.
     Julián’s relationships are not permanently severed either once he moves away from Cuba. In fact, the two relationships that were most dear to him and essential for his survival in Havana follow him and even mature in New York. While his best friend, Miguelito, an aspiring singer, is there to offer him an invaluable friendship, Eva La Libanesa, another emigrant to Cuba and the woman who acted as one of Julián’s benefactors in Havana, eventually joins him until her death, upon which he is able to repay her by giving her a decent burial. Language and characters provide fluidity to Julián’s experiences on the two islands. Living in New York brings Julián him back to Cuba as never before.
     When Barnet was granted the opportunity to research and write in New York as a Guggenheim Fellow--“una de las grandes experiencias de mi vida”--he was impressed by the city’s large Hispanic population and particularly by the close connections among Puerto Ricans and Cubans. In order to personify the profound relationship between Puerto Rico and Cuba in the New York context, Barnet confesses he invented Celia, Julián’s wife. Mexicans, however, according to Barnet, did not have positive relations with Cubans, which is translated in the novel by Julián’s unfortunate experiences with his dishonest, often intoxicated employee El Mexica. El Mexica, though, was responsible for introducing Julián to Celia. These characters embody the tensions and alliances between different national groups and the diversity and dynamics of the Nueva York community.
     La vida real also maps out physical locations that mark the history of Cubans in the city. Besides the Central Park statue of Martí, which every January 28 attracts Cubans of opposing political orientations (330), Julián cites places where Martí had been and lived in New York during the nineteenth century: “en Front Street y en la 29” (329). However, he is disturbed that the city has not acknowledged Martí’s residence in New York:

En Cooper Union, por ejemplo, Martí habló cuando el memorial a Carlos Marx. Sin embargo, el tablet de la pared de Saint Marks Street relaciona a muchos oradores, entre ellos a Abraham Lincoln, pero de Martí no dice nada, a pesar de los años que él vivió en esta ciudad. (16) (329)

     His example shows that the Anglo-American figures are well preserved in the history of New York, while Cuban figures go unrecognized. Julián advocates for the acknowledgement of these events, people, and places: “y esa historia hay que recogerla” (329). Julián focuses mostly on retrieving the New York history of major historical figures like Martí, Fidel Castro (1926), and Camilo Cienfuegos (1932-59), instead of the “thriving political community” of the nineteenth century that “allowed Puerto Ricans and Cubans to reimagine a distinct Antillean nation and identity while still remaining loyal to their own notions of what constituted an individual Puerto Rican and Cuban nation” (Mirabal 59). In other words, Julián dismisses what the wide-lens snapshot of pre-Martí New York would show. On the one hand, this exclusion could be related to the fact that Barnet’s testimonial novel project is anchored in twentieth-century political and cultural history. On the other, Julián, as a self-educated spokesperson for the Cuban history and culture of New York, gathers his information from two main sources within his network.
     The first source coincides with Julián’s actual time in New York and is composed of his daily readings of the newspaper and his own experiences or observations. The second is an informant, his mentor Díaz who arrived in New York in 1928 in search of more employment opportunities after the re-election of Gerardo Machado (1871-1939) in Cuba. Díaz, a leftist, does not impose his political beliefs on Julián, but rather in a matter-of-fact way briefly tells Julián about the working conditions and the social clubs of the Cuban and Hispanic community, introduces him to some veteran members of the community, and gives him some practical advice about living in the city. He learns from Díaz that fellow Cuban Pablo de la Torriente Brau (1901-36) spoke in New York before dying in the Spanish Civil War, and that other members of the community went to Spain to join the Lincoln Brigade.(17) Through this example, Julián’s testimony of what Díaz shared calls attention to the participation of Hispanic New Yorkers in major international issues and to the fabric of a unique pan-Hispanic identity founded in the city that reaches beyond its borders. Díaz, however, plays a minor role in Julián’s overall account, therefore limiting the novel’s historical perspective and principal interest to Julián’s years in New York.
     Julián’s learns about Castro for the first time while in New York--“La primera vez que oí hablar de Fidel Castro, fue acabado de llegar yo a Nueva York” (165). Julián left a Cuba that was governed by Carlos Prío Socarrás (1903-77), and although Castro spoke out against his government in Cuba, it was publicized in the New York newspapers. Julián did not have to wait to receive the news--“aquí nos llegó enseguida”--and Castro began to accumulate supporters in New York (165-66). The novel shows that it was not only knowledge of Castro’s discourse and actions that interested a sector of the Cuban population in New York, but also how New Yorkers actively participated and contributed to the triumph of the Revolution.
     Julián was abreast of the events leading up to the Revolution, and he supported it, but he was not a leader in mobilizing the community. Thinking about the Revolution relieved him of his constant nostalgia and desire to feel close to Cuba: “Nada unió más al cubano que la Revolución. Teníamos motivo para hablar de Cuba” (334). On the contrary, it was his wife Celia who took the lead in the couple’s involvement in politically motivated events. Celia and “muchas otras boricuas” tirelessly walked from one Cuban community to another collecting money for supplies for the Cuban Sierra (334). Julián just accompanied her. Likewise, when Batista left Cuba, it was Miguelito who delivered the news to Julián and the two went outside to celebrate in the streets. After the triumph of the Revolution, Julián’s life, according to his testimony, becomes less interested in politics. Although he does go with his wife and other friends to some political protests, such as anti-Vietnam demonstrations, and makes statements that clearly support the Revolution, he spends increasingly more time in his neighborhood, in the basement of his Chelsea apartment building reading the newspaper and dreaming about Cuba: “Si paso tanto tiempo en el sótano es por las revistas y los periódicos cubanos. Eso sí no me puede faltar. Mi hija me critica mucho cuando viene a Chelsea, dice que soy un ratón porque no quiero salir del sótano” (369).
     La vida real writes a part of New York history from a different perspective: a non-Anglophone oriented history. In Chelsea, besides other Cubans, Julián is in contact with Puerto Ricans, Ecuadorians, and Colombians as well as Spanish-speaking New Yorkers of non-Hispanic origin. Julián remembers the words pronounced by a Puerto Rican politician in a meeting at Manhattan Center: “América Latina comienza en Nueva York” (298). He supports this statement giving a simplistic interpretation of it:

Y es verdad. Las calles latinas de Brooklyn son hormigueros, sobre todo en El Red Hook y en Los Sures. Allí Miguelito estaba en su salsa. Los piquetes de tambores, las guerrillas tocando rumba, bombas boricuas o chachachás pululaban por doquiera. Lo mismo se encuentra uno allí con un coro de pentecostales, que con un conjunto de salsa o un grupo de jóvenes bailando la música de hoy. El break dance: puro acrobacia, maromas para gente ágil y muy joven. Ese era el ambiente de los barrios de Brooklyn. (298-99)

     Julián observes the many people, sounds, and expressions of cultural identity that he connects with Latin America.(18) However, the idea of Latin America starting in New York has meaning beyond a visible representation of people from different countries and a linguistic presence.
     García Chichester understands the politician’s statement to address the “disolución de las fronteras nacionales en el texto” and identifies the force of Martí behind these words (La intención 162). She states “el anhelo de este texto barnetiano es la unificación de la diáspora hispana” relating it to the nineteenth-century work of Martí and its unifying attempt with regard to Latin America (La intención 162). While her study hints at the totality of Cuban literature, culture, and history displayed by the novel, her work does not entirely recognize La vida real’s effort to highlight the role of New York within the history and culture of the Spanish-speaking world.
     The author’s involvement in testimonial writing is a problem of the genre and a number of scholars have explored its complications in the work of Barnet. For example, William Luis, in his article “The Politics of Memory and Miguel Barnet’s The Autobiography of a Run Away Slave,” says that “[Barnet] not only edited the interviews with Montejo, but also provided questions to guide and shape the ex-slave’s recollections and, therefore, the text, often motivated by his own interests” (480). Barnet, similarly, uses the character of Julián to extract a parallel history of the events leading up to January 1959 that took place in the New York area. Therefore, La vida real is a response to Cuban literary history, to U.S. Hispanic writing, and to the strong anti-Castro sentiment Barnet detects in U.S.-based writing.
     Julián’s vision of New York, at the time of his testimony, is limited to the dimensions of his small basement window of the building he supervises. He spends the majority of time in this underground space. The book ends with Julián mesmerized by the snow, which he imagines to be shaved coconut, falling on the streets of New York. However, when his daughter interrupts him by asking what he is doing, he responds:  “Estoy mirando el Prado de La Habana” (371). This fused image of New York and Cuba is a strong metaphor for what La vida real attempts to do as a novel with regard to its treatment of Cuban history and culture. Julián does provide descriptions of Nueva York--El Barrio, Chelsea, Red Hook, Los Sures, dancehalls, movie theaters--a community in which Cubans had a major role, but he alsoacts as a messenger of the key moments in New York building up to the Cuban Revolution. Julián is a messenger who after the triumph of the Revolution lives isolated from the rest of the community, tortured by his memories and his ideas about what Cuba must be like, and surrounded by his archive of periodicals. He is alone with his dreams of Cuba.

IV. Conclusions

     José Manuel Prieto and Dr. Eduardo Torres Cuevas both speak about the inseparable place of U.S. culture and history in cubanidad, and in doing so guide an understanding of La vida real’s positionin Barnet’s testimonial novel project, or support the necessity to go beyond the geographic and political borders of Cuba in order to make his cultural and historical portrait of twentieth-century Cuba more comprehensive. According to Barnet, Julián Mesa “quizás no sea representativo de un fenómeno social tan vasto y abigarrado,” as he mentions his character’s marginality to both Cuban and New York history (“Introducción” 5-6). However, Julián’s journey to New York does not distance him from Cuba, but rather allows him to experience a new, unknown side of Cuba, and an alternative Cuba. Barnet has filled another gap in Cuban history as well as the gap between the island of Cuba and New York and in doing so started to write another chapter of history, which exposes the multilingual, multiracial, and multinational networks of Nueva York. Likewise, Barnet has minimized the space between himself and his narrator-protagonist. In this parallel New York, both Julián and Barnet are marginalized figures deserving of greater exposure and recognition.
     About twenty years after the publication of La vida real, other efforts continue to recover histories of Hispanic national groups. Prieto, along with four other critically acclaimed writers--Carmen Boullosa (Mexico, 1954), Eduardo Lago (Spain, 1954), Eduardo Mitre (Bolivia, 1943), Sylvia Molloy (Argentina, 1938), and Naief Yehya (Mexico, 1963)--who live in New York and produce literary works in Spanish, echoed the words of Julián, but from a different perspective, in their Manifiesto Neoyorkino (2006). They state that their lineage has been submerged in the cultural memory of New York partly due to the large quantity of high quality literature produced in English in the city and partly due to the “Anglo-centricity that has been simultaneously provincial and imperial.” Therefore, by embracing the present they work together to put Hispanoamerican and Spanish voices and their literary tradition back on New York’s cultural map. Julián Mesa, Miguel Barnet, and La vida real are part of the larger labyrinth of Hispanic New York that awaits more visibility.(19) Manifiesto Neoyorkino and the framework of this article do not attempt to flatten the texts and tendencies within Hispanic New York, but without a reconfiguration of the ways of understanding Nueva York literature, those differences and tensions will remain marginal, favoring restricted and limited categories.


1 This quote is from “Travels by Taxi: Reflections on Cuba” and translated by Esther Allen.

2 For further reading on Cuban literary activity in New York during the nineteenth century see Writing to Cuba: Filibustering and Cuban Exiles in the United States by Rodrigo J. Lazo in which he studies the print culture of Cubans in New York, moving beyond a nation-based model. For a bibliography of Hispanic periodicals in the U.S. see Hispanic Periodicals in the United States, Origins to 1960: A Brief History and Comprehensive Bibliography (2000) by Nicolás Kanellos and Helvetia Martell.

3 For an overview of pre-1959 Cuban literature in the U.S. see “Cuban Literature of the United States: 1824-1959” by Rodolfo J. Cortina. For post-1959 exile literary production, see Isabel Álvarez Borland’s Cuban-American Literature of Exile: Form Person to Persona. Also see “New York City: Center and Transit Point for Hispanic Cultural Nomadism” by Cañas for an overview of Hispanic writing in New York City and Cubans’ place within the vast literary production of this city.

4 Martí first published his influential essay Nuestra América in the city’s La Revista Ilustrada on January 10, 1891. For a thorough study of this magazine see Vernon A. Chamberlin and Ivan A. Schulman’s La Revista Ilustrada de Nueva York: History, Anthology, and Index of Literary Selections. For further reading on Martí and his relationship with the New York metropolitan area and U.S. writers see Laura Lomas’s Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects and American Modernities.

5 The statue of Martí was created by Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973). It was completed in 1959, but not unveiled until 1965 because of the political climate.

6 This detail, along with others that I share throughout this article, was recently revealed to me during Miguel Barnet’s talk “La vida real: A Cuban in New York” at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York on February 8, 2011 and during subsequent informal conversations during his New York visit. Barnet claims that he has never shared this particular detail before.

7 Gráfico was a New York-based Spanish-language publication founded by Jesús Colón (Puerto Rico, 1902-74), one of the most important Hispanic columnists and intellectuals of the New York Hispanic community. La Prensa, owned by José Campubrí (brother-in-law of Juan Ramón Jiménez), was printed for a continuous span of about fifty years from 1913 to 1963, although with irregular frequency especially during its early years. This newspaper was initially founded ‘to serve the community of mostly Spanish and Cuban immigrants in and around Manhattan’s 14th Street,’ one of the first enclaves of Hispanics on the island (Kanellos and Martell 58). In 1948, Dominican immigrant, Porfirio Domenici, founded El Diario de Nueva York,which became La Prensa’s major competitor. In 1962, Roy Chalk, then owner of El Diario,bought La Prensa joining the two publications. Today, El Diario de la Prensa de Nueva York is printed daily.

8 I use “Hispanic” to be consistent with other scholarly work that uses the word “as a broad cultural term that most succinctly captures the history of the diaspora of Spain’s peoples, institutions and language throughout the American hemisphere” (Gutiérrez and Padilla 18). “Hispanic” is also used in the title of Claudio Iván Remeseira’s recently published edited volume Hispanic New York: A Sourcebook (2010), a pioneer publication that includes a wide selection of essays dealing with this sector of non-Anglophone New York.

9 In her review of Remeseira’s Hispanic New York: A Sourcebook, Catharine E. Wall has referred to “the study and appreciation of Hispanic and Latino New York cultures” as Nueva York studies, “an interdisciplinary, multinational field with hemispheric and transatlantic scope” (77).

10 For more on Barnet’s testimonial novels see Elzbieta Sklodowska’s “Miguel Barnet y la novela-testimonio” and Testimonio hispano-americano: historia, teoría y poética. Also see the collections of essays included in Acerca de Miguel Barnet edited by Abdeslam Azougarh y Ángel Luis Fernández Guerra.

11 Although Marylin Bobes has also referred to Oficio del ángel as “una novela testimonial,” she and other literary critics have noted how it differs from Barnet’s previous testimonial novels. In Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature, García Chichester explains: “Of a markedly different style from the others, Oficio explores the adolescence of a young man in Havana just prior to the Revolution of 1959. Unlike the testimonial novels, the narrator in Oficio is not a marginal being, nor is he presented to the reader as a subject of study. Notably absent from this narrative is the customary ‘forward’ by the author-interviewer as well as the confidential and conversational tone adopted by the narrators of the previous novels” (Cuban Ethnographer 97). Also see Sklowdowska’s “Barnet” entry in Modern Latin American Fiction Writers.

12 Here, I am using the fusion of time and space to emphasize Barnet’s desire to extract evidence of Cuban cultural history in New York. Scholars have also discussed the inevitability of fusing the role of the author and narrator, and time in the work of Barnet while addressing the fictionalization of testimonial writing. For example, William Luis, in his study of Biografía de un cimarrón has discussed how the narration “is no longer a reproduction of the past but represents as collapse of historical time in which the present and the past are fused” (205).

13 It is also necessary to point out that reviews of La vida real have not accessed the book as one with a strong political message. Instead, they have praised the novel for its treatment of universally human conditions. Gabriel García Márquez has said called this text “la novela de las nostalgias enfrentadas. El drama humano de querer estar siempre en otra parte sin dejar de estar nunca donde estamos.” Likewise, S.R. Wilson has noted: “In La vida real, Barnet confronts the dilemma of the Latin American immigrant in the United States not from the standpoint of politics, rather, from the perspective of what is universal and human regardless of political and cultural divisions” (133).

14 “Nueva York” is how Mike Wallace refers to “Gotham’s massive and tremendously diverse constellation of Hispanic residents” along with its back story (19). “Nueva York 1613-1945” was also the title of an historical exhibition presented at El Museo Del Barrio and organized with the New-York Historical Society in 2010. For more on the history and development of Nueva York see Wallace’s essay in the exhibition catalogue: “Nueva York: The Back Story.”

15 Cortina points out that an inherent characteristic of Cuban literature is that it has traditionally “been written both on the island and abroad” (69). He proposes generational cohorts to organize Cuban-American authors, or “those who live and write in the United States” (70) speaking to the quantity of this literature.

16 Martí wrote an essay on the commemoration of Karl Marx’s death at Cooper Union on March 29, 1883 that was published in La Nación (Buenos Aries) on May 13 and 16, 1883 (Allen 139). I have found no evidence that he publicly spoke at the event. Julián, not pretending to be a historian, uses this example to make the point that Cubans’ contributions to New York historical moments are unacknowledged while their Anglophone counterparts are continuously in the spotlight. Barnet has also talked about his tendency to write quickly, which could account for the possible mistake of using the verb “hablar.”

17 It is also interesting to note the exhibit Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War held at the Museum of the City of New York in 2007 and its corresponding publication of essays. Both pay tribute to the many New Yorkers and others from the New York metropolitan area who “supported the Spanish Republic by raising money, sending humanitarian aid, helping refugees, and calling for the United States government to lift its embargo on sending arms to the Republican forces” (Henshaw Jones 1). Of particular interest is James D. Fernández’s essay “Nueva York: The Spanish-Speaking Community Responds.” Here, he notes how this the Spanish Civil War brought together Spaniards, Latin Americans, and New Yorkers, and “may well have accelerated the formation of a distinctive New York Latino identity” (88). La vida real supports this “distinctive identity.”

18 The politician’s statement has resonance today as “Nueva York es actualmente la más latinoamericana de todas las ciudades de las Américas” according to Remeseira (18). Remeseira defends this by saying that “en cualquiera de nuestros países, América Latina es una abstracción; aquí es una realidad palpable y sobre todo, audible” (18). While Remeseira takes this idea further by suggesting that the only place where Latin America actually exists is in New York, both Remeseira and Julián agree that the Spanish language is a major factor in identifying New York as a Latin American city. As a result, both Remeseira and Julián address a part of New York that is an alternative to Anglophone-American culture, language, and history.

19 Cortina calls attention to the Cuban aspect of the overlooked Hispanic literary history of the U.S. He notes that “the first sixty years of the twentieth century, though dominated by activity in the island proper, appear as a block of time full of narrative ghosts waiting to be embodied in hidden texts lost in libraries in New York, New Orleans and Tampa” (80).


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