From Reinaldo Arenas to “Patria y vida” and Yunior García Aguilar
By Dr. Angela L. Willis, coauthor of The Dissidence of Reinaldo Arenas: Queering Literature, Politics, and the Activist Curriculum.
This book is available at a discount price through May 31, 2022. Order here and use code LASA22 at checkout.
Al pueblo cubano tanto en el exilio como en
la Isla los exhorto a que sigan luchando por la libertad. . . . Cuba será
libre. Yo ya lo soy. (Antes que anochezca 343)
[I want to encourage the Cuban people out of the country as well as those on
the island to continue fighting for freedom. . . . Cuba will be free. I
already am. (Before Night Falls 317)]
On November 17, 2021, Cuban dramatist-activist and founder of the online group, Archipiélago (as of 12/11/21, with 38,000 members on Facebook), affiliated with the “N15” protests (referred to as such because they began on November 15, 2020), Yunior García Aguilar fled the island to seek exile in Spain after he and his family had become targets of ongoing harassment. According to García Aguilar in the press conference held from Madrid on November 18, he had essentially been made a prisoner of his own home for more than a year while attempting to engage in peaceful dialogue with the Cuban authorities repeatedly, all to no avail. In his first remarks at the conference, after expressing his belief that one can learn more about a country and its people by studying its artistic production—echoing an assertion about the “blurred lines” between reality and artistic creation ubiquitous in the work of the late queer, dissident Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990)—García Aguilar compared the Cuban Regime’s oppressive actions to “un marido abusivo con su propio pueblo” [an abusive husband with his own people]. García Aguilar then recalled how, in the early years of the Revolution, Fidel Castro had reportedly pronounced that it should not “eat its children,” as Saturn did; he quipped how now, the Revolution was not just cannibalizing its own offspring, but also, “ahora mismo está devorando a sus nietos” [right now, it is devouring its grandchildren]. In his remarks, he also directly referenced earlier Cuban dissident writers Reinaldo Arenas, José Lezama Lima, and Virgilio Piñera, describing how they had inspired him to stand up to oppression: “Cuando yo tomé conciencia de la realidad de Cuba, gracias a leer a escritores como Reinaldo Arenas, Lezama Lima, Virgilio Piñera, entendí que mi voz tenía que denunciar lo que estaba pasando en Cuba, y mis obras de teatro eran extremadamente críticas…” [When I became cognizant of the reality of Cuba, thanks to reading authors like Reinaldo Arenas, Lezama Lima, and Virgilio Piñera, I understood that my voice had to denounce what was happening in Cuba, and my theatre pieces were extremely critical…].
My forthcoming book, The Dissidence of Reinaldo Arenas: Queering Literature, Politics, and the Activist Curriculum, co-authored with Sandro Barros (Michigan State University) and Rafael Ocasio (Agnes Scott College), departs from this very premise: Reinaldo Arenas’s life, writing, and death have served as a pedagogical model for fellow dissidents and marginalized people to emulate. Our book likewise examines the relationship between Arenas and two of his primary mentors, those mentioned by García Aguilar, Lezama Lima and Piñera, whose lives, writing—and even deaths—inspired Arenas, just as he in turn would later be a public pedagogue for his fellow Cubans.
Our book explores how Arenas’s creative work, pedagogical activism as a Mariel exile, and life as a sexually marginalized individual continues reaching dissidents in Cuba and beyond. As Arenas wrote in (“I Scream therefore I am,” dated 1983), Cuban artists of his generation, particularly those who practiced what was viewed as taboo sexuality, along with nonconformists, were left with few options in the early decades of the Cuban Revolution: “being traitors to themselves, cynicism, jail or suicide” (17, my translation). Such were the circumstances that defined Arenas’s perilous sexual writing, for his personal life and art were inextricably interwoven. The late author’s assertions in “Grito, luego existo” are equally relevant to the struggles expressed by many contemporary Cubans, like Yunior García Aguilar and others. Besides García Aguilar, the artists who composed and recorded the wildly popular 2021 song and movement, “Patria y vida” (“Homeland and Life”), which parodies and directly challenges Fidel Castro’s revolutionary call for “Patria o muerte”—“Country or Death,” have likewise taken up where Arenas left off. When it won the “Latin Grammy” for best song of the year award on November 18, 2021, the group again evoked Arenas’s lessons, even if not naming him directly. While standing on the stage in Las Vegas, dressed in white (perhaps a reference to peace, and perhaps to Santería), they called for the freedom of artists incarcerated in Cuba, crying out for a “¡Cuba libre!”
Living a life of poverty and frequent solitude, dying of AIDS with no hope for a cure at that time, Reinaldo Arenas bravely chose to end his life on December 7, 1990 in his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. For the author, suicide was not an act of cowardice. In contrast, it was a gesture of self-affirmation, of control over one’s own life, something he had pursued since childhood in Cuba, and that he continued pursuing during his exile. No longer able to write and no longer able to return to his beloved Cuba, Arenas contemplated and performed suicide as a political act. He stated so in the letter published as the very last chapter of his memoirs, Antes que anochezca, also sent by mail to close friends and newspapers. Arenas completes his own autobiography—in the “Introducción, El fin” [“Introduction, The End”] and in his suicide letter—by blaming Castro for his misfortunes, most notably his dual physical exile, both from Cuba, and from himself as he was dying of AIDS. In the letter, he stresses the importance of writing as a way of fortifying one’s own legacy, of speaking the truth fearlessly, no matter the costs. Arenas ends his letter—and life—by asserting that Cuba will be free, as death would free him, demanding a “Cuba libre,” just as the group Patria y vida had called for “Una Cuba libre.” In December of 1990, Arenas penned these words that continue inspiring us today: “Al pueblo cubano tanto en el exilio como en la Isla los exhorto a que sigan luchando por la libertad. . . . Cuba será libre. Yo ya lo soy. (Antes que anochezca 343) [“I want to encourage the Cuban people out of the country as well as those on the island to continue fighting for freedom. . . Cuba will be free. I already am.” (Before Night Falls 317)]. This is the most important legacy that Arenas left for his fellow dissidents: the importance of expressing one’s own truth. While Reinaldo Arenas wishes for a Cuba libre have yet to be realized, contemporary artists such as Yunior García Aguilar and the members of Patria y vida have taken up the struggle, moved to action by the pedagogical model of dissidence so bravely embodied by the life and work of Reinaldo Arenas.
 The video may be reviewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=baoM6VI-kiw (accessed November 22, 2021). García Aguilar’s reference to Arenas is around minute 6:45 in this recorded version of the press conference.
Arenas, Reinaldo. Antes que anochezca. Barcelona, Tusquets Editores, 1992.
———. Before Night Falls. Translated by Dolores Koch, Penguin Books, 1993.
———. “Grito, luego existo.” La necesidad de libertad. Ediciones Universal, 2001. 13-24.
Angela L. Willis is professor of Hispanic studies and Latin American studies at Davidson College and coauthor of The Dissidence of Reinaldo Arenas: Queering Literature, Politics, and the Activist Curriculum.