For Sale: Cuba’s Revolutionary Figured World

By María A. Cabrera Arús

Over more than five decades, Cubans have become familiar with a revolutionary iconography constructed, in part, around a sartorial style characterized by olive-drab fatigue uniforms, black military boots, and long, disheveled beards. I have argued elsewhere that this sartorial identity played a determinant role in the construction of an olive-green figured world of power that legitimized the new regime—and Castro, as its natural leader—through mechanisms of logistics.[1] These logics reenacted the ethos of the Sierra Maestra guerrilla in the post-revolutionary present, conjured a lowbrow class origin to the guerrilla leadership that distinguished them from previous political elites, and linked the revolutionary nomenklatura with the heroes of Cuba’s independence wars.

The historiography on the Cuban Revolution has established that mass media—especially privately owned television stations and printed press—helped to popularize the revolutionary figured world, yet the participation of private interests has mostly been sidelined—the ephemerality of this material culture and its dispersion in private collections have probably attempted against this kind of analyses. This post offers evidence of the participation of private interests in the production and commercialization of the guerrilla imagery, during 1959 and the early 1960s, in commercial postcards and material ephemera, arguing that, in doing this, business owners helped to consolidate and expand Cuba’s olive-green figured world.

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Christmas card. 1959. Signed by St. Naranjo (back). In Ramiro A. Fernández collection.
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Christmas card. 1959. Signed by Naranjo. In Ramiro A. Fernández collection.

The photographic studio St. Naranjo, for instance, commercialized silver-gelatin postcards extolling the image of the guerrilla leaders, especially Castro, and the symbols of their political organization, the 26th of July Movement or M-26-7. They portray Castro clad in guerrilla fatigues and surrounded by mountain landscapes that, other than the geography of Sierra Maestra, the mountain range considered the cradle of the revolution, connote discourses of rural nationalism. A subset of these postcards associates the leader of the Cuban Revolution with a Christmas imagery, presenting Castro as a Santa Claus that can actually make the peasants’ (and Cubans in general) dearest Christmas wishes to come true.

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Christmas card. 1960. “Merry Christmas. In America’s free land.” Clad in his olive-drab fatigue uniform, Castro is portrayed as a modern Santa Claus who brought freedom to Liborio, a character representing the Cuban people in popular illustrations, here dressed as a peasant. In Ramiro A. Fernández collection.

 

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Christmas card. 1959. “Merry Christmas.” Signed by St. Naranjo. Clad in his olive-drab fatigue uniform, Castro is portrayed as both a Christmas’ ornament and gift. In Ramiro A. Fernández collection.

These postcards also concoct a narrative of modernization that presents the Castro regime as the solution to the country’s underdevelopment, especially of its rural areas. These meanings are mostly expressed through language and signs ranging from Christmas tropes, such as greetings, white doves, ringing bells, and shining stars, to more specific symbols of progress such as modern tractors and allegories to liberty, all associated with rural landscapes or characters.

Other picture cards confer a godly aura to Castro, presenting him as a blessing or gift to the country. Mixing revolutionary iconography such as the armbands and symbols of the M-26-7, the Sierra Maestra mountains, and Castro himself clad in guerrilla fatigues with religious images such as Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s saint patron, these cards portray the leader of the Revolution as divinely guided and ordained.

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Postcard. 1959. Signed by St. Naranjo. Photo-collage depicting Castro clad in fatigues and wearing the M-26-7 armband and shoulder patch, glancing at Our Lady of Charity as she floats above Sierra Maestra, in Oriente province. In Ramiro A. Fernández collection.

Another group of cards in the Ramiro A. Fernández collection attests to the few attempts by privately owned businesses to polish the sartorial image of the leader of the Revolution, occasionally portraying him clad in civilian clothes. In the postcard “1959. Year of Cuba’s Liberation,” printed by Gráfica Larrasquito, S.A., the designer transformed Castro’s outfit, featuring him clad in a brown leather belt and boots instead of the regular black military boots of the guerrilla uniform and trimming his beard.

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Postcard. 1959. Gráfica Larrasquito, S.A. In Ramiro A. Fernández collection.

Keepsakes such as photo-accordion foldouts also extolled Castro’s figure, documenting his political biography: as an eloquent lawyer, a victorious guerrilla, a persuasive orator, a respectable statesman. In this kind of objects, Castro is revered as a dear relative, a lover, or even a saint.

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Accordion foldout keepsake with Castro portraits contained in a leather brass cornered case. 2.25 inches. 1959. Studio Naranjo. In Ramiro A. Fernández collection.

The Album of the Cuban Revolution, printed in 1959 and reprinted in 1960 by Revista Cinegráfico, S.A. and the Cuban preserves and candy producer Felices, is a more elaborate case of commercial advertisement of the revolutionary imagery and Castro’s iconic figure. In its 268 cards, consumers of the Felices brand were presented an illustrated history of the revolutionary struggle, stressing Castro’s participation and leadership. The cover of this album combines

. . . the Cuban and the July 26th flags, below which, in bold yellow lettering are the words Revolución Cubana in full caps. Next to that lettering stands Fidel [Castro] himself holding a rifle. He looms large over the landscape and to his right is both the Sierra Maestra . . ., and above the mountains is a kind of spirit-cloud with the face of José Martí, . . ., the political and moral inspiration of the Cuban revolutionary movement. At ground level are scenes of battle (with soldiers, planes, tanks and an explosion with billowing red smoke), as well as a depiction of the Granma . . . To say the cover is over the top would be an understatement, but it does have an appeal for those who enjoy an action comic aesthetic with clear heroes and villains.[2]

The examination of souvenirs and memorabilia in the Ramiro A. Fernández collection helps to understand how business owners helped to consolidate and promote the revolutionary regime and its leaders. Memorializing the Revolution and extolling the figure of its leader, Fidel Castro, in collectibles and ephemera, private photo studios and printing houses participated in the production of the olive-green figured world of power, allowing Cubans from all walks of life to carry it in their pockets and bags, preserve it in armoires, and even display it in their domestic spaces.

—–

María A. Cabrera Arús, Ph.D. (Sociology, New School for Social Research), studies fashion and domestic material culture and their impact on regime stability and legitimation, with a geographical focus on the Caribbean region during the Cold War. Her research has been published in peer-reviewed journals and monographies, and her manuscript, Dressed for the Party: Fashion and Politics in Socialist Cuba, presents fashion as both a mechanism of impersonal rule and a locus where private identities are articulated both against and in harmony with political values in revolutionary Cuba. Cabrera Arús is the author of the collection and digital archive Cuba Material and co-curator of the exhibitions Pioneros: Building Cuba’s Socialist Childhood (Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons School of Design, September 17 – October 1, 2015) and Cuban Finotype and Its Materiality (Cabinet magazine, October 21, 2015). She was the 2016-2017 Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Sawyer Seminar “Cuban Futures Beyond the Market” at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center of NYU.

Endnotes:

[1] María A. Cabrera Arús, Dressed for the Party: Fashion and Politics in Socialist Cuba, manuscript in preparation; María A. Cabrera Arús, “Fashioning and Contesting the Olive-Green Imaginary in Cuban Visual Arts,” submitted to the anthology in preparation A Movable Nation: Cuban Art and Cultural Identity, edited by J. Duany. On the theory of the figured worlds and the notion of logistics, see Chandra Mukerji, “The Territorial State as a Figured World of Power: Strategics, Logistics, and Impersonal Rule,” Sociological Theory 28(2010): 402-425.

[2] Alan West-Durán, “Fate, the State, and the Everyday.” CubaCounterpoints.com, accessed June 7, 2017, https://cubacounterpoints.com/archives/1297.

Further Readings:

Dopico, Ana M. “Picturing Havana: History, Vision, and the Scramble for Cuba.” Nepantla 3(2002): 451-93.

Fernández, Ramiro and Richard Blanco. Forthcoming 2018. Cuba Then (revised edition). New York: Monacelli Press.

Guerra, Lillian. Forthcoming 2018. Heroes, Martyrs and Political Messiahs. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Quiroga, José. Cuban Palimpsests. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 2005.

Rivero, Yeidy M. Broadcasting Modernity: Cuban Commercial Television, 1950–1960. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2015.

Title image“From Oppression to Liberty.” Silver-gelatin print. 1959. Signed by Cabrera. Contrasting images of the pre-revolutionary and the post-revolutionary societies. In the left side, Batista’s men, poverty, underdevelopment, death. To the right side, the revolutionary leadership, nationalism, prosperity, modernization. In Ramiro A. Fernández collection.

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