Cuba Libre: On the Revolutionary Epic as “Redemptive Impatience”

By Éric Morales-Franceschini

Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, the Hindu Ramayana, the Malinke Sundiata, and the Scandanavian Beowulf are exemplary epics. Extensive, solemn, and rhetorically ornate, they revel in the glory and grandeur of a heroic past, recounting the trials and tribulations of a god-like hero whose fate is the fate of a city, race, or civilization. They tell, in other words, tales of whence a people came and what greatness they possess.  

Granted, the epic as a literary genre has not fared well in our “modern”—let alone hyper or postmodern—era. Today’s stories about the past are most popularly told in the form of novels, films, and secular histories. But this does not mean that the allure of an epic sensibility has been altogether exorcised. For epics are more than just aesthetically robust texts; they are also avowals of human dignity and possibility. They bespeak sacrifice and redemption at scale and a willingness to wager one’s life on the hope that “evil” can be—indeed, purportedly was—surmounted.

The stories of our day most akin to epics are, accordingly, those told about revolutions. For what other than revolutionary epics have more dramatically avowed the human capacity to right wrongs and radically redefine the possible? As Hannah Arendt wrote, revolutions are “inextricably bound up with the notion that the course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never known or told before, is about to unfold.”[1] Indeed, no matter how empirically vetted or restricted to the realm of mortals, narratives about revolution conjure mythical-like realities and, insofar as they are epically “emplotted,” enchant and awe us. Think of Jules Michelet’s History of the French Revolution, John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, Sergei Eisenstein’s October, or CLR James’ The Black Jacobins. 

Such enchantment is, of course, what we “sober” critics and scholars are expected to disavow and demystify. Professionally—let alone politically—we are taught (and teach others) to be weary of the “myth” and “romance” of revolution. David Scott, for instance, has written persuasively on the need to understand revolutions in terms of tragedy. His work invites us to re-read the Haitian and Grenadian revolutions as rife not with transcendent hope or the vocation of sacrifice inasmuch as human fallibility and historical contingency.[2] Mikhail Bakhtin voiced a similar unease (vis-à-vis the Russian Revolution) when he famously argued that epics are antiquated and repressive stories. For epics are not just chronologically but also morally first. With them come the “founders” and “fathers” whom descendants compulsively, if not compulsorily, revere. In that heroic past there is no room for “open-endedness, indecision, indeterminacy.” There is only ever an already finished narrative and ancestors to memorialize.[3]

While such critiques are invaluable, they do not exhaust the complexity—let alone disqualify the validity—of the epic. They do not, that is, exhaust the possibility that revolutionary narratives can engender emancipatory desires and projects in the historical present. The revolutionary epic is not, after all, identical to the classical epic, for the profile of the protagonist and the plot of the story are different: not a demigod or superior race, let alone a poetic ode to imperial conquest, but the tale of how the dispossessed stormed the heavens with an emancipatory agenda. Revolutionaries throughout the 1960s and 70s, for instance, embraced James’ The Black Jacobins as a drama of Black vindication and anti-imperialist rectitude.[4] Frantz Fanon, too, noted how traditional epics, with their “typified categories” and “inert episodes,” were novelized during the Algerian Revolution. Storytellers who were once “stereotyped and tedious to listen to, completely overturned their traditional methods of storytelling and the contents of their tales,” becoming “invocations” to partake in the revolutionary drama of the day.[5]

In other words, the revolutionary epic is never a “finished” narrative, let alone uniquely nefarious. The unruly and dense “archives” that revolutions (or an epic past) embody are liable to tell different stories, stories that bequeath different “lessons” and, thereby, possibilities. As political theorist George Sorel put it, heroic “myths” foster the “serious, formidable, and sublime work” that revolutions depend on.[6] Or in Cuban poet Cintio Vitier’s words, they nourish a “redemptive impatience” with the unjust present.[7]

The case of Cuba is exemplary. Accounts of Cuba’s nineteenth century wars for independence from imperial Spain—the story, that is, of Cuba Libre (Free Cuba)—are rife with epic motifs: perilous battles, formidable foes, heroic deeds, and the momentous stakes to found a nation “with all and for the good of all.” Not incidentally is it the most beloved and ritualistically retold of national narratives. Indeed, Fidel Castro and his bearded comrades narrated their revolution as a consummation of that “glorious epic” (epopeya gloriosa).[8]

To this end, my book, The Epic of Cuba Libre: The Mambí, Mythopoetics, and Liberation, explores how generations of Cubans have narratively and aesthetically reckoned with that epic history and its archetypal hero, the mambí, as the rank-and-file independence soldier came to be known.[9] Drawing on memoirs, hymns, plays, poetry, historical cinema, and monuments, it teases out the emancipatory promise the mambí epic has come to embody—at times promiscuously, at times precariously—in the Cuban popular imaginary.  

Methodologically, the book scrutinizes different iterations of the mambí in artifacts and (con)texts of the late nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries. Each chapter is focused on a particular configuration of the mambí, namely as AfroCuban, as mambisa, as trickster, as machetero (machete-wielding fury), and as martyr. In doing so, the study fleshes out how the mambí epic has weighed in on issues as crucial as racial justice and Black consciousness, gender normativity and women’s empowerment, the critical capacity of populist humor, the ethics and aesthetics of (epic) violence, and conceptions of the sacred and the sublime. The mambí epic is, after all, endowed with extraordinary events and protagonists, including but not limited to Antonio Maceo, the “Bronze Titan,” whose twenty-six wounds and over six hundred battles (nearly all victorious) all but defy the merely mortal; Mariana Grajales, the “Mother of the Nation,” who stoically “gifted” to the Patria her eleven sons, nine of whom died in the wars for independence; Elpidio Valdés, the fictional mambí whose beloved cartoon series imbues the epic genre with carnivalesque humor; or the machete’s metamorphosis from an implement of slavery to a symbol of liberation.

The Epic of Cuba Libre elaborates on how that heroic past has fostered or, just as decisively, frustrated emancipatory projects in the historical present. The story of the Liberation Army as a racial democracy, for instance, has at times hindered Black consciousness movements, as has the normatively “maternal” mambisa a more radical feminist politics. But so, too, have epic stories been crafted that rouse Black rebelliousness and dignity, as with the fugitive from slavery (cimarrón) as proto-mambí in Sergio Giral’s films, or the mambisa in Nancy Morejón’s and Georgina Herrera’s poetry and plays. The mambí could even constitute a populist trickster (Elpidio Valdés) who subtly elides the solemnity of the epic, inviting Cubans to laugh not only at their imperialist foes but also at their fallible selves. There is, of course, the proclivity in (revolutionary) epics to fetishize violence (i.e. the mambí machete charge), all the while extoling the moral “decorum” and “sublime abnegation” of the epic protagonist. Are these truly reconcilable? And what about the independence wars’ most numerous and macabre casualties (los reconcentrados, those interned in Spain’s “camps of reconcentration”)? How could they, if at all, abide by the glory of an epic death in combat? And if not “revolutionary intransigence,” then what do their deaths bespeak? Such questions proved lively in the 1990s, when centennial commemorations and the epic sentiment of the 1960s clashed with a post-Soviet world in which liberation was all but anachronistic, except as synonymous with the so-called “free market.” 

Overall, thus, the book fleshes out the mythopoetic richness and ethico-political implications of what Vitier called “mambí epicness” (epicidad mambisa). To do so is to appreciate revolutionary narratives and aesthetics in terms not just of propaganda and ritualistic piety but also as provocations that dignify the dispossessed and dare to say that the pursuit of justice is amongst the worthiest of “callings.” 

That said, how that revolutionary story is told or with what plot and which protagonists is not a forgone conclusion as much as an invitation to storytellers, not least historians! The book’s epilogue is, thereby, an invitation to rethink the mambí (and barbudo) epic in the context of twenty-first century Cuba and our troubled times. For the struggle that lies ahead for an equitable and livable planet shall no doubt prove “epic,” so to speak, and we could do worse than have heroic archetypes and seductive myths at hand. It just so happens that Cuba has these: not so much the guerrilla soldier as much as the internationalist doctor and organic farmer; not so much a story about epic violence and death, but a “new story” about radical generosity and care. In a sense, none other than Fidel Castro understood this nuance. As he said in what is known as the “Second Declaration of Havana” (1962), “Great as was the epic of Latin American independence, heroic as was that struggle, today’s generation of Latin Americans is called upon to engage in an epic which is even greater and more decisive for humanity.”[10] Cubans (and others) could today cite those very words as an invitation to rewrite emancipatory epics for the even greater and more decisive struggles now emergent, or yet to emerge. 


Éric Morales-Franceschini (PhD UC, Berkeley) is Assistant Professor of English and Latin American Studies at the University of Georgia. He is the author of The Epic of Cuba Libre: The Mambí, Mythopoetics, and Liberation (University of Virginia Press, 2022) and Autopsy of a Fall (Newfound, 2021), winner of the 2020 Gloria Anzaldúa Poetry Prize.  

Title Image: Statue of Don Quixote by the Cuban sculptor Sergio Martínez Sopeña. Source: EcuRed.cu.

Further Reading:

Ferrer, Ada. Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. 

Foner, Philip S. The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism. Vol. 1. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.  

Fornet, Ambrosio. Narrar la nación: Ensayos en blanco y negro. Havana: Letras Cubanas, 2009.

León Rosabal, Blancamar. La voz del mambí: Imagen y mito. Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1997.

Pérez, Louis, Jr. The Structure of Cuban History: Meanings and Purposes of the Past. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. 

Prados-Torreria, Teresa. Mambisa: Rebel Women in Nineteenth Century Cuba. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2005. 

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in 19th Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.  

Endnotes:

[1] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 24. 

[2] See: David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), and Omens of Adversity: Tragedy, Time, Memory, Justice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014). 

[3] Mikhail Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel” [1941] In Dialogical Imaginations: Four Essays, ed. by M. Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 15-16. 

[4] For an excellent discussion of CLR James’ seminal text, see: C. Forsdick and C. Hogsbjerb, eds. The Black Jacobins Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

[5] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. by R. Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 240-241.

[6] Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, ed. by J. Jennings (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 130. 

[7] Cintio Vitier, Ese sol del mundo moral: para una historia de la eticidad cubana (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI editores, 2002), 117. 

[8] Fidel Castro, La historia me absolverá (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2007), 89. 

[9] No one knows the exact etymology of the word mambí. What is known is that Spanish loyalists and soldiers used it as a racial epithet to jeer at Cuba’s rebel soldiers, who were disproportionately Cubans of color. In the course of the wars for independence, however, what was once a derogatory term became synonymous in Cuban vernacular with “patriot” as well as racial equality and fraternity. See: Ada Ferrer, Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).    

[10] Fidel Castro, The Declarations of Havana (New York: Verso, 2018), 117. 

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