Narrating Nation Aloud: Oratory, Embodied Reading Practices, and the Cuban Imaginary in Villaverde and Mariño's El Independiente

By Eric García-Mayer


Print culture is folklore; whether viewed as material culture, recognized through the narratives that it propagates and maintains, or understood through the quotidian practice of reading a newspaper in the public sphere. Inspired by the use of print culture in the U.S. movement for independence, nineteenth century Cuban separatists used pamphlets and political newspapers to mobilize anti-colonial politics and imagine nation from exile in the U.S. Yet unlike the U.S. and many Latin American nations, Cuba's struggle for independence from European colonialism lasted much of the nineteenth century, until 1898, and coincided with movements to abolish slavery on the island. Cuban independence, the abolition of slavery, and the integration of Afro-Cubans into the national citizenry became increasingly intertwined throughout the century. Nineteenth century Cuban author, journalist, abolitionist, and militant activist Cirilo Villaverde (1812-1894) had a life spanning much of the struggle for independence. His life and processual evolution as writer and political activist share a continuity with the project of Cuban nationalism in the nineteenth century. As a writer of the Cuban costumbrismo movement, a nationalist literary movement that defined nation through local customs and topical themes, Villaverde contributed to the ordering of the Cuban national imaginary by formulating foundational narratives of nation. As a journalist and activist, he was a major figure in Cuba's abolitionist movements and in the anticolonial separatist struggle from Spain. Although he escaped prison into exile in 1849, he continued to engage with this activism from New York and other parts of the United States, including New Orleans. First joining with Narciso López and the Junta Cubano in New York, Villaverde worked as the secretary of this militant anticolonial group whose North American funders and associates hoped to annex Cuba and make it another slave state. After 1865, Villaverde was clearly opposed to annexation. He became the organizer of a radical independista group that sought to create an independent Cuba, free from the yoke of Spanish colonialism and the United States' neocolonial encroachment (Sommer 1999: 197-9, Lazo 2005: 12).

Once in exile in the United States, Villaverde turned to print culture with the publication of political newspapers in order to incite the population on the island and articulate the symbols of an independent Cuba upon the printed page. Rodrigo Lazo tracks a dozen separate Cuban periodicals published in the United States between 1848 and the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, and more than seventy total throughout the nineteenth century. As he reports, many of these publications included poetry and other literary genres on the same page with political journalism (2005: 2-3, 14, 18). Although often addressed to audiences in Cuba and smuggled onto the island as contraband, these papers also gave audiences of Cuban exiles a forum to debate the future of Cuba and propose strategies for revolution, including military intervention staged from the exterior (Lazo 2005: 64).

While living between New York and New Orleans in the 1850s, Villaverde co-edited one such political newspaper with Manuel Antonio Mariño called El Independiente. El Independiente called for Cuba's independence from Spain. The paper's first publication in 1853 came fifteen years before the Ten Years' War, the first of three Cuban wars of independence. Their audience was the several hundred Cubans in exile in the U.S., mostly concentrated in New York (Lazo 2005: 66). Among some of the Cuban exiles in New Orleans were poets Pedro Ángel Castellón, Leopoldo Turla, and Pedro Santacilia (Lazo 2005: 39, 44, 63). New Orleans also had a considerable Spanish-speaking population, including many mercenaries from across Latin America and the Compañía de Cazadores de Orléans, a militia group of Spanish nationals who were sympathetic to the López expeditions and the cause for an independent Cuba. Villaverde and Mariño's paper contains several articles that pose an editorial slant intervening in the production of the Cuban imaginary. Following the work of Louis A. Pérez Jr. on Cuba in the nineteenth century, the project of forging a national imaginary through symbolic, as well as material production was undertaken by Cubans in exile many residing in New York, Tampa, and Key West (1999: 5-7). The pressing question spawning from El Independiente becomes, how does New Orleans figure into this project of imagining Cuba from exile?

Below I examine the first edition of El Independiente to elucidate some of the enigmas and apparent contradictions during this moment of uncertainty in the anticolonial exiles' struggle for Cuba's separation from Spain, the transnational dimension of writing national narratives from exile, as well as Villaverde's complex and troubling political evolution throughout his life. The paper's first editorial and manifesto titled "Nuestra bandera" (Our Flag) deploys historical narrative and imagines nation through a group of tropes that are seemingly contradictory. Below I discuss how the tropes of the heroic figure of the filibuster leader Narciso López, the shaming of Cuban exile annexationists, the imagery of the United States as "the land of the free," and the metaphors of the emancipated slave and the slave who rises up to gain his freedom in revolt each possess an important claim in the configuration of nation according to "Nuestra bandera." Meanwhile, the discussion of race, the inclusion of Afro-Cubans in the nation, and the question of the immediate abolition of slavery in Cuba are absent in the manifesto, an elision that points to rifts and tensions in Villaverde and Mariño's imagining of Cuba. Analyzing the text through a lens of performance offers one method to dig deeper into the text's contradictions and elisions. More specifically, I argue that El Independiente contains an enigmatic and coded representational technology of imagining Cuba that is tied to an early form of costumbrista performance: the oratorical reading practices of the Domingo del Monte literary circle.

Re-reading "Nuestra bandera" through oratorical reading as an embodied practice unveils the text's multitemporality, a dimension that harmonizes some of its "contradictions." Throughout the nineteenth century, the practice of reading aloud was deployed at different times in order to create a space for revolution and a Cuban national consciousness. This space is where the Cuban imaginary rubs up against everyday life, whether in del Monte's literary salon in 1838, a Cuban tobacco factory in 1894, or in exile on the streets of New Orleans in 1853. Through this lens of performance, Cuban exile print culture is continuous with an oratorical reading practice that speaks through its readers and their voices as they read aloud the narratives of nation written in El Independiente. This practice and embodied experience is the link to a distinctly Cuban form of resistance embedded in cultural memory (Taylor 2005: 82). Without such a lens, El Independiente is unreadable within a flattening and linear history that continually progresses into the present, assuming that history always improves at every turn. This is especially the case when those dialectics of nation, race, and slavery position U.S. history as the center. Within such a framework the newspaper editorial becomes so contradictory, that it resists assimilation into "history as a linear, continuous design made up of periods and great events" (Pollock 1998: 4).

Della Pollock writes, "In historicity, the body practices history. . . . The body in action makes history answer to the contingencies and particularities, or what [Allen] Feldman calls the 'radical heterogeneity,' of everyday life. It performs its difference in and from history and so articulates history as difference" (1998: 4). By employing the lens of performance, El Independiente and its historicity unveil the complex narratives and tropes of the Cuban imaginary in response to the archive's imposed contradiction and mystification.

The Archival Encounter

In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida argues that the archive "commands" and "commences" the making of history and memory, but always hides the origins of its own authority in its directive to "remember to remember the future" (1998: 2, 76). Just as the emancipation of the sign from any referent or the signifier from any signified creates "the desire of presence," Derrida theorizes the relationship between the subject and what is written about the subject as "spacing," meaning an insurmountable and unceasing displacement between the two. If history assumes that it stands in for people and events in the past, then as history is written it constructs its subject as absent. As the historical subject becomes absent through historical writing, similarly it also becomes unconscious of the process of its erasure. Derrida writes "the original absence of the subject of writing is also the absence of the thing or the referent" (1997: 69). Similarly, the archive and its authority are founded on the principle of forgetting, becoming unconscious of its impossible origin to simultaneously command and commence history and its writing (Derrida 1998: 12). Because of the lasting institutional authority extended to archives of historical documents, historiographic research intersecting with such an archive must continuously expose and account for the limitations, the gaps, the infrastructure, and hierarchies pertaining to collecting and categorizing practices, as well as the labor of the researcher and the phenomenological encounter of that researcher with the archive as a monument of history.

Reflecting on my own encounter with the archive, upon entering the special collections reading room in the Hill Memorial library at Louisiana State University, I found the archive to perform its authority through its architecture, like that of a great Southern plantation mansion, its reverent ethos, as well as its maintenance and security practices. In the reading room, the archivist brought a large folder from out of the archive. He offered to bring it to me at any of the open tables of my choosing. The newspaper that I was looking for, El Independiente, was inside a folder for oversized papers, mostly old periodicals, titled The Southern Filibuster Collection. I was confused to find El Independiente among other periodicals in English. The periodicals seemed randomly arranged not in any decipherable order. Different items seemed to catch my attention on the first paper, for instance an advertisement for a Minstrel extravaganza with Dan Rice called Those 15,000 Filibusters or The Fairy Light Guard.1 The second paper in the folder was El Independiente. The edition was printed in New Orleans in 1853. The papers underneath were about New Orleans, but no other papers appeared to have articles pertaining to nineteenth-century Cuban exiles in New Orleans, my research topic. I quickly disregarded the rest of the papers in the folder and settled into reading El Independiente, never to look back at what might have been written and preserved in the stack below Villaverde and Mariño's place in this peculiar grouping of newspapers. Where did these papers come from? How did they survive? Whose hands did they pass through? How many libraries, attics, letterboxes, or file cabinets traversed before arriving here in Hill Memorial? Whose labor salvaged these clippings from out the heap of worthless clippings left to rot and quickly perish in the humid air and harsh heat of the landfill? Or was it by some accident that they were preserved? By whose sense of history, by whose epistemology, by whose criteria were they saved, passed on, categorized, and preserved and placed before me on the table?

Villaverde's presence in the Hill Memorial Archive alone was a mystery to me, much less what he was doing in New Orleans in 1853. Confronting Villaverde's presence in the Hill Memorial Collection created a doubling of his authority. Villaverde's stature as a writer of Cuban national imaginaries and narratives of origin is a monument unto itself, overshadowing the presence of his coeditor Manuel Antonio Mariño. The Apollonian context of the Hill Memorial Library, the solemn sanctity of the reading room, the tension in the practice of preservation, the presence of the multiple archivists for one researcher, and the structured surveillance and security all undergird the precious edictal position of this remnant of Villaverde's voice as writer of the Cuban imaginary, in this case via political journalism and propaganda.

However, the example of El Independiente demonstrates that the archive can produce an artifact that causes a problem for History with a capital "H." Produced transnationally and written at a time of uncertainty among Cuban anticolonial separatists, El Independiente resists assimilation into a teleological narrative on account of its historical and cultural context. Despite the failure of the filibuster missions in 1851, the paper included the perspective of Southern nationalists in its English language columns, pointing to the fact the some of the alliances Cuban separatists made with U.S. annexationists still lingered. These alliances included politicians, planters, and slave owners of Southern states, as well as with capitalists in New York and New Orleans seeking to extend U.S. borders (Chaffin 2003: 6-7). In this 1853 publication, Villaverde and Mariño distanced themselves from the annexationist rhetoric of the Cuban separatists in New York. One divisive issue between the Cubans in exile was the abolition of slavery. Villaverde was an active abolitionist in Cuba throughout the 1830's and '40's, whereas some of the members of the New York-based Cuban separatist faction were opposed to ending slavery in Cuba and may have been interested in annexation to the U.S. as a way to assure the preservation of the institution. Yet Villaverde's position on slavery may have also been compromised by some of these alliances. Doris Sommer reports that late as 1863, Villaverde was telling history with a slaveholding bias by translating Pollard's History of the First Year of the Southern War (1999: 199). Lazo explains that the Cuban exiles' interest in annexation was at once tied up in the United States' revolutionary states' rights discourse.2 As he reads it, within such a discourse the title of the paper El Independiente is not opposed to annexation (2005: 65). Whereas this may ease the dissonance between the independista politics in the paper's slant and its ambivalence towards its relationship with the United States, the national imaginary the paper's manifesto constructs is not reconcilable with annexation. On this final point, Cirilo Villaverde was an authorized, canonized, and archived writer of national narratives. His life as a writer-activist succinctly coincided with the struggle for Cuban independence, bestowing on him an allegorical status in connection to the emergence of the Cuban national consciousness. The contradictions bound up in El Independiente, make the paper, as an artifact, an anomaly that resists incorporation into histories that place the text in a single geography, a single nation, or a single point in time in a linear progressive narrative.

The Performance of del Monte's tertulia: Oratorical reading practices

Performance studies theorist and Latin American performance historian Diana Taylor illuminates how the archive and the repertoire work together in the transmission of knowledge, and the making of history and cultural memory. "The archive and the repertoire have always been important sources of information, both exceeding the limitations of the other.... Innumerable practices in the most literate societies require both an archival and an embodied dimension" (2005: 21). In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson poses the following question regarding newspapers and print culture, "What more vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked, imagined community can be envisioned?" (2006: 36). Anderson sees newspapers as an ideal space for the modern nation-state to be imagined. As he points out, it is the date line, "the steady onward clocking of homogenous, empty time," in other words time in modernity, which orders the imaginary (2006: 33). Homi Bhabha critiques Anderson's imaginaries that are ordered by a homogenous modernity explaining that subaltern experiences and voices emerge "betwixt and between times and places" to rupture modernity and the false solidarity of the imaginary from alternative time-spaces (1994: 158). Bhabha's critique points to the kind of fragmented imaginary constructed by El Independiente where historicity destabilizes homogeneity, operating both through the transnational dynamics of articulating the Cuban imaginary from the U.S. South and in the breaks and fissures within that imaginary made readable through the performative dimension of tertulia. Yet even in Anderson's model, the embodied practice of reading newspapers in the public sphere is what grounds the imaginary in the quotidian and gives it its power. Reading El Independiente through the lens of oratorical reading as an embodied practice reveals its connection to a multitemporal Cuban imaginary through a nexus of tropes, aesthetics, and performance practices of del Monte's literary salon.

During the 1830s, the Domingo del Monte literary circle hosted tertulias or literary salons for Havana's criollo elite, which consisted of oratorical readings of literature dealing with themes of cubanidad (Cubanness) and the horrors of slavery in an abolitionist effort to embarrass the Spanish crown.3 Villaverde was a member of the circle and read in the tertulia. To call these readings public readings would be a great oversight considering that most of Cuba's population did not have access to this elite and mostly white criollo venue. However, that does not mean that reading in the tertulia or being a member of the circle did not come without risks. Spanish authorities' crackdowns in the 1840s following the perceived or alleged threat of slave revolt and insurrection, forced many of the writers of the group into exile (Lamas 2012: 120, Sommer 1999: 198, Lazo 2005: 10, Chaffin 2003: 44).

Before co-editing El Independiente in exile, Cirilo Villaverde had written the first of two versions of Cecilia Valdés o La Loma del Angel, listed among the most important Cuban novels of the nineteenth century.4 Cecilia Valdés bridges the early and late nineteenth century white criollo imaginaries of Cuba through the 1882 revision of Villaverde's 1839 costumbrista novel. It is an example of Cuban costumbrismo, on the one hand with its focus on articulating a specifically Cuban terrain and characters representing the racial and social makeup of Cuba. In defining what is "Cuban" versus what is "Spanish" through racial miscegenation in the context of colonial system of race and slavery, the novel writes a narrative of the Cuban nation. The novel also engages in shaming the Spanish for their oppressive colonial rule. The 1839 edition of Cecilia Valdés was first written during Villaverde's time as a commissioned writer of Domingo del Monte's literary circle. The salon's mission was to embarrass Spanish authorities into abolishing slavery and granting Cubans increased autonomy and representation in the Spanish cortes (Sommer 1999: 195, Benetiz Rojo 1994: 256). Because of it concerns reading aloud to an audience, tertulia must also be understood as an early form of costumbrista performance, which consisted of both literary and political concerns. tertulia and Villaverde's practice as a member and orator of the del Monte circle, is translocated into the Cuba imagined by El Independiente and its inaugural editorial and manifesto, "Nuestra bandera."

El Independiente

Like many political pamphlets and newspapers of the nineteenth century, the political perspective of El Independiente was embodied by one editorial voice. Authors were not credited with single bylines; all of the columns are written in the voice of El Independiente. The first article appearing in the first edition of El Independiente, titled "Nuestra bandera" (Our Flag), interweaves romantic descriptions of the Cuban shield of arms and metaphors of the United States as "the land of free." The political manifesto idealizes militancy towards the cause for an independent Cuba, while debasing Spanish colonial rulers for their despotism and egoism, as well as Cuban exile annexationists for their cowardice. This article positions the controversial Narciso López, leader of the infamous annexationists' filibuster expeditions from Mississippi and New Orleans to Cuba in 1850 and 1851, as a martyr for the cause of Cuban independence and claims to answer his call for the creation of an independent nation. Villaverde and Mariño use the metaphor of a "slave who pays his ransom," in a deeply troubling way that belittles the trauma of slavery and emancipation to express their contempt for any means of separation from Spain other than outright war. In the absence of any mention of the abolition of slavery or the inclusion of Afro- Cubans in the narrative that the editorial articulates and extols, the metaphor of "the slave who pays his ransom" juxtaposed by independence "won by the sword," opens the imaginary it constructs and the war of independence that it beckons to Haiti and threat of slave revolt.

To begin, the editorial's treatment of the editors of La Verdad and El Valor is extremely denigrating. These conservative newspapers were published by annexationist Cuban exile factions that Villaverde and Mariño opposed. Similar to the reading practices of the del Monte circle, the editorial voice seeks to shame and embarrass their conservative anticolonial political opponents within the Cuban exile community. The voice of El Independiente expounds that part of its cause will be "to condemn and pursue to death, adulation that dresses in the clothes of patriotism, deceit that fits the masquerade of politics, exaggeration, and cowardice that, in the end, is adopted by La Verdad y El Valor" (El Independiente, 1853: 1).5 The public shaming of these political opponents within the exile community is reminiscent of the shaming of Spanish colonialists and slavers that Villaverde and others participated in while reading in the del Monte salon. To understand this biting criticism in the case of the printed page alone is to overlook the influence that the oratorical reading practices of del Monte's tertulia had on Villaverde's writing. It also removes these political papers from a lively public sphere in which they were printed. The act of reading aloud reconfigures the literary strategy of inciting controversy into a performative speech act of shaming political opponents.

Next, I would like to examine the use of a metaphorical "slave who pays his ransom" by Villaverde and Mariño in the absence of any other mention of slavery in "Nuestra bandera." The authors write, "the independence we want is not in any way the independence that the slave who pays his ransom acquires, but that which is won by the sword, valor, and the decision that gives glory and consideration, rather than eternal ignominy and contempt" (Independiente 1853: 1).6 Doris Sommer's archival study of Villaverde's Cecilia Valdés, a novel whose manuscript was read at del Monte's tertulia, will help in unpacking this quote. In the novel, Villaverde employs a literary device of an ignorant narrator who never acknowledges racial realities. The ignorance of the narrator only becomes visible after the inclusion of the perspectives of Black slaves in the 1882 edition of the novel. Given a voice, these characters state the obvious regarding race relations and social hierarchies that are never acknowledged by those with white privilege or who benefit from the status quo. Only the black slaves speak the truth in the novel and when they acknowledge the system of racial inequity and oppression, they are either silenced or sent away to the plantation (Sommer 1999: 208-210). Doris Sommer refers to these absences or opacities in the novel as Villaverde's "blanks," a literary strategy, which, as she argues, he employs in Cecilia Valdés to expose the blind spots of white criollo and mulato elites in their denial of the colonial system of race and racism. For Sommer, this was the most significant revision in the 1882 edition of the previous draft published in 1839, where, perhaps, the author was just as ignorant of the narrator's "blanks," as the narrator appears to be. Building from Doris Sommer's discussion of Villaverde's "blanks" in Cecilia Valdés, we can see Villaverde and Mariño's reluctance to include discussion of race, racism, and the abolition of slavery as a blind spot, just like the unintentional "blank" of the 1839 edition of the novel. The evocation of a "slave who pays his ransom" or slavery as a metaphor in "Nuestra bandera" draws the reader or listener to what the voice of El Independiente is not talking about or denying.

Rodrigo Lazo reports that El Independiente clarifies its position on slavery in an article titled "La cuestión de Cuba," appearing the following week in the February 20, 1853 edition. In the article, Villaverde and Mariño raised questions about abolition without compensation for slaveholders and defined their constituency as the "white, free, and civilized people" of Cuba (2005: 175-176). Lazo argues that "La cuestión de Cuba" establishes that Villaverde was clearly not an abolitionist, thus placing doubt on the belief that the 1839 edition of Cecilia Valdés was meant to mobilize abolitionist politics. However, I must attenuate that this evidence could also indicate that Villaverde changed his position on slavery after allying himself with the Junta Cubano and planters from the U.S. South, between 1849 and 1851, only to return to abolitionist politics after the U.S. civil war and El Grito de Yara in 1868. Yet, the clarity on nation, race, and slavery in "La cuestión de Cuba," raises a distinction between a political position and literature engaging with politics. In the case of Cecilia Valdés, poetic discourse sustains ambiguous, complex, contradictory, and heterogeneous perspectives. Contrastingly, in "Nuestra bandera," the distinction between political and poetic discourse collapses, and this subsidence in voice genre becomes evident in Villaverde and Mariño's antithesis between the metaphor of "the slave who pays his ransom" and freedom "won by the sword."

Another layer of the metaphorical slave evoked in "Nuestra bandera" relates to the Cuban criollo costumbrista practice of creating distinctly Cuban characters based on racial and social stereotypes. Through their appearance, behaviors, and dialects these characters created a vocabulary of Cubanness that articulated difference from Spain for white criollos. In Blackface Cuba, Jill Lane discusses Crespo y Borbón's writings in the dialect of el bozal, an African slave character who became a part of a national imaginary, and served the interests and sensibilities of white criollos (Lane 2005: 20, 31).

The black slave character Salvador Solomón, from the poem Espejo de paciencia, allegedly written in 1608 by Silvestre de Balboa Troya y Quesada, also interested the writers of the del Monte circle. Solomón became a figure that appeared in the poems and writings of Cuban romanticist and costumbrista writer José Antonio Echeverría among others. In the poem Espejo de paciencia, Solomón saves the seventeenth-century Spanish settlement in Cuba by killing the pirate, Girón. Carmen Lamas sees Echeverría's interest in the figure as a threat to Spanish loyalists and the empire in Cuba. For Lamas, Echeverría uses the figure of the slave rising up against the oppressor Girón, with the people of the Cuban settlement to allude to revolution, where enslaved Cubans would joined freed Cubans in revolting against Spain (2012: 120).

As authors emerging from the del Monte imaginary of Cuba, Villaverde and Mariño's appropriation of the figure of a slave is akin to Echeverría's in evoking a general revolt to Spanish rule. According to El Independiente, the independence that is glorious and free of stigma is the one that is won by the sword. In antithesis to "the slave who pays his ransom," "the independence that is won by the sword" evokes the slave revolt in the path to glorious Cuban independence. Whereas Villaverde and Mariño may have been directly engaging with the threat of a slave revolt through a costumbrista figure like Solomón, I favor recognizing the reference to the slave revolt through its "blank" on the page. The privileged criollo Cuban imaginary and the New Orleanian public sphere are two spaces that were forever changed by the Haitian Revolution. Embedded with the fear of a slave revolt among planters and slave owning elite, the total elision of such a reference in these spaces becomes just as impossible as its admittance and appearance.7

The voice of El Independiente was militant and called for Cuba's freedom through war rather than separation acquired through its purchase from Spain by wealthy Cubans, or its annexation into the United States, also by its purchase. El Independiente touted that war could purify the Cuban nation from the social evils and vices of Spanish colonialism, but the editorial remains ambiguous in naming the evils that needed to be purged. Could it be referring to slavery, the plantation system, or the colonial system of racism and racial hierarchies? Following the comparison between the independence of "the slave who pays his ransom" and the independence "won by the sword," the voice of El Independiente states, "Such were the much firmer sentiments on this subject of General Narciso López, and such are his humble admirers" (El Independiente 1853: 1).8 The inclusion of Narciso López as a kind of martyr whose call must be answered, further complicates the question of the abolition of slavery, especially regarding López's connection to New Orleans, the geographical space and public sphere from where El Independiente was published.

After a failed attempt at organizing a revolt within Cuba in 1848, General López escaped to New York and formed the Junta Cubano, which sought to raise support for an armed expedition against the Spanish colonial government in Cuba from the United States (Chaffin 2003: 44, Sommer 1999: 197). López eventually led two separate filibuster expeditions to Cuba. The first mission to reach Cuba, left from New Orleans in 1850. López's forces landed in Cárdenas, took the city for a day and retreated to Key West when they realized that their insurrection had not inspired popular dissent and that they were outnumbered. The final filibuster landing in Piñar del Rio, Cuba, in 1851 failed as well. This time with no retreat, López and his men, the majority of whom were white North American mercenaries from the U.S. Southern states, were captured. López and all but 135 of the filibusters were executed (Chaffin 2003: 212-218).

Villaverde's practice an author of national imaginary and narrative converges with the landscape of this final conflict. In 1838 and in 1841, during the time he was a member of the del Monte tertulia, Villaverde published two travel stories in the periodicals El Album and Faro Industrial de la Habana respectively. He later published the two narratives as Excursión a Vuelta Abajo. The stories were adapted from notes or diary entries about his journey back home to Piñar del Rio in 1831 (Benítez-Rojo 1994: 255). In the first narrative, Villaverde romanticizes and embellishes this autobiographical account of the journey to his birthplace in an attempt to define Cuba's true essence, as separate from Spain. For Antonio Benítez-Rojo, Villaverde's travels become a voyage to the legendary space of "Cuba Chiquita," which holds "the 'irrefutable' proofs of its authenticity." Cuba Chiquita, as Beníitez-Rojo defines it, is the small, rural, agricultural-based community that Villaverde juxtaposes to "Cuba Grande," the colonial economy of slavery and the sugar plantation, which planters brought increasingly to Cuba following the Haitian Revolution. Villaverde's credentials to be the author of such a voyage were granted by the authority of the del Monte group (1994: 256). In Benítez-Rojo's reading of the first narrative in the collection, two things impede access to the source of authentic cubanidad (Cubanness), which he seeks to discover, and the subsequent future of the nation: first, the exclusion of Afro- Cubans from the idea of nation, and second, the system of slavery and the sugar plantation (Benítez-Rojo 1994: 258-9). Cuba Grande of the sugar plantation, slavery, and the colonial machine, destroyed and continued to impede the resurgence of the nation from the authentic "Cuba Chiquita" of tobacco, small agriculture, and "guajira" (peasant) culture. The focus of the dialectic analysis here is Spain as colonizer dominating Cuba as colonized, and interrupting the criollo way of life, with the extreme colonialism of slavery and the plantation economy. However, race and ethnicity regarding the "authentic Cuba" must not be overlooked here either. Although there were Afro-Cuban guajiros, the figure of the guajiro tends to be dominantly understood as ethnically Hispanic with some indigenous heritage or mestizaje (racial miscegenation). The ethnic and racial make-up of the sugar plantations and bateyes (or communities near sugar refineries) were dominantly Afro- Cuban with diverse cultural heritages from multiple African ethnicities. Although it is clear in Benítez-Rojo's reading of Vuelta Abajo that Villaverde clearly warns against excluding Afro- Cubans from the building of a postcolonial nation, positioning the authentic Cuba in Vuelta Abajo excludes Africaneity from the origins of cubanidad.

Vuelta Abajo as the authentic center of cubanidad makes its way onto the front page of El Independiente. In the article titled, "El cubano francís," Julio Chassagne is praised for being the only Cuban to join López's forces in Piñar del Rio in 1851.

In late July of 1851 [Chassagne] left the city, and turned to the Hills of the Vuelta Abajo, where he is from, or where he spent his first part of his youth. There, despite the persecution he suffered, despite the desertion of waiting for friends and compatriots that promised to share his fate, he was pleased to meet with the idolized chief, who no sooner defeated las Pozas and went into the mountains. Knowing the terrain well, his presence proved useful to the brave expedition to guide her through these mountains and rugged paths, the reason being that he was the only one of the Cubans who joined the expedition on Cuban soil (Independiente 1853: 1).9

As someone who grew up in Vuelta Abajo and having knowledge of the terrain, Chassagne guided the filibusters through the forest. Although as the title states, he is French-Cuban, Chassagne serves as the authentic spirit of cubanidad in the narrative that joins with López in his expedition. Chassagne and López's rendezvous in Vuelta Abajo is of no coincidence. For Villaverde and Mariño, it is the legendary space from which Cuba will be made a nation. The revolution they propose in El Independiente will transpire from a similar joining of forces between Cuban rebels and filibusters from the United States.


Reflecting on the archive's positioning of a Cuban exile independista publication within a states' rights and manifest destiny driven chapter of U.S. history, El Independiente resists its position through its transnationality, performing a difference that makes it recognizably incommensurate to being a symptom of North American filibusters. Through performative analysis of the oratorical reading practices of the del Monte tertulia, with its focus on writers' bodies and voices, a needed historicity and heterogeneity is added to El Independiente. Through tertulia, El Independiente draws from the literary strategies of the costumbristas and romanticists of the del Monte circle, not merely as written texts, but also as spoken and heard voices that embodied independista politics. Connected to the tertulia as a nexus of performed tropes, El Independiente shamed political opponents, sighed nostalgically for the authentic landscape of "Cuba Chiquita" in Vuelta Abajo, and, exploiting the experience of Africans and Afro-Cubans in slavery as an euphemistic metaphor for elite criollo identity and struggle, called forth the Black slave in revolt.

Tertulia is the practice of nation building through the spoken voice, making it embodied and imagined sonically or acoustically, rather than only visually, as the reader performs. Exceeding the realm of the written page, like the bodies of Anderson's newspaper readers in the barbershop or at the bus stop, tertulia as a method of performative analysis locates the practice of imagining Cuba in the public sphere, and through the body connects the Cuban imaginary to the material world. Through tertulia, El Independiente draws from the literary strategies of costumbristas and romanticists of the del Monte circle, not merely as written texts, but also as spoken and heard voices that embodied independista politics. As a part of the Cuban national imaginary via the nation-building project of criollo elites, tertulia and its oratorical reading practices have a multitemporal dimension. Reading publically is not only connected to the print culture of Cuban exiles in New York and New Orleans of the mid-nineteenth century, but also becomes an important practice for the lectores, or readers in tobacco and cigar factories in Cuba and Florida beginning in the mid-1860's. While tobacco workers rolled cigars, these lectores read from newspapers, Cuban and foreign literature, as well as independentista and proletarian political publications (Ortiz 1978: 84-86, Pérez 1975: 444). In the tobacco factory, this practice continued to be a key public forum for the dissemination and negotiation of independista ideology, as well as the continued reinvention of the Cuban imaginary.


1. Dan Rice was a famous clown and circus performer who toured the United States in the early to mid-nineteenth century. He became known for his quick wit and showmanship. His song "Old Susana" is still a folk favorite. Competing with minstrel shows he incorporated blackface into his repertoire. He was so popular that he ran for President in 1868. For more see Carolyn (2001: 1-8).

2. Many U.S. historians see the "filibusters" or insurrection missions to Cuba and Latin America during the mid-nineteenth century as an early struggle over states' rights that took place between states that supported filibustering and the federal government, which was opposed to such private military ventures into foreign countries being staged from the United States. Regarding states' rights these struggles to control venturing filibuster missions may have contributed to a U.S. Southern Nationalism that anticipated the civil war. For more see Chaffin (2003: 4-6).

3. The term criollo is an ethnic and cultural identity that in many ways anticipates the Cuban national identity during Cuba's colonial period. criollo emerged in the late eighteenth century and has continued in use to this day. In this context it refers to people of Hispanic, Indigenous, and African descent who were born in Cuba. It is an inclusive identity, not defined by race, but rather refers to belonging to a creolized culture that consists of a diverse group of cultural heritages interwoven through transculturation over time. Although among Cuban criollos racial hierarchies exist and existed, during the nineteenth century, the Cuban imaginary and national consciousness was formulated by racially privileged criollos, as well as free Afro-Cuban criollos, and in the case of Francisco Manzano an Afro-Cuban criollo in slavery. For more see Pérez (1999: 90), Ortiz (1978: 92-97), and Olsen (2007: 135-137). For more on Creolization as linguistic and social processes in the greater Caribbean see Abrahams (2003: 73-85).

4. Cecilia Valdez o La Loma del Ángel (1839 and 1882) is a nineteenth-century costumbrista novel that critiques slavery and exposes the dilemma that the colonial system of race causes for Cuban society and the dream of an independent Cuba. The novel tells the story of the tragic romance between Cecilia Valdés, a light skinned mulata, and Leonardo, the son of a rich criollo planter, who unbeknownst to Leonardo and Cecilia, is also Cecilia's father. When Leonardo leaves Cecilia, she plots with José her admirer to have Leonardo murdered at his wedding to the rich white criolla Isabel.

5. "que condenemos y persigamos de muerte la adulación que viste las ropas del patriotismo, el engaño que se acomoda la mascarada de la política la exageración y la cobardía, en fin, que adoptan la verdad y el valor" [sic]

6. "Pero la independencia que queremos no es de modo alguno la independencia que adquiere el esclavo que paga su rescate sino aquella que ganan la espada el valor y la decisión lo que da gloria y consideración no la que trae en pos de si ignominia y desprecio eternos." [sic]

7. The presence of fellow del Monte tertulia reader Juan Francisco Manzano adds an important wrinkle to the use of "the slave who pays his ransom," which I regret I cannot go into here. Manzano was an Afro-Cuban poet in slavery; del Monte published and sold his poems to raise the money to purchase his freedom. Once free, according to Margaret Olsen, some critics argue that Manzano was no longer of any interest to the group, neither politically, nor for his literary accomplishments. Manzano could no longer represent "the sympathetic, symbolic slave that would forward progressives' agenda for reform or its debatable inclinations towards the abolition of slavery" (137). The white criollo nationalism of the 1830s left no room for free black intellectuals. Olsen argues that Manzano's drama, Zafira: Tragedy in Five Acts 1842, has coded references to Haiti's slave revolt.

8. "Tales eran sobre esta materia los sentimientos mas firmes del General Narciso Lopez tales son los de sus humildes admiradores." [sic]

9. "á fines de Julio de 1851 dejó la ciudad, y se dirijo á las Lomas de la Vuelta Abajo, de donde es natural, o de donde se paso su primer parte de su primera juventud. Allí a pesar de la persecución que sufrió a pesar de la deserción que experimento de amigos y compatriotas que le prometieron participar de su suerte tuvo el gusto de reunirse con el idolatrado gefe, no bien venció en las Pozas y se internó en las montañas. Conocedor del terreno palmo su presencia fué de gran utilidad a la expedición de bravos para guiarla al través de aquellos montes y ásperos senderos, motivo por el cual y por ser el unico de los Cubanos que se le unio sobre el suelo de Cuba." [sic]


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Eric García-Mayer is pursuing a PhD in theater at Louisiana State University. This article was first published in the 2013 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany.