Placido

III PLACIDO

 

 

The poet whose life we are about to recollect was a martyr to Spain’s constant fear of independence in her colonies.

Like Heredia, who lived and died in exile, Placido was persecuted because he was a personality.

Like Zenea, who was executed by the same people who had always kept him in banishment, Placido was condemned to the ultimate punishment because his life terrified the tyrants.

There is, thanks to the everlasting logic of universal reason, an inevitable incompatibility between intelligence and tyranny and between virtue and despots: tyranny hates intelligence even in death; despots hate virtue to the point of killing it. Solitudinem facient, as Tacitus said, and they create a desert and call it peace.

This is why the saddest eras are also the most poetic ones, and why the people most tyrannized are the most lyrical.

Those who are constrained struggle under the boot of coercion; and from the contrast between the defeating force and the undefeated right springs the poetic calling of a society, and it becomes flesh and bone, human and individual, in the lyric poet.

They say peoples who do not have a history have been granted heavenly bliss, because they have not met with catastrophes. I say heavenly bliss has been granted to the nations lacking lyric poetry, because they have not suffered tyranny; and to see Cuba freed and Puerto Rico liberated from Spain, I would give all the poets produced by the two unfortunate islands, and once the islands have been restored to self-rule, I would banish poetry forever, for as long as there are poets and the voice of poetry is heard there, my sleep will be haunted by nightmares– it will seem to me. that Spain is still among us.

While it still is, the only aspect to life will be that of death, which was the aspect governing Cuba’s life at the time of the birth and death of Placido.

 

 

I

 

Gabriel de la Concepción Valdes, called Placido, was born in 1818 in Matanzas; the authors of his life were a dark-skinned man, a pardo, and a white-skinned woman, a Spaniard. Matanzas, one of the most im­

 

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portant cities on the island of Cuba, is located less than 25 leagues east of Havana on the northern coast of the Island; it is one of the most delightful residences on earth.

The city lies at the edge of a bay that bears its name, facing the translucent horizon of the Antilles, darkened only by the tears shed on account of Spanish domination. The San Juan and the Yumuri, two tranquil rivers, wind and slope through its pleasant countryside and fertilize the already fruitful land, a land that was blessed by providence while still unknown and that has only known misfortune since it was introduced and handed over to the oppressors.

In the midst of these two rivers, Nature, which is less Spanish than providence, persisted in eternalizing the protests of the land against her usurpers, and so that future generations could remember what the primitive Island had been-just as natural evolutions had created it, just as the natives had enjoyed it, and just as it had produced the immortal exclamations and wonder of Columbus– in the midst of these two rivers nature left behind the most enchanting valley ever profaned by greed and cruelty.

In this valley, in the shelter of its bountiful plantains and its eminent ceibas, in the shade of its portentous mangoes, to the pleasant rustle of its palm trees, which are like lightning rods rocking to and fro; at arm’s reach from the delicious coconuts; near the feverish hog plum tree, the medicinal genipap, and the tirelessly fruit-bearing guava; interwoven with thousands of parasites that flourish at the expense of other flowers, bear fruit at the expense of other fruits (an antediluvian symbol of Spain’s domination of the New World); surrounded by primeval nature and sought by all the birds and all the predators of the forest– solitary dwellers of the temple of trees and flowers, water and light, life and harmony that nature is to the primitive– in this valley, where Placido would later be born, the first people found by Spain in that enchanting territory had been born. The Conquistadores were not able to get the innocent natives to give them information about the Indians they were persecuting, and they perpetrated such a large and cowardly matanza [slaughter], that to this day and forever, the whole territory bears the sinister name which recalls the massacre.

The natives are gone; but the native vegetation is still there, and the enchanting valley where the Indians– the first and last happy people found in Cuba from the beginning to this day– sung their first and last areitos; the valley is still there protesting the deaths, and it was there when Placido was born.

He was born at a time of social change.

Revolutions for independence in the continental colonies threatened
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Spain with the end of its colonial empire, so she had to begin searching in the islands for treasures to replace those she would lose in the continents. Like all unfair nations or individuals, Spain did not realize the value of the benefits she had lost until she had to retain them by force; and Cuba, an empire in itself, (if we use the epigrammatic language of the Spaniards and understand an empire to be that which is magnificent, valuable, excellent) had been up to then, along with Puerto Rico, put aside in disdain.

Then Spain began to believe that the scorned islands might have some value, and began to establish the system that the Puerto Rican Acosta has described in , two picturesque words: to oppress and to compress [in order to squeeze everything out of them].

By 1818 the largest of the Antilles was beginning to bring forth children, and two of them had gone to the continent and beseeched Bolivar to complete his mission in the Antilles; but the great man was still involved in his great undertaking, and, although he did not forget the Antilles, Bolivar had to continue devoting himself to forcing the enemy out of New Granada and Venezuela. The Soles de Bolivar, a patriotic society which was organized in Cuba at the time, was less. than obscure, and did shine some rays of light on the oppressor; thus the oppressor began doing in the larger island what it had attempted to do in Puerto Rico. It improved the appearance of its rapacious administration, so that the world, which always trusts the strongest, would consider a war for independence against such a wise metropolis unjust, and would take sides with it, condemning the slaves who were fighting for their emancipation.

Until 1865, Spain believed that as long as she still possessed Cuba and Puerto ” Rico, she would not lose her property rights in the continent; and in order to ,continue owning the Antilles, she decided to proceed in a manner whereby she would enrich herself by making them wealthy, thus making the islands weaker the more they prospered.

She boosted the power of her delegate, the Captain General, and created the likes of Tacón, a brutal soldier who in getting rid of thieves also did away with all the guarantees of law.

Spain increased commerce on the island with the help of the wise Guatemalan Ramirez, but sacrificed the country’s commercial freedom to her own voracity. She modified general living conditions, consenting to, in spite of herself, the communication with the United States and Europe that gave the island an outward appearance of being civilized; but

she increased the strength of the fortresses, the number of troops, and the military budget of the island.

She let some Cubans gain wealth through their work; but she killed

 

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social labor by favoring trade in human blood and developing slavery in a horrible way. .

She permitted some Cubans to go to schools in America and Europe to obtain an education; but she used hunger to harass Jose de la Luz Caballero, Betancourt, and all those who with either the spoken or the written word, in the classroom or in books, tried to instill an education different from the one perpetuated by the belief that you have to beat knowledge into people’s heads.

Spain allowed the theatre to educate the emerging population; but preferred an education of the nerves and ears, and for a long time, the Italian opera was her ally. The people listened to the music which unnerved them; the words were unintelligible, and the god would smile; and, if by chance the word freedom was heard amidst the thunder of vocal and instrumental sounds, the god frowned, the theatre trembled, and it was closed down.

The anecdote that the effeminate Castelar applies to Rome, in the context of whichever of the many relations sustaining him in America (so that with his ignoble conduct he can continue to support in the Spanish Parliament the cruelties Spain commits against Cuba), that anecdote is a historical fact which has occurred in Cuba, and which for many years

has been the law of the land.                                                                                   .

The Spanish sophist tells us that the Papal government had prohibited the baritone and tenor duo in the second act of Los Puritanos, which ends with the call, ¡ liberty! If the Roman government did this, it was plagiarizing; the idea originally belonged to Tacón, the Spanish general who persecuted thieves in Cuba and then returned to Spain a rich man. During the time of his government (his tyranny or deification), an Italian opera company that performed works by the then fashionable Donizetti and Bellini came to Cuba. It presented Bellini’s Los Puritanos, and when the actors whose part included invoking freedom sang the call, Spain, represented by her generals, soldiers and storekeepers, was horrified; the actors were put in jail; the opera was cancelled, and from then on, either the duo in Los Puritanos was omitted, or it was sung with the call changed to ¡loyalty!

This period of transition in which Cuba went from being neglected to being cared for, from poverty to riches, and from the comfort of indifference to the discomfort of tyranny, went on as indefinitely, imperceptibly and capriciously as we have described it, and it lasted as long as Placido’s life did: from 1818 to1844. It is true that the most clearly marked and decisive change began four years after the alleged conspiracy by blacks and mulattoes that eventually led to Placido’s torture; however, it is not too inexact to delimit the whole period within the span of the poet’s life.

 

 

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II

 

Like the period of change in which he was born, Placido himself represented a philosophical transition. From his father’s African race he was moving toward the Caucasian race his mother represented. He was going from black to white, like Cuba’s ethnographic movement, and from a state of slavery to one of emancipation, like the island’s political movement.

Placido had (as shown by his only remaining portrait) a thin face; his color was irresolute, somewhere between white and mulatto, his nose regular, his mouth small and expressive, his eyes black and quite big, bright and expressive, as are all eyes which sink deep in their orbits to collect more light and make their look more intense; he had the ample forehead necessary for thinking, a high one, as demanded by imagination, smooth, as required by purity of intentions; his hair was curly. His unruly head of hair, the prominent cheekbones, and the distinctive shine of his eyes revealed the African in his sweet countenance; while his facial angle, even nose, thin lips and large forehead showed the white man.

Those are also the general features of the social countenance of the Antilles: Caucasian elements have formed beside Ethiopian ones; between them is the mestizo; and in all of them, the characteristic virtues and vices of the races they represent are mixed with the vices, errors, and monstrosities contributed by the dominating race. .

A fusion and mixing of races is natural, necessary, advantageous, and civilizing, because from that fusion will emerge the sui generis society that will physically and morally correspond to its geographic medium. The Spaniards, although displaying Spanish disdain for this mixture, have also helped the fusion, not only on account of the weakness. of human nature, but also because of speculation. A female slave, like a hen or a mare, is worth more the more she procreates, since each of her offspring will have its own separate value.

The Spanish dancer who was to become Placido’s mother was not too proper, and in spite of racial scruples, she gave in to the mulatto hairdresser who, while fixing her curls, charmed his way into her heart.

Being unfaithful to her husband and to the pride of her caste was not so evil, and she got away with it. Presenting the world with the fruit of her infidelity and degradation would have been abominable, so the Spanish dancer abandoned her child.

Not knowing what to do with him, the father also rejected the child; but his grandmother, a poor, blind, black woman who was a former slave, had more light in her conscience and more freedom in her soul

 

 

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than the miserable and licentious parents; she claimed her right before society and adopted her grandson.

She brought him up in toil and poverty, and the boy would have become just another indigent if not for a certain priest or teacher (we don’t know exactly what he was) who grew fond of his docility and intelligence and took Placido under his wing, letting him continue his apprenticeship as a comb maker and teaching him everything he knew: reading, writing, storytelling, and whispering words meant for his estranged father.

Thus, making combs and ornaments out of tortoise shell and developing a well-known skill in his trade, which earned him the miserable bread he shared with his grandmother; reading the few books that passed through his hands; feeling in his soul the birth of the poetic character slowly developing as a result of his innate abilities and the requirements of the outer world in which he went about without a conscience; observing people and things; looking about and at himself, Placido arrived at the age which was poetic par excellence, because it was melancholic par excellence.

 

III

 

He was twenty years old. At that age, all his fellow workers knew at least two things: that they had a father (provided he wasn’t Spanish) or a mother (even if she was Black) and that they would eventually have a lover, a wife, a mother of their children.

Placido was the strongest among them for his soul, but he was the weakest for his status. What was he? Was he someone’s son? He had never felt his mother’s breath upon his forehead; the only thing he knew about his father was that the man paid weekly visits to his grandmother’s forsaken home and took the greater part of the miserable salary Placido earned from his comb making every week. One day he had a quarrel with someone who called him pardo; he had another with a man of his same color who called him bastard.

He brought those two horrible ideas home and pondered over them for a long time; he fed abundantly on the bitter truth they contained; he looked with distrust upon the man they said was his father; he searched with the last glimpse of his desperate soul for his mother, whom he called upon with greater intensity the more deaf she became to his calls; and he lost the assurance that his trust in others and in himself had given him up to then.

But a yet unmastered inner strength sprung from his will, and every time the young Placido looked at others or they looked at him in a way

 

 

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that marked his detachment from everyone and everything, he retired to the solitude of the valley. There, he wandered among the birds and flowers, whispering rhythmic words that matched his feelings and the mysterious cadence of his spirit; when the sorrow became too deep and the pain too sharp, he would withdraw to his hut and transform his pain into symbols.

He was a poet.

A pardo, a bastard, and a poet! Without really understanding it, he sensed how horrible this combination of social weaknesses and individual indolence was, and this frightened him. He was a pardo and a bastard, and for that he was weak; he was a poet, and for that he was strong. Being a pardo deprived him of public respect; being illegitimate made him an outlaw of society. But being a poet gave him the strength to be stronger than public respect and mightier than the society that rejected him.

He was a poet, and loved the beautiful things he saw. He looked upon beauty, and loved it. She was a white woman– he was a pardo; she was a daughter of fortune– he was illegitimate. There was a struggle. But it was the struggle of adolescence, candid and boisterous, and the white virgin heard the cries of the fighter. The sweet joy of victory took shape in one of the sweetest, most tender, and most delicate octosyllabic romances’ ever inspired by the tropical Muse:

v

La flor de cera

 

Una manana en abril, Antes que el alba serena Ornara el cielo de nacar Y los pensiles de perlas,

 

Paseaba yo divertido

Del San Juan por la rivera, En un jardin que a su orilla Preciosas plantas ostenta:

 

Con un cestillo de mimbres Y unas tijerillas nuevas,

 

. A romance is a Spanish ballad composed of an indefinite number of octosyllabic verses; usually an epic poem or narrative, they are sometimes, as in this case, of a lyrical nature. (Translators’ note)

 

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Estaba una’joven linda Cortando flores de cera.

 

 

Oculteme entre unas ramas, De jazmin y madreselva, Que abrazan a un rojo adonis Formando bóveda espesa.

 

 

Era su frente brillante, Como del amor la estrella, Sus ojos vivos y hermosos, Negras y largas sus trenzas,

 

 

De marfil su dentadura, Su boca purpurea y bella Y su cutis fresco y blanco Como la flor de la cera.

 

 

Llevaba una manta azul Bordada de blanca seda,

Cadena y manillas de oro Y aretes de finas piedras;

 

 

Hablando consigo misma, De que la oyesen ajena, Tomando la mas lozana, Dijo la simple doncella:

 

 

“Dice bien Delio que eres De los jardines la reina: ¡Si yo fuese tan hermosa Como el panal de la cera!”

 

 

De su voz, el eco suave

Me hizo conocer a Lesbia, Con la cual baiIe mil veces

De Pueblo Nuevo en las fiestas.

 

 

Y de Delio bajo el nombre Le hice amorosas protestas. ¡Conque aqui mi Lesbia mora.

 

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Y de su Delio se acuerda!

 

 

l.Podre dudar que me ama Esta inocente belleza, Tan sencilla, alegre y pura Como la flor de la cera?

 

 

Escogio despues algunas, Sentóse sobre la yerba, Formo una hermosa guirnalda Y se corono con ella,

 

 

Fuese a orillas de un estanque De agua clara, limpia y tersa:. Viose el rostro en el cristal, Y exclamo de gozo llena:

 

 

“Ya estara Delio en el puente, Y cuando pasar me vea, Dira que soy tan preciosa Como la flor de la cera.”

 

 

The Flower of Wax’

 

 

One morning in April, before the dawn serenely bedecked the sky with nacre and the gardens with pearls, I was strolling merrily along the bank of the San Juan river, in a garden at its shore where precious plants abound:

I saw a beautiful young woman holding a wicker basket and new scissors, cutting flowers of wax.

I hid under some branches of jasmine and honeysuckle that embraced a red adonis and formed a thick dome.

Her forehead was bright, like the star of love, her eyes were vivid and fair, her were braids long and black; her teeth were as of ivory, her mouth plum and lovely, and her skin was fresh and white, like a flower of wax.

She wore a blue-colored shawl embroidered with white silk thread, a necklace and bracelets of gold, and earrings of precious stones;

. The translations of Placido’s poems will be presented in prose, with no attempt at reproducing rhyme and meter or recreating the literary value of the original. (Translators’ note)

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She was talking to herself, unaware that I was listening, and, picking the lushest of the flowers, the simple maiden said:

!’Delius has said, and he is right, that your are the queen of the garden: If only I were as fair as the honeycomb of wax!”

The soft echo in her voice reminded me of Lesbia, with whom I danced a thousand times at the Pueblo Nuevo fiestas.

And taking Delius’s name, I expressed my amorous protest: so here dwells my Lesbia, and she is thinking of her Delius!

Can I doubt that I am loved by this innocent beauty-as naive, cheerful and pure, as the flower of wax?

Afterwards, she picked a few more flowers, sat on the grass, then wove a beautiful garland and crowned herself with it; she walked over to a pond whose clear water was pure and smooth: seeing her reflection in the glass, she joyfully exclaimed:

“Delius will be on the bridge by now, and when he sees me pass, he will say that I’m as lovely as the flower of wax.

 

IV

 

 

He was a mulatto, but he was loved; he was illegitimate, but nevertheless a poet.  Placido placed his faith in his own strength, and returned to the struggle more confident.

The whites disdained the mulattos, and they in turn reproached those born out of wedlock: how could one overcome both whites and mulattos? It was not possible by force; but it was possible through cleverness. Placido was aloof and became easygoing; he was susceptible and became affable, and no sooner had a close friend committed the desired disloyalty of letting others know the illegitimate pardo was a poet, than his peers paid him homage, and his superiors came to examine the absurdity of it all. Racial pride in some, and forced generosity in others, which made them loudly acknowledge the merits of one who had already succeeded on his own, produced a contest of praises that made Placido the pampered child of two cities, and the link between him because of his origin.

Matanzas was overjoyed, and every wedding, banquet, funeral or birthday demanded one of Placido’s poems. Blacks, mulattos and pardos paid for his poetry with their friendship. Whites paid for it with money, and there was one Spanish thief who was clever enough (in my language, clever meaning crafty) to monopolize this gold mine of eight and ten-line stanzas. As usually happens with mines, the miner’s fortune grew parallel to the draining of the source.

 

 

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But while his mine was exhausted and while the Spaniard exploited it, Placido was pleased with his glory and satisfied with the stunted profits he gained from his poetry.

At that point in the poet’s life, what was bound to happen, happened. He had become accustomed to the world, offering it the fickle mind it requires; the quick-witted thinking it demands; the docile will that pleases it; the lack of personality that satisfies it; the tolerance it demands for its mistakes, vices, and perversions; the flexibility it needs to control those whom it applauds, woos, and flatters. He lived in the world to be pampered and to be indulgent; to laugh and talk like everyone; to love and hate like everyone; to deceive as the least deceptive people do and realize the truth as do the least pessimistic; becoming corrupt as rash teenagers do; looking for happiness in pleasure, as fools do; seeking strength through cunning, as clever people do; being satisfied with the present, as do those who are easily pleased; unsure about the future, as are all those who do not have a sure purpose in life; and he was happy, because he was one among many.

There is no sarcasm in this statement: only straight truth stemming from observation. A leaf, an awn, a light atom that is picked up by the wind and cast up, whirled, and scattered, goes where the wind goes: it does not resist the wind, and it will perish only if it is perishable, and not because it hastens its death in the struggle. A plant, a tree, a body that is rooted to the ground, struggles against a hurricane; the hurricane will carry it away, but it will it will also destroy it. Society is like nature. People will be either happy or unhappy, depending on whether they go along with the group or stand in its way.

Placido went along, and accepted the existing order of things; he respected what he saw. He gave in to a society in which some people were enslaved because of color and others were became rich through their crimes; where the true owners were made tenants in their own land, and the foreigner became lord; where speaking out was a privilege, thinking a crime, conscience a prison; where right was an impertinence, freedom a forbidden fruit, and justice a crucifixion. He was lost in the satisfaction of vanity and the senses and forgot the ideas that injustice had sowed in his soul, and he was happy because he was not struggling, because he was not torn to pieces by the struggle, because he went with the tide.

The skill he had acquired as a comb maker was enough to support him; the charm of his poetry, sometimes innocent, other times cutting, was enough to give him fame; with the earnings from his trade he met his obligations, and with the product of his poetry he satisfied the superfluous needs he had developed. Placido had defeated poverty with his work and overcome rejection with his talent, and thus believed himself to be exempt from higher spiritual needs.

 

 

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The poet’s education was incomplete, as it was casually acquired through his experiences with people and the world; his knowledge was shallow, as it was gained through disorganized reading; and since he did not have the time to withdraw into himself and think-because the many inducements of work and pleasure did not allow him the time or the relaxation to do so-he never meditated upon himself, nor upon nature, life, or society.

Had he meditated, the rapid progress made by his spirit during days of anguish would have prepared him for his fated battle.

Had he meditated, he would have seen the situation his country and his people were in at the time, the duty they imposed upon his generous soul, and the difference between being one among many, as he was, and being one among the few, as he deserved to be.

We have come to the period in Placido’s life between 1838 and 1842, when two events occurred that could have changed his conduct, had he meditated and become enlightened.

In 1835, Lorenzo, the Spanish general who governed Cuba’s eastern region, rebelled against Spanish authority on the Island. He rebelled against the Captain General for not having proclaimed the Spanish constitution. He rebelled strictly in the name of Spanish party interests; but he rebelled nevertheless, and the example in itself was so provocative, that in every Cuban heart the clamor of the angry Spanish liberal resonated as if it were a cry for independence.

In 1836, after they had been invited to the Spanish Cortes, Cuba and Puerto Rico received the most cowardly offense that could be inflicted upon a scorned nation. Arguelles and Olózaga, two powerful Spaniards of the time, feared or pretended to fear that, once the Antilles were represented in the Cortes, their deputies would exert their influence to forment revolution in the islands.

This nonsense, which can only occur to an eminent political figure in Spain, became an axiom. Just like Castelar’s statement to the effect that the Cuban revolution had prevented the victory of the republic in Spain (which he made to excuse his ignoble conduct in Cuba) has become a maxim, the affirmation by the two secret enemies of the Americas became a creed at the time. They were powerful, and they were obeyed, and the deputies from Cuba and Puerto Rico were expelled from the Cortes under pretext of the government’s special laws, which were later written into the 1837 Constitution to perpetuate the injustice, as a basic precept of the Spanish monarchy.

These two events unnerved the Antilles, yet they were not echoed by Placido, nor did they leave a mark on his spirit.

While the two unfortunate islands cursed Isabella II, he sang her

 

 

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praises; while they denounced Christina, he celebrated the glory of the Queen Mother. While Cuba blamed the Governors General for her oppression, Placido would extol them with his laudatory verses, and much of his poetry was devoted to rhyming flattery.

 

V

 

 

The darker the night, the brighter the light that follows it, and, rather than shunning the need to study the sad moment we are examining in the life of the martyred poet, we prefer to present it as we know it, in its complete reality. The more distressed our reason becomes from looking at Placido’s weaknesses, the more pleased our conscience will be to see the progress his soul had made on its own, a soul lost for a moment in the filth that completely surrounded it.

In order to judge someone’s life, it must be studied in all its phases. The periods of progress, inertia, decline and rebuilding of strengths are necessary in any life, and those who hide the inertia and decline in order to make the life they are recounting more attractive are telling a harmful lie. A life’s attractiveness is not a product of absurdity, and it would be absurd to suppose that a human being, even if his duties were assigned by omnipotence itself, could carry out his life in any way but the one imposed by the law of life, by his position in the world, and by the social circumstances that restrict him.

Attractive, touching, and admirable is the life of a man who is subjected to a certain environment and, though restrained by it, manages to overcome and rise above that environment through his own efforts, purifying himself through spontaneous acts of conscience.

From this point of view, Placido’s life is admirable. He was weak because his surroundings oppressed him; he became strong because he overcame the oppressive environment. He was almost wretched, because he took the side of the moral wretchedness that besieged him; he became wealthy in spirit, because he rose above that degradation on his own, to

the heights where his death and the last part of his life have placed him.

It would have been preferable, for his own good and that of posterity, for Placido to have kept free of the weaknesses his own character denounced; but it would have also been preferable if Cuba, on the way to becoming the heroine we admire and will one day bless, had not passed through the social disintegration that has characterized her Spanish period; the disintegration present during Placido’s time, which has left its cancerous mark on him as well as on others.

While Placido was singing the praises of Isabella and Christina, the
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Island of Cuba was in the worst situation possible for an enslaved nation: she was content with her master. Except for the chosen ones­-those souls that refract all false light-everyone, criollos and Spaniards, Whites and Blacks, pardos and mulattos, traders in human blood and honest landowners, were all satisfied. The Island’s doors had been opened to invasions of African slaves; the Captain Generals, Governors

General, and employees of the government and the law became rich by supporting the slave trade. The farmers multiplied the value of their land and their crops as the number of workers in agriculture increased. Commerce grew with a force that seemed wonderful to the imbeciles who were incapable of understanding the importance of the Antilles in the future of the Americas, and who could only compare the progress they were witnessing with the dismay they had seen before. Their customs taxes produced enough to meet the island’s budget, with enough left over to send to the greedy metropolis. The latter was also content with her ever-faithful island of Cuba. Spaniards poured into the island, and with them some other foreigners. Industry was beginning, forming, and developing, all at the same time. The Queen of Spain was smiling. The Spanish government was smiling. The colonial government was smiling. And even the sky, the sea, the countryside, and individual selfishness were smiling; granted, it was repulsive, but is it really so strange that so lofty a soul-as Placido’s was in the beginning as well as the end-could fall so low during those times?

It is not strange; but it is repulsive, and we could not read the pages Placido dedicated to praising indignity without feeling overwhelming repugnance; we could not read them without tearing them apart before reading them, without feeling that they intensify our hate for the political, social, moral and intellectual state the Antilles are in on account of Spain’s corruption.

In so far as Placido’s writings serve to show, in contrast, to what degree the feeling for dignity was destroyed by the indignity which reigned in that contaminated environment; how the idea of what is good and just was degenerated by omnipotent evil and insolent iniquity; how the concept of individual and social right was undermined by authority’s contempt for rights, society’s disintegration, and the power of individual selfishness; how the commitment to freedom was broken by an instinct for security; how moral order was corrupted by the bribing of character and conscience; how intellectual morality succumbed to skepticism. Insofar as they serve to reveal the foul and miserable circumstances that were rotting that unfortunate society-a society not yet formed but already weakened, not yet organized but already disorganized, the corpse
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of a yet undeveloped body, the skeleton of a dead body that never lived, the infant infected from the moment of conception by its parents’ lethal disease-the writings Placido dedicated to praising the evil, the vices, and the injustice that surrounded him are precious. With only his poems, and no other facts or analytical instruments at hand but the comparison of these disgraceful verses with the other poems that constitute the poet’s honor and glory, a person of elevated spirit can understand the horrible situation the Antilles are in, and can therefore hate it, condemn it, and curse it.

In moral epidemics, as in pathological ones, the healthiest spirits are infected sooner if they do not protect themselves from noxious influences. Virtuous hate is the best protection against a moral epidemic, and Placido lacked virtuous hate.

He was young, and gave in to the senses; he was weak, and gave in to the strong; he was good, and gave in to the bad; he was an artist, and gave in to vanity. All these interactions weakened him; he went from one shallow love affair to another; from a fear of his social powerlessness back to the same fear; from having a false idea of goodness to acquiring a false hate for it; from sacrificing his vanity to sacrificing the naive self-­esteem that constitutes the genium irralabile of irritable artists and writers; and he went from amorous grudges to literary ones, fabricating words against fools, and rhyming them against unresponsive lovers; lauding what he instinctively cursed, cursing what he had just praised in laudatory verses, he was the living example of the abominable period of transition in which he lived and the sick society that expelled him. The society had a deathly fear of thought, arid Placido, like the society, hid his thought in order to survive. It was a time for adoring the senses, silencing the conscience, and making noisy speeches-and he succumbed to immorality, gagged his conscience, and talked, and talked, and then talked some more.

VI

 

He was good at talking. Even the words he sold to a prominent lady were eloquent, and there are some writings of his-to the Messalinas who occupied the Spanish throne and the Claudias who occupied the Island’s throne-which anger us because of their beauty, irritate us because of their inspiration, and annoy our conscience because of the aesthetic conscience with which they were written.

For a long time-all the time we have hated false appearances-we have detested the cult of form for the sake of form, and thus will not

 

 

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partake in the cruelty of presenting as praiseworthy the vain literary beauties written by Placido, which today would grieve his conscience and bring him intellectual remorse. They remain in print, as proof that evil is all the more ugly the more it is adorned and embellished.

The manchineel is a tropical tree. Its elegant trunk, its graceful branches, glistening leaves, charming flowers and spacious crown are a pleasing view for the botanist: but science protects the botanist from this tree, because it tells him that in its shade, in the sap within its trunk, in its branches and leaves, and in the nectar of its flowers, there is death. Colonial society in the Antilles is like the manchineel; the fruits that are gathered in its shade are deadly. The poems Placido wrote for those who are responsible for all the corruption are venomous.

On the other hand, when he stopped being Infamy’s poet and removed himself from his surroundings in order to be just a man, Placido wrote healthy poems.

 

A mi amada

 

Mira, mi bien, cuan mustia y deshojada

Esta con el calor aquella rosa

Que ayer brillante, fresca y olorosa,

Puse en tu blanca mano perfumada.

 

Dentro de poco tornarase en nada:

No veras en el mundo alguna rosa

Que a mudanza feliz O dolorosa

No se encuentre sujeta u obligada.

 

Sigue alas tempestades la bonanza,

Siguen al gusto el tedio y la tristeza;

Perdóname, que tenga la desconfianza

 

Y dude de tu amor y tu terneza.

Que habiendo en todo el mundo tal mudanza, ,,

Sólo en tu corazón habra firmeza?

 

To my loved one

 

Look, my love, how the rose I placed on your white, perfumed hands yesterday, while it was

still fresh, shiny and fragrant, has withered with the heat and lost its petals.

It will soon turn to nothing: you will never find anything in the world

 

 

 

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that is not subject to or forced to change, be it a cheerful change or a painful one.

Fair weather follows the storm, tediousness and sadness follow pleasure; forgive my distrust in your love

and tenderness; that knowing the world is full of changes, I should doubt your heart is the only thing that’s

faithful.

 

 

Let the purists and the grammarians erase the italianism and the error they may find in one of these verses, and ask the critics whether that sweet sonnet mirrors, in form and essence, the delicate thought it poeticizes; then ask the thinkers whether the heart that beat so innocently-­ had it lived in a purer social environment and a healthier atmosphere than the one created by colonial corruption in the Antilles-would have shown the weaknesses that deformed the handsome moral features of the martyred poet.

The most tender memories are those which come back at times when the heart is being tempered by experience. Placido must have written this poem during the period we have placed him in: the time when his self-doubt, a product of his immoral conduct, brought to. his far-off conscience the memory of the white girl who picked flowers of wax. Just as she was remembered with sadness in the first sonnet, so she was accused of being cold in this second one:                                                        .

 

A una ingrata

 

¡Basta de amort

Si un tiempo te queria,

Ya se acabó mi juvenillocura.

Porque es, Celia, tu candida hermosura

Como la nieve, deslumbrante y fria.

 

No encuentro en ti la extrema simpatia

Que ansiosa mi alma contemplar procura,

Ni a la sombra de la noche oscura,

Ni a la esplendida faz del claro ma.

 

Amor no quiero como tu me amas,

Sorda a mis ayes, insensible al ruego;

Quiero de mirtos adornar con ramas

 

 

. In every publication of this essay up to now, this part had appeared thus:”. . . his immoral conduct and his far-ofT conscience. . .” Hostos’s manuscript reads as in this edition: “. . . his immoral conduct, brought to his far-off conscience. . .” (Editors’ note).

 

 

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Un corazon que me idolatre ciego;Quiero abrazar una mujer de llamas,

Quiero besar una mujer de fuego.

 

To an Unresponsive Lady 
    Enough of love! If I loved you once, my youthful madness is now gone,because your candid beauty, Celia, is like the snow, dazzling and cold.

I cannot find in you the great affection-my soul anxiously yearns for, neither in the shade of a dark night, nor in the resplendent light of a clear day.

I do not want your kind of love, deaf to my sighs, insensitive to my pleas; I want to adorn, with sprigs of myrtle, a heart that blindly idolizes

me; I want to embrace a woman in flames, I want to kiss a woman of fire.

 

While the admirers of beautiful forms admire the forms in those fourteen verses and savor the sensuality they inspire, let us look at the morbid influence the social environment has on the poet’s soul. He loved the white girl who picked flowers, then treats his loved one like dirt. Approaching her again in memory, he is frightened by her love for him when other affairs have already diminished his own feelings; but he seeks her out, woos her, encourages her and irritates her with his passion, and when she remains firm and resists him, the poet reproaches and abandons her.Feeling is the human faculty most easily corrupted. When corrupted, it turns into sensuality. Sensuality is a characteristic symptom of the social sickness known as decrepitude. Since a society that is not yet formed (as is the case with Antillean society and was the case with Cuban society during the period Wf: are presenting) cannot in itself be decrepit, its decrepitude had no doubt been transmitted by contagion. Placido’s moral state, subject to the influence of sensuality, reveals the social ill he was infected with; thus the opinion we have formed of the society in which the poet lived by studying him at that moment in his life is scrupulously accurate.

 

VII

I

 

1
In the collection of poems that comprises the work of the pardo poet there are a few which belong to a genre so exceptional for the eminently subjective character of their poetic conception, that it would be difficult

 

 

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to explain what stage of his life they were written in, what period of his work they can logically be placed in, and how they were produced in his life and his work, if the latter were not explained by them. I am referring to his fables.

The three fables we will look at-much more for the purpose of seeing the man in all his phases than to savor all the poet’s delights-will explain for themselves how logically they correspond to the stage we are looking at in the poet’s life, and how naturally they link to his work.

The fable is a genre midway between lyrical and satirical poetry. After feeling his inner world, a poet objectifies it and looks at it within the reality of life and the world.

Subjectively, within the individual ego, within the soul of a poet, that reality was made of sadness, pain, indignation, and tears; and an exclusively subjective and personal conception of the world, of life, and of the moral and intellectual struggles of the times had produced the lyric poet.

Objectively, within the world, within reality, life, and the times, the world is what it is, life is what it should be, and reality is what should be expected from the contrast of ideas, passions, and interests that comprise it; and the objective conception of the times in which he lives makes the lyric poet a satyric poet, who will be either a desperate fabulist, moralist, or elegiac, or a relentless satirist, depending on how he reflects upon reality, and on whether his inborn qualities lean toward moral order or disorder.

Whether fabulist, elegiac, or satirist, every poet that develops any of these genres is a man who has held in his soul a world he thought superior to the real world, and who, upon contrasting the two, saw his ideal crumble. He compares his ideal, cries over it, or curses it; he smiles, sheds tears, or complains; he asserts, hesitates, or denies, and thus emerges as either a moralist who condenses the wisdom of experience into fables, or a pessimist who pours his disappointment with reality into elegies, or the skeptic who molds cutting satire out of the curses with which he protects himself from the emptiness of his life.

 

VIII

 

 

Had he continued to sing about his soul’s emotions with indifference, Placido would have contented himself with his social environment. He was as unaware of the changes effected on his soul by the world around him as he was about the mistakes, absurdities, vices and perversions with which that world tainted him without his knowing-a world which held much attraction for the poet, but should have awakened a great

 

 

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deal of repulsion in his race. He had lived his own life believing that what he imagined, felt, conceived and accomplished, was reality. He had become accustomed to believing that the world which flattered him was as innocent as he; that its hospitality was as disinterested as his own life was; that the praises it bestowed upon him, its indifference to his dark, illegitimate origin, were as unconditional as his own faith in that world and his surrender to it; while he believed this, he was content with the world, and never looked beyond himself, at reality.

Reality, however, came to him.

To be a pardo and dare to become a poet; to be illegitimate and, with his talent, dare to overcome the obstacle of social inequality, was an audacity so surprising, it could be forgiven and even applauded in the beginning; but it was inconceivable that the applause set off  by the initial surprise could continue to sanction such deviation from the strict laws of convenience, and, silently, as tropical storms develop, over the trusting poet’s head a cloud began to form from which lightning would eventually strike down upon him.

The biographers of Juan Pablo Federico Richter wrote that the virtuous thinker had once adopted the thrifty habit of wearing his hair long and dressing a la Hamlet, and that the high and mighty people of his town had consequently become indignant and done everything they could to embarrass Richter with their gossip.

Richter resisted for as long as he could. Then, on a quiet Saturday evening, he had his copious head of hair trimmed, changed his unpopular attire to a more common one, and placed the following notice on his door: “Juan Pablo Federico Richter has the honor of announcing to this respectable town that tomorrow, Sunday, he will show himself without his long locks and costume.”

The venerable German thinker’s neighbors are the neighbors of Merit in every place in the world.

It is a law that applies even to plant and animal life: when the lion is kind, the lion cubs will scratch him. The most prominent tree in the Andes is also the one most caressed, squeezed, and suffocated by the rockrose.

The lingue; the lion, and people of merit can live pampered by the society of plants, beasts and men only if they consent to letting themselves be suffocated.

We first perceive this sad truth in the feeling of personal weakness displayed by the individual, a feeling which is more active the more passive the self-confidence the world has instilled in him. The trustful per­-

 

. Large lauraceous tree from Chile.{Translators’ note)

 

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son becomes distrustful; the outgoing person withdraws into himself, measures his strength against that of the world, notices the imbalance, and instead of fighting face to face, he strikes in ambushes. This is the moment for satire, curses, irony, and sarcasm. Because of a mistake due in large part to the instinct for self-preservation, the extreme weakness of that moment is seen by the delusive imagination as a state of great strength, and he who protests against the world believes himself to be at his strongest when his conduct shows he is really at his weakest.

Placido’s conduct, upon his realization that his talent would not be forgiven, resulted from a mistake committed by all those who are rejected by the environment in which they were called upon to impose their science, intelligence, or personality.

Some persons who knew him then. said to me recently, in New York: “Placido’s lips were full of irony, and his tongue was like a dagger.”

Where they saw his strength, I saw his weakness: where they found proof of his intellectual power, I saw proof of his social powerlessness.

Placido was powerless against society, and against it he would have used every jab of genius, every sting of satire, every stab of sarcasm in his reach, if the evolution that has saved him for posterity had not taken place in his soul.

His fables evidence that evolution.

In the three we have studied, the poet is worth less than the man; but the man is beginning to show great worth, and we are witnessing the dawn of his character. Everyone who lives to struggle has three things he criticizes throughout his life: outward appearances, the unfortunate standard by which the world judges people and things; lovers of fortune, the great portion of humanity that applauds the victories of evil while it condemns virtue’s defeats; and arrogant pride, which attributes to lucky chance the merit and power gained only through reflective efforts.

Placido criticized these things in the three fables we are about to quote from. Perhaps no one in his time and context was able to criticize them with as much intensity and feeling.

The curse of his color weighed upon him, and the more intensely he felt his personal identity, the greater his humiliation became. The respect that every society has for outward appearances condemned him to the most painful torture known to individual dignity; as a poet, he was useful, and they used him; as an illegitimate pardo he was useless, and as soon as they had taken advantage of him, they discarded him.

The torture inflicted upon dignity in societies based on class inequality, which precedes and determines social confrontations, could have made Placido a staunch enemy of society-he had every reason; but instead he became a moralist. The great effort that must be put into exer­

 

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cising reason; the kind heart and lofty soul needed to be able to lay down the arms of combat and divest oneself of the spirit of vengeance that logically springs from dignity when it is systematically restrained; the series of ideas in the mind of everyone who is hindered by insurmountable obstacles, which later make the person a moralist; the silent struggle that must be carried on within oneself in order to rise above a spirit of protest to one of benevolence; the immense distance traveled by the spirit from the first moment it is surprised by social injustice to the time when it can examine injustice. with a smile and forgive it based on analysis-all this is enough to denote great personal progress.

All personal progress implies improvement. Placido could not have written the fable in which he condemns, with a placid smile, the world’s respect for outward appearances, had he not improved, had he not begun to react against the environment that suffocated him, if he had not already reached the moral stature that allowed him to contemplate his existence and, without bitterness, examine the social vices of which he was an expiatory victim.

He could keep from becoming irritated; he could smile, and instead of avenging himself, he meditated, and instead of becoming an enemy, he rose to the august position of teacher. The satiric poet had given way to the fabulist.                    .

Let us look at the simplicity with which he molded “Juana’s Vase.”

 

El garrafón de Juana

 

Tiene Juana un garrafón

Forrado de fina paja,

Que con un pano. de holan

Sacude a tarde y manana.

 

. . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . .. . . .

.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

Le adorna los was festivos,

Para realzar sus galas.

Con bellas monas de cintas

Azules, rojas y blancas.

 

No sabe dónde ponerlo;

Con el suena, rie, habla;

 

. . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . .. .

… . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . .

 

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Quise saber que misterio

El favorito encerraba:

Llego, destapo, Ie alzo,

Mirole, y encuentro . . . ¡nada!

 

. . . . . . . .. .. . . . . . . .. . .

 

La compare con el mundo

Porque inciensa y rinde parias

AI hombre que ve cercado

De la exterior pompa vana.

 

 

Mas, si a examinar llegais

El interior de su alma,

La hallareis hueca, vacia,

Como el garragón de Juana.

 

 

Juana’s Vase

 

Juana has a vase, covered with fine straw,

which she dusts with a linen cloth at all hours of the day.

 

To enhance its beauty, she decorates it on holidays with lovely bows

and ribbons of blue, red, and white.

 

She doesn’t know where to put it; she dreams about it, laughs with it,

and talks to it;

 

I wanted to know what secrets her favorite vase contained:

I came, removed the lid, picked it up, looked in it, and found. . . nothing!

 

I compared her to the world, because it flatters and pays homage to

the man who is wrapped in exterior pomp and vanity.

 

Yet, if you manage to examine his inner soul, you will see that it is

hollow and empty, as is Juana’s vase.

 

Reproach had taken the place of protest; and it was a sweet, insinuative, and persuasive reproach, as is everything one does to encourage goodness.

 

 

IX

 

 

If someone had managed to continually learn from the alternating love and disdain of the public, from the turns of praise and criticism and fame and obscurity, it was our unhappy pardo poet, imprisoned within a slave society where Whites avenged their own slavery by making that of

 

 

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the black slaves more painful, and by using law, mockery, injustice and isolation to persecute the four generations of Blacks who became mulattos, pardos, and quadroons.

Slowly, minute by minute, drop by drop, bitterness had been filling his soul. Drops of bitterness eat away at the conscience, just as drops of water erode rock; and it was an unmistakable indication of strength for Placido to appear calm, impassive, imperturbable; for him to stand proud although he was dejected, look strong although he was weak, and to emerge more complete in his sense of judgement and benevolence, the more wrought and undermined he was by secret acts of injustice, in the fable which allegorically summarizes a part of his life.

Like the losing cock in the fable, the poet had also once been a winner. That was the time when he heard the thunder of applause; when his illegitimacy had been forgotten and his color forgiven; the time when they had competed in praising him with suffocating flattery and clamorous ovations; the time when he received smiles from the prominent, deference from the powerful, and equality in exchange for his talent.

Like the cock in his fable, he too was defeated. Why? No one said. For what just purpose? No one tried to find out. But he had fallen, and the memories of his origin returned anew, along with the stinging irony and bloody sarcasm; and outward appearances regained their value, while inequality again imposed injustice.

Then came the fall of the poet’s ideal, the fleeting hopes, the unveiling of reality, the painful need to analyze it, the silent reconstruction of his ideas, the somber soliloquy, the weeping hidden under the laughter, the biting sarcasm disappearing under a benevolent smile, the truth coming through reality, the man replacing the dreamer and completing the poet.

He would not have. talked about the perils of his struggle with a smile on his face and with the carelessness we all have about emotions, actions, and thoughts that have lost their intensity through repetition, if the struggle had been more severe: a fable does not suffice to express a moral state; a Socratic smile does not suffice to effectively protest against a social condition; but the very coolness of the protest and the very mildness of the smile’s contempt evidence the continuity of the struggle and the resisting strength the poet had gained from it.

That is why the good lessons Placido teaches in his fables, when carefully reflected upon, have the same effect we experience in everyday life when we see a benign smile on the lips of a man who has learned from pain and has been torn apart by struggle; the smile is in itself a protest, an accusation, a condemnation; but it condemns, accuses and protests with the infallible greatness of those who are accustomed to gaining victory in defeat.

 

 

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Napoleon’s one great moment, in my view, was his slow, crestfallen withdrawal from Waterloo. That they meditate upon and analyze defeat, this is what is great about Milton’s Satan and about people in history and in daily life.

This is what Placido does, in his own way, in “The Two Cocks.”

 

Los dos gaUos

 

Brinca-cercas, un gallo valeroso,

Vencedor de las rinas mas tremendas,

Hallose cierta vez con Trabucazo

Que tambien valenton nombrado era.

A los primeros tiros, cayo herido

Con una pata menos Brinca-Cercas.

Mandolo el amo levantar al punto,

Y gano Trabucazo la pelea.

Canto con arrogancia, escarbo el suelo,

Haciendole al contrario larga befa.

Un mes tras otro fueronse, hasta un ano,

Volvieronse a encontrar por contingencia,

Y el primero Ie dijo: “Hola, Trabuco,

Mira hoy donde guardas la cabeza;

Porque solo que tu amo te la quite,

La podras libertar de mis espuelas.”

“Menos palabras–contestó Trabuco–,

Pues si no escapaste en la otra fiesta,

Como te pique firme por la barba,

No te dare lugar a brincar cercas,”

Abocaronse al fin los dos contrarios,

Y Trabuco empezo con tal braveza,

Que ya conto cumplir con su palabra

Y dijo para si, “la cosa eshecha.”

El bravo Brinca-Cercas Ie seguia,.

Como el que esta velando a quien lo vela,

Y cuando menos lo espero,

Trabuco Cayo de un tiro desnucado en tierra.

Entonces en silencio se quedaron

Los que aplaudieron su primer pelea,

Y los que Ie llamaron invencible,

Hoy con placer al vencedor celebran,

¡Asi pasan las cosas de este mundo!

Pendientes todas de fortuna ciega

 

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EI que hoy es victorioso y aplaudido,

Si es vencido manana, Ie desprecian.

 

 

The Two Cocks

 

A brave cock named Fence-Jumper, winner of the greatest cock fights, met one day with Blunderbuss, who was also boastful and brave. After the first kicks, Fence-Jumper fell wounded, missing a leg. His master ordered him picked up immediately, and Blunderbuss won the fight. He crowed arrogantly, scratched the ground with his feet, mocking his opponent for some time. Months went by, then a year later, the two met again by coincidence, and the first one said: “Hello, Blunderbuss, watch your head today; it will be saved from my spurs only if your master himself removes it.” “Less words and more action-answered Blunderbuss-, you weren’t spared in the last party, and if this time I peck you firmly in the chin, you won’t even have a chance to jump the fence.” The two opponents finally met in battle, and Blunderbuss began with such ferocity, that he took it for granted his promise would be kept, saying to himself, “it’s as good as done.” The brave Fence-Jumper followed him, watching him as one who is being watched does, and when he least expected it, Blunderbuss was struck with only one kick, and fell with a broken neck. Then the people who had applauded his first fight fell silent, and those who had once called him invincible, now took pleasure in praising the new winner; Such is the way of the world! All things depend on blind fortune, and he who applauded in victory today, will be scorned tomorrow if he loses.

 

 

X

 

 

Placido’s fate within the course of his fables was like the lion’s experience with its cubs. They had seduced him until they had him at the reach of their claw’s, and then they tore him apart.

The concept of moral strength is so complex, that no society has ever possessed it in all its worth; very few individuals in any society are capable of it. From the near impossibility at the social level and the near incapability at the personal level, the most intense and perhaps most sublime of sublime pains emerges: the pain felt by one whose great spirit has been strengthened by life’s struggle, one who is strong in reason and conscience, when he sees the definitive expressions of his strength taken for weakness.

 

 

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This pain devoured Placido. He was at his strongest when, voluntarily divesting himself of all outward appearances of strength and moralizing his thought and his social and literary conduct, he rose above pessimism to optimism, progressed from the cutting satire of his conversations to the suggestive moral lessons of his fables, and, instead of returning the punches he received, he serenely diverted the aggressor and the punches, smiled with a placid bitterness, and calmly continued to progress.

For Placido, that is what it was about; and progress is such an intimate pleasure, it brings such intense joy to feel the growth of one’s spirit, to perceive the distance already traveled, to measure the growth of our faculties, to compare yesterday’s moral and intellectual vigor with today’s, to recognize that one is stronger today because one is better, and to prepare oneself to be stronger and better tomorrow; to master everything–accidents, coincidences, the brute force of life, the brutal logic of events-through an absolute self-control, that even though Placido was not fully aware of the evolution he was going through, he found the strength to resist the rude impulses of reality in it.

However, the stronger he was in spirit, the more disdain he had for the arms of combat, and for this they thought him weaker.

Those who were powerful and strong in the world but impotent and weak in spirit, vented their fury on the poet, and viewing him from the accidental perspectives of birth and social position, amused themselves by making him aware of the differences and humiliating him.

Like the palm tree in his fable, which had grown tall through its own efforts and become prominent on its own merits, Placido had acquired the height and greatness which matched the vitality of his life and the strength of his creative faculties; meanwhile, the clinging plants had depended on chance or the willfulness of fortune to rise higher than the palm; but they had risen, and from the heights of chance and fortune, they looked down with disdain upon the generous palm.

Like Placido, the palm tree, representing him in the poem as “the one who answers with a smile,” concentrates on explaining the difference in levels, and, while the mallow hides, the palm tree gets ready to accept nature’s praise:

 

~ A la vez asomaba el sol radiante

Decorando de grana el firmamento.

Y el arroyo, las flores, y las aves

Cantaron de la palma el vencimiento.

 

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At once the sun began to rise, painting the firmament scarlet. And the brook, the birds and the flowers sang the victory of the palm tree.

The poet could portray nature as just, and thus guarantee for himself in death the justice he was denied in life; but he knew quite well, in writing The palm tree and the mallow, that it was a fable, just like the distribution of justice among human beings, and that one of his own merits was having done without justice.  True strength is that which never relies on success.

While he was successful, Placido was weak. At the time he wrote the fables he was strong, his merit was great, as merit is when it is disputed and derided.

Self-assured, he could smile instead of fight, and tell his own story sine ira et studio by alluding to the quarrel between the palm tree and the mallow:

 

La palma y la malva

 

-Una malva rastrera que medraba

En la cumbre de un monte gigantesco

Despreciando una palma que en elllano

Leda ostentaba sus racimos bellos,

De este modo decia: “l,Que te sirve

Ser gala de los campos y ornamento’

Que sean tus ramos de esmeralda plumas,

Y arrebatar con majestuoso aspecto?

l,De que sirve que al verte retratada

En ellimpio cristal de un arroyuelo,

Parezca que una estrella te decora,

Y que sacuda tu corona el viento;

Cuando yo, de quien nadie mencion hace,

Bajo mis plantas tu cabeza tengo?”

La palma entonces remecio sus hojas,

Como aquel que contesta sonriendo,

Y la dijo: “Que un rayo me aniquile

Si no es verdad que lastima te tengo.

l,Te tienes por mas grande, miserable,

Solo porque has nacido en alto puesto?

Ellugar donde te hallas colocada

Es el grande, tú no; desde el soberbio

Monte do estas, no midas hasta el soto,

Mira lo que hay de tu cabeza al suelo.

Aunque ese monte crezca hasta el Olimpo,

 

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Seras malva y no mas, con todo eso

Desengaiiate, malva, no seas loca*.

Jamas es grande el que nació rastrero,

Y el que alimenta un croazón mezquino

Es siempre bajo, aunque se suba al cielo.”

 

 

The Palm Tree and the Mallow

 

A creeping mallow flourished on the peak of a giant mountain, looking down with disdain at a palm that displayed its beautiful fronds in the prairie below; the mallow said: “What good is it for you to be the jewel decorating the countryside, that your branches are like emerald plumes, and that your majestic appearance is captivating? What good is it for you to gaze at your reflection in the mirror of a clear brook, and see that you are adorned by a star and that your crown swings with the wind; When I, whom no one mentions, have your head under my feet?” The palm tree rocked its fronds, as one who answers with a smile, and said to the mallow: “May lightning strike me, if it isn’t true I pity you. “Do you think, wretch, that you are bigger, only because you were born in a higher position? The place where you are is higher, not you; don’t measure the distance from the proud mountain where you stand to the grove, consider the distance from your head to the ground. Even as the mountain rises as high as the Olympus, you will be mallow and nothing more, so come to your senses, mallow, don’t be crazy: One who is born a creeper will never be big, and he who nurtures a wicked heart is always low, though he may rise to the sky.”

However, he who has a dream of the future is tall, though he may never rise above the ground: and Placido, humiliated, scorned, and disdained, had that dream.

 

 

XI

 

 

Most of the mistakes we make in life are a product of biased judgment. We go along judging what we see in the world, in others and in ourselves, and seldom if ever do we seek the source of our emotions, the
. Previous publications of this essays have ended with the line. . . Desenganate, malva, no seas loea; Hostos’s outstanding study of the martyred poem was considered to end here; Professor G. Rivera, a fervent Puerto Rican researcher, found, in New York, a collection of Revista de Santiago, the magazine where Hostos published the essay in sections, and thanks to his research, we can now present it in its entirety. (Editors’ note)

 

 

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cause of our actions, the motives behind the set of ideas forming the reality of life inside and outside of ourselves; seldom if ever do we remember there is, within the absolute inborn freedom of our expressions, a pre-established order of nature; so we break this order, and when we do we make the mistake of thinking that we and others are exempt from the duty to obey the natural laws that give order to all life.

Placido, like everyone else, suffered from biased judgment, if we consider the state his heart was in after the three or four platonic attempts at love that he sung and cried about in his erotic poems and imagine that the primitive strength of his sensibility had been defeated by the shallowness he had surrendered to.

The strength was intact, however, and it showed itself the moment it was required.

The initial joy he felt at defeating the people around him turned into sorrow when he saw society’s prejudiced reaction against his merit: he went from an unreflecting conduct to a deep reflection on life, and from disorderly actions to a more orderly and rigid behavior. And since a man is immoral only because he chooses the wrong goals in life, the moment he conceived of a higher aim than the one he had known, Placido began to moralize his intelligence.

At this point, the various aspects of moral life he had dispelled reappeared under new perspectives and in a more rational light, and, making up for past mistakes, he again-this time reflectively-travelled through the different spheres of action he had passed through before without a conscience.

He then felt the intense love that he had only imagined in the past.

Whether Placido knew it or not, the deep, intimate, pure, and chaste love he felt for Fela was a sign that he had replaced his incomplete sense of love with a complete sense, with the total ideal of feeling.

The aim of all feeling is love, and it is such a necessary aim, that human beings could be happy once and for all if, embracing it early in life, they realized the ideal the moment they perceived it. Thus they could avoid sensual digressions, constitute their families when the time called for it, and with the strength of those who have achieved a purpose, dedicate themselves to other less personal-although not less necessary purposes.

Placido realized that in spite of his dissolution he still had feeling; he realized it the moment when, tired of his silent struggle against the social environment which oppressed him, he felt the need to seek help in the struggle.

He had friends: all the intelligent youths in Matanzas-white, mulatto, pardo or black-had the enthusiastic fondness for him which is

 

 

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typical of youths all over the world: he was, for his intellectual strength, a source of hope; young people in enslaved nations are wanting of strength, and perhaps these youths had focused their secret hopes on Placido. But those friends were not enough to curb the avalanche of prejudices and errors, the rejection of the young pardo which constituted the torture of his dignity.

He was looking for another kind of helper, and needed to find it in the calm, normal, definitive satisfaction of his emotional needs. He conceived the possibility and the usefulness of starting a family.

 

 

XII

 

 

At that time, in the city of Matanzas, there was a dignified Cuban matron who, having sensed that the enslavement of the Ethiopian race was the primary cause of the enslavement of the Antilles, had devoted herself, in the silence of her home, to making amends for the horrible injustice done to the slaves: since she could not free her own slaves for fear of unleashing the anger and vengeance of the colonial government, 1 she treated them as human beings, thereby showing them the dignity of their origin.

A free black woman worked among her slaves. She was a criolla, she was Cuban, and she had the physical and moral qualities that characterize Blacks born in the Antilles. She was beautiful, so beautiful that Whites called her the Ethiopian Venus. She was so intelligent, that with astonishing will and precocity she had assimilated all the knowledge comprising the education of women in colonial societies. She was so virtuous, that she inspired respect; so affectionate, that she won the love of everyone that came near her.

Fela was the noble matron’s favorite, born in her house, raised under her care; she owed her benefactor the development of the delicate emotions and precocious intelligence that made people love and respect her.

Many young white men saw her, and many of them cursed, perhaps for the first time, social inequality based on color. .

Placido saw her, and fell in love with her. He was able to love her without fear of social objections, (in fact he had to overcome some, since society thought him superior to her) and he loved her with all the abandon of definitive emotions, with all the dignity of a love that is a social aim instead of a means for obtaining personal pleasure.

 

I People who freed their own slaves in Cuba and Puerto Rico were persecuted as enemies of Spain. (Hosto’s note)

 

 

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  Amor ch’d nul amato amor perdona, and love did not spare Fela, the Ethiopian Venus of Matbnzas, just as it did not spare Francesca.

His love reciprocated, Placido thought of marriage. The helper he sought in his struggle against social inequality had finally appeared, and he welcomed her with great joy.    He was going to be happy, he was going to be strong, he was going to continue the struggle, he was going to win.

To struggle and win and be happy? To be strong because he was happy? Delusions of virtue!, as Heredia would say, and the plague would later confirm.   The cholera epidemic reached Matanzas, and seized Fela.   She fell as dead bodies do, come corpo morto cade, and with her fell the poet’s happiness, his strength, encouragement and triumph.

 

XIII

 

This is where his greatness begins.  To prove that a man is weak, confront him with the hostile fate that pagans call destiny, and Christians believe in and call by a thousand names. A weak man’s ideal will perish before this fate, and he will be finished. He will be good for anything except for being a man.

When a friendly adversity wants to prove that a man is strong, it attacks, besieges, and tortures him; it robs him of all his helpers, all the encouragement of his ideals, all his outer strengths, and, after humiliating and insulting him, it will pick him up. This is a man who will be useful only by being a man: fate is already powerless against him. He will dry his tears, devour his pain, tend to his bruises, clean his wounds, feel his dying heart with his hands, and his immortal spirit with his brain, and he will smile, rearrange the load on his back and go imperturbably on his way.

Where is he going? It does not matter. What matters is that he is on his way. He is on his way, as Placido was, to be tortured; as Domingo Goicuria2 was, to the gallows; as the Cuban patriots were, toward independence; as the exiled Puerto Ricans were, toward revolution; but he will not hesitate, he will not lose his time cursing the bumpy road. All roads leading to a humane goal are smooth.

Placido did not lose time cursing. The nine poems he devoted to expressing his misfortune also evidence his moral progress.

 

2 Martyr of the Cuban revolution, one of the most outstanding figures in the history of the liberation of the Americas. (Hostos’s   notes).
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Except for the initial venting of his pain, when he is still fighting against it and reprimands the devastating plague,

 

Esa cruel, homicida,

Barbara, injusta, inexorable y fiera,

 

That cruel, homicidal, barbaric, unfair, inexorable and fierce [plague]

 

the rest are all calm reflections of his situation: already the poet had submitted to the man; the wandering fantasy had surrendered to reason; the sickly sensitivity had given in to sound sentiment.

 

Fue su existir cual tierna tortolilla

Que en el nido se mira perecer,

Rapida exhalación que prende, brilla,

Y vuela, y muere al punto de nacer.

 

Her life was like a gentle turtledove’s, seen dying in its own nest, a quick flash that lights up, shines, and flutters, then dies at the moment of its birth.

 

Thus he thinks of her when he gazes upon the happy October moon that had shined upon the fortunate days of his cherished relationship.  And he vows to keep his sweet promise,

 

La pasión inmortal que Ie jure Y que si por mi mal vivo mil anos Mil an os su memoria guardare,

 

The immortal passion I pledged to her will live in my memory for a thousand years, if by ill chance I live that long,

 

 

with the same resoluteness he expresses in a letter to another poet, in which he refers to the death of his loved one.

He had resolved, without spite, without bitterness, without desperation, to love only the memory of the one woman he had ever loved: this was enough to quiet his restless feelings, and without realizing it, Placido began to think and feel more as a man.

His ill-fated love affair, far from sinking him lower, had exalted him. It had elevated his spirit, and with it the goals and expressions of his life.

 

 

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XIV

 

 

Up to then, the only homeland Placido had loved was the geographic one. There was, in a corner of the world, a beautiful piece of land where he had been born. As oysters love the rocks, and plants love the earth, no less yet no more than this, Placido had loved the land of his birth.

But, was the land his? Who possessed it and why? Why was it occupied by a foreign power? Why was it exploited by foreigners? What human or superhuman law made social slaves of the black natives, and politicians of the white natives of the Island?

If these problems had occurred to him before, Placido had been afraid to confront them. Not once had he dared to raise them; not once had he meditated on the prevailing need to solve them.

Placido had been humiliated; he had resigned himself to his humiliation, and as long as he had applause for his talent, buyers for his verses, companions for his weaknesses, reprisals for his wounded self-esteem, and carnal satisfaction for his sensual needs, he saw himself detached from any commitment to the enslaved land and the society reeking of corruption, and he could say indifferently, accepting and making use of his humiliation, what the canary in his fable said:

 

 

Lo que se me enseiia canto,

Porque con mis trinos bellos,

Aunque vierto oculto llanto

Hago lo que mandan ellos

Para no padecer tanto.

 

Se que no puedo quebrar

Estas varillas de alambre;

Me dan vida por cantar,

Y si persisto en callar

Me haran perecer de hambre.

 

 

I sing whatever they3 teach me, since with my lovely trill, although I’m secretly crying, I am doing as they wish in order to suffer less.

I know that I cannot bend these bars of wire; they grant me life if I sing, but if I remain silent, they will starve me to death.

However, as soon as he was able to fathom the abyss of disgrace into which he had sunk, he came out of it. To do that, he had to face violent

 

3 They, are the canary’s jailers, its oppressors. (Hostos’s notes).
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demands, painful shocks, and bitter struggle with society, himself, chance, and adversity.

This new moral condition would naturally bring a new intellectual state, and as soon as the poet’s disillusionment about the world-which came to a peak with Fela’s death-produced the first condition, the other immediately followed.

In its new intellectual state, Placido’s life needed the guide or model it had lacked in the past. He searched for it, and found the ideal of duty.

It presented itself to him in the image of two waves: .

 

Dos olas

 

De blanda brisa impedida

Como dulces compafieras

Dos olas del mar salado

Marchaban a la ribera,

Cuando, impaciente la una,

Acusando la pereza

De su amiga, asi Ie dice:

“Atras, taimada, te quedas:

Asi nunca medranls

Por andar con las pequefias.

Veras como ahora me junto

Con esas olas soberbias

Y me levanto del Ponto

A la superficie tersk,

Y sumerjo los navios

Y me trago hasta la tierra.”

No bien hubose engrosado

Y extendido, cuando envuelta

Por su misma pesadumqre

Quedo en espumas desecha.

Y asi acabó; mas la amiga

Que alzarse la vio tan hueca,

Siguio callada y tranquila,

Burlando de su demencia.

Ya un pintado pajarillo

Saltando la sigue y juega,

Ya en ella el suave Favonio

Su planta toca ligera.

Asi se va deslizando

Hasta que a la orilla llega,
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Donde abraza la cintura

De una preciosa doncella

Y sube a su rostro y moja

Su flotante cabellera,

Pasando a morir gozosa

En lecho de blanda arena.

Yo, que mis redes cuidaba,

En tanto que el sollas seca,

Y he dado en ambas locuras

De pescador y poeta,

Creí que el mundo era el mar

Y hombres las olas: aquellas

Que de la calma se apartan,

Desdefiando la pobreza,

Y con las gran des se juntan

Por ostentar preeminencia,

Son trasunto de los vanos

Amantes de la opulencia

Que mueren sin alcanzarla

Entre el ansia y la miseria,

Desprendidos de los suyos

Por seguir quien los desprecia;

Y estas que caminan mansas

Y no ambicionan ni anhelan

Mas bienes que aquel estado

Que les dio naturaleza,

Son los pacificos hijos

Del Deber y la Prudencia,

Que ni murmuran ni envidian

Ni de los suyos se alejan

Ni distinguen por colores

Ni casan por conveniencia

Ni se envanecen, ni tienen

El trabajar por afrenta,

Y sólo aprecian acciones

Y viven de lo que pescan.

 

 

Two Waves
Slowed by a gentle wind, two waves, like sweet companions in the salty sea, were moving toward the shore” when one of them impatiently accuses her friend of being sluggish, saying:

 

 

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“If you stubbornly persist in staying behind with the small waves, you will never prosper. Look at me, I will join those proud and mighty waves and rise from the sea to the shiny surface, and sink ships, and even swallow up the land.”

As soon as she had built herself up and spread out, she was reduced to foam, collapsing under her own weight.

And that was her end; her friend, however, who saw her rise so hollow, remained quiet and calm, mocking her madness. By then a little speckled bird was following her, bouncing playfully, and the soft Favonius was lightly settling on her. Thus she moved on until reaching the shore, where she embraced a beautiful maiden’s waist, caressed the maiden’s face and splashed her flowing hair, then went on to die with pleasure on a bed of soft sand.

I, who took care not to let my nets be dried up by the sun, who have known the madness of being a fisherman as well as that of being a poet, thought the world was the sea and men were like waves: those who abandon tranquility, in disdain for poverty, and join the big waves to show their preeminence, are imitating the vain lovers of wealth who die without attaining it, between ambition and poverty, distancing themselves from their own people in order to follow those who reject them;

and those waves that move gently without desiring or yearning for more riches than those given them by nature, are like the peaceful children of Duty and Prudence, who neither gossip nor envy, nor do they distance themselves from their own people, or discriminate because of color, or marry for money, or become vain and think work is degrading; and they respect only real actions, and live off their own fishing.

 

Seldom, if ever, has the austere ideal of duty been presented in a less threatening or more charming way. Yet the absolute beauty of the image, the delicate gracefulness of its appearance, do not alter the essence of the idea in any way.

By then Placido had. understood that every life has a duty, and that the attainment of life’s objective and the realization of its destiny belong to those who fulfill this duty.

Like the arrogant wave, he had joined the arrogant– and crashed. He needed to proceed with caution, as the modest wave did, and fulfill his duty.

There are people of his color, some even darker than he, who, because they are Blacks or pardos or mulattos, have lost their rights and their dignity as human beings in the world in which they live. Placido’s own people were among these: it was his duty not to distance himself from them.
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There is a duty to work in order to subsist, and there are those who believe work is degrading. We must use our reason in a practical way to correct this error. Did it occur to Placido that the only way to end the debasement of work is to emancipate it, and that in order to do this in Cuba, it was necessary to free the slaves, and to free them, it was necessary to carry out a revolution?

Whatever inferences were made by Placido from this first conception of duty, and whatever the logical order in which these appeared in his spirit, the signs of the intellectual transformation produced by those deductions are evident in his writings. We will soon observe the effect the transformation of ideas had on his life.

 

XV

 

 

Love of country is a sentiment that, among Spain’s enslaved colonials, has always been generated by a notion of duty deeply rooted in the rebellious spirits who condemn all kinds of injustice.  For them, the Conquest represented iniquity; that their country was detained on its road to progress, obstructed by the colonial government, was also proof of iniquity; from their first notion of duty, they formulated a vehement protest against the past and a dynamic ideal for the future.

Hence the phenomenon invariably observed in the history of the independence of all the Spanish colonies: those who best personify patriotism, love their country as much in the past and future as they pity it in the present, and in the same way they want to destroy everything which presently constitutes it, they also want to reconstruct it with all the elements existing prior to colonization.

This is why these people have a perpetual hate for everything colonial, and a persevering affection for everything that recalls the primitive homeland. The destruction of the indigenous race was an injustice, and when they invoke the homeland, they are invoking her first children.

The Arawaks of Chile, the Quechua and Aymara of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, the Aztecs of Mexico, and Hatuey, Caonabo and Bayoan of the Antilles, are, in the eyes of the first independientes, the best expression of their right to independence; and the first thing they think of when they fight for and win independence, is the revenge and vindication of

the aboriginal people.

Some people, from the point of view of reality, believe that others who, m the name of civilization and their own right, vindicate one and defend the other from Spain, have nothing to do with the races that have already disappeared (as in the Antilles), or ones that have been debased

 

 

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(as in the continent). The people who believe this have not experienced the violent succession of ideas which takes place in the souls of those who feel that the idea of independence has been and is, above all, the ideal of justice.

The Conquest and colonization were so iniquitous that they awaken the most fervent feelings of pity for the annihilated races, as well as the most vehement hate for those who so stupidly and savagely annihilated them. As the hate for the executioner grows, so does the reverence for the victim; thus the fair and sacred cause of the Indians is identified with the just cause of the criollos, and past and future join forces to destroy the present. Someone who cannot understand this logical development of patriotism in a criollo yearning for his country’s independence, should not read the romance in which Placido cries over the victory of the Spaniards in the land of Tlaxcala, nor the poems of mixed stanzas in which he portrays the nostalgia felt for the first inhabitants of Cuba; for even though Jicotencal, (Xicotencal) Yumuri, and Pan are the first expressions of the new spirit stirring in the poet, that person will not understand those three poems.

Jicotencal is his first patriotic lament: he imagines the American homeland just as it was in happier days; he presents, in all its virtue, the people who inhabited the land usurped and enslaved by the Spaniards in the Antilles and in the northern and southern continents; he personifies, in the hero of Tlaxcala, the virtues that became brilliant in contrast to the horrors committed by the Conquistadores throughout the Conquest; and when, after pointing to those virtues, he remembers that the race which possessed them had been defeated and destroyed by the Spaniards, he gives such a sorrowful accent to his words, such a dismal tone to his poetry, that it is impossible not to notice the change taking place in the poet’s spirit. He had already become the kind of person who considers it a right to love his country, who needs his country’s freedom, who links the social and political slavery he sees everywhere to the series of catastrophes brought by the victory of force, violence, and injustice, and, attributing both to the same agent, conceives of the duty and need to destroy it.

Had we proposed to make a literary critique of the pardo poet, we would reprint the entire octosyllabic romance in which he narrates the victories of Jicotencal and the hero’s greatness of spirit: it is a masterpiece in its genre, and perhaps his most perfect composition. But we have not wanted to waste time proving that Placido possessed the set of innate qualities which is the mark of all great lyrical poets; we were looking for. the man within the poet, and only took from Jicotencal the part which served our purpose.

 

 

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Thus he presents the hero:

 

Dispersas van por los campos

Las tropas de Moctezuma, .

De sus dioses lamentando

El poco favor y ayuda:

Mientras ceiiida la frente

De azules y blancas plumas,

Sobre un palanquin de oro

Que finas perlas dibujan

Tan brillantes que la vista

Heridas del sol deslumbran,

Entra glorioso en Tlaxcala

El joven que de ellas triunfa.

 

Moctezuma’s troops are scattered across the countryside, lamenting the scant help and support they are receiving from the gods: Meanwhile, his head encircled by blue and white plumes, riding in a golden palankeen adorned with fine pearls so bright they dazzle the eyes when the sun hits them, the young man who outshines them gloriously enters Tlaxcala.

 

The hero’s virtue is put to action: he is magnanimous; his greatness is captivating, and when he later disappears in the darkness, the contrast will be enough to produce the poet’s desired effect:

 

Hasta la espaciosa playa

Llega, donde Ie saludan

Los ancianos senadores

Y gracias mille tributan.

Mas i.por que veloz el heroe

Atropellando la turba,

Del palanquin salta y vuela

Cual rayo que el eter surca?

Es que ya del caracol,

Que por los valles retumba,

A los prisioneros muerte

En eco tonante anuncia.

Suspende a lo lejos hórrida

 

 

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La hoguera su llama fUlgida,

De humanas victimas avida

Que bajan sus frentes mustias.

Llega; los suyos al verle

Cambian en placer la furia,

Y de las enhiestas picas

Vuelven el suelo las puntas.

“¡Perdon!”-exclama, y arroja

Su collar: los brazos cruzan

Aquellos miseros seres

Que vida por el disfrutan.

”Torn ad a Mejico, esclavos;

Nadie vuestra marcha turba:

Decid a vuestro senor,

Perdido ya veces muchas,

Que el joven Jicotencal

Crueldades como el no usa,

Ni con sangre de cautivos

Asesino el suelo inunda;

Que el cacique de Tlaxcala

Ni batir ni quemar gusta

Tropas dipersas e inermes,

Sino con armas, y juntas.”

 

 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

He reaches the vast beach, where the elders thank him a thousand times. But, why is the hero rapidly jumping off the palankeen, pushing and flying through the crowd like a thunderbolt piercing the sky? It’s because a horn is resonating in the valley, announcing the death of the prisoners with a thundering echo. At a distance, a horrible bonfire kindles its glittering flames, hungry for the human victims who sadly lower their heads. He arrives; his people turn their fury into pleasure when they see him, lowering the tips of their lances to the ground. “Forgive me!”-he exclaims, hurling his necklace: the poor souls who owe him their lives cross their arms over their chests, “Return to Mexico, slaves; no one will stand in your way: tell your master, who is lost in many ways, that the young Xicotental does not indulge in cruelties as he does, nor does he cover the ground with the blood of murdered captives; that the cacique of Tlaxcala does not like to batter or burn troops who are scattered and defenseless, only ones who are armed and united.”

 

 

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This heroic spirit could have become Mexico’s fascination, history’s delight, the purest and most virtuous celebrity among the natural owners of the new land: instead, no one knows how or when he died. No one

knows, because between his time and a more just future, the brutality of the Conquest and the ferocity of Spain intervened. Anyone who dims the natural brilliance of virtue in this way is evil and must be abhorred-this is the spirit behind the sober, grim, and melancholy ending of the poem:

 

Siempre vencedor despues

Vivió lleno de fortuna,

Mas como sobre la tierra

No hay dicha estable y segura,

Vinieron atras los tiempos

Que eclipsaron su ventura,

Y fue tan triste su muerte

Que aun hoy se ignora la tumba

De aquel ante cuya clava

Barreada de aureas puntas

Huyeron despavoridas

Las tropas de Moctezuma.

 

Victorious from then on, he lived surrounded by riches, but since happiness on earth is never stable or secure, later times eclipsed his fortune; and his death was so sad that to this day, no one knows the burial place of the cacique from whose gold-pointed club Moctezuma’s troops fled in terror.

 

 

XVI

 

 

 

The transformation suggested in Jicotencal is accented in Yumuri. In this, as well as in the other poem of mixed stanzas dedicated to the mountain which stands out in the background of Matanzas Bay, the poet externalizes the evolution taking place in his thought and his heart.

He would no longer stroll down the banks of the Yumuri asking comfort from solitude, poetic inspiration from nature, or erotic songs from shallow meditation. His soul was already overflowing with the profound rancor of patriotism, and when he questioned the placid river and did not see the Indian canoes that crossed it in happier days, nor the simple people who inhabited its surroundings during the age of innocence, and when, instead of Indian virgins, he saw slaves pass by who were over­

 

 

349

 

 

whelmed by the state of humiliation in which they were forced to live, the poet felt, in his heart and his conscience, the patriotic indignation he dared not express, but which pulsated vividly, as he felt and listened for it in his heart.

Place your hand on that chest, your ear near that conscience, and you will hear the resonance of indignation, as the expert ear hears the thunderous vibration of fumes in the secret depths of the earth when they are about to explode.

Acosta, the able commentator of Puerto Rican history, wanted to express in his comments all his justified irritation, and make his compatriots understand. He could not do it openly: the colonial government was watching. So Acosta had to employ the most efficient rhetorical means, and his work is full of preterition-saying nothing, he says everything.

Even I-who have always expressed my ideas openly; who have openly advocated independence in the Antilles while inside Spain itself; who have rudely told the all-powerful Serrano to his face what I thought-have also been forced to use the same means employed by Placido, Acosta, and all those who, speaking for the Antilles before Spain, have had to veil the truth in order to tell it:

One of the precursors of Puerto Rico’s independence had died in Valparaiso. Segundo Ruiz Belvis, deceived by the Counter-manifesto, came to Chile in search of support for the revolution in Puerto Rico. He arrived here and died shortly after. The Island had the obligation to mourn the sacrifice of the best of her sons, since he had been the first of

them to give his life. At the time, I was the director of El Progreso, a paper founded by liberals in Barcelona expressly for the purpose of stirring the passive province of Catalufia into action. In its program-one of the causes for the suppression ab-irato of the paper and the least among the reasons for the harassment of its editor-I had included the autonomous freedom of the Antilles as a necessary condition for revolution in Spain, and wanted and needed to use every means available to explain how the Antilles and we Antilleans understood our freedom. I wrote a biography of Ruiz Belvis. Presenting him as he had been, and wanting to make people understand his importance, I summarized his portrait with the following symbolic words: “He was a worker who died at work and for his work.” Spain did not understand: but Puerto Rico endorsed the formula. Since then, our country’s independence is our work, and we are all workers for our country.

The words with double meaning, omissions, and hidden intentions that escape the lips of slaves are the most efficient threat to their masters, and the most convincing truth that the slave’s spirit is in the process of becoming free.

 

 

350

 

 

We are presenting Placido at the moment of his–spiritual emancipation, and we must learn to weigh his words, to fathom his clever intentions, to value his half-words.

In him, more than in anyone else, the latter are an accurate expression of the evolution he was going through at this point in his life. No one was as humiliated as he; no one was so pressed for a reaction. He had descended to indignity, and it had infected him: he could not make his way from the submissive resignation of the first period of his life to the forceful self-sacrifice which crowned his death in a mere instant; he evolved step by step, freeing himself through gradual efforts.

There he is, gazing at the Yumuri.

Instead of feeling the fever of the senses that in the past would irritate or calm him as he gazed upon nature, he felt the fever of strength, the hunger for action.

He thinks of the Indian hero Hatuey, who had once approached the

banks of this river, and who believed even Heaven itself would be loathsome if it was filled with Spaniards.4 He thinks perhaps the hero’s torture is only a tale, and that maybe Hatuey rests at the bottom of the tranquil Yumuri.

He thinks about the time when Hatuey, after starting the rebellion against the conquerors, ordered all the treasures of the Island thrown into the river, “because gold is the Spaniards’ god,” and when he imagines the treasure is lying at the bottom of the river, Placido goes on to tacitly curse those who pillaged, ravaged, and destroyed the Island.

 

Quién sabe si en su fondo cenagoso

Algún tesoro oculto se hallara

O en. subterráneo oscuro y misterioso

iDe Hatuey entero el esqueleto está!

 

Maybe some hidden treasure lies in its miry bottom, or perhaps in some dark and mysterious depth Hatuey’s skeleton rests, intact.

 

To escape colonial hell, he recreates the Island’s primitive paradise in his soul, and asks the gentle river about it:

 

. Condemned to die at the stake, Hatuey perished as Guatimozin did. A priest told him he would go to heaven if he consented to be baptized. “Do Spaniards go to heaven?” he asked. The priest said yes, and Hatuey replied: “Then I refuse to go where there are Spaniards.” And he died cursing them. (Hostos’s notes).

 

 

351

 

 

¿Dónde fueron, no manso,

Aquellas góndolas listas,

Con sus caprichosas velas

De verde huano tejidas?

 

¿,Dónde aquellas banderolas

De Nitido algodón, fijas

Sobre derechos bambues

Con rojos soles de bija?

 

¿Dónde los hombres tostados,

Cuyas zumbadoras viras

AIcanzan hasta en las nubes

Las garzas que el aire henman?

 

¿ Y dónde por fin aquellas

Modestas virgenes indias

Sutiles como tus olas,

Y puras como ellas mismas

 

Que en.Ia noche con antorchas

De sasafras encendidas,

Formando un bosque de fuego

Te iluminaban festiva~?

 

¡Aun me parece escuchar

Sus selvaticas cantigas,

Y que redobla sus ecos

La inmensa gruta vecina!

 

¡Aun las contempla mi mente

AI soplo de blanca brisa,

Que sus cimeras de plumas

Y sus cendales agita!

 

Sus negras madejas veo

Por la area espalda tendidas,

Sus ledas frentes, sus ojos

Centelleantes de alegria.

 

¿Que fue de esa pompa agreste?

¿De esa perdurable vida?

 

 

352

 

 

 

¿De esos amores sin celos?

¿De esos goces sin malicia?

 

 

Where, gentle river, did those swift gondolas go, with their fancy sails

woven from green palm leaves?

 

Where did they go, the banderoles of bright cotton attached to straight

stalks of bamboo, displaying red annato-dyed suns?

 

Where did they go, those prompt barges imitating floating islands,

with garlands of leaves in place of ribbon streamers?

 

Where did the bronze men go, whose arrows buzzed even in the clouds

and reached the herons that used to cleave through the air?

 

And finally, where did those modest Indian virgins go, subtle as your

wave, pure as only they could be,

 

Who used to illuminate you during the night, with torches lit with

sassafras, forming forests of fire?

 

It’s as if I can still hear their jungle ballads, their echoes intensified

by the great cave nearby!

 

I can still see them in my mind, their feathered crowns and cloaks

flowing in a white breeze!

 

I see their black tresses spread over their backs, their cheerful brows,

their eyes sparkling with joy.                                       .

 

What became of the rustic splendor? Of that ever-lasting life? Of the

love that knew no jealousy? Of those pleasures without malice?

 

 

What became of it? We need not ask, we can see it: there is a desert

where the happy natives use to be; there is emptiness, where a monument to life one stood.

 

 

Todo se acabó . . .Desierto,

Solitario, al mar caminas . . .

 

 

All is gone! . . . Desert, you alone walk toward the sea.

 

The poet meditates on the causes of the desert he sees before him and the emptiness he mourns, contrasts the people and society of the past to those of the present, fills his head with dismal ideas, and summarizes the result of his meditation in these four vivid hendecasyllabic verses:

 

Perdiste tus festines y tus flores,

Tersura, arenas, palmas y nalción . . .

Eres como un poeta sin amores,

Como la ancianidad sin sucesión.

 

 

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You have lost your festivals and your flowers, your serenity, your beaches, your palm trees and your nation. ” you are like a poet without love affairs, like old people without descendants.

 

The Yumuri, which in the past had been like any other river for Placido, had now become a symbol of patriotism. It ran sadly to the sea, mourning the lost nation, complaining, as do old people who have no heirs.

The gentle river had turned into a protest against the land’s degenerate sons. The Siboney (generic name of the aborigines) warrior had fought to the death-what was the Cuban poet doing?

 

XVII

 

The transformation in Placido’s soul was becoming frank and effective. Everywhere he looked, he contrasted his country’s calamitous present to its fortunate past.

There he was, imitating a sugar loaf, the splendid decoration in the bay, Pan. How often he had looked at it before, without evoking the ghosts of the past who now screamed, “Cuba, Cuba!” .

The poet had lived with a deaf conscience, and could not hear. Now, he was beginning to hear no other voice but the inner one, and as he looked upon the majestic mountain, the voice of his conscience rose majestically within him. This was the mountain Heredia had immortalized with his historic curses; the mountain from which the first enemies of the tyrants probably descended. To look at it with the weak view of a man-child is disgraceful; it was necessary to view it from a manly stature, as a symbol of the political and social state the country was in, as a heart full of “explosive fumes,” so he says to it, hoping it comes true:

 

Quien sabe si a reventar

Te apercibes con estruendo,

Y en ves de flores, brotar

Torrentes de lava hirviendo

iQue se apaguen en el mar!

 

Perhaps you are getting ready to erupt with an blast, and instead of flowers, you will sprout torrents of.boiling lava that will be extinguishedby the sea!

 

It was necessary to see in this mountain the memories of the immor-
354

 

tal present time in the Cuban’s soul, the time when the primitive inhabitants of the Islands had claimed their rights by using their weapons: it was necessary to view, with the imagination, the picture of primitive independence, and feel, with the heart, the clamor that incites a second independence:

 

Atalaya del golfo mejicano,

Que erguido brillas, gigantesco altar,

Donde te colocó de Dios la mano

Sobre el nivel del espumoso mar:

Soberbio Pan de canas coronado,

Cuyas hojas con voz repiten fiel

EI himno que un ilustre desterrado

Te cantara en aligero bajel:

¡Salve! monte feroz, viva memoria

De un tiempo inmortal que feneció,

Vago recuerdo de ignorada hiswriq.

Que entre rUsticas sombras !Ie ocultó.

 

Like a watchtower of the Mexican gulf, you shine stately and erect,

where God’s hand placed you, a giant altar above the foamy sea:

Proud Pan, crowned with sugar cane whose leaves, with their voices, faithfully repeat the hymn an illustrious exile once sung to you from a fleeting ship:

Hail! ferocious mountain, living memory of an immortal time that perished, vague reminiscence of a forgotten story that hid within the rustic shadows.

 

Immortal things cannot perish; the time preceding the Conquest was immortal-why did it pass and why did its independence, freedom, and fortune pass with it? Why was it followed by the evil Conquest and wicked colonization? All this is said in the antilogy underscored by the poet.

 

Los vivientes que algtin dia

Triscaban en la espesura,

Hoy salen como las hadas,

AI esplendor de la luna,

 

Entre las esbeltas palmas

y las flexibles yagrumas:

A recordar lo que fueron

Sus simples sombras se agrupa

 

 

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Dorados carcajes llevan,Y sus cabezas circulan

De garzas y tocoloros

Con blancas y rojas plumas.

 

Ya se apartan, corren, nen,Callan, bailan O se juntan

A discantar sus amores,

O a llorar sus desventuras.

 

Asi las bellas fantasmasEn la noche te saludan,

Hasta que el alba en oriente

La vuelta del sol anuncia.

 

Entonces rapidas vuelan,En la inmensidad se ocultan,

Y solo se oyen sus ecos

Que repiten:”¡Cuba!…¡Cuba! . . .”

 

 

 

 

The living beings who once romped in the thicket, now come out in the moonlight, as fairies do, among the slender palm trees and the supple trumpetwood: their simple shadows come together to reminisce about what they used to be.They carry golden quivers, and encircle their heads with heron and trogon plumes, red and white.

They scatter, run, laugh, grow silent, dance and come together again, to sing about their loves or cry about their misfortune.

Thus the beautiful ghosts greet us during the, night, until in the east, the dawn announces the sun’s return.

Then they rapidly fly off, hide in the vastness of the forest, and we hear only their echoes, repeating: “Cuba! . .. Cuba!”

 

Why had those ghosts come back, why were they screaming? They had come to reclaim their lost rights, to remind people it was time to recover those rights. They are the spirit of the enslaved society that speaks to the slaves during the night of the conscience and the silence of meditation. .Surprise Lady Macbeth at the moment she is hopelessly trying to wash the blood from her hands, whisper a quick “Banquo!, Banquo!” to her ear, and YQU will understand the effect that whispering “Cuba!

Cuba!” to Spain’s ear produces.

Spain is the Lady Macbeth of history

 

 

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XVIII

 

 

Placido got married. A woman, brown-skinned like himself, a woman disinherited of the social fortune the colony reserves for the impure merchants of black blood, or for those of pure blood and origin, who have white skins and Spanish souls; a woman, as poor and as humiliated as he, fell in love with him, and he rewarded her love with marriage.

The man’s future has been set, he is firmly settled in his home; he can now raise his head to the sky. If he swoons and faints, there is someone beside him to sustain and comfort him.

Marriage is the only institution which survives and will perpetually survive all religious, moral, social, and political systems, because it is the only institution that-as it transforms and improves-will always correspond to a concrete human aim. Physiologically, woman is a complement to man, as man is to woman. Psychologically, one is a supplement to the other; socially, both are essential elements of the family. The family created through marriage (whichever kind of marriage it may be) is the strongest, because it is the one which more freely accepts the responsibilities it entails. Reassured within the strength of this state, with its pleasures and annoyances, a man is strong. Outside the home, he will wage all the struggles he is committed to; in the home, he will have peace. Outside the home, he will have doubts: in it, he will be confident. Pain is no longer pain when one confides in another. Indignation becomes a manly pleasure when it is communicated to another; anguish becomes bliss when it is soothed by a friendly voice; injustice becomes an invitation to be virtuous when it is shared by a generous soul; the battles for one’s country, for right, freedom, civilization; the perils, hazards, the bitter changing luck of the struggle, become a goad, a stimulus, when someone he is sure of accompanies the fighter. And who else but a wife can be that reliable companion? Friendship is essentially nothing more than affection based on self-interest, and such affection may be transitory: it may vanish on account of a doubt, an injustice, a concern, an error. An identity of purpose based on having the same needs, interests, means and resources, is only possible through marriage.

This is why marriage is the state of reassurance par excellence. This is why it reassured Placido and calmed his spirit.     Those who believe that once married and calm, the poet’s evolution ceased, have not really read or understood what has been said here.

On the contrary, his process of moral and intellectual change continued more actively than ever, because it was taking place in a more favorable environment.

Placido had someone he could trust, someone he could be sure of, he

 

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had found a loyal companion for his worldly struggles, and he could therefore calmly dedicate himself to thought.

At this moment he meditated on the two main aspects of his whole life, its two principal influences: he and society, the effect society had on his spirit.

He then clearly saw how much he had forsaken dignity during the first part of his life; how much he had neglected the duty he was beginning to love.

This is the moment in his poetry when, as he confesses with increasing clarity the beliefs of his conscience-his country’s freedom, the emancipation of the slaves-he also admits his mistakes with self-criticism.

Every time he speaks of the homeland, he speaks of the time when he used to flatter its oppressors: every time he alludes to an honorable person, he curses the time when he sang the praises of the dishonorable.

He speaks of his country and freedom in El hombre y el canario [The Man and the Canary]; expresses his thought without hesitation or omission; declares himself eager for the freedom he is being offered; shows the wisdom behind working prudently and consistently towards a great

goal, and explains why he, feeling this way, had previously lauded the oppressor: Es que no como, “Otherwise I’ll starve”, as Cervantes ex­

pressed through Rocinante. This excuses neither one, as much as it is a fault of the times in which each of them lived; but the moment is already one of conscience, where the errors previously committed are seen, and where there is hope of higher actions; and this is precisely the contrast we want to emphasize in the life of the poet.

A caged canary is being reprimanded by a man because he has made no effort to free himself and because he does not sing to liberty; the bird answers;

 

“No trino como entre flores

-el canario contestó–,

porque me causan dolores

tristes recuerdos y no

agrada a mis opresores.

 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . .. . .

 

Que lo adulo, en apariencia,

Piensa mi dueno, y se hechiza;

Mas mirandolo en conciencia,

Yo engano al que me esclaviza

Por conservar mi existencia.

 

 

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Morir por preocupación

Y sin defensa, es locura;

Suicidarse, sin razón;

Vivir, y hallar la ocasión

De libertarse, es cordura.”

 

 

“I do not sing as I did among the flowers-answered the canary-, because the sad memories bring me pain, and my oppressors don’t like it.

“My master believes 1 adore him, and it pleases him; but if you

look closely, you’ll see 1 deceive my enslaver in order to preserve my life.“To die from anxiety, defenseless, is madness; it is like committing suicide without reason; To live, and find the moment of liberation, that is wisdom.”

 

 

The man who is speaking to the canary represents white Cubans: the canary represents the enslaved race. The white man who has consented to the canary’s slavery, seeks the bird when he needs it to free himself, and reprimands the subject who is still in chains for his passivity. Then the slave who is debased by force, rebukes the one debased by his own weakness, and says the following brilliant truths through the voice of the canary:

 

 

“Cuanto a ser esclavo . . . espera . . .

Se comprende, y no te asombre:

Yo disculparme pudiera,

Y al mismo tiempo te hiciera

La misma pregunta, Hombre.

 

 

Has cuenta que yo cai

En tus redes, y ansias vivas

No me salvaron de alIi,

Porque tu que me cautivas

Eres superior ami;

 

 

¡Mas tu, que sólo acatar

Debes al Sumo Hacedor

Y de un hombre a tu pesar

Que no es a ti superior

Te dejas esclavizar! . . . ”

 

 

“As far as being a slave is concerned. . . wait. . . it would be understandable, and should not surprise you: 1 could explain my behavior, Man, and at the same time ask you the same question.

 

 

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“Be aware that I was caught in your net, and intense yearning did not

help me escape, because you, my captor, are superior to me;

“Yet you, who only have to answer the Supreme Creator, have never

the less let yourself be enslaved by a man who is not superior to you…! ”

 

Even though pressure from the social environment was constant, Placido was a human being before the law and before those who revere merit. He was a human being before the law because he was not, nor had he ever been, a slave; he was a free man in the eyes of merit, because he deserved it. Yet he did not claim his rights. This goaded his conscience, and his words not only stung the white Cubans, but also the poet himself. He felt the stings, and since he was beginning to test his resistance, he took pleasure in them.

The poet needs to address an honorable personality, and in order to feel stronger and more of a man, he recalls, with his present enthusiasm, his past decadence: he now praises General La Flor, an honorable Cuban who has vigorously protested slavery in Cuba and fought for freedom in Mexico-but is he, the poet, worthy of praising this honorable Cuban? Wasn’t he the one who complemented and applauded the powers of corruption? Yes, he confesses, and he takes pleasure in confessing it–­his redemption is thus more tangible, his moral and intellectual efforts toward rehabilitation are therefore more sincere. He has redeemed and rehabilitated himself by his own efforts; he is able to recall and wants to recall the moments of debouchment and disgrace:

 

Parte: lleva esta flor, guerrero bravo,

No cual brindis de siervo temeroso:

Que allibre como tu, no fuera honroso

Inciensos recibir de un bardo esclavo.

No puedo serlo! y soilo en apariencia:

Bastame respirar en este suelo . . .

Pero mi corazon es por esencia

Muy mas libre que el aguila en el cielo!

 

Go: take this flower, brave warrior, not as a toast from a fearful slave, since it would not be honorable for someone as free as you to receive praise from a slave-poet.

I cannot be, yet I appear to be a slave! To breathe here in this land is

enough. . . yet my heart is, in essence, much freer than the eagle in the sky!

 

 

360

 

The two verses before the last express the movement of his spirit in an admirable, sublime way. The cry of rebellion is immediately followed by the proof supporting it. As much as his spirit has been freed, he still appears to be a slave:

 

To breathe here in this land is enough.

 

The poet wishes he could breathe in a different atmosphere; he envies the Cuban fighter who inhales the air of independence in Mexico, and exclaims:

 

Ojalá que ese pielago rugiente

Que hay en tu patria hermosa y desgraciada,

En tu serena frente,

Me conceda una vez cruzar las olas

Y abrazarte en las playas de Occidente:

En esas playas que llegar te vieron

Sin libertad, sin patria y sin fortuna,

Y ledas te acogieron,

Cuando el suelo natal abandonaste,

Cansado de vivir cual siervo esclavo,

Y en su suelo seguro

Patria, fortuna y libertad hallaste.

 

I hope the rumbling ocean of your beautiful and unfortunate land will permit me, in your serene mind, to cross the waves and embrace you on the beaches of the West: those beaches that witnessed your arrival, devoid freedom, homeland, or fortune; which placidly welcomed you when, tired of living as a slave, you abandoned your native soil, and in whose safe soil you found fortune, liberty, and a homeland.

 

It is not enough to feel the forceful need for liberty: it is necessary to desire it with an obstinate willpower.      The poet desires it, and he looks for ways to obtain it, just as everyone does who desires something.

He looks around him, and sees that everyone would be free if they fought and learned to fight, just as La Flor did. Instead, people content themselves with being allowed to survive; and they eat, drink, and exist.

The poet becomes irritated-this is why he speaks to the soldier with an angry tone:

 

Que hay en tu patria hermosa y desgraciada,

Millares de hombres fuertes e instruidos;

 

 

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En la inacción y esclavitud sumidos,

Que con valor y espada,

Heroes pudieran ser, y no son nada.

 

 

For there are thousands of strong and educated men in your beautiful and unfortunate land, sunk in passivity and slavery; had they swords and valor, they could be heroes, yet they are nothing.

 

 

He is discouraged, and desperately thinking he will never set foot on a free land, the poet wants at least his verses to touch it.

 

 

Mas aillegar a la espumosa orilla,

Saca mis versos, dobla la rodilla,

Y tócalos tres veces en la tierra:

¡Tócalos por piedad! . . .

 

 

Yet when you reach the foamy shores, bring out my verses, bend down, and touch them to the ground three times: for God’s sake, have them touch the ground! . . .

 

If we listen carefully to that cry, it will have the same effect on our ears as the final stage of a butterfly’s metamorphosis has on our sight.

The writer of verses has died, and the true poet has been born; the slave is gone, and the free man has arrived; the pariah has vanished, and the citizen has come forth.

 

 

XIX

 

 

The actions coincided with the words; the acts with the ideas; the man with the poet.

At the time-1843-the individual development we have followed step by step in Placido’s conscience was coinciding with one of the most critical moments in Cuban society.

In payment for his bombing of Pamplona in 1841, O’Donnell had been offered the post of Captain General of Cuba. To the moderados-a group of political doctrinaires as dimwitted in Spain as they are in France and the Americas-he seemed dangerous, and they kept him at a distance. The future demigod of the Spaniards was beginning his apprenticeship in arrogance. For a god to be poor is absurd, and O’Donnell wanted to be rich at all costs.

Conditions were favorable. The British government had demanded,

 

 

362

 

 

for the second time, that Spain honor-as her king Fernando had pledged to do-the 1817 treaty, which called for the suppression of the slave trade. The Spanish government had been forced to discuss, approve, and promulgate the law of 1842, an infamous subterfuge through which the government escaped national responsibilities, leaving the root of evil intact.

The British government, which had already paid however many pounds sterling to have Fernando VII adhere to its wishes, wanted and requested that the slave trade be declared piracy; it demanded that the same penalties applied to pirates be imposed on the slave traders, and that the right of inspections and visits be granted to its cruisers in the Gulf of Guinea.

Spain responded with a law which eluded the declaration of piracy,

the application of international penalties against pirates, and the right of inspection and visits. Her foremost commitment was to strengthen the sacred institution of slavery in the Antilles, for the following three reasons: first, because Spain had always believed the Antilles should either be Spanish or African,5 and thought African slaves were the best deterrent to independence; second, because she profited from the slave trade; and third, because she wanted to keep her hungry subjects-the Spanish employees, traders, and adventurers in the Antilles-satisfied. To declare the slave traffic a piracy would have meant killing this fruitful commerce, losing profits, and estranging herself from the Spanish traders, whose ships and crews were used for kidnapping slaves along the coast of Guinea.

Arrogance, the vice Spain takes more pride in than she would a virtue, now took over. The Spanish ministry and legislators said it would be an offense to Spain and an insult to its proverbial pride to accept a declaration imposed on her by another country, and after energetically condemning (as usual) the infamous traffic, they let it thrive. It was an . insult to her proverbial pride to consent to visits aboard her pirate ships, and Spain left the pirates alone. However, since mockery-to put it straightforwardly-would not be tolerated by the British, and Spain was too proud to be indiscreet when it came to the powerful, she passed the law against the slave trade. It was a clever law. The slave ships were allowed to reach the coasts of the Antilles; if one was caught, its goods were confiscated, and since Spain is such a charitable nation, she created a deposit of emancipated slaves who were sold temporarily to urban and rural owners for an expensive price and on the condition that they be educated in the sacred religion of our forefathers.

 

. Beside many other, O’Donnell and Concha officially discussed this dilemma. In 1867, Master Seijas Lozano defended it before Parliament. (Hostos’s notes).

 

 

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In this manner, the highly noble nation fulfilled her obligations to England, thereby sealing the latter’s lips; she satisfied the world, joining it in its holy clamor against the abominable commerce in human blood; herself, by becoming an intermediary in the vile industry; her Captains General, whose greediness for gold it supported; and her beloved traders, who more than ever could continue to trade with impunity, since they were now trading for Spain.

According to the spirit and letter of the diabolic law, the Captains General of the Antilles were the only ones who could take action upon the shipments of live cargo. And since they were also the only ones who had military and judicial jurisdiction over the coast, the foreseeable result occurred: all the slave trade expeditions were spared. The big men of the trade were the three or four Spaniards who profited from it, and who, because they were Spanish and rich, benefitted from the traditional influence of the captainship general.

When they heard that a law against the slave trade was being discussed in Parliament, they multiplied their efforts, and sent the greatest number of ships they could find to Africa.

At this moment, a favorable one for him, O’Donnell arrived in Cuba. He was surrounded, flattered, and glorified. He let himself be surrounded, flattered, and glorified, and when he was convinced that he was being honored out of greed, he summoned his admirers, and said to them: “Let us stop this foolishness; we are all Spaniards, and we know each other; we know why we are in Cuba. To support honest work is one of the high prerogatives of the very high post which Her Majesty, the Queen of Spain, out of her highest munificence, has entrusted me with, and I will not oppose your honest trade in those wretched Blacks. . .”. The slave traders went down on their knees; they adored him. The demigod made them get up, and a characteristic smile on his face, went on to say: “But we must all contribute. Our great nation, our heroic Spain, has made many sacrifices for these ungrateful countries, giving them a religion, a king, and a civilization: these countries must return those great favors Spain has so selflessly granted them.” And since the good slave traders, fearful of Spain’s good deeds and her delegate’s kindness, did not dare ‘to lift their heads, expecting the terrible blow which may might follow the blandishment, the demigod grinned again with his typical grimace, and said in a friendly tone: “By giving a doubloon per head. . . do you think it is too little?” The question was forcible, and the slave traders accepted the capitation. A doubloon (17 pesos) for every black slave they received from Africa was a lot; but the doubloons were for the Captain General, and would bribe him indefinitely; authority was conniving with them to evade the evasive law-they felt secure.

 

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Thus, the flood of slaves gained horrid proportions, and made O’Donnell, Concha, and all the Captains General who accepted the deal, wealthy; and all but one or two of them did.

Thus, everyone-people of high and low stature, soldiers, judges, customs officials, etc.-who represented the fatherly government and Spain’s honest administration in the Antilles, became wealthy.

Thus, an inferno of evil passions, which constitute the social base of every society governed by gold, was let loose in the Island.

Thus, the people who were devoid of rights, the slaves of institutions, the serfs of the land; those whose human dignity was mocked, who were persecuted for being criollos or for being colored,- who were mortified within their right, their country and their homes, began to look at the horror in which they lived, and they were terrified.

 

XX

 

The Island was silently stirring. Criollos, Whites and pardos were desperately looking for a cure to their ills. The official atmosphere was filled with fear; the popular atmosphere was filled with hate. Spaniards and criollos, Whites and Blacks, looked at each other askance. Fear flashed through their faces; sinister rumors circulated, saying Blacks had rebelled in a certain plantation, a riot was being planned in another. The pardos goaded the mulattos; the mulattos incited the Blacks; the freed Blacks aroused the slaves. The slaves of such and such a place had murdered their overseer, the overseer of such and such a farm faced death at the hands of the slaves. The Spaniards blamed the criollos; the criollos blamed the Spaniards; the Whites blamed the pardos; the pardos blamed. the whites. The oppressors complained about the novice Insurgents who kept them from getting rich in peace; the oppressed cursed the infamous oppressors who not only robbed them of their rights and their wealth, but also held them down while robbing them.

While O’Donnell’s wife traded even in latrines,6 the poor islanders could not engage in any kind of commerce; while prostitutes triumphantly exhibited their marketed flesh in the carriages of the Palace of Government,: the slave mothers clamored pitifully for the sons’ the Spanish fathers sold away; while any Spanish newcomer was powerful, the

 

6 See Spanish newspapers from 1856 to 1866, where this fact, often used against O’Donnell, is recorded. (Hostos’s notes).

7 O’Donnell had a few stepdaughters who, according to Spanish opposition newspapers, had caused some horrendous scandals in Havana. (Hostos’s notes).

 

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most eminent men in the country were powerless against even the most wretched of the Spaniards.  The Spaniards demanded that precautions be taken; they asked for repression and an iron hand, and the discontented people, who did not have the elements of war at their disposal, contented themselves by clamoring for revolution from heaven to hell.

When he was enthusiastic, Placido improvised decimas’ which ended with a call for liberty; when he felt discouraged, he looked at the white criollos with contempt, and exclaimed: “They could be heroes, yet they are nothing!”

 

 

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Far from being displeased by the agitation, O’Donnell secretly blessed it. He had a plan.

If he managed to make people in Spain believe that the Island was at risk of being lost, his omnipotence would increase on the Island; and in the eyes of Spain he would crown himself as a great ruler. If he thus became all-powerful, he could become wealthy in one day; and if he was admired in Spain, he could return there and take command.

The slave trade expeditions became steadier, more numerous and more valuable with the fear of the supposed law, and produced outrageous sums for O’Donnell. Every Black who entered the Island brought him a gold doubloon.

The expeditions which he ordered stopped and confiscated in order to cover up his iniquitous conspiracy brought him generous profits. On the one hand, the forced leasing of services he imposed on the emancipated slaves equalled all the profits the surprised slave traders would have produced: half of these profits were for Spain, the other half for the cunning delegate. On the other hand, the confiscations and donations would periodically provide the great Spaniard with a multitude of slaves, which he would send away periodically, not only because of a saintly repulsion to slavery, but also because of his holy desire to receive more slaves and again send them away.

However, neither this, nor the customs fraud, nor his wife’s commercial talents, were enough for the future savior of order-it was necessary that he safeguard order; and for this, the existence of a conspiracy by Blacks, mulattos and pardos was necessary; the last two classes had accumulated small fortunes which, added together, constituted a treasure:

 

. Decimas are Spanish stanzas of ten octosyllabic lines. (Translators’ note)

 

 

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to steal it through the use of terror was a luminous idea. Yes, he was a genius! And geniuses carry out what they think; why else is there is an infinite number of fools in the world, rascals in society, and villains in history?

The luminous idea kept the great man awake at night, and he skillfullly employed the omnimodas 8 to artificially agitate the Island, which was already naturally and necessarily agitated.

Seconded by the slave traders’ interests, O’Donnell circulated false rumors, using them to support and authorize the military precautions he took; by early 1844, there wasn’t a person in Cuba who did not believe a civil war was about to break out.

 

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Around that time, Placido was arrested in Trinidad, a city in southern Cuba.  What was Placido doing in Trinidad?  According to the Spaniards, he was there as part of a conspiracy, and they arrested him for this reason.

According to the criollos, he went there to look for a job, and for this reason they declared him innocent.

I do not want to think that Placido went to the gallows in innocence; I hope he committed the glorious crime of conspiring against evil and its villains; I hope he elevated his spirit to the heights that abominate injustice, conspire against it and combat it severely. And I shall look for and find proof of the crime the Spaniards accused him of, the proof of the virtue which glorifies his existence.

It is true, as Cubans affirm, that Placido’s craft had lost all its industrial and economic attraction in Matanzas. It is true that the comb maker could no longer support himself on his niggardly salary, given the decline of the fashion he profited from. But it is no less certain that all the large cities on the Island presented the same disadvantages for the pardo poet’s craft: this was a general fact everywhere, which stemmed from an increase in commercial and industrial relations, development of taste, growth of luxury, and changes accompanying the increase in relations with more refined societies.

It may have been possible that, on account of his ignorance about the

 

8 In 1825, Fernando VII decreed that atribuciones omnimodas, [all-embracing powers]

be given to the Captains General of Cuba and Puerto Rico. The absolute character of those

powers has come to exemplify colonial despotism. (Hostos’s notes).

 

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economic causes adversely affecting his work, Placido expected to find more favorable circumstances in Trinidad; but there are two facts and three poems which may offer a clue to the mystery, even if they don’t solve it completely.

These are the two facts:

Trinidad is one of the most agricultural regions in Cuba, and therefore one of the areas most heavily populated by the enslaved race. If Placido had not embraced the idea which should have been throbbing in his brain by then, he would have gone anywhere but to a region filled with explosive elements. He knew well enough that his talent was a crime; that his affinity with Blacks, mulattos and pardos, as well as the fondness he inspired in Cuban youth, all motivated suspicion in the eyes of the colonial government. He knew well enough that he was being watched-as all criollos who have talent, influence or status have always been watched in the Antilles-and he would not have risked appearing in one of the places more avidly  guarded by the colonial government, if he hadn’t had a motive other than the one of improving his working conditions.  Furthermore (this is the second fact we should consider), Placido’s relationships with people in Trinidad were characterized by absolute openness with pardos and mulattos, and complete reserve when it came to Whites-even white criollos- who displayed a lack of concern about the general situation in Cuba or the specific situation of the slaves.

Neither one of these facts justifies his persecution; the colonial government did not have a single concrete fact-nor does today’s biography -to evidence the existence of secret societies of pardos, or of the association of people of color and Placido’s role in directing their revolutionary work; but just as the oppressive government based the induction it used to accuse Placido on the two facts we have mentioned, thus we may be able to rehabilitate his memory by basing on them the induction that presents the pardo poet as a glorious being who has slowly and gradually emancipated his spirit and raised himself from the social and moral humiliation in which he lived to the moral and intellectual height in which history places him.

The worst condemnation that can be passed on tyranny is to prove its victims were worthy of its persecution and cruelty. To say to tyranny, “I

am innocent,” amounts to saying: “You are worthy.” To declare oneself innocent of the sacred crime of hate and conspiracy against a tyrant, amounts to pronouncing oneself guilty of his own worthlessness.

Even if he wanted to, Placido could not be innocent of this crime: his entire work proves he had a progressive intelligence; his entire life proves that his spirit experienced amazing progress, and he who progresses for the good, detests evil.

 

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Even if the humiliation in which he lived had destroyed the poet’s active will, formed by the spectaele of social iniquity, his intelligence would have made him an enemy of the oppressors and a friend of those as op­,

 

   essed and humiliated as he.His work has already provided us with several evidences of this; let us look for the three on which we based the poet’s honest and glorious delinquency.

Shortly after Placido’s imprisonment, when the absolute lack of evidence against him had forced the colonial government to release him and limit his place of residence to Matanzas, a young white man, a friend of Placido’s, was imprisoned, and like many others, accused of and persecuted for the alleged crime of conspiracy.

Placido was a good friend, one who vividly felt his companions’ grief and anguish. Therefore it would not have been strange at all for him to celebrate his friend’s release and praise this person, for whom the prison doors had opened; but the hyperbolic tone he uses, the slight omissions in his letter to Chacon which contrast with the joy he experiences, reveal in the poet the active sentiment of solidarity that shows itself involuntarily when someone else manages to evade the danger which has also threatened us.

In the epistle to General La Flor there is a stanza, the final one, which we have chosen to prove this point. In it, the sentiment dominating the poet throbbed so vividly, the intentions of his final days come through so clearly, it is impossible to read the stanza without feeling the joy of knowing the noble pardo had been raised through his own efforts to the category of a citizen with all due rights, and that he thought as one and planned to act as one.

 

Adiós, gloria de Cuba, y herederoDel aliento de Hatuey . . . Salud, amigo:- – ­

Yo al despedirme tu existir bendigo,

Y al saludarte, con firmeza espero

Vivir muy poco O respirar contigo.

 

Goodbye, glory of Cuba, heir to Hatuey’s breath. . . Here’s to your health, my friend: As I say farewell, I bless your existence, and as I greet you, I firmly expect to either live very little or to breathe, along with you. 
What is the meaning of the underlined verse and hemistitch?It can hardly be that Placido was thinking of leaving Cuba for Mexico-this purpose does not appear anywhere in the poem, but the impossibility of achieving it does appear in previous stanzas.

 

 

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To breathe (if we discount the hypothesis about a trip) means to be free, to free oneself, to imitate La Flor, to emancipate oneself as he did, to struggle for one’s emancipation. The uncertainty of success naturally placed him in a dilemma: to live very little, that is, to perish in the process; or to breathe, in other words, to win.

For Placido-as timid as he was because of the state of humiliation he was in-to dare to think about the great work that placed him in this dilemma, he must have been relying on the support already given by all those who could aid him; for him to think of death or victory, he must have had an advanced plan and a final determination.

And it was fatal. He had pledged to it; and a commitment of conscience from a spirit formed by struggle and by the arduous process which had made a citizen out of a rejected pardo, is a commitment as irrevocable as the fatal mandates of nature or the impassive fatalism of natural laws.

Placido was bound to this commitment of conscience.

Everyone who has read his poetry, has come across the following sonnet and eagerly devoured it:

 

A la sombra de un árbol empinado

Que esta de un ancho valle a la salida,

Hay una fuente que a beber convida

De su Iiquido puro y argentado:

 

AlIi fui yo por mi deber llamado,

Y haciendo altar la tierra endurecida,

Ante el sagrado código de vida,

Extendidas mis manos, he jurado:

 

Ser enemigo eterno del tirano:

Manchar, si me es posible, mis vestidos

Con su execrable sangre, por mi mano

 

Derramada con golpes repetidos,

Y morir alas manos de un verdugo,

Si es necesario, por romper el yugo.

 

 

In the shade of a towering tree on the edge of a vast valley, there is a fountain, inviting one to drink from its pure and silvery liquid. I went there, when duty called me, and making an altar of the rough earth, I extended my hands before the sacred code of life and pledged:

 

To be the eternal enemy of the tyrant: if possible, to stain my clothes
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with his abominable blood, shed from the many blows delivered by my own hands, and to die in the hands of an executioner, if necessary, in order to break the yoke.                         .

 

This pledge was categorical: Would he have taken it if he had not been determined to honor it? If others like him had not joined him in making the sacred commitment, would it have been necessary to take the pledge? If he had not realized the greatness and the justice of his cause, the purity and the sanctity of his plan, would he have had the elevated spirit, the definitive energy, the vehement emotions and passions which he placed in those extremely beautiful fourteen verses? Could anyone have been able to write them who had not felt them, developed them in long incubations of hate, turned them into the essence of his life, lived them?

No: Thanks to universal conscience, he who detests and pledges to annihilate tyranny, and takes on the duty to combat it and to shed his own honorable blood as well as the cursed blood of the tyrant, is not innocent of the sacred crime of conspiracy against tyranny.

 

XXIII

 

Released from prison and returned to his native city, Placido was kept under strict vigilance. Although the poet did not realize he was the object of spying, every step he took was known to the military governor of Matanzas.

They presumed he was the mind and heart of a plot by pardos against Whites, both Spaniards and criollos. He was accused of being the soul of a secret society whose goal was the annihilation of the white race, the rehabilitation of the black race, and the establishment of Black Republic independent from Spain-a reproduction of the Haitian civil war. They said the formidable society had branches throughout the Island, and that all the black slaves in all the farms were affiliated with it and had a commitment to adhere to the society’s precepts. They affirmed that the purpose of Placido’s trip was none other than the definitive organization of other societies there, independent from the central one, and to meet with colored people of renowned influence in the region. They attributed, to Placido the uprisings in this or that plantation where slaves were protesting against the unfair treatment they received; they ascribed a revolutionary character to the close relationships he shared with a few eminent pardos and mulattos who were their own people as he was, who’ had been bred in struggle and work as he had-manufacturers and pro­

 

 

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prietors who owed their positions and the general respect they enjoyed to their own efforts.

Did these accusations carry any weight? Before logic, they certainly did: all of it was possible, because it was all logical. Before the law, the accusations were not worth anything, There was not a single proof to attest for the crime the enslaved and humiliated races were accused of committing, which was personified in Placido, the brilliant and culminating personification of those races.

Upon his arrival in Cuba in 1842, General O’Donnell, in private conversations with a few powerful Cubans, had encouraged them to contribute directly to solving the problem the Spanish Parliament was trying to solve at the time, the problem which was threatening Spain with England’s animosity. O’Donnell, who had not yet entered into his pact with the slave traders, had two reasons for doing this: first, he wanted to create difficulties for Narvaez’s government, which he opposed and dreamed of inheriting; secondly, he wanted to become popular among the Cubans, and use them, while feigning allegiance to the humanitarian idea England supported, to attract the sympathy of the English press and the British government, which at the time wielded great influence in Spain; because it was threatening, the St. James cabinet was respected by the Madrid cabinet; public opinion in Spain and England would have therefore decided in favor of a public figure who would opt for principles more in tune with civilization and international peace in the peninsula than those of Narvaez’s moderate government.

This astute judgement of the situation, however, required a level of intelligence and will which O’Donnell lacked; and even if he, by adjusting his conduct to this appreciation, could have managed to attain the object of his continuous ambitions, he could not use it to satisfy his devouring greed.

At this time, since the promises he had initially made to the powerful Cubans had instilled fear in the peninsular party, whose origin, wealth and privileges made it omnipotent, a silent dispute ensued between the Spanish slave traders who wanted to buy the Captain General’s acquiescence, and O’Donnell himself, who saw how much easier it was to gain wealth through bribery than to start a fight he would probably lose.

It did not take long for the dispute to be settled in favor of the bribing slave traders.

The Cubans whom O’Donnell had encouraged were, as all Cubans were, abolitionists in principle. The demands of agriculture and industry, multiplied by the terrible social organization of the colony, forced the country’s children to give in to the slave labor on which their country’s prosperity, as well as their own, relied; however, in addition to being

 

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aware of the economic errors behind the ill-fated institution imposed on them, they also knew the political aim Spain sought by developing it, and they sought the means to reconcile their own interests with those of their country; with present interests and those of the future; with their immediate needs, and the distant needs of liberty. They were not abolitionists, because they feared impoverishment; nor would they have dared to proclaim themselves abolitionists, because they would have been persecuted, like Pedro Aguero, who had been banished around that time, and Manuel Martinez Serrano and Martin de Meneses, who were arrested some time later, and even such eminent men as Jose de la Luz Caballero, Domingo Delmonte y Felix Manuel Tanco, who had been prosecuted-all of them guilty of the horrible crime of abolitionism. Between the possibility of being banished, imprisoned, or prosecuted for wanting to abolish slavery, and the possibility of their impoverishment if they accepted the emancipation of the slaves, the Cubans opted for a compromise that would be useful to all, a compromise which carried the invaluable advantages of not arousing suspicion back in the metropolis and agreeing with Spain’s international interests as well the excellent intentions feigned by the demigod Captain General.

Satisfied with their finding, they presented O’Donnell with a petition in which they asked and argued for the suppression of the slave traffic and the need for European immigration.

O’Donnell, who had tacitly concurred with this recourse, now took it as an offense, angrily dismissed the petitioners, and addressed the Spaniards surrounding him with these (textual) words: “These Cubans want to tell me how to govern, but they’ll soon realize no one rules my pocket.”  He was as cunning as he was crafty, and as cynical as he was cunning. By protesting against those who wanted to tell him how to govern, he pretended they were forcing him to vindicate his right as absolute master; by declaring that the means devised by the Cubans was against his pocket, he put himself at the orders of the slave traders.

The treaty of alliance was only one step away from the protest and declaration, and he took that step-we have already seen when and under what conditions; Meanwhile, the caste of pardos and mulattos who were encouraged by the Captain General’s promises and by the hopes of the white criollos; who were excited by the attitude of the Cuban radicals; indoctrinated by the abolitionist ideas rapidly spreading in the lower and middle layers of Cuban society; goaded by Turnbull, the British consul, who supported hIs’ propaganda and authority with the wishes of the powerful country he represented, these pardos and mulattos thought the moment had come to start to break loose from the situation they were living in, and they

 

 

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delegated the power of setting the foundations on which a more bearable social state would be based to some illustrious men of their class.

Placido had a reputation, and they included him. Dodge, a dentist, Pimienta, a proprietor, and a few other dignified working people, constituted, along with the pardo poet, the delegation representing the enslaved race and the castes deprived of their rights.

They had formed a secret society, for they personally know the government they were dealing with too well to trust in its understanding of the purity and generosity of their intentions.

The most obvious need of the social class they represented was to be granted civil rights and education: “Equality before the law, schools for people of color”-this was the program.

After discussing it, they met at the home of López, one of their own,   for the purpose of writing the petition which would carry the opinion of the enslaved and humiliated people to the Captain General.

 

XXIV

 

Such was the general situation on the Island, and the situation of colored people in particular, in the early part of 1844.

It was a situation worth studying, full of admonishments for any wise and conscientious ‘government, and must have necessarily been a difficult one for a government (such as the colonial government) absolutely unworthy of ruling a society that was itself absolutely incapable of understanding the real motives behind its agitation.

– It was a, question of using the life elements present in the sickly society, yet the abundant elements of healing offered by the dejected races and the oppressed people seemed, to the colonial government, like symptoms of its own death. The criollos, who settled for a conservative solution to the social problem, and colored’ people, who asked for education and for the civil rights that could have made them effective agents of social peace and political order, were viewed by the colonial government as elements of dissolution or agents of agitation.

There was Ii radical incompatibility between the oppressed society and those in charge of governing it. Everything that was advantageous to the former was harmful to the latter. Whatever pleased one would irritate the other. The social and political slavery the metropolis wanted to rule by attacked the life of the society at its roots, and it was impossible for the society not to reject this corruptive element.

As soon as O’Donnell, in a manner which was logical given the social principle of the system of government he represented, took the side of

 

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the exploiters against those who were exploited, and, consistent with his greediness, declared himself in favor of the slave traders, the enemies of slavery and of the treaty realized that the secret quarrel between him and his subjects would not stop at the merely personal break-off following the recourse offered by the powerful Cubans and rejected by the omnipotent governor.

The latter had to defend, as he had pointed out, his personal interests; and in order to defend them he had to justify his change of conduct with the pretext of dealing with state affairs.

The meeting held by the pardos at López’s home, disclosed by an unknown informer, was used as a pretext by the austere governor. In the eyes of the metropolitan government, the purpose of such a meeting by people of color could only be conspiracy. Being colored, they could only be conspiring against Whites. By instilling fear in the Whites, he would make them allies of the government. By instilling fear in the central government, he would become the arbiter of the country’s destinies.

He mentally contrived the conspiracy that would serve his greed and ambition in so many ways, ordered the imprisonment of the conspirators, called for a state of alert in the country, declared it under a reign of terror, and rubbed his hands together-he was satisfied. He had gotten what he had most desired.

 

XXV

 

Placido was the first victim of the new persecution. Two months after being released from the prison at Trinidad, he was again imprisoned in Matanzas.  What new crime had he committed? He repeatedly asked himself the question from the moment he was imprisoned to the day he died. To place himself at the head of a just movement was not a crime; to want the emancipation of slavery was not a crime; to yearn for the rehabilitation of the humiliated castes was not a crime; to demand freedom for serfs and rights for people deprived of ‘them was not a crime; even to rise against an oppressor who does not grant the rights demanded by the people is not a crime; nor is answering oppression with oppression when it is feasible. Placido declared himself innocent before eternal justice, regardless of how many times human justice pronounced him guilty.

He stood firmly behind the absolution of his conscience, and did not seek the absolution of men. “I am innocent,” he said during the first interrogation, “I am innocent!” -he exclaimed as he died.

 

 

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There was sufficient time between Placido’s imprisonment and trial and his death, for him to rethink the honorable but dangerous verdict of his conscience, yet he did not-this is Placido’s greatest glory, because it was his greatest display of strength.

Had he believed he was guilty because he detested evil and wanted to fight it, he would have hesitated; he might have negotiated with his executioners, perhaps buying back his life with a declaration of delinquency. He was innocent because what he wanted was not a crime, and he declared himself innocent-in prison, in the chapel, on the bench, awaiting his execution.

This was the case with most of those persecuted. None of them considered it a crime to embrace a just cause, and none of them admitted delinquency.

Since such a magnificent moral victory by the persecuted race was not in the colonial government’s interest, it decided to decree the use of torture.

Black slaves, free Blacks, pardos and mulattos of every position were summoned to Matanzas from points all over; the city was the alleged center of the conspiracy; the War Council supposedly met there; the plantation slaves supposedly issued their declarations there, therefore they would have to suffer torture there.

 

XXVI

 

For O’Donnell, the slave traders, and the officers who made up the Council of War, it was important to consign, per {as aut netas, the crime a whole race was charging another with, and the common procedure was not enough. It was necessary to invent and apply ad hoc procedures, because it was necessary to make the crime seem obvious.

O’Donnell proposed two things: to increase his fortune through terror, and to subjugate the Whites on the Island.

The slave traders proposed to continue their criminal exploitation, presenting it not only as necessary, but also as the safeguard of social order.

The officers of the Council of War, hand-picked among the class of retirees so as to insure that the incentive to profit made them implacable, proposed to cash in on the trial.

O’Donnell could achieve his aims if, by terrifying Cuban Whites and the peninsular government, he emerged as an arbiter of the situation and managed to capriciously manipulate it in his favor.

The traders in human flesh could prove their traffic would safeguard

 

 

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Cuba for Spain if they managed to prove there was a need for a regime of force to restrain the criollos.

The prosecutors in the Council could get rich if they managed to terrify the slave owners by threatening to involve them in the trial, and by selling absolution to the wealthy pardos and mulattos.

For the plan to succeed, it was necessary to do what they did: involve a great number of the city’s pardos in the trial along with large numbers of the slaves who worked in the farms, and torture the prisoners into telling lies.

Most of the big Cuban slave owners in the richest rural districts had their slaves brought before the Council of War. Not one colored man of notable status, wealth or influence in Matanzas, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos, was spared imprisonment.  When everything was ready, the council’s work began.

Upon his first denial of participation, his first display of absolute ignorance of the facts he was being interrogated about, Antonio Chiquito, a pardo whose probity brought honor to his country, was flogged. A poor African from a distant plantation, who had probably never heard of emancipation, who had perhaps arrived two days earlier on the latest slave expedition, was suspended by his feet and flogged.

Individual torture was not enough, therefore collective torture was de creed. Every morning Matanzas would watch a multitude of slaves march by, escorted by soldiers, and return hours later by the wagonload, giving out pitiful screams, staining the streets with blood from wounds recently opened by wire lashes.

Partial torture was not enough, therefore every imaginable type of torment was applied to the same individuals. After being flogged, Antonio Chiquito was suspended by both thumbs; he was later tied to a ladder and flogged again; then he was placed on the pillory and forced to keep awake by a guard’s bayonet.

The moral torture complemented the physical. Dodge and Pimienta, who were not only men of status, but also of culture, were forced to suffer flogging and suspension in public.

Like all the others, they suffered with the greatest dignity and the most enduring heroism. Dodge bit his lips to keep from screaming. Antonio Chiquito swallowed his tongue and choked to death. Before and after the torture, in prison, and in the streets, Blacks, mulattos, and pardos attempted to take their own lives; there were more suicides during those days than there usually were during an entire year among a people as prone to suicide as they were.

But there were so many prisoners, so many people flogged and crowded into filthy dungeons, that the atmosphere became a pestilent

 

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miasma; small pox, dysentery, and fever hastened the work of O’Donnell and his friends, of Spain and her colonial system.

Death became the new ally of the Council. To speed up their work, they kidnapped a number of the black people in the prisons, declared them dead from one disease or another, and sent them to distant regions of Oriente to be sold. Among them were many men who had been free form birth, or had won their freedom through work.

The slave owners whose property was being decimated dared to go claim it. “So you’re taking part in this?”, they were asked with a menacing air. The terrified slave owner would leave, but would later be summoned and offered his property back under certain conditions; at the very moment the slave owner paid the ransom for his livestock, the slaves ceased to be criminals and were absolved, released and returned.

The slave owners who were not wealthy enough to buy back their property from the military court were threatened with an accusation of complicity, and forced into silence. Their slaves then became the property of the gentlemen of the Council.

The property of all the pardo slave owners was interdicted to finance– so they said-the expenses of the trial. Interdicted property was lost property. It was devoured by the costs of the trial– the final sell-off completed the owners’ ruin.      .

Since it was a mathematical fact that a greater sum of imprisoned slaves corresponded to greater subtractions in the prosecutors’ favor; and since it was a logical fact that a greater sum of pardo slave owners would correspond to a greater sum of properties subject to a sell-off, the greedy men of the Council increased daily the number of slaves detained and pardos accused.

To be able to do this, it was necessary to continue torturing the accused and extracting slanderous accusations or statements dictated by the military prosecutors themselves, so the torture continued.

Thus, while two or more pestilent wagonloads would leave the prisons for the hospital daily, shiploads of Blacks who had been declared dead on the Island left for the southern United States, sold by the men of the Council and their powerful aides. And while the well-being of the pardo and mulatto families ended with the sell-off of their property, it would pass directly or indirectly to the hands of some of the prosecutors or their accomplices in the captainship general.

It was all so insolent and cynical, that the Havana Tribunal felt ashamed of itself, and at the last moment, weary of its criminal compliance, it momentarily recovered the power the colonial system conferred on it, protested those iniquitous scandals, and, intervening in the trial, announced that the expenses were the responsibility of the government.

 

 

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The conspiracy by Blacks and pardos ceased at this very moment; the Captain General, the slave traders, and the prosecutors had lost interest in the persecution, because it had ceased to be profitable. Those who led the persecution had become wealthy; those persecuted had been annihilated; the white criollos were terrified; the government of the metropolis was convinced of the need to maintain the system, and the slave traffic could proceed imperturbably with its infamous work.

 

XXVII

 

When the proprietors had begun to recuperate the slaves whom the prosecutors’ sell-off and the plague had spared, when the pardo and mulatto families were beginning to feel compensated for their losses by the return of their fathers, brothers, and sons to the impoverished homes; when Matanzas was beginning to breathe again; when the Spanish newspapers in the colony (none but the Spanish word has ever been allowed to appear in those newspapers) were beginning to praise the vision, sagacity, energy and kindness of the great man to whom the metropolis owed the providential preservation of that precious part of the territory, threatened by the horrible cataclysms which ‘occurred in Santo Domingo; as panic silenced the most honorable people and impunity kept encouraging the dishonorable, the entire Island embraced hopes: some of the accused, precisely the most loved, the most attractive, were still in jail– was it not natural that they be absolved and released?

The oppressed have false hopes! They expect the logic of good from evil, and the logic of justice from iniquity, and while they kneel at tyranny’s feet proceeds with its impassive logic.

The mind and soul of the alleged conspiracy remained. Because they were the mind and soul, they had to be destroyed.

Had they pardoned Placido, the intelligence and the glory of the pardos; had they absolved Dodge, Pimienta and the other two who were jointly accused, all four of them capable of bringing honor to the caste they represented, O’Donnell and the slave traders would have been confessing ipso facto that the conspiracy had been a lie, a trick, a means of oppression, and nothing more. Crimes like the ones they had just committed are recognized, but never confessed.

It was logical and necessary that Placido, Pimienta, Dodge and their companions should perish. In this manner, through their unpunished crime, the Captain General and his accomplices would achieve sepulchral peace in the country.  So many efforts were being made in favor of Placido, however, that

 

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O’Donnell sent an emissary to see him, promising freedom if he confessed his crime and that of his companions.

Placido did not consider it a crime to try to gain rights and freedom for the enslaved and the dispossessed, and he declared himself innocent.

His declaration was also his death sentence.

A few days later, the Council of War condemned him and his four companions to be executed by a firing squad.

The sentence was a masterpiece of combined evil and stupidity:

It attributed the conception of the conspiracy to Turnbull, the British consul who advocated the abolition of slavery, yet condemned Placido.

It blamed the British consul for the seditious spirit carried by his emissaries to the colored population in the cities and the countryside, then punished the pardos and mulattos. It denounced Turnbull for seducing colored people into an uprising, then sentenced those who had been seduced.

It recognized these classes had aspirations, basing their crime on those aspirations and on the British consul’s defense of them, and instead of dismissing charges and admonishing the government so that it would satisfy those aspirations, it decided to kill them by killing those who most nobly personified them.

It charged the British government with the intention to support the’ emancipation of slavery, and instead of advising the peninsular government of the need for more humane laws, it responded to England’s alleged intention with the executions.

It accused Guijot, Turnbull’s Haitian emissary, of initiating the meetings between pardos and mulattos, then condemned Placido for the initiative.

Immediately after affirming that the pardos had initiated the conspiracy, the sentence stated that the conspirators were divided into two parties: one which included the pardos and Black slaves, who wanted emancipation and civil and political rights; and one composed of free Blacks, who gained nothing in return.

Those pardos, who were portrayed in one part of the sentence as absolutely identified with the Black slaves, in another part of the sentence wanted nothing more than a few concessions that would improve their social situation, which would not have been a worthwhile cause for revolt to the slaves.

The pardos who in the first part of the sentence were presented as the initiators of the conspiracy, were later portrayed as being incited and used as instruments by the Blacks, because they were powerless against them.

And yet, in opposition to the small number of free Blacks who were

 

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against them, because they gained nothing in return, the pardos a the great number of slaves whom they incited into a terrorist conspiracy with the sole aim of obtaining concessions that would improve the social situation of the pardos. And yet again, those pardos who were powerless to win over the free Blacks and to counteract the enormous mass of enslaved Blacks, dared to join all of them in a conspiracy to annihilate the white race! And those weak pardos were so dangerous, they had to be destroyed!

In light of this, and with God as witness, the Council of War condemned Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes, alias Placido, Dodge, a dentist by profession, Pimienta, wealthy proprietor, and two other pardos whose names have escaped my memory, to be shot in the back by a firing squad.

 

XXVIII

 

Placido is in chapel. He has heard the sentence, he knows he is going to die, and he is preparing to die in an exemplary fashion.

For the hundredth time, he has placed himself at the height of the eminent role of martyr his executioners have raised him to, and for the hundredth time he pronounces himself innocent in his conscience.

Placido has loved his country– he is not guilty; he has loved his race-he is not guilty; he has loved humanity in the slaves whose freedom he yearned for– he is not guilty. He has hated the country’s oppressors, and he is not guilty. He has wanted, by right or might, to win freedom for the slaves and dignity for the pardos, and he is not guilty. He has decided to die for his ideas and his ideas are noble– he is not guilty.  He has swallowed all the bitterness of disillusionment, and he is calm.

The poet’s memory takes him on a journey of his entire life, which has been marked at all times by the presence of an unknown force of adversity and he reaches for his pen. When he puts it down, a painful smile is on his lips and a sonnet to misfortune is written on the paper:

 

A la fatalidad

 

Negra deidad que sin clemencia alguna

De espinas al nacer me circuiste,

Cual fuente clara cuya margen viste

Maguey silvestre O punzadora tuna:

 

 

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Entre el materno talamo y la cuna

El ferreo muro del honor pusiste,

Y acaso hasta las nubes me subiste,

Por hacerme descender desde la luna.

 

 

¡Sal de los antros del averno oscuros! ¡Sigue oprimiendo mi existir cuitado! Que si sucumbo a tus decretos duros

 

 

Dire como el ejercito cruzado

Exclamó al divisar los rojos muros

De la Santa Salem: “¡Dios lo ha mandado!”

 

 

To Misfortune

 

Dark deity, who upon my birth mercilessly surrounded me with thorns, like a clear fountain whose edges are adorned with wild maguey and spiny cactus:

You placed the iron wall of honor between my mother’s nuptial bed and my cradle, and perhaps raised me to the clouds, by making me descend from the moon.

Come out of the dark caves of hell! Continue to burden my anxious existence! For if I do succumb to your harsh decree, I shall cry out as the crusaders did when they saw the red walls of sacred Salem: “God has willed it so!”

 

 

There is still a trace of hope pulsating in these verses; but the desire to live out his resolution to die serenely is now stronger than this hope.

That is the  way one who has known pain from birth should die.

From birth! Between the cradle and the nuptial bed, an iron wall separated him from his mother. Where is she? He looks for her in vain– she isn’t there; he listens for her in vain-not a single motherly word; he seeks her with his heart-not a single sensation confirms his fantasy’s hallucination; the son who is to die thinks of his mother, but the mother is not thinking of her son.

His mind becomes confused, his heart uneasy, his soul begins to weep, and his conscience sobs desperately. She is his mother, but she doesn’t come to him; she doesn’t comfort him in his final affliction, and, as with the first of his life, she. abandons him.

Perhaps indignation flashed through his conscience. But she was his mother, the mother he longed for, and she must have been lamenting his misfortune, and at the moment her heart must have been fatally

 

 

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wounded, and she must have been weeping over the death of her son, and she was crying, and he had to cheer her up, comfort her, console her and encourage her patience, assuring her that, even on the threshold of death, he still thinks of her, and he seeks her kiss, the one he most yearned for.

He takes pen in hand to bid farewell to his mother. He did right– he did, without knowing, the greatest justice of all-a kind justice. It is not known what became of that woman who did not deserve to be a mother; but it can be assumed that if she read her son’s farewell, she experienced a moment of conscience in her life, felt the desperate anguish of remorse. If at that instant the cruel beast turned into a woman; and as a woman she savored the sweetness of being a mother, and felt like a mother when it was already impossible for death to give back the pleasure she had denied her existence, then Placido’s farewell to his mother was a good deed.

What amounts to forgiveness in the poet’s work, would become a condemnation in the critic’s: let the farewell remain there, since we have no room for it here.

He had bid farewell to his poetry, he had said goodbye to his mother. Whom else did he have to bid farewell to, this man whom the world was dismissing with such cruelty? To the world itself. The world abandons those who suffer for it; it condemns as disturbers of the law and social order those who yearn for a better order and a fairer law, and once again it was necessary-out loud and in the presence of those who persecute and those who are persecuted, of the oppressors and the oppressed, of the powerful and the weak– to take advantage of the solemnity of the moment, the last moment of his life, and declare his innocence before the world, while speaking to God.

He meditated, and created the Plegaria (prayer) he recited on the way to his execution.

He believed in God, and taking shelter in his faith, he found peace in his soul; he had pronounced himself innocent before God and the world: there was no longer any reason to be disquieted.

Then his heart turned to Gila, his wife, who with great strength had borne the burdens of the home, the sadness of impoverishment, the anxiety of persecution, and the agonies of the trial. She had been worthy of Placido in this world; he wanted her to be worthy of him in the next, and for this he advised her to be strong: “Don’t surrender to the pain,” he wrote sternly. In order to inspire the conduct he wished her to have after his death, the poet said to her sweetly: “I want you to mourn me not by weeping, but by going to the aid of the poor; and my ghost will smile to see that you are worthy of being the wife of Placido.”  He is now ready for death. It may destroy an organism, but it will

 

 

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not be able to annihilate the spirit that, slowly and through constant efforts, raised itself from a forced humiliation to a perfect dignity acquired in heroic combat against social inequality and injustice. Those who did nothing but lower their heads to look down upon the wretched pardo, cannot see far enough now to contemplate his magnanimous spirit.

 

XXIX

 

It is the dawn of the 26 of June, 1844.  History is much too discreet about the powerful; it does not consult their conscience, and it has never found out whether O’Donnell was awake or asleep in the splendid Cuban Palace of the Captains General

We do know the slave traders were asleep. They were, and still are, monsters of stone, and as stones, they slept.

Matanzas was not sleeping. The entire city was waiting at the platform destined for the execution of the five pardos. It was anxiously awaiting the moment of the crime, or perhaps expecting a pardon at the last moment.

The dawn, a terrible one for the people, was a gentle one for nature. The elevated Tarquino broke down the first rays of the Sun, and the beloved Pan took the delicate light reflected on it and diffused throughout the plains and coffee fields. The shadows gradually left the sky; the fog moved away from the rivers, light began to engulf the earth and the sky, and at the moment the bewildered people beheld the dawn which would be the last the victims would see, the flowers, the grasses, the shrubs, and the trees rose to breathe life from the light, and the birds throughout the forest burst into the cheerful concert of every new day.

The barracks where Placido and his companions awaited their last hour was located in the middle of the valley, in the midst of Matanzas’s two rivers, in the heart of the tender and enchanting landscape.

The poet could see it from the chapel. Over there is the Yumuri; there the San Juan, and the palm tree which taught him to disdain the vices of power; beyond it the coffee tree whose perfumed flowers he once compared to his lovers; farther away is the forest, beyond it the mountain, and beyond the mountain, the sea: the sea represents freedom, and Cuba, completely surrounded by the sea, is a slave, and he, a few steps away from the sea, is about to die for the love of freedom.

Oh yes! Spanish priest, go on and speak to him of heaven and eternal glory and eternal justice, and make sure his soul, sent to heaven prematurely by the violence of the most Catholic of men, does not go in pursuit of the flowers, the light, and the harmony of nature instead. Make sure,

 

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oh pious priest, you show him the distant place where there are no slaves, no pardos, no inequality, slavery or iniquity; no slave trader or powerful delegates from the mother land. Take his mind off the earthly Cuba his avid eyes are looking upon for the last time, with the hope of a celestial Cuba where Spain and the metropolis do not exist. Fill him, good father, with love for his executioners; for the greater the victim’s resignation is as he walks to his death, the more eloquent his sermon against the executioner will be, and the greater the hate it will awaken in those who witness his sacrifice.

By the time the officer appears at the chapel door, Placido has already smiled at the countryside and the dawn. The hour of Spanish justice has arrived, a justice that fears the clear light of midday and prefers to act in the twilight just before sunrise.

Placido turns to his last friends-perhaps the first and only friends he has known in the world, since they have been the first and only ones to witness the strength of his soul-and embraces them. One of them, Pimienta, is moved, and starts to weep, and Placido says to him: “We are not going to die as outlaws, we are going to die as innocent men.” Dodge, who has not lost his dignified posture for even a moment, again shakes his hand: the strong commends the strong.

One by one, the five martyrs head toward the barracks gate, surrounded by soldiers.

The place of execution is two-hundred steps across from the gate. The way is flanked on both sides by lines of soldiers; behind the soldiers, in the clearing, in the adjacent heights, are the people. They see Placido, and break into heartrending sobs, echoed by the hollows in the mountains.

Sobs? Who says slaves have a right to weep? Spain’s ears will not tolerate the annoying noise, and the people’s sobs are drowned out by a thunderous rolling of the drum.

The drumming diminishes; the gloomy entourage begins its rhythmic march, and, in spite of the drum’s interference, a voice is heard; a clear, calm, resonant voice that resounds in the hearts of both oppressors and oppressed; a voice that with the most persuasive tones intones the prayer of innocence, exclaiming:

 

¡Ser de inmensa bondad! . . . ¡Dios poderoso!

¡A voz acudo en mi dolor vehemente!

Extended vuestro brazo omnipotente,

Rasgad de la calumnia el velo odioso,

Y arrancad este sello ignomioso

iCon que el mundo manchar quiere mi frente!

 

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Being of immense goodness! . . . Almighty God! To you I turn to in my ardent pain! Extend your omnipotent arm to lift slander’s hateful veil and purge the disgraceful mark with which the world wants to stain my brow!

 

The silence of the crowd was stronger than the rolling of the drum: it was a menacing silence. Placido represented the garroted homeland; he was the Island’s lament; he was the clamor of the hungry people thirsty for justice, who wanted the nourishment of eternal justice. And they, the people hungry and thirsty for justice, were about to witness the death of the martyr of a vilified justice, the martyr of slavery; they were going to consent to the execution, they were going to be accomplices in the crime!

 

Rey de los reyes, Dios de mis abuelos,

iVos solo sois mi defensor, Dios mio!

Todo lo puede quien al mar bravio

Olas y peces dio, luz a los cielos

Fuego al sol, giro al aire, al norte hielos,

¡Vida a las plantas, movimiento al rio!

 

King of kings, God of my sires, You are my soul defender, my Lord!

All things are possible to Him who gave the fierce ocean its waves and

fish, the sky its light, the sun its fire, wind to the air, ice to the north,

life to the plants and currents to the rivers!

 

The voice paused for a moment, and the people’s monologue continued. The God of Placido’s ancestors  was not the God of his executioners.

The God who gave order to the universe, the one admirably portrayed by the martyr and perpetually seen in the Island’s pleasant landscape, could not consent to the moral disorder which made good people criminals, bad people innocent, and the latter an arbiter of the former; the disorder which turned the innocent into victims of their virtue, and the bad into executioners of innocence. Where is the God who instills order in goodness, who is the enemy of evil?

And the voice of the poet, resounding in the heart of the people, answered:

 

¡Todo lo podeis vos! Todo fenece

O se reanima a vuestra voz sagrada.

Fuera de vos, Señor, el todo es nada

Que en la insondable eternidad perece;

Y aun esa misma nada os obedece,

 

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Pues de ella fue la humanidad creada.

 

 

You can do all things! Everything dies or is revived by your blessed voice. Apart from you, Lord, the world is naught, dying in fathomless eternity; And even that same nothingness will obey you, for out of it, humanity was created.

 

 

But the God who can do all things has never been able to make an enslaved people break their chains with one powerful burst and throw them in the tyrant’s face; and the people feel shame at having to entrust their problems-which only they can solve-to a God who has permitted the Spaniards to become his arbiter.

A people who expect those who want to save them to do everything, will do nothing for themselves. The people did nothing, and Placido continued to implore:

 

 

Yo no os puedo engafiar, Dios de clemencia,

Y pues vuestra eternal sabiduria

Ve a traves de mi cuerpo el alma mía

Cual del aire a la clara transparencia,

Estorbad que humillada la inocencia,

Bata sus palmas la calumnia impia.

 

 

I cannot deceive you, O God of mercy! And, since your eternal wisdom looks beyond my body at my soul as in the clear transparency of space, let the wicked slander that humiliates innocence applaud no more.

 

 

Eternity is patient; it does not perceive time, it does not know what hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, and centuries of pain are, and it lets things be. It will surely keep from preventing the murder of an innocent man. He will perish, like any other innocent individual or society, to prove to other individuals, generations, or eras, the need to fight with weapons other than effeminate sobs.

The poet-martyr is only a few steps away from glory. Victory is only forty steps away from sacrifice, only two minutes by the clock, one word from the’ lips of the colonial demigod, a knitting of the brow of the omnipotent God.

But the entourage continues its march, the distance gets shorter, the demigod goes on sleeping in the palace, God continues to smile in the countryside, and in the midst of the crowd’s grieving silence, in the midst of the rolling of the drum and the entourage’s rhythmic pace, Placido continues to implore and to recite:

 

 

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Mas si cuadra a tu suma Omnipotencia

Que yo perezca cual malvado impio,

Y que los hombres mi cadaver frio

Ultrajen con maligna complacencia

Suene tu voz, y acabe mi existencia . . .

¡Cumplace en mi tu voluntad, Dios mio!

 

 

Yet, if it suits your supreme omnipotence that I shall perish like an impious villain, and that men shall offend my stark remains with evil complacence, let your voice be heard, and end my existence. . . Thy will be done, my Lord!

 

 

And the will of the Spanish demon-not of God-was done. The forty steps had been taken, the prayer was finished. Placido was on the bench. He occupied the bench of honor-Spanish justice is deferential to merit– with his four companions in punishment at both sides.

He started to speak, but the soldiers surrounded him in close formation. He made a gesture, and a round of fire resonated.

When the smoke had dissipated, someone stood up, shook his body desperately, and exclaimed, “Is there no compassion for me? Here!” pointing to his heart as he pleaded.

It was Placido. A compassionate soldier obeyed his order: he came near, pressed his rifle to the heart that had carried the most human sentiments, fired, and once again the anguished moan of the crowd resonated in the valley and the hills.

 

The first stage of the Cuban revolution ended with Placido. Seven years later Narciso Lopez would appear, to be followed by Cespedes.

Three movements, 44, 51, and 68-eternity is right in having patience. Moments pass; people pass along with them; but the day of victory always comes for justice. What does it matter that one who dies for it never sees it? The aim is not to live to enjoy the radiant day, but to contribute to its coming.  Placido contributed, and that is his glory.  When the Spaniards hitched the sluggish ox to the heavy cart which carried the remains of the poet and his martyred companions to the cemetery, they repeated a perpetual symbol in history: the instruments of the past taking the future to its grave.

It is only a delay. In the same way those agents of the future were taken to the cemetery, new ideas are driven to martyrdom: the past suffocates, drags and buries them, but they rise again. As long as they triumph, it matters little whether they are reborn in Cespedes or in Placido.

 

 

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