Nicolás Guillén was a native of Camagüey, Cuba. Born on July 10, 1902. His birth year coincided with the founding of the Republic of Cuba that came about through the Platt Amendment wherein the United States was allowed to meddle with the political affairs of Cuba (Ferguson 85). He was the sixth child of Argelia Batista and Nicolas Guillén . His parents were both of mixed African-Spanish decent. His father was a journalist and a Liberal senator. By 1917, a tragic incident fell on the Guillén family, Guillén’s father was assassinated due to a political clash with then president, Mario Garcia Menocal (Afro-Cubas). According to Vera M. Kutzinski, after the death of his father, “the young Guillén became increasingly interested in poetry and journalism (Wisner-Broyles Guillén Nicolás).” Eventually he ventured into writing wherein his poems reflected the influence of Modernism. His works were first published in Camagüey Gráfico in 1919. Because of the absence of his father, he became the breadwinner of the family. At that time, he was balancing studying and working as a typist. Within two years, he was able
to finish his secondary education (Nicolás Guillén). In 1920, he went to law school at the University of Havana but after a year he left. Despite this hurdle in his life, he had manage to shift his fate. Together with his brother Francisco, they founded Lis, a literary magazine while also writing for other Cuban newspapers and magazines (Nicholás Guillén).
It was in the year 1930’s that Guillén’s career as a literary writer flourished. It began when Motives de Son (Son Motifs) was published that instigated a global commotion. He took this creative leap after reading Langston Hughes’ poetry and meeting him in person (Echevarria 336). Guillén and Hughes both believed that black artists have the liberty to express their individuality without shame (Nicolás Guillén). Motives de Son is composed of eight poems depicting the urban living conditions of the Blacks. Though the poems were painted with a somber theme , Guillén was able to present it in a festive and musical perspective (Nicholás Guillén). The collection was composed in an Afro-Cuban vernacular that separated itself with the Spanish literary cannon and established the Black culture as a legitimate focus of the Cuban literature (Nicholás Guillén). Because of the the unrestrained sensuality of language and tone of Motives de Son, Guillén immediately captured the interest of his readers (Echevarria 336).
Following Guillén’s debut masterpiece was Sóngoro Cosongo which reinforced his reputation as a brilliant writer. This book reflected his step towards artistic maturity. The folkloric and picturesque elements were minimized to convincingly capture the violence and
cynicism of the urban setting (Nicolás Guillén). He also broadened his scope by including the lives of all Cubans with a particular emphasis on the importance of the Mulatto (half-breed) culture in Cuban history (Echevarria 336).
These two works paved the way for the intensification of his quest for social change not only in Cuba but in the whole Caribbean region which was manifested in the publication of West Indies, Ltd. In 1937, he traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War for a magazine and also participated several writer’s conferences outside Cuba such as the antifascist Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture. That same year, the poet joined the Cuban Communist Party where he met Fidel Castro and became Castro’s faithful supporter for the revolution (Wisner-Broyles Guillén Nicolás). His political and social ideologies produced several narratives and verses. These written works took a change of style that focused more on universal themes and he temporarily abandoned his exploration of the Afro-Cuban life which can be seen in Songs for Soldiers and Songs for Tourist, Spain: Poem in Four Anguishes and One Hope and Song for Solidiersis (Nicholás Guillén).
During the peak of the regime of Fulgencio Batista in the 1940’s, Guillén was exiled and spent most of his time in Europe and South America (Wisner-Broyles Guillén Nicolás). His critical views against the government have cost him his homeland. This roadblock did not deter his will to bring change in his country. He continued to write on social issues that were plaguing the underprivileged. During this period, he was able to publish several works such as The Entire
Son which marked the integration of his earlier stages into a universalist apprehension of man’s social dilemma (Nicolás Guillén). He also wrote La Paloma De Vuelo Popular that commended the revolutionary efforts of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara (Wisner-Broyles Guillén Nicolás). This was followed by a collection of poems called The Dove of Popular Flight—Elegies that directly focused on social issues of the 1950s (Nicolás Guillén).
In 1959, Guillén returned to Cuba after the Cuban Revolution and the expulsion of Batista from office. Fidel Castro tasked Guillén to formulate a new cultural policy and to set up the the Union of Writers and Artist of Cuba, of which Guillén became president in 1961(Nicholás Guillén).
In the years that followed, Guillén continued to amaze his readers. He wrote and published several collections of poetry and essays. Tengo was published in 1964 wherein he celebrated the success of the revolution and the eradication of racial and economic discrimination. The bestiaries of renowned writers such as Aesop, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Pablo Neruda were his inspirations in making In El Gran Zoo. La Rueda Dentad manifested the creation of new forms and adaption of old ones to the changing social and political situation in Cuba that stressed social responsibility and addressed subjects not tackled in the years before the revolution. Meanwhile, El Diario Que A Diario showed the combination of poetry and journalism to ironically and satirically scrutinize the wrongdoings of the Cuban colonial society before the Cuban Revolution (Wisner-Broyles Guillén Nicolás).
Because of his immense contribution in literature, Guillén was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for literature. In addition, the Soviet Union recognized his efforts by awarding him with the Lenin Peace Prize and was also honored with the Cuban Order of José Marti . In 1989, Guillén died after a long battle with illness. The Cuban government gave him a state funeral with military honors as a sign of appreciation and gratitude for their national artist (Wisner-Broyles Guillén Nicolás).
Nicolás Guillén is an exceptional character in the Cuban society and culture. He used his artistry to express his political contentions against injustice and discrimination among minorities. His written works opened the eyes of the common people. He made use of methods that would appeal to the masses wherein they can easily grasp the message of his poetry and narratives. He firmly believed that their identity as an African, Cuban or Mulatto should not be treated as a disgrace. People should acknowledge their culture and tradition with pride because it is in recognition that one could initiate constructive changes to oneself and to society.
Echevarría, Roberto G., and Pupo-Walker, Enrique. The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature. Cambridge UP. 1996.
Ferguson, James. Makers of the Caribbean. Caribbean: Ian Randle Publishers. 2005.
“Nicholas Guillén, Cuban Poet.”1 October 2007. 11 February 2008. <http://www.nathanielturner.com/nicolasguillen.htm>.
“Nicolás Guillén.” 1998. 11 February 2008.
Wisner-Broyles, Laura A. “Guillén, Nicolás: Introduction.” 1999. 11 February 2008. <http://www.enotes.com/poetrycriticism/guillen-nicolas>.