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It’s about time,”I commented when I heard that Nancy Stout had written a biography of Celia Sanchez, a Cuban hero and a woman I had met several times around the filming I did with Fidel Castro in the 1960s and 70s. (FIDEL, on PBS in 1969, CASTRO, CUBA AND THE USA, CBS 1974 and THE UNCOMPROMISING REVOLUTION, PBS 1990)
In 1969, Fidel invited me to dine with him to share grief over the death of a mutual friend, Comandante Rene Vallejo, Fidel’s personal doctor, adviser and pal. I had met Vallejo on my first trip to Cuba when he directed Cuba’s Agrarian Reform Institute in Oriente Province, and I was being taken on a tour of revolutionary activity. Vallejo later arranged for me to do the 1968 filming with Castro.
I was in Cuba when Vallejo suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and passed away, and I received a message from Celia Sanchez that Fidel wanted me to come to his Havana apartment to dine with him.
Celia greeted me and my family, and showed us the photos and art with which she had adorned the walls. She also had elegantly set the dinner table, in this modest Havana flat where Fidel sometimes passed the night.
She had also arranged the menu and then served the dinner, and inquired several times if everyone felt comfortable as we discussed the late Vallejo and his many virtues. Fidel was obviously shaken deeply by Vallejo’s sudden death as were Celia and I. She came from Media Luna, in the then province of Oriente, near Manzanillo where Vallejo had his gynecological practice, and they had both become active in the insurrection campaign of the 26th of July Movement.
Stout’s exploration of Celia’s life helps readers understand the nature of life in a small provincial town in the 1950s, and how revolutionaries had to hide from Batista’s police and simultaneously manage to integrate their times organizing insurrection with family and love life.
Celia had made her reputation during the insurrection by arranging events, making key contacts, planning and organizing, a path she continue to pursue, at Fidel’s side, after the revolutionaries took power. Stout omits the explanation of how and why Celia got involved in revolutionary activity after General Fulgencio Batista staged his coup d’etat in 1952 and received rapid US support. Celia had risked her life for the ideals of an independent and socially just Cuba, and, in a letter to her father, she explained that to accomplish these goals. Like many Cubans, Celia felt outraged at this illegal grab for power that distorted what she believed was Cuba’s proper path toward genuine independence and a society based on social justice. Julia Sweig had previously found in the state archives a letter Celia wrote to her father explaining her sentiments. On, Celia Sanchez wrote to her father:
“Every day I see how much Cuba needed this revolution. We conceived of a revolutionary consciousness and we have attained it. You know this country has always been enamored of caudillos and this is how Fidel was made. I was always afraid that he would be killed, and that besides losing a great asset, that people would abandon us in the Revolution; these fears are now history, and now the people have a real sense of their own feelings and the revolution is above all else.” (Letter dated September 26, 1957, from Julia Sweig, Inside the Cuban Revolution, p.59, Harvard University 2002)
Her crucial role in planning events, like the landing spot for the Granma in late 1956, and the subsequent route for the rebels to take after the landing, showed how important she had become in the insurrectionary movement, and the levels of trust placed in her.
Fidel continued to use her as his confidante, arranger and often as his planner for projects like new parks (Lenin Park), art displays and museums.
Celia, like Fidel, born in a small town in Oriente, carried in her personae the original ideals of independence and social justice that inspired most members of the 26th of July movement to take risks to overthrow the Batista government and then confront Washington.
Nancy Stout provides us with the relevant details of Celia’s life, her conspiracies during the insurrection, and her vital role as Fidel’s “do everything” person, her courage and determination that Fidel and all who knew her so admired. Replete with photos of this delicately thin and super active woman, Stout’s book offers in words the flavor of the insurrection, the heady madness of the early days of revolutionary power, and some of the events of the 19760s and 70s as well, but little analysis.
Stout used creatively her access to the official archives in Havana, discovering letters to and from Celia, memos from Fidel and notes that fill in details in the life of this remarkable revolutionary.
An enemy of bureaucracy and lover of creativity, Celia lived her life serving the revolutionary cause, by serving its leader.
When she had trouble breathing he finally went into the emergency room where doctors discovered a tumor in her lung, from which she soon died. Ironically, the doctors lied to her and instead of telling her she had cancer they made up a story of mold getting into her lungs. Nevertheless, she traveled with Fidel to attend a UN session in 1979, linking herself to childhood memories of time spent in that city where she attended cooking classes at Macy’s and learned some English.
Fidel, without Celia at his side, and still missing his friend and doctor Rene Vallejo, understood the depths of his personal loss. He made Celia into a national hero, which she richly deserved. Thanks to this biography, not heavy on critical characteristics, readers can understand some of the elements and people in the underground and the mountains, that put the Cuban revolution together, and how the word “commitment” resonated through the life of Celia Sanchez Manduley. This heroic woman’s body and brain throbbed with vital energy that she transmitted to her revolutionary work and to her comrades.
Saul Landau’s FIDEL and WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASXE STAND UP are available on dvd from cinemalibrestudio.com