January 1, 1959, was an epiphany
A few personal memories of the Cuban Revolution’s dawning
Author: Pedro de la Hoz | firstname.lastname@example.org
january 2, 2020 11:01:24
Photo: René Mederos
Roberto Fernández Retamar recalls that it was his mother-in-law who gave him the first news he heard about the triumph of the Revolution: Adelaida de Juan’s mother, who “burst in with a smile on her face to tell me that Batista had left the country.” Roberto was one of the most important lyrical voices of the young generation and Adelaida would soon become one of the country’s most respected art critics and historians.
Juan Formell lived in La Lisa with his father. He bid the year farewell with his family, and was still awake into the dawn hours. He recalled, “As it was getting lighter, the neighbors began to talk, first quietly and then at the top of their lungs, shouting: Batista is gone, long live the July 26th Movement, long live Fidel!” For the musician who was just starting out, an unprecedented chapter in his life was opening, to which he would add, with time, his unique contribution to the development of Cuban popular culture.
The painter and poet Adigio Benítez for years drew incisive cartoons for the newspaper Hoy and then, under pseudonyms to protect his identity, published his work in the clandestine Weekly Letter from Cuban Communists. He was in hiding on January 1, 1959: “For someone who was in constant danger, the new situation was like breathing again. I soon realized that the Revolution had come to stay”.
“On the night of December 31, 1958,” remembers Chucho Valdés, a pianist and composer who would take Cuban jazz to a world-class level, “I went to work at the Deuaville Hotel, a few steps from the Malecón. I performed there from 11pm to 5am, every day, except Mondays. My father Bebo played with his band at the Sevilla Hotel, very close to the Presidential Palace. The old man would finish at three in the morning and move from the Sevilla to the Deauville to wait for me to finish, so that we could go home to sleep. That day you could feel the tension in the air. He called me from the Sevilla to tell me not to move, that he had noticed strange movement around the Palace. Later, in the neighborhood, the dictator’s escape was the news everyone was talking about. Over the following months, all of Cuba lived in celebration. I saw signs of change in the satisfaction apparent in humble people, with whom I lived everyday, and who received the benefits of steps taken by the new government.”
When I collected this testimony ten years ago, Leo Brouwer sent me a note I will now share: “1959. January 1. 5:00am, a phone rings nearby and wakes me. Another and yet another ring. I awake to hear the growing rumor. (…) 5:01am. Emotion and euphoria explode in our hearts. The tyrant Batista is gone! Fidel is coming! That night I finished two of the Three Guitar Notes I composed between January 1 and the 3rd. At the bottom of the handwritten page, I signed and dated: January 1, 1959. Free.”
The days passed and the emotion grew in Adigio until a poem emerged: Victory Day. He published it three years later in the notebook Días como llamas, in an edition under the care of Fayad Jamís, also a poet and painter.
On the morning of Victory Day, Retamar took a bus to his parents’ house: “I had an envelope that I tore open to write on. I scribbled a poem called El otro (The Other) January 1, 1959, to capture the feeling of that moment, as extraordinary as it was.”
Michael Barnet summed up in one word, what was in everyone’s soul, at that time of change: the triumph of January was an epiphany.