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Kristin Dykstra

Gossiping Cuba:

Omar Pérez and the Name of the Father

See note [1]

Cuando el hijo se asemeja notablemente
al padre, se dice que este lo cagó, es igualito a su padre.
 — Omar Pérez[2]

paragraph 1

Growing out of my translation of a 1995 poetry collection in collaboration with contemporary Cuban writer Omar Pérez López, this essay deliberately confuses boundaries — as much the boundaries between translation, poetry, and criticism, as between open secrets and outright fiction. The book in question appears in a 2007 bilingual edition, Algo de lo sagrado/Something of the Sacred. [3]


Even before the text began its circulation among English-language readerships, biographical and cultural contexts already informed reception of Pérez’ writing in multiple communities; and these circumstances present startling dilemmas for the translator.


Translators link very different audiences, providing context for readers in the form of introductions and biographical notes, as well as making interpretive choices within the translation of the primary material. In the case of Omar Pérez, peculiar rhythms of silence and speech surround the naming of his father. These have potential ripple effects for readers of all stripes. Rather than simply disclosing the name to open this reflection, I’ll comment on those rhythms while deferring and exploding the moment of enunciation of the father’s name.


My commentary depends on the premise that translators, like other writers, make significant and influential choices at the same time that they do not control the full range of meaning of their writing. Meanings can be generated in processes of reception; global contexts of (re)production and circulation frame individual acts of translation within complex and shifting sociopolitical networks.


In the words of Jacqueline Loss, “Since the meaning of cultural products depends not only on the context in which they were created, but also on those in which they travel, it is important to attempt to do the impossible, that is, to assess them from multiple perspectives simultaneously.”[4] Here I take up the spirit of Loss’ challenge, mulling over this book with multiple perspectives in mind.


Omar Pérez was born in the city of Havana in 1964 and has lived mostly in Cuba, with an interlude of a few years in Europe, primarily in Amsterdam. A former journalist, he has explored a wide array of literary genres in publications to date, particularly poetry, translation, and the essay. Released when Pérez was in his early thirties, the book Algo de lo sagrado put him on the map as a poet, and since then its contents have been excerpted for anthologies.[5]


At once expressive and resistant, the poems pressure the limits of rational thought. Some individual pieces riff across masculinity, kinship, identity, and power:


Sangre de alumnos

Todos necesitamos de un padre
aunque sea uno macilento.
En el momento en que la fusilería
pasa a ser la estrella de una función interminable,
el joven pide a su creador una palabra
que le ayude a no traspasar cegado por el humo
el acre que lo separa del carnicero.
Al niño después de mostrarle el uso de las manos
se le enseña que nada puede serle más dañino
que la cercanía de un maestro preciosista,
somos alumnos incapaces de distinguir un latido de otro
apenas conocemos el peso que se afianza entre las pulsaciones.
El padre es la garantía de un seguro en el arma,
nada como eso puede conservarnos
el centímetro cuadrado de piel de arcángel en el torso.
Todos necesitamos de un padre
aunque su brazo se agote en el cabo del hacha.


Blood of students

We are all in need of a father
even an emaciated one.
In the moment when the fusillade
takes over the starring role at an interminable function,
the youth asks his creator for a word
that would help him, blinded by smoke, to stay within the acre
separating him from the butcher.
After showing the boy the use of his hands
you teach him that nothing can be more damaging
than the proximity of a pretentious teacher,
we are students incapable of distinguishing one heartbeat from another
we hardly comprehend the gravity solidified between pulsations.
The father is the guarantee of a safety on the weapon,
nothing like that can preserve for us
the squared centimeter of archangel skin on the torso.
We are all in need of a father
even if his arm tapers into the blade of a hatchet.


“The island is always being reinvented somewhere else,” reflects José Quiroga, a point just as applicable to acts of contextualizing Cuban poetry as to any other cultural phenomena.[6] But reinvented–how? It’s tempting for the translator to dip into professional gossip and private family stories while reflecting on the elusive voices of poems such as “Blood of students.” The job of translation may follow unstated rules often applied to gossip if the translator declines to tell all she knows in formal settings, particularly when living writers are involved, since they deserve privacy and respect. However, the task of the translator is also to decide where too much silence is unnecessary or compromises the reader’s understanding.


Consider these remarks on breaking form, made by translator Norman Thomas Di Giovanni in a public talk with Jorge Luis Borges. I give this example with caution because Di Giovanni later intervened in Borges’ work so extensively, altering innovative language into an English rendition that he found more “clean,” that Borges broke off their partnership.[7] In this presentation, however, the two discussed the creation of a minor rupture in the economy of Borges’ original language, for the purpose of transporting the unspoken — that is, local community knowledge — into a story’s English rendition. Di Giovanni says,


Let me give some specific examples of, let’s call them, departures from the text. In “Pedro Salvadores,” a story set a hundred or more years back and based on historical facts, Borges speaks of his three characters as “A man, a woman, and the overpowering shadow of a dictator . . .” The dictator is not named because every Argentine reader knows who he is, but for the English-speaking reader that had to be spelled out. At the appropriate place, we inserted into the translation a sentence stating, “The dictator, of course, was Rosas.”[8]


For the story to work somewhat as Borges and Di Giovanni hoped, conjuring the name of a specific historical figure rather than a vague shadow, the exact name of the dictator had to be named.


In the case of Omar Pérez, the naming of names is part of the swirl of action and curiosity around his work and person. Most written commentaries carefully avoid naming his father, although notable exceptions now exist. Regardless, one cannot listen to the oral storytelling of the Havana circuit without hearing the name.


The double presence of the family relationship, constantly unspoken yet constantly spoken, reveals pressures and expectations that readers in the know–not excluding Pérez himself — may actually place on the poet. In order to refer to his family background without actually committing it to paper, commentators seem to resort to sideways tactics, such as dropping the father’s name without mentioning that there is any a family connection between them. This dissimulation makes the reference intellectually useful yet not crudely personal.


For the translator, however, there is no real way to communicate the meaning of this dance with the same subtlety. Or with any subtlety whatsoever. One must break decorum and add the missing sentence in the story, in what one deems the most appropriate place: “The father, of course, was Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.”


A very straightforward presentation of Guevara’s relationship to Pérez appeared in Jorge Castañeda’s biography, Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, published in English in 1997.[9] Citing letters exchanged with Lilia Rosa Pérez in 1996 to confirm Guevara’s family history, Castañeda lingers on her son’s body:


He has the eyes, eyebrows, and smile of his father; on the few occasions he has a reason to be glad, his face lights up just as Che’s did. He does not speak of his lineage, though he has Guevara’s long, straight black hair, prominent brow, and sad, mysterious expression. His gestures, look, and reticence also betray his antecedents. (265)


Lo cagó, es igualito a su padre . . . The historian’s remarks are a more polite version of my epigraph, a Cubanism that Pérez quotes and identifies as a way of stating a son’s strong resemblance to his father.


If documentation makes it publicly permissible for others to write about the family relation now, the question of how referencing it may affect the global reception of Pérez’ writing is yet to be answered. Given that the photographer Alberto “Korda” Díaz’ famous image of el Che is thought to be the most reproduced photograph in the history of the world and therefore the subject of intense public fascination, referring to Guevara is opening a Pandora’s box.


The image has the potential of plastering over other aspects of Pérez’ rich work. This oversimplification would be deeply unjust to him.


Allá, en la circunstancia escéptica

Dónde, como una vara o planisferio enrollado
recostaremos la ironía
contra qué, es un decir, diluirla:
allá, en la circunstancia escéptica
una lluvia incalificable descorre la cera de las biografías.
Cómo explicar que ante el cristal divisorio
todo se reduzca a fijar un nombre en la superficie empañada.


There, in the skeptic circumstance

Where, like a rod or wound-up planisphere,
we will lean irony
against something to dissolve it, so to speak:
there, in the skeptic circumstance
an unspeakable rain draws the wax off biographies.
How does one explain that under the glass boundary
everything would be reduced to the setting of a name on the tarnished surface.


Reducing Pérez into the legacy of the Guevara name would not only be a reduction but, ironically, its simultaneous opposite: the explosion of the scene with all the potency of global visual culture.


Some who continue to view, circulate, and comment on Korda’s photograph “Heroic Warrior” associate it with such topics as self-determination, guerrilla warfare, postcolonialism, resistance to regional and global capitalism, and the history of revolutionary efforts in Latin America. The invocation can also set up debates over details of leftist reform movements and their legacy for governance in the present and future, not least in Cuba, though by no means are debates limited to that nation.


Then there is the simultaneous circulation of Korda’s image on commercial products. This circulation may tap into political knowledge and debate up to a point yet offers different issues of meaning-making in the global marketplace.


In many reproductions of Korda’s photograph, “the image, as icon, has discarded specific details of Guevara’s achievements and taken on a life of its own, as a potent symbol of freedom, of anti-establishment for a new generation that has embraced the idealism of the young Che of The Motorcycle Diaries film,” writes Hannah Charleton.[10] There is no doubt that in some uses of the photo, revolution is becoming unhinged, even if it remains chic at a weird new distance. Charleton describes a stage of evolution in corporate uses from the late nineties forward in which consumption becomes a “game or code”:


Mega brands, reflecting the very ‘indie’ values of their audience, can do so with a knowing irony that of course the wearer/user can remain seemingly untouched by the corporate values underpinning the transaction. Enter Che: the symbol of student revolution can be used to add allure to a product, because an increasingly sophisticated audience is smart enough to distinguish between revolution and commerce and to enjoy the irony. Che now begins the metamorphosis from political symbol to a paradoxical position in the global corporate culture. The commodification of the image has truly begun.


In an advertisement for Jean Paul Gaultier sunglasses circulated in Europe in 1999, Che is painted in a Frida Kahlo-type landscape, all rich cacti flowers and blazing desert sun. Che himself is framed in spiky thorns reminiscent of Christ, and in a direct lift from socialist banner styles the slogans above and below the face proclaim, in a breathtakingly bravura style, recalling Che’s original slogan, “Hasta la victoria siempre”–“Siempre color y libertad” and “Jean Paul Gaultier Lunettes.” There is a dove of peace at Che’s neck and blue Gaultier shades covering the resolute gaze of the man who vowed to free the poor of the earth. (10–11)


Concluding a 2005 essay, Omar Pérez made his own remark on strange meetings between revolution and marketing: “Revolution: today they name you in advertisements at the four corners of the world: alleluia!”[11]


The political and the commercial coincide in particularly uncomfortable ways in analyses of tourism and the consumption of imagery of Cuba’s Special Period and new millennium.[12] Ana María Dopico observes that images of the island began to pour out into the world in the final decade of the twentieth century, after the disruption of its relations with the Soviet Union. The restructuring of island society included a surge in importance for tourism as a supplement for resources lost from trading partners abroad: “A thirty-year shortage of Cuban images on the world market only made more precious and extreme Havana’s aesthetic and sensual fetishization and its promotion as a must-see, world historical destination.”[13] Dopico catalogues


recent images of Cuba that promise clarity, transparency, and visibility at a moment of obscurity; images that promise a time of suspension to consumers overrun by speedup; images of a real nation functioning as a historical theme park; images that promise human intensity and acute vision within the mobility of tourism; images of decay made picturesque for those who like to visit ruins; images of collapse marketed to a world intent on rebuilding and expansion. (452)


Literary markets are susceptible to all of these images.


In the reality of the small press world in the United States–where poetry is not a big seller, and particularly not “difficult” poetry from somewhere else in the world–a book of poems by someone who is probably Guevara’s son does not present us with the same analytical questions as a splashy and well financed advertisement for haute couture, Smirnoff vodka (giving Guevara’s image the caption “Hot and Fiery” to hint that Smirnoff is the vodka of Revolutionary Latin Lovers), or the workings of sex tourism.[14] For example, actual cash earnings associated with Pérez’ book will almost certainly fall into the category of losses, even if other “earnings” or forms of gratification might fall to those of us involved.


Still, the book becomes an object entering a market of interestingly confused images of el Che. It is a space of love, hatred, desire, caution, evasion and other powerful reactions that can be triggered by reference to the writer’s father. The space holds messy debates, misperceptions, desires for Guevara and/or Cuba to provide particular images for global contemplation: blending two of the seductive possibilities that Dopico has outlined, the juxtaposition of Pérez with Guevara can lend “human intensity” to the “historical theme park.”


Given the susceptibility of the familial images to “political fantasies, the artificial memories, and the imaginative recolonization that [. . .] photographs of the Special Period seem to announce,” they may in the end emerge as another mode of the same old hegemonic vision (452).


Rather than forcing Pérez to play an iconographic role structured by these overwhelmingly complex forces, perhaps it would be most ethical to avoid naming the father altogether.


To eliminate el Che’s image from the conversation, however, is to be dishonest with an English-speaking audience — even obstructionist, because it means blocking out what everyone knows, i.e. the flow of knowledge via storytelling that surrounds many readers’ experiences of the writing in Havana, including my own. Even if we deem biographical information inessential to interpretation of the literature at hand, leading to biographical fallacies, scholars must eventually do something with the fact that Pérez has gone on to include sentences and paragraphs about Guevara within a variety of recent publications and works in progress, showing a willingness to engage el Che as an intellectual and social leader in the face of criticism from former colleagues now living and publishing abroad.


Furthermore, discussing the resonances openly allows English-language readers to reflect on the impact of the fact that “Havana’s recent role as a projection screen for North American fantasies is part of a long history of mapping the island, from inside and outside, as both utopia and heterotopia. From Christopher Columbus to Che Guevara, from José Martí to Reinaldo Arenas, Cuba has long figured as a place that alternates in value between perfect, nonexistent, and alternative societies” (Dopico 456–457). Off the island, to simply erase the Guevara material would change the English-language reception by eliminating a point of entry that many readers will find compelling in the new century, possibly due to their own diverse interests in “perfect, nonexistent, and alternative societies.” Much of this interest is sincere and self-critical, and it cannot be pinned to a single line of thought. “The media archive devoted to Cuba,” notes Quiroga, “at some point has been collapsed into the dreams and projections, hopes and resolutions of broad segments of Western and Third World imaginaries” where Guevara’s image appears in new forms (3).


Furthermore, there is the emergent construction of Pérez as a character in works by other writers in Cuba and elsewhere, including the United States. The transnational Pandora’s box is already open–perhaps never having been closed.


Paternity is directly at issue in the bestselling 2003 novel by Cuban-American writer Ana Menéndez, Loving Che.[15] Loving Che treads on the speculative grounds of Guevara’s legacy through the thematization of relationships between Cuba and Miami.


The novel’s protagonist is a young woman who was brought to Miami as a baby and has never known her mother or father, only her grandfather, who refuses to talk about the past and has few material objects to show her before his death. As a young adult she begins to trace the minimal clues about her family’s identity. After returning from unsuccessful visits to Havana, she receives a series of writings by a woman who may be her mother, Teresa. As the novel’s title suggests, Teresa claims an affair with Guevara and suggests that he, not Teresa’s husband, is the young woman’s missing father. The novel is spattered with photographs of Guevara, who comes to be a central character even though he is present only as a series of figments.


Menéndez pointedly invokes Roland Barthes’ notion that photography kills its subjects, unsettling any straightforward sense of historical documentation. However, this theoretical caution does not apply to Omar Pérez, the main character’s potential half-brother in Havana. Near the end of the novel the protagonist takes Teresa’s writings to a professor of Cuban history at the University of Miami, Dr. Caraballo. The professor reviews the writings and calls the protagonist to a meeting, where she shares her findings:


I wanted to see you, of course. And also, I didn’t want to disappoint you in a letter [. . . ] Perhaps you know that a woman named Lilia Rosa Perez gave birth to a child of Che’s in the early sixties, 1963 or 1964. Dr. Caraballo paused, and I could tell she was waiting for a reaction to show itself across my face. No, I said, I didn’t know that. Dr. Caraballo nodded. The child was a boy, she said. (174)


Menéndez’ protagonist must then decide whether it matters or not that Teresa’s story may be untrue, or as Dr. Caraballo describes the letters, “an impossible reinvention of history, a beautiful fraud” (175).


Menéndez thus represents the son of Lilia Rosa Pérez, born to her in Havana, as the authentic son, the child of the revolutionary leader against whom other possible children like the novel’s protagonist are measured. The verified historical presence of Omar Pérez in the archive highlights links missing from other family stories. On the following page a Cuban taxi driver voices Loving Che’s main message: “This has been the worst legacy of the Cuban Revolution, this tearing apart of families” (176). Unsubstantiated stories and fragmented images stand in for truth at the end of Menéndez’ novel, which closes neither in Miami nor in Havana but in a more distant city, Paris.


Menéndez writes Lilia Rosa Pérez’ name openly but has delicately chosen not to name the son. Wikipedia is not so diplomatic. The popular online information source bluntly charts out Guevara’s marriages to Hilda Gadea (1955) and Aleida March (1959), with names and birthdates of their five children, followed immediately by Lilia Rosa López and the name of her son, the labels “extramatrimonial” and “extramarital” making their unofficialdom officially clear in Spanish and English entries.[16]


The stories that bring a father-son element into sight around Omar Pérez became part of my experience in getting to know his work many years before I ran into Loving Che. My first impression of the writer, storyless, was of an unassuming and helpful person with long dark hair who addressed me by the surprising title of “Lady K” at a conference and then vanished into the crowd. I then heard other poets speak of him with great respect for the quality of his writing and translation. Over time various people told me bits and pieces of the gossip that characterizes writers’ circles in any city.


I think of these stories as part of one’s loose “knowledge” of the Havana scene. The tales parallel the person with whom I exchange emails, but they are not him. I’ve even forgotten who passed some of the stories along to me, because they don’t need authors: they fade into a larger oral culture that surrounds Guevara’s image. Pedro Pérez Sarduy described it in his poem, “Che”: “There is an incredible myth like a sea like a chunk /of the Sierra around you /an agitated multitude a millennium of lore / immense like the morning which is waiting for you.”[17]


This culture reaches out to embrace Pérez the son, throwing glints off the edges of his poems. Here are a few of the tales I encountered, interspersed with another example of their percolation into contemporary literature.


The first story briefly tells how “everyone knows” his father’s name. Everyone in Havana knows who it was, according to Somebody, because they saw his mother receive regular child support payments from Guevara after she gave birth.


Another story, told by Reina María Rodríguez, is her memory of Pérez’ first involvement in poetry readings. She remembers a seventeen-year-old climbing the steps up to her rooftop apartment after school. Eventually he would reach into the pocket of his school uniform pants and pull out dirty, crumpled pieces of paper with poems scribbled on them. He read his work to writers and artists who gathered at the rooftop in the evenings, creating a respectable series of publications as he matured.


This literary memory leads into another story she has told, one set in the form of a poem. Pérez became a character in her poem “ — al menos, así lo veía a contra luz —” (“ — at least, that’s how he looked, backlit —”), a meditation organized around Guevara’s iconic image approximately thirty years after his death.[18] Guevara’s haunting of the present took on its most vivid incarnation in July 1997 with the discovery of his missing body and its subsequent translation to the island, where the remains (missing the hands) were buried amid spectacular forms of mourning.[19]


Of her poem José Quiroga has written, “It is, perhaps, the most poignant account of disenchantment and bitterness registered in Cuban poetry in the last decade” (21). Its construction turns in part on the concrete presence of the son alongside the images of his absent father. Like Menéndez, Rodríguez brings the stories of Guevara’s unofficial family together with reference to photographs, as well as Barthes’ cautions about the limitations of access to history through photography.


In the following lines we see the son and the father. Unlike Menéndez, Rodríguez does not resolve the question of Pérez’ genealogy as either mythical or verifiable. Neither does she insert his name. Her speaker talks as if to a readership presumed to know the names of father and son without having to be told:


el hijo, (su hijo) vive en una casa amarilla
frente al Malecón — nadie lo sabe, él tampoco lo sabe —
es poeta y carpintero.
[the son (his son) lives in a yellow house /on the Malecón — no one knows it, he doesn’t know it either — / he’s a poet and a carpenter . . . (56–58) ]


[. . .]
el Cristo negro de la Isla del Cristo sigue intocable,
a pesar de la falsificación que han hecho
de su carne en la restauración;
la amante sigue intocable
y asiste a los homenajes en los aniversarios;
(su hijo), mi amigo, el poeta, el carpintero de Malecón,
pisa con sus sandalias cuarteadas
las calles de La Habana;
los bares donde venden un ron barato a granel
y vive en una casa amarilla
entre la curva azul y oscurecida del mar.

[the black Christ from the Island of Christ is still untouchable, / in spite of the forgery they’ve made / of his flesh in the restoration; / the lover is still untouchable / and attends homages on anniversaries; / (his son) my friend, the poet, the carpenter of the Malecón, / walks in cracked sandals through / the streets of Havana, / through bars where cheap rum overflows, / and lives in a yellow house / between the blue and darkened curves of the sea. (72–82)]


In the poem Rodríguez recalls the Revolutionary government’s injunction to the Cuban people after Guevara’s death: to emulate their martyr. The injunction appears in other Cuban poetry: in one famous example Nicolás Guillén writes, “Your bearded face instructs us.”[20]


desde niño le ponían una boina
para que nadie le robara la ilusión de ser,
algún día, como él.
algo en la cuenca del ojo, cierta irritación;
algo en el silencio y en la voluntad
se le parece. entre la curva azul
y amarilla del mar.

[they’ve made him wear a beret since he was a child / so no one could steal his illusion that he would be, / someday, like his father. / something in the eye socket, a certain irritation; / something in the silence and in the resolve / seems like him. between the blue and yellow / curves of the sea. (59–65)]


With the hints that the child has been raised to emulate the father comes a double message: an assertion of continuity, and a doubt about the validity of the “something” that connects the generations.[21]


For Quiroga, an eloquent reader of the poem as a whole, doubt buckles with the weight of the “dismantled and reconfigured social order” of the Special Period, overshadowing other registers of expression (20). In this reading, the son cannot serve as savior; his cracked sandals are nothing more than a pair of worn-out shoes. The poem holds as “a bitter settling of accounts between the poet and the image” (Quiroga 21).


The longest story I’ve been told featuring Omar Pérez also includes a command from the Revolutionary government to make oneself over in the image of the martyr, but this tale imagines the moment when Pérez learns his father’s name. The story begins in the late ‘80s when the son is in his twenties and knows nothing of his father. He works as a journalist and participates regularly in events of all kinds — music, poetry readings, theater, performance art. When he chooses to speak, he is charismatic. He works with an accomplished circle of writers and artists in Havana.


Participants in a cultural and political movement known as “Paideia,” they are idealistic, given to experiment, and increasingly vocal in their dissidence. Representing a generation raised within the institutions of the revolutionary government, they demand active leadership roles in the nation’s social experiment — roles promised to them throughout their education. Pérez finally crosses a line in his public statements.


Seen by authorities as a dangerous force, he is relieved of his job in journalism and assigned to work at a farm in the Cuban countryside. It is to be a lesson in revolutionary discipline. Before he leaves Havana, he is called in to speak to the judge who decided his case. The judge sits Pérez down in a chair and informs him that his father would be displeased with his behavior; his father would want the son to respect the meaning of the Revolution for the people. Does he know who his father was? No? He was el Che, and the son must meditate upon his father’s legacy during his year-long assignment to farm the land.


Pérez once acknowledged in a 2001 conversation with me that he was sent to work on a farm as a punishment for dissident behavior. This assignment was diplomatically renamed mandatory military service, one for which he was already too old. He said he thought he was treated reasonably well there, as mandatory work camp situations go, since he was not in fear for his life; he understood the point of the exercise. He specifically stated that he did not think that his case was the sort of extreme example that merits the strictest condemnation of governments on the world stage.


The historian Castañeda recounts the incident in half a sentence, writing that Pérez “has, for opposing the regime and refusing military service, done time in one of the labor camps his father founded” (265). While Castañeda’s readers might then see Pérez as opposing the life and work of Guevara, the historian makes a point of describing this very dissidence as “faithful” to the son’s revolutionary heritage (265).


In my own completely fictional addendum to these tales, I decide that Pérez turns to Zen Buddhism from the 90s to the present as a way to live through the absurd yet constant condition of learning that he has been engendered by an icon. Like living through a divorce that never ends — only disagreements in this divorce cycle around a martyr, and what mission does that leave to the son? Somehow he is supposed to encapsulate a whole society’s most violent battles, achieve a mystical resolution within, and return to that society its most peaceful visions of love. He would ideally exist as a certain kind of son, a Christ of revolutionary stripe.


In the meantime, members of the family who associate Guevara with unacceptable, institutionalized violence may be prone to see the son as devil spawn if he does not publicly repudiate the father. This being an impossible set of extremes to live by, he must swap it out for another system of thought in order to survive.


He is ordained as a Buddhist monk early in the new millennium, cracking the discourse cycles of Christian martyrdom, and the demands of the dojo prove more realistic than the demands of an entire nation and its diasporas living through the long wake of revolution.


After collecting this series of stories, I wondered, like Menéndez’ protagonist, what exactly to do with them.


“The violence wreaked by translation,” reflects Lawrence Venuti, “is partly inevitable, inherent in the translation process, partly potential, emerging at any point in the production and reception of the translated text, varying with specific cultural and social formations at different historical moments.”[22] Becoming part of the Guevara storytelling seems to be a classic violation, in the sense that it exaggerates and therefore illustrates the narrative agency that translators and critics ordinarily exercise in the course of their everyday work of fashioning brief biographical blurbs for new audiences. In Pérez’ case, blurbs for books and magazines can change drastically depending on which stage of his work is discussed (pre- versus post-Zen, for instance) and how much ongoing debates around revolution, world market demands, dissidence, spirituality, masculinity and commitment play into one’s setup for his multi-voiced literature.


Since we worked together to create the bilingual book, I shared my reflections with Pérez for comment. The first reaction I got came over email in English from Amsterdam.


O.k; let’s entertain some gossipology:
The first story [. . .] is surprising: child support payments from Guevara! From a 0 to 10 scale in the gossipometer, this one takes easily a 9. Such a delicate transaction, if it ever took place, how could it be witnessed by anyone, much less everyone? It’s a bit more than inaccuracy.[23]


He moved on to the story of the confrontation with the judge, supposedly the person who revealed his family history to him for the first time.


Magnificent: kafkian, typical K in front of an epitome of the fatherly state. It didn’t take place but does summarize diverse meetings and interrogatories. Though in none of them was I informed of the matter as such, not even indirectly. This was taboo [ . . .] (7 October 2005)


My fiction comparing the demands of the stricken nation to the demands of the dojo struck him as having “something of Shakespeare there. A Hamlet air” (7 October 2005). He added that he saw connections between the oral culture about Guevara and his manuscript then in progress, Cubanology, though he did not name them, leaving the whiff of a trail to be followed in the future.


In a separate commentary, Pérez returned to the question of when he first found out about his father, offering correction and elaboration: “It was, to be exact, during the process of [the movement] Paideia for it was in this group of friends that I heard it for the first time. They told the story, as gossip, and used to call me the son of the Sheik, like the novel. Joke. Still . . . there was something in the air. Still.”[24]


This was not the only time the stories came close. Guevara is present even in the Zen dojo, where a Zen master authored his own embodiment as a new “relation” between spirituality and Guevara.


I remember the first time we did sesshin with my master and somebody asked, looking at the cover of his book La revolución interior, cúal es la relación entre el zen y Che Guevara (on the cover there’s an image of master Kodo Sawaki in zazen with Korda’s Che as background). La relación soy yo, said master, French-like.[25] (10 October 2005)


Literally entering the space of the “Heroic Warrior” photograph on the cover of his own book, Master Kodo Sawaki reconfigures the meditations made upon the face of the revolutionary father. And as in Loving Che, which ends in Paris, Pérez prevents the dojo scene’s final resolution into a Caribbean-only “Cubanidad” with static interference from France.


Taken as a group, the chain of origin stories and their echoes highlights the ongoing significance of translation studies. Initially the question for the translator writing up commentaries seems to be: is Pérez the son or not? It should be enough to speak the answer and move on. That would be efficient . . . and in keeping with Venuti’s finding that translations are most well-received in English-language markets when their status as translations is masked by the projection of fluency and transparency — in other words, when the reader feels as though he/she gets access to an “original” with few to no hitches (2003).


Similarly, the long-standing preference in all sorts of English-language publishing is for translators to make themselves politely invisible to the reader, lest the reader lose that illusion of communion with the author and his/her original text. Given these traditional expectations, to plop all kinds of stuff between the reader and the author or ideas he/she is trying to find in the writing — not just criticism but also the scandalous stuff of gossip and speculation, as well as vulgar Cubanisms and intrusive fictions from the translator herself–is to insist on the constructed, unnatural “nature” of the text. It flaunts interpretive contexts we bring to poetry and airs disagreeable issues like celebrity and consumption.


However, exploding the enunciation of the father’s name opens important modes for translation and criticism. These modes can foreground difference — amongst languages, amongst cultures and the paradigms that critics bring to them — as not only a reality of translation but a tremendously interesting one.


In the case of introducing Omar Pérez, uncomfortable meetings of perceptions in and around the Guevara imagery in photographs, stories, and objects show how they and the poetry can both be used to symbolize different things to different people, decades after the revolution and the father’s death. This approach also hints at the question of what we think Cuban literature “is” in the United States and other English-dominant markets, of what we want it to be and do for us when it moves into English.[26]


If Pérez’ poetry expresses complexity and resistance when read closely, will the superimposition of the most famous revolutionary face in the world flatten it into a souvenir? Force Pérez to occupy the role of the figure who makes it possible for citizens of different systems to imagine something other than the imperfect societies they know? Constrain critical attention to poems that seem to deal with revolutionary masculinity? Play into the marketing of the revolutionary body? Optimistically: could it activate debates and meditations that the poetry can productively inform and challenge?


The author photograph submitted by Pérez for the back cover of Something of the Sacred merely extends these questions.[27] If, as Castañeda’s written description suggests, some viewers will immediately seek out his physical resemblance to Guevara, the writer’s visage bears additional meanings in the resistance it retains to the viewer’s gaze. Looking off to the side with an ambiguous expression that does not align with registers of Guevara’s “Heroic Warrior” image, even accounting for its multivalence, Pérez denies the illusion of total accessibility to the viewer. What is he thinking?


La victoria de los desobedientes

En la multitud
un hombre ha pateado disimuladamente una paloma
muchas veces antes de recogerla.
Hay una sola vida y la envolveremos con escamas
hay una sola vida y la cubriremos con las palabras de otros
la palparemos disimuladamente varias veces
antes de decidir que la queremos.


Victory of the disobedient

In the crowd
a man has slyly nudged a pigeon with his foot
many times before picking it up.
There is just one life and we’ll shield it with scales
There is just one life and we’ll cover it with the words of others.
We’ll pat it slyly several times
before deciding that we want it.


“Practiced hands in the fantasies of neocolonialism and underdevelopment, inheritors of a voracious industry of tourism and advertising, present-day Habaneros live in a market mirror game where images reify — but do not represent — the real segregations of their city’s tourist apartheid,” contends Dopico (453). Many recent “images of Havana [. . .] display Cubans as patent proof that third-world subjects are a renewable resource, their faces serving as readable icons” (453).


If the image of Pérez has the potential to trigger a special variation on this cycle that mobilizes nostalgic and erotic fantasies of revolutionary fathers, it also resists the dynamics of much Special Period photography that preceded it. Wherever the sidelong look in this photograph comes from, it disrupts any sense that “the Cuban” is fully readable, available for viewers. The author’s evasion suggests that unstated desires may not in fact be satisfied. Resisting the closure of the cycles of desire, the image may to some degree resist the foreclosure of questions about the present and the future.


Similarly, if the translator were to simply hand over one unquestioned version of the poet’s family tale, differences amongst the commentaries collected in the late ‘90s and new millennium would disappear from sight. More to the point, so would the stakes of the many issues they can embody when placed alongside the poems. Presenting a single story also would pave over relevant ethical hitches implicit in the work of translation.


Here, then, I’ve attempted the impossible: to assess the present and future power of these still-multiplying kinship tales in relation to the New York iteration of Algo de lo sagrado, Something of the Sacred, while pieces of accompanying oral, print, and visual culture refract through unbalanced new spaces of global circulation.


No me parezco a nadie salvo al apocalipsis       

I resemble no one but the apocalypse [28]


Note: I would like to express my appreciation to Roberto J. Tejada, Antonio López, and Omar Pérez for their helpful remarks on earlier versions of this essay. All responsibility for errors is mine. — KD


[1] Originally published in Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas / Nueva escritura de las Américas 10 (2007), 322–344. Reprinted here with permission.

[2] From the entry, “El acto tan natural,” in a work in progress entitled “Las Malas Palabras.” As it appears in this partial draft form, the project is an essayistic riff on dictionary entries, particularly engaging cubanismos. Here exploring the uses of the verb “cagar” (“to take a shit”), Pérez notes its (re)appearance in a colloquial phrase used to observe how greatly a son resembles his father. File emailed to the author in the message “Re: Do you know these words?” 17 May 2007.

[3] The original text by Omar Pérez is Algo de lo sagrado, 1995, Havana: Editorial Unión. The bilingual edition is Something of the Sacred / Algo de lo sagrado, 2007, translated by Kristin Dykstra., with Roberto Tejada, NY: Factory School. (Five individual poems were translated by Tejada; these do not include any of the poems cited in this article.)

[4] Cosmopolitanisms and Latin America: Against the Destiny of Place. 2005. NY: Palgrave MacMillan. 151.

[5] Here I have in mind anthologies framing Pérez within a Cuban national tradition. Examples: Jorge Luis Arcos’ Las palabras son islas: Panorama de la poesía cubana, Siglo XX (1900–1998), 1999, Havana: Editorial Letras Cubanas; Jorge Cabezas Miranda, ed. Novísima poesía cubana, antologia (1980–1998), 1999, Ediciones Colegio de España; Francisco Morán, ed., La isla en su tinta: Antología de la poesía cubana, 2000, Madrid: Editorial Verbum; and C.A. Aguilera, ed. Memorias de la clase muerta: Poesía cubana 1988–2001, 2002, México: Aldus.

[6] Cuban Palimpsests. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. xi.

[7] Venuti, Lawrence. 1998. Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference. New York: Routledge. 4–5.

[8] Borges, Jorge Luis, and Norman Thomas Di Giovanni. 1973. Borges on Writing. New York: Dutton. 105–106.

[9] Tr. Marina Castañeda. NY: Alfred A Knopf.

[10] “Introduction.” In Ziff, Trisha, ed. 2006. Che Guevara: Revolutionary & Icon. NY: Abrams Image. 7–8. See Quiroga’s chapter, “A Cuban Love Affair with the Image,” for related contexts.

[11] The original reads, “Revolución: hoy te nombran en los comerciales en las cuatro esquinas del mundo; allellujah!” (60) Original Spanish printing: “El intelectual y el poder en Cuba.” 2006. Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas / Nueva escritura de las Américas 9. Translation: “The Intellectual and Power in Cuba.” Winter ’06-’07. Tr. Kristin Dykstra. Fascicle 3 <>

[12] The “Special Period” is a term coined by Fidel Castro in October 1990 to denote an intense moment of crisis. The loss of Soviet support required great changes to the island’s economy and society. See Dopico (cited in full below) 459–464 for a useful discussion of the recourse to wartime conditions within a time of peace, the surge in various forms of tourism, and narrative contestation in text and image. The genre of the travelogue, for example, becomes a popular source of images of Havana. Special Period struggles over the verbal and pictorial representation of island realities are also discussed at length by Quiroga.

[13] Dopico, Ana María. 2002. “Picturing Havana: History, Vision, and the Scramble for Cuba.” Nepantla: Views from South 3.3. 451.

[14] Korda was so disgusted by this Smirnoff ad, produced in the UK in 2000, that he began proceedings to sue the advertising agency. The case was settled out of court in his favor.

[15] Menéndez, Ana. 2003. Loving Che. NY: Grove Press.

[16] Spanish entry: Colaboradores de Wikipedia, "Ernesto Guevara," Wikipedia, La enciclopedia libre, (descargado 26 de abril de 2007). English entry: Wikipedia contributors, "Che Guevara," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, <> (accessed April 26, 2007).

[17] Pérez Sarduy, Pedro. “Che.” Tr. John LaRose. 1977. Writing in Cuba Since the Revolution: An Anthology of Poems, Short Stories, and Essays. Ed. and int. Andrew Salkey. London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications Ltd. 30–31. Lines 16–19.

[18] Line numbers cited here are taken from a bilingual anthology published in the United States, although Rodríguez published the original in La foto del invernadero (1998, Santa Fe de Bogotá and Havana: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Colombia, and Fondo Editorial Casa de las Américas, Cuba). The bilingual edition is Violet Island and Other Poems (2004) tr. Kristin Dykstra and Nancy Gates Madsen, Los Angeles and Copenhagen: Green Integer.

[19] See Quiroga 209–211.

[20] Guillén, Nicolás. “Che Comandante.” Tr. Margaret Randall and Andrew Salkey. 1977. In Writing in Cuba Since the Revolution: An Anthology of Poems, Short Stories, and Essays. Line 43.

[21] I discuss this poem at greater length in a separate essay focused on Rodríguez, forthcoming in Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature.

[22] The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. 2003 (1995). NY: Routledge. 19.

[23] Pérez, Omar. 7 October 2005. “Re: biographical background.” E-mail to the author.

[24] Pérez, Omar. 10 October 2005. “Re: contexts for current draft / future directions.” E-mail to the author.

[25] The question is “What is the relationship between Zen and Che Guevara?” The master answers, “I am.” The term “sesshin” refers to a period of intense Zen practice, while “zazen” refers to the sitting of meditation. For more on Pérez’ thinking about Zen, see “El dojo zen en la Habana” (De la Nuez, Iván, ed., Almanaque: Cuba y el día después, Barcelona: Reservoir Books / Mondadori, 2001, 169–180). Readers of English can access my translation with a critical commentary exploring unexpectedly polemic responses to the essay, as well as a reflection on its contents, in Origin ~ Longhouse (June 2007).

[26] Sylvia Molloy outlines a “legitimating narrative the U.S. academy usually tells itself about Latin America” and its cultural history: “Latin American literature . . . is made to ‘emerge’ (‘emerge’ into U.S. awareness, as in ‘emergent’ literatures that always seem to emerge when the First World discovers a need for new cultural goods) in the early 1960s, an emergence coinciding, roughly, with the Cuban revolution — a ‘new’ beginning — and with the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude — a ‘new’ genre, magic realism, a genre against which all Latin American literature would be read in a sort of ahistorical, postcolonial present” (372). The Cuban writer may be loosely perceived as originating alongside Latin American literary history in and of itself: writer and literature fathered by the event of Cuban revolution. “Postcolonial Latin America and the Magic Realist Imperative: A Report to an Academy,” in Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood, eds., Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation, 2005, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[27] Photograph by Manuel Alberto Ramy.

[28] Line 1 of “Werwolf, cuarto creciente” / “Werewolf, quarter moon rising.” In Algo de lo sagrado / Something of the Sacred.

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