June 8, 2013

Remembering Celia Sanchez: A Book Review

One Day In December:  Celia Sanchez And The Cuban Revolution
By Nancy Stout
Forward By Alice Walker

Reviewed By Juanita Rodriguez

The oppression of women worldwide has drastically limited the way we have learned history. Usually we have been left out of the story, as if half the population was not present, did not exist, did not contribute to the flow of events! The story of the Cuban Revolution has pretty much been the same. The world all knows of Fidel, Che, Frank Pais, and Camillo Cienfuegos. In ONE DAY IN DECEMBER, we finally learn of the key role that a woman, Celia Sanchez, played in launching the war, in winning the war, and in facilitating the new government in Cuba.

Celia was from a large family, the daughter of a doctor who after his wife’s death, preferred for his family to live alongside the mill workers rather than in a more prestigious neighborhood. After the untimely death of her young sweetheart, Celia devoted herself to personal growth, community charity work and following her own interests, at the same time she meticulously supported her Father.

This is a pattern that later served her well as she applied it to her relationship with Fidel. Remarkably, for a Cuban woman in the 1950’s, she knew how to work with and interact among powerful men at the same time she almost naturally assumed leadership. 

Her experience in running her Father’s medical office, personally greeting all of his patients over the years, and her interest in community and serving less advantaged people, prepared her for taking on the responsibility of developing support networks, military units, and undercover allies in her region when she turned her talent and energy towards the Revolution. Her love of the natural world and fishing gave her knowledge and awareness that contributed first to planning the landing of the Granma and later to the hiding and survival of large numbers of Rebel soldiers in the Sierra Maestra.

While small of stature with an even fragile appearance, she proved herself to be tough and resilient, capable of the physical hardship of living in the mountains and engaging in combat.  She seemed not only accepted by the men, commanders and generals with whom she worked, but was respected and relied upon. Her intellect was said to match Fidel’s and she became his official facilitator. People would go to her to get to him.

All of that alone is enough of a story! But what strikes me, fills me with female pride, is how true to herself she seemed to remain. She was very flexible, able to walk in many worlds. By planting flowers, collecting cuttings of coleus from women around the country who supported the Revolution and planting them in the Rebels hideout camps, she exuded who she was! Her love of Nature and beauty was thereby shared. The attention she had once given to the poor mill workers’ children, was turned to the individuals who had made huge personal sacrifices to serve in the Rebel Army. She attempted to make their lives better. She was usually the only woman in the camps, but the well being of the community at large seemed to always be on her mind. She was a fierce protector of Fidel, at the same time she would diplomatically challenge him when necessary. She was someone who given an idea made it come to fruition.

Too often women who have entered leadership roles in male dominated fields claim “progress” by moving horizontally and replacing the patterns and customs of men. Celia, on the other hand, seems to be an example of real progress, as she took on leadership by moving forward (vertically) in her own unique way. While organizing military units, doing rigorous and dangerous clandestine work in the countryside and strictly maintaining guerilla protocol, she also kept the comfort of others as one of her  priorities. New shoes for the soldiers who were marching long distances, canned milk for families with babies that were supporting them, extra blankets for the extremely cold nights and etc. This is just one example of how her thinking well for the whole group boosted morale and therefore the successes the Rebel forces experienced. I think it is fair to say she did not deny the positive aspects of her female gender conditioning, while almost simultaneously adopting tough, decisive action when it was called for.

There has always been much speculation about Celia’s relationship with Fidel. I like that Nancy Stout gives little importance to the details of their friendship although she does record that Fidel proposed marriage twice to Celia after they defeated Batista. She declined each time saying “(Celia) could see right through Fidel - and that’s not very romantic.” She may be right but I am thinking that by that time Celia was older and had recognized the importance of her independence. At any rate, they seemed to maintain their soulmate-closeness despite Fidel’s romantic affairs with other women.

Besides chronicling the extraordinary life of Celia Sanchez this book also gives an inside and suspenseful account of the staging of the Cuban Revolution by this disparate and mostly very young group of individuals. The chaos that accompanied the days after the January 8, 1959 entry into Havana, the 1962 trip to the UN when the Cuban delegation chose to stay in Harlem, the redistribution of property and (even today) the lingering divisions in all Cuban families between those who stayed in Cuba and those who left, those who supported the new government and those who did/do not. These topics are related with personal anecdotes that make them all come that much more alive in the reader’s imagination.

Alice Walker in her Foreword, finishes by saying how much she loved this book and in the end just wanted to turn to page one and start reading it all over again. I agree.

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