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Mambí Totems and Reconcentrado Taboos: Violence and the Unjust Dead in Cuban Literary and Visual Cultures


This study examines the representational strategies that Cubans have employed in order to come to terms with violence in their revolutionary history and the extents to which such strategies have worked in the service of alibi as opposed to critique. Accordingly, the study looks most closely at the discursive and visual portrayals of the mambí, guerrilla soldiers of Cuba’s wars for independence (1868-98) and, not incidentally, icons of Cuban identity and revolutionary ethos. Within or relative to these very portrayals and the same wartime history, however, stands the specter of the reconcentrado, victims to Spain’s “camps of reconcentration” and by far the largest and most tragic casualties of the wars. Drawing on rhetorical and contrapuntal reads of war literature and historiography, political cartoons, monuments, and revolutionary era cinema, I tease out the myths and iconography by which the mambí has come to bespeak racial fraternity, virility, cunning, martyrdom and liberation, whereas, by stark contrast, the reconcentrado bespeaks vulnerability, imperialism, anonymity and atrocity.

In this respect, four representational strategies stand out: the reconcentrado as (i) a campesina or señorita damsel in distress under the threat of rape by Spaniards and in need of a machete-endowed savoir; (ii) an emaciated, sickly mass of anonymous children with vacant gazes and no voice, carnal evidence of an atrocity that, presumably, speaks for itself yet clearly cites Holocaust iconography; (iii) interned mambisa or patriot who stoically bears her and her children’s agony; or (iv) as sheer absence, where only the mambises, their heroic machete charges, and the cry “¡Viva Cuba Libre!” are visible and audible. Whichever the case, the actual history of antagonistic and coercive acts within or by the Liberation Army and any collateral responsibility for the unjust dead are disavowed; in lieu of critique, thus, the reconcentrado is rendered an alibi for revolutionary violence, centralized power, and nationalist interpellations in which sacrifice for the Patria constitutes the “sublime.”

Closer scrutiny, however, reveals that the reconcentrado could signify otherwise. Given her agony, the paternalism with which she was dealt, and her labors against an unjust death, deaths for which patriotic consolations ring hollow, I argue the reconcentrado, as ethical figure and as historical fact, speaks on behalf of non-violence, democratic voice, and the summons to care for life at its most precarious. Such ethical hails have proven all the timelier in a “post-socialist” Cuba where mambí mythology and revolutionary identity have had to wrestle not only with transnational finance capital and consumerist culture but also the specters of (UMAP) labor camp confinados and Special Period balseros.

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