A Song Sung By Celia Cruz Helped Me To Better Understand My Abuelo’s Exile From Cuba

credit: Cuban passport image belonging to writer's mother / Photograph provided by Alexandria Portée / Flower design by Canva.com

My mother was six when she fled to the United States from Cuba with my abuela and her two siblings. After reuniting with my abuelo who fought against Fidel Castro in the Bay of Pigs War, they moved to Chicago, where they built a life for themselves completely from scratch, still gripping tenderly onto the heritage and cultures that connected them to families and friends back at home. In their efforts to keep and sustain our family’s Cuban heritage, my abuelos and my mother taught me and my siblings to love and cherish the many different and beautiful contributions that their island country has given to the world: cuisine, cafecito, Bacardí, music, and José Marti.

Naturally, as any proud Cuban-American, I have benevolently held onto all of these as my own personal tokens from an island I have never visited or known since I was a child. I’m quick to boast about each of them like they were conjured up by mother’s hard work in the kitchen. Still, none have made me feel quite so intimately linked to my family’s first home like the beloved Cuban song “Guantanamera.”

Like my abuelos and my mother’s stories of Cuba, “Guantanamera” is a song that has grown and adapted through its journey. I have heard the story of my abuelos’ wedding day more than a hundred times; the tale of how my mother cried when kids at her school called my abuelo —a Bay of Pigs prisoner who singlehandedly saved hundreds of lives after being captured by Castro — a criminal; the account of my abuela wringing her hands as she debated enrolling her children in Operation Peter Pan and how she later boarded a cargo ship holding onto only her children and memories of her life to meet my abuelo in the United States. Each anecdote is the same but is always slightly altered in some way depending on the storyteller’s mood and time that I plead for their retelling. Some days they’re drawn out, told with prideful smiles, but often they’re said quickly with an ache to forget the portal of bittersweet memories my questions have sent them through. So similarly goes the many different versions of “Guantanamera.”

It is widely accepted that the original lyrics of the song, considered to be Cuba’s unofficial anthem, were romantic in nature, but over time, the song has been interpreted as a political ode. Brought from the rural regions of the island and to airwaves by Cuban radio host Joseíto Fernández in the 1920s, the song quickly caught on among fans. Fernández performed it regularly on his show and, in the tradition of most folk music, improvised and changed verses based on the week’s events. Some days he sang about politics, and other days he purred lyrics that harped about azucar and its rising costs. Still, the song’s opening lines and chorus, “Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera / Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera,” always remained the same.

Cuban composer Julián Orbón adapted the “official” lyrics to the song using verses from Cuban freedom fighter José Martí’s poetry collection “Versos Sencillos.” Orbón’s version, the one most commonly recorded by music artists, used Marti’s lines about a “sincere man” who was from “where the palm trees grow (Yo soy un hombre sincero/ De donde crece la palma).

This adaptation, combined with other lyrics from Martí’s poems that express compassion for Cuba’s poor, is ultimately what turned “Guantanamera” into the country’s most recognized patriotic anthem. In the U.S. and internationally, the song has been interpreted and adopted as a rally for peace (in 2004, for instance, the Swedish government flipped it into an offbeat rap song to promote recycling) and performed by a wide range of artists. In 1966, the Sandpipers did a version that became an international hit, and in the years that followed, singers like Jimmy Buffett, Pitbull and even the Fugees recorded their own editions. My personal favorite is the one sung by Cuban-born singer Celía Cruz on her album “Bravo” in 1967.

My Spanish has never quite allowed me to communicate with my abuelo in his native language fluently, but “Guantanamera” has let me do so.

Most conversations with my abuelo come with a melding of his so-so English and my mediocre Spanish. Together, we’re able to find a common ground that allows us to make each other laugh, exchange “te quiero mucho muchos” and grants me the ability to learn about the family and life he was forced to leave behind. In worse case scenarios, my abuela, a retired Spanish teacher, or my mother will intervene to translate. But when it comes to “Guantanamera,” abuelo and I have never needed assistance. Together, we’ve sung the song, our separately known variants, not always familiar with the lines each other sings but always well aware that in those moments they fill us with a deep love for each other and the versions of Cuba we both know.

Recently, during a visit with my abuelos, we sat together in their snug living room listening to Celía Cruz’s illustrious take of “Guantanamera” as her throaty voice sang over flute trills and drums. Old pictures of primos and tias looked down at us from the walls as we first listened carefully to the lyrics.

There’s no knowing what will prompt one of the Cubans in my family to break out into song. My most playful tía will chorus a line to tell stories; my brother does it at the dinner table even though he knows he’ll be told it’s rude, and my mother does it when she wants you to be in a better mood. Like them, my abuelos and I couldn’t help ourselves as Celía’s lively low-range voice started the chorus. Not against the charms of “Guantanamera.” Soon enough, abuela, abuelo and I were all singing the different Spanish versions of the song we hold dear.

Truthfully, if ever there was a moment that I thought I could burst from feeling so whole, it was sitting there in their living room, watching as the burden of my abuelo’s struggles of exile, always easy to decipher in his quietly distracted stares, seemed almost completely forgotten as he sang with pure delight.

“Guantanamera” is a song that has had a rhythmic presence in my life for as long as I can remember.

Like the smell of aftershave on my abuelo’s worn blue guayabera and the cheekiness of my abuela’s wily grin, I could make out that song anywhere, even despite the many versions it holds. Including the one I’ve heard my abuelo hum while brushing his teeth and the one my mother tries to keep in tune to while singing along to Cruz as she drives in the car. Like the different impressions of the song, Cuba is a country that has been strongly woven into our different narratives. Still, while my relationship and experience with Cuba will never tug on the strings of my heart with the same pang as it does on my abuelos or my mother, “Guantanamera” reminds me that the island is much more of a home than a foreign place that my family’s exile might try to make me believe.


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