Por la encendida calle antillana
Y cuando no soy yoruba,
soy congo, mandinga, carabal’.
Va Tembandumba de la Quimbamba,
Rumba, macumba, candombe,bámbula
—Luis Palés Matos
During the second decade of the twentieth century, a bold new sound was heard in the Caribbean, in Cuba and Puerto Rico. It was a new kind of poetry. It was a musical poetry, a
It borrowed the beat of the drums from the
in Puerto Rico and the
in Cuba. The poets used poetic devices such as onomotopoeia, repetition, rhythm, and rhyme to create a forceful, evocative, and at times playful language. They wrote in the language of the poeple, of the street; (1) they used African words; (2) they used musical, invented words. (3) The result was a lush sound, plaintive yet joyful. The poetry was sensual, rhythmic, and percussive. As you listened, you could hear the Yoruba drums or
you could feel the sadness and joy of a people, you could almost envision the Africa that your ancestors knew.
The poets who created this new kind of poetry called it
or black poetry. Critics have referred to it as
or African-antillean poetry. It was more than just a passing fad, a movement or a genre of poetry. It was part of the general acknowledgment in the Caribbean that the black race was central to everyone’s identity. That acknowledgment persists to the modern day. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, the message was best articulated by two great poets: Nicolás Guillén from Cuba and Luis Palés Matos from Puerto Rico. This unit explores their poetry, their song.
This unit is written for students in Spanish 4, Spanish 5, or Spanish for Spanish-speakers. Students should have reached a level of Spanish 4 in proficiency, have had some exposure to Spanish poetry and music, and be familiar with Cuban and/or Puerto Rican culture. The unit examines various elements of black poetry from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean:
la poes’a afroantillana,
poes’a mulata, poes’a negra,
These elements are: the African sound and cadence of the poems, the African language and references, the poetic devices such as repetition and onomatopoeia, and the African themes or
The African themes are: a nostalgia for Africa, the land of their ancestors ; the exotic beauty of the mulatto woman or
the suffering and oppresion of the black man; and an Antillean identity.
This poetry had as a central theme the black race. Rather than being Euro-centered or white, it turned to the black race and examined its concerns. It embraced the African sounds, African music, and African traditions of those people of African descent living in the Caribbean. It praised the epitome of female beauty, the
It acknowledged a new identity: an Antillean identity, an American identity. The movement was a bold one, and it included some French-speaking islands and some of the English-speaking islands. As Professor Sandra Ferdman-Comas said, it was as though the same poem were being written in different languages, in different islands.
Negritud and the Caribbean Movement
A word about the Caribbean movement. The word
, in Spanish, came from the French word,
, which was penned in 1934, by Aimé Cesaire, a poet from Martinique. (4) It referred to the literary and artistic movement in the French Caribbean which affirmed and celebrated the contributions of the black race. The term
is not used by Luis Palés Matos or Nicolás Guillén ; they use the words
poes’a negra or poes’a mulata
. however, theso two poets are part of the same movement which called itself
in the early phases and which was part of a larger movement. Jamaicans such as Claude McKay imported some elements of the black Caribbean perspective to the United States. Some Americans, such as Langston Hughes, visited Cuba and Latin America, and exported certain elements of the Harlem Renaissance to Nicolás Guillén in Cuba. In turn, Nicolás Guillén traveled extensively throughout Mexico, South America, and Europe. The black literature loosely defined as
was not limited to the Caribbean, but rather was in many ways connected to and part of the black movements in Harlem and Latin America.
Modifying this Unit: Spanish Classes/ Interdisciplinary
This unit includes a background section on the two poets profiled: Luis Palés Matos and Nicolás Guillén, references to selected poems, a teacher outline, student objectives, three lesson plans, and a bibliography. The music of Celia Cruz and
El Conjunto Africano Tacuafán
and Gloria Estefan are recommended as an extension of this unit. Students will not only read poems, they will listen to songs, identify musical instruments, and perhaps make some musical instruments. They will have an opportunity to identify certain poetic devices, write original metaphors, and compose original poems. If they are not well-informed on the history and geography of Puerto Rico and Cuba, they will study that as well.
My high school students in my Spanish classes are more than 90% African-American. They enjoy studying about their African heritage, whether in English class, History class, or Spanish class. As a Spanish teacher, it is my challenge to provide my students with authentic cultural and linguistic information. This unit includes music, which is selected according to the following criteria: it is authentic, it is readily available, and it is an example of or an adaptation of
poes’a afroantillana. La Danza Negra,
by Luis Palés Matos, is set to music by
El Conjunto Africano Tacuafán; Bemba Colorá,
sung by Celia Cruz, is a response to a Nicolás Guillén poem, called
This unit includes a very important theme for my students: the African presence in the Caribbean, as manifested by
Therefore, a Spanish teacher could introduce this unit as part of a unit on poetry, or a unit on Latin American poetry, or a unit on Caribbeann poetry. A different slant would be to introduce this unit as part of a larger unit of the African presence in the Caribbean, which would focus on Puerto Rico,Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, and would cover such topics as religion (
in Cuba, the
in Puerto Rico), and other themes. I propose using this unit in two ways: while studying the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico, whether in Spanish 4 or 5, and as a separate unit after we have studied Cuba and Puerto Rico. I have used parts of this unit during this year in my Spanish 4 and Spanish 4, Honors classes and have found the students respond enthusiastically to the poetry of Luis Palés Matos and Nicolás Guillén, and to the music of Celia Cruz.
This unit is part of a continuum of units that I have written about the Caribbean during the last three years at the Yale New Haven Teachers Institute. The 1995 unit, entitled
A Taste of the Caribbean,
explores the theme of food in the oral and written literature of the Caribbean. The 1996 unit, entitled
Voices of the Caribbean
, examines immigrant groups from the Caribbean, specifically Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, via literature by and about these immigrant groups. This is the first unit to cover poetry exclusively :
la poes’a afroantillana.
The three units have in common the literature and music amid some historical and geographical data from the Caribbean, mostly Puerto Rico and Cuba, and, to a lesser degree, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.
This unit lends itself to an interdisciplinary unit with an English class. The interdisciplinary unit would consist of studying and comparing the poems of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Derek Wolcott, and other members of the Harlem Renaissance, with the poems of Luis Palés Matos and Nicolás Guillén, of Puerto Rico and Cuba, respectively. Langston Hughes and Nicolás Guillén were not only contemporaries, they were acquaintances who shared a passion for writing poetry, a love of music, and a pride in their African heritage. A useful book for teachers and students,
that contains information about the Hughes-Guillén friendship is
The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume II: 1941-1967, I Dream A World
, by Arnold Rampersad.
Connections to the Harlem Renaissance
When Langston Hughes and Nicolás Guillén met in Cuba, they found they had much in common: Langston Hughes was inspired to write poetry by African-American music: the blues and jazz. Nicolás Guillén was transformed by this powerful author and started to use Afro-Cuban music, the
, as inspiration for his poems. Guillén’s poetry underwent a substantial and dramatic transformation as a result of meeting Langston Hughes, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance was a movement in the United States, most specifically in Harlem, from the 1920’s to the late 1930’s. Some critics state it began in 1918 with the publication of Claude McKay’s
and ended with Richard Wright’s publication in 1938 of
Uncle Tom’s Children.
The movement encompassed literature, music, and art. This movement captured the imagination of the world with its dynamic and multifaceted style, reminiscent of earlier literary renaissances. It was a period of great intellectual activity and of unprecedented black creativity. It was a flowering of the arts, an explosion of literary ideas and themes. Henry Rhodes, a distinguished Yale New Haven Teachers Institute Fellow, wrote in 1978:
The Harlem Renaissance was the first period in the history of the United States in which a group of black poets, authors, and essayists seized the opportunity to express themselves. . . . The Harlem Renaissance was not a renaissance in the literal sense of the word. . . . The Harlem Renaissance can be more accurately described as a period of vigorous activity and intellectual activity on the part of the Negro intellectual.
Poes’a Afroantillana: Beyond Luis Palés Matos and Nicolás Guillén
In the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, Luis Palés Matos (1898-1959, 1902-1989, Puerto Rico), and Nicolás Guillén ( 19021989,Cuba), are considered to be the most oustanding examples of
However, they are certainly not the only contributors of this poetry in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.Other notables include: Evaristo Rivera Chevremont (18981959, Puerto Rico), Manuel del Cabral (1907, Dominican Republic), Ramón Girao (19081949,Cuba), José Zacar’as Tallet (18931962, Cuba ), Emilio Ballagas (1908-1954,Cuba), and Nancy Morejón (1944, Cuba). Generally speaking, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela are the major contributors to this kind of poetry.
A more exhaustive study of
, beyond Luis Palés Matos and Nicolás Guillén, is beyond the scope of this unit. For those teachers who want a more extensive survey, I suggest reading
Iniciación a la poesia afro-americana
, by Oscar Fernández de la Vega and Alberto N. Pamies, and
Raza y color en la literatura antillana
, by G. R. Coulthard. Both are listed in the attached bibliography. Those teachers who want to read more about the black literature of Cuba should read Vera Kutzinski’s Sugar’s Secrets, also included in the bibliography. Chapters 5 and 6 of her book analyze the black poetry of Cuba, including Nicolás Guillén. Those teachers who want to read about the black prose in the Caribbean, should start by reading
Lo Afronegroide en el cuento puertorrique–o
, by Rafael Falcón.
Whether Spanish, French, or English, these poets of the Caribbean come from countries that shared certain characteristics: they have substantial populations of African origin; they have maintained their African legacy as manifested in music, speech patterns, rituals, and religion; and they have maintained a sense of pride in their identity as people of color whether
Whatever their racial reality, it includes people of African origin; it includes
Both Luis Palés Matos and Nicolás Guillén saw
or blackness as a positive theme, as an integral part of the Caribbean or Antillean identities. They interpreted this general theme in different ways. However, they both viewed their African roots as an integral part of Cuban and Puerto Rican national identities. They celebrated the African presence in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. This unit is written for my colleagues, so that they may celebrate the African presence in their classrooms.