The African Presence in the Caribbean: An Analysis of African-Antillean poetry
I. The African presence in the history of Cuba and Puerto Rico: the people
el negro, la mulata, la mezcla
Luis Palés Matos:
La poes’a antillana en Puerto Rico
III. Nicolás Guillén:
La poes’a mulata en Cuba
and onomatopoeia in African-Antillean poetry:
jitanjáfora: Filaflama alabe cundre/ala olalúnea alifera/alveolea jitanjáfora/ liris salumba salifera
is defined as an invented word or nonsense word which is used for its musical effect.)
tuntún, tum-cutum, tum-cutum, ten con ten
. (Onomatopoeia is defined as the usage of words that imitate the sound of the word they describe).
V. Glossaries and vocabulary in African-Antillean poetry :
el vocablo africano bemba, bembé, bomba, botucos / Fernando Poo, Sensemayá, Tombuctú, Yoruba
VI. Musical instruments and music in African-Antillean poetry:
tambores, congas, gongos, timbales, y junjunes
Music and dance:
el baile, la bomba, la danza negra, el guaguancó, el son
Celia Cruz: Quimbara and Bemba Colorá
Gloria Estefan: Mi Tierra
Tacuafán: Caribe Negro
I. The African presence in the history of Cuba and Puerto Rico: the people
Due to the large influx of Puerto Ricans into New Haven and other areas of Connecticut, we have many Puerto Rican students in the New Haven School system. As a result, my students in my Spanish classes may include a small number of Puerto Rican students. These students are resources in the teaching of this unit. Their knowledge of the history of Puerto Rico and of the race issues in Puerto Rico could prove useful in classroom discussions. With that note, let me add that stereotypes abound as to the race or races of Puerto Ricans. The same may be said about the Cubans, since they are fewer in number in the New Haven area. One of the goals of this unit is to encourage frank and open discussions about racial issues, whether discussing Puerto Ricans, Cubans, or African-Americans from Jamaica, St. Croix, or other regions of this country.
Historically speaking, the Cuban and Puerto Rican people are a mixture or
of three races: white (European), indigenous (Ta’no and Ciboney) and black. (African). The Spanish textbook
includes a section of history entitled
Del pasado al presente
for both units of Cuba and Puerto Rico. These sections are a first step for acquiring information.
also has an excellent first chapter which discusses the Hispanic as being of three races:
Las tres hispanidades.
The accompanying video is an appropriate way to introduce this theme in the classroom and to initiate discussion on what it means to be Hispanic or Latino. The Latinos are a combination of races. In the Caribbean, the Cubans and Puerto Ricans are Caucasian and African, with some Ta’no blood. A brief study of the history of these two islands shows that the indigenous population was wiped out by the cruel treatment of the Spanish as well as disease and forced labor or slavery by the Spanish. A Puerto Rican could be light-skinned with blue eyes or dark-skinned with dark eyes. The same holds true for Cubans. From the point of view of my students, they are sometimes surprised that a dark-skinned person is in fact Cuban (Nicolás Guillén) or Puerto Rican (Roberto Alomar) or Dominican (Michael Jordan look-alike, Felipe López.)
El que no tiene dinga, tiene mandinga
What does this mean? It means that the Cuban and Puerto Rican cultures embrace different colors and different races. One of these races is black, or African. In Puerto Rico, a common expression is “
Si no tiene dinga, tiene mandinga.”
This means a person from Puerto Rico probably has African blood: mandingo. In Cuba, the same sentiment is expressed thus:
“Si no tiene negro, tiene carabal’.”
Translated, a person from Cuba either has black blood or carabali , which is black blood. In other words, the Cuban and the Puerto Rican identity is not a white one; it is a black one, or at times, a white and black one. It is a mulatto identity. As Luis Palés Matos wrote in his poems, the islands are mulatto:
The African roots are acknowledged as being part of the Cuban and Puerto Rican identity. This is the reality and context within which the literature needs to be examined.
The literature reflects the ethnic reality and diversity of these islands. The poetry discussed in these units, black poetry of the 1920’s and 1930’s, was not the first time this black identity was articulated, but it certainly was the most dramatic and forceful. Since then, poets have been influenced by Guillén and Palés Matos and their contemporaries. In Puerto Rico, the author and poet Iván Silén was influenced by Luis Palés Matos;Julia de Burgos and Luis Lloréns Torres are some outstanding examples of Puerto Rican poets who were influenced by the the poetry of Guillén and Palés Matos. For a more extensive discussion of the black theme in the literature of Puerto Rico, Rafael Falcón’s book, listed in the bibliography, is an excellent resource.
It is, therefore, not surprising that these islands developed a kind of poetry which celebrated the blackness within these islands. This poetry has alternately been called
poes’a negra, poes’a negroide, poes’a mulata, poes’a antillana,
What defines it is the African references, the African sound or music embedded in it, and the African themes
of the anguish, strength and vitality of the black race. The two poets who are usually mentioned as the most oustanding examples of this poetry are Nicolás Guillén and Luis Palés Matos. (5) No discussion of
would be academically complete without these two giants. They developed this poetry as a reaction to prior poetry which was silent as to the contributions of the African race to the Cuban and Puerto Rican cultures.
Luis Palés Matos: poes’a antillana en Puerto Rico
Luis Palés Matos was a Puerto Rican poet who wrote what he called
and what others refer to as
Angel Valbuena Prat, who edited one of Palés Matos’editions of
Tuntún de pasa y grifer’a
, describes the
in Palés Matos poetry. He states that although Palés Matos was initially influenced by the
generación de 98
and the poetry of Antonio Machado, he developed his own style when he wrote black poetry: “. . .
.hasta encontrar en los motivos negroides su verdadero camino
”. (6) One critic describes the complex nature of Palés Matos’poems : Palés Matos at times celebrates the ancestral african heritage in its purest stage: the
the rites, the temperament. At other times, he extols the
, the mixture of African and European and part of the Puerto Rican identity.At other times, he defines the Puerto Rican identity as an Antillean identity,
una identidad antillana
Critics have pointed out that Palés Matos is not the spokesperson or
for a black identity; rather he views the black race as an element within the Antillean identity, as other than European or American:
Palés no es el portavoz del sector racial negro en la sociedad puertorrique–a; el poeta no habla del negro sino de lo negro como elemento clave en la identidad cultural antillana y diferenciador de las culturas dominantes europea y norteamericana. (7)
In Palés Matos own words,
yo no he hablado de una poes’a negra ni blanca ni mulata; yo solo he hablado de una poes’a antillana que exprese nuestra realidad de pueblo en el sentido cultural de este vocablo. (8)
Chronologically speaking, Palés Matos predates the French Caribbean authors of the
movement, and predates, with his earlier poems, the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén. His poetry is consistent in its defiantly racial tone, with the spirit of
was a phrase invented by a poet from Martinique, Aimé Césaire, and first used in a magazine,
, in 1934. It was a bold challenge to the dominant view that black was a negative or shameful quality. Rather than using euphemisms to describe a black person’s coloring, Césaire insisted on the word
As critics have pointed out, to use the word
or its Spanish equivalent,
, was to challenge the racist ways, the euphemisms and of denials.
when used by Spanish-speaking authors, was used as a
Although the first publication of
Tuntún de pasa y grifer’a
discussion, Palés Matos definitely falls within the same spirit as Césaire and his followers. The tone, the themes, and the title itself of this book are consistent with the literary ideology implicit in the
movement of later years.
Palés Matos’ counterpart in Cuba was Ncolás Guillén in the sense that these two luminaries shaped and defined what we now know as African-Antillean poetry. What they had in common was the black theme or
la temática negra.
This encompassed the following : African references, African sounds and music, black themes of anguish, joy, suffering and endurance, beauty and strength. The
is the ultimate in African feminine beauty; the Caribbean islands are described with warmth and love and richness of details. Poetic devices they both used include certain rhyme schemes, repetitions and chants,onomotopoeia, and the ubiquituous
However, as to a direct connection between Palés Matos and Nicolás Guillén, most critics deny a personal or ideological connection between these two giants. Not only are they from two different countries, they write from different perspectives and developed different visions of the
within the broad parameters of
III. Nicolás Guillén
: La poes’a mulata en Cuba
Nicolás Guillén was a Cuban poet who best exemplified
His poetry is concerned with a realistic depiction of the black man, the black Cuban, and his day to day reality, as well as the suffering, beliefs, and dreams of the black man. He faithfully reproduced the speech patterns of the Cuban man of the street, referred to as the
In poems such as
he successfully transcribed Spanish words as they are spoken in Cuba (and other parts of the Caribbean). Examples of these words are
Also, Guillén’s poetry is replete with African references: gods (Sensemayá), religion(Yoruba, mayombé), rituals (on killing a snake), chants, and African words. He uses repetition of words or phrases to create a sustained rhythm. (Mayombe-bombe-mayombé. . . Sensemayá ). Other poets attempted some or all of these techniques; Guillén refined them and raised them to new heights. Thus, he became synonymous with the kind of poetry called
Nicolás Guillén: a brief biographical sketch
Nicolás Guillén was born in 1902 in Camagüey, Cuba, and is often referred to as
el poeta camagüeyano. (10)
His father is active politically and is the publisher for a local newspaper,
Las Dos Repúblicas.
Guillén shows literary promise at an early age, when he wrote his first poem at age 14. A year later, his father dies violently, murdered by government soldiers. This event is a harbinger for future events, since Guillén became in his adult years a political activist as well as a famous writer, and was an enthusiastic member of the Communist Party in Cuba, under the leadership of Fidel Castro. An excellent and precocious student, Guillén finishes his
in two years, at the age of 17. He studies law at
La Escuela de Derecho
in Havana, but abandons that career after one year of law school. In one of his poems, he refers to his unhappy law school days, by stating “
muero estudiando leyes para vivir la vida.”
He publishes poems and writes for literary magazines and newspapers, with a hiatus of writing poetry, which lasted from 1922 to 1927.
In 1930 he publishes his first book of poems,
Motivos de Son
. The following year, he publishes
Sóngoro Cosongo: Poemas mulatos,
and four years later,
West Indies, Ltd.
In 1937 he travels to Mexico, Canada, and Spain. He arrives in Spain in the midst of the Spanish Civil War and joins the Communist Party. From 1945 to 1948 he travels extensively throughout Latin America: Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. In the next couple of years he travels to the United States, France, and the Soviet Union, in various capacities, such as a delegate for peace or a delegate for a cultural organization. From 1953 to 1958 he is a veritable exile from his homeland, participating in cultural and literary activities in such countries as Chile, Chekoslovakia, Finland, Hungary, and India. In 1958 he published another book of poems:
La paloma de vuelo popular
. The Cuban Revolution brings him back to Cuba in 1959, to participate in the new direction of his country.
He holds various high positions in the Cuban government and represents his country at international events. In 1971 he publishes
La rueda dentada, El Diario
which is a compilation of all his works. From 1961 until 1989, Guillén is president of the Writers’and Artists’ Union in Havana
Nicolás Guillén: his works
Guillén’s poetry went through several stages. His earlier poems were described as modernist. Modernism in Latin America was a literary movement, chiefly characterized by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dar’o. More importantly, through Modernism, Latin American writers identied themselves as Latin Americans, as a unified voice. Modernism ended with the Mexican Revolution and World War I. Guillén soon abandoned his early Modernist poetry for an African-American sound, which used African words and speech patterns, and which borrowed from the Cuban musical form, the
Examples of this are
Motivos de Son,
His last stage of poems was more overtly political within the context of Cuba’s Marxist regime.
in African-Antillean poetry
The poetry of Luis Palés Matos and Nicolás Guillén is characterized by two poetic devices: the
Students are probably familiar with onomotopoeias but are less familiar with
Onomotopoeia is the imitation of the sound of an object by sounds in the poem itself. For example,
echoes the sound of drums. In fact, the drum sounds are a common device found in this kind of poetry. See the following lines by Luis Palés Matos:
Los negros bailan, bailan,
ante la fogata encendida.
ante la fogata encendida.
Al ritmo de los tambores
y otra mitad africana.
ten con ten
una mitad espa–ola
Even the title of his book,
Tuntún de pasa y grifer’a
, includes an example of the drum sound:
That richly ambiguous word has several meanings in Spanish:
is also the sound of a knock on a door, a beat of a drum, the bootshine or
on a shoe, and continuity in the sense of blah-blah or etcetera: all of which are hinted at in the title of his book. When I read this title aloud I accompany the reading with the beat of drums, for a dramatic effect and to show the inherent musicality of these lines. Drums are highly recommended for any reading of these poems.
Guillén also provides many examples of the drum sound:
que el negro
Una rosa y un clavel!
Students should listen to many examples within a poem, then identify them as examples of onomotopoeia, and finally, be able to write original examples within their own poems. Students should also we aware that some of the above examples are more than mere onomotopoeias; some of the words are in fact invented words. Which brings us to
: invented words used for their musical or rhythmic effect. The title of one of Guillén’s books is
two words with no meaning in any language, but invented by the author for a desired sound, evocative of Africa and its drums.
Jitanjáforas were invented by a Cuban poet not within the movement of poes’a antillana: Mariano Brull. He playfully wrote these lines and used the term
for the first time: (11)
Filaflama alba cundra
liris salumba salifera.
ala olalúnea alifera
have been defined as words that have no meaning but nevertheless contribute a certain African flavor. They have also been defined as: “
vocables que no tienen sentido por s’ mismos pero que son usados para dar musicalidad a un poema, ”
(12) or, as words that have no meaning by themselves but are used to give a musical sound to a poem.
After students have studied several poems and identified examples of onomotopoeia and
, they are ready to write their own examples. First, they should start with phrases, such as the sound of a drum or the sound of a maraca. Then, they should write a short poem. For
, they should start with a word that exists, that has meaning, and then make it into a nonsense word. For example, they can research African names and places or take African words from the poems they have studied, and then convert these words into words that do not impart meaning, but have a musical sound to them. The final step is to incoporate both of these poetic devices into an original poem, and read them to the class, accompanied by a musical instrument.
V. Glossaries and vocabulary in African-Antillean poetry
As stated in the introductory part of this unit, the poetry of Luis Palés Matos is usually accompanied by glossaries to explain the African words and references. The same is true of the poetry of Nicolás Guillén. If no glossary accompanies the poems, the footnotes explain the meaning of the African words. Sometimes the words are of African cultural groups, such as
, from Nigeria; or of African deities, such as
an African goddess often represented by a serpent ; or of African queens, such as
. Sometimes the words are of African places, whether real or legendary or imaginary, such as
( an imaginary place in Africa),
(an African region ), or
(an African desert). The African words for chief are used:
Alimam’, Botuco, Cocoroco, Mongo
What the teacher needs to tell the students is that, even though these words may have a specific meaning, the poets often use them for a different purpose: to create an African sound:
Por la encendida calle antillana
-Rumba, macamba, candombe, bámbula.-
Va Tembandumba de la Quimbamba
The words in bold print are African or of African origin:
is a dance in the Caribbean of African origin,
is an African religion,
is an African dance or party, and
is an African dance. However, Luis Palés Matos does not use these words for their literal meaning. Rather, he strings them together for their African sound, for their beat and cadence. These words are repeated several times in the poem, to describe
a beautiful African woman.
Also, they are used for their musicality. (
Nicolás Guillén writes:
is a Yoruba religious sect,
is used by the poet for its musical effect. The same device is used by Luis Palés Matos in the following lines:
Calabó y bambú,
La gran Cocoroca dice: to-co-tó.
Bambú y calabó.
El gran Cocoroco dice : tu-cu-tú,
is an African wood, as explained in the glossary.
is Spanish for bamboo, a plant that we are familiar with, which was often used by the Africans for building. The poem, however, has nothing to do with the wood or plant; these words are not used to convey their usual meaning. They are used for their sound, to create a beat, an African beat.
Students need to identify the words in the poems they study that are African, or African-sounding. They should try and figure out their meanings and then check their results with a glossary. Finally, they should include African words, whether to convey a meaning or to convey a sound, in the original poems that they write.
If the students are interested in a research project, this unit lends itself to research on African countries, especially those which are mentioned frequently in Cuban and Puerto Rican poetry. Nicolás Guillén is very specific in the cultural groups that he mentions: the Yoruba, Congo, Mandingo, and Carabali. The students could study these groups and their presence in Cuba.
I have found my students were very interested in studying the Yoruba after reading the poem by Nicolás Guillén: Son Número 6, which begins with
I am Yoruba,
I am singing as I go,
I am crying as I go.
Yoruba research: field trips, drums, and Yoruba masks:
I have included in my classroom information about the Yoruba, which may be presented either before or after the poem: the Yoruba talking drums as a musical presentation, the Yoruba customs and religions, the Yoruba masks. My students enjoyed going to the Yale Art Gallery for a special tour by Mary Kordak on the exhibit of African masks. This presentation included several examples of the Yoruba masks. My students also enjoyed making their own Yoruba masks, using Yoruba stencils and symbols.
VI. Musical instruments and music in African-Antillean poetry
Music is an important part of this unit because music was an important part of this kind of poetry. Both poets used a poetic rhythm which ends with an accented beat. In Spanish, this is called
For example, if a word ends in a stressed or accented syllable, it is
Some examples are: tuntún, calabú, bambú, mayombé. They used this rhythm because of its musical effect; it sounds like the second beat on a drum . It also sounds like the music that inspired Nicolás Guillén: the
was a Cuban sound or music that was popular in the 1920’s and which later evolved into a
sound. It was heard in dancehalls and in the street. It was associated with an African or black sound. It often included repetition, chants, and responses.
Gloria Estefan does a beautiful rendition of a Cuban
in her album,
Students should listen to her album to hear this sound. Celia Cruz also interprets the Cuban
in her album,
Gloria Estefan is a romantic and lively sound; Celia Cruz is earthier and livelier. Gloria Estefan’s album comes with a useful bilingual script, which I have shared with my students. The music may be heard either before or after the poems; I prefer to start the unit with the music, then have the students read the poems, then listen to the music again.
If a teacher does not have these albums, a simple double drum or
will be very effective. The teacher could read the poem and play the drums as acompaniment. Or, a guest musician could play the drums. A very useful resource in the Puerto Rican New Haven community is Centro San José. The director, Peter Noble, is helpful and informative. Centro San José has samples of a tape of black Caribbean music by a group called
They play a beautiful rendition of Luis Palés Matos’ poem,
This is an example of some of the resources that exist in the New Haven area.
The following sections include sample lesson plans and a bibliography. The sample lesson plans are for Spanish classes but may be easily adapted for English and History classes, for team teaching and for interdiciplinary uses, with Music and Art classes. Parts of this unit have already been used in my Spanish 4 and Spanish 4 Honors classes at James Hillhouse High School and in my Spanish for Spanish Speakers classes at Polly T. McCabe Center. Also, I team-taught part of this unit with Peter Herndon, a History teacher from the Cooperative Arts Magnet School. We taught this unit in the Yale Summer Academy. The students were from a cross-section of high schools in the New Haven School System and included African-American, Mexican, and Puerto Rican students. We cut across the different disciplines : English Language Art, Spanish Foreign Language, History of the United States, World History, Music, and Art. We read poems in English and Spanish, went to several art galleries for authentic examples of African and Caribbean art, listened to Yoruba music,
, jazz, and the blues, and made Yoruba masks. Those teachers interested in more detail on the Summer Academy Program may contact the Institute, Peter Herndon or myself, Elsa Calderón. My point is that this unit lends itself to many uses and is easily adapted to interdisciplinary uses.
Students will discuss the themes of African-Antillean poetry.
Students will compare and contrast two poems.
Students will write creatively.
Students will identify and define African words and references.
Resources: Three poems by Nicolás Guillén:
Son Número 6/ El Apellido/ Balada de dos Abuelos
Activities for Son Número 6:
A. Students will read
Son Número 6
silently, then aloud.
B. Students will discuss what
means and discuss other forms of Cuban music:
rumba, guaguancó, salsa,
C. Students will answer the following questions:
Yo soy Yoruba?
1. Who is the poet referring to with the first line,
2. Who are the Yoruba, and what is their presence in Cuba?
3. How does the poem describe the Yoruba? (
4. Write an original poem in Spanish, beginning with Yo soy _________.
Read it to the class, critique it, and rewrite it. Choose a musical accompaniment, whether it be drums, maracas, sticks, hand-clapping, etc.
Activities for El Apellido and Balada de Mis Dos Abuelos:
A. Students will listen as the teacher or guest speaker reads
B. What are the different names in the poem that Nicolás Guillén gives to himself? Why does he do this? Students will make a list of the names.
C. Ask the students to answer the following questions:
, or Last Name?
1. Why is the poem called
? If yes, share it with the class. If no, how do you feel about this?
2. Do you know your African
un árbol genealógico
3. Write in your journal, in Spanish, about your name and what it means. Make a family tree:
D. After reading and discussing El Apellido and writing about their family name, students should read and compare:
La Balada de los Dos Abuelos.
E. Students should discuss the following questions:
1. Who are the two grandparents?
2. Describe the two grandparents or
3. Describe your grandparents, in a one-page
Enrichment: Research the Yoruba on the Internet; make Yoruba masks; make Yoruba drums; go to the Yale Art Gallery and view Yoruba masks and art.