UCLA International Institute, September 22, 2022 — Jorge Marturano, chair of the Program on Caribbean Studies at the UCLA Latin American Institute, or LAI, is a literary and cultural scholar of Cuba. “As chair of the program, however, I want to be more than a Cubanist,” he says.
An associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean literatures and cultural studies in the department of Spanish and Portuguese, Maturano has been an active contributing member and organizer of interdisciplinary faculty working groups, seminars and conferences related to Cuba and the Caribbean since he joined the UCLA faculty in 2006. He previously served as acting chair of the Program on Caribbean Studies in 2017–18 before being appointed chair in 2020.
The program offers many events about the cultures, societies and politics of individual Caribbean nations. In addition, says Marturano, “One of the things I have tried to do in the last two years is to consider the Caribbean as broader than simply the insular Caribbean.
“So we have cosponsored events with LAI and its centers related to Venezuela and Colombia, including talks about Venezuelan immigration to Chile, Venezuelan artists in the diaspora in Latin American and the important Afro Colombian writer, Manuel Zapata Olivella (1920–2004).
“Last year we hosted a legal scholar, Marcos Queiroz, who spoke about the influence of the Haitian Revolution on the constitution of Brazil, as well as a talk by Afro Colombian artist Liliana Angulo Cortés. My plan is to keep doing this kind of work — talks and events that look at the greater Caribbean.”
The pull of Cuba and island culture
Marturano grew up in Argentina, but became fascinated by islands and the sea as a young reader of the travel adventure tales of Jules Verne and Robert Luis Stevenson.
“I was always drawn to islands as something very different from what I had known all my life, and also because they are a kind of community cut off from the rest of a nation,” he comments.
His specific interest in Cuban literature, which he studied in depth at Duke University under such professors as Gustavo Pérez Firmat, Ambrosio Fornet (1932–2022) and Sybille Fischer, is rooted in both Argentine literary tradition and family history.
“Growing up in Argentina, Cuban literature was very well known, although not so much Puerto Rican or Dominican literature,” he says.
“During the Cuban Republic [1902–1959], Cuba had important connections to literary journals in Argentina, such as Sur,* as well as to many intellectual circles,” he explains. “One of my favorite Cuban writers, Virgilio Piñero [1912–1979], lived in Argentina in the 1940s and 1950s for 10 or 12 years.”
Marturano’s family heritage also runs through Cuba. “It was very common that immigrants from Spain to Cuba ended up in Argentina,” he explains.
Two of his grandparents were such immigrants, having moved from Spain as teenagers in 1918 during the Spanish Flu pandemic. After meeting and marrying in Cuba, they lived there for 20 years before resettling in Argentina during the economically precarious interwar years.
Because his grandparents left siblings behind in Cuba, he says, “When I was a kid, I remember that we received letters from Cuba all the time — we had an epistolary connection.”
The UCLA professor, who publishes primarily in Spanish, is the author of two books on Cuban literature, as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters on Cuban and Caribbean literature and culture.
“Narrativas de encierro en la República cubana” (Editorial Verbum, 2017) explores the relationship between prison narratives and the literary imagination of enclosure in Cuban literature and culture during the Cuban Republic, and “Asedios a lo increado: Nuevas perspectivas sobre Lezama Lima” (Editorial Verbum, 2015; co-edited with Juan Pablo Lupi and Marta Hernández Salván) is a critical appraisal of the work of Cuban writer José Lezama Lima (1910–1976).
“Prison narratives are quite important in the cannon of Cuban literature,” says Marturano. “This dates to the nineteenth century (and the twentieth century before Castro), when prison narratives became central to Cuban literature.”
In fact, the tradition starts almost with the advent of Cuban literature: poet, writer and hero of the Cuban independence movement Jose Martí (1853–1895) wrote his first book about being imprisoned as a teenager.
Both the length and breadth of the tradition appeal to Marturano. Prison narratives grapple with social issues and were frequently written by people who ended up in prison because they had killed someone in a fight or in a crime of passion.
“This is something I like about this corpus of Cuban literature, that these books are not only about intellectuals or activists in prison for political reasons,” explains the scholar, pointing to such works as “Hombres sin mujeres” (Men without Women) by Carlos Montenegro (1900–1981), which dealt with appalling prison conditions and homosexuality among incarcerated men.
Celebrated Cuban author and intellectual Alejo Carpentier (1904–1980) also began his career with a prison narrative, “¡Écue-Yamba-Ó!,” that explored Afro Cuban culture.
Apart from carceral literature, says Marturano, “Cuban literature is quite diverse. You have some allegorical texts, but you also have performative texts — texts that work as a performance not of identity, but of the text itself.”
Here he cites “Tres Tristes Tigres” by Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929–2005) as “a kind of spectacularization of a literary text.” An early supporter of the Cuban Revolution, Cabrera Infante later broke with Castro and lived the rest of his life in exile in London. “Of course, he published the novel when he decided that he couldn’t come back to Cuba anymore,” comments Marturano.
Growing interest in Afro Caribbean literature and culture
The Caribbean as a whole has a shared experience of colonialism, slavery and the plantation system. Marturano points out, however, that slavery lasted longer in Cuba than elsewhere in the region (as was the case of Brazil in South America).
“People were enslaved and sent forcefully from Africa to Cuba until the late 19th century, so the African roots of Cuban culture are much more, I would say, present than in other cultures of the region,” he says.
“In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, there were still a lot of people alive in Cuba who had been slaves in the nineteenth century. African religious beliefs in Cuba are very much alive today and are an important part of its culture. You can see the impact of African culture everywhere — in costumes, religious practices, art, literature.”
Although Cuba’s African heritage was discounted by Castro and the Cuban Revolution (and has been grossly underestimated in Cuban censuses), the country has experienced a revival of African culture following the collapse of Cuban-Soviet ties in the 1990s. Marturano’s graduate seminars in recent years have consequently focused on Afro Cuban literature and culture.
“In Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil — really anywhere in Latin America — you have important African roots. But these roots have either been slowly incorporated into different national cultures or there was a complete erasure of the African past,” he explains.
“For example, in Argentina, there is a myth that all African Descendants were killed in the wars that consumed parts of the nineteenth century, but this is not true. What happened was a kind of cultural genocide where people stopped identifying as African Descendants.
“The same thing happened in the Dominican Republic because of [former dictator Rafael] Trujillo. In Mexico, there has recently been more interest in studying African Descendants, which you can see in the work of graduate students who have finished their Ph.D.s in the last 10 years.”
At present, Marturano is pursuing two avenues of research. One explores the role of remote prison island colonies (now transformed into tourist destinations), such as Coiba in Panama and Ushuaia in Argentina, in the development of modern nation states. The other explores the interaction between literature and visual culture, particularly photography, in modern Latin America.
Left: Prison at Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia. (Photo: Liam Quinn via Flickr, 2011; altered.)
CC BY-SA 2.0. Right: Vista from Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. (Photo: Chris via Flickr, 2009; cropped.) CC BY 2.0.
The professor describes penitentiary islands as “communities cut off from the rest of the nation: spaces that are not considered part of the nation, yet were instrumental in the foundation of the nation.
“They’re a kind of blind spot that the nation doesn’t see or doesn’t want people to see,” he explains.
“People in prison are cut off from freedom forever, but the prison as an institution is a kind of modern institution. And there is a certain parallel between literature as a modern institution and the prison as an institution.”
His work on the relationship between visual culture and Latin American literature considers how writers have engaged with photography in the region since its very beginnings.
“Photography has to do with a mimetic representation of reality,” he comments, noting that Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga (1878–1937), who had a long career in Argentina, and Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar (1914–1984), a member of the “Latin American [Literature] Boom” of the 1960s and 1970s, were both interested in the art form.
Quiroga, he explains, used photography as a plot device to reflect on death and the supernatural aspects of life, whereas Cortázar featured photographs (including his own) in his works.
Between organizing and chairing events for the Program on Caribbean Studies, conducting research, overseeing doctoral students and teaching, Marturano finds himself quite busy these days. Teaching, he says, offers great rewards.
“I love to teach — especially undergraduate students. You can feel the power behind them. They are very eager to learn and grateful to be at UCLA, so it’s a great experience. I feel every day that I can make a change, that I’m influencing young lives.”
* Published in Buenos Aires from 1931 through 1992.