Letters to Eloisa

Based on correspondence with his sister in exile, "Letters to Eloisa" recounts the life of Cuban literary great José Lezama Lima, author of a homoerotic novel, "Paradiso," and tells the story of his silencing by the Cuban revolutionary government.

AIRED: October 15, 2021 | 0:54:44




-"We wake up, and Mother tells me,

'I dreamt that it was raining when Eloy was leaving.

I walked her out under our old umbrella.'"


"'Then I called her on the telephone.

"Eloy, did you arrive okay?

Did you get too wet?"


-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-"I must say that Mother telling the story of that dream

in her enchanting simplicity saddened me all day."


-He was a giant of Latin American, even world literature.

-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-He was someone who really enjoyed talking to people.

Lezama was asthmatic,


gay, secretly gay.

-His novel "Paradiso" was an international sensation.

-"Paradiso" was Lezama's personal coming-out.

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-Politically, it was a bomb.

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-What has given him life, his entire existence,

ceases to exist.

-"Dear Eloy,

if there is no freedom, there is no image.

There is no poetry.

If there is no freedom, there can be no truth."



-In the opening chapters of his novel "Paradiso,"

José Lezama Lima recreated the history of his family,

through the lens of the Latin American baroque.


-"Doña Augusta had seen to it that the meal offered

would give the appearance of a special day,

without losing the simplicity of family."


"The exceptional quality was given by the lace tablecloth.

The white porcelain, especially burnished,

caught reflections of the faces

looking at their own evanescent images."

-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-The beginning is his asthma attack

that he interprets

as the vacuum that has to be filled by the poet,

because poetry is to fill the vacuum

that is left by the prosaic world.


-José Lezama Lima was born in 1910,

at a military encampment near the city of Havana.

He was only 9 when his father,

an officer in the Cuban army, died of the Spanish flu

while on military exercises in the United States.

-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-Rosa Lima found refuge at her mother's home,

Number Nine Paseo Del Prado,

Havana's most prestigious boulevard.


Nestled in the privilege of criollo aristocracy,

the asthmatic boy read profusely,

studied at the most elite schools.

Then, in 1929, the family fell on hard times.

-[ Speaking Spanish ]



[ Whistle blowing in distance ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-"Muerte de Narciso" was an amazing,

complicated first work.

I began to read Lezama against the grain.

I mean, I really didn't know what he meant,

but I was seduced by his writing.


-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-When you are writing a poem,

you can be the -- what I call the inspired poet.

And you write one, and you are inspired.

In another moment, you write another one.

But Lezama was not just like that.

Lezama was inspired, but also, he had a vision of the world.

He's like Borges in that sense.

They had an idea of the universe.

And his poetry was just one little section

that he continued to expand to express his world view.

As the revolt finds its final fury, American Warships

steam into Havana to protect our interests in Cuba.

-José Lezama Lima began writing poetry in the 1930s.

As a law student at the University of Havana,

he saw Cuba descend into violence and corruption.

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-Lezama Lima, who in the 1940s, was marginal,

was a dissident, was Catholic,

was gay, secretly gay,

was creating an ivory tower.

So, in that ivory tower,

Lezama and his group, Orígenes,

were becoming a kind of bastion

for the creation of a new, imagined Cuba.


-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-It was read in Madrid.

It was read in Buenos Aires.

It was read in Mexico.

And this made Lezama the person who actually determined

what was the measure of literature in Cuba.


-The people who come here love the songs of Carlos Puebla,

folk singer of Cuba.

-[ Singing "Y en Eso Llego Fidel" ]

-This is a song about Fidel,

about the bearded ones and the Revolution.

-[ Singing in Spanish ]


-The Revolution begins in January 1959,

and he, as so many other Cubans,

is very enthusiastic about that.

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-A New Year's Eve supper party is held

in honor of guests from different countries

and the young teachers

on the square in front of a freedom school.

-European intellectuals, people like Sartre, for example,

visits Cuba and becomes enamored of what he's seeing.

And what he's seeing is that

this is socialism with a human face.

It's not the Soviet Union.

It's something else, something new.

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-Where was the line between what's inside the Revolution

or against the Revolution? Nobody knew.

Fidel Castro himself never -- never said that.

So, these were deliberately vague words,

the words of a politician who wanted to simply alert people

that there's a new boss in town

and that you guys who have never had rules before

will now have to conform to whatever we decide.

[ Car horns honking ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

[ Man shouting in Spanish over loudspeaker ]

-iViva, viva, viva! -iViva, viva, viva!

[ Man shouting in Spanish over loudspeaker ]

-iViva, viva, viva! -iViva, viva, viva!



-"Dear Eloy,

very happy with the razor blades.

Each razor you sent lasts a week.

Four natural shaves and another three

sharpening it against the Greek vase."


"I received your package from Mexico --

typewriter ribbons, Yardley talcum powder,

but no suits."


-Shortly after his sister's departure in 1961,

Lezama Lima began to feel the scarcities

of life in Revolutionary Cuba.


He had always been a father figure to Eloisa.

He would come to depend on her for his survival.


-"Dear Eloy, there are no chickpeas,

no black or red beans,

no white beans, no tubers or fruits."


"An onion skin can be as rare as an Etruscan coin."


-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-"May 10, 1964.

Dear Eloy,

I write you on Mother's Day.

We have spent a very sad day.

Mother tries to hide her sadness,

and I also try to hide my state of mind.

But the truth is that we are both destroyed."


"September 1964.

My sisters, my nephews,

and all the family members united in grief.

We have lost a great family guide who suffered much

and passed away remembering all of you

whose absence was the last great pain in her life."

-After the death of Rosa Lima,

there's a sudden depression

that is perceivable in the letters,

where Lezama

is not only despondent

but is aware then that his life is going on

in a completely different direction.

-"I have married at a time in my life

when I drag a sadness I almost cannot bear.

Maria Luisa takes good care of me

and is very patient and loving."

-Lezama had lived a double life in homophobic Cuba.

At age 53, he married his secretary,

Maria Luisa Bautista.

-They had been friends for a long, long time.

The mother recommended that they get married, and they did.

And she basically was the pillar of his strength

during a very difficult period of his life.


-"Dear Eloy,

I have sent my novel, 'Paradiso,' to the printer.

The first volume is the exaltation of the family,

the birth of the eros, a learning into infinity."

-"Paradiso" is a manifesto of human consciousness at its core.

It's an extraordinary invitation

to think about being human in an erotic way.

-Hiding in "Paradiso's" 600 pages

were secrets Lezama Lima had kept for decades.

-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-[ Speaking Spanish ]



-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-[ Speaking Spanish ]

[ Indistinct conversations ]

-He created, in "Paradiso,"

a family mythology,

this kind of poetic idea

of his family as a symbol of Cuba.


And he thought that that family was, in a certain way,

kind of, I hate to say it, but aristocratic.

[ Chuckles ]

[ Indistinct conversations ]

-"She uncovered a terrine

in which a thick plantain soup was steaming."

"'I've tried to rejuvenate you all

and take you back to your early childhood.

I've thickened the soup with tapioca

and floated some popcorn on top.'"

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-"There are so many things we liked as children

that we never get to enjoy again."

-[ Speaking Spanish ]



[ Fan whirring ]

-"He saw a tiny room lit by a small bull's-eye.

A naked man was waiting.

His shoes and socks were still on."

"A mask made his face unrecognizable."

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-"Paradiso" was Lezama's personal coming-out.

I mean, this is the only way that he could come out,

in literature, in writing.


-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-The very moment that "Paradiso" comes out,

you know, UMAP camps are being set up, labor camps,

to rehabilitate specifically homosexuals

or those accused of being homosexuals.

-In that environment, the idea

that such a major writer publishes a novel

dedicating a whole chapter

to the most detailed

homosexual activity

was just impossible to accept,

because it was the opposite of the image

that the Revolution wanted to -- to present.


-I think that Lezama was very much conscious of his context.

He knew that homosexuals

were being put into concentration camps.

He knew that the State had certain prejudices.

And he also knew that what he was writing

was inevitably controversial.

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-Politically, it was a bomb.

Of course, they suspended the book

from all the bookstores.


[ Bell tolling ]

-"Dear Eloy,

Julio Cortázar paid us a visit

and made some favorable comments about my novel.

I am profoundly grateful to him,

for his essay opened the eyes of many who refused to see."

-While in Cuba the book was banned,

in Paris, the Argentinean novelist Julio Cortázar wrote,

"He has advanced to the forefront

of prominent Latin American writers,

along with Gabriel García Márquez."

-Julio Cortázar decides to write an essay

explaining the novel

and situating the whole homosexual controversy

in mythical and universal terms.

In other words, it's a real defense of Lezama and the novel.

And, you know, there are letters by Lezama to Eloisa

where he says that he's very grateful to Cortázar

for having done this,

because it was a way of saving his skin.


-There is a famous saying that when they gave it to Fidel,

Fidel read it and says, "This is so difficult

that, just put it anywhere,

because it's -- Nobody is going to understand it."


-"Dear Eloy,

today, I received a telegram from Stockholm, Sweden,

offering to publish my novel, 'Paradiso.'

Two British publishing houses, two from Italy,

Seuil and Gallimard in Paris,

and Seix and Barral in Barcelona

have begun to give my novel extraordinary resonance."

-He had acquired such an incredible prestige,

he began to be, himself -- not only his work,

he, his name -- to be this amazing representative

of a culture.

-"Dear Eloy, when could I have been able

to publish a novel of more than 600 pages?

Those are, in my opinion,

the great things that the Revolution has done."


-Some acknowledge the fact that the Revolution established

some institutions that contributed to culture.

But the notion of a culture that is led by the State,

that the State sort of becomes the sole patron of, right,

was something that -- that wasn't

within Lezama's idea of culture.


-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-Between 1965 and 1968,

intellectuals are in open combat with the revolutionary State.

Intellectuals believe they have the right to criticize.

They believe that they can influence the State

and that the State should respond to them.

And so one of the ways by which they assert themselves

is through publishing books. I mean, they're the ones

who are in charge of a number of presses.

They also can assert themselves by creating juries for prizes.

And once, you know, a book is prized,

then they get to decide, you know, that it's published.


[ Man shouting in Spanish over loudspeaker ]

-Tensions came to a head in 1968,

when Fidel Castro launched his revolutionary offensive.

From shoe shining to chess clubs,

the government took over all private undertakings.

Writers, too, would have to fall in step

with Castro's plan to build communism in Cuba.

-There was a major poetry competition in 1968

that included the participation of Heberto Padilla.

-Padilla was a well-regarded intellectual,

but his book, "Fuera del Juego,"

was critical of the Cuban Revolution.

-He had lived in the Soviet Union,

and he had seen firsthand

not just the present of the Soviet Union

but actually the future of Cuba.

In other words, Cuba was going in the direction

of what the Soviet Union had become

and which Padilla had seen.

Obviously, this was a shocker.

-The head of that prize committee is Lezama Lima,

of all people.

Now, Fidel did not appoint him

to be the head of that prize committee.

Writers appointed Lezama Lima

to be the head of the prize committee,

because they knew he had balls.

-And Lezama decided to award the prize

to this book that was so highly critical.


-The writer's union decides to publish the book

but with a preface from the writer's union

saying that they disavow any sort of solidarity with the poet

or with the jury that awarded the prize to Padilla's book.

-It condemns the book as subversive.

It says that the values that the book espouses

are counterrevolutionary.

And this manifesto

is supposed to be signed

by all the members of UNEAC

and, most importantly,

by all members of the prize committee.

And Lezama Lima refuses to sign.

He refuses to be complicit with this,

and he refuses to apologize.

[ Woman singing in Spanish ]



-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-Before the Revolution, he was marginalized.

With the Revolution came the possibility of being vindicated.

His complete poetry is published by the government.

He's being recognized.

The Cuban Revolution is being praised for the fact

that here is someone who is not a revolutionary

and yet is an important writer.


-[ Speaks Spanish ]



[ Speaking Spanish ]

-Three months after Lezama Lima's 60th birthday,

Padilla had been arrested

for reading his poetry in public.

-Padilla begins by thanking his interrogators.

He has spent weeks at that point in detainment.

He has been tortured.

But he has been offered the possibility of rehabilitation.

And so he has the chance of getting out,

but he has to confess.

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-Could Lezama have anticipated this?

Probably he suspected

that something like that was going to come up.

He was being accused of two things --

one, of being ungrateful,

and also that he was badmouthing

people in the Revolution.

So, this was -- this was serious.


-"Dear Eloy,

the picture cannot be more somber,

uncertain, and frightening.

I do not wish to sadden you, but I think that you, my sister,

should know about the anguished days

through which we have lived and that have not yet ended."


-[ Speaking Spanish ]

[ Crowd cheering ] -iViva Cuba!

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-Homosexuals and suspected homosexuals

were singled out as a danger to revolutionary morality,

including the author of "Paradiso's"

famously homoerotic chapter eight.


-The National Congress of Culture of 1971

states that homosexuals are a threat to Cuban identity,

that they embody a kind of biopolitical pathology

that must be stamped out,

and that they will not be allowed

to have contact with Cuban youth in any capacity.

[ Thunder rumbling ]

-"Dear Eloy, the last few weeks

have been the most tragic and devastating in all my life.

You must understand how much I have suffered.

I live in fear, overwhelmed by melancholy."

-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-[ Speaking Spanish ]

[ Pen scratching ]

-"Write me, Eloy.

I need your comfort and to feel you near."

-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-He is being surveilled and watched by all of his neighbors.

He is being shunned socially.

He is alone in a way that he has never been alone.

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-Whenever a quotation from a poem of Lezama's

was part of an essay,

the censor would come in

and would actually strike that reference,

and you would not be able to cite

or even mention the name of Lezama in writing.


-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-"Dear Eloy, I received a letter

informing me that Gregory Rabassa

has completed the translation of 'Paradiso'

and that the book will soon be ready for publication."

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-"Dear Eloy,

the years are falling on me.

I just turned 62 and still await the day

when I will see you again.

I am here alone with Maria Luisa,

surrounded by loneliness,

with only more loneliness on the horizon."


-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-"Dear Eloy,

the Mexican government invited me and Maria Luisa on a visit,

but we could not solve the problem of an exit visa.

The University of La Aurora in Cali, Colombia,

invited me to the Fourth Congress

of Hispanic American Narrative.

The tickets arrived in Havana,

but I was not granted an exit permit.

I received another invitation to speak at the Ateneo of Madrid.

I always accept, but the result is predictable."

-Obviously, someone high up determined

that it was better not to let this guy travel abroad

for fear that either he would badmouth the Revolution

or he would be a flight risk.


-"Dear Eloy, it brings me great joy

that the English edition of 'Paradiso' is going well.

Some of the reviews that

you sent me are well-written.

Others reveal confusion among

North American intellectuals.

They speak of García Márquez, which is all they know

and who has nothing to do with my work."

-Countries promote their own writers.

And such a writer is going to Italy or such a writer

is -- appears in a conference.

That was so constant during the boom,

except with Lezama, mm?

We didn't see him.


-"August 1974.

Dear Eloy,

I am at a moment in my life when I need to travel,

see a different landscape.

The resonance of my work abroad would allow me to do just that.

But the Ananke, the fatality is always there,

with its eye of a cyclops fixed upon me."


-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-"Dear Eloy,

I have to stay in my little house as long as God wills it.

I am bored and tired.

I write, sometimes, a little poem,

and that still keeps me on my toes."



-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-[ Speaking Spanish ]

-Lezama's death was noted in just a few lines on page 3

of Cuba's official newspaper,


-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-"Strawberry and Chocolate" is the

most watched movie

in the United States than any other Cuban movie.

-The image of Lezama

in "Strawberry and Chocolate"

is -- is surprising.

It's like a kind of --

a leader of the gay people in Cuba.

-"Fresa y Chocolate" is a movie

that, when it is made in 1993,

finally gave voice

to the very repressed and silenced history

of homophobia

and overt repression of homosexuality, of homosexuals,

and of any kind of gender diversity.

So it did tremendous things, because it opened the black box.

-[ Speaking Spanish ]



-[ Speaking Spanish ]



-I assumed that he would have published

probably four or five more books,

you know, from '65 forward

if none of these things had happened.

And not only would we have gotten Lezama's works,

we would have gotten a whole other generation

of works inspired by Lezama.

So there's sort of an infinite number of possibilities

that all get eliminated

because of what happened to Lezama.



-[ Speaking Spanish ]


-[ Speaking Spanish ]

[ Rooster crows ]

-"My dearest Eloy,

I am writing to you from the hotel Los Jardines

at the lookout point of the Valley of Viñales,

one of Cuba's most beautiful landscapes.

To sit in front of the valley

is to feel the weight of all the history of Cuba,

the one that never happened but remains a possibility,

ready to explode with a ray of light."







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