When I travelled to Havana for the first time, in 1997, I visited a home whose entrance was adorned with two black and white photos. I recognized Che Guevara. But I had no idea who the woman in the second photograph could be.
“Who is Celia Sánchez?” I asked.
“Who is Celia Sánchez?” a friend recently asked when I told her about a biography I was reading.
“But who is Celia Sánchez?” President John F. Kennedy was said to have asked when her name surfaced in a CIA report.
Today, forty years after her state funeral drew thousands of Cuban mourners, Celia Sánchez remains the least-known personality in the Revolution’s pantheon.
Near the end of her new biography on the Cuban leader, Celia Sánchez Manduley: The Life and Legacy of a Cuban Revolutionary, Tiffany A. Sippial recounts an overheard conversation between two young tourists at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. Standing in front of a set of Sánchez’s old military fatigues, one tourist asks the other, “Who is Celia Sánchez? I have never even heard of her.”
Who was Celia Sánchez and why isn’t she more well-known? The way she chose to live and describe her life suggests her anonymity was in part self-created. “My uninteresting life has consisted of silly things not worthy of writing down,” she wrote on March 1, 1958 in a personal diary that Sippial was allowed to see.
By that point, Celia’s “uninteresting life” had included coordinating Fidel Castro’s return from exile in 1956 and building the clandestine network that would support him and his rebel army in their attempts to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. She’d stolen nautical charts, built alliances with the peasants, collected cash, and passed secret messages.
But years later, when her actions had propelled her to the top of Cuba’s leadership, she continued to shun public recognition. When a reporter started sniffing around for her “biography” in the early days of the revolution, Celia sent a letter to her sister Acacia warning her and the rest of the family to ignore him.
“Make sure that nobody gives him even one fact about me,” she wrote in the letter. “You know that I hate that and that I can’t tolerate it. I am so uncomfortable every time I see my name in print.”
After the Revolution, Celia continued to cultivate a modest persona while overseeing a staggering number of projects, including an official archive of the revolution, and the construction of Parque Lenin and the famous Coppelia ice cream park in Havana.
Sippial’s biography, based on hundreds of interviews, suggests that in the end, Celia’s reticence might have been her greatest achievement, the performance that made everything else she accomplished possible.
“Her presence within the world of Cuban politics gave little cause for alarm, as she did not frame her activities in ways that looked like power seeking to her comrades.”
If Celia did indeed cultivate discretion as a survival tactic, she found a society more than willing to go along with her vanishing act. An early organizer, and the first woman to fire a weapon in the Cuban Revolution, Celia earned her right to ride in the Jeep that carried the triumphant Fidel Castro and his barbudos into Havana in January 1959. But The New York Times cropped her out of their photo.
Sánchez’s invisibility not only persisted after her death in 1980, it acquired an almost comic quality: She made it onto the twenty-peso note, but as a watermark. An editorial in state media praised her as “the invisible salt in the immense sea of the Revolution.” And Celia was primarily eulogized not as a courageous fighter, but as Cuba’s “most native wildflower.”
Born into a prosperous middle-class family headed by her physician father, Celia Sánchez rose to become one of the most important actors in Cuba’s Revolution while internalizing and sometimes exploiting the usual brakes society placed on women. Again and again, she turned gendered expectations to her advantage. One time, she evaded capture by pretending to be a domestic on her way to work. Another time, by sticking a cushion under her blouse and feigning pregnancy.
She could be as sharp and ruthless as any guerilla leader, as Nancy Stout reported in an earlier 2012 biography, One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution. When Celia’s cover was blown by a young employee in a safe-house, Celia wasted no time in compromising the woman and her boyfriend—who had professed their loyalty to the cause—by asking them to plant a bomb, thereby ensuring their silence.
She carried an M-1 rifle and used it just a month after joining the rebels in the battle of Uvero in May 1957. “She didn’t look nervous. She looked very natural,” was the somewhat patronizing assessment of Eloy Rodriguez, who was traveling in Raul Castro’s platoon. But specifics about Celia’s combat role remain scant. “My sources tell me Celia fought well, but they provided no specific details,” writes Stout.
Likewise, Sippial’s biography is light on Celia’s combat experience. In part this may reflect Celia’s own ambivalence towards violence (as her letters home suggest). But it could also be because many men seemed more comfortable highlighting her supporting role.
In 1958, when Fidel, setting aside his acknowledged machismo, proposed an all woman’s combat unit, his men nearly revolted: Weapons were in short supply and, the men argued, the few guns they did have should go first to them. The women ultimately prevailed, writes Stout. “Most had carried out extremely dangerous actions, more so than most of the men present.” The unit, named after Independence hero Mariana Grajales, consisted of just 14 women, but Sippial writes that they took part in “at least ten encounters” with Batista’s army.
The women’s bravery was lauded by at least one commander, though his comments seem more motivated by sycophancy than admiration: “I congratulate you once again because you are never wrong,” the commander wrote to Fidel. “I wish you could see… the women comrades who, when ordered to advance, and while some of the men lagged behind, were out in front with a degree of courage and cool headedness worthy of the respect and recognition of all the rebels and everybody else.”
In contrast, Isabela Rielo, who commanded the brigade, complained that the “Marianas” as they were called “continued to perform more traditional tasks such as cooking and sewing in the rebel camps.” A photo of Celia in the May 19, 1959 issue of Diario de la Marina shows her cooking over a wood-burning stove.
Though Haydee Santamaria, then one of the movement’s leaders, and Vilma Espin would also rise to leadership roles after the revolution, the male high command seemed to have continued to regard the women who fought and organized alongside them with barely concealed paternalism. In Guerilla Warfare, Guevara conceded that, in general, women can play an important part in the “revolutionary process” and “can perform every combat task that a man can.” But he added that female combatants are a minority, and that in the “Cuban struggle” women often performed a relief role. “A female cook can greatly improve the diet,” he wrote, “and, moreover, is easier to assign to these domestic tasks.”
Cooking, teaching literacy, nursing the wounded: these were the sorts of roles that Guevara believed women excelled in, being heirs to an “infinitely superior gentleness” than that of men.
Consciously or not, Che was echoing the words of José Martí, who in an earlier revolution had declared: “The struggles waged by nations are weak only when they lack support in the hearts of their women. But when women are moved and lend help, when women, who are by nature calm and controlled, give encouragement and applause, when virtuous and knowledgeable women grace the endeavor with their sweet love, then it is invincible.” To Martí and the later revolutionaries who molded themselves in his image, women were “purified creatures” who men “receive in our arms.”
Celia’s clandestine life was marked by the tension between the gun-toting warrior she was and the sweet servant men expected her to be. Her competing ambitions sometimes played out in scenes of poignant incongruity.
Months before carrying her M-1 into battle, the war found Celia playing host to visiting New York Times reporter Herbert Mathews, who had travelled to the Sierra Maestra to interview Fidel Castro. As the men discussed war, Celia circled around them, serving tomato juice and ham and cheese crackers.
“She is and always will be the Revolution’s most authentic wildflower…”
-Armando Hart Dávalos
Who is Celia Sánchez? Who is Gertrudis de Avellaneda? Who is Mariana Grajales? Who is Carlota? My Cuban-American childhood was as bereft of female Cuban heroes as it was of female villains. History was a female-free zone, organized along the Judeo-Christian binary: José Martí’s domain above and Fidel Castro’s down below.
Castro’s outsize fame engulfed a generation. “History will absolve me,” he famously declared. Whether you agree or not depends on which Fidel you choose to believe. The crusader for social justice who created literacy brigades and an all-woman combat unit? Or the megalomaniac who gave five-hour speeches, cracked down on homosexuality and free speech and openly embraced his deeply ingrained machismo (which—he mansplained to Sally Quinn—had “Spanish-Arabic” roots)? Fidel lived and died a polarizing figure in a nation given to dichotomous models: beloved and excoriated.
It’s more difficult to describe José Martí’s enduring influence on Cuba and its people. A benevolent deity, “The Apostle” floats above political pettiness, worshipped by everyone in a culture otherwise heir to parallel histories. Martí has no equivalent in the United States. Imagine George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Walt Whitman all rolled into one. A modernist poet, philosopher, journalist, and hero of Cuba’s war of independence from Spain, Martí embodied the ideal of the 19th-century intellectual. From his exile in New York City, he passionately advocated for human rights and self-determination. His commitment to universal education and social justice marked generations of Cuban progressives.
If Fidel was the evil force that had determined our lives, Martí was the compassionate spirit who guided our ethics. His poems were models of kindness to me as a child, and I learned to memorize them before I could even read. Every year on January 28th, to commemorate Martí’s birth, my father took my sister and me to lay white carnations (roses being too expensive) at his memorial in Tampa, Florida.
Martí’s romantic, idealized views about women did not trouble me. Indeed, I took them as gospel—they were the water we all swam in. Only later, as an adult, did I come across scholarship that gently tried to tease out his more problematic views.
As the scholar Olga Uribe notes, “La mujer ideal para el escritor es siempre el ‘angel.’ La virtud del ‘angel’ es que hace grande al hombre.” (“The ideal woman for the writer is always the ‘angel.’ The ‘angel’s’ virtue is that she makes the man great.”)
Like so many Cuban girls, Celia was indoctrinated in the cult of Martí from an early age. In 1953, she and her father took part in a project to honor the centennial of Martí’s birth by commissioning a bronze bust of the poet. On the morning of May 19, they were part of an expedition that set out from Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago de Cuba to place the 163-pound bust at El Turquino, which at 975 meters is the highest point in the Sierra Maestra.
To her biographers, Celia’s political consciousness was formed by Martí. What many fail to appreciate is the extent to which Martí also shaped Celia’s feminine consciousness. In Escenas Americanas, Martí offers back-handed admiration for the vivacious but “mannish” North American women (then demonstrating for their rights) while noting that mujeres varoniles did not please “the poetic and noble” Cuban “race.”
In retrospectives of Celia’s life, much is made of the flowers she wore in her hair and pinned to her military fatigues. Both Stout and Sippial note the patriotic symbolism of the mariposa lily, in whose hollow stems early Mambisa Independence fighters were said to transport secret communiques. But flowers are also freighted with feminine symbolism and were a favorite trope of Martí’s.
When Hart Dávalos eulogized Celia with the words, “She is and always will be the Revolution’s most authentic wildflower,” he was reaching back to an iconography made popular by Martí, for whom the ideal Cuban woman was “that elegant lily that perfumes balconies and souls.”
The proliferation of flower imagery in the hagiography of Celia Sánchez has its roots, so to speak, in this tradition.
A 1985 book about a father and son who embark on a pilgrimage to attend Sánchez’s funeral is called Celia Nuestra y de las Flores. And after her death, Celia was praised by Enrique Pineda Barnet as “the orchid in the guerrilla lapel.” Another poet called her “a violet among the grasses.”
Sánchez’s female friends could also succumb to party-line praise of her “modesty,” but they were just as likely to describe her as “analytical” and single her out for her “valor and intelligence.” Celia’s male supporters, on the other hand, seemed to most admire her fragrant evanescence.
“Historically, we must remember, the choice placed before women has almost never been between enclosure and freedom but rather between enclosure and exposure…”
—Carol Lee Flinders
Women’s self-construction is complex and layered: there are the ways we have been conditioned and the ways we have learned to appear conditioned. For every woman who embraces a narrow definition of the feminine without irony, there is another who embraces it, no less genuinely, as cover and protection.
To become visible as a woman is to expose oneself to abuse that ranges from the ridiculous to the terrifying. Hecklers at Hillary Clinton’s campaign stops would ask her to iron their shirts, which is mild stuff compared to the rape threats that outspoken women repeatedly receive. Feminist blogger Michelle Goldberg recently noted in The Washington Post that many feminist writers, inundated by abuse, have chosen to retire rather than fight back. (When I was a columnist for The Miami Herald my hate-mail was particularly vicious–“cunt” and “horseface” were the preferred epithets, and a blogger once suggested that “Someone needs to take Ana Menéndez out behind the woodshed and slap her around a bit.”)
Given these timeless male responses to female power, is it any wonder that Celia was paranoid about becoming too well-known? As a woman, one can confront bias head on, like the “mannish” North American women that so amused José Martí. But when you have been brought up in the cult of masculinity, and are swimming in its sea, confrontation is ineffective. A much better tactic is to persuade the skittish that you are just there to serve.
The flavor of praise showered on Celia Sánchez after her death is a testament to her success in fashioning a stealthy, unthreatening persona to cloak her monumental achievements, if not her ambition.
In his eulogy, Hart Dávalos went beyond his flower imagery to anoint Celia “great in her heroic abnegation, her unconditional loyalty… Great, perhaps, beyond every other virtue, in her modesty and simplicity.”
Celia Sánchez was born into relative prosperity on May 9, 1920, in the eastern town of Media Luna. Her mother died when Celia was only six, and her grandmother moved in to help her father raise the eight children. Throughout her childhood, Celia, like most of her social class at the time, was assisted by an extensive domestic work force that included housekeepers, gardeners, and chauffeurs.
“These individuals—many of Afro-Cuban, Jamaican, or Trinidadian descent—stand in family photos as largely anonymous contributors to the precious time and energy that the Sánchez family was able to devote to their intellectual and political pursuits,” writes Sippial. Nevertheless, she adds, the family seemed attuned to the social ills that surrounded them, and Celia’s father and grandmother brought the children up with a firm respect for Cuban sovereignty and a commitment to solving social issues.
Celia’s elementary school teacher asserts that her father was the main influence on that aspect of her personality, “with his patriotism and commitment to emulate Martí’s social conscience.” Largely unexamined is the fact that the struggle for social justice often went hand in hand with a particularly female brand of sacrifice and duty.
As a young woman, even as she forged strong political opinions, Celia was unable to escape traditional female expectations: sewing clothing for the church’s statue of the Virgin of Charity, baking cakes, and even working as a wedding planner.
Celia’s elementary school teacher described her to Sippial with highest praise as “an incredible housekeeper… She cooked wonderfully, was a skilled baker, and could sew and embroider.”
Celia doted on her father, whose support, in a traditional, patriarchal society, was crucial to her development. “Hers was a traditional Latin role; she’d drawn her father’s bath, brought him a cup of morning coffee, organized his medical office,” writes Stout. “It wasn’t hard to transfer this routine to Fidel.”
Though these observations can be interpreted as “dismissals” of women who labor in traditional societies, I read them as far more nuanced evidence of the liminal worlds that women have fashioned for themselves within male-centered institutions. Celia and the women who rose to leadership in the revolution were not unlike the mystics who found self-realization within the suffocating hierarchy of the medieval church. In Celia’s protestations of modesty I hear an echo of Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century mystic who prefaced her revolutionary visions with a disclaimer: “God forbid that you should say or assume that I am a teacher; for I am a woman, weak, ignorant, and frail…” Robert Llewelyn (credited with reviving her memory in the 20th century), noted that Julian “has passed largely into obscurity, and no doubt this is how she would have wished it.”
Celia, like a modern-day anchorite, managed to forge an interstitial identity between the giant personas of her father and Fidel. Her fierceness, even ruthlessness, during the clandestine period leading up to the guerilla war in the Sierras testifies to her sophisticated political consciousness—a consciousness that both shaped and was shaped by the men in her life.
Celia didn’t meet Fidel in person until February of 1957. By that time, she had already helped plan his return from exile in Mexico and laid the groundwork for his guerilla army. Her work to coordinate logistics and contacts on behalf of the rebellion drew praise from Fidel, who (forgoing the usual gender platitudes) said, “She acted clandestinely and ran enormous risks in the fight, she demonstrated tremendous valor.”
In return, Celia’s admiration was absolute: “He foresaw everything,” she said in a postwar interview Sippial was permitted to see. As soon as she moved to the camp, Celia began ministering to Fidel’s daily needs, as she had once ministered to her father’s. Comandante Dermidio Escalona, who enlisted as a soldier in Fidel’s column in the Sierra Maestra, told Stout that Celia prepared Fidel’s coffee before he rose in the morning, made sure he had his glasses close at hand and that his boots were clean and repaired. She maintained his uniform, ensuring that it was presentable, “the buttons sewn on, rips and tears mended.”
After the revolution, Celia accompanied Fidel to the capital. Over many months, Celia gradually acquired apartments in a building on 11th Street in El Vedado and turned the complex into a quasi-public home from which she and Fidel held court, welcoming war orphans and hosting an international assortment of actors, writers, and journalists. By then, Celia seems to have settled into the role of deferential partner. Once, when the journalist Phyllis Battelle asked Celia’s opinion on a political matter, she responded: “Talk to Fidel.”
In a 1964 article, Richard Eder noted that “Dr. Castro’s apartment is a walk-up on the fifth floor of a building in a heavily guarded street in the Vedado section. His housekeeping is done by Celia Sánchez, his assistant who lives below.”
The few photos of Celia after the Revolution usually show her by Fidel’s side. Questions about the true nature of their relationship surface often in biographies of her life. A 2011 BBC report was headlined: “Celia Sánchez: Was She Castro’s lover?”
Stout is discreet on the question, though she’s not above dishing a bit of gossip. She recounts that Fidel asked Celia to marry him at least twice, the first shortly after their arrival in Havana. Celia refused. “And then, my source—within the family, who asked that I maintain her anonymity—says that Celia explained her reasons; ‘She told him that she felt older now. When she was young, she’d had marriage on her mind, but now, she wasn’t so interested. He understood what she was telling him.”
What she was telling him, Stout suggests, was that Celia was “far too smart to accept an arrangement of the type she was being offered, a life filled with his present and past women. She would not have wanted to be put in the position of asking that age-old question: where were you last night?”
Sippial, for her part, treats a possible sexual relationship between the two leaders as an afterthought, boldly declaring, “Ultimately, I do not know if Sánchez and Castro were lovers, nor do I consider such intimate knowledge necessary to my work.”
With apologies to both biographers, I believe the nature of Fidel and Celia’s relationship has every bearing on history, at least in so far as it illuminates a woman’s role within a revolution created and run by men. Celia’s famous reticence may have been learned “second-nature” (as a daughter of Martí’s) o,r as Sippial repeatedly posits, a canny bit of theater. (“Maintaining a kind of gendered neutrality in terms of her affiliation may well have contributed to her administrative effectiveness,” Sippial writes, putting it mildly.) But in her tireless sacrifice and modesty, Celia may also have simply been reenacting the well-worn role of a woman submitting to a powerful male lover.
A woman in love is not only alienated from herself, wrote Simone de Beauvoir, “she also experiences a passionate desire to go beyond her own limits and become infinite, thanks to the intervention of another who has access to infinite reality.”
To be in thrall of a powerful man: this is a state of bliss known to any woman whose intelligence and ambitions have been blunted by society. A successful man, at least for a time, slakes the thirst for success deferred. But it is a poisoned cup.
If Celia and Fidel were in fact lovers, her self-abnegation takes on a more tragic cast.
“She abandons herself first to love to save herself;” de Beauvoir wrote, “but the paradox of idolatrous love is that in order to save herself, she ends up totally disavowing herself.”
After her death on January 11, 1980, Celia Sánchez’s body lay in state in Havana’s Revolution Plaza, dwarfed by the 18-meter colossus of José Martí, whose figurative shadow spans the Florida Straits.
Thousands of mourners traveled to pay their respects to Sánchez during that tropical winter. Workers were bused in directly from their workplace, just as they were for mass rallies: A public spectacle to honor a woman who, in life, had carefully constructed an aura of private reserve.
The Cuban Revolution was supposed to have eradicated the machismo that shaped Celia’s life and her response to celebrity. But even in death, she continues to rest under the shadow of Cuba’s Great Men. “In our country, endemic sexism is politically correct,” the Cuban poet and novelist Wendy Guerra recently wrote in The New York Times, arguing that being a woman who refuses silence remains “complicated.”
“While the #MeToo movement has reached countries around the world, we Cubans are still living under a patriarchy shaped by the revolution,” Guerra wrote. “Cuban men don’t see a problem, and convincing them otherwise is futile because for generations they have been taught that women were liberated 60 years ago during the revolution and that we require nothing more.”
In her op-ed, Guerra specifically singles out the forgotten legacy of female military heroes such as Celia Sánchez who “proved their valor on the front lines of the revolution.”
“Without [Celia Sánchez Manduley] and a small group of female soldiers known as the Marianas, Fidel Castro’s victorious march into Havana in 1959 wouldn’t have been possible,” wrote Guerra. “But because Ms. Sánchez is described in her official biographies as ‘one of Fidel’s closest collaborators,’ and not as a revolutionary in her own right, many Cuban girls are unaware of her achievements.” (This is even more true of “Cuban girls” raised outside the island. The first I learned about Celia’s role in the revolution was while I was researching the life of Che Guevara for my second novel—and even then, biographical information about her was often confined to the footnotes.)
Celia’s views, argued Guerra, were sidelined and her legacy hijacked. “Despite her role in the revolution, Ms. Sánchez was never granted the title of ‘Comandante.’ She also was an outspoken woman who, surrounded by a male dominated military, was not able to carry out her own objectives.”
Guerra overstates the case only slightly. A few female revolutionaries, such as Haydee Santamaria, who went on to found the influential Casa de las Américas, were able to continue contributing to the country’s cultural life post-Revolution. But for the most part, sixty years after Castro swept into Havana, Cuban women remain the “invisible salt” in the immense sea.
A few years ago, The Guardian asked one of Cuba’s most celebrated male writers to list the “top ten Cuban novels.” His list, which included Ernest Hemingway, did not mention a single title written by a woman. It’s as if the whole of the Cuban story, its literature, its aspirations, its bloody history–all the glory and muck of us–continues to unfold in a space devoid of women. This literary and political silence not only informs the way men understand their place in history, but shapes the way that Cuban women construct their own identities.
This is not a situation unique to Cuba, of course. Men have been able to run the world for such a long time because they benefitted from access to the two resources traditionally denied most women: time and wealth. But in Cuba, narrow gender roles survived well into the 21st century, survived, as Guerra reminds us, even a revolution that promised to transcend them.
Cuba’s “New Man” may have been ideologically advanced, Haydee Santamaria told the journalist Georgie Ann Geyer shortly after the Revolution’s triumph. “But when he arrives at home, he wants his wife there, preparing dinner.” After the brief exuberance of Revolutionary fervor and unity, the Cuban woman, for the most part, returned to her traditional place in the home.
“The triumph of the revolution brought with it the end of many women’s participation in Cuban politics,” Sippial notes. “Most of the women who participated in the guerrilla struggle disappeared from public view after 1959… Of 100 central committee members in the Cuban government in 1965, only five were women.” Those who remained in leadership roles, such as Haydee Santamaria and Vilma Espin, also happened to be married to powerful men in Fidel’s inner circle. And for her part, Celia, it’s significant to note, never described herself as a “feminist.”
Since those early days, the representation of women in the high echelons of the Cuban government has increased substantially. But women continue to operate in the shadow of the great male leaders, and feminist issues remain marginalized. A recent campaign to persuade the government to criminalize gender violence has so far gone ignored, as apparently were Celia’s own earlier calls for reform.
According to Guerra, Celia opposed the summary executions by firing squad (overseen by Che Guevarra in the Revolution’s early days) and the forced-labor camps where Castro later sent gay men. I haven’t been able to verify this detail. But in light of what became of the revolution, Celia’s general inability to check the increasingly violent repression that betrayed the movement’s founding ideals darkens her own legacy. In this context, her deferential modesty moves beyond mere political strategy to become a tragic moral failure.
Parque Lenin is among Celia’s grandest creations. Conceived on a massive scale, it covers almost 2,000 acres. Fourteen architects, directed by Celia, began designing it in 1969. Its construction demanded coordination between several agencies, as well as the removal of a textile factory and three million cubic meters of earth.
The park finally opened in 1972. Twelve years later, the government dedicated a 9-meter high statue of Lenin that looms over the park from its highest hill (a visual rhyme to the giant bust of Martí that Celia helped erect in the Sierra Maestra).
The symbolism, for those willing to parse it, is as powerful as it is understated. Yes, that’s Lenin’s massive profile front and center of his eponymous park, but a woman was behind its living creation. Celia’s large public works projects, like the exhaustive archive she created of the Revolution, were a way—perhaps partly subconscious—for her to project herself into history.
But the price of sublimating one’s greatness includes abdicating enduring presence. Parque Lenin’s far more modest memorial to Celia is hidden in the foliage, among the “flowers as simple and perfumed as she was, by the stream of water as clear as her affection and smile,” as one poet put it.
Even amid her greatest accomplishments, Celia remains the hidden actor, overshadowed by a male-led Revolution whose iconography, like its gendered praise, exalts its own place in history.
The last time I was in Havana, in 2017, La Plaza de la Revolución was crowded with tourists taking selfies beneath the nearly seven-story steel outline of Che Guevara’s face. In Istanbul, where I lived years ago, merchants in the bazaar regularly hawked armbands and earrings stamped with the famous visage of the Argentine-born revolutionary. Needless to say, I never found any such tributes to Celia Sánchez.
One of the threads running through Sippial’s biography is a barely suppressed anxiety to locate representations of the Revolution’s great female hero. Sippial reports each new sighting with the glee of a pre-teen on a Pokémon binge. Sometimes she finds murals (often predictably decorated with flowers), or other modest tributes, especially in the countryside where Celia came of age. More often, though, Sippial encounters invisibility, and sometimes even resistance or erasure.
Celia’s long-sought diary turns out to be unreadable, the reconstructed version uninspiring. Access to her personal correspondence and the archive she curated remain severely restricted. A “museum” to Celia ends up consisting of a few dusty books.
At one point, Sippial travels to Manzanillo to visit a hospital and a park dedicated to its famous daughter. On the way, Sippial spots a mural to Celia and stops to photograph it: Celia’s portrait is surrounded by mariposa lilies and embellished with Hart Davalos’s by-now cloying elegy: “She is and always will be the Revolution’s most authentic wildflower.”
Arriving finally at the hospital, Sippial looks through a window and is delighted to spy a portrait of Celia hanging on a wall. A woman in uniform is seated at the open window and Sippial asks her if she may view the portrait up close. The woman disappears, only to reappear with another functionary who “sternly informs” Sippial that she is mistaken: No such portrait exists.