- Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel
Casal, Lourdes (5 Apr. 1938–1 Feb. 1981), poet, literary critic, social psychologist, and political activist, was born Lourdes Emilia Irene de la Caridad Casal y Valdés in Havana, Cuba, the daughter of two professional parents, Pedro Casal, a doctor in medicine and a dentist, and Emilia Valdés, an elementary school teacher. Of mixed heritage, Casal’s family included black, white, and Chinese ancestry.
Casal completed a high school degree in Letters and Sciences at the Instituto No. 2 de El Vedado from 1951 to 1954. At age sixteen she enrolled at the Universidad Católica de Santo Tomás de Villanueva in Marianao. Initially she majored in Chemical Engineering, but during her third and fourth years she switched majors and nearly finished her B.A. in Psychology. From a very young age, she critically interrogated her privileges as a member of a middle class professional family. By 1957, she was part of a group of Catholic students who supported Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. In her essay “Problemas de Hispanoamérica” (Problems of Spanish America)—originally written in 1955 and published in The Revista Ínsula in 1957—she was very critical of the United States’ cultural and political influence over Latin America.
Right after the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959, Casal joined the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil (Student Revolutionary Directorate). Her enthusiasm for the revolution soon waned as Castro revealed the communist leanings of his political movement, and, in 1961, Casal left Cuba for the United States. In 1962, she traveled to Africa under Central Intelligence Agency sponsorship as a delegate of the Cuban Student Directory and the Cuban Revolutionary Council. That same year Casal moved to New York City, where she began her Masters in Psychology at the New School for Social Research and became a U.S. citizen. During this time period she taught at Dominican College of Blauvelt, Brooklyn College, and Rutgers University–Newark. Once in New York, Casal developed important relationships with several Cuban and Cuban American artists, including Dolores Prida, Ana Mendieta, and Nancy Morejón. She was also a collaborator with Teatro de Orilla and the International Arts Relations, Inc., Latin American and Latino theater groups based in New York City.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Casal witnessed and participated in the Civil Rights movement in the United States, which radically transformed her views on Cuba, and the revolution, and racial relationships in the island. Like other diasporic Caribbean/Latino writers and thinkers, in the United States she claimed her black instead of her mulatto identity. Uncomfortable with the binary opposition between the Cuban political right and left wings, she gradually became one of the central figures in the effort to establish connections between Cubans living in the United States and in the island. Casal was one of the co-founders of the Institute for Cuban Studies in 1969, and of two important journals for Cuban and Cuban American studies: Nueva Generación (1972) and Areíto (1974). Casal also collaborated with the Institute of Cuban Studies, the Cuba National Planning Board, and the Latin American Studies Association, the largest association of Latin Americanists based in the United States.
In 1971, she authored El caso Padilla: literatura y revolución en Cuba (The Padilla Case: Literature and Revolution in Cuba), an important analysis of the repression of a public Cuban intellectual named Heberto Padilla that attracted international attention and culminated with his eventual release from prison and emigration to the U.S. She joined the faculty of Rutgers University–Newark as an assistant professor of Social Psychology in 1972. In May 1973, invited by the Instituto Cubano para la Amistad de los Pueblos (Cuban Institute for the Friendship among Peoples), Casal returned to Cuba for the first time, and from then on she promoted a political effort of reconciliation and dialogue—known by some as “los dialogueros”—that would mark the rest of her intellectual and professional trajectory. In September 1973, she returned again to Cuba as a guest at an academic meeting at the University of Havana. After her return to the U.S., the editorial board of Areíto voted to change its mission to become a platform welcoming Cuban Americans who were supportive of the Cuban revolution. This illustrates an important trait of Casal’s relationship with her cubanía: she was not willing to adopt simplified political positions toward Cubans in the island or in exile.
One of the most compelling features of Casal’s work was her use of quantitative and qualitative social science approaches to study cultural productions such as literature, cinema, and sports. In 1973, she and Rafael J. Prohías published The Cuban Minority in the United States: Preliminary Report on Need Identification and Program Evaluation, a report to the Woodrow Wilson Foundation about the experiences and needs of the Cuban migrants to the U.S. that did not follow the path of a model minority. That year she also published Los fundadores: Alfonso y otros cuentos (The Founders: Alfonso and Other Short Stories), an anthology of seven short stories that used fantasy, magical realism, and costumbrismo to meditate about the complex Cuban identifications after the triumph of the Cuban revolution and the massive exile into the United States. Casal was also among the first scholars to analyze the challenging situation of black Cubans in the U.S.
In 1976, she finished her Ph.D. in Social Psychology at the New School for Social Research with a thesis titled “Images of Cuban Society Among Pre-1701993- and Post Revolutionary Novelists.” Her interdisciplinary dissertation on cultural representations of women and Afro-Cubans in Cuban novels analyzed the changes in social and racial ideologies taking place as a result of the Cuban revolution in a sample of novels written between 1950–1958 and 1959–1967. Confirming that social structures and beliefs take longer to transform that state laws, she demonstrated that the novels represented the slower pace of Cuba’s transformation into a more inclusive society.
Her next important collaboration was the anthology Contra viento y marea: jóvenes cubanos hablan desde su exilio en Estados Unidos (1978) (Against All Odds: Young Cubans Talk from their Exile in the U.S.), a collection of testimonies of Cubans in exile that was co-edited with Román de la Campa, Vicente Dopico, and Margarita Lejarza. This book collected narratives about the experience of Cubans who migrated to the U.S. when they were young and faced the tensions and contradictions of a political exile in the U.S. that they did not choose. The collection focused particularly on their political and ideological transformation as they returned to Cuba and experienced first hand the accomplishments and challenges of the Cuban revolution. By locating the narrative between and at odds with two inflexible definitions of Cubanness (pro or against revolution), this collection became a founding text of narratives of Hispanic and Caribbean exile in the U.S., as well as of Cuban studies.
In 1978, Lourdes Casal was a member of the Commision of 75 that promoted dialogues between the Cuban government and Cubans in diaspora with the goal of reunifying families divided after the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959 and the U.S. embargo imposed in 1962. Casal was one of the founders and participated in the “diálogo,” as well as the Brigada Antonio Maceo (1977, 1979–1982) that organized groups of young exile Cubans who went back to the island to form their own opinion about the revolution and to volunteer in construction work and agriculture. She also collaborated in the Círculo de Cultura Cubana (Circle of Cuban Culture), a meeting space for academics, intellectuals, artists, and writers who wanted to maintain close ties with Cuba.
Casal identified as a descendant of Spanish, African, and Chinese origins, and her racial identity posed a rich enigma to Caribbean mestizaje. Although raised as Catholic, throughout her life Casal explored santería, agnosticism, atheism, and deism. During an early period of her life she considered the possibility of professing as a Catholic nun, and some of her writings about this period were later included in the anthology Itinerario Ideológico de Lourdes Casal (1982) (Ideological Itinerary of Lourdes Casal). Her marginalization in many Cuban and Caribbean circles was compounded by her private identification as a lesbian. (Little is publicly known about her personal life, about which she was intensely protective, preferring instead to focus attention on her literature and political activism.) A racialized subject in Cuban nationalist discourse, and a sexual minority in her neoyorquina networks, Casal always conceived her identity from the margins and intersections of otherness. She channeled this unique exploration of cubanía through her passion for literature, poetry, and politics.
In 1977, Casal was diagnosed with diabetes and kidney problems and underwent cortisone treatments that further affected her health. As her illness progressed, she required regular dialysis. She returned to Cuba in 1979 where she was hospitalized in the Clínica Cira García and died in Havana two years later. She was buried in the National Pantheon in Cuba. Her eulogy was delivered by Roberto Fernández Retamar, and Fidel Castro sent a wreath to recognize her efforts in the reunification of Cubans in the U.S. with Cubans in the island. In 1980, her volume of poetry, Palabras juntan revolución (Words Gather Revolution), a collection of poems in which the lyrical voice reminisced about her childhood and youth while meditating about the sense of solitude and nostalgia promoted by the experience of exile, became the first book by a Cuban author in exile to be awarded a Premio Casa de las Américas; it was published posthumously in 1981.
Originally invisible in anthologies about Cuban American literature, Lourdes Casal’s work became highly visible in the United States and Cuba starting in the 1990s. Her academic and literary trajectory focused on the complexity of identity formations in Cuba, the Caribbean, and the U.S. She was a visionary as an artist, a cultural critic, and a social thinker. Her work influenced Caribbean literary, cultural, and historical studies; Cuban and Afro-Latino studies; studies on Asian migration to the Americas; Queer and Sexuality studies; and Women’s and Gender studies by infusing interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary questions and approaches into the search for real, imagined, and desired identities.
For biographical information, see Roy Bryce-1701993-Laporte, “Obituary to a Female Immigrant and Scholar, Lourdes Casal (1938–1981),” Female Immigrants to the United States; Caribbean, Latin American, and African Experiences (1981); Leonel De la Cuesta, “Perfil biográfico,” Itinerario Ideológio: Antología de Lourdes Casal (1982); and Frances Negrón-Muntaner and Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel, “In search of Lourdes Casal’s Ana Veldford,” Social Text (2007). Critical works include Raquel Chang Rodríguez, “Crítica. Nota sobre Los Fundadores: Alfonso y otros cuentos,” Areíto (1979); Miriam de Costa-Willis, “Lourdes Casal: Identity and the Politics of (Dis)location in Lourdes Casal's Narratives of Place,” Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra Hispanic Writers (2003); Laura Lomas, “In-Between States: Lourdes Casal's Critical Interdisciplinarity and Intersectional Feminism,” Cuban Studies (forthcoming, 2018); Iraida H. López, “Entre la nación mestiza y la discordia racial: ‘Memories of a Black Cuban Childhood’ y otros textos de Lourdes Casal,” Cuban Studies (forthcoming, 2018); Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel, “Fantasy as Identity: Beyond Foundational Narratives in Lourdes Casal,” Cuban Studies (2016); and a special issue of Cuban Studies co-edited by Laura Lomas and Iraida López (forthcoming, 2018).