“There is no homeland other than poetry” / Luis Felipe Rojas

8 Jul

Luis Felipe Rojas. Photo: E. Aguado.

I want to thank my friend and excellent writer, Amir Valle, for this interview for his magazine Another Monday, and for publicizing the book that has just been published and will be presented shortly in Miami.

Amir Valle (AV): Machine for Erasing Humanities is, after Feeding the Dog-Fight, your second book since you went into exile. Although some think that poetry books are simply a collection of poems written over the passage of time, those of us who write know that between one book and another there are always secret threads, pathways that unite or split in two in order to differentiate them. What is the difference then between the two books?

Luis Felipe Rojas (LFR): I believe, without any doubt, in time. What there is between one passage and another is time, and the way in which the two poets have been changed by it: one who arrived as a frightened animal, fleeing from horror, exclusion and suffocation; and the other, who put down his head to rest for an instant and saw his children sleeping in the morning, who no longer expects a kick in the rear, and who experienced many upheavals to live in a developed country.

The poetry that was expressed in Machine…is the final distillate of almost three years of cleaning up each verse. Generally I write at one stretch but take between three or ten years to publish. I continue feeling like a circus performer before the public, and now I have to pinch myself because my mouth falls open with surprise when they stand up from their seats and ask me to do one or two pirouettes more. There’s no way to write poetry if I don’t do it the way Homer did, if I don’t believe that in every poem the villagers are waiting for me to tell them stories from the neighboring villages; or, as I told you before: like a sword swallower, leaving the spectators pale with each plunge.

AV: Whoever follows your trajectory today would believe that you write only poetry. But I, who knew you first as a story-teller and only later as a poet, ask you: Have you stopped writing stories? Will we sometime have the opportunity to remember the excellent story-teller that you were in Cuba?

LFR: My stories are in a drawer now, ready to be handled. Ten, at the most. Narrative consumes me too much; for me it’s more cerebral than poetry, and, as you know, I’m a guy who’s more unruly than centered. I have to put myself naked in this book of short stories and in the stories that I have already written, but I have to do it differently for each one. I also feel disdain for a novela that I started some years ago, and I know that when we speak it tells me something similar to what you’d say to a bad father. The book is called Black Women Write Love Letters. It’s almost ready, my dear Amir.

AV: Miami, although many continue calling it a “hotbed of Cuban identity” and a “cultural wasteland,” to cite two of the labels it’s earned, is converting itself into a cultural scene of undisputed reference for anyone who wants to establish a serious analysis about Cuban culture. Leaving aside the typical topic of politics, I would like you to say something personal about this intimate and public Miami from a cultural point of view that you, as a creative person, have found.

LFR: I have to laugh at the vulgar labels that come more from the Department of Ideology of the Communist Party of Cuba than from visitors themselves. Look, Miami is full of old-fashioned coffee houses, where they greet you, and you sit and sip slowly and you can stay there all morning. There are a dozen art galleries starting up, the most contemporary that I, myself, could ask for. I speak for the autodidact that I am, not for my academic friends, my ex-comrades from the university. I can lose myself in one of the county libraries and be there all day without it costing me a cent, and, on top of that, they even offer me coffee as a courtesy. Wynwood, the Art District, has been converted into a mecca for graffiti and spontaneous art, a place where you combine viewing with the taste of an artisanal beer, in a peace that Alaska would envy.

In the literary environment there are people who are more refined, well-dressed and educated, who disavow the others. But there are excellent poets like Ángel Cuadra and Jorge Valls, from the old guard, and you can find yourself with the best of the Spanish-speaking ones, as I did, or with one of the most interesting of the young voices, like Tinito Díaz, a guy you have to follow closely for his poetic force. There are literary events that have exhibitions that are worth attending (for Tyrians and Trojans); there’s a book fair, with surprising exclusions, and there’s a literature festival that has united this excluded remnant.

I like the tranquility of the Miami film festival, and the uproar and profusion at Art Basel. I always fall in love with the mini-theater of Miami, where works are put inside containers.

Warning: Tell those who are jealous to stay away from Miami; they might have a heart attack, ha ha ha!

AV: The proof that Miami has become a point of universal reference for Cuban Culture (with capital letters) is that the Regime, seeing a threat to its control over the essential sphere of culture, has decided to conquer it. How do you view these controversial issues of cultural exchange today, the publication on the Island of authors in exile; finally, those outside and inside who don’t stop coming together?

LFR: Your last question is interesting. I like it, and it’s that they don’t have to unite; they never have been. The controversy today is about those who enjoy the privileges of the Castro Regime and the benefits of free expression, who shut up in Cuba before the bad luck of their colleagues and feel their neighbor’s pat on the back, and drop those who are leaving. But there isn’t communion, nor has there ever been. The stabbings of UNEAC were translated into the back-stabbing between those in Barcelona and those in Paris; it’s that simple. Those on that shore, who today remain closer to me than ever, await my embrace, and I have extended it every minute of this short exile. They can attest to my activism for the ones in distress, like Jorge Olivera Castillo, sentenced to 18 years, and my brother, Ángel Santiesteban.

Furthermore, I’m a little pessimistic here, but I believe we can live separately without missing each other. I don’t at all miss the world of literary events they invited me to that were inaugurated by a Party official who hadn’t even read Granma that day. How am I going to miss officials like Alexis Triana, Alpidio Alonso or Iroel Sánchez asking me to leave out a certain verse or to stop printing a magazine or to not include one of my short stories in an anthology — supposedly in order to save the country — and later selling themselves as writers and participating in the book fairs in countries that invited writers, and they go as officials?

What comes from an enslaved culture is a symptom, not a threat. Speaking out and looking at each other directly is no longer fashionable, and you can be taken as a loud-mouth. But why should I give a damn now?

AV: When they aren’t using silence about essential questions, the discourse of hate and division is the tone of the messages that come from some of your colleagues on the Island: “Cuban Culture exists only in Cuba”; There is no genuine Cuban literature outside the Island”; “You have to be in Cuba to write about Cuba.”  However, I have seen that your eyes have the look of nostalgia, of respect and affection, not only for many who think differently from you politically (or who appear to), but also for other teachers who might be marionettes, consenting to or directly executing repression. What is your relationship with these writers who you once rubbed shoulders with in Cuba, until you decided to say what you thought about the Government?

LFR: Pal, I respect the guild, if only for being one. My colleagues on the Island know how I think, and my level of tolerance has been bullet-proof. I am friends with many of them, from Oriente to Havana. They write me; I answer them; we exchange literary criticism; and with those who dare, we even discuss politics.

He who has decided to leave from that side of the barracks: Congratulations, I’m an accepting person, and I can’t throw them away as enemies; they know that I’m not one. I read enough of what is written and done in Cuba. I go to lectures and book presentations for those who also publish on the Island and receive the UNEAC officials in Miami, but I’m not one who turns a deaf ear to them.

Now, they know that I’m a mischievous critic, that I will always be blatantly against these things. What relates us is that some accept that I have the right to say what I believe to be my truth. As for the reduced way of thinking that only what is created “inside” [the Revolution] is the truth, that’s not worth keeping me up at night in order to devote even a single sentence to it.

AV: Also, the same as what is happening in Cuba, the Cuban exile in the U.S. (and essentially in Miami), without caring about the market, continues conceding to poetry the value that it always has had for Cuban writers. In your personal case there have been two publishers, NeoClub first, and then Eriginal Books, who have bet on, and I quote: “…that ruined genre that is poetry” (according to that other crazy believer in the genre, the Spaniard, Chus Visor). Poetry, exile, commercial value, along with spiritual courage….how has that milieu been for you?

LFRThere is no homeland other than poetry, to express it in the language of those of us who go with knives in our teeth defending the king of the literary genres. Why do you think that a Regime that has spilled as much blood as that of the Castros would put in prison a guy as angelic and effective — from a literary standpoint — as Jorge Valls?

Could there be any bigger crime than destroying a manuscript of María Elena Cruz Varela or Reinaldo Arenas? I don’t think so. I continue betting on poetry because it always gives more than it demands and because, paradoxically, it has remained outside the failures of the present market. Miami is a paradise for poetry, because it has converted itself into a land of exiles, and the loss of the land where you walked as a child brings suffering, but it gives you refuge in something intimate like lyricism.

AV: By experience I know that journalism can enrich the writer. . . or destroy his talent. Everything depends on establishing an interrelationship that nourishes you and not an unequal dependency that annihilates the weakest part: the writer. I would like you to assess what has changed in your perspective as a creative person after having had to launch yourself into independent journalism in Cuba, first, and now in exile, into the journalist work of that recognized information conglomerate of radio, television and digital press that carries the name of our Martí.

Luis Felipe Rojas Photo: Exilda Arjona P.


LFR: What it has done is enrich me. I wrote that a little time ago, when Radio Martí had its 30th birthday. Writing every day, whether I’m proposing a subject for a report, fixing a cable cord in the office or editing what they send from Cuba is, for me, a school, but it has been the fulfillment of a dream. I was a clandestine listener to Radio Martí. Today I interview people as nice as you; the artist, Tania Bruguera; or the anonymous woman, the mother of a young political prisoner in Guantánamo. In the end it has given me impetus for the prose I write, and I keep the connections between prose, fiction and non-fiction clearly defined.

Now what I see with more clarity is that some problems, by being so close to me, appeared immense or out of focus; getting distance has helped me to be more reasonable in my judgments.

AV: It seems curious to me also that after active participation in the Cuban blogosphere you’ve transferred your work to the phenomenon of Facebook. How have technologies influenced you in your personal and professional life?

LFR: Facebook is more democratic. Although I continue with my blog Crossing the Barbed Wire,, my Facebook account is more active and quicker. I can get feedback and exchange with the reader in a second. I have privacy settings, and I can ethically check everything all the time, all the information coming from different sources. There is everything there, like bad literature, film or television. You can entertain yourself.

In addition, it has allowed me to share what I write every day, at the instant it’s published, without needing permission to post it to the public that I define on this social network.

AV: Our common friend, the writer Ángel Santiesteban, once told me that you are a “sentimental peasant,” and another dear friend, also a writer, Rafael Vilches, told me about everything you had to suffer in Cuba because of the colleagues who turned their backs on you, and he wrote me some time ago that it was more difficult to understand this rejection because you are “more heart than body.” All this is with the goal of asking: poetry and friends? Poetry and family: Exilda, your children? And poetry and your most intimate Cuba? In what sense do you think they’re connected?

All are connected. Sometimes I don’t know how to tell if I suffered more from the unhappiness of those who thought they could save themselves by turning their backs on me, or from those three little persons, whom I believe I saved from the horror and now have with me. I am one of these privileged beings who understands that true friends and family are the homeland. That Cuba can be a table shared among a few, because the others don’t dare to be there.

The poetry that I write is always connected with this feeling I have toward the others: my wife, my children and my friends. That’s Cuba, and I think it’s enough for me to be happy.

AV:Machine for Erasing Humanities won’t be your last book, that’s clear to me. What new literary project are you working on now?

LFR: I have compiled the texts of Crossing the Barbed Wire to give Cubans from the Island, who aren’t able to read me on the Internet, an opportunity. I chose 40 of the texts and used the translations that friends did, volunteers, in the five years I put up this blog.

You interviewed Cuban writers and human rights activists who live in that beyond where our Island remains, and another book is coming out of that also. I told you about the book of short stories, and some nights I write a book of poems that I’m doing based on questions, but I have delayed publishing it for some years. That’s the rhythm that every text takes, every document that I do.

Machine for Erasing Humanities (Eriginal Books, 2015) will be presented June 26 in the workshop “The Word Corner,” led by the poet Joaquín Gálvez, and will take place in the Café Demetrio, 300 Alhambra Cicle, Coral Gables, Miami. 


Translated by Regina Anavy

Poetry Saves Me / Luis Felipe Rojas

19 Jun

Luis Felipe Rojas, 3 June 2015 — Once again I am publishing, in liberty, a poetry book: “Machine for erasing humanity” (EriginalBooks, 2015). It confirms that poetry removes the restraints on my life.

I don’t believe that poetry is the “Cinderella” of literary genres. Poetry is the act that leaves the public breathless, the vehicle that sustains the millennial spectacle of lyrics, and it’s outside all logic of the contemporary market. I continue believing in the bard, the troubadour, whom the tribe awaits for news of the shore beyond the river.

Today I feel the joy of sharing with you my sixth book of poetry, my second in the land of liberty, after the generous hands of Armando Añel and Idabel Rosales opened the doors for me in 2013 with “Feeding the dogfight” in Neo Club Editions. On this occasion I am in the hands of the excellent illustrator, Nilo Julián Gonzán Preval, whose magic you may verify throughout the book. Nilo illustrated the first issue of the review Bifronte in 2005: Thanks again, my brother!

It’s the first time that I worked together with Marlene Moleón and Eriginal Books, and I can only be grateful for their counsel on this road that we just began today. The suggestion that Ernesto Valdes lay out the book was primordial. Thank you both.

Luis Felipe Rojas Rosabal, born in San Germán, Holguín, 1971, has published the poetry books Secrets of Monk Louis (Holguín Editions, 2001), Sewer Animal (Ácana, 2005), Songs of bad living (Loynaz, 2005), Obverse of the beloved beast (April, 2006) and Feeding the dogfight (NeoClub, 2013). For his dissident actions he was censored and repudiated by the authorities of his country, where he worked as an independent journalist. He is the author of the blog, Crossing the Barbed Wire. He works for Martí News.

About the illustrator: Nílo Julián González Preval was born in Havana, 1967. Cartoonist. Poet. Painter. Manager of public events. Twelve personal exhibitions, 36 collective exhibitions, 4 individual and several collective awards, more than 200 illustrations published nationally and internationally. Photographer. Artisan. Sculptor. More than 20 personal readings of short stories and poetry. His poems have been published in reviews and newspapers in Cuba and in the world. Director of art and actor in the group OMNI. Cultural promoter in his community. Director of the project of social community intervention, Community Gallery. He is the founder of the group OMNI-Zona Franca, which has carried out more than 200 performances and public, collective and individual actions.

On Friday, June 26, I await you in the salon, The Word Corner, a type of literary cave that the poet Joaquín Galvez has put together for lovers of the arts. The gathering will be in the Café Demetrio, 300 Alhambra Circle, Coral Gables, Miami, FL 33134. The presentation will be at 7:00 p.m.

Translated by Regina Anavy

An Abandoned Doll…at the gates of Miami / Luis Felipe Rojas

6 Jun

Story of an Abandoned Doll, Teatro Pálpito. Photos LFRojas.

Artefactus Teatro has been so kind as to receive Ariel Bouza and his team into its southeast space in Miami. Bouza and company bring a gift from Havana for this April: a loose, free version of Story of an Abandoned Doll by Norge Espinosa, which is from the text by the Spanish playwright Alfonso Sastre.

I traveled far into the southern reaches of Miami to see this play for the second time in my life, having already seen it once in Camagüey. It seems they have taken extra care to conserve the grace with which Paquita and Lolita play with ambition, love, envy, and piety within a theatrical framework that places the performance beyond the fallacies that we so often see in current times.

Ariel Bouza (Teatro Pálpito, Havana) directs the action with equal parts drama, laughter, and reflection to carry the spectators into situations where they must decide who are the heroes and anti-heroes, but there can be no middle ground. This piece that Bouza has been taking to the stage since 1999 has the bonus of ambivalence: it can be viewed and enjoyed equally by children and adults. Sastre’s version is classical, hierarchical, and well placed in the history of modern theater–it is rejuvenated with Bouza’s staging and a good push from Teatro Pálpito.

Gleris Garcés (Lolita) takes all the applause. Though a very young actor he does not lack mastery. The handling of the attire and dolls, the conversation of the voices, and the projection he puts forth in their tones to reach the rearmost seats, earn him the sympathy of the spectators from the very moment he appears on the scene.

With the version by the Cuban critic, playwright and poet Norge Espinosa, something surprising occurs, for it comes to us from the proven hands of Sastre, who, in turn, is filtering through the shadow of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the well-known play by Bertolt Brecht. The result is unscathed between these two excellent writers who were obligatory reference points in 20th century play-writing.

Both actors, Bouza and Garcés, radiate the splendor of these words that do not go into a vacuum; the theater always serves the people, andHistory of an Abandoned Doll saves its spectators. This morning of Saturday the 4th, there were only five of us in the auditorium, invited to play and to enjoy the work of artists who exemplify dignity in performance. I watched them as if they were performing, ultimately, to a full house–which it was–because every setting is a judgment on how well someone is doing in life who is implicated in this dream: from the lady who cleans the windows to the theater director, who heads up the roster in the playbill.

I invite you all to visit Artefactus Theater, the venue where Teatro Pálpito is celebrating the feast of words and gestures. It is at 12302 SW 133 Court, in Miami.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison and others



There is a Cuban graffiti artist, in jail because of two pigs named “Fidel” and “Raul”

20 Apr

Graffiti from El Sexto, which simulates a rebel commander well known by Cubans.


Luis Felipe Rojas, 16 April 2015 —  His name is Danilo Maldonado, but in Cuba he is known as El Sexto (The Sixth). When the five spies were still in jail in the United States, Maldonado used to say he was the “sixth hero” and started to make graffiti with his spray can on the walls of Havana. This action also took place at the time of the celebration of the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba.

On December 25, 2004, Maldonado was detained and since then has been in jail in the horrible prison of Valle Verde. On that day he wanted to release two pigs in Central Park in Havana: they were painted with the names of “Fidel” and “Raul”, and that was enough to send him to prison. The solidarity with this graffiti artist and freelance artist has not stopped, many voices are being raised for his freedom.

Graffiti from El Sexto, near a police station.

Translated by AnonyGY

Seven Steps to Kill Orlando Zapata Tamayo / Luis Felipe Rojas

1 Mar

Orlando Zapata Tamayo

Luis Felipe Rojas — I published this post a few days after that needless death. Now I again denounce the death and express the same ideas about it. It’s my homage to my brother, Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

I am still experiencing the pain caused by that avoidable death, and I feel impotent because I didn’t attend the funeral honoring him due to political impediments, but that hasn’t stopped me from saying that in any case, what I present here seem to be the seven final steps that advanced the repressive machinery used to kill Zapata.

1. Setting up that para-judicial theater that imposed a sentence of 63 years on him for contempt.

2. The continuous beatings accompanied by obscene words and insults about his race and the region where he lived (shitty negro, shitty peasant).

3. Putting him in prisons that were located far away from his mother’s home (Prison Kilo Cinco y Medio in Pinar del Rio, Prison Kilo 8 in Camaguey).

4. The beatings in November 2009 in the Holguin jail when they knocked him down smashing his leg with a steel bar, on his knee cap, and that his mother saw again when she opened the coffin in her house in Banes and also discovered that there were other marks of the beating with clubs that he surely received months before.

5. The forced removal to Camaguey and the robbery of his belongings on December 3 when they confiscated the only food he was eating in prison. This was the fact that made in declare a hunger strike.

6. Taking away water for the 18 days in the middle of the strike even when he had said that he was declaring a hunger strike but would drink small amounts of water.

7. The maneuver of taking him to a hospital for prisoners in Camaguey, west of Havana, and putting him in a room that was not set up for treating prisoners in a grave condition.

I lack the power of analysis in this case, but please don’t keep saying that the government didn’t have a hand in his death. The execution order was given from the office of General Raul Castro Ruz.

Translated by Regina Anavy

23 February 2015

“United States or Die” Demand Cubans in Veracruz / Luis Felipe Rojas

6 Feb

Photo taken by Universo Increible (Incredible Universe)

Rafael Alejandro Hernández Real, who says he was an agent of State Security in Cuba — infiltrated into the Eastern Democratic Alliance — in September 2014 chained himself in the Plaza Bolivar of Bogota, Colombia, and now is on a hunger strike, demanding that he be allowed to go to the United States, according to a report from Universo Increible.

“Ten young Cuban emigrants have declared a hunger and drink strike in the immigration station at Acayucán, in the state of Veracruz, in order to avoid being deported to Cuba. Right now there are seven men and three women. The group of strikers has been increasing before the official denials and threats of being returned to the island,” reports the news source.

Hernández Real made himself known in 2008 when, together with Eliecer Ávila and other students at the University of Information Sciences in Havana, they questioned the then-president of the Peoples’ Power National Assembly. Ricardo Alarcón. On that occasion Ávila and Hernández Real called for the freedom to leave the country, to visit historic sites of the world like “Che Guevara’s tomb in Bolivia,” and they questioned the supposed unanimity of the general voting that takes place in Cuba.

Translated by Regina Anavy

6 February 2015

Angelito Santiesteban Does Not Believe Himself the Center of the World

24 Jan

Sonia Garro Alfonso, recently freed Lady in White. Collage over a piece by Rolando Pulido.

The writer and blogger Ángel Santiesteban Prats, from the prison where he is serving an unjust sentence, just published–thanks to the help of a friend on Facebook–a brief post expressing his thoughts about the recent releases of political prisoners. As always, Angelito is filled with Light and strength. May my embrace reach him though the faithful reproduction of his text.

Ángel’s post:

I have received the expressions of pain from many friends, my publisher, and my relatives–some stupefied, others offended–over my exclusion from the list of prisoners recently released by the Cuban government.

Upon completing almost two years of unjust imprisonment, I can assure everyone that never have I asked the correctional authories or, even less, the officials from State Security who have visited me, when I will be released. I will never give them that satisfaction, just as I have never inquired whether I will be given the pass* which is granted to all “minimum severity” prisoners like me, who am sentenced to five years.

Nonetheless, although I know that I am not on the noted list, my joy is infinite at knowing that those who were on it are now free. My suffering is universal. I feel all Cubans to be an extension of me, or vice versa, above all those who have suffered and do suffer for an ideal–and in particular that of freedom for our country.

I also believe that the list that so gladdened me was missing the names of other political prisoners who deserved to have been added. There will always be some who are excluded because government’s sleight-of-hand is very swift and, when it already has one list compiled, it as another of recently-apprehended inmates.

It is unfair to think that they should have taken one name off to insert another. Rather, they should have added to the list, because those who were freed deserved it, just as do those who still remain in the totalitarian regime’s jails–some shut away and subjected to inhumane treatment for many years, for whose imminent freedom I pray.

By the same token, and referring again to the recycling of political prisoners, we must now clamor for the immediate absolution and liberation of El Sexto, Danilo Maldonado, whom they keep in the Valle Grande prison for a crime of “disrespect to the images of the leaders.” This is a further proof of how jealously they hold on to their power, and of what they are ready and able to do to safeguard it. Power and its dictators are untouchable, and to live is to see it.

I will not live long enough to infinitely thank those who clamor for my release, and those who suffer because of my imprisonment, but we must clamor for all–just as my publisher entreats on the blog, “The Children That Nobody Wanted,” and my family through social media. At the least, may I be last on the list, as I will complain no more.

Ángel Santiesteban-Prats

January, 2014. Jaimanitas Border Patrol Prison Unit, Havana.

*Translator’s note: In an earlier post Ángel explained the Cuban penal system that allows prisoners with shorter sentences to leave prison every so many days for extended (overnight) home visits. He was granted one of these passes when he was in the Lawton Settlement, a work camp, but future passes were withheld.

 Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison 

22 January 2015


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