Voces on PBS “Letters to Eloisa”

Premiering Friday, Oct. 15 at 9 p.m.

Told through the haunting letters written by the acclaimed Cuban writer José Lezama Lima to his sister living in exile, Letters to Eloísa tells the remarkable story of one of Latin America’s most revered writers. Weaving together the public and the private, the literary and the political, the film reveals how Lezama’s voice, at first amplified by the revolution’s cultural policies, was ultimately silenced by the absence of creative freedom in Cuba during its most tumultuous decades. A film by Adriana Bosch, Letters to Eloisa features Alfred Molina as the voice of Lezama and music by Arturo Sandoval.

Arguably the most influential Cuban writer of the 20th century, Lezama was part of the mid-century Latin American literary boom that included Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz and Mario Vargas Llosa. His semi-autobiographical opus, Paradiso, was considered a masterwork, but it also included graphic homoerotic scenes which sent shockwaves throughout the Spanish-speaking literary world. “Never had such an openly homosexual novel, so extraordinary in its use of images, so Cuban, and so Latino American been written,” Reinaldo Arenas, author of Before Nightfall, observes. Its publication would set Lezama on a collision course with the Cuban Revolutionary government.

José Lezama Lima was born in 1910 and grew up in an aristocratic family that eventually fell into genteel poverty. Passionate about literature, he became a celebrated poet and founded an influential literary journal, Orígenes. As its editor, he became the leader of a group of Cuban intellectuals determined to save their culture by reaffirming its identity against America’s modernizing influence and the corruption prevalent in the Cuban Republic of the 1940s and 50s.

When Castro assumed power in 1959 Lezama saw the revolution as “the triumph of Cuba’s finest aspirations,” as it promised to affirm the universality and strength of Cuban culture that Orígenes had promoted. Lezama contributed to the cultural flourishing of the revolution’s early years, but he soon fell out of step with Cuba’s growing revolutionary zeal, its macho, militaristic aesthetics, and its crackdown on dissent.

With the publication of Paradiso, Lezama clashed with the government’s virulent homophobia that included the separation of thousands from their careers. Homosexuals were even interned in concentration camps—the infamous UMAPs—where they were subjected to forced “rehabilitation” that included hard labor and even physical torture, as recent research has revealed.

A closeted homosexual, Lezama avoided the worst of the repression. But his book provoked a scandal unprecedented in Cuban literature and was temporarily removed from bookstores.

Influential friends outside of Cuba helped Lezama survive this first confrontation with the revolution’s leaders. The novel was soon published in Mexico and Spain and translated into Italian, French and English, catapulting Lezama to the heights of the literary world during the heady period known as the Latin American Boom. Finally, the book returned to bookshelves in Cuba, but the book would not be reissued in Cuba for 25 years, and Lezama was never again trusted by the government.

Then, on March 20, 1971, dissident poet Heberto Padilla was jailed on vague charges of “having plotted against the powers of the state.” After weeks of physical and psychological torture, Padilla publicly “confessed his crimes.” In what came to be known as “The Padilla Affair,” he named names of other intellectuals disaffected with the Revolution, among them Lezama, whom he accused of “being ungrateful to the revolution and making private jokes against it.”

Lezama’s world ended on that day. He was censored and ostracized, his books removed from libraries and bookstores. His name was never again mentioned in journals or in the Cuban classroom.  And old friends, fearing political consequences, no longer visited. Despite numerous invitations to collect literary prizes and speak at conferences, Lezama was never allowed to leave the island and remained a virtual prisoner in his Havana home for the next six years. His pain and desolation filled the pages of letters to his sister Eloisa.

His death on August 9, 1976, was mourned on the front pages of newspapers across the world, but in his native Cuba, only a few lines would note his passing in the official national newspaper: “A Regrettable Loss to Cuban Letters.” Says filmmaker Bosch, “Lezama was elitist in a mass revolution, Catholic in a Marxist country, and homosexual in a homophobic regime. He was also a writer who deeply believed in freedom as a necessity to art, poetry and truth.”

Letters to Eloisa tells the story of a remarkable artist who was tragically silenced in the midst of what was a brilliant career,” says Sandie Viquez Pedlow, Executive Producer of VOCES. “We hope this film will lead to a rediscovery of his work and remind us of the importance of creative and personal freedom and the plight of present-day artists who are working under oppressive regimes.”

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