Hispanic Heritage Month Latino Legends: Nicolás Cristóbal Guillén Batista

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Nicolás Cristóbal Guillén Batista (July 10, 1902 — July 16, 1989) was an Afro-Cuban poet, journalist, political activist, and writer. He is best remembered as the national poet of Cuba.

Guillén abandoned a legal career and worked as both a typographer and journalist. His poetry was published in various magazines beginning in the early 1920s. His first collection, Motivos de son (1930) was strongly influenced by his meeting that year with the poet, Langston Hughes. In this first volume of poetry, Guillén drew from his mixed African and Spanish ancestry and education to combine his knowledge of traditional literary form with firsthand experience of the speech, legends, songs, and the songs of Afro-Cubans.

It wasn’t until the release of Motivos de son that Guillén would appeal in literary terms by expressing a personal account of the struggles, dreams, and mannerisms of Afro-Cubans.

Guillén would later become politically outspoken and disappointed with the portrayal of the daily life of the poor. He began to denounce their oppression in his poetry. Guillén also reflected on his growing political commitment and is probably the best-known representative of the “poesía negra” (“black poetry”), which tried to create a “poetic mestizaje,” a synthesis between black and white cultural elements.

Guillén was later acknowledged by critics as the most influential of Latin American poets who dealt with African themes and who re-created African song and dance rhythms in literary form. Inspired by the living conditions of Afro-Cubans and the popular ‘son’ music, the Motivos de son volume consists of eight short poems using the everyday language of Afro-Cubans. The works stood out in the literary world because it emphasized and established the importance of Afro-Cuban culture as a valid genre in Cuban literature.

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