It seems crazy that I somehow didn’t know there was a graphic novel about Cuba, but alas, that was the case until I saw The Mary Sue’s books section of their fantastic gift guide. Written by Inverna Lockpez, illustrated by Dean Haspiel, and colored by José Villarrubia, Cuba: My Revolution tells Lockpez’s life story via Sonya, an aspiring artist who is 17 when the story starts on New Year’s Eve in 1958.
After Fidel takes the country that night, her world changes quickly. She decides to put her love of art on
hold in order to become a doctor, following in her father’s footsteps and fulfilling a pressing need after so many medical professionals jumped ship. We follow along as she trains with limited equipment, is relied upon too heavily due to personnel shortages, and eventually goes to the front lines of Playa Girón, known
in the US as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. From there her life takes a turn for the dark and surreal, and it becomes harder for Sonya to see the good in the Revolution, even as she tries to hold on to that hope. As scarcity becomes more common, private property is seized, behavior is monitored, and it gets harder to leave the island, Sonya tries to reconcile what she and others fought for with the reality of what eventually becomes a communist (or “Marxist-Leninst”) state. There’s also an interesting look at how both the medical professions an the art world of Cuba evolved in the early days.
The visual aspect of this book is stunning, and the use of panels, background illustrations and occasional surreal or dream elements that emerge over the two demonstrate the many layers of the story, as well as some elements of foreshadowing and occasionally a way of showing the reader what is real and what is a trauma-induced delusion. If graphic novels are not normally your fare, I think this is a great introduction to the medium. There are no elements of cartoonishness, superheroes, or the supernatural, as some may associate with comic books and graphic novels. Instead, the illustrations give a flavor of one of the world’s most visually captivating places. For a culture (and the story of a person) that so heavily emphasizes visual artistic expression, the medium could only be more perfect if it came with a soundtrack.
This book is a great introduction for those who know very little of Cuba’s history, with lots of easter eggs for those more familiar, like visual references to the Orichas (beyond the very basic amount that is explained for story purposes), a sub-plot involving Célia Sanchez, and a joke that the guerilleros are a popular subject for artwork–“even Camilo.” There are also small references to bigger topics, like the ending of prostitution (and whether that phrase deserves scare quotes), the freedom to go to the beach, and the misogyny and materialism of the high society of 1950s Havana.
As with all books about Cuba from a personal perspective (and even some that are “academic”) it is an intense story that shows one of the many sides of Cuba’s history. It’s important to remember that it covers less than a decade within Cuba’s history, and refrains completely from commenting on Cuba’s trajectory since the story’s close. I recommend that anyone interested in Cuba read as many books from as many different perspectives as they can in order to get the full picture. That being said, there are so few English-language accounts of what life was like in the years immediately after Fidel came charging down from the Sierra Maestra, as well as how the Revolution was framed and perceived in 1959, and how that changed, making Cuba, My Revolution truly valuable testimony about a defining chain of events from the 20th century.
Perhaps the most intense aspect of this story is that one can clearly feel the pull between, on the one side, Sonia’s ideals and hope for what Fidel can do for her country’s future, and on the other side, the rumors she hears and the poverty, brutality, upheaval, and incompetence that grow harder to ignore. If she didn’t believe in change and in removing Batista, her account wouldn’t be as powerful. Unfortunately, so many who criticize Castro’s regime only compare it to a selective version of the United States, as opposed to the reality in Cuba in the decades leading up to the revolution, or even a more accurate portrayal of the US, including our rates of poverty, literacy, high school graduation, HIV/AIDS, violence against women, and of course the civil and human rights violations perpetrated by our government. Instead, Lockpez and Haspiel contextualize the story well with a brief introduction of Batista’s Cuba, a history lesson that tends to be missing from most American curricula on Cuba.
If you are looking to learn more about the early years of the Cuban Revolution, are interested in seeing what a graphic novel has to offer from a storytelling perspective, or just want to become lost inside of the true story of one young woman’s struggle to reconcile her ideals with reality, then I emphatically recommend Cuba: My Revolution.
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