(This is a guest post by Cuban-American author and anthropologist Ruth Behar. “Lucky Broken Girl,” the winner of the Pura Belpre Award, was her first book for young readers. She stopped by the Hispanic Reading Room to perform Otra Piel before the National Book Festival. In this post, she shares its creation story).
As soon as Rolando Estévez, the Cuban artist famous for his work with Ediciones Vigía, learned in late fall of 2017 that he was invited to participate in a conversation with me about his handmade books at the Artes de Cuba Festival the following year, he began to think of new works he wanted to create to showcase in Washington. The project he was most excited about, Vestirse de poesía [Dressed in Poetry], would bring together poems by Cuban and American women.
Estévez had been one of the strongest supporters of my Bridges to Cuba project from the 1990s, in which I’d brought together in one anthology the writing and art of Cuban and Cuban-American writers and artists at a time when there was little contact between the island and the diaspora. Now what he wanted was to create a bridge of poetry between women of the island and women from the United States. He was continually seeking ways to celebrate women’s writing and this project would be a large-scale feminist homage.
He asked me if I’d collaborate with him on this project. I said I gladly would and he asked me to send him the poems of twenty women poets from the United States and he’d gather the poems by twenty women poets from Cuba. This wasn’t an easy request to fulfill. There were so many poets to choose from. I tried to be as inclusive and wide-ranging as possible, including well-known poets of the American literary canon, all of whose first names began with “E,” such as Emma Lazarus, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Elizabeth Bishop. I couldn’t imagine leaving out Sylvia Plath and Grace Paley or Mary Oliver and Carolyn Forché. And women of color, indigenous, African American, and Latina poets had to be present, including Joy Harjo, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, Sandra Cisneros, Aurora Levins Morales, and Marjorie Agosin. Still, I knew it was an incomplete list. In turn, Estévez created a list of historical and contemporary women poets from Cuba, including Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda and Luisa Pérez de Zambrana, Dulce María Loynaz, Fina García Marruz, Nancy Morejón, and Georgina Herrera, as well as poets from Matanzas, not known that well outside of Cuba, including Digdora Alonso and Carilda Oliver Labra.
In the midst of this ambitious project, Estévez was busy creating El Fortín, or “the little fort,” the artist’s studio in Matanzas he had struggled to attain for years. After much effort, he had acquired a ruined building which he sought to transform into an uplifting space where he could make and display his beautiful books. He’d send me updates via email on the progress of El Fortín and the book project.
On March 25, 2018, at 10:24am, he wrote: “Dear Ruth: Well, here we are, deep into questions of carpentry while continuing to work on my art… I will soon start working on Vestirse de Poesía, which is the provisional title I’ve given to the dress of poems by Cuban and North American women writers. I’ve been thinking it could be a bride’s dress, that would give a whole other connotation to the piece, and it would then be about establishing a loyal and eternal marriage with the purest and most total of all the arts: poetry. But I should keep thinking about this. I think while I work, it’s a fabulous exercise, that makes you feel you’re not just one artist but two at the same time.”
When he wrote to me on April 3, 2018, at 11:22pm, he still hadn’t gotten to work on the piece, but he would soon:
“Tomorrow I’ll start to work on the black wedding dress for the performance in Washington, the work will be arduous and long… I’ll have to write out by hand about a hundred fragments of poems. But I’ll do it happily because I love the idea and I’m full of enthusiasm, I know it will be an important work for us both.”
On Saturday April 14, 2018, Estévez sent me an email from his home in Matanzas at 11:08pm. There he shared a key inspiration for the book-dress project:
“I have a favor to ask you, I need all of your measurements to create the gown for the work about the Cuban and North American women poets. I had previously asked you for just one or two measurements, but I’ve changed my mind, now it will be a bride’s black wedding gown, with a black veil as well, a gown with an empire style, in other words, the seam of the dress will be below the bust, it will be fastened in the front with Velcro, so it will be easy to put on, because this will be presented live at the auditorium, and done quickly as well.”
Estévez and I have been friends since 1994. We met while I was visiting Cuba to reconnect with my roots on the island where I was born and to attend the Havana Book Fair. That was when I first became acquainted with his stunning handmade books. Ever since, we’ve collaborated on a wide range of projects. I was fortunate to have him design and illustrate several handmade books with my poems and stories, and he also has created a few one-of-a-kind books for me that I treasure. But I had not expected that I would ever be part of a performance of one of his books; that my body would be incorporated into a work. I kept on reading his message, eager to learn more about this work, in which I would be so deeply enmeshed.
“The poems will be parchment scrolls that will be attached to various parts of the dress, they are black on the underside, and white on the front, so that when they are untied from the dress they will look brighter, nearly white, so that you will be Dressed in Poetry, and this, for the time being, is the provisional title of the piece. I know you are always very busy, but I need for you to go to a seamstress or tailor that can take ALL OF THE MEASUREMENTS necessary to sew the dress, of which I will now send you a preliminary sketch, just so that person can have an idea of the measurements they have to take of you, the dress will be made here by Migdalia Seguí, who is a costume designer for the theater, and also an actress… Pardon me for making you work when you are already so busy, but it is necessary for the success of the piece that the dress fit you perfectly. Here I’m attaching the sketch, which doesn’t include the parchment scrolls which will be sewn onto the dress, it’s just so the seamstress or tailor can see what measurements to take… Rest and work, even if that seems contradictory it’s the law of life. Thousands of kisses from your, Estévez.”
I have a friend in Ann Arbor who is a wonderful seamstress and specializes in confectioning tango dresses. I asked her to take all my measurements, and on April 20, 2018, I sent Estévez the complete list so he could proceed with the creation of the dress. He let me know on April 26, 2018 that the measurements had arrived and that they were perfect:
“Tomorrow, Friday, I have an appointment with the seamstress, a young woman who is also an actress in children’s theater, I say she’s a muchacha and now I remember she’s sixty years old, but I’m recalling some verses that say: Those whom I love don’t grow old, and it’s true, because when you know someone since they were young, as is the case with her and me, you always see that person as if she were still a young girl. As for everything else, lots of work, I’ve already written out all the poems in English by hand, and I’ve added two women poets that you didn’t include in your list and that I like a lot and I read them long ago and I have a book by one of them, they are Marianne Moore and Hilda Doolittle, I love their works, in total there are now more than thirty North American women and the same number of Cuban women. I have more than twelve of the Cuban women poets done, you can imagine that signifies entire days sitting at my work desk in my living room… I have placed you, in this work of the dress of poems, in the group of Cuban women poets, so your poem will appear in Spanish. Say hello to David and receive the kisses of your friend.”
Estévez worked diligently throughout the rest of April, and then May, writing out the poems by hand, and attaching the poems onto the dress. It was a project that grew out of his theater background. He had worked throughout his life designing sets for the theater in Matanzas and thought of his handmade books as dramatic works that opened and closed with dramatic flourishes and kept secrets inside that had to be searched for. That a book could exist in the form of a dress, with poems sewn onto the fabric that you had to unfurl to read, made total sense from his point of view, as he is drawn to the different possibilities for deconstructing the idea of the book as we know it. At the same time, in this work he was seeking to engage with the most iconic of feminine garments – the bridal wedding dress – and using it to address the woman poet’s quest to speak in her own voice while existing (still) in a patriarchal society.
As the date of his trip in June approached, we spent a great deal of time via email and on the phone working out his travel arrangements to the United States, always complex for anyone traveling from Cuba. There were issues about how he’d get his visa and how he’d transport all his handmade books without paying a fortune for overweight baggage. In between our talk of logistics, he continued to think about Vestirse de poesía, and on June 10, 2018, at 3:25pm, he sent me some thoughts on how the work would be presented:
“I have decided that the bride will appear dressed and masked and I will give her the fan and bouquet, then immediately we move to read the text that you will have to translate for me, if you can, into English, so that somebody will read it aloud, the same person who will call out the names of the 45 women poets so that the audience will reply Presente! – or present, I think it is – while I unfurl the scrolls. I don’t know if I told you but here I’ll do a presentation on June 25, with a small group of jazz musicians and batá drummers, so that they can come together as one sound.”
The next day, on June 11, 2018, at 6:32pm, Estévez wrote me,
“Querida Ruth, You will be wearing make-up and dressed in normal attire for the first part of the presentation, I will dress you as a bride on stage, as I had thought, with the recorded music I’ll bring of batá drumming and jazz. You should wear very light clothing, so you can slip on the dress, that even though it’s a princess style, that is, the seam is under the bust, what you wear underneath should be light and fitted so it doesn’t bunch up… As I unroll each of the scrolls, the flower petals will fall out, that will be very beautiful, and the dress that was black will become white and you will be a woman mountain of poems… When I remove your mask I’ll approach the audience and I’ll go around breaking it into pieces and giving a piece to each person as I say: So that you don’t forget the wars; so you don’t forget the holocausts; so you don’t forget the hunger; so you don’t forget the dictatorships; so you don’t forget the shootings in the schools; etc. etc. etc. Until I don’t have any of the mask left anymore…”
Then, on June 12, 2018 at 4:12pm, he sent me an email about a change of plans for the title:
“I’ve changed my idea, now I think this is a better title: Otra piel para otra entraña, which in English would be Other skin for other entrails. What do you think? Me dices, please.”
I wrote back immediately asking him to explain what he wanted to convey with the title since I wasn’t sure if he wanted to say “entrails” or “insides” or “guts.” I suggested we go with Another Skin For New Insides.
He then wrote to me the same day at 6:18pm and he had a lot to say about the new title as well as the symbolic meaning of the work:
“It’s about the piece taking a stance for change; an external and an internal change, a total change. It’s of no use to change one’s skin if what’s inside continues to be rotten; it would be an absurd act of hypocrisy. We need to change the skin and the insides of the world, I think, so that we can be different in form and foundation. This woman enters with a skin of mourning; she is going to get married to indignity, to pain, war, hunger, holocausts, crimes, massacres, rafts drowned at sea filled with emigrants, the dictatorships, all the horrors. So the piece proposes a change of skin, which presupposes as well a change of all that’s inside, a surrender of all the blindfolded masks that don’t let us show how we are prepared to be happy. This change from the darkness to the clarity and transparency of poetry could save us, at least through a hypothetical gaze that is hopeful, positive. The bride then turns into a small mountain of poems, her veil becomes white, her bouquet now has fresh flowers, her fan is now pearly white. Do you think we could find fresh white flowers in Washington? I think so, don’t you? We’d add them to the bouquet that is already prepared with cloth flowers and white ribbons. I think all struggles to make the world a better place aren’t enough. At least we live with the hope that art offers us.”
When Estévez arrived in Washington on June 27, he was thrilled to have made the trip safely without too many obstacles at the airport in Havana and Miami. I met him at the airport and we were both so happy! But then we learned that the box in which he’d shipped Otra piel, and several other large book-installation pieces, hadn’t made it to Washington. The box apparently had been held back in Havana for further inspection and would be arriving later. Our presentation was the next day, June 28, at the Library of Congress, and it was clear the box wouldn’t arrive in time. All our plans to perform the work together had dissolved into air. But we decided to make the best of it. Estévez had a few of his smaller books. We’d talk about those and about his work in general. The performance of Otra piel para otra entraña/Another skin for new insides would wait for another time.
Sure enough, the box arrived the day after our event, on Friday, June 29. At least it wasn’t lost. Fortunately, Catalina Gómez and other librarians from the Library of Congress agreed to meet with us privately to have a look at Otra piel. They fell in love with it, just as Estévez and I hoped they would, and decided to acquire the work for the Library of Congress. Someday, we all said, Estévez and I would return and do the performance as we’d dreamed, before a live audience.
But as often happens, life got in the way. Soon after, the friendly U.S. relations with Cuba shut down. Then the pandemic came and made travel impossible. Yet we never lost hope, knowing the poems by women writers from both shores was a bridge connecting us all, offering a vision of a future illuminated with light and peace.
Estévez is proud that the work has found a home in the Library of Congress, where it will be preserved for others to see and enjoy and interact with. I have recorded all the poems in Spanish and English that are included in the work for the Library’s PALABRA Archive.
When I learned I was invited to the National Book Festival, to take place on September 3, 2022, I reached out to Catalina Gómez. She was able to arrange for me to come to the Library of Congress on September 2, 2022. Together with the chief of the Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division, Suzanne Schadl, Sonja Reid from the Library’s Preservation Directorate and Chun Yi, from the Library’s Multimedia Group, we made plans to carry out a mini-performance of Otra piel in the Hispanic Reading Room, respecting Estévez’s vision for how the work should be presented. Finally I would have the privilege to wear the poetry dress that he had fashioned meticulously to fit my measurements. A photographer and videographer were invited to take pictures and videos so that we could document this event.
How did it feel to wear the dress? I have to say, it felt absolutely magical. The dress not only fit me perfectly but it embraced me in a way that felt utterly comforting and also empowering. I was being held up by the words of many women who had written down the thoughts from their hearts in beautiful, powerful, searing poetry. Flowing between Spanish and English, these poems came together into a garment that was a symphony, a chorus of voices, a raft of hope.
Since I was wearing the dress, I couldn’t unroll the scrolled poems myself, and so I also became a tree, standing tall, while Catalina, Suzanne, and Sonja slowly unfurled each of the poems, and then I could admire all the branches brimming with poems. I couldn’t see the poems attached to the back of the dress or to the lower part of the gown, so it wasn’t until I got a glimpse of the pictures that I could fully appreciate the dramatism of this work, and how the bride of poetry needs her bridesmaids to move forward. To me, this suggests that the woman poet needs a community to write; she must read and learn from the poets who came before, as well as her contemporaries, and acknowledge that she is part of a lineage of writers who will leave a legacy for future writers too.
Otra piel is a work of artistic genius. I am proud to have collaborated with Rolando Estévez on this project that represents a bridge between Cuba and the United States. Another day, hopefully not too far in the future, we will perform it again, and Estévez will be there with us.
Note: All the translations of Estévez’s communications are by Ruth Behar. They maintain the punctuation and stream-of-consciousness style of Estévez’s writing. The original communications are included below in the order they appear in the text. They are shared with Estévez’s permission.
Original Spanish texts:
#1: Querida Ruth; pues aquí andamos, metidos en cuestiones de albañilería y sin dejar de trabajar en el arte. Estoy preparando un número de Ejemplares Únicos pequeños para llevarlos a Washington, a ver si los expongo y los vendo, eso sería perfecto. Acto seguido comenzaré a trabajar en Vestirse de Poesía que es el título provisional que le he dado al traje de poemas de cubanas y norteamericanas. He pensado también que pudiese ser un traje de novia, eso le daría una nueva connotación a la pieza, y se trataría entonces de establecer un matrimonio fiel y eterno con la más pura y total de todas las artes: la poesía. Pero todavía debo seguir pensando en eso. Yo pienso mientras trabajo, es un ejercicio fabuloso, que te deja pensar que no eres un solo artista sino dos a la vez.
#2: Mañana comienzo a trabajar en el traje de novia negro del performance de Washington, será una labor ardua y larga… tendré que manuscribir casi cien fragmentos de poemas. Pero lo haré con mucho gusto pues la idea me encanta y me tiene muy entusiasmado, ya que sé que será una obra importante para los dos.
#3: Tengo un favor que pedirte, necesito todas tus medidas para la realización del traje de la obra de las poetisas cubanas y norteamericanas, yo te había pedido solamente una o dos medidas, pero he cambiado de idea, ahora será un traje de novia negro, con velo negro también, un traje con un estilo imperio, es decir, que el corte del talle está debajo de los senos, se abrochara delante con velcro, pues debe ser muy fácil ponértelo ya que esto se hará en vivo delante del auditorio, y muy rápido también. Los poemas serán pergaminos que están sujetos a diversas partes del traje, son negros por detrás, pero por delante blancos, así cuando todos estén desplegados el traje va a resultar más claro, caso blanco, por lo tanto vas a quedar Vestida de poesía, y este es, por ahora, el título provisional de la pieza. Yo sé que estás siempre muy atareada, pero necesito que vayas con una modista o modisto que te tome TODAS LAS MEDIDAS necesarias para ejecutar el traje del cual te mando ahora un boceto preliminar, solo para que esa persona se dé cuenta de las medidas que te tiene que tomar, el traje aquí me lo confeccionará Migdalia Seguí, una realizadora de ropa de teatro, que es también actriz… Disculpa que te ponga a trabajar sobre todo lo que ya tienes, pero es necesario para el éxito de la pieza que el traje te quede perfecto. Aquí te adjunto el boceto, que no incluye los pergaminos que van cosidos a cada parte del traje, solo para que la costurera o costurero vea qué medidas tiene que tomar… Descansa y trabaja, aunque parezca contradictorio es una ley de la vida. Mil besos de tu,
#4: Mañana viernes tengo una cita con la modista, una muchacha que también es actriz de teatro para niños, digo muchacha y ahora recuerdo que tiene sesenta años, pero estoy recordando unos versos de alguien que dicen: La gente que yo quiero no envejece, y es una realidad, pues cuando conoces a alguien desde que es muy joven, como me pasa a mí con ella, siempre ves a esa persona como si siguiese siendo una niña. Por lo demás mucho trabajo, ya he realizado a mano la escritura de todos los poemas en inglés y además añadí a dos poetisas que no me pusiste en tu envío y que a mí me gustan mucho y las había leído hace mucho tiempo y tenía un libro de ellas, son Marianne Moore e Hilda Doolittle, me encantan sus obras, son en total más de treinta norteamericanas e igual número de cubanas. Ya con las cubanas voy por más de doce, ya te imaginas que eso significa días enteros sentado a la mesa de trabajo en mi sala…Yo te he puesto en esta obra del vestido de poesía en el grupo de las cubanas, así que tu poema irá en español. Saluda a David y recibe los besos de tu amigo.
#5: Ya he decidido que la novia salga vestida y enmascarada, y yo solamente le doy el abanico y el ramo, acto seguido se lee un texto qué me tendrás que traducir, si puedes, al inglés, para que alguien lo lea allí en ese idioma, la misma persona que irá nombrando a las 45 poetisas para que el público vaya diciendo: ¡Presente! –o present, según creo- mientras yo voy desenrollando pergaminos. No sé si te dije que aquí haré una presentación el día 25, con un pequeño grupo de jazz y tambores batá, para que se mezclen ambos en una sola sonoridad.
#6: Querida Ruth: Tú estarás maquillada y vestida normalmente para la primera parte de la presentación, te vestiré de novia como yo había pensado, en escena, con una música grabada que yo llevaré de batá con jazz. Debes tener debajo una ropa muy ligera, que permita ponerte el traje, que aunque es un corte princesa, es decir, con el talle debajo del busto, debe ser ligero y ceñido lo que lleves debajo, para que no abulte. La otra persona de la mesa deberá leer un texto que yo escribiré en español y que tú tendrás la gentileza de traducirme, si estás muy llena de cosas se lo pedimos al gran David, aunque yo prefiero que lo hagas tú, que eres una poeta y vas a traducir mejor un texto que es eminentemente poético. Mientras yo desenrollo los 45 pergaminos, ella dirá los nombres de las 45 autoras, y el público debe decir detrás de cada nombre: “presente” o “present”, es lo mismo, y esta es una manera de extender la responsabilidad del mejoramiento del mundo a todos los habitantes del mismo. Cuando se abre cada pergamino salen pétalos de rosas, eso será muy hermoso, y el traje que era negro, se irá volviendo blanco, y serás como una mujer montaña de poemas. El maquillaje no se te afectará para nada, ya que la máscara es muy profesional y suave. Ya está probada aquí con la bailarina que lo hará el día 25 a las cuatro de la tarde, y que es la que viste en fotos. Cuando yo te quito la máscara voy al público y la voy rompiendo un pequeños pedazos y le voy dando un pedacito a cada persona mientras digo: Para que no olvides las guerras; Para que no olvides los holocaustos; Para que no olvides el hambre; para que no olvides las dictaduras; Para que no olvides los tiroteos en las escuelas; Etc. Etc. Etc. Hasta que ya no me quede máscara…
#7: He cambiado de idea, ahora me parece mejor este título: Otra piel para otra entraña, que sería en inglés: Other skin for other entrails. ¿Qué te parece? Me dices, please.
#8: Se trata de que la pieza está reclamando un cambio; un cambio en lo externo y en lo interno, un cambio total, De nada serviría cambiar la piel si lo de adentro sigue podrido; sería un absurdo acto de hipocresía. Hay que cambiar la piel y la entraña del mundo, pienso yo, para que fuésemos distintos en forma y fondo. Esta mujer entra con una piel de luto; se va a matrimoniar con la ignominia, el dolor, la guerra, el hambre, los holocaustos, los crímenes, las masacres, las balsas hundidas en los mares repletas de emigrantes, las dictaduras, los horrores todos. Entonces la pieza propone un cambio de piel, que presupone además un cambio en el todo interior, una pérdida de las máscaras blindadas que no nos dejan mostrar que estamos preparados para ser felices. Este cambio de lo oscuro por la claridad y transparencia de la poesía pudiera salvarnos, al menos en una mirada hipotética, esperanzadora, positiva. La novia se convierte entonces en una pequeña montaña de poemas, su velo cambia al blanco, su ramo tiene ahora flores frescas, su abanico es de un blanco nacarado. ¿Podremos conseguir flores blancas frescas esa noche en Washington? Yo creo que sí, ¿verdad? Para añadírselas al ramo que ya va preparado con flores de tela y cintas blancas. Creo que toda lucha por mejorar al mundo es poca. Al menos vivamos la esperanza que nos brinda el arte.
Handbook of Latin American Studies (HLAS): A Resource Guide The Handbook of Latin American Studies is a bibliography on Latin America consisting of works selected and annotated by scholars.
The PALABRA Archive at the Library of Congress The PALABRA Archive is a collection of original audio recordings of 20th and 21st century Luso-Hispanic poets and writers reading from their works. This link takes you to the audio recordings of South American authors. This other link takes you to PALABRA Indigenous Voices Project, a subset of the PALABRA Archive focused on poetry and literature written and spoken in Indigenous languages.
Library of Congress Research Guides Library’s guides organized by research topic and collections – these include both online materials, and materials only available on site. The guides related to the Caribbean, Iberian, and Latin American Studies can be found here.