One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution

Reviewed by Miriam

Nancy Stout, One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012)

Long overdue in the catalog of books on the Cuban Revolution, Nancy Stout’s One Day in December has made an important contribution to the study of the guerrilla insurrection and Fidel’s Cuba by presenting Celia Sánchez Manduley as one of the Revolution’s key players. Stout sheds light on and pays well-deserved homage to this valiant and fiercely strong-minded Cuban female revolutionary, who remains hardly known outside of Cuba.

Celia was an undeniable asset in the success of the Revolution. She was a devoted colleague and friend of Fidel Castro, and had an immense impact on both the physical landscape and the people of Cuba. Nevertheless, surprisingly little in-depth work has considered her key role in the revolution. The author’s ten years of research, including access to restricted and classified archives as well as dozens of interviews with friends, family, and colleagues of Celia, has resulted – finally – in a biography worthy of the woman.

One Day in December begins during Celia Sánchez’s youth and ends with her death, narrating the nearly sixty years of her vibrant and dynamic life. Celia was born in May 1920 in Cuba’s then eastern province of Manzanillo . She was the fourth of eight children in the upper-middle class home of rural doctor Manuel Sánchez, and his wife, Acacia Manduley. From quite a young age, Celia became politically active, and in the early 1950s, became involved with the 26th of July movement, the anti-Batista movement led by Fidel Castro. As the title suggests, Celia’s life was transformed quite dramatically in December in 1954, when she was asked to organize the landing of Fidel and his revolutionaries – sailing from Mexico – in the eastern part of Cuba. The landing occurred in December 1956. Over the next two years, Celia worked clandestinely from Manzanillo, handling supplies for the guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra, coordinating communications, and recruiting new members, among many other responsibilities.

In these early years we witness Celia’s willingness to push the boundaries, her creative approach to problem-solving, and her often stubborn determination. For example, worried that the military might be suspicious of her boat trips as she coordinated Fidel’s arrival to Cuba, Celia invited the son of Sergeant Matos of the Rural Guard on a fishing trip with many of her friends in hopes of allaying any worries that Matos might have had about her. Years earlier, Celia protested against retaking a final exam that her professor had declared unreadable. She refused to take it in protest of this injustice, and consequently was deprived of a high school diploma.

It is also in these early years that we learn of Celia’s immense social network, which she taps into throughout her life. As a doctor’s daughter, Celia frequently attended patients and helped her father in the clinic. In her youth, she organized an annual Christmas raffle in Manzanillo and used the money to buy gifts for all the kids in the town and surrounding countryside. Later, her kind gestures and tireless work would come in handy as she recruited people throughout the region to join the movement. They helped make possible many of her accomplishments, from ensuring a constant supply of medicines to constructing a system of telecommunication among the guerrillas.

In February 1957, Celia met Fidel for the first time, beginning a relationship which Stout describes as evolving into a “highly private, dovetailed alliance” (380). Stout devotes ample space to Celia’s and Fidel’s relationship but does not dwell on gossip surrounding the possibility of a romance. “They absolutely did not relinquish their loyalty to each other, or their day-to-day contact. They forged a bond to weather all storms” (380). Stout reveals that they did consider the possibility of marriage, but decided against it. Stout’s nuanced interpretation of their relationship is the most convincing that I have encountered.

The Revolution officially triumphed on January 1, 1959, when Batista fled the country and the Rebel army took control of Havana and began to consolidate its newly founded state. For the next twenty-one years, Celia served in a variety of government positions while spearheading a number of her own projects. The immense ingenuity and ambition she exhibited in the insurrection’s early years resurfaced repeatedly later on as she undertook the design and construction of public spaces (such as the Lenin Park and the Copelia ice cream parlor with a capacity of 1000 people), an archive of the Revolution, and cigar factories to create jobs for women.

On a personal level, Celia never married and never had children of her own. She was known to “adopt” children from provinces outside of Havana who lived with her in her apartment on Calle Once in the Havana Neighborhood of El Vedado.

While the book’s primary focus is the years from Celia’s early involvement in the revolution to the revolution’s “triumph” in 1959, one of the book’s strengths is that it doesn’t stop Celia’s story with the end of the guerrilla insurrection, as many other biographies have done. Rather, we witness Celia both before and after that period of heightened stress and intensity, and are led to understand her as a dynamic and multi-faceted person who learns and grows through the course of her life.

Up until now, the paucity of published material on Celia has made getting a full picture of this woman’s life a challenge. While dozens of magazine articles, poems, and speeches have been written about her, few in-depth projects have been undertaken. The other biographies that exist are focused almost exclusively on Celia during the years of the insurrection, and they tend to deify her figure to an extreme. Stout’s biography is able to join these sources with her own research to give the reader a balanced and thorough understanding of Celia’s life.

This biography adds a huge range of detail and a new understanding of Celia’s life after the revolution, including her home life, her relationship with Fidel, and the intrigue and lack of communication surrounding her sickness and death. Moreover, while the book contains a strict timeline of events in the Revolution and Celia’s role in it, it also indulges in side stories and seemingly extraneous yet fascinating details. For example, in her youth, Celia fired a pistol out of her window after suspecting that a man was peeping at her and her cousin. We learn details of the parties that the Cuban delegation was and wasn’t invited to as they attended a United Nations meeting in New York in 1960. While initially the long side stories can feel confusing and seem to take away from the plot’s principal arc, the playful anecdotes about Celia’s adventures begin to show the depth and the complex interplay of the revolution’s protagonists.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is the insight it gives into the complexities of an extremely volatile time. Readers are taken on a chaotic, intense ride through the development of the revolution and its effects on Celia from a personal, political, familial, physical, and emotional perspective. Nancy Stout ends the Foreword with the question, “What does it mean to have a friend, a daughter, or a sister who is a revolutionary?” (19). While not the book’s central question, this points to the importance that Stout places on telling a holistic story; she does not focus single-mindedly on Celia, but intertwines her story with the stories of her friends, family, and co-revolutionaries. We feel Celia’s anxiety as she tells her ailing father that she cannot visit him. We learn about the pressure put on her family when she was pursued by the Batista government. We learn of the excitement of Celia’s sisters’ Acacia and Griselda at the final stages of the Revolution and their desire to witness live combat. Moreover, the book celebrates the lives of her fallen comrades – Frank País, Clodomira the courier – and tells us also of those who survived her (her family members in Cuba and in Miami, her many adopted children, and Fidel).

Stout’s inclusion of such side-stories reflects her refusal to oversimplify (something all too common and frequently accepted in works on Cuba) and her commitment to the truth. Stout allows the historical documents and her interviews to guide the story, rather than her own political objectives. She is careful to draw a broader picture but also to clearly demarcate the hard facts from her personal opinion. She uses phrases like “I think” or “probably,” disclosing the room for subjectivity, but also admitting that – especially in Cuba — not all facts can be doubly and triply confirmed.

Toward the end of the book, the narrative becomes less cohesive and succinct. Readers will likely yearn for more context on the political, economic, and social situation within which Celia was operating in the 60s and 70s. The book becomes almost entirely reliant on anecdotes, from which readers are expected to extrapolate. Finally, after Celia’s death, I hoped for more indication of the legacy Celia left behind. After reading the book, I ask myself, if her work was so important, what was the loss to Cuba upon her death? Who filled the void that her death surely must have created? How is her presence felt (or not felt) today? A book that so proudly mediates between different sources and temporal scopes would have benefitted from a more holistic closure.

Nevertheless, I am impressed by the energy, devotion, and passion that Stout has put forth to assure that Celia Sánchez’s place in history is recognized. I applaud Stout and thank her for this comprehensive and enlightening book. Reviewed by Miriam Psychas PhD program in History and Literature of Latin America Harvard University