It was an accident that triggered the prolific career as a writer and academic for Cuban intellectual Antonio Benítez Rojo, one of the most influential literary figures of his generation. In 1965, inspired by the work of Julio Cortázar and other important writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Lafcadio Hearn, and during a prolonged period of recovery and convalescence, Benítez Rojo wrote his first book of stories, Tute de reyes, which won the Casa de las Américas Prize in 1967. Thus began a writing career that produced nearly a dozen books and won him international recognition as a specialist in the culture, literature and idiosyncrasies of the Caribbean. Today, his works have been translated into nine languages and included in more than 50 literary anthologies around the world.
Benítez Rojo was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1931. As a young child, he lived with his parents in Panama City and Colón City, where he learned about colonial history and the legends of pirates. Later, he returned to Havana, where he continued to become interested in Caribbean culture through his exchanges with Felipa, a former slave who was about 80 years old and had been the cook for his grandfather’s family.
Felipa told young Antonio stories about the Spanish conquest, the naval attacks on the Caribbean, and the African heritage in Cuba. Also adding to the literary vein that Benítez Rojo would mine was a gift that his father gave him at age twelve, through which he had access to works by classic authors such as Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, Eugène Sue, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens, to mention a few.
Although Benítez Rojo decided at an early age that he would be a writer, he earned a degree in business sciences at the University of Havana after finishing his primary and secondary education at a Jesuit school. Later, he studied labor economics at American University in Washington D.C. and labor statistics at the United States Labor Department after obtaining a scholarship from the United Nations. He also took music and guitar lessons and played in a jazz band.
In the mid-1960s, Benítez Rojo returned to Cuba and worked as an economist for the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. Later, after recovering from the accident in 1965, he served as assistant director of the National Theater and Dance Administration in the National Culture Council, editor in chief of Cuba Internacional and director of various departmental units of Casa de las Américas.
In 1969, his second book of stories, titled El escudo de hojas secas, came onto the market. Despite his reputation as a great author, however, the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba did not allow him to publish for nearly seven years. Meanwhile, during that time, his wife, Hilda Otaño, went to the United States with their children to treat health problems of their daughter, María, who died several years later.
From 1976 to 1979, the Castro regime eased its oppression of Benítez Rojo and allowed him to publish five books: Heroica (1976); Los inquilinos (1976); Fruta verde (1978); El mar de las lentejas(1979); and El enigma de los esterlines (1980). During that time he received an invitation from the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) and was able to leave for the United States and reunite with his family after ten years. He later joined the Spanish Department at Amherst College in Massachusetts. In 1989, he wrote what is considered one of his master works: La isla que se repite: el Caribe y la perspectiva posmoderna. While in the United States, he wrote the books Antología personal (1997), Paso de los vientos (1999) and Mujer en traje de batalla (2001).
Antonio Benítez Rojo died at age 74 on January 5, 2005, in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Author: Alfredo Nieves Moreno
Published: May 01, 2012.
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