Nicolás Guillén was born on 10 July 1902 in Camagüey, Cuba, and died in Havana in 1989. He was an Afro-Cuban poet, writer, journalist, and social activist, but is best known as the national poet of Cuba.
His parents were both of mixed African-Spanish heritage, and in pre-revolutionary Cuba Nicolás and his family faced similar racism and segregation as in the US. Guillén’s father, a journalist, was killed by government troops in 1917.
Guillén wrote about the social problems experienced by Black people and his first poems were published in a local magazine in 1920. He studied at night while working as a typographer by day. In 1929 in Havana, he interviewed the African American writer and activist Langston Hughes, whom he deeply admired, and they became lifelong friends.
In 1930, Guillén created an international stir with the publication of ‘Motivos de son’, eight short poems inspired by the popular Afro-Cuban musical form son, and the living conditions of Cuban Black people. Composed in Afro-Cuban vernacular, the collection established Black culture as a legitimate focus of Cuban literature and the style was much imitated. However, Guillén disliked picturesque portrayals and became more politicised, focusing on the oppression of the poor in poems such as ‘Songoro Cosongo’ and ‘West Indies Ltd’. He also used his own mixed heritage as a metaphor for exploring the cultural identity of the island.
Guillén was as much a political activist as a poet. In 1937, he travelled to Spain as a delegate to the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture. In an address before the congress he condemned fascism and reaffirmed his Black roots. In 1940 he ran for mayor of Camagüey, and in 1948 he stood as a senatorial candidate for the Cuban Communist Party, though both campaigns were unsuccessful. His identification with the plight of Black people beyond Cuba is reflected in his ‘Elegias’ (1958). On his return to Cuba in 1959, Fidel Castro gave him the task of designing a new cultural policy and setting up the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC), of which Guillén became president in 1961.
During the next two decades, he continued to write and publish collections of poetry. His stand-out works are ‘Motivos de son’ (1930), ‘Sóngoro Cosongo’ (1931), ‘West Indies Ltd’ (1934), ‘España’ (1937), ‘Cantos para soldados y sones para turistas’ (1937), ‘El son entero’ (1947), ‘La paloma de vuelo popular’ (1958), ‘Tengo’ (1964), ‘Poemas de amor’ (1964), ‘El gran zoo’ (1967), ‘La rueda dentada’ (1972) and ‘El diario que a diario’ (1972). His works have been translated into more than 20 languages and are studied in universities across five continents.
In 1991, two years after his death, the Nicolás Guillén Foundation (www.fguillen.cult.cu) was established in Cuba to contribute to the preservation, study and promotion of his literary, cultural and personal legacy. It promotes social projects across the island and takes an active role in the ongoing national process to address racism and discrimination in Cuba.
Partly based on this biography here and others. Updated July 2022
Buy book ‘El Apellido’ (‘MyLast Name’) an anthology of poems by Nicolas Guillen here
Listen to the voice of Nicolas Guillen reciting one of his most famous poems ‘Tengo’