Retrato de Teresa
A Cuban union activist struggles to be herself
Fiction Featuring Activists
On the 61st anniversary of the US invasion of Cuba (April 17-20, 1961), this 1979 Cuban film directed by Pastor Vega seems a good choice for this week’s Fiction Featuring Activists Friday.
The film is not about the Bay of Pigs, but it came to mind because it features a nuanced depiction of an activist in Cuba—“nuanced” being the operative word. In the midst of nonstop propaganda about Ukraine and Putin, it’s a good idea to look sideways, so to speak, and notice others instances of extreme demonization, other examples where a country’s leader and society as a whole have been targeted with narratives that are far from subtle. This is not to draw any parallel whatsoever between Cuba and Russia, or Castro and Putin. My point is that broad-brush stereotyping is not a conveyor of truth.
The 1979 Cuban film Retrato de Teresa (Portrait of Teresa) is the story of a textile worker, a married mother of three young children. When Teresa is chosen to be cultural organizer of her union, she encounters opposition from her husband.
Teresa becomes exhausted trying to do union tasks in addition to house and childcare work, on top of her regular job. Her husband does not support her activism or take on household duties, but instead criticizes her and has an affair with another woman. Teresa is forced to chose between her marriage and her own emancipation.
Retrato de Teresa is an example of a humanizing, multidimensional look at the daily life and struggles of an ordinary activist, as well as a nuanced reflection on the challenges of bringing socialism to life in the midst of persisting traditional social structures— patriarchy—and beliefs. Through the story we experience the tensions of putting into practice the promises of equality and fulfillment of both the Cuban Revolution and the worldwide women’s liberation movements of the 1970s.
In exploring depictions of activism, revolution, and social movements in fiction, it is critical to find portrayals of Cuban life produced by creators in Cuba and others outside of the US, since the persisting Cold War mentality in the US has instilled a nearly universally negative narrative of Cuban life and politics.
Works such as Retrato de Teresa help paint a much more genuine picture of Cuban society, including its internal challenges and complexities, in ways that are authentic rather than stereotyping.
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