Her eyes are lit with youthful spirit. Her smile is genuine and engaging, as she speaks humbly of her past. All 83 years of her past. Marta Rojas meets us at the Union of Artists and Writers (UNEAC) in Havana in June. It is a typically hot and humid Cuban day, drenched intermittently by a heavy rain. Steam rises from the terrace outside when the cool drops hit the baked heat of the tiles. Yet Marta asks to move away from the fans. She’s from Santiago. She loves the heat, she explains.
Marta’s story is very well-known to Cubans and those who study Cuba. Yet beyond the island nation, little information is available, and what little one can find is in Spanish. As Marta tells her story, we become entranced.
Her father was a tailor in Santiago. She had high ambitions—she wanted to study medicine but decided on journalism instead. She went to Havana and obtained a journalism degree. On July 25, 1953, at the age of 23, Marta headed to her hometown to cover the carnival.
The very next day, Fidel Castro and his brothers in arms attacked the Moncada Barracks and thus began the Cuban Revolution. Marta was front and center, perfectly positioned to document this historic turning point. She covered Fidel Castro’s subsequent trial and eventually (when Batista’s regime had toppled) wrote a booked entitled The Trial of Moncada, now published in many languages. In her work, she recounted the famous four-hour speech Fidel made in his defense, ending with the famous words: “History will absolve me.”
Later as an acclaimed journalist, Marta set out for Vietnam to cover the war where she spent ten years (1965-1975), interviewing American diplomats, military and POWs, in addition to the Northern and Southern Vietnamese. She titters at the thought of crawling through the Cu Chi tunnels.
She skips to the Special Period, so named by Fidel to describe the difficult time after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russians left the island. As a journalist in Havana, she was asked to cut her articles to a quarter of their normal size, as paper was in short supply. The newspaper she worked for had gone from 16 pages to four. She indicates a couple inches between her thumb and forefinger to show how much space her words could fill. So she decided to start writing her own work—historical fiction. She revels in research and has produced a rich array of novels, including Ray Spencer Swing, Holy Lush, the Harem of Ovieda, and more. She is currently working on a novel about the Germans in Cuba. (Unfortunately, few of these books are translated into English.)
She ends her presentation with “so any questions?” And I have so many, I know she can’t possibly answer them all. In Cuba, an answer is rarely short. I ask her who her favorite authors are. She answers Francoise Sagan (of “Bonjour Tristesse” fame) and William Faulkner, among others. Then our time is up, and I watch Marta as she graciously thanks and says goodbye to us, a bound in her step and a sparkle in her eye.