Plácido, Forger of Cuban Identity
On June 28, 1844, among the many victims of the horrible racist repression known as the Escalera Conspiracy was Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés (Plácido). His guilt was not in having participated in subversive activity against the metropolis, but simply in his condition as a free man, mulatto, with talent and liberal ideas, an extremely dangerous combination at such a tumultuous time and the so-called Year of the Leather.
The causes of the shooting of Plácido remind us of the sector of free blacks and mulattoes who appears in the island’s sociology from the same sixteenth century. Children of Spaniards and slaves, selfless slaves or informers, escaped slaves and free slaves bought for money, were some of the ways this sector formed. From agricultural production to the arts, free blacks were the backbone of the economy in the nineteenth century. Thanks to their efforts and talent they managed to acquire small holdings and certain cultural pre-eminence, which allowed them a certain social participation and interaction with whites.
This free sector, with marked features of Cuban identity, established a close relationship of solidarity and cultural identity with the slaves. They felt both Creole and Cuban in a process of identification that had for its base what Ramiro Guerra called a dual desire for civil liberty and social equality of the slave and free black. All this cemented the organization of the councils and in turn was strengthened by their establishment, from the seventeenth century, of the Battalions of Black and Brown Loyalists.
The rapid growth of slavery in the nineteenth century marked its highest point between 1840 and 1845. A particular case was the province of Matanzas, where the number of mills exceeded the figure of 300 and where the increase in the abuse generated a string of riots that spread from the Conchita mill in 1839 to the Conspiracy of the Ladder in 1844. Events that covered practically all the collections of slaves in the area threatening the economic interests of Creole planters, merchants of the Peninsula and the metropolitan government.
The repressive response involved more than four thousand people. Of which 78 were sentenced to death, nearly 600 sent to prison, more than 400 deported and 300 physically abused during the process. Repression was directed by Captain General Leopoldo O’Donnell simultaneously against free blacks and against the white intellectuals who opposed the slave trade. The aim was to decapitate the irrepressible abolitionist movement, at a time when the sector composed of free mulattoes and blacks, as well as making economic progress, accounted for 58% of the inhabitants of the island, and when they still held fresh memories the bloody slave rebellion in Haiti.
The freedom that is expressed as armed insurrection in Latin America, in Cuba had its expression from the culture. The definition of what it meant to be Cuban was initiated in neoclassical poetry of Zequeira Manuel and Manuel Justo de Rubalcava, which served as the foundation for romanticism of José María Heredia and Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, taking off from the flora and fauna typical of the island and an awareness of the differences from the Spanish. In the process, Plácido, whose poetic gifts were apparent from an early age, along with Cirilo Villaverde, Felix Tanco, Ramón de Palma, Anselmo Suárez y Romero, José Jacinto Milanés and Domingo del Monte, formed from different corners of our culture, a constellation of romantic Cubanness shaping the process.
Son of a mulatto and a Spanish dancer, because of his economic situation Placido was forced, parallel to his poetry, to work as a carpenter, designer, typographer, painter and silversmith. He was a spontaneous poet, easy versifier, and highly sensitive. Oath, To A Bird, The Death of Gesler and the decima, Habaneros, Freedom!, his celebrated romance, Xicotencatl, The Flower of the Cane, The Flower of the Coffee, and the poems written before his death: Farewell to My Mother, Adios to My Lyre, and Prayer to God, the latter declaimed as he walked to the scaffold to be executed, are sufficient to demonstrate the presence of his El Siboney and Creole background and his poetic quality and libertarian thought.
Francisco Calcagno, in “Poets of Color” tells us that Plácido “does not sing only of Cuba but if sometime your fantasy is of Cubanness, that is, so to speak, everything he paints.” For the Cuban identity within him, for his attachment to the homeland that led him to refuse offers as José María Heredia did in 1836 to travel abroad, for his contribution to the formation of national identity and the courage with which he faced his fate, Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés, The Bard of Yumurí, has a space reserved for him in the pantheon of Cuban culture.