Roots & Flowers: The Life and Work of Afro-Cuban Librarian Marta Terry González

By Abdul Alkalimat and Kate Williams. Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press, 2015. 300 pp. $35.00 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-936117-64-2.

Roots & Flowers: The Life and Work of the Afro-Cuban Librarian Marta Terry González is a recent book by library scholars Abdul Alkalimat and Kate Williams that attempts to shed light for a North American audience about the life and work of an Afro-Cuban librarian. It is a highly sympathetic work bordering on the hagiographical, however, as the authors acknowledge Marta Terry “often corrected and expanded the text” (1). It is a work that is also sympathetic to the revolutionary ethos that has existed in Cuba since 1959 that saw the ouster of Batista by Fidel Castro; indeed, in this provocative book Marta Terry González’ efforts as a librarian is inextricably intertwined with the island’s communist struggle for survival in the context of the Cold War U.S. economic embargo.

The first chapter delves into the rise of Cuban nationalism in the 19th century with Jose Marti (1853-1895) leading the intellectual opposition to Spanish colonization and Afro-Cuban slavery. Marti’s intellectual musings were complemented by the Afro-Cuban general Maceo who ended a decade long war in 1878 against the Spanish and Creole elite by uniting Afro-Cuban slaves with working class Creole. Race relations and racism, avers Alkalimat and Williams, “has been at the heart of the crisis of Cuban nationality” (20), an appropriate segue into the second chapter of Roots & Flowers which examines Marta’s family background. The strength of the matrilineal side of Marta’s family goes back to a great-grandmother who was a slave in the nineteenth century. Marta’s aunts were teachers who graduated from the University of Havana in the 1940s, a rare achievement for Afro-Cuban women with one aunt achieving a doctorate. It is these strong-willed aunts who brought up Marta. Unfortunately, the authors do not explain why Marta’s successful aunts wanted their niece to be a teacher – which did not require a university education – whereas the equally strong-willed, ambitious, and intelligent Marta wanted to attend the University of Havana, Cuba’s most prestigious university. Nevertheless, the future librarian got her way studying philosophy and literature in the last 1940s and early 1950s when the University of Havana was “a centre of resistance against tyrannical governance against the Cuban puppets of US colonial domination” (55).

During the Cuban Revolution, posits Alkalimat and Williams, Marta was a strong defender of Castro. A fellow revolutionary charged that Castro “[is] in the mountains and doesn’t care about us,” to which the future librarian retorted, “Fidel knows what he is doing” (74). In revolutionary or challenging times, however, there is a psychological ebb and flow for individuals involved; yet, throughout this volume, Marta is portrayed as a true believer with neither doubts nor ambivalence about the Cuban Revolution’s tactics and goals. This is unlikely, and the authors do a great disservice to scholarship and ultimately to their subject. Nevertheless, unable to find full-time work upon graduation in the mid-1950s Marta is portrayed as owing herself into revolutionary action: working with her brother, Marta served as a “courier carrying documents” (75) between revolutionaries located in the U.S. and Mexico. She also witnessed the attack on the Presidential Palace of Batista in 1957.

Roots and Flowers highlights the challenges Marta faced as a young library director of a government department lacking in staff and funds to run a “dilapidated” and “out-of-date” library “in which the economic planning of the country would depend” (104). Ever the librarian, she had to discipline bureaucrats from keeping the library’s books in their offices, and promoted literature, history and the arts among the technically trained civil servants whom she believed required a greater breadth of knowledge. Marta also worked to create an amalgamation of the Dewey Decimal system (an American system of cataloging that deemphasized Marxism and Marxist ideology) with that of the Soviet equivalent that would be central to Cuba’s existence. This effort to create a hybrid Cuban cataloging system also involved translating Soviet and Eastern bloc works into Spanish. It is in this part of Roots and Flowers, however, that Marta is raised to the level of a secular saint: she had to be convinced to take library courses in Denmark in order to serve “self and family [and] to serve the Cuban Revolution” (122).

As library director of “Casa De Las Americas” – a cultural institution created after the Revolution in order to embrace art that “challenged oppressive regimes” (113) in the Western Hemisphere – Marta Terry is portrayed as facing challenges recognizable to her North American colleagues. The librarian pushed to be taken seriously by her elitist artistically inclined collaborators who felt that she did not have the background to work at a cultural institution. Marta convinced her artistic colleagues, in part, by promoting the Cuban Revolution which proselytized humility and egalitarianism. Still, due to a lack of funds – the result of years of Batista corruption and the U.S. embargo on Cuba – Marta pushed the library forward by encouraging artists, writers, and architects from throughout Latin America to donate their private collections. She also hired and sought employees from the working class at Casa doing her part in elevating “the working class into occupations that run society” (123).

In the late 1970s Marta became director of the Jose Marti National Library where she continued her task of changing the paradigm of another “elitist institution” to “embrace the workers” as they were the vanguard “of the Cuban revolutionary process” (129). It was also at the National Library two decades into the Castro era that, according to Alkalimat and Williams, Marta once again had to battle intellectuals who – in this instance – were steeped in the content of books but did not have professional library experience. It was at this time that, in spite of the U.S.-led embargo against Cuba, Marta managed to attain a reciprocal relationship with the Library of Congress (LOC) which sent copies of books on Cuba written by American authors while the Jose Marti National Library sent books on Cuba written in Spanish to the LOC. Regrettably, there are no details regarding this unique relationship which might have told the reader much about the strained relationship between the United States and Cuba, as well as about Marta’s diplomatic skills.

The energetic Marta Terry González also taught at the University of Havana during her tenure as director of both the Casa de las Americas and the Jose Marti National Library, an ironic professional twist as she never wanted to be a teacher. Nevertheless, the authors claim that Marta believed that library training at the university was “[too] removed from the real world of library practice” (183). Beginning in the 1970s Marta’s teaching philosophy shifted from librarianship focusing on collections towards that of teaching students how to handle reference questions. This paragon of the Cuban Revolution, however, had some traits that were unappealing: Marta accepted students into the library school on the basis of how they opened books “carefully at the edge,” or near the spine, “where the spine was likely to tear”. This capriciousness which made Marta “feared and hated” (152) by students even though they give more examples in the work of former students who praised her ability to teach and mentor. The authors conclude their work by claiming that it was due to Marta’s efforts in the last quarter century of her career that Cuba became a force within the international library community as well as a strong advocate for colleagues from other developing nations.

Abdul Alkalimat and Kate Williams attempt to shed light on a library leader within the context of a developing nation struggling to survive the ravages of a dictatorship followed by that of a crushing fifty-year economic boycott by the United States. In the main, they have succeeded in providing the context in which Marta Terry González worked and struggled but for this reviewer this was done at the expense of not providing as much detail as to both her daily challenges as a librarian and as a person. Furthermore, greater detail of Cuban library history – some of which are in the endnotes of the book – should have been integrated into the main body of the text that would have given a more well-rounded portrayal of a library leader the authors greatly admire.

Kam W. Teo, Weyburn Public Library, Canada