Ana Cairo Ballester, winner of the 2015 National Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities, emphasizes the importance of studying the lives and work of the country’s great thinkers.
Ana Cairo Ballester
Cuba has always been a land of intellectuals, the home of men and women whose work represents the most authentic traditions of a cultured people. Ana Andrea Cairo Ballester, winner of the 2015 National Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities, is an exemplary figure in the area of cultural investigation.
She tells us how her studies began at the Raúl Cepero Bonilla Special Pre-University Institute, a high school established in 1962, the first of its kind in the country, “I entered in 1964. The school was intended to develop abilities in older adolescents both in the sciences and letters, and to do that, there was a good staff of teachers. I discovered that I liked what was then called the humanities.”
When were you first drawn to philology?
After high school, I enrolled in the School of Arts and Letters, where classes on literature in various languages were offered. In 1976, when restructuring was done by the Ministry of Higher Education, it became the Department of Philology, uniting what had been Letters, Journalism and Languages. Although the department later returned to its previous name, it is known as Philology.
Philology is a method of work, a way of investigating. I consider myself a Letters scholar who gives classes in literature and investigates cultural problems. No doubt, since I began my studies and research, I was drawn to it as a correct, necessary method.
– Ana Cairo graduated in 1973, and, as part of her social service, was placed in the assistant dean’s office at the University of Havana’s Humanities Department. She recalls, “I did research, but I taught, too, and I continue to do so.” Dear to her heart is not only her research, but the art of teaching, as well.
What were the first issues you investigated?
There were alternatives for professional work before graduating, which allowed me to help professors with their research. In the final years of my studies I went to work at the Casa de las Américas’ Cultural Investigation Center, from Monday to Friday, in the morning.
I investigated whatever was needed; they even asked me once for a file on Cuban authors. After I graduated, I began to research the Minorista Group (from the 1920s), and thus two books emerged
How did the approach of intellectuals to history become one of the fundamental issues you studied?
The history of intellectuals is, first of all, necessary, and secondly, it has to do with the tasks I was undertaking. I teach literature, but I also address the lives of authors. The tradition is not that an intellectual is solely devoted to writing. We must know ourselves as people who develop and think, which is later made concrete in our writing.
One of your most emblematic books is José Martí y la novela de la cultura cubana. Why approach Martí from this point of view?
The book is divided into three parts. In the first, it addresses Martí’s relationship with the intellectual community. The second part approaches Spain’s relationship with this community, including Martí himself, and the last part addresses this same relationship, but with the United States. It is necessary to understand how this grouping spoke about this. This last part is going to have a follow-up, to be titled, Nosotros somos pueblo (We are a people).
– Ana Cairo is a member of the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists; the Cuban section of the Association of Latin American and Caribbean Historians; the Center for José Martí Studies’ Scientific Council; and the Alejo Carpentier Foundation. She is also on the board of the Fernando Ortiz Foundation; and Temas magazine’s editorial council; while collaborating regularly with the José Martí National Library.
What inspired you to write Bembé para cimarrones?
Bembé para cimarrones emerged from a project at the Fernando Ortiz Foundation for the magazine Catálogo, which wanted to devote an issue to the issue of slave runaways, and I was motivated to make a contribution, but when I started to put together a file of my information and research, I realized it went beyond the possibilities of a magazine.
There were two options, write the 20-page text they requested of me, or take advantage of the fact that I was already into it, and do something more. It started to grow and became a book. I sent it to a competition, with the purpose of having it published, and it came out with the number of pages that could be financed.
You were just awarded the 2015 National Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities. Why do you think you were recognized?
It’s necessary to emphasize that there are two fields within the Prize, one for demographers, psychologists, geographers, who are in the Social Sciences, and the other is Humanities. I believe the Prize was granted to me in the field of Humanities.
Fernando Ortiz has already said it, “Although the sciences which address the problems of humans have been separated, they must be united again.” That’s why the Humanities have not died, nor will they ever die.
What would Ana Cairo say to people getting to know Cuba for the first time?
No beginning is one-sided. What life has taught me is that you start to discover things simultaneously. I would say: look, come, learn, and don’t let yourself be affected by prejudices.
There are many people who do not understand how Havana was declared one of seven Marvelous Cities, but our city has Italian palaces, emblematic buildings, and since the conquest of Hernando Cortéz, the port of Havana has been international.
Are you satisfied with what you’ve accomplished?
You do what you can, not what you would like. Within what I can do and what I would like, I am unsatisfied. I would like to have finished books. I have as a goal re-publishing Bembé para cimarrones with the number of pages it really has. In the world in which I move, it’s important not to get tired.