By the time Cirilo Villaverde struggled through the layers of sleep, he was already in the firm grasp of Spanish officials. Shoving and shouting obscenities, the men dragged Villaverde – in his pajamas — to a public jail.
His sentence: life in prison. His crime: plotting to overthrow the Spanish Crown in Cuba.
It was spring of 1849. As editor of El Faro Industrial, Villaverde, a former lawyer and journalist—best known for his novel Cecilia Valdez — liberally used the power of the pen to attack what he believed were Cuba’s cruel and corrupt Spanish rulers.
Not only did he publish strong political diatribes against the Spanish, but – in 1840 — he participated in the Cuban independence movement as secretary to Narciso Lopez, a Venezuelan adventurer and soldier. The insurrection (1850 and 1851), backed by the U.S. government, failed because of weak popular support.
As he sat in his cell, Villaverde remembered the atrocities he had seen as a child growing up in a sugar plantation where his father was a physician. His thoughts jumped to the cruelty of the Spanish in his homeland. He told himself he had to continue the struggle.
Within six months, Villaverde masterminded a dramatic escape from his jailors: he walked out with the aid of a guard, boarded a ship for Florida and then made his way to New York, where he continued his political activism and worked as editor and publisher of several Cuban exile magazines, including La Verdad and El Independiente.
Villaverde returned to Cuba in 1858, but was forced once again to take refuge in America later that year. Back in the United States, Villaverde continued to write for a number of journals and separatist magazines and worked as a teacher. In 1874 he founded a school in New Jersey.
While in New York, he completed the second part of Cecilia Valdés, his most famous work, producing the definitive version of the work. It was first published as a two-part series in a magazine and then as a novel in Cuba in 1839. It was considerably revised and republished in New York in 1882; it is the later version that is considered an antislavery novel with vivid descriptions of the hardships and brutal treatment of Cuban slaves on a sugar plantation. The title character is a beautiful illegitimate woman of mixed race who unwittingly falls in love with her aristocratic half-brother, Leonardo Gamboa.
The work is considered to be one of the best examples of 19th century realism and romanticism in Spanish and the finest evocation of Cuban customs of that era.
In producing the novel, Villaverde was heavily influenced by the leader of Cuba’s literary community, Domingo del Monte, who had an extensive library and regularly hosted a literary salon for young writers, advising them to abandon romanticism in favor of realism. Del Monte’s goal was to establish a Cuban national literature.
Villaverde’s other works include:
- El Espeton de Oro (1838), the story of the disastrous last days of a young poet
- El guajiro (1890), which describes the life of a rural Cuban peasant
- El penitente (1889), a historical novel about the conquest of Florida
- Dos amores (1858), a love story
- Excursión a Vueltabajo (1891), a two-part travel narrative.
Villaverde died in New York on October 20, 1894. Four years later his dream came true: Cuba attained political autonomy.