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 Teaching the Communist Perspective in
“Concerning Señor de la Peña” 


Hubert Chen
Scholastic Art & Writing, Critical Essay, Gold  Key award, 2019

When one thinks of a communist, who is the first person to come to mind? Premier Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, Chairman Mao Zedong of China, President Fidel Castro of Cuba, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, or some other dictator? Most probably never think about the Cuban Communist writer Eliseo Diego, translator of fairy tales. Though he was not a despot with a personality cult, he was influential in his own creative way. Though people have rarely heard of him outside of Latin America, he was responsible for the successful literacy education of the once largely illiterate Cuban population after the Cuban Revolution. Contributing to the effectiveness of his literacy campaign was his body of work of short stories, fairy tales, and poetry. One of his short stories, “Concerning Señor de la Peña,” cleverly explores Diego’s strong political convictions about class and property, with fairy tale elements. In this story Diego writes about the conflicting perspectives of four servants regarding their palace’s mysterious master, using simple language to convey complex concepts such as communism to open the eyes of Cuba’s working class.

Eliseo Diego (1920-1944) is a man few Americans have ever heard about, yet he is revered all across Cuba and in Latin America for his poetry and captivating short stories. Diego was born in Cuba long before its Revolution in 1959, and as a child was able to learn how to read and write, unlike most Cubans at the time. Cuban literature scholar and poet Mark Weiss, in his article “Eliseo Diego and Fairy Tales”, describes how in the mid 20th century, around 30-40% of Cuba’s population were illiterate, and education was a luxury (393). Printing supplies were very limited, so not many books were published in Cuba. After the Revolution, one of the first goals of Fidel Castro’s new government was to increase literacy throughout Cuba, especially in the rural areas. As a fervent Communist and a friend of Castro, Diego was appointed as the director of the department of Children’s Literature of the National Library of Cuba. He realized the importance of utilizing fairy tales in education because of their imaginative universality. Because fairy tales are captivating and have few restrictions, he knew he could communicate any message through this genre. He wrote many fairy tales for both children and adults, keeping the language simple so anyone could understand them. Besides writing fairy tales, he also translated foreign fairy tales and poetry into Spanish, including the works of the Brothers Grimm from Germany, Charles Perrault from France, and Hans Christian Andersen from Denmark. According to Karen Wald and Betty Bacon in “New Literacy for New People: Children and Books in Cuba”, thanks in part to Diego’s groundbreaking work, today around 95% of Cuba’s population is now literate and educated (258).

The short story “Concerning Señor de la Peña” takes a Marxist approach to how class perspective can generate and maintain illusions that support a hierarchical class system. In pre-Revolutionary Cuba in a palace by a rocky cliff on the outskirts of a village, the story’s characters are servants who see what they want to see, expect to see, or are programmed by society to see. The story begins with the new elite class Señor of the palace arriving with a caravan. Four servants—a gardener, a chambermaid, a gatekeeper, and a cook—are assigned to serve the master of the palace, a man they have never seen before. In four separate scenes in which the servants describe their new master to each other, it becomes clear that all four of the servants see a different person when they look at the Señor. The chambermaid sees “a boy, a mere child” (Diego 434). On the other hand, the gardener sees “an old man [...who] can barely stand on his own two feet (Diego 434). However, the cook sees a “dirty [...] Tartar” who drinks rum and uses “foul language” (Diego 434). To add to the confusion, the gatekeeper sees “a simple-minded man of God [...] buried in his books” (Diego 434). Later, the servants argue about what type of person the new Señor is. Some see him as “[b]ald and blond,” while others see him as “[b]lack, and Indian!” (Diego 435).

 

Confounded, and worried that they are being deceived by “three imposters” (Diego 435), they finally decide to solve the mystery by viewing the master all at same time. To everyone’s surprise, they see the opposite of what they had seen before. The chambermaid now sees “a horrible old man” (Diego 436) and the gardener now sees “a boy” (Diego 435). The cook now “gazes beautifically” at the master as if he is a saint (Diego 436) and the gatekeeper now sees “an absolute devil” (Diego 436). Befuddled, the servant task the village policeman to investigate and report what he sees as the master. After taking a good look, the policeman impatiently protests, “Whatever are you looking at? There’s nothing there but an empty chair” (Diego 436). Clearly, the characters’ perceptions are affected by not only their expectations, but by the perceptions of their peers and others.

 

Diego’s story serves as a fable with a moral: one has to believe a master exists before one can give over one’s power to serve him. It is a Communist concept that servitude of the masses can only be perpetuated by an agreement to serve a master, which is first posited on the presumption that there actually is a master. Diego employs Karl Marx’s description of how gods, whether elite masters or money itself, are imagined into illusory being. In his doctoral thesis, Marx wrote, “Real talers have the same existence that the imagined gods have. Has a real taler any existence except in the imagination, if only in the general or rather common imagination of man? Bring paper money into a country where this use of paper is unknown, and everyone will laugh at your subjective imagination.” Illustrating this principle, Diego has four servants envision a fictive master in four distinct ways, and then reverses their visions in perfect antithesis. In the story’s conclusion, Diego implies from what the policeman declares that there is no Señor and never has been. The policeman represents the state, which is the ultimate authority in Communist society, and it is only this figure that offers the clear picture of reality the servants are missing. The servants have always imagined that they have worked for a master, and through habit and conditioning they will not think any differently over time. They have to imagine a new Señor in order to continue in their roles in society and their identity as servants. Essentially, Diego hints that the working class, in this case the servants, were tricked by the “upper class” to work for them, but in reality there is no upper or lower class. The servants are not bound by anything, but they imagined their bondage to serving a new master. It is the duty of the policeman, representing Communism, to enlighten the servants and liberate them from their enslaving illusions.

 

Over his literary lifetime, Eliseo Diego was able to open the eyes of the Cuban working class and convey complex elements such as communist concepts by using simple writing and language. His ability to do this is clearly shown in his short story “Concerning Señor de la Peña”. In this mystery narrative, he educates his readers that in order for there to be a higher authority, they must imagine it first. He reveals that the upper class is an illusion, but the state (through the character of the policeman) is reality. He illustrates such concepts simply through four servants with contrasting and illusive perceptions of their new Señor, their eyes finally opened by the policeman who frankly reveals that the servants have collectively imagined their Señor. Indeed, the expertly persuasive Eliseo Diego convinces all of us to test our society’s hierarchy and question our illusions.

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