La Guantanamera

by Ursula K. Le Guin

After the Boston Marathon bombing people kept talking about Americans standing together, standing tall. I didn’t understand.

Americans grieving together, bowing down in sorrow together — I could understand that. We needed to mourn together for a celebration of joyful bodily health and strength that ended in horror, mutilation, and death. But standing together? Against what?

There is no enemy. This isn’t a replay of 9/11, an attack that did indeed draw us to stand together, briefly, before we cowered down in the quickly-built bunkers of terror-of-terrorism.

This is much more like a replay of the ever more frequent shooting sprees in colleges, malls, schools by sick men with powerful weapons out to hurt and kill at random. They always have their reasons — wretchedness and hatred disguised as personal, religious, or political reasoning, the circular, self-centered, meaningless “reasons” of insanity.

A nation can stand together against a conspiracy of intelligent fanatics like Al-Qaeda, but against a pair of wretched psychopaths? Us, against two sick kids? The United States, against them?

I know a lot of people can only stand together if they have an enemy to stand against — if they are at war . At the moment, a lot of such people here want that enemy to be Islam. As they have counterparts in Islam who are ready to oblige them, they may well get their wish

It is not my wish. I have a question, instead. My question is: What do we stand together for?

And here I come up against something that really scares me.

How can I stand with my fellow Americans, “stand tall” as we are exhorted to do, what is the America I am standing up for — when I see our government abandon the principles of its Constitution, the moral consensus of mankind, and our national self-respect, by encouraging and prolonging deliberately cruel treatment of prisoners who have not stood trial and are not allowed to stand trial or seek release?

The Congress and the President are directly, immediately, daily responsible for an ongoing outrage of decency, a travesty of justice, the prison at Guantánamo. The responsibility and the shame for dodging it weigh most heavily on President Obama. He promised to deal with it, and has not done so.

On the contrary, he has embraced the Bush policy of “indefinite detention” of “suspects” — the emprisonment of arbitrarily designated “enemies of the government” without trial. War is always the excuse for this policy, as in the mass internment of our Japanese citizens in the 1940’s. Its use is very dangerous to the health of a democracy, and its prolongation could be fatal.

So I am not standing tall as an American, these days. I am sitting alone with my head bowed down, fighting an awful sadness.

I keep listening to an old song. I don’t know if it helps the sadness or makes it worse. Lots of American kids learned it at summer camp, a song as peaceable as “Kumbayya,” a familiar, yearning tune. But the irony of it now . . . And the sweetness of the words, their generous spirit, make that irony even harder to bear.

Yo soy un hombre sincero
de donde crecen las palmas
y ante de morirme quiero
echar mis versos del alma

Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera

Con los pobres de la tierra
quiero yo mi suerte echar…


I am an honest man
from where the palm trees grow
and before I die I want
to share my soul’s poetry

Girl of Guantánamo, country girl of Guantánamo

With the poor of the earth
I want to share my fate….

The words of La Guantanamera are by the great Cuban poet José Martí; José Fernandez Diaz put them to the tune. You can hear old, old Pete Seeger singing it, here; or young Joan Baez; or dozens of other voices, Cuban, American….

Sung by Pete Seeger:

Sung by Joan Baez:



La Guantanamera — 8 Comments

  1. Excellent, Ursula. So many things come to mind to comment.

    I do take heart in the fact that the kid was finally Mirandized. At least those that would treat him as a war criminal were finally reined in to a certain degree.

    Thanks for the links.

  2. Thank you, and though I’m not a religious person, bless you. For both your commentary and posting Pete Seeger’s version of it.

  3. Thanks, Ursula, both for your comments on the prison at Guantanamo and the links to Guantanamera. Both versions of the song are wonderful and reminded me again that “not all tears are an evil”.

  4. Dear Ursula, you are not alone with your head bowed down, fighting an awful sadness. There are many of us who feel the same as you.

  5. This is a great country, but fear-mongering is beneath a country that honestly strives for democracy. The Constitution is a brilliant document. The Founders may not have been perfect men (they were men of their time), but their legacy is extraordinary. I believe in it, and I hope it is not shredded by greed or dictatorship.

  6. I’m afraid it is not only the US which has gone down much the same route since 2001. The last three UK governments have progressively eroded the civil rights of the general population, to “keep us safe from terror”, despite election promises to the contrary. Laws have been passed here which I would never have thought would be possible to get past the public 15 years ago. Now, we supine British just roll over in front of our elected authorities.

    You are right though. Guantanamo is a running sore which damages the standing of the US with the rest of the world.