Cirilo Villaverde Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Cirilo Villaverde 1812-1894

Cuban journalist and novelist.

Credited with producing the first book published in Cuba, El espetón de oro (1838), Cirilo Villaverde expressed his intellectual and political activism through his writing. His novel, Cecilia Valdés (1839), is an exposé of the corruption of Spanish-ruled Cuba, and in its expanded 1882 version, an attack on the evils of slavery on the island's sugar plantations.

Biographical Information

Villaverde was born on October 28, 1812, in San Diego de Núñez, to doña Dolores de la Paz y Tagle and don Lucas Villaverde y Morejón, a doctor employed by the owners of a sugar plantation who also owned more than three hundred slaves. Villaverde's early exposure to the evils of slavery would provide inspiration for his major work, an antislavery novel. Although he began studying with the local priest at the age of seven, Villaverde's formal education did not begin until he was eleven when he went to Havana to attend the Antonio Vázquez school; this was followed by the study of Latin with his grandfather, attendance at Father Morales' school, and the Seminario de San Carlos where he studied philosophy and earned a law degree in 1834. He practiced law for a brief period but soon abandoned the profession, which he regarded as corrupt. He taught briefly in Havana and then left the capital to teach in Matanzas. He also began writing during this period and in 1837 produced four short novels which were published in a periodical. The following year, he wrote what is widely considered the first book published in Cuba, El espetón de oro, and in 1839, the first part of his most important work, Cecilia Valdés. 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.

In 1842, Villaverde returned to Havana and from 1842 to 1848, he worked as an editor of El Faro Industrial, and began concentrating on political writing and activity, particularly the cause of Cuban independence from Spain. In 1848 he was arrested and fled to the United States the following year. He returned to Cuba in 1858, but was forced once again to take refuge in America later that same year. In the United States, Villaverde wrote 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, producing the definitive version of the work. He died in New York on October 20, 1894, and was buried in Cuba.

Major Works

Villaverde's most famous work is the novel, Cecilia Valdés, 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. Neither is aware that Cecilia is the product of a relationship between her slave mother and Leonardo's father, the owner of the plantation. Cecilia, learning that Leonardo is about to marry a white woman, arranges to prevent the marriage, but Leonardo is killed in the process and Cecilia is jailed for her part in the plot.

Villaverde's other works include 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; and Excursión a Vueltabajo (1891), a two-part travel narrative. Many of his writings were originally published in periodicals and reissued in book form later in the nineteenth century.

Critical Reception

Critical attention to Villaverde's work has centered on Cecilia Valdés. Marshall E. Nunn praises the elements of naturalism and realism in the work, suggesting that “perhaps the most interesting feature in the novel … is the fact that there are present in it numerous naturalistic elements, which it is curious to find at so early a date in a Cuban novel.” William Luis has examined the three different versions of the novel, claiming that while the first two versions describe Cuban society in the early nineteenth century, it is only the final, definitive, version that exposes the evils of Cuban slavery. One of those evils is examined at length by Lorna V. Williams in her study of the character María de Regla, a slave on the plantation who must nurse her mistress's infant rather than her own. The mistress's demand “conforms to the accepted practices of a slave society, whereby ties of bondage are expected to take precedence over kinship ties among slaves, in Villaverde's account, the sociocultural assumes priority over the genealogical.”

Antonio Benítez-Rojo has studied Villaverde's two-part travel journal Excursión a Vueltabajo (1891; originally published in 1838 and 1842), and considers the work an attempt by the author “to legitimize his own Cuban origins,” and the “Cubanness” of his novels at a time when the Del Monte group was attempting to establish a Cuban national literature.