Antonio Benítez-Rojo (1931-2005)


Antonio Benítez-Rojo was Thomas B. Walton, Jr. Professor of Spanish at Amherst College since 1983. He died January 5, 2005, Northampton, Massachusetts. Although our blog renders tribute daily to this influential pan-Caribbeanist, today, we remember the leading scholar and author on his birthday, March 14 (1931). We have taken these excerpts from the Amherst Magazine obituary that was published upon his death, but we also provide additional links about his life and work below.  Also see our previous post Remembering Antonio Benítez-Rojo.

The text below quotes one of his students as saying, “He had the unique gift of harboring both a sophisticated intellect and a deep appreciation of the simple pleasures in life;” this is an idea shared by most people who knew him. I will never forget a conference at Franklin College in Lugano, Switzerland where Benítez-Rojo was the keynote speaker. At the final dinner-dance celebration, the author—who was ailing from a hip injury and was walking with a cane—joined us all to dance to a contagious salsa beat. He could barely walk, but he stood in the midst of the dancers with a blissful smile on his face, gently swaying to the rhythm. He was an example to us all.

[. . .] A novelist, essayist and short-story writer, Benítez-Rojo was widely regarded as the most significant Cuban author of his generation. His work has been translated into nine languages and collected in more than 50 anthologies. Tute de reyes, his 1967 collection of short stories, won the prestigious Casa de las Americas Prize, and Sea of Lentils, his 1979 novel, was reviewed by John Updike in The New Yorker and listed as a notable book in The New York Times. He won the Pushcart Prize for his 1990 story “Heaven and Earth,” and was co-winner of the 1993 Modern Language Association Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize for his book La isla que se repite [The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective]. He also wrote the award-winning screenplay for Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film The Survivors and contributed to more than a dozen scholarly books.

The complexity and variety of Benítez-Rojo’s writing was a reflection of his own rich background. As a boy growing up in Havana he favored adventure stories like Treasure Island and Captain Blood, and he was influenced by the colonial history of the Caribbean and the sense of romance attached to forts and pirates. In a 2003 interview with Bomb magazine, he said that one of his influences was his family cook, who was a former slave. “Whenever she saw me,” he said, “she called me over and began to recount Yoruba stories to me. And so, on top of the stories about pirates and naval engagements that I was storing in my memory fell the legends of the Yoruba orishas: Shangó Oshún, Ogún, Yemayá, Obatalá, Babalú Ayé….As you can see, by the age of 8 or 9 I was a caribeño. If anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d answer invariably: a writer.”

[. . .] At Amherst he taught courses in Spanish-American literature, Latin American literature, Cuban literature and culture and creative writing. Dean of the Faculty Gregory S. Call said that Benítez-Rojo “was, by all accounts, beloved by his students, who saw him as the embodiment of the literature and culture that they studied.” “He had the unique gift of harboring both a sophisticated intellect and a deep appreciation of the simple pleasures in life,” Brandt Tullis ’07 told The Amherst Student. “His eyes lit up when, during our last class together, he explained each tiny detail of his Christmas dinner. From the way he described it, you would think he was talking about the most engrossing, awe-inspiring thing. In fact, he had a way of making anything seem amazing.”

Professor of Spanish James Maraniss, who translated several of Benítez-Rojo’s works, said, “I was bored with being an academic until I began a new life as his translator, and in a sense his presenter to the English-speaking world, to share that degree of his power, which was that of a great artist.”

In addition to his 20 years of teaching at Amherst, Benítez-Rojo held visiting positions at Harvard, Yale and Brown universities, among others. Active until the very end of his life, he was one of several intellectuals who signed a 2003 letter asking the Cuban government to release 75 political prisoners, 14 of whom eventually were released.

For full biography, see

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