Guantanamera: Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca

September 9, 2008

A Song Of Peace

I grew up in South Florida, in an environment heavily influenced by exiles from Cuba.  I attended a school where a lot of children spoke Spanish.   My mom paid a neighborhood teenager to tutor me in Spanish.  I didn’t learn a lot of Spanish from that teenager, but she I used to listen to a lot of Cuban language songs on the radio station, including the top 10 hit at that time, Guantanamera. I still have fond memories of listening to that song on the little console radio with my teenage mentor singing and dancing to it.   "Guantanamera, Guajira Guantamamera . . . . "  It was this song that I ran across this spring.  There are many versions on YouTube.  Here is one popular one that I will share with you:



(Click here for Sandpipers version of the song)


Remembering that I used to actually know the words, I decided to try and re-learn at least some of it, in honor of my Spanish speaking nephew, Jose Luis, who is now crossing cultures of his own.  As I did so, I used some internet resources to learn more about it and then to translate it from Spanish into both English and Chinese. I was surprised at what I learned. 

I learned that the song Guantanamera is a folk song with many versions and many verses.  Not all verses are played or sung by all artists.  Many verses of the song are based on the poem Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca by Jose Marti.  Marti was a nationalist hero who fought for the freedom of Cuba during the Revolution.  Though he himself was communist, his main emphasis was on liberating Cuba from colonial rule and securing self determination for her people.  As such, he is revered by both sides (the winners and the losers) in the Cuban civil war.  (This reminds me a bit of the hero General Aung San of Myanmar, the revolutionary hero whose legacy is claimed by both democracy advocates and the military commanders who control the country.)  Much like Whitman’s poem "I hear America Singing, the poem Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca is very long.  It has many more verses than are sung.  If my translation sparks your interest, I hope you will do some of your own research into the poem and the life of Jose Marti. 

Guantanamera strikes me as a song for peace.  When we really think about it, peace is not just an absence of conflict.  Every life will have conflict in it.  All of us must interact almost daily with others whose values or decision are not the same as our own.  Every one of us faces decisions about how to respond to conflict.  Our primary goal is to become reconciled with one another, whenever possible. Indeed, to achieve peace, we must also become reconciled within ourselves!  The song Guantanamera, as does Marti’s poem, outlines very simply how to make the first steps toward peace. 

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, at times, the path toward peace begins with a commitment to view the OTHER as a being worthy of respect and a commitment to work for peace unilaterally, even if the Other fails to do so.   There is no hope for peace unless we individually commit to respect others, to respect ourselves, and to ourselves be open to the idea of reconciliation both internally and externally.  Thus, I think almost every religion instructs us to turn the other cheek in the face of aggression. 

In this poem, we cultivate a white rose.  Because even when reconciliation with another is impossible, we must still become reconciled to and within ourselves.  We must know that we have done all we, individually, can do to make things right.  What must we do?  We must choose not to respond in kind to violence.  Someone must always make the first, unilateral step.  Someone must cultivate a white rose.  When we cultivate a rose, even for those who would spite and revile us, we become workers in the garden of peace. 

I dedicate this translation to all those among you who work for peace in your own lives and in the context of where you live.  

Thank you very much to my friend Carmen for checking the Chinese for me. 

Each verse is first in Espanol, then in Ingles, and then in 中文:

(Chorus and Intro)

Guajira Guantanamera
Guajira Guantanamera

Guantanamera means a song of Guantanamo

Guantanamo is a town on the Eastern coast of Cuba

Guajira is slang for a peasant from the countryside





(First verse)

Yo soy un hombre sincero

De donde crecen las palmas

Yo soy un hombre sincero

De donde crecen las palmas

Y antes de morirme quiero

Echar mis versos del alma

I am a sincere man

from where the palm trees grow

I am a simple man

from the land of palm trees.

And before I die,

I want to pour out these verses that flow from my soul








[Repeat the Chorus]

(2nd verse)

Mi verso es de un verde claro

Y de un carmin encendido

Mi verso es de un verde claro

Y de un carmin encendido

Mi verso es un ciervo herido

Que busca en el monte amparo

My verses are brilliant green

And also fiery crimson

My poems are clear green

And also flaming carmine

My poems are like a wounded fawn

seeking refuge in the forested mountains







[Repeat the Chorus]

(third verse)

Cultivo la rosa blanca

En junio como en enero

Qultivo la rosa blanca

En junio como en enero

Para el amigo sincero

Que me da su mano franca

I cultivate a white rose

In June and in January

I cultivate a white rose

In June and in January

For my true friend

who lends me his steady hand


我耕种白色 玫瑰花


我耕种白色 玫瑰花



[Repeat the Chorus]

(Fourth verse)

Y para el cruel que me arranca

El corazon con que vivo

Y para el cruel que me arranca

El corazon con que vivo

Cardo ni ortiga cultivo

Cultivo la rosa Blanca

And for the cruel one who would

Break my heart

And for the cruel one who would

Pluck out my living heart

I cultivate neither thistles nor nettles

I cultivate a white rose







[Repeat the Chorus]

(Fifth verse)

Con los pobres de la tierra

Quiero yo mi suerte echar

Con los pobres de la tierra

Quiero yo mi suerte echar

El arroyo de la sierra

Me complace mas que el mar

With the poor people of this earth

I cast my lot

With the poor people of this earth

I throw my fate, for

The brooks of the mountains

please me more than the sea




我一起安置我的命运, 因为



[repeat the Chorus]

Ha, you read this far, so now it’s your turn to try the karaoke version!


Click on image for the karaoke!  Enjoy! 

When I ran across this song and did the translation, it was back in March of 2008. 

At that time, there were news stories being aired about protesters
setting fire to shops, about tanks turning on the protesters, about
more protesters in the world protesting all of this.  The saddest thing
about the violence — both on the part of the protesters as well as the
response to it — was that this whole issue was raised in an area of
the world known for its special religion and spirituality, a place one
would think would be devoted to principles of nonviolence. 

was plenty of blame to be spread.  As I alluded in my blog at the time,
the term "cultural genocide" is an apt description of what spurred the
protesters to anger.  Though paying lip service to celebration of minority diversity, the government in fact has a strategy of almost forcefully incorporating minority groups into the mainstream of ordinary Chinese life.  They marginalize minorities economically by forcing the relocation of all but a token few,
the token few of whom are turned into tourist attractions.  The rest
are mainstreamed by being forcefully moved into "modern" housing,
educated in the language of the majority rather than in the language of
their ethnic group, and by having their population diluted by
immigrants from the non-minority population groups.  In the high
plateau T place, this process has been followed especially vigorously. 

Children are prohibited from studying in their native
language, ancient nomadic ways of life are discouraged, and Han Chinese
are given special incentives to relocate to remote western regions. 
The population pressure is such that these incentives aren’t really needed.  A case in point is the explosion of the industry of cashmere goats.  Traditionally grazed in a cold and inhospitable climate, their cashmere fur was rare and expensive.  With the opening of the high plateau to "development," more and more Han Chinese have encroached into that area to raise goats and sell the cashmere, cashing in on the trade.  As a result, the lands are heavily overgrazed, resulting in desertification, and cashmere prices worldwide have plummeted due to the glut of supply. 

The opening of the railway into Lhasa has only served to accelerate this through
the process of tourism.  Though I haven’t been there, I’ve read that one cause of anger is that Han Chinese immigrants (widely regarded in all of Asia as being very keen businessmen) have displaced locals as the
primary merchants thriving off the tourist trade in trinkets, souvenirs, and hotels.   But, while resentment over this displacement can
understandably give rise to anger, ought it feed into violence? 

In the
high elevation location that was on my mind, as a case in point, the spark of violence
merely acted as an incendiary to justify police actions and then even
more violent reprisals against those who were expressing their

It was a sad time for many.  At a time of
preparation for the Olympics — with its calls for and hype about greater
openness, China’s big coming-out party — journalists were expelled from any areas in western China
where there were high percentages of native Tibetans, because of the
potential for unrest.   Tourists, with their pesky questions and
cameras,  were no longer permitted in those places, either.  Everyone (Chinese and foreigner alike)
was notified on short notice that their flights or trains had been
canceled.  Cell phone service, which most people in China rely on for
communication, was completely shut down to affected areas.  It was through (unverified) word of mouth
that I heard monks in that place were setting themselves on fire. Only the natives, speaking among themselves, knew of these things.  I heard from a friend of a friend.  

Out of the
view of publicity, it wasn’t just that the rest of the world never saw
it.  Even most Chinese, relying on the state approved media for their
understanding of the world around them, were fed and believed the
official story.  The official version of events was that the violence was an unjustified action by malcontents
who were not properly grateful for the handout and aid that had been
doled to them by the central government.  After all, before China took
over things, those people were poor.  It was during this time that I learned the average life expectancy in that place has
doubled in the last fifty years.  (While this is probably true, isn’t that statistic a bit less dramatic when one considers that life expectancy has doubled in most nations when they get access to antibiotics and health care, including a significant increase in life expectancy among the majority population as well?) 

In the media, the general population was reminded
over and over that the high plateau place had been an integral part of
China for almost 1,000 years, the sporadic and unfriendly nature of
that occupation and the independence of the last couple hundred years
of history notwithstanding.  Television news footage interspersed this
type of footage with film footage somehow linking the exiled former
leader (always reviled in the media and in books published on the
subject) with film footage of the CIA training his ranks of
insurgents.  (Hmm.  I wonder how this might relate to anything else in
history, as the film footage looks strangely similar to other footage
showing U.S. aid to the resistance movement during the Japanese
Occupation.  Hmm.  I wonder where and when that film footage was
taken?  And how does it relate to our support of other movements in the
world where population groups have sought a voice for their own freedom
and democracy?)  

At the same time all this was actually
going on in that place and in western China close to that place,
protesters across the world were showing up wherever the Olympic torch
ran.  At one point protesters attacked a handicapped girl in Paris, France, who was bearing the torch for the Olympics as it made its way through France. 
The escalated counter-reaction was swift.  I heard very soon after this about an entire tour group of French
visitors who were denied visas in Macau, even though they showed their
complete, booked tourist itinerary.  These current events were
inescapable from the public psyche and very much on my mind as I listened to this song and mulled over its meaning. 

Join me, won’t you, in cultivating the white rose? 



Filed under Ethics

4 responses to “Guantanamera: Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca

  1. привет

    The true success of the communist regime in China is its extremely effective brainwashing in education and propaganda. So, the superficial consequence is that people don\’t question their government and refuse and get angry at their government being questioned. They can\’t separate criticism of their government and criticism of the people.
    The real implications of this are much more pathetic and profound. It would take at least another 2 generations to change, if change is at all possible.

  2. Sandia

    thanks for the translation

  3. Meg Brager

    I’m fascinated by this, I just came across it in researching the poem “I cultivate a white rose” by Jose Marti, and its possible connection to the White Rose resistance group in Nazi Germany. I work in a Holocaust Memorial Garden in Ferrum, Virginia, and this just adds one more layer to this aspect of what I’ve learned about the Holocaust.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s