6.5 “Balada de los dos abuelos” – Nicolás Guillén

6 min readjanuary 30, 2023



AP Spanish Literature 💃🏽

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"Dos Abuelos" by Nicolás Guillén is a poignant poem that delves into the historical and cultural complexities of Cuba's past. Written by the influential Cuban poet, Nicolás Guillén, the poem serves as a powerful testament to the legacy of slavery and colonialism in Cuba. Through vivid imagery, emotive language, and the contrasting experiences of the two grandfathers, Guillén explores the interplay of different cultures, races, and the lasting impact on Cuban identity.

Context Behind "Balada de los dos abuelos"

Author Background

Nicolás Guillén was born in Camagüey, Cuba, in 1902. As a prominent Afro-Cuban poet, journalist, and political activist, Guillén was a key figure in the Negrismo movement, which celebrated and promoted African cultural heritage. His works often addressed issues of racial inequality, social injustice, and the exploitation of the working class. Guillén's poetry showcased a unique blend of African and European influences, displaying an innate understanding of both cultures and allowing him to express the complexity of Cuba's history and identity.
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Time and Place

📜 Historical:  "Dos Abuelos" was written in a crucial period of Cuban history, marked by socio-political changes and struggles. Guillén's poem reflects the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and the brutal history of colonization, which significantly shaped Cuba's racial dynamics and cultural diversity.
🗺️ Geographic: Cuba's geographic location in the Caribbean is integral to the poem's narrative. References to Africa evoke a sense of ancestral connection and longing for a distant homeland, while descriptions of the island's landscapes highlight its natural beauty and the historical backdrop of sugarcane plantations, which played a pivotal role in shaping Cuba's history.

Societal Context

👑 Political: Guillén's poem serves as a subtle critique of the oppressive colonial regime and the ruthless institution of slavery that defined Cuba for centuries. By embodying the experiences of the two grandfathers, Guillén unveils the political injustices faced by African slaves and the socio-political inequalities prevailing during his time.
🧑🏽‍🤝‍🧑🏻 Socio-economic:  Guillén explicitly addresses the socio-economic disparities between the black slaves and the white plantation owners. The poem explores the economic exploitation and racial discrimination that were deeply rooted in Cuban society, further shaping the nation's social fabric.
🎭 Cultural: "Dos Abuelos" celebrates the cultural richness and resilience of Afro-Cuban heritage. Guillén acknowledges the blending of African and European traditions, showcasing the enduring impact of these diverse cultural influences on Cuban identity.

Need to Know About "Balada de los Dos Abuelos"

Character List and Descriptions

  • Abuelo Negro (Grandfather Black): Symbolizes the African heritage and the suffering of black slaves during the era of colonization and slavery in Cuba. He represents the collective memory of the African diaspora in Cuba and embodies the strength and endurance of his people throughout history.
  • Abuelo Blanco (Grandfather White): Represents the white plantation owner, embodying the oppressive colonial regime and the exploitation of black slaves. He stands as a symbol of privilege and power, reflecting the historical figure of the white landowners who controlled the lives of the black population.

Literary Terms

Verso libre (Free verse): Guillén uses free verse, a form of poetry without a fixed rhyme scheme or meter, to give the poem a flowing and spontaneous quality. The absence of traditional constraints allows Guillén to convey the raw emotions and experiences of the characters in a more authentic and powerful manner.
Estribillo (Refrain): The recurring phrases "¡Me muero!" and "¡Me canso!" function as refrains, echoing the emotions of the characters and reinforcing the central themes of suffering, exhaustion, and the cycle of oppression faced by both grandfathers.
Aliteración (Alliteration): Throughout the poem, Guillén employs alliteration to create rhythmic patterns and enhance the musicality of the verses. For instance, in the line "galeón ardiendo en oro," the repetition of the "g" sound adds to the poem's emotional intensity and vivid imagery.
Elementos auditivos (Auditory elements): Guillén employs auditory imagery, such as the "tambor de cuero y madera" (drum of leather and wood) and "pupilas de vidrio antártico" (Antarctic glass pupils), to engage the reader's senses and evoke a multisensory experience of the characters' emotions and surroundings.
Gradación (Gradation): The poem features a series of gradations, which emphasize the intensifying emotions of the characters and create a sense of building tension throughout the poem. As the grandfathers express their feelings, the emotions escalate, contributing to the poem's dramatic impact.
Apartes (Aside): The lines "Oh puro sol repujado, preso en el aro del trópico; oh luna redonda y limpia sobre el sueño de los monos" function as apartes, where the narrator addresses natural elements, underlining their significance in shaping Cuban identity and cultural symbolism.

Summary of "Balada de los dos abuelos"

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"Dos Abuelos" is a deeply moving poem that brings to light the historical and cultural complexities of Cuba's past. Guillén's evocative language, rich imagery, and use of literary devices create a profound exploration of the African diaspora, the legacy of slavery, and the enduring impact of colonialism on Cuban identity. The characters of the two grandfathers symbolize the intertwining of different cultures and their respective histories, making "Dos Abuelos" a powerful reflection on the nation's collective memory.

Themes in "Balada de los dos abuelos"

Las sociedades en contacto (Societies in contact): The poem vividly illustrates the encounters and clashes between African and European cultures, as well as the enduring influence of these interactions on Cuban society. It explores how the blending of different societies led to a unique Cuban identity and cultural heritage.
Las relaciones interpersonales (Interpersonal relationships): Through the portrayal of the two grandfathers, Guillén delves into the complexities of interpersonal relationships, particularly those shaped by historical and cultural contexts. The poem reflects on how the experiences of ancestors shape the present and how familial bonds can transcend time and space.
El tiempo y el espacio (Time and space): Guillén skillfully weaves together different historical timeframes and geographic locations to illustrate the lasting impact of history on the present. The poem emphasizes how time and space are interconnected, shaping the experiences and identities of individuals and societies.

Analysis of "Balada de los dos abuelos"

"Balada de Los Dos Abuelos" is a masterful portrayal of Cuba's history, cultural heritage, and racial dynamics. Guillén's powerful use of language, literary devices, and symbolic imagery transcends the specific experiences of the characters and touches upon broader themes of oppression, resilience, and cultural memory. The poem's exploration of the African diaspora and its impact on Cuban identity resonates not only with the history of Cuba but with the struggles and aspirations of many nations worldwide. As a testament to the enduring power of poetry and its ability to evoke collective memory and reflection, "Dos Abuelos" stands as a significant work in Afro-Cuban literature, contributing to the understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity and social justice.
In addition to its exploration of historical and cultural themes, the text is also a commentary on the universal human experience of longing for identity and a sense of belonging. The contrasting emotions expressed by the two grandfathers, one yearning for his African roots and the other feeling disillusioned with his colonial heritage, symbolize the complex and often conflicting feelings that individuals may have about their heritage and ancestry. Guillén's portrayal of these emotions transcends the specific context of Cuba and resonates with individuals from diverse backgrounds who grapple with questions of cultural identity, heritage, and the impact of history on their sense of self. Through this universal lens, the poem invites readers to reflect on their own connections to the past and the ways in which cultural legacies continue to shape their present realities. "Dos Abuelos" thus becomes a powerful work of literature that speaks not only to the historical and cultural context of Cuba but also to broader themes of human connection, identity, and the enduring quest for a sense of belonging.

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