Remembering two giants of world culture, Cheo Feliciano and Gabriel García Márquez

A great sadness was felt by the people of Puerto Rico, Mexico and Colombia, and millions of people around the world who love music and literature, on April 17. That morning, Puerto Rican composer and singer Cheo Feliciano died in a tragic car accident. Hours later, Gabriel García Márquez (born March 6, 1927), the world famous Colombian writer based in Mexico, died. García Márquez’s unforgettable novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982.

In a time in which capitalism, with its dead end crisis, imposes austerity programs that close schools and eliminate cultural programs, it is important to reflect on these lives and their impact on people.

Who was José Luis Feliciano Vega?

Born to a poor family on July 3, 1935, in the city of Ponce, Cheo, as he was affectionately known, was a successful singer of boleros and salsa. His song “Anacaona,” about the brave Taíno woman who fought against the Spanish invaders, starts with a first stanza, “Indian of a captive race,” that seems to portray the colonial condition of the island.

With a unique voice he also performed songs by other composers, making the bolero “My Beloved,” written by fellow Puerto Rican José Nogueras, another undoubted success. A great voice is a great gift, but when that talent is coupled with emotion, communication with one’s listeners and genuine respect for those who work with you, it reaches greatness. Cheo was loved not only by his people but also in other Latin American countries.

This singer, who began and ended his shows by greeting the crowd with his now famous “¡familia!” was part of the “Fania All Stars,” the musical ensemble that grouped famous salsa musicians. He lived for a while in New York City, where he started in the now gone Palladium Ballroom with Tito Rodríguez. Like so many other artists, he suffered from drug addiction but, realizing the damage it brought to his family, he overcame it through treatment. He had also recently recovered from cancer.

Since April 17, his Puerto Rican and Latin American people have been honoring him. His music is heard in the social media, radio and television stations, in cars, in homes. Condolences were received from many countries; musician Rubén Blades traveled from Panama as soon as he heard of the death of his friend. The governor of Puerto Rico has decreed three days of mourning. Cheo’s body has been in a wake at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan accompanied by the sound of his music performed by many well-known musicians. On April 21, his casket will be carried to Ponce for burial.

Gabo, leading exponent of ‘magical realism’

When later, on April 17, García Márquez’s death was announced, it was an added pain, even though his death was expected because of his health’s deterioration due to cancer.

Known familiarly as “Gabo,” he was, first and foremost, a journalist forged in the formidably complex situation of his country. In 1948, the place where he lived in Bogotá burned down during the beginning of “La Violencia,” following the assassination of presidential candidate and Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán.

García Márquez’s novels, therefore, are deeply influenced by journalism. Defending journalism as a literary genre, he said that “a [journalistic] report is a story fully developed in reality.” After reading Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” he said that he learned the “method to tell something.” (Documentary “Gabriel García Márquez,” Telesur)

When the capitalist press praises Gabo these days, it makes no mention of the real Macondo that originated “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Macondo, a fictional location, is based on Aracataca, the author’ birthplace, where the criminal United Fruit Company exploited and massacred Colombian workers. Nor do they speak of the deep friendship between him and Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, whom García Márquez said was his best editor.

García Márquez’s historical novel, “The General in His Labyrinth,” was praised by deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as an exhaustive study, with ample reference, of the last months of life of Simón Bolívar.

Gabo’s writings were so popular in Colombia that “pirated” copies appeared quickly on the tables of street vendors. His last novel, “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” published in 2004, tells of the love of an old man for a young woman. The facts surrounding its publication are reminiscent of the magic realism in his other works. To prevent unofficial printing, Gabo hired a Spanish publisher famous for its security processes. An official from the publisher received from García Márquez a compact disc containing the text of the novel in a sealed envelope. But before the book was officially launched, there was already a pirated version selling on the streets. Knowing this, Gabo changed the ending of the novel before the official launching.

García Márquez, like Cheo Feliciano, was sustained and motivated by the popular culture. People worldwide who read and enjoyed his works are now reading them in public aloud, paying homage to their beloved Gabo. Having died in Mexico, it has been reported that after his cremation his ashes will be divided between that country and his native Colombia, where three days of mourning have been declared.

García Márquez and Feliciano, ¡Presente! ¡Presente! ¡Presente!