Abstract

On November 27th, 1871, eight young medical students were marched into a public plaza in Havana and shot by Spanish authorities. On the first anniversary of their death, the exiled José Martí used their execution to denounce Spanish rule in Cuba, and to legitimize the violent struggle for Cuban Independence. The executed students became martyrs to Cuban nationalism. Since then, their execution at the hands of tyrants has been repeatedly repurposed in revolutionary periods in Cuban history. This article engages with the work of Maurice Halbwachs, Jan Assmann, and Pierre Nora to reflect on the process of collective and cultural memory formation and reformation. It considers the factors that contributed to the transformation of the execution of these students from a singular tragedy, among a wider field of atrocity, into a defining moment in Cuban identity. Further, drawing on works by Jay Winter, Robin Cohen, and Ron Eyerman, this article interrogates the role of individuals and groups in this process. Over one hundred and fifty years, members of exile communities, moral witnesses, student protesters, and revolutionary leaders used the memory of these martyrs to contest authoritarian rule, hoping to advance their vision of a Cuba that could be. Driven by changing political imperatives, the memory of the students altered to reflect new collective priorities. This case study shows change and continuity in cultural memory. Tracing the evolution of this narrative from the Cuban War of Independence, through the rule of dictators, Castro’s revolutionary war, and the following socialist era, this article concludes by asking how their memory is being—once again—transformed today. With a focus on the construction and use of public monuments and memorials, but incorporating literature, images, annual marches, and films, this article argues that the public memory of their deaths altered in different periods to invoke a revolutionary vision of Cuban national identity battered by a century and a half of instability.

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