Mystery Photo: 
Gift to Obama Puts ALBA in the Spotlight

March 6, 2010
By and

Who is the young black International Brigadier in doughboy gear whose portrait the Spanish government hopes to give to Barack Obama?

The photo appeared in the Spanish press in November 2009, where the man was described as an unidentified African-American member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The photographer is the Catalan Agustí Centelles (1909-1985), whose archive has just been purchased by the government in Madrid, to be included in the national Civil War archive in Salamanca. (The purchase shocked many Catalans, who consider Centelles part of their cultural patrimony, and angered them to no end.)

As Centelles’ two sons handed over their father’s work, they made an unusual request: Would Spain’s Prime Minister be willing to give a print of this particular photo to President Obama on his next visit to Spain, by way of tribute to the more than 100 African Americans in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade? The government agreed. The Centelles brothers then called on the rest of the world to help them identify the man in the photo, so they could contact his family. When the item was picked up by British journalist Giles Tremlett of The Guardian, it began making the global rounds and even ended up as a segment on CNN, which interviewed ALBA’s James D. Fernández on December 23. [Update: see related blog post.]

Although the Centelles family did not contact ALBA directly, it was a challenge we could not pass up. Press accounts were intriguing in their combination of precise detail and historical inaccuracy. Some journalists claimed to know that the man in the photo was from Alabama and had died at Brunete. Other initial guesses—Milt Herndon, Paul Williams, John Hunter —could quickly be dismissed. Two months of dogged detective work later, we know when and where the photo was taken; when, on what ship, and in whose company the man left for Europe; we have even discovered his nickname. But we still don’t know who he is.

What we do know is that he was likely not one of the African-American volunteers, but rather a Cuban exile from New York.

The first hint was an easy one. Soon after the Centelles photo was published, we discovered a second image of the same man, taken on the same day, in a catalog of an earlier Centelles exhibit. In this other image we see a frontal shot of the volunteer in the same outfit, holding a banner that reads in Spanish, “First American Battalion / A. Lincoln / Centuria Antonio Guiteras / International Brigade.” In fact, the Guiteras unit was one of the three sections making up the first infantry company of the Lincoln Battalion, which itself became part of the Fifteenth International Brigade of the Spanish Republican army, formed in late January 1937. Named after the Cuban politician and revolutionary Antonio Guiteras (1906-1935), the Centuria included about a hundred Cuban soldiers. Many of them had left from the United States, where they had been living as political exiles. They were antifascists who thought that fighting in Spain would help them prepare for revolution in their own country. (As it turned out, at least one Cuban veteran from the Spanish Civil War would be there in 1959 with Fidel and Che—who themselves had been trained in Mexico by Alberto Bayo, a former officer of the Spanish Republican army.) The baptism by fire on Spanish soil for the Guiteras group was the Jarama Battle in February 1937, which decimated the ranks of the first division. Among the dead was Rodolfo de Armas, the founder and charismatic leader of the Cuban unit.

The discovery that “our man” may have been Cuban posed a dilemma. If we were right, the whole motivation for the issue’s newsworthiness—the link with Obama—would be gone. (For a Socialist prime minister from Spain to give the U.S. president an image of an Afro-Cuban Communist would be very bad politics and diplomacy indeed.) On the other hand, our research had begun uncovering things that were new and interesting in their own right.

The first thing we realized is how little we knew of the Cuban story. The experiences of the Cuban volunteers who fought in Spain—more than 1,000, making them the largest contingent from Latin America—and especially of the sizable group that had come from the United States, had remained buried in the archives and had not entered the conventional narrative of American participation in the Spanish Civil War. Yet the exiled Cubans and their organizations, such as the Club Julio Antonio Mella and the Club José Martí, constituted an important presence among the radical left in New York and played a key role in the recruitment effort of volunteers for Spain. Once on the battlefield, the Cubans distinguished themselves militarily as well.

The man in the Centelles picture is clearly dressed in the doughboy gear that the first groups of U.S. volunteers purchased at New York army-and-navy stores. As we analyzed the Centelles shots and scoured the archives, microfilm, libraries, and digitized U.S. and Spanish newspapers for related images and texts, we could pinpoint the exact date the photo was taken. This in turn allowed us to deduce on what ship our man must have arrived.

In a second big scoop, we recognized our man in two group photos of passengers on this ship, allowing us to identify him as the black Cuban soldier whom John Tisa, in his memoir of the war, refers to as “Cuba Hermosa”—literally, beautiful Cuba:

About 5 feet 8, boyish looking, magnificently proportioned, erect, and strong, he is beautifully jet black, with a mouthful of pearls for teeth and black, glistening eyes that are always smiling. Like other Cubans a refugee from Batista, he is anxious to go back to his home, family, and a free Cuba. He took the death of Rodolfo de Armas very hard.

(Cuba Hermosa, it turns out, is a line in a popular political song of the time, composed in 1932 by Eliseo Grenet, who soon after went into exile himself. His brother was in Spain when the war broke out and fought with the Republic.)

Despite generous help from friends in Cuba and elsewhere, it has proven difficult to take the final step of linking the face and nickname to a particular volunteer. As of this writing, he could be any one of a group of five.

In the end, of course, who he was is not that significant —nor, for that matter, which nation issued his passport. National identities were of little importance in the Spanish Civil War. The almost 40,000 volunteers resisted being singled out as heroes; they had joined an international, multi-ethnic and multi-racial coalition because they believed fascism was a global threat that demanded international solidarity, and they went to Spain despite the fact that many foreign governments opted for non-intervention.

That said, the search for this man’s identity has turned up surprising insights, not only about the key role played by New York’s Cubans. We have found indications, for instance, that the decision to name the American battalion after Abraham Lincoln may have been made several weeks earlier than has long been assumed. Meanwhile, the treasure hunt has yielded dozens of other gems, ranging from diaries of fellow volunteers on the Cuban’s ship to revealing anecdotes of Cuban and American soldiers that had been buried in the Moscow archives. As the participants in the ALBA Teachers Institutes well know, a couple of days in the archives is enough to learn that the story of the Lincoln Brigade is too rich and complex to capture in a single over-arching narrative. Much remains to be written.

Please join us at the 74th Annual Reunion of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade for a visual presentation of the search for the Centelles volunteer, preceding a talk by Amy Goodman. May 2, at 4:30 pm, at the Museo del Barrio in New York (104th St. and 5th Ave).

Sebastiaan Faber and James Fernández are members of ALBA’s executive committee.


5 Responses to “ Mystery Photo: 
Gift to Obama Puts ALBA in the Spotlight ”

  1. Mary Matayoshi on April 6, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    I am an individual who supports Pres. Obama’s initiatives in health reform in the U.S. Pres. Obama was born in Honolulu where I live presently having moved from my home on another island due to the medical services available in Honolulu which my husband requires.
    I followed the links in “Medicine & Social Justice” to “The Volunteer” and got to this story which fascinates me. But what amazes me is the careful research and sleuthing that has brought you to this point. I wish you success and hope to hear more about this chapter of yours and our history.
    I was also interested in “The Volunteer” as I was Director of the Volunteer Resource Center of Hawaii for many years and with the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s Center for Continuing Education and Community Service; also serving as the Director of G
    overnor Cayetano’s State Office of Volunteer Services.
    I wish you success in your interesting endeavors.
    Mary Y. Matayoshi
    760 Onaha St.
    Honolulu, HI 96816

  2. Ariel Mae Lambe Mercik on July 2, 2010 at 11:37 am

    Here is an article from El País of Madrid on the subject:

    “El brigadista era cubano”

  3. […] Antonia Guiterras Centuria on the march in Barcelona. Landetta and De Armas are the head of this column.  The story behind identifying the men in this photo is given in the Volunteer magazine. […]

  4. john whitfield on April 17, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    Greetings. I just discovered this article while conducting research on a related topic. I am a research historian and genealogist with many years experience, specifically with the African historical experience and I could pass up this query even though it was four years old. But since no one was for certain I thought that I would weigh in on the discussion anyway.

    I examined the ALBA Archives and based solely on the information initially given on the photo,e.g. death at Brunete I found three soldiers who could have been the subject: Morris Henry Wickman,
    Meredith Graham and John Porter Hunter.

    My particular choice would be John Hunter, because of the very close likeness of his image to that of the subject. Also while he was not killed at Brunete he was wounded there and evacuated. There could have easily been some confusion as to whether or not he had perished during or after the battle.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share.

    John Whitfield

  5. […] Antonia Guiterras Centuria on the march in Barcelona. Landetta and De Armas are the head of this column.  The story behind identifying the men in this photo is given in the Volunteer magazine. […]