Open letter to the Smithsonian Institution
To Whom It May Concern:
The very prestigious Smithsonian Institution ranks amongst the most prominent cultural organizations in the United States and throughout the world. In its mission statement, it defines itself as “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge.”
This mission statement, however, is contradicted by the fact that the Smithsonian Audio Collection distributes the entire catalog of Paredón Records. This recording company, owned by Barbara Dane, published between 1970 and 1985, “fifty albums that covered major left-wing and liberation movements on five continents during the turbulent years of the 1970s”.
Though not particularly my cup of tea, I have nothing against Ms. Dane’s taste in music or content. I strongly believe in freedom of expression, the same way I believe that we are all entitled to our own ideology, bigotry, you name it. What deeply disturbs me is the lack of sensitivity and cultural awareness of the Smithsonian Institution. I marvel at the fact that the beacon that pledges to increase and spread knowledge didn’t double check with any Spanish speaker, particularly Cuban, before deciding to carry this material in its collection.
“Paredón,” you see, is a word that has specific weight and very negative connotations. It means “Firing squad.” Paredón is a painful reminder of one of Cuba’s darkest episodes in recent memory. Starting on January 1959, Fidel and Raúl Castro, Che Guevara and their subordinates, presided over hundreds of kangaroo courts where the defendants were quickly found guilty, sentenced to death by firing squad, and executed within days if not hours of the verdict, while the masses on the streets clamored “paredón” in a blood frenzy unparalleled in Cuba’s history.
According to Cuba Archive –a non-partisan, non-profit organization that is developing a comprehensive registry of disappearances and fatalities of a political nature resulting from the Cuban Revolution– from January 1959 to December of that year, there were 770 documented cases of execution by fire squad.
Would the Smithsonian Institution carry the catalog of something called “Pogrom Records”? How about “Lynching Records”? Would they distribute those albums? The answer is probably no. And yet, if the blood to spatter the walls is Cuban and Fidel Castro is the responsible for the bloodshed, the exception becomes the rule and the ethical dilemma vanishes.
I expect nothing of Ms. Dane who “worked tirelessly to release unapologetically partisan, radical, and passionate recordings of singers, activists,” artists who probably didn’t know the meaning of the Spanish word paredón and how by recording under that label they would seem to be supporting death by firing squad without due process. But from the Smithsonian Institution, at the very least, a public apology and, moreover, a condemnation of this trigger happy esthetic seems to be in order.