Memories of Underdevelopment

In the epilogue to her new memoir, Dancing with Cuba, Alma Guillermoprieto notes that she became a journalist “more or less by accident” in the 1970s, when she was living in Nicaragua, and Sandinista rebels took up arms against the dictator Anastasio Somoza. The discovery of her true vocation is thus dispatched, like one of those sentences that flits by at the end of a movie based on real events, informing us where the characters ended up years later. Guillermoprieto’s distinguished career is a postscript to the adventure she wants to relate here. So she does not mention that a few years after she began reporting “by accident” from Nicaragua, she found herself in El Salvador, stringing for The Washington Post and bravely risking her safety to reveal one of the worst Central American war atrocities of the 1980s. Unlike memoirists who’ve taken every last advantage of the opportunity, she skips over her life at The New Yorker, where she found an audience in the following decade for elegant “Letters” from various Latin American countries. She doesn’t elaborate on her decision in recent years to leave New York and work out of her native Mexico, and she skips over her experience, surely fascinating, as an instructor in the art of literary reportage to students at a foundation in Cartagena, Colombia, created by Gabriel García Márquez.

Yet Dancing with Cuba does begin to explain a certain graceful resolve that runs through Guillermoprieto’s writing. In The New Yorker and more recently in these pages, she has reported from countries in the grip of era-defining crisis. She has observed suspect elections and feudal exploitation, and seen grandiose guerrilla fantasies unfold. All of these she has explained with lucid authority. But she has resisted the pressure to become a mere useful expert, weighing in with timely diagnoses in the “Week in Review.” Words do not pour out of her easily enough for this, one suspects. Her prose bears the mark of unpundit-like perfectionism, which makes it easy to see her as the standard-bearer of a fragile tradition, resisting the pull of modern, dumbed-down journalism.

So much is true. But in another respect, her work is not old-fashioned at all. Because Latin America has not always been hospitable to rigorous journalism, and journalists writing in English have paid less attention than they should to Latin America, Guillermoprieto has often borne the burden of explaining matters in depth to her audience for the first time. One senses in her prose an ongoing ethical struggle to find the right words for the task.

How did Guillermoprieto come by this resolve? Her new book suggests a surprising answer to this question: she tried, and failed, to dance. That dance and not writing was her first love is not news—her debut book, Samba, chronicled a season she spent among dancers preparing for Carnival in Rio de Janeiro—but Dancing with Cuba makes clearer how passionate and exclusive that love used to be. The story …

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