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Arthur L. Johnson and Jose A. Peña

1943 - 1990

“I have always considered it despicable to grovel for your life as if life were a favor. If you cannot live the way you want, there is no point in living”

- Reinaldo Arenas

Born into rural poverty in Cuba, in 1959 he became an early supporter of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. But Arenas became increasingly disenchanted with the revolution’s homophobic rhetoric and policies. Moving to Havana in 1963, he worked as a researcher and later as editor and journalist for the literary magazine La Gaceta de Cuba. His first novel Celestino antes del alba (1967) (Singing from the Well) was his only book published in Cuba. When open persecution of homosexuals began, in the 1960s and 1970s, he rejected the revolution. As his writings grew increasingly critical he was no longer allowed to publish on the island. His second and best-known novel, El mundo alucinante (1969) (Hallucinations), was smuggled out of the country and published abroad. During the mid-1970s Arenas spent three years in prison for his writings and public, open homosexuality. Coming to the U.S. as part of the Mariel boatlift, he eventually settled in New York. By 1980 he began to write furiously, first publishing the novella Old Rosa. The novel Farewell to the Sea – a manuscript once confiscated by the Cuban government – followed in 1982. The heterogeneous collection of poetry, essays and letters Necesidad de libertad (1986), was followed by the novels Graveyard of the Angels (1987) and The Doorman (1988). Suffering from AIDS and too sick to continue writing, Arenas committed suicide in 1990. In a farewell letter to the Miami newspaper Diario las Américas he wrote, “My message is not a message of failure, but rather one of struggle and hope. Cuba will be free. I already am.” By the time of his death this passionate writer turned activist had completed nine novels, an autobiography, scores of poems, plays, and short stories, and dozens of political and literary essays. Among his posthumously published works were Journey to Havana (1990) and the autobiography Before Night Falls (1992) which was made into an Academy-Award nominated film in 2000.

Plaque Sponsor

Arthur L. Johnson and Jose A. Peña

Lesson Plan


Gender Male

Sexual Orientation Gay

Gender Identity Cisgender

Ethnicity Latinx

Nations Affiliated Cuba United States

Era/Epoch AIDS Era (1980-present) Cold War (1945-1991) Information Age (1970-present) Post-Stonewall Era (1974-1980)

Field(s) of Contribution

Advocacy & Activism

Art, Music, Literature & Theater



Media & Communications


Social Justice

Social Sciences

US History

World History

Commemorations & Honors

Cirilo Villaverde National Competition held by National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists

First Honourable Mention For His Novel Hallucinations (1966)

Arena's Biography Before Night Falls Named One of the Ten Best Books of the Year by New York Times (1993)


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Original Biography Author
Owen Keehnen
Biography Edited By
Victor Salvo
Biography Vetted, Edited, and Certified By
Dr. Arnaldo Cruz-Malave
Fordham University
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Courtesy of Getty Images
Image Source for Bronze Casting
Courtesy of Getty Images
Resources Coordination
Carrie Maxwell