José de la Cuadra

(By Pablo A. Martinez, PhD, Trinity University, Texas, from the Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature, 1997, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, Verily Smith, Editor)

Best known for his short stories, José de la Cuadra is one of the most illustrious Ecuadorian writers in terms of technical expertise and political commitment. He was an active member of the Generation of 1930 and of the Group of Guayaquil. As a lawyer, professor and social activist, he steadfastly served the popular classes, especially the montuvios – lowland peasants, inhabitants of the coastal region of Ecuador – whose world, customs, and language he carefully observed in his pioneering essay, El montuvio ecuatoriano, 1937 [The Ecuadorian Montuvio].

Four historical events were key in the development of Cuadra’s progressive political and literary ideology: the popular uprising of 15 November 1912, in the course of which an estimated 1,000 workers were massacred in Guayaquil; the July Revolution of 1925, led by a group of young, progressive military officers; the founding of the Socialist Party in 1926; and the publication in 1930 of Demetrio Aguilera Malta, Joaquin Gallegos Lara and Enrique Gil Gilbert’s Los que se van: cuentos del cholo i del montuvio (The Disappearing Ones: Tales of Halfbreeds and Hillbillies], a seminal work in modern Ecuadorian fiction. Cuadra’s belief in the writer’s responsibility to criticize injustice prompted him to formulate, for the first time in Ecuador, the foundations of a popular committed literature of “denunciation and protest.”

The Ecuadorian coast, known for its brutal exploitation of peasants, is the setting of Cuadra’s work. Although the agricultural bourgeoisie of Guayaquil controlled this region throughout the 19th century, there existed simultaneously a social organization, ruled by peasant caciques. The latter, however, were displaced by the expansion of the urban bourgeoisie at the beginning of the 20th century. The demise of caciquismo ended a way of life shared by many peasants of the Ecuadorian lowlands. The fascinating world of the collective memory. Thus he presents such memorable figures as the mythical-legendary alligator, Guásinton, “feudal lord of the Montuvian waters,” or men with tragic destinies like the healer and miracle-worker, Camilo Franco.

Of particular importance for the subsequent development of the Latin American narrative was Cuadra’s short excursus into the realm of the novel, Los Sangurimas, 1934 (The Sangurimas] and the unfinished Los monos enloquecidos, 1931 [The Mad Monkeys], published posthumously in 1951. In Los Sangurimas Cuadra emerges as the precursor of magical realism in Spanish America, anticipating by thirty three years García Márquez’s classic Cieti años de soledad, 1967 (One Hundred Years of Solitude), a work considered to be the epitome of the genre. Los Sangurimas superimposes various levels of reality: mythic, legendary, magical, hyperbolic, symbolic, historical, and sociological. It is a polysemic recreation of coastal peasants’ lives, which proceeds from the sociological principles Cuadra himself develops, three years later, in his essay El montuvio ecuatoriano. This work can be considered one of the main contributions to the social thought regarding Ecuador’s indigenous peoples, as well as a theory of national culture.

It was a long and difficult process of experimentation which led Cuadra towards the mythical-legendary world view finally expressed in Los Sangurimas. For example, the mythical and circular structure of time is present in short stories like “Guásinton,” “Cubillo, buscador de ganado” (Cubillo, the Cattle Rustler), and “Galleros” (Cock Fighters), where the reader can detect the artistic use of elements of popular culture such as fables, folk-accounts, and superstitions. The tragic symbolism of “Banda de pueblo” is a key part of the transition from traditional realism towards a magical one: nine hallucinating beings – eight men and one child – anti-heroes of the tropics, musicians roaming through coastal villages, transcend their apparent simplicity to become fantastic characters, hyperbolic creatures who flirt insolently with death and life.

Finally, “La Tigra,” a story written after Los Sangurimas, presents the intertwining of multiple levels of reality, using the theme of the virile woman. The young Pancha, having witnessed the violent death of her parents, seeks to avenge them and protect the virginity of her younger sister, Sarita, by becoming “Francisca the Tigress.” Cuadra explores the dilemma of personal freedom, the psychology of a sado-masochistic woman, the fixation of hatred. There seems to be a kind of fatalism at work as Pancha becomes a male-devouring woman. The metaphorical structure, the poetic intensity, the linguistic economy, the interaction of lineal and circular plots, the closed and oppressive space, and the ritualized sexual orgies make “La Tigra” a clear precursor of the magical-realistic tradition. (In 1989, “La Tigra” was adapted into an acclaimed film by Ecuadorian filmmaker, Camilo Luzuriaga)

But it is Los Satigurimas that provides a synthesis of Cuadra’s world-view in techniques and concerns. It is both a personal and collective story, a dialectical interplay between fiction and reality, clearly showing Ecuadorian particularities within Spanish America. Various narrative levels are superimposed, driving the novel in many directions both temporally and spatially. On the surface, the novel appears simple and traditional. It begins with a prologue in which Cuadra develops “La teoría del matapalo” [The Theory of the Matapalo]. The matapalo, a large, robust tree growing in the coastal plains of Ecuador, serves as a metaphor for the world view of the montuvio, on the border of myth and history, was rescued for future generations by the writers of the Generation of 1930. They were urban middle-class intellectuals of popular extraction, who sought the institutionalization of an Ecuadorian national language drawing from different popular idioms.

Of Cuadra’s early books, El amor que dormía, 1930 [Love Sleeping] is characterized by a certain pompousness in a Romantic and modernista vein. However, in some of the stories of Repisas, 1931 [Display Case], Cuadra had already perfected many elements of his writing: realistic crudeness of language and themes, an ample register of popular voices, a tragic conception of human destiny, and the unconditional demand for justice. The last trait is evident, for example, in the strange vengeance exacted by a retarded boy, as recounted in “Chumbote.”

The twelve short stories of Horno, 1932 [Oven] adumbrate Cuadra’s mature work with its faithful representation of the world-view of the montuvio. We find there as well a kind of linguistic synthesis, a laconic expressiveness – effective antidotes to what Alfredo Pareja Diezcanseco called the “baroque excesses of tropicalism” – which turn such stories as “Banda de pueblo” (Travelling Musicians), “La Tigra” (The Tigress), “Olor de cacao” (The Scent of Cocoa) into masterpieces. “Banda de pueblo” has been hailed by Jorge Enrique Adoum as the greatest short story in Spanish.

After this book, Cuadra’s language would express a bitter irony, stripped of rhetorical flourishes, reproducing in a succinct style the speech of his characters. Cuadra’s last work in this genre, Guásinton, 1938 [Washington], is a collection of fourteen diverse stories linked by a sparse style and a sharp psychological analysis. In this work, Cuadra explores the collective consciousness of the montuvios as he searches for symbols that convey the human condition and imprint it in Montuvian people, whose way of life is centered around violence and machismo.

The three central parts of the novel are entitled: (1) “El tronco añoso” (The Old Tree-trunk), which recounts the life of the lecherous patriarch Nicasio Sangurima, the mythical reincarnation of the matapalo; (2) “Las ramas robustas” (The Sturdy Branches), which present the stories of four of Nicasio’s many children: Colonel Eufrasio (an illiterate, womanizer, a looter, and the murderer of his brother), the lawyer Francisco (a despised and corrupt traitor), Father Terencio (the drunken and opportunistic exploiter of his parishioners), and the farmer Ventura (an egotistical, greedy, and subservient man, “un grandísimo pendejo” [a big fool]); (3) “Torbellino en las hojas” (Whirlwind in the Leaves), which narrates the generational conflict set in motion by incestuous relationships: intense fighting divides the family, and the section ends with homicide and the profanation of the magical world the characters inhabit. In the epilogue, entitled “Palo abajo” (The Fallen Matapalo), we witness Nicasio’s madness and the final destruction of the Sangurima family and the matapalo tree.

Time and space in the novel have a mythical and cyclical life of their own. Violence, solitude, lack of love and of communication also emerge as cyclical and of mythical proportions. They are unavoidable and their consequences imply destruction as illustrated by the contrapuntal repetition of key elements: life, death, water, soil, shadow, and light, which give life to Cuadra’s magical realist style.

Cuadra’s literary world, as a saga of the Montuvian people, is a legacy of intense aesthetic and social significance. As he once said, “A people without a mythical past is like a man who has never been a child.” Thus the mythical past and the conflictual present are rendered with tenderness, solidarity, humanity, on the one hand, and with crudity, corrosive irony, and bitter humor, on the other. His unforgettable characters are complex human beings, rather than Manichean creatures. Cuadra’s threefold commitment – to his people, his art and his ideology – bears testimony and becomes a testament: a written proof of the socio-political meaning of literature.


José de la Cuadra was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, 3 September 1903. He attended Vicente Rocafuerte High School, Guayaquil and entered University of Guayaquil as a student of law in 1921, obtaining his first degree in 1927. Cuadra studied for a doctorate in law. He participated actively in student organizations and founded the Universidad Popular, intended for the underprivileged, in 1925. Cuadra married Inés Múñez del Arco Andrade in 1928. He was also a teacher in secondary and tertiary education; a civil servant who held important posts such as General Secretary of Public Administration. Professor of Penal Law at the University of Guayaquil; 1937. In addition he represented his country as consul in Argentina and Uruguay. Cuadra died in Guayaquil in 1941 from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Samples of his work in English, available online:

The short story, “The new Saint: A story of Political Propaganda on the Ecuadorian Coast,” (live link).

The short story, “Three Silver Sucres” (live link).

Literary Criticism (live links):

Trapped between Civilization and Barbarism: José de la Cuadra’s “The Tigress,” by Michael Handelsman, PhD, University of Tennessee, Knoxville (via Jstor; account required).

Modernity, Coloniality of Gender, and Decolonial Feminism in José de la Cuadra’s “La Tigra,” by Juan Ramos, PhD, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachussetts (via Project Muse; account required).

Selected Prose Works:

Oro de sol, Guayaquil: El Telégrafo, 1924

Perlita Lila (recuerdos), Guayaquil: Mundo Moderno, 1925 [memoir]

Olga Catalina, Guayaquil: Mundo Moderno, 1925

Sueño de una tioche de Navidad, Guayaquil: Artes Gráficas “Senefelder”, 1930 [Published under the pseudonym Ortuño Zamudio]

El amor que dormía, Guayaquil: Artes Gráficas “Senefelder,” 1930 [short fiction]

Repisas (narraciones breves), Guayaquil: Artes Gráficas “Senefelder,” 1931 [short fiction]

La vuelta de la locura, Madrid: Dédalo, 1932

Horno, cuentos, Guayaquil: Tipografía y Librería de la Sociedad Filantrópica, 1932 [short fiction]

12 siluetas, Quito: América, 1934 [Sketches of his own generation of Ecuadorian authors]

Los Sangurimas, novela montuvia ecuatoriana, Madrid: Cenit, 1934 [novella]

El montuvio ecuatoriano (ensayo de presentatión), Buenos Aires: Imán, 1937 [An essay on the people of Cuadra’s own region]

Guásmton; relatos y crónicas, Quito: Talleres Gráficos de Educación, 1938 [short fiction]

Palo de balsa, Quito: América, 1938

Los monos enloquecidos, Quito: Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, 1951

Compilations and Anthologies:

Obras completas, edited by Jorge Enrique Adoum, with a prologue by Alfredo Pareja Diezcanseco, Quito: Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, 1958

Cuentos, with a prologue by Jorge Enrique Adoum, Havana: Casa de las Américas, 1970

Further Reading

Robles, Humberto E., Testimonio y tendencia mítica en la obra de José de la Cuadra, Quito: Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, 1976

— “De San Borondón a Samborondón (José de la Cuadra), Nuevo Texto Crítico, vol. 4/8 (1991)

Other resources:

The trailer for the adaptation of “La Tigra,” (live link).