Series Blog

Two Conversations with Rebel Soldiers

On a visit to Cuba in early 2001, I was told William Morgan’s name and something of his story. I had no idea then that this passing moment would lead me on my own quest to track down an Ohio man’s remarkable life. A short time later, however, I began an investigation that took me into a murky world of contested history where I met scholars committed to uncovering facts, bureaucrats whose jobs seemed to be to keep secrets, and aging Cuban Rebel soldiers attempting, after all these years, to make sense of their own lives.

Published here on the American Experience website, the excerpt from my book, The Americano: Fighting with Castro for Cuba’s Freedom, tells the story of two of my conversations with Rebel soldiers. One, Roger Redondo, is featured in the American Experience documentary "American Comandante," left Cuba in 1961. The other, Raul Nieves, stayed in Cuba, loyal to Fidel Castro until his death in 2003. What’s interesting to me about this juxtaposition is the way in which ideological forces in both Cuba and the U.S. have conspired to keep true history from being told. These vignettes offer a glimpse of those ideological forces, their power, and the courage it takes to defy them. Ultimately, these are the same forces that got William Morgan killed on a dark night in March, 1961.

A lot of changes have taken place since I the book was published in 2007. Fidel Castro is no longer on TV every day in Cuba. Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, Morgan’s great friend and political mentor, returned to Cuba as a dissident and died there in 2012. And, most dramatically, the U.S. and Cuba are experiencing a moment of detente, as the two countries do the complicated work of reestablishing relations. As this happens, I hope that more true stories will be released from behind the propaganda firewalls that have defined dialogue on both sides of the Straits of Florida.

The people who made it possible to write Morgan’s story were the women and men, like Roger Redondo, who were with him in Cuba during those dramatic years between 1958 and 1961, particularly the members of the Second National Front of the Escambray (SNFE). Like so many Cubans on all sides, they have lived with the painful results of decades of Cold War: lost homes, broken families, and the distorting anger and distrust that have stunted lives and divided people more deeply than 90 miles of water ever could. As anti-communist revolutionaries, they were squeezed between Fidel Castro on one side and the interests -- both Cuban and American -- invested in Cuba’s pre-revolution status quo on the other. However, the relative ideological independence of the SNFE men and women allowed them to ask questions and give answers that few others would or could. For this reason, I believe that Morgan’s story and those of the other members of the SNFE still offer a particularly clear lens through which we can begin to understand aspects of the Cuban Revolution.


Aran Shetterly is a writer, independent editor, and writing coach. He splits his time between Mexico and the United States and can be reached through his website:

The Secret Feminism of "Bewitched"

I have never experienced Boston before this summer, when I moved to the city for an internship with American Experience. While living in Boston has been amazing, I am very intrigued by what more Massachusetts has to offer. A few weeks ago, I made the trek to Salem, MA -- the famous "witch town," the location of the infamous Witch Trials of the early 1690s.

Walking down the streets of Salem, I was amazed at how much of the town was devoted to its history. Many of the shops in the downtown district were devoted to selling witch-related memorabilia, some even offering year-round haunted house tours.

I stumbled across a very interesting addition to this collection of devotees to Salem's witch history: a statue commemorating the 1960s television show Bewitched. It depicts the show's main character, witch Samantha Stephens (played by Elizabeth Montgomery), riding a broomstick near a moon in its crescent phase. The statue pays tribute to the show that filmed several episodes on location in Salem.


Why We Made "Walt Disney"

Mark Samels, Executive Producer of American Experience, has wanted to make a biographical documentary of Walt Disney for many years. As Samels says, the iconic animator's pervasive influence on American culture made him "a perfect subject for American Experience."


Rebuilding Radio Clinic

Radio Clinic was one of the 1,616 stores looted during the 1977 Blackout in New York City. In the days after the blackout, the chances of Radio Clinic’s survival looked pretty grim. In the wake of a large-scale disaster the precipitous event might be over; the fires put out and the hurricane waters receded. But for the small business owners whose stores were destroyed, the fight to survive was just beginning. Jen Rubin, the daughter of Radio Clinic's owner, writes about her father's experience after the Blackout.


Walt Disney Comes to American Experience in September

American Experience is very excited to announce a project that our Executive Producer Mark Samels has had in the forefront of his mind for years. A four-hour biography of Walt Disney will premiere on PBS this September (see the preview and the press release below), before which we will share a huge collection of stories, images and factoids on our social media pages and our web site. Stay tuned! 

(BOSTON, MA) June 4, 2015 -- In 1966, the year Walt Disney died, 240 million people saw a Disney movie, 100 million tuned in to a Disney television program, 80 million bought Disney merchandise, and close to seven million visited Disneyland. Few creative figures before or since have held such a long-lasting place in American life and popular culture.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE offers an unprecedented look at the life and legacy of one of America’s most enduring and influential storytellers in Walt Disney, a new two-part, four-hour film premiering Monday and Tuesday, September 14-15, 2015, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings). Executive produced by Mark Samels, directed and produced by Sarah Colt, and written by Mark Zwonitzer, the film features rare archival footage from the Disney vaults, scenes from some of his greatest films, and interviews with biographers and historians, animators and artists who worked on Snow White and other early films, and designers who helped create Disneyland.

"Walt Disney is an entrepreneurial and cultural icon," said AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Executive Producer Mark Samels. "No single figure shaped American popular culture in the 20th century more than he."

From Steamboat Willie to Pinocchio to Mary Poppins, Disney's movies grew out of his own life experiences. He told stories of outsiders struggling for acceptance and belonging, while questioning the conventions of class and authority. As Disney rose to prominence and gained financial security, his work became increasingly celebratory of the American way of life that made his unlikely success possible.

Yet despite the success he achieved, he was driven and restless, a demanding perfectionist on whom decades of relentless work and chain-smoking would take their toll. He wanted his films to make people feel deeply, yet often buried his own emotions. Aspiring to create great artistic films, he felt he wasn't taken seriously by the movie industry, and was stung when critics panned his productions. Never satisfied with his previous efforts, he always pushed forward to a "new adventure," but his attention to detail and quest for innovation frequently meant delays and cost overruns. When his employees organized and went on strike, Disney felt betrayed, not able to understand how people who worked for him could be unhappy; years later he called them "communists" before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

A polarizing figure -- though true believers vastly outnumber his critics -- Disney's achievements are indisputable. He created one of the most beloved cartoon characters in history, Mickey Mouse; conceived the first ever feature-length animated film,Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; pioneered the integration of media and marketing with thousands of branded products; and conceived Disneyland, the world's first theme park and a three-dimensional realization of his own utopian universe.