José Luis Herrera Sotolongo was born in 1909, according to the US Census. Whether this is accurate or not remains to be seen: to this day, there remain multiple discrepancies between records, some stating that by the time of his enlistment in 1937, he was twenty-eight years old, but others stating he was thirty-five. While his exact date of birth remains unknown, he was born in Cuba and immigrated to the US in 1929. Within a few years of immigrating to the US, Sotolongo became an active political participant of the Cuban immigrant community, becoming a member of the Julio A. Mella Club alongside his career as a painter.
The Julio A. Mella Club was created by Cuban activists and political exiles in 1931 who had left their country in opposition to Cuba’s dictator, Gerado Machado y Morales. Otherwise known as the “anti-Machado struggle”, the Club found support among Harlem’s Cuban community, marked for its anti-fascist beliefs and organizing. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, many members of the Mella Club, who had been personally affected by the anti-Machado struggle would comprise one of the many groups of American volunteers who ended up serving in the war.
Sotolongo, alongside many other Cuban peers, was recruited for the Centuria Antonio Guiteras (named for Cuban politician Antonio Guiteras), intended to be a Cuban unit to serve in the war. The US Communist Party paid to equip and transport each group of volunteers. The journey to Spain was long and difficult: the first group of volunteers left on the Champlain on January 5, 1937, where they landed in Le Havre, a town in France. They then took a boat train to Paris, another train to Perpignan, which was on the French border and after a bus ride to cross the Pyrenees, they would take another train to Albacete, Barcelona. While it is not explicitly stated, Sotolongo was most likely to be in this first group of volunteers, as according to his record, he arrived in Spain on February 10th, 1937.
After training with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, the Centuria Guiteras was integrated into the battalion as Section 3, Company 1. Sotolongo himself would continue to serve with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade at Jarama, Brunete, and Aragon. By his comrades and officers, he was referred to as a “good [Cuban] comrade” but “bad physically”, a “hard worker”, and one that came with a “good recommendation from the Brigade” with a good “political outlook. Thanks to his efforts, Sotolongo would eventually reach the rank of Commandant during his service, although this was short-lived, as not long afterwards, he would be injured at Aragon. After getting wounded, he would wait in Tarazona, a town in Aragon, for a little over a year, before being repatriated back to Albacete in January 1938. After receiving treatment, he would then return to the US on May 27th, 1938 on the SS Cuba to Key West, Florida.
This would not mark the end of Sotolongo’s dedication to anti-fascism. In fact, he would go on to serve in WWII, like many other Cuban veterans, choosing to embody his beliefs and values to the end.
P.S. Initially while doing research, I stumbled across another José L. Herrera Sotolongo who, during the war, notably served as a surgeon for the Spanish Republican Army and was writer Ernest Hemmingway’s personal doctor. I initially thought they were the same person, the more I read about Hemmingway’s Sotolongo, I realized the details of his life didn’t match up with this Sotolongo. They both served in different battalions, performed different duties, were born in different countries (Hemmingway’s being born in Madrid, while this Sotolongo was born in Cuba), and Hemmingway's Sotolongo stayed in Spain a lot longer (he wasn't injured and didn't receive repatriation). Side note, but the eerie thing is that when comparing their photographs, the two look very similar!
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