Ernesto Cardenal Biography
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Also Known As: Reverend Father Ernesto Cardenal Martínez
Born in: Granada
Famous as: Poet, Revolutionary, Politician, Priest
Height: 1.69 m
father: Rodolfo Cardenal
mother: Esmerelda Martinez
siblings: Fernando Cardenal
Founder/Co-Founder: Christian primitivist art community
education: Columbia University
Ernesto Cardenal is a Roman Catholic priest who is also a poet, politician, and revolutionary. Considered by many to be Nicaragua’s second greatest poet after Ruben Dario, he has devoted his life to the service of the poor and the cause of justice in his native land. Following his conversion to Christianity, Cardenal spent time in an American monastery and then transferred to Mexico where he was eventually ordained. He set up a Christian primitivist art community in the Solentiname Islands in Lake Nicaragua, but left after it was destroyed by forces loyal to the Somoza regime. He joined the opposition Sandinistas in their successful overthrow of Somoza and subsequently served in the new revolutionary government as its Minister of Culture. He grew disillusioned with the Sandinista movement, however, and in particular the authoritarian rule of Daniel Ortega, and eventually left the party. He retains his political views and continues to advocate on behalf of the poor and powerless, linking these views with a radical understanding of the Christian gospel and the movement known as liberation theology. Over the course of six decades, this prolific poet and author has chronicled his nation’s and his people’s history for a worldwide audience.
- Cardenal was born on January 20, 1925 to Esmerelda Martinez and Rodolfo Cardenal, who belonged to an upper-class family in Granada, Nicaragua.
- He was educated in Jesuit schools and then studied literature in Mexico. He completed his undergraduate studies at Columbia University in New York, where he received a BA in 1949.
- After traveling through Europe for two years, he returned to Nicaragua and participated in the unsuccessful 1954 “April Revolution” against the regime of Anastasio Somoza Garcia.
- With the death of many of his associates in the unsuccessful coup, he fled Nicaragua for the United States. As he underwent a religious conversion, he was drawn to the monastic life and entered the Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky in 1957, where he became friendly with Thomas Merton.
- Merton’s example and teaching of non-violence had a lasting impact on Cardenal, even though he left Gethsemani for a monastery and seminary studies in Mexico. He was ordained there in 1965 and subsequently returned to Nicaragua to found his farming/artistic community in the Solentiname Islands.
- His work as a parish priest in Solentiname focused on encouraging the poor to become self-sustaining and to celebrate their artistic gifts. The community flourished, but then was destroyed by Somoza forces after community members staged a raid on one of the regime’s outposts in 1977.
- With all the farms and homes destroyed, he left Solentiname to join the Sandinistas in their fight against Somoza.
- After the successful overthrow of the Somoza regime in 1979, he joined the government of Daniel Ortega as the Minister of Culture. His brother, a Jesuit priest, was named the Minister of Education.
- In 1983, Pope John Paul II openly criticized Cardenal for continuing to serve in a government position against the wishes of his superiors, and for supporting liberation theology. Cardenal refused to bend and had his ability to administer the Catholic sacraments taken away.
- He grew frustrated with what he called the “robo-lucion” of the Sandinistas, playing on the word for “robbery” in Spanish. He felt that the original revolutionary ideals had been compromised by Ortega’s government, which he believed had become another dictatorship. He left the party in 1994 but continued to write and work on the causes he championed.
- Although currently living in retirement, Cardenal continues to be vocal about political and ecological issues in Nicaragua.
- ‘Epigramas’ (Epigrams) is a collection of early poems in his distinctive epigrammatic style. These include love poems and works denouncing the violence of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua.
- La Hora 0 (Zero Hour and other Documentary Poems) is a great example of protest poetry, outlining the long history of domestic tyranny and American imperialism in Central America.
- Oración por Marilyn Monroe (Prayer for Marilyn Monroe) links the death of Marilyn Monroe to the larger problem of the dehumanizing effects of capitalism
- ’The Origin of Species’ is his latest work - a meditation on Darwin’s theory of evolution and its relationship to religious faith.
- In 2005, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
- In 2009, he was awarded Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry.
- He received Reina Sofia Prize for Latin American Poetry in 2012.
- He was bestowed upon ‘French Legion of Honor’, France’s most distinguished award, in 2013.
- Cardenal’s greatest legacy is undoubtedly as a poet of Nicaragua whose creative use of language and form has given voice to the nation’s people and culture.
- He will also be known as a poet who expressed and reflected deeply upon the relationship of the Christian gospel and religious spirituality to the demands of modern-day political and social movements.
- Translated into more than 20 languages, his vast body of work has gained a worldwide audience.
- His other important legacy is his work on behalf of the poor and his commitment to social justice. The primitivist art community he founded on the Solentiname Islands continues today and has gained world recognition.
- His first cousin was the famous Nicaraguan poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra.
- Just before the Nicaraguan revolution, he went hat shopping with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and purchased six of his trademark black berets from an Army surplus store.
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