Who Was Cuba’s Felix Caignet?

Janis Hernandez

Felix B. Cainet
Felix B. Cainet

HAVANA TIMES — Soap operas, a highly popular industry in several Latin American countries and other places around the world (such as Asia), were born in Cuba.

The first soap opera (based on the radio play El Derecho de Nacer, “The Right To Be Born”) appeared in 1950. The program had become so popular that it was adapted for television. The number of viewers it secured is still unprecedented.

What many do not know, however, is that the creator of this immensely popular genre was Felix Benjamin Caignet Salomon, better known as Felix B. Caignet. Born in San Luis, Santiago de Cuba, in 1892, he was a French-Haitian man of mixed race who taught himself literature and the arts.

He was a self-taught writer, author of songs, painter and journalist. He worked as a typist and clerk at a court in Santiago de Cuba. He wrote journalistic pieces for the Havana magazine Teatro Alegre (“Happy Theater”) and the column Vida Teatral (“Theater Life”) of El Diario de Cuba newspaper

He visited Havana for the first time in 1920. The episode has this curious anecdote:

…When Italian tenor Enrico Caruso performed at the Metropolitan Opera House, Caignet wrote him and sent him a watercolor landscape painting of his. He also asked him to send him a caricature of himself, knowing that the tenor was also a caricaturist. The renowned tenor sent him the drawing. When he visited Havana to perform at the Teatro Nacional in 1920, Caignet wrote him again, telling him he regretted not being able to hear him sing in person, but that his financial situation didn’t allow him to travel from Santiago de Cuba to the capital (…).

Caruso invited him to attend his eight performances, wiring him two hundred pesos for the travel expenses.

Caignet wrote for El Figaro and Bohemia magazines, as well as for the newspaper El Sol. He also wrote children stories that were first published in newspapers and later adapted for the radio, something unprecedented for 1930s radio dramas.

Back in his native city, he made his debut as a prolific music composer. He wrote some 200 comedies and more than 300 musical pieces: sons, guarachas, boleros, peasant and children’s music issued from his unbridled inspiration. The most famous are Frutas del Caney (“Fruits from the Caney”), made popular by the Trio Matamoros, Te odio (“I Hate You”), immortalized by Rita Montaner, and others like Carabali, Montañas de Oriente (“Eastern Mountains”), Quiero Besarte (“I Want to Kiss You”), Mentira (“Lies”), and En silencio (“In Silence”).

A great many of his works became highly popular radio plays. He was the creator of the radio play for children aired as part of the program Buenas tardes muchachitos (“Good Afternoon, Kids!”). In 1934, he launched the first police drama ever produced in Latin America, the series La Serpiente Roja (“Red Serpent”), featuring the singular character of Chan Li Po. He infused radio narrators with life for the first time in Latin American radio history.

COCO, a radio broadcaster sponsored by the firm Sabates S.A., RHC Cadena Azul and CMQ, began to air Caignet’s productions as of 1936. Soaps like El precio de una vida (“The Worth of One Life”), El ladron de Bagdad (“The Thief of Bagdad”) and Peor que las viboras (“Meaner than Snakes”) reached audiences during this time.

In April of 1948, CMQ broadcast the most important radio drama of the decade, El derecho de nacer. This soap opera, the first of its kind in Cuba, Latin America and the world, made Felix B. Caignet famous. The show was such a sensation that Congressional sessions and masses were rescheduled so that people could hear it. It became internationally renowned through film, radio and television adaptations.

Angeles de la calle (“Street Angels”), Pobre juventud (“Poor Youth”) and La madre de todos (“Everyone’s Mother”), the last of his many soaps, were also very successful. In referring to his radio plays, Caignet used to say:

“What I did was take advantage of popular emotions to sow a bit of morality, a bit of good. In Chan Li Po, I wrote against marihuana; in Angeles de la calle, I protested over the situation of children living on the streets, and, in El derecho de nacer, I spoke against racial discrimination.”

Caignet died in Havana on May 25, 1976. On December 25, 1992, his remains were relocated to Santiago de Cuba, in honor of his wish to be laid next to his parents, in front of the hills of El Caney.

Some years ago, a bust of Caignet was installed in a small park in the municipality of San Luis. The many people who walk past it, speaking of the latest soap opera, are probably unaware that they are seeing the father of that popular genre.

3 thoughts on “Who Was Cuba’s Felix Caignet?

  • I share your memories and possibly kinship with Félix B. Caignet since that was my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. From Ote. province. And on my dad’s side, my maternal great-grandmother was also French, she being a Simounet..Perhaps that explains my devotion to French language and lit, http://www.institutosimoneweil.net
    You may find some of my speculations of interest there and at http://www.mama-doc.com Read some of the entries on Mary’s Mosaic at the Institute’s site. Explains a bit on how come the CIA never was able to dispatch Fidel to hell!

  • According to Wikipedia, The first network television soap opera was Faraway Hill in 1946. Soap operas became a staple of daytime television in the United States in the early 1950s. Janis Hernandez would do well to do her research beyond the EcuRed database in Cuba.

  • I remember my mother listening to the El Derecho de Nacer soap opera (“novela”, as we used to call it) in the early 1950’s Also remember that during the credits, the Felix B. Caignet name was always mentioned, the Cuban pronunciation version of his last name being “Cañet”

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