The most recent English-language general history of early colonial Cuba dated 100 years back—until University of Central Florida History professor Luis Martínez-Fernández published Key to the New World: A History of Early Colonial Cuba. This book won the 2018 Florida Book Awards bronze medal in general nonfiction, first place at the 2019 International Latino Book Awards in the History category, as well as a feature from New Books Network.
In Key to the New World, Martínez-Fernández explains how the book evolved over more than a decade from a series of essays into a book: “I first wrote an essay on Cuba’s geography and another on the early European explorations. Then, I decided to write several other essays that when combined with the first two would provide a wide-ranging scholarly overview of the major developments, themes, and historiographical discussions of Cuba’s first centuries. I wrote several additional chapters as essays meant to both stand alone and serve as building blocks for this book-length project. As I assembled this book, I reworked the individual essays, updated them to reflect the most recent historiography, split and/or consolidated some of them, cut some and expanded others, and wrote four new ones to fill remaining topical and chronological gaps.”
To learn more about the publication and the inspiration behind it, we asked Martínez-Fernández a couple questions.
What inspired you to start writing Key to the New World? Do you have any favorite moments from the process?
The main motivation to write this book was the fact that there was no available English-language book that provided a survey of early colonial Cuba. This period has been largely ignored by historians and the most recent work on the subject had been published one full century before. My favorite memories were seeking out life stories of common individuals whose lives shed light on key historical moments and topics.
Which of your classes draws the most influence from this book? Has teaching changed your perspective on the topic, or brought light to new information?
I teach History of Cuba at least once a year. The book stemmed largely from the need for a text for that class. As for Caribbean studies, my research is multidisciplinary. It pays much attention to the region’s artistic and literary manifestations. This becomes evident in my prose, which strives to achieve literary elegance.
Congratulations on both awards on your book! Has winning these awards changed your view on your studies?
It has encouraged me to strive for an even higher literary value in my written work and has strengthened my commitment to tell stories of ordinary people who led extraordinary lives. Winning these awards represents a significant honor for me; historians like myself write books and articles but we seldom think that what we write is “literature.” In writing Key to the New World, I made a concerted effort to use an elegant and moving prose. It seems to have paid off as attested by the two awards conferred on my book.