Margaret Randall: “Poet. Feminist. Revolutionary.”


Graphic by Katherine Irving ’22 and Amanda Wong ’23.

Karín Aguilar-San Juan, Columnist

Wouldn’t you be surprised if someone told you they wrote more than 100 books? What if she never finished college, spent two decades living on another continent and then — in her eighties — published a memoir ironically titled “I never left home”? There’s a lot to learn from the intriguing and controversial life of the writer and poet Margaret Randall, and she will draw on her unusual experiences as a participant-observer in the revolutionary struggles of Latin America when she visits Macalester next month.

At first glance, Margaret’s life story presents many daring yet questionable choices. Born into an upper-class Jewish family in upstate New York, Margaret left home when she was 19. It was the ’60s, and the counterculture movement was in full swing. In New York City, she decided to have a child. Shortly after her son Gregory was born, Margaret took him and left for Mexico. Gregory’s father — the beatnik poet Joel Oppenheimer — didn’t know Gregory was his son until years later. In Mexico, Margaret teamed up with Sergio Mondragon to create and circulate an international and bilingual journal of poetry called “El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn.” This journal offered a platform for poets from all over the world to communicate with each other. With Mondragon, she had two daughters, Sarah and Ximena.

On a deeper level, Margaret’s romantic  relationships intertwined with her leftist ideological commitments and activities, producing drastic but not necessarily harmful results for her children, at least in the long run. Still in Mexico when her relationship with Mondragon ended, Margaret married Robert Cohen. Together they had a daughter, Ana. It was 1969, and Mexico was in upheaval. The Mexican government found an excuse to take away Margaret’s U.S. passport, claiming she was a communist. Now with four young children, Margaret and Robert realized they were in danger. They decided to flee Mexico for Cuba — a society in the midst of its own socialist revolution — despite knowing that they would have to send the children ahead of them, accompanied only by strangers.

Decades later as an adult author of his own memoir, “To Have Been There Then,” Gregory Randall describes this uncertain period without resentment. Indeed, his reflections shine with respect, love and admiration for his mother, all of his fathers, and for the Cuban revolution of which he was a part. In frank, no-nonsense language, he explains that he and and his siblings were welcomed and cared for in Cuba along with other children whose parents were in similar political situations. Meanwhile, since there was no legal way to travel between Cuba and the United States, his mother had to disguise herself and hide inside a refrigerator truck amidst cuts of beef to get to Canada. From Canada she got a flight to Prague (at that time, Czechoslovakia) and finally, a flight to Cuba. The children waited for two harrowing months before they were all reunited.

It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to consider Margaret Randall’s achievements as a revolutionary without accounting for her role as a mother and a wife. For some, it’s even tempting to conclude that her neglect as a mother somehow cancels out her positive deeds. Our minds have been trained to see the fate of any woman’s children as her most important consideration. Obviously, Margaret did not see things that way. When interviewed for the documentary film, “The Unapologetic Life of Margaret Randall,” she concedes that her own children may have suffered from some of her decisions ,yet her political activities were directed to creating a better future for all children. Her many books of poetry and essays testify to fundamental unselfishness of her activities, including the oral histories of women that she conducted throughout Latin America.

In these times, we need to cultivate visions of the future that break in radical, unexpected ways from the present moment. Margaret Randall’s example offers many possible entry points for dialogue on what is required of younger people today to make the level of deep, transformative change to which Margaret and her contemporaries aspired, even if their efforts were flawed or failed. Rather than fault Margaret for being an imperfect parent, we might look for ways to include parents with small children (especially young mothers) in meaningful political activity.

Without descending into nostalgia, we can appreciate Margaret’s life-long and persistent demand for justice and reflect on what might shift or temper our own sense of hopelessness and precarity. Most important, we can recognize the many ways that Margaret depended on and cared for others, despite her fierce spirit of independence. Our culture rewards individualism, and it sometimes takes great effort to acknowledge that we receive support from friends, strangers, and even enemies. Understanding the basis of our interdependence with others and the Earth can open new ways of approaching revolutionary change.