The Brief Space Where You Are Absent (El breve espacio en que no estás)

Music piece by:
Pablo Milanés
Testimony by:
Vilma Rojas Toledo
Experience in:
Cárcel de Coronel, 1986 - 1988

I recall that during my time as a political prisoner, Pablo Milanés(1943-) Cuban singer-songwriter and leader of the Nueva Trova movement. was one of our greatest companions. His songs filled us with life, helped us to keep breathing and living behind the bars imposed by Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

Personally, I remember the song 'El breve espacio en que no estás' ('The brief space where you are absent') because it sparked such heated debate among my comrades that you would think we were trying to resolve a vital political issue.

What was it about that song that generated so many different points of view regarding what Milanés meant to say?

One specific phrase set off the controversy: 'la prefiero compartida antes que vaciar mi vida' ('I prefer to share her rather than empty out my life'). 

So we transcribed the song. That was difficult because we listened to the song on a small cassette. Then we analysed its words, phrase by phrase over a couple of days. We listened to it over and over again.

There were different positions regarding what Milanés was saying in that phrase, and we never reached an agreement. At the end of the discussion, every woman continued to interpret it in the way it made sense to her. The two rationales for the differences in interpretation about what Milanés wanted to say were the following:

1. 'La prefería compartida con otra pareja, antes que vaciar su vida' ('I would prefer to share her with another before emptying my life'): In other words, he couldn’t care less if she were with another man.

2. 'La prefería compartida con el compromiso social y político que ella tenía, antes de vaciar su vida' ('I would prefer to share her with the social and political commitment she had, rather than empty my life'): That is, he would prefer to share her instead of living day to day, although he doesn’t want a commitment, and although he doesn’t know when he would see her again, etc.

We never reached an agreement, yet we discussed it with all the seriousness that great song deserved. It was one of those beautiful moments of humanity shared with other women, my companions in prison.

It made you feel that the songs we listened to on a cassette player contained the wisdom and spirit of rebellion, which I personally needed in order to feel that they had not completely deprived me of my freedom.

I will always be grateful to Milanés for his music, which in that enforced space allowed me to dream of love and life. This song, in particular, filled the emptiness I felt in prison.

Today, I can remember it and speak about it. I can say that when I hear his songs I am immediately transported back to those years in jail in the city of Coronel, to that woman who is a political prisoner of Pinochet’s dictatorship. I remember him as the great comrade he was, through his music and his songs.

Oh, I forgot to mention what my position was. At that time, and even now, I think mine is the second option. But such is the magic of music; it is highly personal and each person takes what they want from it.


Published on: 08 July 2015

Moist traces still remain
its smells already fill my solitude
in the bed her silhouette
sketches such a promise
of filling the brief space
where you are absent.

I still don’t know if she will be back
no one knows, the day after, what you will do
breaks all my models
doesn’t admit to having a sadness
doesn’t ask me for anything in exchange
for what she gives.

She can be violent and tender
doesn’t talk about eternal unions
but gives herself as if
there was but a single day to love.

Doesn’t share a meeting
but likes the song
that commits her thinking.

I still have not asked, 'Will you stay?'
I am very afraid the answer will be 'never'
I prefer to share her
rather than empty out my life
she’s not perfect
but comes close to what I
simply dreamed of.