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Race and the Revolution

Arnoldo García and Vanessa Daniel discuss racial politics with renowned Cuban cultural leaders Nancy Morejón and Nisia Aguero

Soon after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro delivered a historic speech in which he abolished Jim Crow segregation and announced that the revolution would bring racial equality to the island. It was nearly 30 years before he broached the topic of race again. In the interim, it was assumed that racial healing would occur as a natural effect of other changes. The government line, widely held by the Cuban population, was that to speak about race directly would only accentuate differences and divide the people at a time when unity under a single "Cuban" national identity was necessary to fend off U.S. attack.

Forty years later, the topic is still controversial, but increasingly, Cubans are breaking the silence about race to address persisting inequalities. On a U.S. tour this fall to foster greater cultural exchange between Cuban and American artists, Nisia Aguero and Nancy Morejón spoke with ColorLines about race in Cuba.

Nisia Aguero is the director of the National Theater of Cuba and founder of the Cultural Center for the Development of Community Theater and Popular Art, "La Barraca," which extends access to the arts to disadvantaged communities in Cuba.

An internationally acclaimed writer, Nancy Morejón has published 12 collections of poetry, three monographs, a dramatic work, and four critical studies of Cuban history and literature. Most widely recognized in the U.S. for her book of poetry,Where the Island Sleeps Like a Wing, Morejón's poetic voice, at once deeply sensual and political, is a feminist-infused expression of the Afro-Cuban experience.

Q. How is race different in Cuba compared to the U.S.?

Nancy: Like the United States, our history has been marked by the plantation economy, by migrations, and by the battle of the skin. Race and color are fundamental to the life and existence of Cuba, yet they are distinct in their history and presence. Exploring race in Cuba has become a fad, and we must be careful, because many books and materials have been produced by individuals who, while they may be well-intended, take only a cursory and frivolous glance at the issue. There are those who arrive from the outside thinking Cuba is a racial paradise. Cuba is not a paradise, but neither is it hell. Then there are those who arrive with a disrespectful and paternalistic attitude, thinking they have a better analysis than Cubans themselves. Cuba is a different reality, and race does not function in the same way that it does in the United States. People pontificate on these issues after visiting Cuba for 10 and 15 days. I've known great cultivators of the theme of blacks and race in Cuba who have not been to Cuba since 1971.

Q. What, then, is distinct about the Cuban identity?

Nancy: The concept of color to us is revolutionary and innovative because it reflects an international phenomenon. For example, mestizaje –the concept of a mulatto identity– exists throughout the Americas but changes depending on your location. In Haiti, the mulatto class betrayed the revolution. They allied themselves with the French and created a separate social class. This did not occur in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Cuba where the color line is not as rigid. In Cuba, the black and mulatto population basically made up the most impoverished stratum, but in the interior of the republic there were many white campesinos within that same stratum. So in Cuba, the economics of the color line are not so fixed. To be a mulatto does not mean you belong to the middle class or to the opulent class, as it does in Haiti.

Mestizaje also goes to the cultural question. If I enter South Africa in 1980, I suffer the apartheid that any black person there suffers. But the moment I speak, it becomes clear that I am not from South Africa because culturally I am Hispanic.

This cultural question is a torment for the racial nomenclatures of the U.S.: What am I? Spanish is my language, so how can you say that I am not a mestiza? The Afro American world, the world of the Americas, is really a mixed/mestizo world. Understanding this, we then have to recognize that there is still this pervasive vision of race that is very Saxon –a mentality which promotes the idea that there are still pure races and which becomes the cornerstone of fascist positions.

Q. Many have made the distinction between the severity of the U.S. color line and the more permissive nature of Cuba's color continuum.

Nisia:: There is a saying from the 19th century that goes, "Are you Mandinga or Carabalí? If you're not from the Congo, you're from Carabalí." In other words, you are more or you are less black, but everyone is mixed and everyone has some black in them. There are no pure whites –they don't exist in Cuba. The culture is syncretic.

Q. Has the Cuban revolution adequately addressed race?

Nancy: The independence philosophy of Cuba has very strong and long internationalist roots. Revolutionaries in Cuba nourish ourselves with the philosophy of José Martí, the Apostle of Cuba's Independence, who lived for many years as an immigrant in New York. He learned directly about issues of race in the U.S. He translated the novel Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson, which dealt with Native Americans in the U.S. Our love of liberty was partly taught to us by the cimarrones, runaway U.S. slaves who fled into the mountains and afterwards joined in the Wars of Independence.

The originality of the Cuban revolution lies in the fact that it was not a European-style revolution. It was created by and among people of color. The Cuban revolution looked toward Asia and Africa. When the Algerian revolution triumphed, Che Guevara discovered Franz Fanon. This was not accidental, or because Africa was in vogue, but because there was a recognition of the natural bond Cuba has to African history. Cuba and the revolution connects and draws from many parts of the world. The revolution has done an outstanding job of teaching everyone this history. However, 500 years of the philosophy of pillage, of racial discrimination, is not erased by 40 years of exercising the Cuban revolution.

Nisia:: The revolution has bettered race relations. Before 1959, those who danced and played "black" music were denigrated. The time right before the revolution was one of intense discrimination. The Cuban elite had copied the U.S. model of Jim Crow segregation. Blacks were barred from certain beaches, restaurants, hotels, and other spaces. They couldn't work in the banks, or certain stores. The grandson of Antonio Maceo, who is one of Cuba's greatest patriots from our independence struggle, was not allowed to enter a university in Havana because he was black.

I am older, so I can speak of "before" and "after" the revolution and can remember a time whites stepped on blacks to keep us down. Racism was pervasive. The former president of the republic, Carlos Prío Socarrás, divorced his wife, a mulatto woman, and married a white woman so that his political party would allow him to run for the presidency. Still, as Martí always said, "In Cuba, being Cuban is much more important than being white, black, or mulatto."

Q. Was there silence around the issue of race following the revolution?

Nancy: In the `60s and the `70s race was a taboo and forbidden topic. But over time, writers and artists have used our work to open space for dialogue. Over the past two years, writers and artists have spoken to the Cuban Congress about it. We have accepted as a fact that racial prejudice hasn't ended in Cuba, that it forms part of a conflict in the history of our country and that it is something we have to continue fighting.

Nisia:: It is true that in Cuba there have been periods of extremism, eras in which, like the 1970s and 1980s, there was no way to admit that there was any kind of racial discrimination.

Nancy: It was an error. On the other hand, while it is true that issues of race, gender, and sexuality were not talked about immediately after the revolution, there were also other, more immediate priorities. The feeling was, if the U.S. decides to drop a bomb on Cuba, the bomb is not going to choose blacks or whites. There was a lack of debate as a result. That's why the recent Congress was a landmark in stating that we still have social conflicts that reveal the existence of prejudices. This is crucial because when you are aware of something, you are able to start working on it. Now we are finally beginning to discuss and deal with these issues.

Q. Can you explain more about why you believe that race is so important now?

Nisia:: Everyone is unhappy with television programs. There is bias. Still, I can say with certainty that in Cuba racial discrimination does not exist.

Nancy: I differ –racism and discrimination are related. Constitutionally, no one in Cuba can say, "I don't like blacks." It is not very socially acceptable; it is condemned. But subtle discrimination persists.

Nisia:: It is not an institutional but a social problem. The Cuban leadership is conscious and is struggling against it, but it is complex. Fidel Castro openly acknowledged the problem by standing up and saying, at the opening session of Congress, that Cuba still has racial problems that must be addressed.

Q. What about ongoing problems? In Cuba there is a strong image of a mestizaje national identity, yet television remains dominated by fair-skinned cubanos and many Afro-Cuban actors complain of being marginalized into stereotyped roles such as the slave or the maid. In what way is there a disconnect between the ideological image of cubanidad [Cuban-ness] and that which is actively put forth to represent national Cuban culture?

Nancy: As artists we see this about television and disagree with it. Still it is complex. Those are problems that can't be resolved through laws.

Nisia:: The leadership of our country is conscious and is struggling against it. But the former president of the Cuban Institute of Television is black, and he also perpetuated the problem by mainly casting whites.

The revolution moved and changed the structures. But racist values remain in the minds of many. Many of these values are inculcated in us –these racialized concepts of beauty or intelligence cannot be resolved institutionally but must shift socially, among the people.


Arnoldo García is a poet and singer and a staff member of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Oakland. Vanessa Daniel is a research associate at the Applied Research Center in Oakland.

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