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Pedro Pérez Sarduy

Contacting Pedro Pérez-Sarduy

And where did the Blacks go?
by Pedro Pérez-Sarduy

The following article is reprinted with permission from the author and from the Center for Cuban Studies -- it first appeared in Cuba Update, their newsletter.

And where did the blacks go?

Pedro Pérez Sarduy

I don’t know if it was a coincidence, but this time I arrived in Havana on December 17. For Catholics, it was the Day of St. Lazarus—or Babalú Ayé, the venerated orisha of the Yoruba religion, known as santería, the belief in saints. Since the summer of 1997 I had been at the University of Puerto Rico on a scholarship that would allow me for the first time to get close to the cultural complexity of our sister island. My return to Puerto Rico was to take place just before an historic event—Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba. During my four weeks in Cuba, I thought about the surrealistic complexity that the various news media, already beginning to arrive from nearly every corner of the earth, would have to interpret. Since the Pope is not a saint of my devotion, I preferred to receive the sacrament through television, and that’s how it was. Because of academic commitments I had made much earlier, I returned to Puerto Rico a week before the Pope’s arrival in Havana.

Day by day, from morning until almost midnight, from my place in Rio Piedras I scrutinized the two international television chains that covered almost all of the details of the visit, CNN in Spanish and TVE. The first, with a permanent correspondent there for months, displayed on the screen a near-evangelistic title for their coverage: "The Cross on Communist Soil"—as if the cross had not always been in Cuba, for more than five centuries.

I hadn’t really thought of publishing my reflections on  the pope’s visit, but I was persuaded to do so after reading two articles published last January 27the. They appeared in the section of the so-called Cuban "independent press" that is widely distributed by CubaNet, an Internet site originating in Miami.

The first article, "Those who did not go to the Plaza and something more," was signed by Emily Rodríguez, of the Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental. The other, "Gracias, potato," is by Manuel David Orrio.

According to Ms. Rodríguez, the host province’s call for huge numbers to attend the pope’s Mass in Santiago’s General Antonio Maceo Plaza of the Revolution was political manipulation of the highest order, intended to diminish the ecumenical role of the region’s Catholic organizations. Although Ms. Rodríguez admits that the Santiagueros gathered [in the Plaza] were happy and disciplined, she said that on the other hand she could appreciate "their being afraid to give of themselves totally" because there still remain "many wounds that the Cuban people carry within and we don’t know for how much longer."

With habitual paranoia, the CubaNet reporter adds that "no one can demonstrate [where?in Santiago de Cuba, in Cuba?] since they don’t know if those around them are religious or from the government." [!!!]

For his part, David Orrio refers in his article to the jokes or popular stories that circulated through Cuba because of the expected visit of the Pontiff. Orrio writes:

"As it should be in the national tradition, the bunch of jokers changed the Pope by name, an indicator of the deep popularity that the Holy Father holds among the Cubans. According to an anecdote of those unstoppable sinners, in the Central Committee of the Communist Party they decided that each of the members would greet His Holiness in a different language. Pedro Ross Leal, Secretary General of the Cuban Workers Association, and a not-very-bright man, according to the stories, had to do it in English. When he found himself before the pope, Ross shook his hand effusively and said, ‘Welcome, potato!’"

And then there are those who dare to say that we Cubans are not racists! What would be the motive for attributing the ignorance reflected in this joke to one of the few high-level black leaders in the Cuban political structure? And this is one of the most inoffensive ones that I have heard lately. There are others, that I do not even want to remember because they ought to be included in the Anthology of the 100 Best Racist Jokes of all times.

Pedro Ross Leal is one of six Blacks of twenty-four who make up the Political Bureau of the Cuban Communist Party. Well now, what relationship does the journalistic report of Emily Rodriguez have with that of David Orrio? If we link this joke recounted by David Orrio—which gives a good sense of what remains to be done in Cuba to eliminate racist vestiges — with the passionate personal analysis of Ms. Rodríguez, we immediately realize that they compliment one another, not necessarily by chance. While Ms. Rodríguez ignores the implications of not recognizing the force of the beliefs of African origin within the Cuban cultural context, Mr. Orrio echoes the racist attitudes alive in Cuba, without beginning to analyze their implications.

I was born and raised in one of the most racist cities in Cuba—Santa Clara—so I am doubly sensitive to such commentaries, analyses, and jokes. I was baptized when very young in the Church of Carmen, although no one in my family insinuated that I should eventually take communion. Well, at least in my city and according to my grandmother, "that’s not a thing that blacks do." And it wasn’t for nothing, because Santa Clara, where the pope offered one of his Masses, is the same city that prided itself on its fateful racial segregation. It is where the famous Vidal Park was divided, from its monument out, in circular walks for whites, blacks, and mulattoes. The whites were the only ones who could cross the virtual barriers to arrive at their territory in the first ring of people.

The same city of Santa Clara had at least a dozen religious schools, all with a virtual or real code of racial segregation. Among them were the Marists, La Salle, the Teresians, the Salesians, the Methodists, the Dominicans—I don’t remember if they were American or French—and even the Oblatas high  school, which was for the black nuns. That convent was located outside the city, on the highway that goes from Santa Clara to the town of Camajuaní. For a population of some 100,000 near the end of the 1950s, there was a considerable number of religious schools. They corresponded with the social and racial stratification of the city. The same situation existed in the rest of the 31 towns of the old sugar-producing province of Las Villas, where there were also societies and other entities blessedly segregated—such were the societies for blacks, mulattoes, and whites in Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus, Trinidad, Sagua la Grande, and Quemado de Güines, just to mention a few.

This was, then, the Santa Clara where I spent my first 15 years, the same city of Santa Clara that knocked down those segregated racial walls on one fine day in January of 1959. I was there.

Many black Cubans like me were the ones who didn’t go to the celebrations because, heresy aside, that "cross on communist soil" nailed into Cuban soil many years ago was the same one that justified the extermination of Cuba’s indigenous people. It was why the Indian Hatuey was burned alive; the same cross that justified the treatment of my African ancestors who were turned into slaves; the same cross that repressed the slave rebellions after the first shipment of "black minerals" arrived in 1517 included the so-called Staircase Conspiracy (Conspiración de la Escalera) in 1844. It was the same cross that justified the hunting of blacks who sought to obtain their denied human dignity during the ominous massacre known as the "Little Black War," the armed confrontation in 1912 that pitted the blacks who supported Evaristo Estenóz and Pedro Ivonet against the armed forces of the president of the Republic, General José Miguel Gómez and that many claim not to know about; the same cross, finally, that many black, white, and mulatto Cubans respect in the name of civility, not necessarily out of fear. The same cross that now, during his holy reign, John Paul II has tried to redeem, because it was stained with so much blood for two thousand years.

From every point of view it was evident that those who didn’t go to the Masses during John Paul II’s frenetic five days were in the great majority black and mulatto Cuban men and women. They took very seriously Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s public refusal of an offering by the Afro-Cuban religious associations to pay homage in their way to the Holy Father—maybe an Oru, or toque de bata for Obbatalá.

Various international and some national news services mentioned the ethnic and racial complexity of Cuba in their reports. Unfortunately, the great majority of those audiovisual documents dwelled on the "newsworthy" or picturesque superficiality of the badly-named "cults of African origin."

To satisfy my curiosity, I observed, according to what the cameras reflected, that at all the public gatherings—including the Pope’s visit to the Great Hall of the University of Havana (the Aula Magna)—the participation of mulatto and black Cubans was overwhelmingly in the minority. This is without mentioning representatives of the clergy, where maybe one or another altar boy might have been mulatto. Even in Santiago de Cuba, the most Caribbean and black/mestizo of our provinces, the inhabitants of African ancestry were scarcely seen. I daresay that proportionally the attendance of this sector of the Cuban population at these ecumenical activities was less than five percent. Where were the rest?

If one takes into account the fact that the population of Hispanic origin in Cuba has been reduced in part because of the constant exodus during the past three and a half decades, and that, according to some academic surveys, nearly 70 percent of the Cuban population practices one or another form of religion of African origin, one can conclude that a considerable part of the "Christian" population of Cuba is overwhelmingly of European ethnic descent, in contrast to those of African origin. The latter have almost always found refuge in the worship of their deities, veiled or openly, according to what suits them.

In recent years the racial question has become increasingly crucial to an understanding of Cuba. President Fidel Castro referred to ethnic and racial issues in all of his speeches, whether he was alluding to Cuba, the region, or other places. And this is very significant, because it comes according to a social policy carefully designed where the black Cuban (once again using the term in the broadest sense of the word) has occupied a space reclaimed since the voice of the slave rose up against the Spanish colony in the La Demajagua farm on October 10, 1868. It was recovered again 10 years later by General Antonio Maceo in his historical Baraguá protest where he demanded the freeing of captives and hostilities began anew.

Until now, this decade has witnessed a series of paradoxical events in which the racial theme has been and continues to be fundamental. Only those obsessed with old and repetitive clichés are incapable, voluntarily or involuntarily, of appreciating them. The most electrifying one is Cuba’s pledge not to capitulate in the face of intensified pressure by the United States, which is summarized in the concept that the Cuban nation will be an eternal Baraguá.

Recently Cuba has been compared to a great palenque (a settlement of runaway slaves that fled the plantations). Other deeds are framed in the different forms in which the black Cubans invoke their support for the Revolution, where the Afro-Cuban culture (religion, music, and dance, among other artistic manifestations) is equally celebrated.

The tremendous increase in numbers of those joining the religions of African origin on the Caribbean island is a considerable change if it is compared to previous periods—from slavery until relatively recently—when those forms of worship were sanctioned or repressed to different degrees. This should not be underestimated, since it is a profound and genuine expression of an old African spirituality. At the same time, there exists today an increase in racial polarization and an evident rise in the tension that such divisions have provoked. This is true even without mentioning that these are due to diverse forms of racism generated regarding black Cubans—or Afro-Cubans, which in this case are the same.

These divisions are noted in the current process of economic restructuring, from tourism, the sector of hard-currency income, the flow of dollars from the predominantly Hispanic-Cuban population living abroad, mostly in the United States; even the underground relationships in the informal economy, the so-called "black market," (a politically incorrect term) that has taken the place of the public and manufacturing sectors where many black Cubans were found.

One can appreciate these divisions in the double standards, such as the strengthening of Catholicism (of which the pope’s recent visit is only a part), including the attempted "Catholicization" of santería, and the general strengthening of the Hispanic-Cuban cultural hegemony in which black Cubans are excluded from important television and film roles, while, for example, merchandising for tourists is saturated with the so-called Afro-Cuban folklore.

It is not, then, to look for little angels where there aren’t any, or to conclude that this absent majority of "brown or dark-skinned" Cubans were heretics for not being present to listen to the "messenger of truth and hope" during his Cuban pilgrimage in January. Instead, they were probably somewhere worshiping Orúla.

Finally, it is worth reflecting on the affirmations of Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega that Catholicism is "the strongest religion in Cuba." According to him, of the 11 million inhabitants, 4.5 million are baptized—but being baptized doesn’t necessarily make one directly Catholic—I say this from my own experience.

Due to the present crisis in Cuba—partly for internal reasons, but in great part due to the sharp effects of the falling apart of the Eastern European allies since 1989 and the toughening of the so-called embargo and hostilities from the United States—racism has emerged again in a variety of forms at the same time that one observes a reaffirmation of cultural identity and African legacy.

I think that throughout all of these years Cubans have been too fearful about the impact that racial composition can have on our nation and in our concept of nationality and nationalism. It is obvious that in Cuba there exists a cautious optimism about a future that can safeguard those elements of social justice that rose with the Revolution. This hope is linked to the normalization of relations with the United States and the accompanying lifting of the blockade, when those on the island are out of the reach of the political revenge that some Cuban exiles will seek. And this is fundamental for the black Cubans, given the racism of the far-right whites abroad, although one can see an apparent deterioration in cultural hegemony.

It’s not easy! This is the phrase that is heard most frequently these days on the lips of the island’s Cubans, most of all for black Cubans. For them, as for those of the African diaspora in general, it certainly has not been easy during this second half of the millennium. However, now as before, I repeat, black Cubans, armed with their cultural heritage, will never return to the huts.

Translated by Jane Marcus-Delgado, Center for Cuban Studies, New York City

See also: The Pope's Cuban visit: racism vs the Afro-Cuban legacy in the Chicago Standard Newpapers.

Contacting Pedro Pérez Sarduy and Jean Stubbs

They may be reached via this web site.

Obtaining their books

Afro-Cuba (1993) is published by Ocean Press in Australia. It and No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latins Today (1995) are available in major bookstores but they can also be obtained directly on-line at the Amazon Bookstore. See each book's page for the link.

Contacting AfroCubaWeb

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