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  Mala Lengua

I have, let’s see:
that being Black
I can be stopped by no one at
the door of a dance hall or bar.
Or even at the desk of a hotel
have someone yell at me there are no rooms.
a small room and not one that’s immense,
a tiny room where I might rest.

From the poem Tengo (I have, 1964)
by Nicolas Guillén


by Black Cuban writer and journalist Pedro Pérez Sarduy
reports on Cuba today
as seen by black Cubans
July 13, 1995

translated from ¿Qué tienen los negros en cuba?


Arriving back in Havana, I found black Cubans locked in heated talk about the old topic that has long been approached with great caution: race in Cuba. Elvira Cervera, 72-year-old veteran black actress, had just launched a theater project demanding a break with ‘the apartheid blocking black actors from interpreting character roles in universal theater’, proposing a vehicle for ‘documenting, analyzing, judging, denouncing and rejecting the evident professional limitations on black actors on the Cuban stage [theater, film and television]’. Allaying any doubts as to her good intentions, Elvira Cervera invoked the sacrosanct thinking of José Martí, the 19th-Century Hispanic-Cuban Founding father, on the centenary of his death in battle for Cuba’s independence from Spain: ‘Just racism is the right of the black man to guard and ensure that his color not bar him from any capacities and rights incumbent on humankind... Man is more than white, more than mulatto, more than black.’

For 59-year-old black actor Alden Knight, ever since television reached Cuba 40 years ago, the image projected has been overwhelmingly white. Except for inroads made in the first 10-15 years after the revolution, what is black has been heavily stereotyped; and nowadays there are no black actors to speak of on Cuban television, which is easy to see by tuning in. Alden Knight is best-known for his performance poetry - especially that of Cuba’s mulatto National Poet, the late Nicolás Guillén our kind of Langston Hughes, the two of them having been contemporaries and friends. He regrets that it makes little sense in 1995 to perform Guillén’s classic 1964 poem of social redemption for the black Cuban: ‘Tengo [I have] is the sum total of what was achieved in this country for blacks, for the poor... and now it’s been lost. I have said that when that poem can be read again in all honesty, we shall have regained what we had won by the end of the 1960s. when we were poor but equal.

‘When you say there’s racial discrimination in Cuba, you’re told there’s not. Yes, there is! When you go looking for work in any of these new enterprises being formed, they’re looking to see whether you’re black or white. Looking good, of course, is that you look white; anything else looks bad. Economic necessity has meant that foreign business is being assimilated in a humiliating way. We’re losing what it means to be Cuban.

‘I come from a family of Jamaicans: poor, black and foreign, discriminated against on three counts - And peasant farmers, too. Today, my eldest brother is manager of an agricultural implements factory. My sister is principal of a secondary school. I come next, well-known as an actor all over Cuba. Then comes my brother who is head of electrical engineering at a fertilizer plant. Another brother graduated as a doctor in 1960 and is now a cardiologist of repute. The youngest is an engineering officer in the armed forces. I’ve never seen this kind of black family represented on Cuban television - a family that has striven for betterment.’

Dr Lilliam Cordiés Jackson (40) speaks as a middle generation black Cuban professional when she laments the loss of family values and the growing anti-social conduct accompanying the present crisis. She feels the family should be highlighted in the media, especially in times of ‘homogenized vulgarity in the country’. This, she stresses, is not the patrimony of black Cubans: ‘it’s that blacks are in a majority and more visible’.

A specialist in arterial hypertension, Dr Cordiés spoke about the research being undertaken by her team in Cuba which is paralleled by the work of Drs Savage and Saunders on hypertension among African Americans in the United States: ‘Genetic arterial hypertension is one of the areas most under study at present - not only among blacks but all populations, because it is thought that modifying genetics can improve the quality of life... But Cuba is a curious case. Whenever we present a study on race in an international forum, we are told that in Cuba there are no pure races, because the World Health Organization only recognizes three races: Caucasoide, Negroide and Asiatic. And in our country you find fair-skinned people who are demographically black.’

She and her sisters - three doctors and a philologist who specializes on Africa - were known since they were little as ‘the daughters of Lilliam and Juan Emilio’. The four were born and raised in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second and most Caribbean city, renowned for its history of rebellion, heroism and hospitality, as well as its more predominantly black population. Their parents gave them strong parental love and guidance: ‘My father was the intellectual center of the family, but my mother was the material center. Black people knew that one of the ways of confronting discrimination was through knowledge. My father was a black doctor. He was a typical African, he looked like a Zulu, tall, big, slow moving and with a persevering voice. That was my father. He had a superior mind... In those days blacks in Cuba had societies where they met and discriminated against blacks who knew nothing, not blacks who had nothing, blacks who couldn’t hold a conversation... That’s changed now, it’s another generation, there are other motivations and interests, it’s another life... People have made their own minisocieties, although in Santiago de Cuba a certain sense of the African ancestral family remains... The loss of values is not only among blacks... Two generations have been born into such unfortunate ways. A lot of effort has to go into restoring formal education.’

Reynaldo Peñalver Moral (68) is a retired journalist who played an important role in the movement of black social organizations to combat racial discrimination in pre-revolutionary Cuba:

There was an intellectual-type black journal called Nuevos Rumbos [New Directions], but I wanted a more popular publication that would reach the disadvantaged. That’s how I came to bring out Sociales [Society], and from that point on I knew journalism was for me.’

Convinced that the situation of blacks in Cuba would change one day, and needing qualifications, he enrolled in the Manuel Márquez Sterling School of Journalism. You had to be white , or the son or relative of some influential person. The examinations were written and oral. You could be brilliant in the written exam but you had to face four or five white professors and answer the questions they fired at you. When I graduated, I worked for a long time for a journalist called Jorge Yanis Pujols who paid me five pesos a week to write the chronicles he published under his name. The paper would never take me on the books.’

The revolution changed that, and Reynaldo Peñalver started work in the state news agency Prensa Latina. His idea was always to help his black people, and, when a group of AfricanAmerican publishers visited to find out the truth about Cuba, he met the director of the paper Muhammad Speaks, who spoke to him about Malcolm X and the black muslims. Ever since a first trip to the United States in 1957, he had kept abreast of the black civil rights struggle in papers and magazines: ‘I received EBONY, The Chicago Defender and The People’s Courier... I don’t know whether the last two still come out.’

In 1960, he returned to New York to cover Fidel Castro’s historic visit to the United Nations, when both met Malcolm X: ‘He thought I was a West Indian... that Cuba was an island of whites only. I explained to Malcolm X that half the Cuban population were black and mulatto, tremendously mixed. He was really excited. Then he met Major Juan Almeida who later joined the Cuban delegation. During our meeting, Malcolm X suggested setting up a black muslim branch in Cuba, and I answered that Cuba had its own religious identity, like Santería, one of the three main African-derived belief systems. He talked about black ownership of big nationalized enterprises such as Sears and Woolworth [neither of which employed blacks]. Instead of me interviewing him, he wound up interviewing me. I’ll never forget him saying Fidel should watch out for the white-devils. I told him about an incident in the city of Santa Clara, when private clubs were taken over, and racist rumors started circulating about black aspirations, and how right Fidel was to say that anyone could dance with whoever they wanted to, what mattered was they danced with the revolution.’ Those who took the message to heart started the exodus.

That was when Reynaldo Peñalver spoke with one of Fidel Castro’s aides for the famous interview with Malcolm X at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem where the Cuban delegation stayed. Photos taken by a photographer friend of Malcolm X remained unpublished for a long time - ‘It seems many people in the United States didn’t want those photos known.’ Sitting on my hotel balcony looking out to sea, he tells the story with nostalgia in his words and a shine in his eves. His parting comment was, ‘Right now, we need our African American brothers and sisters.’

That afternoon, Alfredo Martinez had also been with us. Fifteen years younger than his journalist friend, he had benefited from the revolution in mass education. With an arts degree, he went first into radio production but was soon to become a singer and composer of boleros. Alfredo is categorical when he says he doesn’t believe there should be an affirmative action programme to solve the race problem in Cuba. What he doesn’t want to see happen if the African American business community does decide to invest in Cuba. is what can already be observed in the tourist industry:

There are hotels here in Havana where you don’t see a single black, not in the lobby or outside the lobby, not even cleaning the floor. And there are Cuban enterprises where there’s prejudice, where there’s racism. That has to be put behind us, and those who are in the habit of continuing the prejudice and placing the white... No, let’s have the Cuban who has the best ability, a balance, because the revolution has given people an educational opening.’

Three currents of thinking about race in Cuba have tended to shape academics, political activists and dilettantes, Cubans and foreigners, black and white, friend and foe - all mixed, like Cubans themselves. First, the racial problem was a legacy of pre-1959. and solved thereafter. Second, it was a legacy of the past but the revolution had not only proved unable to resolve it but had rather exacerbated it. Third, the revolution had a positive impact but pre-1959 Cuba had paved the way for black advancement and already moved toward integration. There is, however, a fourth emerging which recognizes that Cuba was a racist country before 1959 and that the revolution has impacted greatly on race relations and eradicated major inequalities, but which highlights both the persistence and recent resurgence of often unexpected - at times subtle, at times blatant - racism.

This is seen as the result of the working of several forces, including an ideology inherited from the 19th-century Spanish colonial plantocracy and 20th-century US influence, and the limitations of socialist and communist policies in the pre- and post-revolutionary period. For journalist and writer Marta Rojas (64): There was a privilege accorded by a 1795 Royal Decree of Charles IV, the so-called ‘gracias al sacar’, which could be granted for a sum of money to a brown, quarteroon or quinteroon. If a Spanish father wanted to endow white status on his child with a black, brown or Indian woman, he could buy the papers to make the child legally white even if the child were our color. Contrary to the Anglo-Saxons, in Spanish America. a drop of white blood made you more white than black.’

According to Marta Rojas, this is the origin of whitening in the New World Spanish colonies and Cuba, like Santo Domingo, Venezuela and Colombia, suffered the trauma of what is the main theme of her second novel, titled Papeles de Blanco o Ia Santa Lujuria (White Papers or Holy Lust). This has relevance today: ‘ revolutionary Cuba, when the census is taken or the ID made, the enumerator looks at you... and if you say you’re white, he or she puts down white, and doesn’t check whether you have a black or brown mother. Nowadays you don’t have to buy your white papers, it’s a question of consumer taste. I don’t think that anomaly will ever be corrected, because it’s part of Hispanic American culture. I don’t think of anyone in Cuba as white!’

For younger Cubans like Mercedes Pérez Armenteros, Regional Head of Community Services of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) in central Villa Clara province, these problems are not too far removed. She was born in Santa Clara in 1962, one month before the Missile Crisis that brought Cuba, the United States, the former Soviet Union and the world to the brink of nuclear war. Unlike her parents, she could not have witnessed three years earlier that angry crowd of Santa Clara people. in their majority black and brown, led by a group of young revolulionary barbudos just down from the mountains, hacking up the beds that divided the main square. Vidal Park, into its white, black and mulatto sections.

Proud of the blackness of her skin and very aware of her envied professional position, Mercedes puts work first. With no race distinction, but concerned most about the poor, she deals with problems of health, the economy and services with a blend of talent and dedication: ‘I’ve been a professional working for the CDRs for five years. There’s been a complete change in the organization as an NGO [non-governmental organization]. Before, the CDRs were primarily preoccupied with revolutionary vigilance. We still do that, but there’s much more emphasis on community concerns. My work hours are open-ended. We start Monday and end Sunday and start again Monday. It’s hard work but has its rewards, especially in difficult times like these. I wouldn’t be able to do all this it weren’t for my mother looking after my boy and my brothers who also help me a lot. For five months now, I haven’t had a single weekend off...’

Victor Aguilera Noriega, also born in 1962, is one of the few black executive traders in the Cuban state enterprise, CUBAEXPORT. For Victor, ‘Black Cubans have achieved many freedoms and rights with the revolution. Nobody, no matter how racist, can deny that. My own father, a lawyer, and my mother, a nurse, achieved more than most [before the Revolution], but they wouldn’t deny what blacks have achieved through the revolution. I only had to study to advance as an individual and obtain what I have. Not my father. For him to get to university, he had to go through a lot, from working real hard to pay for his study, to joining white masons to prove his loyalty for promotion.’

So, what do we have in Cuba? How close is this, the largest of the Caribbean islands, only 90 miles from Florida, to racial democracy? Historically, its people have been deeply divided along racial lines -- the product of Spanish colonization, African slavery, Chinese indentureship and US-South style segregation. And yet, there has always been an incredible race mixing. Current population estimates are one third white, one third black and one third mixed. There has been a long history of black struggle, and Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution took bold measures to break with institutionalized racism. This was in the context of major redistributive programs for the poor, especially in education and health; today Cuba has one of the world’s lowest infant mortality rates (9.3 per 1000 live births) and highest life expectancies (75).

Afro-Cuban people are better ‘read and written’, as old black folks say. We have diplomas in professions proscribed to us before the 1960s, when I myself first ventured to the Central University of Las Villas, in my home town of Santa Clara - the only black student in my class. We have a new-found sense of dignity and pride which we will not easily relinquish. The Cuban revolution, with all its defects, was never divorced from the discourse and symbolism of Africa. Cuba, which never lost its surrealist Caribbean feel for life, is more Afro-Cuban and prouder of its African roots and cultural heritage than it was 35 years ago.

It should not, however, be assumed that racism in all its forms was eliminated, least in personal. social and cultural relations. And with the current crisis in Cuba -- which is part domestic but largely due to the pincers effect of the post-1989 collapse of East European partners and stepped-up 35-year US hostilities and blockade -- racism has resurfaced in new ways. I believe, after all these years, that we have not known how to break down the white paradigm and that it is incumbent on us as black Cuban intellectuals to pay more attention to this phenomenon. Perhaps like Brazilians, trapped in some of the same uncertainties, we Cubans have been overcautious, if not fearful, of how racial composition impacts on nationhood. The words of filmmaker Rigoberto López (49) come to mind, as he accepts part responsibility in recognizing that ‘consciously or unconsciously, Cuba has not wanted to take on black identity over these last decades; we have only seen this [in film and on television] with regard to the 18th and 19th centuries. We have agreed that it’s fine to deal with the black presence in Cuba in that period, whereby we avoid broaching the conflicts of being black in a society that is much closer to us in time and touches us in one way or another.’

We still cannot quite cross that cultural bridge between Spain and Africa - despite all the Afro-Cuban music from the late piano composer Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963) to Mi Tierra, that cubanissimo hymn to Cuba’s mix, interpreted by Gloria Stefan, Miami’s Cuba-born queen of ‘Latin pop’ (both of Hispanic descent).

Compared with most countries of the world, the state of race relations in Cuba is by no means alarming, but postponing attention might allow them to worsen considerably and risk possible repeat occurrences of 1994. Then, in the sweltering summer heat, in the waterfront neighbourhood of Central Havana. there was what the international media described as ‘the biggest antigovernment protest’ in Cuba’s 35 years of revolutionary regime. It followed a string of hijackings of government boats by Cubans trying to flee to the United States. Crowd frustration was vented primarily on shops selling dollar-priced goods in an underclass area heavily populated by families of all races, but predominantly black. It was a warning signal.

In 1966 Fidel Castro declared that racial discrimination would disappear when class privilege disappeared. If we take this as our point of departure, we might well conclude that in the last five years such privilege has been regenerated with a strange alliance of national raw material and component parts from abroad. Dialogue between Cubans on the island (currently 11 million) and overseas (two million, mainly in the United States and Spain) has brought together families and friends and provided a flow of hard-currency to the island. Yet this privileged white Cuba, as

Cubans overseas are 95% white. In the 1990s foreign investment opening, Europe, especially Spain, has revitalized its island presence. This came initially in tourism, creating dollar enclaves of plenty at a time when the domestic economy plummeted. A burgeoning new sex trade parodied bygone times, as white Hispanic male bought black and brown female strategizing for survival.

Between 1989 and 1993 the economy declined catastrophically by over 50%. As 1995 draws to a close, there are some signs of economic recovery. There is guarded optimism about a future which salvages elements of social justice that fired revolution. Hopes are pinned on a normalisation of relations with the United States, and a lifting of the blockade, but in a way that safeguards island Cubans from Cuban exile vengeance politics. This is especially important for black Cubans given the racist white Miami ultra-right.

‘It’s not easy!’ These are the words you most hear on the lips of all Cubans today. For black Cubans, as for blacks everywhere in the diaspora, it hasn’t been easy over the centuries. But now, as then, black Cubans, with all our cultural baggage, will not be shunted back to the slave yard. I would close with the healing words of the nationally and internationally acclaimed artist Manuel Mendive (51): ‘Afro-Cuban culture is still virgin and much needs to be done. My work is part of the light or perhaps the whole light of the island. And the people are the light of this magical world that is ours - this world of dreams and realities that makes it easy for us to understand life’s difficulties.’

Published in Spanish in Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana, # 2, Fall 1996.
This article is expanded on in Afro-Cuban Voices on Race and Identity in Contemporary Cuba

(c) 1995 by Pedro Perez Sarduy


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