“Culture, Ethnicity and Identity: Reflections of an African-American Woman Visiting Cuba for the First Time”
by C. Wiatta Freeman
One of the most impactful things about being in Cuba is observing the seemingly endless variations of ethnic diversity. The intermingling of African, First Nation, European, and Asian heritage is apparent not just in skin color. It is also apparent in the facial features and the body shapes of the people in so many different ways. Inter-ethnic couples are also a common observance as I move about at the book fair and around La Habana, and I have not seen anyone react as if it is out of the ordinary or displeasing.
La Feria del Libro provides a good opportunity to reflect on all of this because thousands of Cubans attend this large public event, which is also family-oriented and multi-generational, so the beautiful range of Cuban ethnicities are abundant for the eye to witness. I have seen various families and groups of friends, students, or colleagues interacting at the fair with a wide range of apparent ethnic diversity.
In the African-American community, there is also a wide range of skin tones and other physical features indicating diverse ethnic backgrounds.
However, it seems much more extensive in Cuba. It is as if every gradient of color among the limiting racial categories of black, white and mulatto are represented, and therefore implicitly defy the accuracy and even relevance of these terms.
Inter-racial relationships are also a historic reality of the U.S. and are becoming more common in modern society. Yet in just a week of observance in La Habana, it became clear that inter-ethnic interaction is more pronounced currently and historically. It seems the U.S. has a more entrenched history of racial segregation than Cuba, and my observances made me even more curious about Cuba’s cultural history.
Cuban professor Eliseo Alfonso Llorente, who spoke during the question-and-answer period after Grace’s presentation at La Feria, returned to the Cinnamon Traveler booth with us. We continued our conversation about Cubans’ perspectives on race and racism and how they are similar and different from U.S perspectives. During my time in La Habana, I also had the opportunity to hear from other Afro-Cubans and from African-Americans who regularly visit or live in Cuba.
One of the things that I heard repeatedly is that Cubans identify as Cubans first, rather than by race. They view themselves as all one as Cubans amid the ethnic diversity. Solidarity and shared culture, supporting and embracing one another as Cubans take precedence. I also have been told that on Cuba’s census, they ask people to self-identify. If a black person says that they are white, then they are noted as such regardless of appearance. Therefore, national identity and self-identification seem to matter more than racial classification.
All of this has got me thinking deeply about race, culture and identity. Race is a false construct created to justify white supremacy economically and politically and support exploitation of unpaid or cheap labor among people of color. Violence and legalized racial segregation became some of the key tactics around the world for maintaining this dominance.
Yet the reality is that few people actually are definitively white or black in skin hue, we are all somewhere between those color polarities. Furthermore, most people in the Americas (and much of the world) have mixed ethnic backgrounds regardless of whether that is apparent physically or not. So why does it even matter at all? It only matters because of how people think and behave in relationship to themselves and others because of beliefs about race. Race continues to matter because of racism – past and present –and the way it damages and destroys people’s lives. The concepts underlying race are false, but the harmful consequences are very real for people of color throughout the globe.
On the other hand, ethnicity has little to do with the surface reality of skin color. More significantly, it is about our genetic origins and our familial and ancestral heritage. Culture is our way of life: the behavior, practices and traditions that we live within our communities both inherited from the past and what we have reshaped in our present-day lifestyles. Identity is how we define ourselves individually and collectively.
I am witnessing Cubans express their identity and culture as mutli-ethnic and multi-cultural. I hear references to and witness ethnic and racial distinctions, e.g. this is Afro-Cuban, he or she or that is blancito or negra, etc. Yet the different influences are all viewed as part of Cuban identity and often seem fluid rather than static.
For example, I observed a diversity of skin colors and ethnicities of La Regla de Ocha initiates and practitioners attending the fair. The initiates were more apparent because they usually have on all white clothing and colorful aleke beads on necklaces and bracelets indicating their divine purpose. I also saw others of various ages and skin colors wearing beaded bracelets that indicate that the spiritual practice informs their identity. This spiritual system is in the West African tradition, and yet I saw La Regla de Ocha initiates and practitioners from the palest to the darkest in skin tone, from those with clearly European and Spanish facial features as well as those with African ones. La Regla de Ocha is African yet it is proudly practiced by various ethnicities as an expression of Cuban culture and spirituality.
Another example is the shared commitment to the socialist values of the Cuban political system. Cubans of various ethnicities share responsibility for maintaining and improving this system as citizens and in local and national leadership roles. This also makes me think about the diversity of La Feria staff, of a group of artists painting political banners at the book festival, and of the young military and security personnel and trainees that I saw at the fair.
At the Cinnamon Traveler booth, we had support from La Feria staff, volunteers and visitors of different ethnicities. It was not communicated because it was Black, there should be only Black people participating. We were the guests of Cuba and of Cubans in general. Yet I did have colleagues tell me that they experienced some dismissiveness and even veiled hostility from the people in the crowd during the beginning of Cinnamon Traveler’s exhibition.
One of our Afro-Cuban co-organizers and the 2013 scholarship awardee and filmmaker Gloria Rolando commented during a dinner conversation that Cuba is African in many ways, yet there is still resistance to acknowledging it as such, so there is a tension. The Cuban professor that I mentioned earlier pointed out that not all Afro-Cubans want to embrace their African heritage or identify themselves as African. And that makes me think that perhaps identifying as only Cuban is sometimes a way of denying one’s African ethnicity because of internalized racism that makes one devalue it or feel ashamed of it.
This brings me now to the issue of racism and my observations about how it manifests in Cuba. What was repeatedly expressed to me is that racism has been dismantled institutionally in governmental and legal systems in Cuba since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. This has been an ongoing recovery process from historic racism rooted in Spanish and U.S. colonization of Cuba. Yet I have been told that prejudice and racial disparities for Cubans of African descent still exist.
It was repeatedly pointed out that 55 years is not enough time to erase the racist conditioning within all Cubans – Black, White or Mulatto—that developed over centuries. During various interviews, in particular one with Cuban cultural promoter Jorge Milanes, I learned that racial disparities were exacerbated after the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union. A major trade partner, the resulting economic crisis known as the Special Period compounded the historic advantages to White Cubans, which included having jobs with higher pay and social status. Combined with greater access to remittances from relatives living abroad, particularly in the U.S., these disparities widened.
This has me thinking further about the difference between structural racism – e.g. within government, education, the courts and law enforcement – and racial prejudice and discrimination by individuals. I’m also reflecting on how the two are related, for addressing racist thinking and behavior on either level helps eradicate it on the other.
The implication in dialogues that I had in La Habana was that Cuban socialism has been more successful in eradicating racism than in the U.S. For example, both African-American men that I interviewed for Cinnamon Traveler, who are living in Cuba full-time or visit regularly, commented that here they do not have to worry about being targeted, harassed and possibly killed because of racial profiling by police as they do in the U.S. They also stated that Blackness and the culture of people of African descent are celebrated more in Cuba.
On the other hand, I had an Afro-Cuban tell me that racialized stereotypes are still apparent in Cuban parlance that labels positive and/or ambitious behavior as blanco, and the opposite as acting negra. I have also heard Afro-Cubans express concern that despite free higher education that has improved opportunities for Black people, still too many Afro-Cubans are not in the position to take advantage of it. Whether from a lack of understanding the value of higher education or due to the lack of a supportive home environment, these hindrances do impede progress in ending class and ethnic disparities.
This provides a lot of food for thought about similarities and differences in dealing with ethnicity, identity and culture in the Pan-African Diaspora.
Click here for more information about upcoming arrangements to visit Cuba.