When the Communist Party seized control of Cuba in 1959, itlaunched an anti-racism campaign, and, after only three years, declared victory: Racism was over; everyone was equal. Despite the government’s embrace of a colorblind ideology, Devyn Spence Benson writes that Cubans, Afrocubanas especially, are still fighting anti-black discrimination and working to create “a revolution inside a revolution.”
Havana—“The black race has always been very oppressed and now is the time for them to give us justice, now is the time for them to give us equal opportunities to live,” Cristobalina Sardinas—a resident of Las Yaguas, one of Havana’s poorest slums—asserted three weeks after Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement (M-26-7) forces ousted U.S.-backed Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. In January 1959, the new government’s young leaders were about to embark on a set of social reforms and policy changes that would make the Caribbean’s most populous nation beloved and admired by some and hated and maligned by others for decades to come.
The new government passed over 1,500 pieces of legislation during its first 30 months in power, including laws delivering land redistribution, free health care, and educational scholarship programs. Added to these reforms, in March 1959, Castro announced a public anti-discrimination campaign that promised to fulfill late 19th-century aspirations to build a raceless and unified Cuba. National headlines outlined plans for integrating previously whites-only spaces—especially private schools, beaches, and recreational facilities—and providing employment and educational opportunities to Cuba’s most marginalized citizens. These changes created unprecedented social opportunities for blacks and mulatos (mixed race Cubans) in the ensuing decades and had lasting effects on Afro-Cuban lives. By the 1980s, black and mulato Cubans had virtually the same life expectancy, high school education rates, and percentage of professional positions as white Cubans—in sharp contrast to the United States and Brazil where significant disparities existed between whites and blacks in each of these markers of equality. Today, large numbers of Afro-Cuban professors, doctors, and other professionals (working in racially integrated public spaces) attest to the ways revolutionary actions brought about change and opened doors for Cuba’s citizens of African descent.
Yet, Cuba’s 1959 campaign against discrimination, which officially ended in 1961, was a program full of contradictions, consisting both of real social change and national myth-making about a government’s, even a revolutionary government’s, ability to eliminate racism in only three years. The title of the January 1959 article in the M-26-7 official newspaper, Revolución, that featured Sardinas—“¡Negros No … Ciudadanos!” or “Not Blacks, but Citizens”—foreshadowed the government approach. Although M-26-7’s anti-racist program provided many of the tangible social reforms that Afro-Cubans like Sardinas had expected, the new Cuban government’s attitude toward blackness was ambivalent and unstable, and left little space for Afro-Cubans to be both black and citizens. Building on 19th-century discourses that imagined Cuba as a raceless space of “not blacks, not whites, only Cubans,” the article’s title suggested that residents of neighborhoods like Las Yaguas had to discard their poverty and their blackness to join the revolution. This was and remains a false dichotomy for many Cubans of color.
In January 1959, Sardinas expressed her frustrations with previous administrations and her expectations for the new government as a black person, a Cuban, and a woman. She felt entitled to certain rights, like other citizens, and was aware and proud of her blackness. While some Cubans of color agreed with the revolution’s raceless sentiments, others used the state rhetoric to demand additional reforms. And a third group found the image of revolutionary nationalism without blackness unsettling and paternalistic, and looked for ways to lead organizations that recognized both their blackness and Cubanness. In the end, just like the irony of titling an article about black demands, “Not Blacks, but Citizens,” 1959 revolutionary promises of equality and national integration programs sat alongside inconsistent state rhetoric that allowed racism to continue and infiltrate Cuban ideologies in subtle, but lasting, ways.
Today in Cuba, nearly 60 years after M-26-7’s triumphant entrance into Havana, race and revolution have remained inextricably linked in the national imaginary. After the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1989, Cuba underwent a series of economic challenges that forced the restructuring of the economy and a turn toward a more capitalist-oriented system. This period of economic crisis shook the foundations of the revolution. For the first time the Cuban government struggled to maintain the education, health care, and social security reforms implemented in 1959. For its part, the United States, instead of aiding Cuba, decided to tighten the embargo in hopes that starving children, limited transportation to get to work, and a lack of basic goods and medicines would force Cuban leaders to renounce socialism. Rather than walk away from their revolution, politics, or social project, Cubans adapted. They turned to tourism and joint business ventures with European and Canadian enterprises and made new strategic hemispheric partners (most recently exchanging doctors for oil with Venezuela) to bolster the flagging economy. Tourism and remittances from Cuban exiles became two of the most profitable ways for the government to make money. For the most part, these modifications worked, and now one rarely sees the long bus lines, electrical blackouts, and empty shelves that were commonplace in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Unfortunately, blacks and mulatos suffered disproportionately in the new economic structure. Tourist jobs often rejected Afro-Cuban applicants due to informal appearance guidelines that gave hiring preference to light skin and straight hair, and blacks received significantly less income from Cubans in exile than their white counterparts. Yet, along with a tightening of the economy came openings in public conversations about race. New discriminatory practices led multiple scholars to describe this moment as the “return of racism.” However, the idea that racism reappeared in the 1990s silences and obscures the ways that state rhetoric that imagined blacks as infantile, grateful, and/or loyal Cubans in the early 1960s allowed racism to persist even after social reforms had provided Afro-Cubans opportunities for education and employment. Nor does the “return of racism” claim leave space to examine how Afro-Cubans continued to battle racism into the late 1960s, albeit in different ways.
Nevertheless, the post-1990s period has seen a resurgence in public conversations about race. Hip-hop musicians, or raperos, combine African-American beats and Cuban rhythms to critique their inability to find hotel jobs despite speaking multiple languages. Afro-Cuban academics publish articles, hold community forums, and give lectures about the history of racism in Cuba, the island’s cultural connections to Africa, and potential solutions moving forward. Revolutionary leaders have responded to these denouncements and the growing black activist sentiment in a variety of ways. For example, the Cuban Rap Agency is a state-sponsored organization that employs Afro-Cuban raperos and provides performance venues and recording spaces. That the rappers are often making music critiquing discrimination and some aspect of the revolution while receiving a government paycheck and ration book is an irony not lost on the participants. Both Fidel and Raúl Castro have recognized publicly that racism still exists in Cuba and is one of the most pressing concerns on the island today.
Unfortunately, emerging official discourses about race on the island continue to be plagued by a commitment to a raceless Cuba and a fear that talking about racism will divide the revolution, or worse yet encourage black rebellion. In May 2010, I returned to Cuba to do additional research. A few days into my trip, while attending a conference on Afro-Cuban religions in Old Havana where scholars and practitioners spoke about the recent demise of predominantly black religious houses and churches, a white Communist Party of Cuba official, who had been sitting toward the back of the room observing the event, stood up and spoke. He thanked everyone for their presentations and wondered aloud how a conference that was supposed to be about religion had turned political. He cautioned the men and women in the room to remember that African-American scholars had recently sent a letter to Cuban leaders accusing the revolution of being racist and that they needed to be aware that counterrevolutionaries were using race as a tool to attack the government. Immediately, hands went up around the room, and one young woman began to speak. “We are not African Americans, and we are not counterrevolutionaries,” she said.
The friend who had invited me to the event looked over and put a finger to his lips—I was not supposed to let anyone know at that moment that I was not Cuban. The woman continued, “This is our country, and we are revolutionaries who are trying to make the revolution better.”
Others chimed in, explaining how they had stayed and struggled with the revolution for years and that they wanted to be heard about the issues they were facing. As the meeting ended and I left with my colleague, I marveled over everything that I had heard. Using the same 50-year-old trope often mobilized in the early years of the revolution against black intellectuals who pointed out racism in the new government, this young communist had claimed that Cubans needed to unify against attacks from the United States. This time, the white official had tried to invoke the African-American critique to threaten Afro-Cubans into silence. In doing so, he built on the many transnational moments of closeness and distance that had occurred between Cubans and African Americans since the late 19th century. The black and mulato scholars, however, immediately recognized and dismissed his rhetorical attempt to bring their conversation about the plight of black religious houses to an end—silencing them was not going to be as easy today as it was in 1959. By stating that they were revolutionaries and affirming that they had stayed on the island and were trying to make the nation a better place for all, these Cubans of color, like many before them, refused to allow others to deny their race or define their revolution.
BEAUTY IN THE MARGINAL
It is not surprising that black and mulata women (Afrocubanas) were the most vocal respondents to the Cuban official’s analysis. Today, Afrocubana scholars, activists, and musicians are leading the way in Cuba’s anti-racist and anti-sexist movements. These women are building on the work done by black and mulata women in the 1960s who stayed on the island and continued to fight discrimination in indirect ways once Castro and other revolutionary leaders claimed that Cuba had eliminated racism. The legacy of Afro-Cuban filmmaker Sara Gómez (1942–1974), in particular, has played a central role in this new movement. In November 2007, a special three-day colloquium in Havana titled “Sara Gómez: Multiple Images: The Cuban Audiovisual from a Gendered Point of View” celebrated Gómez and pushed for the digitalization of her films. The recent availability of her 15 short documentaries has led Afro-Cubans to begin publishing and talking about Gómez’s work as they find ways to perfect their own 21st-century revolutions. Black blogger Sandra Álvarez Ramirez wrote an essay in 2007 analyzing feminist themes in Gómez’s film De Cierta Manera and later featured Gómez on her blog Negra cubana tenía que ser (Black Cuban Woman I Had to Be) in 2012. Afro-Cuban women responded to the blog post “Sara Gómez in Her Own Voice” and spoke about Gómez’s significance to their contemporary lives. One commenter, Aymée Rivera, said, “Sara taught me that there is beauty and art in the marginal. … Far from denying me [negarme] (or should I say, denying me through blackness) [o debí decir: negrarme] the right to my marginality, she reaffirms it … Thank you, Sara.”
Rivera’s words show how Afro-Cuban women today fight for recognition and equality and how the recent release of Gómez’s documentaries from the 1960s is key to these debates. Álvarez and her readers are a part of a new movement of black women who are proud to be black and refuse to be ashamed of their skin color, sexuality, or gender; hence the title of the blog, Negra cubana tenía que ser.
In the past five years, a number of anti-racist organizations have emerged to fight inequality in light of Cuba’s new economic challenges. The Afrocubanas Project (founded by Daisy Rubiera Castillo and Inés María Martiatu Terry) is one of most prominent groups in Havana. Its members hail from a variety of professions, ages, and sexual orientations and meet regularly in each other’s houses or available cultural spaces. What they have in common is that all of them are black women who are interested in challenging negative stereotypes about blacks and women in Cuba. The estatutos, or bylaws, of the Afrocubanas Project state that the group’s objectives are to “1) Recognize the contribution and the work of black Cuban women and 2) to stimulate the existence of a counterdiscourse to dismantle the negative, racist, and sexist stereotypes [that exist in Cuba] about black women.” The estatutos state that persons of any race, gender, sexual orientation, or political leaning can join the group, but they also emphasize that the project has been “created for afro-descended women and by afro-descended women.” Their decision to use terms like afrodescendiente (Afro-descended) and Afrocubana reflects the group’s politics of intersectionality, specifically acknowledging a black and female positionality that is often silenced in historical and contemporary narratives about race in Cuba.
Martiatu explains in the prologue to the group’s first published collaborative project, a 2011 book titled Afrocubanas: Historia, pensamiento y prácticas culturales (Afro-Cuban Women: History, Thought, and Cultural Practices), that one of the goals of the Afrocubanas movement is to “feminize negritude and to blacken feminism.”
Similarly, Rubiera, Martiatu’s co-editor, notes that today activists like herself are reclaiming the word afrodescendiente as a political move to connect their work to hemispheric movements against racism and discrimination. The title of their new organization and the book Afrocubanas stemmed from a desire “to talk about the racial diversity that is marked by women. It is a word that is in defense of diversity.”
The Afrocubanas Project is creating an intersected revolutionary agenda that advocates for black Cuban women’s racial and sexual rights. The organization emphasizes collectivity, uncovers hidden historical narratives, and provides paths for later generations to follow. Martiatu and Rubiera dedicated Afrocubanas in the following way:
To the African women and their Afro-Cuban descendants, for their arduous battle for liberty, justice, and equality. Women who since immemorial times have transmitted to us in diverse ways their sufferings, needs, achievements, all this that has arrived to us and that has served to light our way.
To the Afro-descendants of today who maintain this flag up high in order to light the way for the generations to come.
To all the women, irrespective of their skin color.
This dedication invokes the past, present, and future to show the consistency between Afrocubana rebels and activists. The dedication also gestures to the diaspora and Cuba’s African past by thanking African women as well. Both the book and the Afrocubanas Project are collective projects that mirror Cuban revolutionary attitudes about working together for a common goal. Members of the Afrocubanas Project might come from a variety of professions but are joined in their commitment to construct an intersected revolution. For example, at a December 2012 meeting, a black theater director invited members of the organization to view and comment on a play she was debuting that was to designed to teach Cuban children about the Partido Independiente de Color, or the Independent Party of Color, a political organization of black Cubans who were massacred by government forces in eastern Cuba in 1912. The women in the group agreed to attend the play to support the director and offered other suggestions about how to publicize the event. Similar to some U.S. black 1970s feminist organizations whose motto was “Lift as we climb,” the Afrocubanas Project imagines their new revolutionary agenda as a collaborative one where they support community events, brainstorm ideas, and workshop creative pieces together. Women expressed a common attitude of “It is our responsibility” to work on this project or achieve that goal throughout the December 2012 meeting. By “light[ing] the way for generations to come,” this collection of black women activists combines revolutionary sensibilities with new radical feminist and anti-racist agendas.
Like the work of pioneering black activists in the early 20th century who wanted to rid Afro-Cubans of the “inferiority complex” associated with blackness, the Afrocubanas Project is working to establish a counternarrative to accepted discourses about race and gender on the island. Pushing back against jokes like “One white woman is more valuable than 20 black women,” the authors of Afrocubanas are determined to insert black women’s voices into Cuban national histories and dismantle negative stereotypes that undervalue black womanhood while oversexualizing mulatas. A mulata artist denounced the terrible portrayal of Afrocubanas on television at the December 2012 meeting—“negras are either absent or represented as slaves,” she said—and brainstormed with the group a plan to write and film her own telenovela featuring black female protagonists in more positive roles. To this same end, Rubiera has authored testimonios about black women and their experiences in 20th-century Cuba in the book Golpeando la memoria: Testimonio de una poeta cubana afrodescendiente (Reyita: The Life of a Black Cuban Woman in the Twentieth Century). When discussing Reyita, a testimony that she wrote based on interviews with her own mother, Rubiera honed in on the way her work fills a gap in current narratives about race in Cuba: “I wanted to add the voice of a black woman to the national discourse. Reyita is the other side of what it means to be Cuban.”
To combat low self-esteem among Afrocubanas, the new organization is running a public relations campaign encouraging women to love their black bodies and their hair. Music, film, and television have been the main mediums for spreading this message. Similar to the work of Sara Gómez, who appropriated the white male power that was associated with filmmaking in the 1960s by picking up her own camera and turning it on black subjects, Afrocubana activists worked with U.S. students to produce a short documentary titled Negra Luz that mobilizes the voices and images of women of all ages, sizes, and skin colors to show the diversity of blackness on the island. The opening scenes of the documentary flash through headshots of black women with locs, Afros, braids, straight hair, curly hair, and hair of all colors while a song, “Eres bella” (“You Are Beautiful”), by the black lesbian rap group Las Krudas plays in the background. Cuban historian and bibliographer Tomás Fernández Robaina characterizes Las Krudas as a central part of the black movement today in Cuba. In a community workshop held at the National Union of Writers and Artists, one of Havana’s premier cultural institutions, Olivia, a member of Las Krudas, described the situation facing women today: “Black women are the cockroaches of the world. We have to do something already, already! It is the time for us to exercise our rights to change things; to do something. Each system, capitalism, socialism, etc., is macho. We have to create a new one.”
Afrocubanas are doing just that. Between Álvarez’s blog Negra cubana tenía que ser and the Afrocubanas Project’s plans to script a television advertisement to publicize their work, black women in Cuba are using their revolutionary education, modern technology, and intersected ideologies to create a new revolution.
In the end, the campaign to eliminate racial discrimination in the 1960s was a central part of the many dynamic changes happening in Cuba after 1959. Revolutionary leaders opened doors for Cubans of African descent by integrating public spaces, opening private beaches, and providing more equitable access to education and employment. Despite these gains, the premature proclamation that the new government had eliminated racism and the uncritical acceptance of 19th-century raceless ideologies failed to dismantle racial prejudices. In fact, revolutionary visual materials contradicted themselves by reinforcing ideas of Afro-Cuban immaturity and positioning blacks as clients of the new state. In the face of such challenges, black and mulato artists like Gómez continued to attack racism in subtle ways after the closure of the campaign in 1961. Often using the very language of revolutionary nationalism and pressing the government to live up to its promises, black and mulato Cubans worked to create a “revolution inside of the revolution,” both on the island and in exile. In the 1960s and again today in 21st century, black women have played a central role in these struggles. That their story is often overshadowed by other national, masculinist narratives does not negate their work. Today, local organizations are recovering this history and pushing back against the contradictory narratives about race in Cuba using both new and old methods and technologies. This new movement will have an intersected agenda, one that finally encompasses the many ways blacks and mulatos have made and continue to make Cuba’s many revolutions.
This article has been adapted from “Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution” by Devyn Spence Benson. Copyright © 2016 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu.