Cuban Transformation through the Lens of Black Women

This is a sequel to my earlier entry on transformation in Cape Town, South Africa, based on my experiences and observations this past February and March.  As I wrote there, about a month after my return home, I found out about a program that facilitated group travel to Cuba. The particular program was what the educationa travel service called a ‘research dialogue’ on “Afro-Cuban Women Today.”  The service  worked with the Afro-Cuban writer Pedro Perez Sarduy, whose novel, The Maids of Havana, based on his own mother’s life in Santa Clara and Havana, addressed many of the issues on which the “research dialogue” would focus.  I quickly made arrangements to go on the May trip and I am glad I did.

I was already familiar with Sarduy’s work.  I had both the Spanish and English versions of his novel and some of his other work as well. I use some of this material in courses I teach in the African American Studies Program where I work.  I have also drawn on the interviews in Afro-Cuban Voices  in some of my scholarly writing.  This is a book he co-edited with his wife, the British historian Jean Stubbs, who specializes in Cuban studies.  It contains the results of several interviews with Afro-Cuban intellectuals and artists, who speak openly about their experience of Cuba’s racial biases and inequalies, which have grown more stark since the fall of the Soviet bloc in 89.

Perez Sarduy

I had traveled to Cuba twice before, so I’d been exposed to just enough to know that I wanted to see more.  I was especially enthusiastic about a travel experience organized around the lived experiences, social thought, and cultural creativity of different generations of Afro-Cuban women. Sarduy’s collaborative initiative in organizing a research dialogue on issues he cares deeply about was just the vehicle I needed to continue to pursue interests I’ve been cultivating over many years.  I wrote about some of my initial thoughts on the trip in an earlier essay, “Afro-Cuban Women Debating Cuba Today,” posted on Ethnolust in June.  If interested, you can find it at https://ethnolust.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/afro-cuban-women-debating-cuba-today/ (it also appeared on the former Afrocubanas blog, which was deleted after its initiator, Inés María Martiatu Terry, passed away in 2013).  This second essay, takes a slightly different angle in order to relate it to the themes I’ve highlighted in my earlier reflections on Cape Town.  Let me begin my reflections with several photographs with comments that will probably be elaborated on in a later post when I am able to write more on Afro-Cubanas’ contributions to cultural production and social thought in the Caribbean, Diaspora, and larger Africana World.  This is a theme I’d like to explore in my future teaching and writing.   Meanwhile, consider the ensuing “photo-essay” as appetizing food for thought!

Faye with resident of Cerro neighborhood in Havana. This was the neighborhood where Pedro lived with his morther, Marta, when he was a student at the University of Havana. He still has cousins living in the compound.

Daisy Rubiera, historian, author and editor of books such as Reyita, a testimonio or life story of a black Cuban women, collected, transcribed and edited by Rubiera, who is the late autobiographical subject’s daughter. Rubiera has also produced a documentary film on Reyita, the woman, the book, and her family’s response to what the book reveals about their mother’s life, which spanned much of the 20th century. Reyita witnessed a great deal of Cuba’s history, including the “Race War” or Massacre of 1912.

Gisela Arandia, Afro-Cuban studies scholar who has visited the U.S. and published some of her work here. She is playing an important role in stimulating public debate on race and racism in Cuba. She is the leading facilitator of the project, Color Cubano.

Blogger Sandra Alvarez and dramatist and Teatro Negro director Flor Amadia Dugo. Alvarez’s blog is Negra Cubana Tenia que Ser. She has also published articles and interviews in magazines and journals.  An interview she did with Lalita Martiatu on her work and that of other Afro-Cuban and Afro-Diasporic women was rich with information.  After reading it, I felt as though I had gone through an intensive university course on African Diaspora Women’s Literature! Thank you, Sandra for your questions, and thanks to Lalita for her remarkable knowledge of the literary creativity among black women across the hemisphere.

Ines Maria (“Lalita”) Martiatu Terry–short story writer, theater scholar and feminist theorist.  She collaborated with Daisy Rubiera in co-editing the book Afrocubanas and initiated a blog on issues related to Afro-Cuban women. Some of her short stories address historical themes that filmmaker Gloria Rolando (below) treats in her documentaries and docu-dramas.

Yusimi’ Rodriguez Lopez, writer and contributor to blogs and to the online publication, HavanaTimes.org. She works as an English translator for a government agency.

Since I’ve been back from Cuba, a number of things have been published, posted or otherwise presented online that have allowed me to continue educating myself on Cuban society.  For instance, I participated in a webinar on contemporary Cuban art. It was led by Afro-Cuban artist, Elio Rodríguez Valdés, who with Alejandro de la Fuente, a historian formerly based at the University of Pittsburgh and since 2013 at Harvard, curated the exhibit called “Quiloides: Race and Racism in Cuban Contemporary Art.”  The exhibit features work by Cubans on the island and abroad. The catalog, with the same name  as the exhibit, is well worth perusing for its instructive essays as well as for the beautiful graphics.

Cover of “Quiloides” Catalog

A recent print publication worth noting is the July/August 2011 edition of NACLA [North American Congress on Latin America] Report on the Americas, a special issue entitled “Cuba: Salvaging a Revolution?” De la Fuente, a leading scholar on the political dynamics of race and nation in Cuba, contributed an informative report, Race and Income Inequality in Contemporary Cuba.”  The article explains that Afro-Cubans –both mulatos and negros — have much less access to remittances from abroad and to “the hard-currency sectors of the Cuban economy, particularly tourism and firmas, or joint ventures” (Fuentes 2011:31; Vol. 44, No. 4).

Fuentes points out that the statistical data available indicate very clearly that this relative lack of access cannot be explained by educational inequality, for there are no major differences in educational achievement across racial differences (33).  Consequently, “education is no longer a proxy for social mobility, as it was in the past” (Ibid.).These problems are no longer taboo to debate in Cuba.  Afro-Cubanas such as the women I met in May are vocal participants in the public debates about the factors leading to growing racial inequalities and about the kinds of strategies within government and civil society that can offset them.  As individuals and as members of cultural and civic organizations such as the Union of Writers and Artists, Confradía de la Negritud, and Color Cubano, they are making significant interventions in the hopes of promoting the kinds of social transformation necessary in order to realize the ideals and ongoing possibilities of the revolution, as Afro-Cubanas and Afro-Cubanos envision them.

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