Volume 5 Number 1 Article 3


Afro- in Cuban Society

Félix Masud-Piloto

Wayne Smith

Pablo A. Fernandez

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Recommended Citation Masud-Piloto, Félix; Smith, Wayne; and Fernandez, Pablo A. (2001) "Afro-Cubans in Cuban Society," Diálogo: Vol. 5 : No. 1 , Article 3. Available at: https://via.library.depaul.edu/dialogo/vol5/iss1/3

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Cover Page Footnote This article is from an earlier iteration of Diálogo which had the subtitle "A Bilingual Journal." The publication is now titled "Diálogo: An Interdisciplinary Studies Journal."

This article is available in Diálogo: https://via.library.depaul.edu/dialogo/vol5/iss1/3 A fro -C u b an s in

C u b a n

S o c i e t y

Photo by Nestor Hernandez health, housing, and employment to 5. Santería has profound roots in the benefit all Cubans. These reforms Afro-Cuban experience. This merits PREFACE greatly benefited most Afro-Cubans, respect and understanding, not by Félix Masud-Piloto who reciprocated with enthusiastic rejection and isolation. Dialogue with support for and strong loyalty to the the Catholic hierarchy would be of On September 16-17, 1999, the Center new regime. The predominantly white great importance as most practitioners for International Policy, the Cuban leadership also placed at the of Santería are also baptized Catholics. Exchange Program of Johns Hopkins center of its foreign policy by supporting University and 's Fundación national liberation movements in the Fernando Ortiz jointly hosted a The Past: 1886-1959 continent and recognizing Africa as the conference in , D.C. entitled Like their brothers and sisters in the patrimonial heritage of most Cubans. Afro-Cubans in Cuban Society: Past, , Blacks were brought to Despite the changes brought on by the Present and Future. In addition to the from Africa as slaves. For almost , however, most participants productive discussions generated by the four centuries, they struggled to in the Johns Hopkins conference agreed conference, its most significant survive, to be free and to hold to their that Cuban society still has a long way achievement was bringing together a cultural and ethnic heritage. Santería to go before claiming a truly egalitarian group of respected and knowledgeable and other African-derived religions society. Following are excerpts from intellectuals from Cuba and the U.S. for were key forces. They enabled the their presentations and discussions. a frank and respectful discussion about Blacks to maintain a certain cultural and race and the role of Afro-Cubans in social cohesion during the years of Cuban society. The conference can be despite the deliberate efforts of considered a landmark event, since the slaveowners to scatter families and discussions of race have often been SUM M ARY OF A ethnic groups and to erase their ethnic considered taboo in both Cuba and the traditions. In his presentation, Pedro Cuban community in the U.S. SYMPOSIUM Pablo Rodriguez reminded the audience by Wayne Smith that especially into the nineteenth During the final phase of Cuba's long century, not all Blacks were slaves. On struggle for from the contrary, an increasing number A fro -C u b a n s in C u b a n S ociety : (1868 to 1898), Antonio Maceo, the were freemen and they strove mightily Afro-Cuban general, and José Martí, the Past, Present and Future. to raise not only their own station in life movement's political leader, continued but also the possibilities for their race. Hosted by: Center for International the begun by their enslaved There were setbacks to be sure, most African bothers and sisters back in the Policy, The Cuban Exchange Program, notably the massacres of Aponte in 16th century. (See Dialogando with John Hopkins University and Havana's 1812 and La Escalera in 1844. Over Fannie Rushing.) Both men believed so Fundación Fernando Ortiz the century, free Blacks helped prepare strongly in an egalitarian society, that the way. Perhaps the most important they made it the guiding principle of Conference participants were in was Antonio Maceo, who played a the Cuban Party. For agreement on a number of points: fundamental role in mobilizing Afro- them, the new Cuban society would be: Cubans against slavery and Spanish "a just and open , united in 1. Although Afro-Cubans had made up . Emancipation came in 1886 territory, in rights, in work and cordiality the bulk of the Liberation Army's as an outgrowth of the wars of constructed with all and for the good of struggle for independence, the more independence. José Marti's call for a all." Unfortunately, both Maceo and egalitarian society promised by José society in which there would be no Marti died during the war, and with Marti was not realized. Their efforts Blacks or whites but simply Cubans their death came the postponement of to participate fully in the political kindled hopes for a truly egalitarian an egalitarian Cuban society. process were cut short by the society; Blacks flocked to Maceo's and massacre of 1912. Marti's banners during the last war of When independence finally arrived in independence, 1895-98, and made up 1898, it failed to thoroughly transform 2. Although the had, the bulk of the Army of Liberation. Cuban society. Except for the abolition after 1959, done much to reduce After independence, in the , many of slavery, the new republic almost kept racial discrimination and bring about of them formed a Colored Independence intact the race-based social stratification a more just society, as of 1999, much Party (Partido Independiente de Color) of its colonial masters, and although remains to be done. Indeed, because and took other steps to participate in Cuba was spared from the ravages of of the present economic crisis, the political process as equals. But "legal" or "official" segregation, racism is on the rise in Cuba and Blacks are tragically, Marti had been killed in the and discrimination against Afro-Cubans disadvantaged in a number of ways. first battle of the war. And as Aline Heig were widespread in the new republic. pointed out, his thesis that all were As a result, segregation in social clubs, 3. The Cuban government needs to do simply Cubans was often used by white private schools, housing, and other private much more to address the problem. leaders who followed him to marginalize institutions was "socially acceptable" from Perhaps the best way to begin would the issue of race, or even to suggest be to openly acknowledge its 1898 to 1958. that the problem did not exist, and take existence and initiate a national no measures to address it. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 ushered dialogue as to how best to solve it. in a new era for race relations. The Meanwhile, whites tended to see Revolutionary Government outlawed 4. The Afro-Cuban majority would not efforts by Blacks to participate in the all forms of racism and discrimination. accept the return of the white political process as unwanted and They enacted legislation for social economic elites to rule the . That dangerous. Ominous talk of a coming reforms in the areas of education, option cannot even be on the table. Black rebellion. This building white explained as a matter of cultural or Rigoberto Lopez agreed and noted that resentment and reaction led to the educational lag. Forty years after the one could not understand anything massacre of 1912, when the Cuban army triumph of the revolution, however, about the past forty years in Cuba slaughtered thousands of Blacks, that explanation has worn thin. without factoring in the all-pervasive especially in the Oriente , U.S. embargo. It had made progress supposedly to put down a rebellion. It Still, by the end of the eighties Blacks difficult on many fronts. It still does. was a traumatic blow. Although there had made significant gains. An Further, all agreed that the last thing were some advances in the years after increasing percentage had become Afro-Cubans wanted to see was the 1912, Blacks remained second-class professionals, rising to the top in the return of the white elitist citizens until the triumph of the Cuban military and winning great prestige in thinking they were going to turn the Revolution in 1959. Robin Moore traced sports, the arts, music, dance, the clock back and rule over the island as the evolution of Afro-Cuban music as a cinema, and poetry. Santería, while at they had before the revolution. That reflection of the acceptance (or first treated as a folkloric expression by was totally unacceptable. rejection) of Afro-Cubans by the society the Cuban government, had come to be around them. During most of the fully accepted as a religion. The way Interestingly, panelists representing nineteenth century and certainly in the seemed open for new gains in the Afro-Cubans living abroad emphasized centuries before, i.e., in the heyday of years that were to follow. Though their continuing identification with the slavery, Afro-Cuban music was virtually underrepresented in the senior organs of community still on the island. They still banned. were wholly the party-state-government triad, feel themselves to be a part of it and segregated until emancipation, and the Blacks had grounds for optimism that consider the goals and problems of Afro-Cuban musical groups, the progress could be made there as well. Afro-Cubans on the island to be theirs. comparsas, were not allowed to They are dedicated to the cause of participate. With the participation of so Certainly, Rigoberto Lopez emphasized, racial as well as social justice—in the many Blacks in the struggle for Afro-Cubans always felt that the goals and back home. In sum, all independence, the turn of the century of the revolution were their goals as panelists were in agreement that while saw some openings. Blacks were well: equality and social justice for all. progress has been made under the ostensibly accepted as citizens, but at revolution, much more remains to be the same time there were calls for the But economic crises do not usually bring done. Meanwhile, there are worrisome suppression of "atavistic art forms." out the best in people and the current signs that racism and discrimination Technically, comparsas were not banned Cuban crisis is no exception. The may again be on the rise in Cuba, even from the celebrations, but resulting competition for jobs, though officially condemned. more often than not they were and status since 1991 has resulted in prevented, in one way or another, from something of a resurgence of racism participating. Not until the 1940s did and led to increased disparities. For The Role of Santería the barriers begin truly to come down. example, because they benefited from Santería, as Lazara Menendez noted, is From that point forward, comparsas the revolution, few Blacks went into so deeply woven into Cuban culture as and Afro-Cuban music in general . Yet, the largest source of hard to be a part of Cuban identity, i.e., what flourished. Given its tremendous popularity currency is family remittances from the it means to be Cuban. One can hardly today—in Cuba and throughout the exiles in the United States. As there are imagine Cuban music, literature, or —it is difficult to remember that it few Blacks among them, very little of even thought patterns without the was once banned in Cuba. What was that money comes to Afro-Cubans on influence of Santería. Further, it is the once banned is now Cuba's pride and the island. And today, one's economic most numerous and most powerful glory. Music fans all over the world can status depends largely on access to religion in Cuba and is growing rapidly. be happy that Afro-Cubans persevered! dollars. In this and in many other ways, This is not simply because there is an Blacks face new disadvantages. Still, as Afro-Cuban majority. On the contrary, many whites as well practice Santería. The Present: 1959 Ana Cairo pointed out, the problems of racism, discrimination and racial Santería is a syncretic religion. When Until Today inequalities were all inherited by the the enslaved Blacks were first brought The Cuban Revolution, which triumphed revolution. It didn't invent them. The in from Africa, they were forbidden on 1, 1959, promised to end revolution hasn't been able to solve from worshipping their traditional discrimination and provide equal them, but it has made a creditable gods. Instead, they had to adopt the opportunities for Blacks. Without effort. And she agreed with Rigoberto Catholic faith. They did, but with an question, tremendous strides were made. Lopez that Afro-Cubans tend to see the imaginative wrinkle. They simply fused revolution's goals as their own. The the one with the other. Thus, Chango Blacks were indeed given equal access most basic was to bring social justice the became Santa Barbara, Eleggua became to education through the postgraduate poor and downtrodden. Whether they St. Anthony, St. Lazarus was Babalu Aye, level. Discrimination in the workplace were Black or white did not matter. She etc. They saw no inherent contradiction was greatly reduced. However, as Tato noted too that the U.S. had not played between the two belief systems and still Quiñones pointed out, official policy a helpful role. Racist attitudes in Cuba do not. Most santeros are baptized was one thing, what happened was had been given new strength during Catholics. Santería simply adds another another. Some managers and officials the U.S. occupations—1898-1902 and but profoundly important dimension. simply didn't agree that Blacks should 1906-08. The forty-year-old U.S. embargo As Miguel Barnet pointed out, its be treated equally and their personal had been harmful to Blacks, perhaps importance as a means of communication prejudices led them to give preference to more than whites since it did most harm cannot be exaggerated. In many ways whites. Nor were Blacks proportionately to the more vulnerable elements of it represents a sociological key to represented in the government. They Cuban society. Cuban society. still are not. At first this could be This is in some ways surprising, given Unfortunately, all panelists noted, that of Santería. As one panelist put it, "It is that, as Eugenio Matibag noted, openness toward the practice of as though he does not wish to share Santería is not really an organized Santería is not evident in the Catholic with us any of the greater space for the church; rather, it represents a system of Church. Santeros had looked forward practice of religion." beliefs and of individual worship within enthusiastically to the Pope's visit in that system, guided perhaps by a local January, 1998. Most, after all, are In the final analysis, panelists agreed, babalao. But there is no hierarchy—no baptized Catholics. They had expected this growing estrangement and system as in the of his visit to be an expression of resentment between the Catholic bishops responsible to a cardinal and all brotherhood and that it would mark Church and Santería is likely to hurt the responsible to the pope as the head of the beginning of a new spirit of church more. What the hierarchy of the the church. Despite that, Santería has, cooperation among all religions. They church doesn't seem to realize, but the over the centuries, been a powerful had been stunned when Cardinal Jaime parish do, is that 80 percent of unifying force. Ortega, in his televised address to the the people in the masses on Sunday are nation before the visit, had condemned santeros. If they stopped going, there Natalia Bolivar pointed out that while syncretic religions described by him as wouldn't be much church left. Panelists initially shunned by whites, Santería "simply folkloric rites." There was no noted that relations with the Protestant had come to permeate the whole question as to whom he referred. And churches tend to be good. And they society. Presidents Mario Menocal, then, although the pope had received expressed hope for reconciliation with Carlos Prio Socarras and Fulgencio representatives of all other religions on the Catholic hierarchy—once the latter Batista, for example, had all been the island, including Dr. José Miller, the had "reflected further on the issue." santeros. It had been Batista, in the president of the small Jewish community (only some 1,500 strong), he had forties, who brought down most of the T h e F u tu re remaining restrictions on the practice of shunned any contact with representatives Gisela Arandia and Graciella Chailloux Santería and on the participation of of the Santería faith. This had been joined in acknowledging the long way comparsas in carnival—then came the deeply resented by Afro-Cubans in yet to go to attain racial equality. There revolution. Given its ideological general and most especially by santeros. was no shame in acknowledging this. position with respect to religions, the It had exacerbated a sense of exclusion No other country has succeeded in socialist government had at first been and separation. Many who had planned solving the problem either. Cuba has somewhat restrictive toward Santería. to attend the mass in Havana that was made a better effort than most, and, But that has now been overcome. The the centerpiece of the Pope's visit both agreed, may now be in position to of the Cuban people boycotted it instead. Nor have the undertake a more comprehensive endured and the government now divisions and resentments been healed. solution. The , the allows the practice of Santería as well as On the contrary, the cardinal continues universities, and other institutions are other faiths. to deny the importance and authenticity even now considering new steps. One measure being considered, for example, credited the revolution with bringing Spain gave us our language and helped is the inclusion of Afro-Cuban studies in about the conditions in which the issue shape our character; Africa gave us her the regular curriculum of Cuban can now be discussed and, hopefully, poetry, her magic, and myths in which primary and secondary schools—a step solved. He agreed with Chailloux and song and dance are a ritual of the soul. which would emphasize the important Arandia that the most important thing I attribute to the African in all of us the role played by Afro-Cubans in Cuban is that the problem be openly tender familiarity and affection among history and society. acknowledged and that a national us. Color is simply an adornment, a dialogue begin. garment like that of the flower, nothing Chailloux concluded that the atmosphere more, and as with the flower, the now favors positive change and that Moore's remarks sparked a heated essence is the memory—a memory that Cuba's intellectuals are capable of three-hour discussion that made it clear commits us to the clean, harmonious, moving toward definitive solutions. the overwhelming majority rejected and deep integration that is found in A society without discrimination and partition and most of the other options. our arts: music, dance, poetry, sculpting in which all can live together By inference, the only one that seemed and painting. And here our Asiatic harmoniously—a society in which the feasible was condominial rule. They also component is strongly felt—in the cultural heritage of all is respected—is felt strongly that there were not two Chinese that enlivens our feast attainable. The most important thing is altogether distinct, warring cultures days, and in the works of one of our that an honest dialogue begin. that could never be joined; rather, Cuba most illustrious elders: the painter was developing a distinct identity which Wilfredo Lam. Carlos Moore took strong exception to was a blend of African, Spanish and the optimistic views of the previous two various other cultures. It was toward And we should not forget the speakers. Cuba is not a multicultural this vision that Cuba should be moving. aborigines. They too were part of the country, he maintained; rather there struggle. They rekindle the spirit of that were two distinct cultures in Cuba— which for three centuries has been a African and Spanish—which have been memory dominating our landscape, and and still are in conflict with one CLOSING REMARKS which in certain regions of the country another. Discrimination and racism of by Pablo Armando Fernandez is scarcely preserved in what was for course persist. He did not believe the Araucans our daily bread. revolution had made a serious effort to At times, still, I ask myself what is Cuba? get rid of them and Afro-Cubans clearly What is it to be Cuban? The answer, I ....We are the flower, the garden; we remain disadvantaged. Still, there is a believe, is that it is to have participated recapture the spirit of . Seeing growing consciousness among Afro- in a history without parallel in our you all here, my spirit soars. We are Cubans of who they are, despite forty hemisphere. A history that has forged custodians of the great altar. years of having the whole issue of race us into what we are. A history of downplayed. They have held to their continued struggle to make of Cuba a cultural and ethnic roots. And they are fully independent, free and sovereign now the majority. Justice must be done. nation. It is a struggle shared by the A video of the conference's final panel A new, more equitable socio-political sons and daughters of the is available for $45.00. Additionally, model must be developed. Moore conquistadores and the colonizers. I papers by Graciela Chailloux, Tato believes there are five possible options. think of Flor Crombet and of Quintin Quiñones, Natalia Bolivar and Gisela The first was to maintain the current Banderas organizing the descendants of Arandia are available for $4.00 apiece. status quo, i.e. a white-led communist , , Catalonians and state. But that would not be acceptable Basques to wage war against the For more information contact: Kimberly to the majority and would not work for Spanish crown that was to them the Waldner 202-232-3317 or write to: long anyway. The second was a return motherland. to the status quo ante, i.e., a white-led CIP-Cuba Project capitalist model. That, as earlier It is good that this dialogue among 1755 Massachusetts Ave. NW speakers had made clear, was totally Cubans has begun. It is especially Suite 312 unacceptable. There was also the moving that it takes place here, in the Washington, D.C., 20036 possibility of partition, i.e. the island United States, where the struggle for or divided between a white and Black respect and justice waged by the sons [email protected] Cuba. That had been suggested in the and daughters of the forced exodus past and could not be discarded as a from Africa has been and is so intense. possible option even now, despite all the difficulties it would create. The As I look out over the sea of faces fourth option was Black-majority rule. before me, I envision Atlantis, with And, finally, there was the possibility of Cuba as its great altar—an altar, a condominial rule, i.e., of power shared garden where all the imaginable colors equally between Blacks and whites. make of the flowers an unforgettable diadem, perennial in its light, in its Moore left it to the audience to essence, in its fruits, its seed. Seeing it, consider which option might be the my spirit opens and I understand more most suitable. Despite his earlier deeply what it is to be Cuban. criticisms of the government for the way it has handled the racial issue, Moore concluded by saying that he