The flag raising:
I am thinking back to Fidel Castro's last visit to Harlem:
Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8.
Jarvis Tyner described the event in October of 1995, in the article, Fidel Castro cheered at Harlem meeting:
NEW YORK -- Almost 1,600 Harlemites and solidarity activists packed the Abyssinian Baptist Church to give a hero's welcome to Fidel Castro, the president of Cuba. The mainly African American audience, which included New York Democratic representatives Charles Rangel and Nydia Velasquez, enthusiastically greeted the Communist leader with a 10-minute standing ovation. Chants of "Cuba si , Bloqueo no!" resounded from the rafters and sent a strong message of protest to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and President Clinton for excluding the Cuban leader from their sponsored events. The audience erupted in shouts of "Fidel, Fidel" when Elombe Brathe, head of the Patrice Lumumba Coalition and chair for the meeting, asked the audience, "Who would you rather come to Harlem, Fidel or Giuliani?"
Because here in the U.S., we use the terms "Hispanic" and "Latino" as ethnic designations to describe groups of people from, or descended from, citizens of Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean, who may have little in common other than a shared use of versions of Spanish, those designations tend to obscure the fact that many are "black" phenotypically, or have a high percentage of African ancestry and share cultures with strong West and Central African roots. How they identify here in the U.S. is an issue complicated by both U.S. racism and tiered hierarchies at home, with mixed-ancestry people designated as white, creating a buffer group between the "white-whites" and the blacks at the bottom. (See more discussion here
For the black history of Cuba, Dr. Henry Louis Gates did an excellent overview in his Black in Latin America series. He points out that over a million African slaves were brought to Cuba during the Atlantic trade.
In Cuba Professor Gates finds out how the culture, religion, politics and music of this island are inextricably linked to the huge amount of slave labor imported to produce its enormously profitable 19th century sugar industry, and how race and racism have fared since Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in 1959.
Through long and intimate relationships with many Cubans here in the U.S. who are my relatives by virtue of being "familia de santo,"—coreligionists in the practice of Lucumi, commonly known as Santeria
, an African diasporic tradition, I have been exposed to many of the conflicting and complex attitudes and perceptions of "race" and skin-color/ancestry in Cuba and in the Cuban enclaves of Florida and New Jersey.
When I wrote On the Life and Times of "Reyita"
, for Black Kos, I covered much of the black history of Cuba, told through the eyes and memory of a black Cuban woman. This is a book that I assign my students to read for a course I teach on "Women of the Caribbean," and I highly recommend it to readers here.
"I am Reyita, a regular, ordinary person. A natural person, respectful, helpful, decent, affectionate, and very independent. For my mother, it was an embarrassment, that I—of her four daughters—was the only black one."
You will not know this black woman's face. She died at the age of 95 in Cuba in 1997. Though she speaks of herself as "ordinary" it is important that we hear the voices and herstories of more women who lived through extraordinary times in our shared history.
The first chapter of her story continues with her words:
I always felt the difference between us, because she didn’t have as much affection for me as she did for my sisters. . . . I was the victim of terrible discrimination from my mother. And if you add that to the situation in Cuba, you can understand why I never wanted a black husband. I had good reason, you know. I didn’t want to have children as black as me, so that no one would look down on them, no one would harass and humiliate them. Oh, God only knows! I didn’t want my children to suffer what I’d had to suffer.—from Reyita: The Life of a Black Cuban Woman in the Twentieth Century
What is the face of Cuba when you close your eyes and think of it? For my students, it is still the face of Fidel Castro. For many people here in the U.S., it may be the faces of "white" Republican Cuban emigres. For me, Reyita and her story is the Cuba I know.
Thanks to her daughter, Daisy, it is a story we can all now share and learn from. Daisy Rubiera Castillo, one of Reyita's daughters, is a founder of the Fernando Ortiz African Cultural Centre in Santiago de Cuba. Her book was published, first in Spanish, the year her mother died.
After the publication of the book, a documentary film was made by Spanish filmmakers Oliva Acosta and Elena Ortega of Reyita's life and times and the process of the development of the book. It is not currently available here in the U.S. but there is a trailer with English subtitles:
Anthropologist Helen Safa speaks of the importance of this book and the historical context of her story, in a review:
Reyita is a remarkable book. In a short 160 pages, a 94 year old black Cuban woman recounts her life, including memories of her grandmother in slavery and her mother in the independence movement, and her observations of the 1912 massacre of the PIC (Partido Independiente de Color), plantation life, Fulgencio Batista (notorious dictator of Cuba in the l950s), the formation of the Popular Socialist Party (the Communist party of the time) and the socialist revolution in l959. But the most important aspect of this gem of a book is not a local rendition of national political events, but Reyita's own struggle to overcome all the obstacles in her life, which were overwhelming for a poor, black woman born in l902.
Race figures prominently in her life, but in a contradictory way. Reyita is proud of her blackness, and recounts her grandmother's recollections of life in Africa and the terrible trials of slavery. She maintains her African connections through her Spiritualism mixed with a folk Catholicism that makes primary the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, a national icon whom Reyita claims for her own salvation. Her racial awareness is also marked by her participation in the short-lived Marcus Garvey movement and her knowledge of the Partido Independiente de Color, formed after the U.S. occupation to protest the exclusion of blacks from Cuban politics and their racial subordination.
Let me digress a bit here to expand on this history. Many free and enslaved blacks in Cuba fought against Spain in the struggle for independence and freedom from slavery,starting around 1868.
The forces for independence called themselves the Mambi Army:
The Mambi Army was the National Army of Liberation that defeated the Spanish through two wars: 1868 to 1878 and again, 1895 to 1898. Mambi is a Congo word. Recent estimates of the participation of Cubans of African descent in the Mambi run as high as 92%. Antonio Maceo, "the Bronze Titan," led the Mambi Army. His second in command was Quintín Bandera. In typical Congo fashion, their ritual roles were reversed: Bandera was the Tata Nkisi of the Mambi Army Nganga, the prenda or "magic cauldron" of the Mambises. And Antonio Maceo was the Mayordomo or Bakonfula of the prenda, which today is still a working prenda in Regla.
Invited by a Cuban plantocracy that was worried about the ascendancy of blacks, the Americans with Teddy Roosevelt intervened in 1898, routing a Spanish force that had already been defeated by the Mambi Army. And ironically enough, we now know that the 10th Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers, played a vital role in Teddy Roosevelt's adventure, providing the critical push that took San Juan Hill.
Slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1898. Not long after, in 1912, there was a massacre of Afro-Cubans.
J.A. Sierra writes, citing Aline Helg, author of Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912
, that the 1912 massacre was dubbed a "race war
"The 'race war' of 1912 was, in reality, an outburst of white racism against Afro-Cubans." - Aline Helg in "Our Rightful Share, The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912" At the end of the 2nd War for Independence, the prospect of peace and self-determination filled Afro-Cubans with a hope they had never been able to experience. They felt they had earned the rewards of a free society, and the very idea of self-government implied a free, integrated society with equal access to schools and business opportunities. This is what Martí and Maceo had promised. This is what 86,000 Afro-Cubans had died for in the War of Independence (1895-98). "Peace changed everything," wrote Louis A. Pérez, Jr. in The Hispanic American Historical Review. "Gains made during the war were annulled. The expatriate juntas disbanded. The provisional government dissolved, and the Liberation Army demobilized. Suddenly, all the institutional expressions of Cuba Libre in which Afro-Cubans had registered important gains disappeared, and with them the political positions, military ranks, and public offices held by thousands of blacks."
The Partido Independiente de Color, established in 1908 by Evaristo Estenoz and others, sought to correct the problems of the new republic, but found itself unable to push its agenda forward. The Morúa Law of 1909 banned political parties based on race or class, and even the government of liberal José Miguel Gómez had limited sympathy for their issues. One of these issues was the Morúa Law, which would not allow independents to run a candidate for president. Another issue was the ban limiting immigration by Haitians and Jamaicans. In 1910, leaders of the Partido Independiente de Color had been arrested and charged with conspiracy against the Cuban government. After a trial they were all found not guilty.
In order to protest the failure of the new republic to adhere to Marti's vision, and to call an end to the Morúa Law, the Partido Independiente de Color planned a demonstration for May 20 1912. Demonstrators chanted "Down with the Morúa Law! Long Live Gomez!" and there was no violence. The demonstration was quickly misrepresented as racist against whites, causing a great deal of panic and reviving old fears. "At the first sign of an Independiente show of force," wrote Helg, "the Cuban political elite labeled the movement as a race war that the Partido Independiente de Color had allegedly launched against the island's whites. Mainstream newspapers were particularly eager to propagate this view of the armed protest." Newspapers reported the demonstration as a race war, arousing great fear among white Cubans. Publications such as El Día, La Discusión, La Prensa, El Triunfo, El Mundo, and others, ran with the "race" idea, stirring the traditional race fears of white Cuban society. Reports of Afro-Cuban rapes of white women, including a teacher (none of which were true) and exaggerated accounts of the demonstrations, inspired white militias to form all over the island, and the "race war" became the main topic of conversation... Exaggerated and downright inaccurate reports of black attacks on whites, murders and rapes, were everywhere. Later reports would prove them all completely wrong.
This history is part of Reyita's story, yet until recently was not even dealt with very openly in Cuba. Is there any wonder that Reyita came to desire lighter skin for her children?
We know the history of lynching in the U.S. I doubt that many of us associate it with Cuba.
All over the island, Afro-Cubans were arrested, harassed, and killed, simply out of "suspicion." Suddenly, in May and June of 1912, it was very dangerous to be of dark skin in Cuba. Men and women were attacked by militias as they were walking home from work, or visiting with friends. There was a great deal of suspicion that all Afro-Cubans were secretly involved in the "race war." On May 23, police near Cienfuegos shot to death 8 "peaceful negroes." Black skin was enough reason to suspect a person, and suspicion seemed to be enough reason for execution...The massacre continued into June. In Boquerón, near Guantánamo Bay, a captain and five volunteers beheaded a policeman and stabbed to death five others who had been arrested on an unsubstantiated charge of conspiring with Jamaicans to aid the rebels. On June 10 the U.S. consul filed a report stating that "many innocent and defenseless negroes in the country are being butchered." Bodies of suspected "rebels" were left hanging outside the towns for "moral reasons," and severed heads were placed on the side of the railroad tracks so train passengers could see them.
Whatever myth existed about racial equality in Cuba was shattered in May and June 1912. Not only was there no significant cry of outrage about the massacre from white Cubans, but the majority of newspaper accounts and editorials expressed a kind of racism not seen in Cuba since immediately after the abolition of slavery in 1886. Editorials pointed out that in Cuba "one of two (opposed races) forcibly has to succumb or to submit: to pretend that both live together united by bonds of brotherly sentiment is to aspire to the impossible." Others recommended that Cuba be "ruled by a small white elite, through a system of plural vote that overrepresented the upper class, and that blacks' access to politics and public jobs be limited because of their 'lesser preparation.' And yet others suggested looking to the U.S. for a blueprint on "race relations."
"This massacre achieved what Morúa's amendment and the trial against the party in 1910 had been unable to do," wrote Helg, "it put a definitive end to the Partido Independiente de Color and made clear to all Afro-Cubans that any further attempt to challenge the social order would be crushed with bloodshed."
It is into this world of racism and total suppression that Reyita was born. And yet she discusses attending organizing meetings of the Garvey movement, and pride in her father's and mother's participation in rebellion.
Safa discusses further the intersections of race, skin-color, social class and gender in Reyita's life:
As the blackest child of a mixed race woman, born of an African mother and a slave master, Reyita is discriminated against by her own mother and other members of her large, extended family. She is also discriminated against in education and employment, and never finds formal employment, but is always active earning money through teaching, washing clothes, selling home-cooked food, and other means to sustain her 11 children. The final betrayal is by her white husband, who deceives her into thinking they are formally married through an elaborate wedding ceremony. She is shocked to discover many years later, in her fifties, that the marriage was never formally registered. She marries a white man consciously, to improve her race (adelantar la raza), so that her children may have less difficulty in life than she has faced as a poor black woman. In the United States, marriage to a white spouse may be seen as racial betrayal, but not in Cuba, where intermarriage was a prime mover in the integration of blacks into Cuban society. As Reyita says, "I didn't want a black husband, not out of contempt for my race, but because black men had almost no possibilities of getting ahead and the certainty of facing lots of discrimination".
Class is also a strong element in Reyita's life, since she was born and brought up among the poor in Oriente, where women and men worked in the sugar plantations that became so important after the U.S. occupation in l898. Class distinctions also marked the Afro-Cuban community, as Reyita notes that upwardly mobile blacks looked down on the poor, forming their own exclusive associations. Her pretty light-skinned mother had children by several different men, and as she moved around to seek work, would leave some of her children with members of her extended family, a pattern still common to poor women in the Caribbean today. Several of Reyita's sisters and brothers died as children, and she describes how war, illness, lack of public health facilities, and overall poverty decimated many families, especially the young. Reyita's own father was a black rebel soldier in the Wars for Independence, in which her mother also participated, but was left landless and penniless. She also maintains contact with his relatives, particularly her paternal grandmother, and her father's brother's family, with whom she lived part of her childhood.
Gender relations are another particularly intriguing part of the book, which should be read by all feminists who think that Cuban women, and black women in particular, are submissive and obedient. Early in their marriage, Reyita is forced to accept Rubiera's harsh restrictions on her social life and independence, since women with young children are often the most economically and emotionally dependent. She describes her "awakening" when despite her husband's disapproval she joined the Popular Socialist Party, because of their fight for equality.
The matriarch of a family of 118 descendants, Reyita died in 1997 at the age of 95. Her words, her life, and her story are a reflection of a Cuba we may not know or understand.
Award-winning black Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando, who you can see in this lecture at UNC Chapel Hill, has documented much of this little-known history in her film, 1912, Breaking the Silence. She has structured the film as three chapters.
Over 10 years in the making, 1912, Breaking the Silence unearths the history of Cuba’s Partido Independiente de Color (PIC). Founded in 1908 by Afro-Cuban veterans of Cuba’s war for independence, the PIC was the second black-led party in the Americas. They struggled for racial, political, and economic equality in the early years of the republic. Using a creative mix of interviews and archival documents, Rolando pieces together the historical antecedents that led to the shocking 1912 massacre of thousands of Afro-Cubans affiliated with the PIC.
Here's a clip from Chapter 1:
The Cuban government and Fidel Castro have been quick to point out U.S. racism. Back in 2009, Castro issued a broadside, discussed in this article, Fidel Castro says racist right-wingers fight Obama:
President Barack Obama is trying to make positive changes in the United States, but is being fought at every turn by right-wingers who hate him because he is black, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro said on Tuesday.
In an unusually conciliatory column in the state-run media, Castro said Obama had inherited many problems from his predecessor, George W. Bush, and was trying to resolve them. But the "powerful extreme right won't be happy with anything that diminishes their prerogatives in the slightest way."
He was right. But as the Cuban flag now waves in Washington, D.C., and as we open the door to more dialogue and exchange with Cuba, I am also going to be keeping my eyes on the home-grown Cuban difficulties with race, color, and class.
We share more with Cuba than hemispheric geography.