by Cindy García
In June of 2018, I took my daughters to Cuba for three weeks on a preliminary trip to learn more about the everyday life practices of anti-racism.1Cuban historian Marial Iglesias Utset (2003) theorizes the historical practices of everyday life in Cuba, tying her theoretical framework to that of Michel DeCerteau (1988). See also Zuleica Romay (2015). I wanted to understand the contours of racism sixty years after the Cuban Revolution, a revolution that led to the restructuring of society to eliminate inequalities and create one Cuban people, regardless of race. As many scholars of race in Cuba address, before the Revolution in 1959, Black Cubans faced discrimination in education, job, health, and housing sectors, among others. Governmental restructuring drastically improved conditions for Black Cubans. Sociologist Yulexis Almeida Junco writes, “The changes experienced in the social panorama of Cuba in the early years of the revolution managed to dismantle in the public order and, at an institutional level, discriminatory policies based on the color of the skin. Subsequently, racial inequalities were addressed, not so much in their specificity but as an expression of class differences. Therefore, its solution was implemented on the basis of creating policies aimed at improving the socioeconomic conditions of the poorest sectors of the country” (2020, 118). The Revolution implemented changes meant to undo racial disparities, yet, inequities have continued, particularly in the jobs sector.2Devyn Spence Benson presents this in her book Anti-racism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution (2016). See also Stephanie Nolen (2017). Sawyer, for example, finds that “the unequal education of blacks in the pre-revolutionary era, as well as their location in the poorer neighborhoods and regions and their participation in the sugar sector of the economy, had a substantial impact on relative racial inequality after the revolution” (Sawyer 2006, xviii). The racial hierarchy has not disappeared in Cuba, as the many articles on race from the AfroCubaWeb illuminate. Some have argued that Black women in particular bear the brunt of these inequities. In 2019, I went to Cuba for five months to learn about anti-racist activism from the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente (RBA).
It was in 2019 that Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel called for the elimination of the “vestiges of racism,” identifying the need for discussions around racism supported at a national level.3“Cuba acknowledges ‘vestiges’ of racism, launches program to fight it” from November 22, 2019, accessed November 30, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cuba-racism/cuba-acknowledges-vestiges-of-racism-launches-program-to-fight-it-idUSKBN1XX00C In March of 2021, my social media feeds lit up with an image of Maritza López McBean on the president’s Twitter with a message that said, “Soñar y continuar un país: conocí proyecto de Maritza López, líder de la Red Barrial Afrodescendiente. Proyectos así, que nacen desde el barrio, debemos sostenerlos en el tiempo. #SomosCuba #CubaViva.”4“Trabaja Cuba en Programa nacional contra el racismo y la discriminación racial,” March 13, 2013. Translation: To dream and continue a country: I learned about the project of Maritza López, leader of the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente. Projects like this, which are born from the neighborhood, we must sustain them over time. #SomosCuba #CubaViva http://www.cubadebate.cu/noticias/2021/03/13/trabaja-cuba-en-programa-nacional-contra-el-racismo-y-la-discriminacion-racial/?fbclid=IwAR1utl76Kfr_Mhvs2uNIQShrsbBi3yY1p46HbN4uLBDOpAWo2r6oGgLoppg The president had learned about Maritza and the RBA. “Proyectos como este,” dijo, “que nacen del barrio, hay que sostenerlos…”5“Projects like this,” he said, “that are born from the barrio, we must sustain them…”
Why is this so important? The RBA has been working since 2012 as a grassroots network to bring attention to the fact that racism still exists in Cuba. Maritza told me that the first goal of the RBA, and possibly the most difficult, has been to bring her neighbors to the realization that racism has not been fully excised from everyday life in Cuba. In the article “Aprendizajes Que Abren Caminos y Muestran Miradas Diferentes,” written by Damayanti Matos Abreu in Refracciones of this edition of Contours, she presents how neighborhood understandings of race and racism had deepened in the first five years of the RBA’s work. Many of the participants in the workshops on racism were Black Cubans, and many of them initially were not able to identify examples of racism in everyday life. In the first five years, 2012-2017, the RBA raised consciousness in several neighborhoods about how racism permeates their everyday lives. While Tomás Fernández Robaina writes about the history of anti-racism movements since 1902 (2019, p. 8), Zuleica Romay (2015) finds that anti-racist discourse in Cuba has been most visible among academics and intellectuals. In recent decades, however, anti-racist discourse “adquiere cada vez más visibilidad en los debates y reflexiones promovidos por activistas sociales, publicaciones digitales, investigaciones históricas, culturales y sociológicas […]. El debate toca tierra en los barrios donde la gente se reúne en torno a proyectos comunitarios y aprende a nutrir las redes solidarias que teje la pobreza, con una reflexión sobre la historia y la cultura que eventualmente se convertirá en actividad política.”6 “acquires increasing visibility in the debates and reflections promoted by social activists, digital publications, historical, cultural and sociological research […]. The debate makes landfall in the neighborhoods where people gather around community projects and learn to nurture the solidarity networks that poverty weaves, with a reflection on history and culture that will eventually become political activity.” Where once it had been illegible, the RBA’s diligent, grassroots, anti-racist activism has now been recognized at the national level.
This first edition of Contours highlights the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente. Four members of the Coordinación, Maritza López McBean, Idelsi Bárbara Alfonso Sandrino, Roberto Zulueta Zulueta, and Damayanti Matos Abreu, present some of the research they performed for their systematization process–la sistematización–a deep evaluation of the work that the RBA has done to raise racial consciousness during its first five years, 2012-2017. The members of the Coordinación also created new goals based on what they learned. In Contextos, in her essay “Red Barrial Afrodescendiente, from grassroots communities in anti-racist awareness,” Maritza López McBean introduces the RBA and la sistematización. Idelsi Bárbara Alfonso Sandrino, in her essay “Resiliencia y Diálogo Interreligioso en La Habana,” points to the lack of publications regarding Afrocuban religions in the archive. Roberto Zulueta Zulueta elaborates on the history of racism in Cuba in “Cuba. Racial discrimination. A resilient look to the challenges of the 21st century.” While these essays appear in Contextos to situate the work of the RBA, Damayanti Matos Abreu’s essay appears in Refracciones, offering her analysis of la sistematización and demonstrating the impact that the RBA has had through its many neighborhood workshops. These significant works provide crucial insight into the ways that anti-racist activism occurs on the ground in the Cuban context, and, importantly, add to the literature on anti-Black racism in the Caribbean.
In Activaciones, three essays zoom in on projects that, in different ways, activate spaces that strengthen neighborhood communities through anti-racist practices and events. Raúl “Kimbo” Domínguez and Yudania García, neighborhood leaders in La Marina in Matanzas, are committed to maintaining traditional cultural and religious practices. Together, with their son Raúl “Yunior” Domínguez García, they detail the past and the present of “La Marina and the Festividades del Muñeco de San Juan.” Mirna Padrón Dickson and Siria Gonzalez in Coco Solo of Marianao have created La Fiesta de Doble Negras. In “La Casa Tomada mirArte and the Bridges of Friendship,” they write of the critical import of this monthly event from their anti-discriminatory lens at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. In “La Muñeca Negra: Black Beauty Has Always Been Present,” Margarita Montalvo and Martiza Arango Montalvo present the cooperative of women that counter stereotypical conceptualizations of Black women through their artistic productions. The three projects centralize their own neighborhoods even as they have included participants, visitors, scholars, and collaborators from other neighborhoods in Cuba and beyond.
Contours Design Editor, Maxine Nwigwe, dwells upon the landscapes of Blackness in “Meditative Moments,” a photo essay in Reflexiones, making connections between the “aesthetics of oppression” she witnessed in Cuba and those that she has come to know as a Nigerian American woman living in diaspora. Activists have been reconstructing these landscapes of Blackness by recognizing the needs and strengths of their communities.
Following Damayanti Matos Abreu’s article in Refracciones, my article, “The Small Activisms of Everyday Life,” considers the nuances and subtle shifts that the work of La Muñeca Negra, La Marina, and La Casa Tomada mirArte cultivate. I simultaneously make legible the relational processes of research, writing, and translation.
This first edition of Contours, The Red Barrial Afrodescendiente: Anti-racist Proposals in the Cuban Context, aspires to bring forth a multivocal-yet-critical contribution to understandings of anti-racist activism. Begun in 2012, the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente continues to open the pathways for creating neighborhood and global connections into 2022.
Almeida Junco, Yulexis. Gender and Raciality: An Obligatory Reflection in Contemporary Cuba, p. 113 – 126. Afrocubanas: History, Thought, and Cultural Practices. Devyn Spence Benson, ed., translated by Karina Alma; Daisy Rubiera Castillo and Inés María Martiatu Terry, eds. London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2020.
Benson, Devyn Spence. Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
Clealand, Danielle P. “When Ideology Clashes with Reality: Racial Discrimination and Black Identity in Contemporary Cuba.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 36, no. 10 (2013): 1619-636.
Dixon, Kwame., and John Burdick. Comparative Perspectives on Afro-Latin America. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2012.
Fuente, Alejandro De La. A Nation for All : Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-century Cuba. Envisioning Cuba. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Iglesias Utset, Marial. Las metáforas del cambio en la vida cotidiana : Cuba 1898-1902. Cuidad de La Habana: Ediciones Unión. 2003.
Morad, Moshe, and Taylor & Francis. Fiesta De Diez Pesos : Music and Gay Identity in Special Period Cuba. SOAS Musicology Series. Farnham ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014.
Nolen, Stephanie. A New Cuban Revolution and the Stark Divide Between Rich and Poor. The Globe and Mail. Jan. 5, 2017. (accessed through the internet on July 31, 2017.)
Pérez, Emma. The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History. Theories of Representation and Difference. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
Pérez, Louis A. Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Romay Guerra, Zuleica. “De Afrocubanos a Cubanos Negros. Africanidad y Color de Piel en el Imaginario Social Cubano.” Revista Brasileira De Estudos Africanos 3, no. 6 (2019): Revista Brasileira De Estudos Africanos, 2019-03-21, Vol.3 (6).
Romay Guerra, Zuleica. “Háblame De Colores: Cultura Y Política En El Debate Racial Cubano.” Cuadernos Del CILHA : Revista Del Centro Interdisciplinario De Literatura Hispanoamericana 16, no. 2 (2015): 60-88.
Sawyer, Mark Q. Racial Politics in Post-revolutionary Cuba. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- 1Cuban historian Marial Iglesias Utset (2003) theorizes the historical practices of everyday life in Cuba, tying her theoretical framework to that of Michel DeCerteau (1988). See also Zuleica Romay (2015).
- 2Devyn Spence Benson presents this in her book Anti-racism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution (2016). See also Stephanie Nolen (2017). Sawyer, for example, finds that “the unequal education of blacks in the pre-revolutionary era, as well as their location in the poorer neighborhoods and regions and their participation in the sugar sector of the economy, had a substantial impact on relative racial inequality after the revolution” (Sawyer 2006, xviii).
- 3“Cuba acknowledges ‘vestiges’ of racism, launches program to fight it” from November 22, 2019, accessed November 30, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cuba-racism/cuba-acknowledges-vestiges-of-racism-launches-program-to-fight-it-idUSKBN1XX00C
- 4“Trabaja Cuba en Programa nacional contra el racismo y la discriminación racial,” March 13, 2013. Translation: To dream and continue a country: I learned about the project of Maritza López, leader of the Red Barrial Afrodescendiente. Projects like this, which are born from the neighborhood, we must sustain them over time. #SomosCuba #CubaViva http://www.cubadebate.cu/noticias/2021/03/13/trabaja-cuba-en-programa-nacional-contra-el-racismo-y-la-discriminacion-racial/?fbclid=IwAR1utl76Kfr_Mhvs2uNIQShrsbBi3yY1p46HbN4uLBDOpAWo2r6oGgLoppg
- 5“Projects like this,” he said, “that are born from the barrio, we must sustain them…”
- 6“acquires increasing visibility in the debates and reflections promoted by social activists, digital publications, historical, cultural and sociological research […]. The debate makes landfall in the neighborhoods where people gather around community projects and learn to nurture the solidarity networks that poverty weaves, with a reflection on history and culture that will eventually become political activity.”