Jorge Milanes Despaigne
HAVANA TIMES — When I was a teenager, I used to hear people repeat that there was no racism in Cuba. At school, teachers would insist we all had the rights, duties and opportunities. This is what I believed when I studied at the tourism entertainment school, graduated and started working.
It was an exceptional opportunity unique to the 1990s. The country was developing its tourism industry and needed qualified young people to make the stay of tourists at Cuban hotels more pleasant. That said, I did notice some hints of prejudice and racial discrimination (though I didn’t take them seriously then).
When we graduated, the Empresa Turistica Playas del Este instructed us to go to the Itabo Hotel to begin working there as entertainers. This is where I had my first awful work experience, owing to the color of my skin. They turned me away, knowing full well there were job vacancies. My academic record was very good, but I was the only black person in the group.
“I don’t need any black entertainers,” said the hotel manager.
“I didn’t come looking for a job,” I immediately replied, as I was the only black person in the group. I got up and left the meeting.
I already had a job, not as an entertainer, but renting motorcycles to tourists. With time, and my skills, I knew I could get a job as entertainer at the Villa Mirador del Mar Hotel, at the Santa Maria del Mar beach.
The following year, I had the job: I was hosting important shows for tourists. One night, after the show was over, the manager who previously hadn’t wanted any black employees sent for me. He congratulated me and offered me a job at his hotel. I accepted because I wanted the acknowledgement of being the first black persosn to graduate from the tourism school to work there.
I worked at the hotel for several months and the manager in question was very happy with me, to the point of acknowledging the work I was doing (though, during the week, he would have to get me out of the police station once or twice, where I would end up on charges of “stalking tourists”).
The other entertainers didn’t get bothered, they were white. Some would tell me I was unlucky. Others didn’t want to go out with me, out of fear of getting into trouble with the police. That was the height of hypocrisy, a very shrewd way of evading the issue and refusing to recognize the reason behind such problems.
Our society is based on what many call a “white mentality.” Established stereotypes, habits and customs have been repeated and reproduced since colonial times, when the criteria of the dominant class – the colonialists – prevailed over those of the black slaves, torn from their distant lands and subjugated to enrich their exploiters. That is the reason racism endures.
Thus, white, black and mixed race people tell jokes and make racist allusions without “realizing” that they are denigrating non-whites. It is a historical legacy.
The fact that, when the revolution triumphed, one of the major aims declared by the new government was the elimination of any type of discrimination on the basis of skin-color, has not been enough. A little over 50 years isn’t enough to rid us of the burden of centuries. The racial divide was far too great, and not even those who have managed to leap across it – thanks to perseverance and a spirit of self-improvement – are immune to discrimination.
It is clear that if we marginalize or segregate people, we hurt, not only human beings, but also the unity that ought to distinguish us as a nation. It is not enough for the Constitution to condemn racism, or for civil society to attempt to eradicate an ill that continues to reproduce rather vigorously.
Today, far from any tourist context, I continue to observe the same phenomena I described above and do not see any adequate legal framework to combat that ill.