The Abakuas in the Streets of Havana

By Isbel Diaz Torres

Photos: Jimmy Roque Martinez (Abakuas), Elio Delgado (Students commemoration)

Abakuas in the streets of Havana. Photo: Jimmy Roque Martinez

HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 4 — In 1871, five Cuban black men led an armed action in protest of the shooting of eight medical students. After 139 years, other men and women from this island — in the middle of the street — tried to grant just recognition for that act of bravery.

It seems that Alonso Alvarez de la Campa, one of those innocent students and barely 16 years old, was an Abakua. For that reason, other members of this fraternal black society indignantly attacked Spanish volunteers and soldiers on the morning of November 27, the day that the students were to be shot at dusk.

As could be expected, such a feat has remained silenced in Cuban historiography for decades. Researcher Tato Quiñones has searched for details here and there, scouring the vestiges of information on that event in police files, newspapers of the time and in the oral tradition of the Abakua. In all these years, only Che Guevara made mention of the event, in 1961, on the 90th anniversary of the shooting of the students martyrs.

Since 2006, members of the Haydee Santamaria Professorship have recalled these heroes in a ceremony at Morro and Colon streets, in Old Havana. On this corner, where fell the youngest of the ñañigos (an Abakua member) at just 14 years of age, the group carries out rituals of homage every November 27.

Federation of University students honor the assassinated medical students. Photo: Elio Delgado

This time the commemoration had as an unprecedented feature the attempt to break up the remnants of racial segregation that persist in Cuban society. We no longer want white martyrs to be remembered on the one hand, while black heroes remain forgotten on the other. There were 13 Cuban youths in all who were victims of the Spanish yoke that day.

This is why, in addition to presenting a plaque that evokes those events, a pilgrimage was carried out from the historical corner to the monument to the eight medical students. There, flowers were placed at the site – without requesting permission. As a friend of mine said, “We don’t know if it’s legal, but we know that it’s legitimate.”

Two iremes (devils) with their dances to the sound of the Abakua choir, guided the large crowd through the Havana streets until coming to the Prado del Paseo boulevard. The group continued to grow with numbers of people joining in from the surrounding poor neighborhoods, where it’s not necessary to explain to people the meaning of the word “ñañigo.”

Despite the rain, I estimated that more than 250 people participated in the march, including Abakua members, historians, anthropologists, and especially neighborhood residents. The emotion of being a part of that spontaneous and energetic advance was inexpressible. I heard several people say that November 27 would be — with complete justification — the “Day of De-colonialization.”

Click on the tumbnails below to view all the photos in this gallery

Click on the tumbnails below to view all the photos in this gallery

3 thoughts on “The Abakuas in the Streets of Havana

  • I could not agree more with cimarrons post. I recently spent a month in havana with friends. I was very surprised to witness a very South African form of racism . I am not a political person nor could I care less
    about the situation there. It seems the castro brothers and their small band of followers have enriched themselves on the backs of their black citizens.

  • Reflecting objectively on race and the internal politics of the historic leadership of the Cuban revolution leaves me – a solidary friend/supporter of the Cuban revolution – very sad, bewildered, and losing faith in the future of Cuban revolution. The objective fact that Cuba is not a model of a multiracially egalitarian society – in spite of its praiseworthy post-revolutionary reforms and extraordinary internationalist-humanitarianist policies – must be confronted, even at the risk of giving ammunition the racist-fascist, right-wing exilio. Official Cuban media – Cubavision Internacional – for example, unabashedly portrays Cuba as white majority society with Afro-Cubans as an insignificant or exotic minority. And it appears that black Cubans don’t have any opinions or expertise to participate equally and often in Mesa Redonda. I often wonder at such negrophobia, wonder if Randy Alonso and Arleen Rodriguez have any black friends in Cuba. In spite of the historic declaration by Fidel that “We are an Afro-Latin people; African blood runs freely through our veins”, anybody who is somebody in Cuba generally appears to be non-black. Cuba practices internationalism to highest level in Africa, the Caribbean etc but at home its black population is marginalized and the face of government, the bureaucracy and management reflects white hegemony. What dialectical direction is the leadership practicing that interprets proletarian hegemony as white hegemony, that after 50 years, there is not a single Afro-Cuban woman in any substantial position in the government for example. Comandante Juan Almeida’s position on the Council of State was quickly filled by a non-black woman. Cuba could have killed 2 birds by appointing a black Cuban woman. Then there is the question of foreign ministers – the preserve of white males. What kind of mathematical probability laws are in operation in Cuba that all the foreign ministers always turn out to be non-black males? Is there no black man or black woman in Cuba that is qualified and worthy enough to be canciller? Having Lazo as the only prominent black in government will be considered as a token in the United States. When it comes to race, there can only be one standard. I cannot excuse Cuba from it’s blatant marginalization of Afro-Cubans. It cannot be justified by Cuba’s noble practice of internationalism outside the island. The contradiction must be resolved and now not 100 years from now.

  • Thanks, Thanks, simply, Thanks very much for helping to raise the veil that have hidden the truth from the world for over a century.

    Many have tried very hard to ignore, deny or re-write history before and now. Facts, truth and history, will always, sooner rather than later, like the sun, rise to the zenith against all odds.

    Eternal gratitude to our forgotten Heroes!!

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